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I hear some self defense experts claim that blocks you see in many martial arts, such as Karate or Taekwondo, are unrealistic and should not be used.

The main justification given is that no professional fighters use blocks. Think of boxing, kickboxing, or MMA. Instead, you either dodge, or cover yourself using your arms to protect your head.

"If these guys make a living fighting , and they don't use blocks, why should you?"

Another argument used is that the opponent's attack won't be a single punch, like "traditional MAs" practice against, but a combination, and it won't be necessarily a straight punch, but could be a hook, an uppercut, or something else.

Is this wrong, or are blocks really ineffective? What about the professional sports fighter "evidence"?

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This answer is from a karate perspective: The word "Uke", traditionally translated as "block", is actually a short form of the verb "ukeru", meaning "to receive".

Very few of the "blocks" are designed to stop a technique head-on, and using them like that is not going to work properly. The problem is, these self-defense guys hear the word "block", and then use it like solid wall, or whack their opponent's arm/leg. Due to using the technique wrong, they receive an injury, and decry the technique as "unrealistic", or "not useable". Well, a hammer's also pretty unrealistic and unusable if you're working with screws.

Most (but not all) karate "blocks" are primarily about redirecting your opponent's attack and shifting your body - not to stop their attack, but to ensure that it misses. This also ties into the fact that "Sport Karate" has had most of the follow-up locks, throws and grappling techniques removed.

Finally: when performing kihon (basics / line-work) you perform the block with big, exaggerated movements. This has several purposes:

  • It allows the instructor to more easily observer and correct your technique
  • It helps to build up the correct muscle groups
  • By practicing the kihon technique with increasing speed, you learn to perform the kumite technique even faster

Wait - that last point? About "kihon" (basic) technique and "kumite" (fighting) technique? That's important. When performing a Soto Uke ("closing block"/"Outside reception") in Kihon, I start by putting my blocking fist behind my head, swing the arm and elbow in a large circle, following a path over 2' long, and finish with a twist to the forearm. This all takes about a second.

In kumite, with my guard up in front of me? My arm twitches across by about 3", and the forearm rotates - this takes less than a sixth of a second. But by practicing the "full" form, I know how to maximise the effectiveness and power of the "short form"

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You're asking the right questions. And you answer them, too. If you're looking for a defense of the use of the traditional "blocks" in karate, you're going to be disappointed with my reply.

The blocks you do in karate, Taekwondo, and even kung-fu arts, are based on the forms you've learned. That's where they come from. And the forms are not teaching you how to block. Those aren't blocks. So what's going on?

I go over it in detail in my answer in the following link:

Why do we teach unrealistic bunkai?

You don't learn to block from forms. It's really ludicrous when you think about it. It's a little like trying to learn how to ride a bike by sitting on a chair and pretending to peddle in the air. No matter how correct your peddling form is, no matter how awesome your instructor tells you he is at riding a bike, it will be woefully inadequate for preparing you to ride a bike. The first time you try to ride a bike for real, you'll just instantly fall over.

That just wasn't what forms were supposed to teach. It's obvious, because it doesn't work when you put it to the test, as your question implies.

And while you can take "blocks" out of your form and practice them with others, you're merely drilling your incorrect interpretation of that movement. If you see a block in the form, that's how you're going to practice it. And if you do it repeatedly and start to get "good" at it (fast, accurate, and powerful), what you've really accomplished is just reinforcing your own misinterpretation of the form.

One thing you can do to prove this is to take your blocking based sparring style to a western boxing gym and spar with a boxer. I can spare you the effort and tell you how it will go. You'll start off trying to block the punches coming at you, and you might be successful once or twice. But pretty much all of the other punches are going to get through to you. You're going to then find yourself completely unprepared for it and will devolve into a pseudo-boxing style. You'll keep your arms way up high to cover your head. You'll stop trying to block at all. And you'll perform really bad boxing.

So you'll very quickly find that the blocking strategy you've learned won't protect you. And your only solution will be to cover your head and move. You'll try to look like a boxer, and you'll fail miserably. You'll just be a fish out of water.

But it's an interesting experiment to do. And you'll note that your primary instinct is to cover up and start doing things that look eerily similar to what actual boxers do. Only, you'll be bad it, because you've never trained in boxing. But the interesting thing is the realization that boxers are doing things the way boxers do because that's what works. Not karate, TKD, or kung-fu.

So then, what are those "blocks" you see in the forms if the forms really don't teach you blocks? Read the link I gave above. I go over that pretty well.

Hope that helps.

  • I like this answer, please keep in mind as well it depends n the opponent and the situation. The basic block is for basic self defense, not mma. Naturally if someone slings a slow wide punch a block could be just perfect to diffuse the situation. If someone throws fast trained multiphase attacks the block might actually be a trap for a grab or takedown. Situation makes a huge difference! – mutt Jun 28 '18 at 4:47
  • But we're talking about using traditional karate blocks as blocks. They don't work well for that purpose. And as for the idea of these blocks (being used as blocks) being effective against untrained people who punch slow, that's probably the wrong way to see it. Even untrained people instinctively throw a flurry of punches. Like with sparring a boxer, it doesn't work well in that situation. Besides which, I would hope your many years of karate practice would allow you to fight people who know how to fight, not just untrained people. That's a pretty low bar. – Steve Weigand Jun 28 '18 at 16:03
  • 1
    The point isn’t an achievement bar. Complex blocks and movements are still “blocks”. Blocking a punch period is useful vs. not blocking it at all. If self defense is the goal it is definitely helpful, if competition is the goal, then a more complex strategy is needed than just blocking an attack, that is my only point and why it’s a comment – mutt Jun 29 '18 at 18:26
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No, they are not wrong, they are correct. There are no blocks in karate (also TKD)... In fact I'm relatively sure about virtually all Chinese derived systems which make use of solo forms.

The movements have been taken out of context and misinterpreted one way or another. Attempting to use the full movement of a "block" against someone trying to hit you will fail miserably.

When you look at how "blocks" are used in the context of kata which they originated from, the reality is that they are not being used as blocks defending against strikes at all. The reality is that "blocks" are universally as far as i can see, grappling techniques which are used to manipulate opponent body positioning.

The word "block" is a poor translation of "uke". It really doesn't mean block. A better translation would have been "defence". To successfully understand kata, and "blocks" you have to lose some of your mistraining.

  • A closed hand in Okinawan kata (excluding uechi, who use an open hand convention) typically means a grip, holding, not a fist punching. e.g. A tsuki is not a punch but a grab & push or pull.
  • Karate kata evolved from Kung-fu forms (taolu), and kung-fu forms were created from "sparring sets" (dui-da or dui-lian). Dui-da were paired practice drills. So a form or kata is made up of sequences of drills, one after another. There's really no sense attempting to record sequences of striking techniques in a drill and then putting it in something as static as a kata or form.

∴ Virtually all the methods in kata and forms are close range grappling techniques and the closed hand in the "block" is holding something; a hand, an arm, an elbow, a leg, a foot, a knee.

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I have a (slightly) different perspective on this to the others so I thought I would add my own answer.

I have trained a little in Karate, Aikido, Judo and Japanese Jujitsu. However, my main training is in Shorinji Kempo.

Shorinji Kempo has great blocks. We spend about 50% of each lesson (and more like 80% for beginners) learning to punch, kick and block. However, we never block head-on. Like a boxer, we dodge and deflect.

The first two techniques we learn have no block. You dodge instead and counter.

The next two have a tiny block that is just a cover against the (straight punch) attack being redirected.

Others have larger blocks for blocking curving downwards upwards or sideways attacks. But again these are not actually 'blocks' instead you spiral your wrist, deflect and take the opponent off balance. If done really really well your first block should leave the attacker off balance enough to not be able to throw a second attack.

Incorrect Block

Correct: Correct Block So, in other words, BIG body movements, big foot movements, big weight shift. The arms, though, are an afterthought.

In the Jujitsu class, they did not teach blocks. I was appalled. By the time I had attended 6 classes, I had seen at least one injury and usually two in every class. Basically, they did not train blocks so they hit each other in the face. Even knowing the attack. Even with space to spare. They literally did not know how to deal with a fast punch.

In the Aikido class, they did not teach blocks. Instead they just never allowed anyone to punch properly. Attacks had to be telegraphed, had to hold the fist at an unusual angle and had to be slow most of the time too.

Karate was interesting though. Because they had moves that they said were blocks, that were clearly not going to function as blocks, and which they never used as blocks. I understand that this is largely due to strange forms or kata but at the same time, I was very bemused as to why they never even tried to use them in sparing. (presumably, because they would not work)

Judo, much to my surprise, DID teach blocks; they were just the same as shorinji kempo. We didn't spend much time on them; they were part of pair form drills and never used in sparing. But still, they were there.

In conclusion, I would say most Japanese martial arts do not teach good blocks if they teach any at all. But Judo does (though you won't spend much time on them) and shorinji kempo does too. Unfortunately, though, there aren't many places you can learn shorinji kempo outside of japan.

And good blocks are not really blocks. As noted in the other answers you dodge instead.

What I would say is that if you are not wearing gloves then blocking or rather deflecting comes into its own. You don't want to try to hide for long behind an ungloved fist.

  • Re. The diagrams: The arrows are force directions – Huw Evans Jun 28 '18 at 22:15
  • As my instructor often quotes "Best block, no be there". – Mike P Jun 29 '18 at 7:58
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Blocks are called blocks because they provide a good visual for the technique. But like many things in life, if you give it a name, it will be used according to that name. So, blocks became just that - blocks. And for many people, they do not use their brain to inquire further, trusting that because it's a block, that's all it's for.

Techniques in kata fall into two general categories. In Japanese, we call them "bunkai omote" (omote means "in front", and this phrase means "obvious bunkai"), and "bunkai ura" (ura means "behind", and this phrase means "hidden (some say 'secret') bunkai").

We in Karate and Taekwondo are often taught the bunkai omote because it is the easiest for us to understand, but a good instructor will tell us that there are many interpretations of a movement, and these are what are defined in the bunkai ura. In the bunkai ura, there is an entire world - right under our own noses, and we'd never be the wiser without a good instructor - that teaches us about throws, pins, locks, strikes, and a good many things other than what the technique is named.

Even our strikes are not always that: a clenched fist may be reminiscent of a punch; hands returning to the hip may be reminiscent of a chamber; and things like crane and tiger stances, spearhands, punches, knifehands, and other techniques have completely new meaning.

So in a sense, yes - blocks are unrealistic. Can you block? Of course. But in most cases, a technique named as a block does not work well as a true block. Perhaps in some bunkai ura, a block is a block if you can make the correct oyo; but in reality, such techniques are just placeholder (and given an unfortunate name) and it is up to us to find an application that fits the given scenario in the kata.

And often, even if you do come up with a good application as a block, you have explaining to do about what the other hand is doing, or what the stance is for, or why the movement is fast or slow.

Take, for example, a "double forearm block" (sometimes called an "assisted outside block"). What's the other hand really doing? Why might we be in a back stance in one case, but a forward stance in another? Clue: it's not even a block.

And what about a spearhand? This is famously expressed as a means to get inside the armpit or the throat. Or the solar plexus. Go ahead and give it a try, let us know how that's working for ya. In the meantime, accept it as a throw or a preparation for a throw or lock. Yes: it's no strike at all.

And what of the famous palm block? You know, the one which has you pushing down on an incoming punch, only to aim it at - guess what? - the groin?? Oof. Sacrifice the groin for the stomach and not even move out of the way. Got it. Or maybe it isn't blocking anything at all.

You will often find it more mind-opening to look for bunkai and reference the technique by movement (kinesthetics) rather than by the way it is spoken ("block"). That frees up the mind to understand more about what you're doing, so that you can account for the other hand, the stance, and the previous and next technique.

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Basic blocks shown in martial arts tend to:

  1. use large arm motions
  2. whack the opponent's attacking limb
  3. leave feet relatively static

The respective problems with these elements:

  1. Large motions are slow. You want to minimize how far you need to move to defend yourself. Getting into a race every time an attack comes in will get you hit often.
  2. Your defending limb has momentum. This momentum makes it harder to react to additional attacks. An easy way to hit someone who tries to whack every strike that comes at them is to bait them with a feint, then hit them through the large opening their defensive reaction leaves.
  3. Defending combinations, even something as simple as a basic 1-2 punch combination, is much easier if you move the target.

Personally, I would still call covering your head with your hands blocking. You are putting your hands up in a guard position and staying in the way, and perhaps moving a bit to intercept attacks with your arms and move your body out of the way.

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