A number of people have asked me questions lately relating to why traditional karate practitioners spend time conditioning their forearms. It is commonly suggested that this is to facilitate more effective blocks, but considering the fact that in close range self-defence the concept of blocking in any form is seriously flawed (due to the lack of ability to react in time), there is in fact a much more pragmatic reason as to why forearm conditioning is so vital.
First of all, the forearms make up a primary weapon in karate. It is extensively used in Naihanchi Kata and if you think about the fundamental techniques practiced in the first few months of training then you will see that the vast majority use the forearms as a point of contact to issue force. In fact, the four basic receiving techniques of (1) age-uke, (2) soto-uke, (3) uchi-uke and (4) gedan-barai together prescribe the principle gross motor movements with the upper limbs: up, down, inside and outside. The only movements not covered are thrusting out from and in towards the body, but I'm sure you'll agree that tsuki covers that pretty well!
So principally, the combination of tsuki with the four basic so-called 'blocks' found in karate actually represents a gross motor method of generating close-range percussive impact in every direction. This is one if the reasons why in more traditional styles, the techniques of uke are often more small and efficient movements compared to the more modern counter-parts - distance is a luxury in close range altercations and the less you alter your shape (silhouette), the more efficient and less detectable your movement will be.
The forearms are an important tool in karate for close-range self-defence. They act like hammers that require no fine motor control, they need not be very accurate, there are no weak joints to worry about and incorporate a high level of built in redundancy. You could even argue that the edge of hand/bottom fist and the elbow are merely extensions of the forearm!
The way in which impact can be applied using the forearms is varied. You can strike, destroy joints, off-balance, throw, choke and if needs be, create barriers to impede oncoming strikes. This method of 'defence' is notably very different to how the forearms are usually applied as 'blocks' in much of modern day karate, incorporates a 'flinch response' and employed as a contingency should you be surprised or overwhelmed. As we all know, attack is by far the best form of defence and emphasis in karate is always given to creating and maintaining dominance from the onset.
Another reason as to why the forearms are emphasised in karate conditioning practices is that during close-range altercations, given that visual reaction becomes pretty much redundant, we all have an evolutionary hard-wired instinct to protect vital areas such as the head, eyes and throat by lifting up the arms. Therefore when two people exchange blows and if the first one or two shots haven't done the job, then the forearms will almost inevitably clash as reactionary barriers are created. Thus, limb control is another major component found in karate and probably second only to striking.
There are three principal ways to condition and develop your forearms in karate for application in self-defence. This is often called ude-tanren or kote-kitae. The first method is using impact, the second is using rubbing or frictional movements and the third is to challenge how the arms are connected to your overall structure. Below is a video clip I made this week in the dojo to demonstrate some examples of these three methods. I've also added at the end a combination drill that caters for all three elements.
As well as using a partner, traditional karate incorporates a number of tools to help develop the forearms. These include the Makiage Kigu (wrist roller) for muscular development and a range of 'beaters' made out of either bamboo, split hard wood or steel rods. The arms of a wooden dummy can also be used or a 'round' type makiwara. It is important that a degree of flexibility is used since the aim is to positively develop over time, not to injure yourself hitting immovable objects!
For the vast majority of us, although training to smash your forearms through a baseball bat seriously impressive, it is not an essential requirement for self-defence. However, since the application of karate heavily features the forearms, it makes sense to include these in your overall conditioning routine so that they may become stronger and so that you can better understand how to absorb and issue close range force from them.
Above: showing some examples of applying use of the forearms in a close-range environment.
Thanks all for now - hope you enjoyed the read,
Chris Denwood has been studying martial arts since childhood and specialises in the practical application of karate's traditional principles for civilian self-defence, personal development, life integration and discovery.