Kyoshi's Technique of the Week

Technique of the Week (September 26th, 2005)

From Michael Mackay
Chief Instructor, Midtown Karate Dojo, Hombu New York, NY


When executing shuto (knife-hand) blocks, do we use the knife-hand or
the forearm to deflect the opponent's attack? The critical factor is
the wrist. If the wrist follows the positioning and timing of a
conventional (closed-hand) block, and turns only at the point of impact,
then the forearm must be used. If the wrist is pre-turned and raised or
lowered to meet the attack, then the knife-hand may be used. But such
deviations turn the shuto block into a shuto strike: a strike to a
non-vital target, the opponent's arm or leg.

Students' attempts to block with the knife-hand are problematic. Since
pre-turning the wrist is necessary to avoid injury, we undermine the
reflex of wrist rotation associated with all blocks. To deflect a punch
from the solar plexus, the wrist must be a hand's length lower than the
shoulder instead of the standard shoulder height. While the knife edge
can intercept an attack earlier than the forearm, the length of the
blocking surface is about 1/4 that of the forearm, greatly reducing the
chance of connecting properly with the incoming target. The shuto
strike, in contrast, is typically used against a stationary target.

Why, then, use the knife-hand for blocking at all? What advantages does
the opening move of pinan yondan have over pinan shodan?

* Shuto blocks are simply faster than conventional blocks. It takes
more time and tension to make and launch a fist than a knife-hand.
* An open-hand block provides greater coverage (compared to a fist)
once the block is complete.
* A completed shuto block leaves the hand in a better position for
countering with a grab or open hand strike (ridge hand, knife hand or
spear hand).
* An open hand chest block creates an ideal position to deflect
subsequent attacks. The exact same position with the hands closed
conveys hostility, what we disparagingly call a "passive stance."

Conveniently, the three most common shuto blocks have closed-hand
equivalents. Advanced students may practice these to explore the
relative strengths of each. (Figure numbers correspond to photographs
in the Essence of Okinawan Karate.)

Middle block
Open hand - pinan 1, fig. 12-19
Closed hand - nihanchi 1, fig. 17, 34

Lower block
Open hand - pinan 2, last 4 moves
Closed hand - passai, fig. 21-23

Middle and upper blocks
Open hand - pinan 4, first move
Closed hand - pinan 1, first move

Students wishing to practice shuto blocks as striking techniques may do
so with a makiwara.

It bears mentioning that Master Nagamine's descriptions of knife-hand
blocks (section 2, pages 89-93) often suggest contact with the knife
edge, not the forearm. For the middle outward block in P1, "the outer
or blocking edge of the knife-hand twists from the opposite shoulder to
its contact position" (p. 89). The middle sideward block (N2, N3) "is
used to block a punch to the side of the face" (p. 90). Using a middle
block to protect the face is an advanced technique, characteristic of
many blocks detailed in this section (winding, rising upward, grasping
and searching blocks).

Whether you are a white belt learning oyotanren or a godan struggling
with kusanku, appreciate that our open- and closed-handed techniques
share certain core mechanical principles. From there one can delve into
the subtle differences between these two complementary forms of "empty

Domo arigato gozaimasu, Hanshi,

Michael Mackay
Chief Instructor, Midtown Karate Dojo