Alignment: Channeling Power Through Proper Body Positioning
Proper alignment is crucial for maximizing effectiveness of karate techniques. Through proper alignment of relevant body parts, we can use strength and speed more efficiently and effectively. And through practicing poorly-aligned techniques over and over, we can be inflicting unnecessary damage on our joints and muscles and developing bad techniques which may become even more difficult to fix later, once they become habitual.
Alignment can be studied through a variety of techniques and movements. In this article, we will be focusing our attention on a basic punch (gyakuzuki) as performed in basic front stance (zenkutsudachi). It should be noted, however, that the same study can be applied to all other Karate techniques, to varying degrees.
We learn early on in our karate training that a proper stance greatly increases the effectiveness of our punches, kicks, strikes and blocks. Many simply take this for granted, or simply agree that a lower stance means a stronger stance (which is usually, but not always, true). But how many of us have actually studied optimal body positioning? Beginners often question the need to be in a low, long stance when they first start practicing karate, since it slows them down so much and seems unnatural. But soon they realize that it’s a great workout and they gradually learn to move faster in these awkward stances. Most of us stopped questioning that we must try to lower our hips as much as we can and just worked on trying to move as best we could from these positions. Others decided that they would rather have the speed gained by raising their hips from the basic positions taught by their instructors. Very few gain complete comfort in stances much lower than optimal (except, perhaps, for very flexible gymnasts or contortionists). But what is optimal?
We often hear instructors say that the power of a punch or kick comes from the hips. But what are the hips? Look at your hips and try to tell me that they are completely separate from your legs. They are actually the place where your legs meet your torso. So by telling you to use the power of your hips, they are saying, at least in part, to use the power of your legs. The legs, when combined with the lower torso, contain most of the largest muscle groups in your body. Even if you are a talented body-builder, chances are that your legs are still larger than your arms. So how do we create power in a punch? Of course we all know from training that we must utilize the power of our legs for maximum power. But how many of us are putting as much leg power into our punches as we can? Let’s analyze this.
You have gone skiing for the weekend. Deciding you’d had enough skiing, you start your car, but it won’t budge. It’s stuck in the snow. What are you going to do? Face a spot on the wall and imagine it’s your car. Try to push it out of the snow.
Look at the way your legs are positioned. Some people may have one leg back, some may have both back. Some are leaning one shoulder into the car, some are leaning their whole torso towards the car. What changes your power the most, though? Your upper body position varies the power only slightly. Most of the power comes from your legs. Push again and note how deep your stance is. Is your basic karate stance this low? Chances are that for most people, our basic karate stances would not be enough to move a large car out of the snow.
How low is enough? How low is too low? Is there such thing as “too low?” I believe that there is an optimal range for basic practice, which is slightly higher than that which would provide maximum power, since we would also like to have some mobility. We can alter our stances to maximize stability (low) OR mobility (high). To be in a stance that maximizes BOTH stability and mobility would be ideal, but this is not possible. But rather than thinking of “compromising” (forgoing one for the other), let’s think of making the best combination of speed and power possible in our stances.
Get into a front stance that you think provides the best combination of stability and mobility. Face the wall in that stance and raise your fist to the wall, as in a reverse punch. Now press your fist into the wall. Do you feel where the power is coming from? Is the power coming from your legs? Is your stance now too low to move from? Are you properly channeling the power from your legs to your fist? We’ll soon see.
I often remind students of the proper dimensions of the various stances. For a basic front stance, as currently practiced in JKA-style Shotokan, the length is twice the width. In body-part-measurements, since not everyone is the same height, the ideal measurements for basic front stance is approximately 2 shoulder-widths long x 1 shoulder-width wide, or roughly 3 foot-lengths long x 1 1/2 foot-lengths wide. Measurements such as this should always be taken between joints. So in the case of stances, use the ankles for your end-points. Check the dimensions of your front stance to see if this seems about right. Also, make sure your front knee is properly positioned above your toes. Is this about the same as your front stance in class everyday? Does this feel like a strong stance?
Now let’s see if these are really the ideal dimensions of a good front stance. Let us observe what I call the “power lines” of this stance. By this, I mean how the power is being channeled. Following an imaginary line extending from the back leg, where does this lead? Extending an imaginary line from the front leg (to be more precise, from the part below the knee), where does that lead? As you can see by connecting these lines while in the basic front stance I’ve described above, the intersection is almost exactly where the fist is in a good gyakuzuki (or oizuki, or junzuki). This means that, at least for this example, the measurements I have described for a basic front stance are very close to ideal. For a very deep, strong punch, the stance should be even deeper to maximize strength, as we can see by the direction of these “power lines” and how they can be directed more laterally in a deeper stance. But if we make the stance too deep, we lose mobility, we can’t move from this low. Some people may find that their proportions are different (for example, women tend to have smaller feet in proportion to their height), or that they are just not flexible enough to assume that ideal position. But for basic practice, trying to get as close to these measurements as possible is usually a good idea for creating effective, efficient technique.
So far I have only been discussing the idea of alignment in how it deals with directing, or channeling power in a static position. But there are other ways to study alignment that are very important in training. One is the idea that the various body parts should remain in positions that are more or less natural. One of the most important concepts to keep in mind is the alignment of the knees in relation to the feet. The knees should travel in a path dictated by the direction the foot is facing. This means that your knee should be above your toes, or directly in front of, or behind them, as much as possible. This is easy enough to see with the front leg in front stance. But most people seem to forget about this when it concerns the back leg. One problem is of course a lack of flexibility for many people. But if you can, you should try to get both feet (not just the front foot) facing as directly to the front as possible. If you do not do this, either 1) your back knee faces the side (and you lose power) or 2) your leg is out of alignment, placing unnecessary torque on your back knee. This may cause you pain and ultimately may lead to an operation if you are not careful. This proper alignment of the feet and knees is also better for creating efficient movements between stances. When you hear instructors talk about “turning on the heels,” this helps assure proper alignment of the legs. We are concentrating mostly on static positions in this article. But when you start stepping, shifting and turning, this could become even more important.
Find a partner and observe each other’s stances while assuming gyakuzuki (reverse punch) position in zenkutsudachi (front stance). Check the “power lines,” preferably using bo’s or sticks of some sort for more accurate indicators. Also, check the alignment of the feet and knees. Please give each other feedback.
Go back to your spot on the wall and push against it with your gyakuzuki and feel the way the power comes from your legs. Do you feel more connected now? Lift up your front leg and feel how important your back leg is. That is where the majority of power is coming from. Your front leg is more of a “stabilizer” for the power of the back leg. To really maximize the power of the legs in a punch, you should probably just hurl your fist towards your target and extend as far forward with your back leg as possible, not worrying about even touching the floor at all with your front foot.
Also, for maximizing strength, you should probably lean your upper body into the target. You should be able to see this obvious “power line” going straight through the whole body; from the back heel up through the torso and to the fist. When lifting or pushing a very heavy weight, like a car stuck in the snow, you usually lean into it. Why not do the same when punching? The reason is that we sometimes have to do something else after the punch (like block, or run away in the opposite direction). We should keep our backs straight (vertical) for better control of the technique itself, but maybe more importantly for the control between techniques. So the back leg is providing the strength and speed of the technique, but the torso and front leg are controlling/stabilizing the technique.
Alignment is better for your joints, better for creating effective techniques, and makes for a stronger, more controlled position between techniques.
Notice in practice how we sometimes lose the basic form as we concentrate more on speed and power. It is fine to compromise sometimes. But, especially for beginners, I advise you to think of form as the most important. It’s easy enough to increase speed and power later. But to correct bad habits in form can be really difficult after many years of repetition.
Shotokan is composed of a sound scientific system of techniques, which can be proven through the application of geometry and physics principles. Some of the other Karate styles are very similar; Goju-, Wado- & Shito-Ryu styles are the other three main traditional Japanese styles. Although many of the techniques appear different, the principles involved are generally the same. Aikido, Kendo and other martial arts often employ similar principles, including those related to alignment. I, personally, believe that it goes beyond this; that Karate can be a true art form. Some practice Karate for self-defense. Some train to keep in shape. Some study the movements scientifically. There are many facets to Karate. Many of you don’t care to get any deeper into the study of karate movements than I have done here (and it may have already been too much for some of you). But rest assured that what you are studying, if done correctly, is a sound system of movements, which can be used as healthy exercise, effective self-defense, or a way to improve your everyday life.
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published March 1998)