Turning on the Heels
Most people who have been training in Shotokan (and a few other styles of karate as well) for more than a couple of months have probably heard the phrase “turning on the heels.” And for those who have been training for at least a few years, you have likely debated this idea, or at least thought about debating it. I have heard the topic debated many times with various results.
It seems to me that the ramifications of this kind of practice are not always clearly understood by the student, and sometimes not even by the instructor. Never one to simply “shut up and do it,” I have thought about this subject and would like to share my thoughts with you here.
Connection to the floor
Is the idea of “connection to the floor” merely that – an idea? Is the phrase meant to get us to form a mental picture that would help us keep low throughout the stepping and shifting movements?
Although it can be a great mental picture, it can also be very real. If the heels are off the floor, the body does lack some physical connection to the floor. The heel being up, by itself, does not directly cause much more of a lack of connection than some reduction of friction, as less of the foot is then touching the floor. But, indirectly, the hips often have a tendency to rise when the heel is up, or to stick out/back. This can cause a lack of stability relating to the body’s “connection” to the floor. Furthermore, with less of the foot’s surface in contact with the floor, the less support that structure can provide for the body’s weight above. For an obvious analogy, consider a tall, thin building vs a pyramid; which do you think is better rooted in position in the case of an earthquake?
Is speed actually greater with the heels down? In some cases, yes. In some cases, no. I suggest experimenting individually, as flexibility, strength and other related factors vary from one person to another. Also, in trade-offs between speed and other factors, sometimes a slight loss of speed is OK if, for example, stability or strength is enhanced.
In almost all cases, heels down may provide for better control in the same way that it provides for connection to the floor, as suggested above. As discussed in the article on spinning, when the moving parts of the body are closer to the center, there is more control. Having the leg more compact with the heel down can often help increase control throughout the move, as this usually helps keep the moving parts of the body closer to the axis of rotation. Furthermore, control is enhanced by the use of proper joint alignment, which is more easily attained while turning on the heel.
Are moves done more efficiently with the heels down? Again, it depends on the type of movement. Sometimes, there is more mobility with the heel up. Sometimes, there is more control with the heel down. Again, I suggest experimenting individually, as there is no clear-cut answer that applies to everyone.
When to pivot on the ball of the foot
Although some instructors will say that you should always pivot on the heels, this is not entirely correct. For some moves it is better to pivot on the ball of the foot, for at least a portion of the turning motion of the foot. During a standard ushirogeri (back kick), for example, pivoting on the ball of the foot adds distance to the kick and is for most a more natural movement as well. For a defensive shift/step away from the opponent, a heel pivot may not work as well for one of the same reasons it works well for stepping/shifting forward; it encourages more movement forward.
Practical application and kata stepping
If we examine the moves of kata, a great majority of the turns should be performed with the heel as the pivot. It should be noted, however, that many of these moves are relatively unnatural and/or impractical. Who would perform the 3rd move (turn to right into gedan-barai/zenkutsu-dachi) in Heian Shodan as it is in the kata, if the intention of that move is to block a kick or punch aimed at the midsection? More likely, for self-defense, one would move away from the opponent with the block, or at least remain in roughly the same place, as opposed to moving into the attack (assuming the application we are considering is a block). While the move as done in the kata should use the heel as pivot, a more practical backwards shift might better use the ball of the foot as the pivot. As is often the case in kata, the method of execution may actually be aimed more at learning a certain point than being directly applicable to a realistic self-defense encounter.
If you pivot on the heel, you may give up some potential distance in certain techniques, and possibly some mobility. Raising the heel far, though, could cause instability and likewise involve a reduction of distance in some situations. One of the main points, therefore, is to keep as much of the foot on the floor as possible, having the ability to switch the pivot point at will. Often, turning on the heel provides for more distance and greater stability, without much of a loss in mobility and is the preferred method for basic training in more cases than not.
Copyright © 2022 Jon Keeling (originally published January 2000)