I think the ability to use good weight shifting is important in all martial arts, it is stressed in systems from western boxing to Chinese Tai Chi.
I get the feeling some times that in Karate this principle is a bit lost, the clearest example of this is in basic five step sparring (Gohon kihon kumite), If you are an instructor how many times have you watched students come under great pressure in the fourth and fifth move when defending, If you are feeling the pressure of the attack to the point where you are ducking your head or feeling that you will be bowled over then you are not using correct weight shift.
The ability to maintain correct body posture whilst under pressure is really important; as you must be able, at any given time, to make an effective counter attack. A feeling that is not often realised by students, so many people think of Gohon kumite as being all about the end, attack number five! I think a lot of people don’t particularly care for Gohon kumite because either they do it as a robotic steady rhythmic exercise, which is just boring and has no benefit other than using it in a grading to get past the kyu grades or in the other extreme they feel they cannot cope with the pressure that is being applied from the attacker, actually the latter is preferable because at least you are dealing with something like the right attitude, in effect it’s fixable!
So why is it that the pressure increases after the first one or two attacks? Well it comes down to weight shift because as you are making a backwards stepping motion if you raise the back heel it puts you in an initial forward/rocking motion where actually you want a clean and immediate step back. When someone is bearing down on you the last thing that you want is to be putting your body forward before going back. In fact some people make almost a half step forward with the back foot, which is even worse! Also, if you keep the heel down and yet don’t bend the back knee to transfer the weight then you will make an initial rising action before going back.
The body mechanics of this weight shift method are quite simple and were made glaringly obvious while training in Japan over the past few years at the JKS Honbu Dojo. While watching the gaijin (foreigners) partner the Japanese it always looked like the foreigner struggled to cope with the third to fifth attacks, yet the Japanese never did! It’s not that the foreigners weren’t trying hard, they were good guys, tough as nails (and they had to be!), it’s just that they did not make use of effective weight shifting, while the Japanese did.
To practise this start from Zenkutsu Dachi – Oi tsuki posture, then push from the front foot away from the floor while bending the back knee, keeping the back knee in line. Step back to Heisoku-Dachi (feet together) or Heiko-Dachi (feet parallel) whichever is easier ; make sure your body is lined properly with the head up and tailbone tucked under, making sure to keep your back straight. Don’t stand up, keep the knees bent maintaining the same height as Zenkutsu-dachi. Then drive forward into Oi-tsuki on the opposite side, continue to repeat this until you feel comfortable. Doing this facing a wall, or even better a mirror, should allow you to feel the distance created between you and the object you’re facing.
When you first practice this you may feel slower than you would normally and that’s okay as the more you do it the more comfortable you will become with it. It is all very well moving quickly with incorrect posture but if you are under pressure in kumite then ultimately what’s the point?! We should always strive to make things harder for ourselves in basic training so we have a platform to improve from.
A point I want to stress in this exercise is to make sure that you keep the back foot and knee facing forward, if you let the back foot move, so the knee points out to the side it will open the hips out thereby taking the body into an angle. Then when you step backwards your hips have to travel even further by making a round/circular motion which will slow the movement down. Plus, from a bio mechanical point of view your knee is a hinge joint and is designed to be used in a linear way with not much lateral movement, so eventually you will damage to the joint.
Of course keeping the back foot and knee in a clean line facing forward is not easy and the consequence of trying to do this is that the heel can rise; this is not what you want either, by doing this you make the rocking action I mentioned earlier, in effect moving forward before going back. Also be careful not to let your bottom stick out as you will be leaving your face and body forward, still in the danger zone.
Try this with a partner; quite simply have someone in Oi tsuki jodan, firstly stand with his or her fist really close to your face, make a two-stage movement by using the principle of the initial weight shift, you will see the gap open up between their fist and your face (always a good thing in my opinion!) then complete the step back.
Take this into Gohon kumite without any blocking; the first attack is always easy as the defender is in shizentai and the attacker has to make twice the distance, it’s after that it becomes harder! Keep this as a two-count exercise (one weight shift, two move back) until you get the hang of it.
Once you are reasonably comfortable with this you need to progress to making a smooth all in one action as the weight shift will not have any benefit if you don’t combine it with the backwards movement, it is important to feel the weight shift is happening immediately the initial step is made.
The next stage is obviously to try it with full attacking and blocking, although probably best to start slow and relaxed building up to speed and power as you feel more comfortable with the whole weight shift exercise.
If you persevere it will benefit your karate not just in Gohon kumite as you will naturally apply it in other types of kumite and it will also improve your Kata by making all your footwork and body shifts smoother and cleaner.
Alan Campbell is the Head of JKS England & Wales and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org