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In the various listings I can find online, this move is described as "spear hand". But as I've seen it taught, it also involves moving the left hand downward with the palm facing the ground before the right hand "spears" over the top of it.

This is, of course, different than I've seen spearhand taught during drills, where only the striking hand itself is moving forward, there is no accompanying block of any sort.

Is it best to think of these as two discrete techniques performed simultaneously, or is it a single technique involving both arms? If it is two techniques together, which block is being performed?

At the school I've observed at, this technique(s) is named "kwan soo" when it is named at all. I am unsure if it refers only to the striking hand or to both.

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It's important to realize where these forms came from and what the original purpose was. ITF Taekwondo forms are known affectionately as the "blender" forms, because they take fragments of shotokan karate kata consisting of 1 to 3 moves and rearrange them into the various hyung of ITF Taekwondo. The origin of Taekwondo forms is, therefore, shotokan karate kata, with some stylization that's unique to Taekwondo.

Now, Shotokan karate kata come from Okinawan karate kata. And Okinawan karate kata are done for a reason. There's a self-defense purpose for each movement in their kata. Okinawan karate calls this "bunkai", which is their word for the analysis of kata for their self-defense applications. But that purpose has been mostly lost in transmission to Shotokan karate. And so it is also completely lost in transmission to Taekwondo.

You can read more about this in my explanations in the following links:

Why is more time dedicated to exercises and very less for sparring? Is it for the fee?

Why do we teach unrealistic bunkai?

Read those links first. And then continue reading here...

So then, the spear-hand technique has a self-defense purpose originating in Okinawan karate.

To answer your question: We need to know what that original purpose was. Then you'll know whether the first part (the looping block with palm facing downward) should come first or as the spear-hand thrust is being executed, or not at all.

Were you taught that the spear-hand thrust was a strike to the gut or solar-plexus with the finger tips? Were you taught that if you got really good, this was penetrating the flesh so that you could maybe rip out their intestines? That was the interpretation that I was actually taught in my ITF Taekwondo school (and I have a black belt in it).

If you use the spear-hand thrust on someone intending to penetrate their abdomen, your fingers will break, and the worst your opponent is going to get is a little bruising, or maybe a scratch. Don't even think of using it that way. No, it's not the fact that you just haven't gotten good enough at it. This technique simply should not be used that way, because that was never its original purpose.

So what is actually going on with the spear-hand thrust?

The first part of the technique involves taking your left hand and looping it out and then in, ending with it bent at the elbow and palm facing down.

The second part is stepping forward into a right leg forward front stance, while doing the spear-hand thrust with the right hand over the top of the left hand which just stays where it was.

The first part has a purpose. It's to snake your arm around your opponent's arm, creating a standing arm-bar. The effect is to create what's known as a "chicken wing arm-bar". Your left palm will apply downward pressure while you trap his lower forearm in the crook of your left elbow. The effect is to bend him over forward.

Then the second part is the spear-hand thrust. That is actually striking with the knife-edge side of the right hand against your opponent's neck where it meets the base of the skull. The effect is a knock-out and possibly a neck break.

Note that you are not attacking your opponent with your finger tips. That would just break your fingers. Don't do that! It's an attack with the base part of your knife-hand. Your fingers will thank you. :)

The fact that your right knee is now right below your opponent's head gives you an opportunity to shove his head into it, or raise your knee directly up to strike his head. You can easily grab his head with your spear-hand, pushing his head down, while pulling up on your chicken wing arm-bar to provide extra leverage. This allows you to lock his head in place and keep pressure on it to allow you to do a knee strike to his face.

For visualization, see the chicken-wing arm-bar in this video at 1:10:

https://youtu.be/JqHYUPK5z0Q?t=70

Notice in the video, you lead into it by circling your arm from the inside to the outside, raising up over your opponent's arm, and then back down and to the inside, hooking your opponent's arm. It ends with your palm facing down and your elbow is bent at a 90 degree angle. Your opponent's arm is trapped. This is the same exact motion of the spear-hand thrust's first step.

Notice also in the video, the opponent will naturally bend forward. See where the back of his head is? Notice how easy it is to attack it? That's the spear-hand technique's primary target.

Alternatively, you can think of the spear-hand thrust as a grab instead. You're reaching forward for something. The grab can happen after the strike to the back of the head, or instead of it. If you continue to think of the first part as a chicken wing arm-bar, then the reach forward might be to grab the hair at the back of the head, the throat, or the forehead of your opponent. Some interpretations could make this into a rear-naked-choke, instead, while moving the chicken-wing hold to his back. There's the possibility of turning it into a guillotine choke as well. There's the knee to the head strike as well. Plenty of possibilities here.

So there you have it. Now you know what this technique's original purpose was. And with that, you can now answer how you should do it. First, you should not do both parts of the technique all at once. You definitely need to do the first part first, then step forward, then do your spear-hand thrust last. Second, you now know that you can't just spear-hand thrust without doing the first part, because you need your opponent bent over before you can do that spear-hand thrust to the back of his head.

Hope that helps.

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    Thank you for this answer. It answers more than what I asked. You even answered a few of my followup questions that I hadn't asked yet. – John O Oct 21 at 21:29
  • @JohnO Glad I could pass that along to you. I hope it will lead you to asking more questions. – Steve Weigand Oct 21 at 21:55
  • @johnO Don't forget to accept by clicking on the checkmark by the voting buttons. – Sean Duggan Oct 21 at 23:17
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    Longtime ITFer here... I totally agree with your second paragraph. And of course the rest is totally authoritative. – Amorphous Blob Oct 22 at 13:07
  • That's the problem with most TKD/Karate schools - they never explain what the individual poomse/kata steps are actually supposed to do. – David R Tribble Nov 15 at 20:27
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I, too, was taught the strange stab into the belly, which could then be used to rip out the spleen, kidney, or whatever else you might find in the gut. And for a long time, I never thought to ask what if the guy is wearing a leather jacket. And so, for years, we practiced the spearheand - always in the air, never against a target.

I do agree with Steve Weigand's explanation, there are grappling applications for the spearhand. I'm not sure the other hand's position is easily explained; however, that doesn't discount the grappling application.

So I will offer another explanation that does take the other hand into consideration.

Take a look at this video. In it, Chiba demonstrates iriminage, which is a throw by entering into your opponent's space. If you look real closely, you'll see Chiba, at :52 is throwing his opponent. Look at the "spearhand". And note where his other hand is: he's guiding his opponent, just like in the form!

Of course, a huge difference in this throw and the spearhand in most TKD forms that use a spearhand is that the thumb is up. But Chiba's thumb is down - a very important, but subtle difference. With the thumb down, that allows the arm to roll into the opponent. Keeping the thumb up, per the TKD form, allows the opponent to more easily roll out of the technique before the throw is applied - an escape or reversal. So to mitigate that, we throw with the thumb down.

But there are viable applications where the thumb can be up (and the other arm still in place per the many TKD spearhands in many of the forms).

Take a look at a completely different kind of throw here. In this throw, Yamada is performing a cross-throw, or X throw - jujinage. It is also an entering throw, but note that the thumb is upwards - and the other hand is used to effect the X in the throw.

More subtle observations:

When you issue a strike in TKD, note it's almost always via a fist. And half our blocks are done with a fist, and others are done with an open hand. What's up with that?

Well again, not all is as they appear. A "fist" has many representations. Of course, you can punch. But why do we block with a fist, and then not even use the fist as part of the block (eg, momtong makki, a middle block, where the "blocking" surface is just below the fist).

The answer is that many of our techniques - strikes and blocks - are grappling maneuvers. A fist usually is representative of grabbing something, whereas an open hand (knifehand, or sonnal makki) is not grabbing anything.

So the spearhand is not a fist - it's an open hand. And if you look at the two videos, you'll note there's no closed fist - nothing to grab!

You didn't ask, but there's more. Note the stances. Have you ever thrown a spearhand with the opposite foot forward? Probably not. There's a reason for that. In these two throws, you are inserting yourself into your opponent's space - especially the jujinage/x-throw. And when you do that, your opponent is on one side of you or the other.

In Chiba, at :53, note his right foot is forward, and he's using his right hand (thumb down). In Yamada, at about :10, you see his left foot forward and he's using his left hand for the primary throw. Also note these two throws are "entering" throws: the opponent is more or less in front, and is being turned back to the direction from whence they came. Although not a strict rule here, it's more of a guideline, but the stance to use for entering throws is always a front stance.

And a front stance, with its stability, and the foot alongside the opponent, allows to assist in a trip or sweep, and offers more stability for the thrower (the issuer of the spearhand). That's why spearhands are almost always thrown with the same foot forward: stability, control of the opponent, and to better effect a sweep or trip. Try doing these throws with the other foot forward, and you will feel much less stable, and an opponent on his way to the ground can more easily pull you down with him if he gets ahold of you or your clothing. This is much harder to do with same hand/same foot forward.

But wait! There's more!

Note that in Do-San, after you issue the spearhand, you do that funky turn with the hand behind your back. What's that all about?

That's a handshake throw (aka wrist throw... this has many names). IMHO, this is a parlour trick - something fun to show the kids or at parties. I've never really seen it used IRL, although all of the principals are there. But here is the throw. Note that you are engaged in the handshake, your turn is the throw. One thing that should be glaring at you is that in this video, defender is extending the same hand as you do in Do-San, but he's turning in the opposite direction. There are several variants to the handshake throw, and this is just one of them. This video shows a few others.

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There is a much simpler answer to this question.

The left hand is trapping: pulling down his guard, or redirecting his arm. The right hand is indeed striking with the fingertips, but to the throat or eyes, where it will do some damage.

The solar plexus target comes from Funakoshi's Karate do Kyohan. There are several places in that book where he gives unrealistic applications or targets for techniques, I believe in order to disguise the damaging techniques karate actually teaches. Fingertip stabs to the throat and eyes are completely mainstream in CMA ... Bruce Lee used them all the time.

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