Within the chapter that focuses on the percussive impact in my upcoming book on the exploration of civilian combative methods found in Naihanchi Kata, I mention the 'Hierarchy of Impact' and how this important principle may be utilised in the practical application of traditional karate.
The components of 'distance' and 'time' are luxuries seldom enjoyed in the realm of civilian self-protection, so it stands to reason that any system that relies heavily on these is fundamentally flawed when aligned to this specific context. And in my opinion, due to extended ranges emphasised in many of the more contemporary karate systems in order to meet other goals, the hierarchy of impact is not often given the attention it deserves.
In this blog post, I'd like to write a little about the hierarchy of impact and why I believe any self-defence based karate dojo should look to embrace this principle throughout a variety of training protocols.
All striking in self-protection is based on being able to effectively combine weapon, target, structure and bio-mechanics to exploit opportunity either presented to you or generated by you. The fact that distance and time may never be relied upon means that in karate, we must learn to develop impact at close-range. Furthermore, we must make best use of our weapons in order to manipulate what distance/time we do have to our best advantage.
We see the above notion in classical kata, not only through effective technique, but also through associated redundancy as well as effective body-weight manipulation as we transition between postures. Thus, the formation of 'stances' are in essence a by-product of such dynamics and reveal a great deal about the intent of lessons presented by the form's choreography.
Simply put, if you can learn to generate sufficient impact without distance or time being significant contributory factors then this will create a decisive advantage. Remember that power is created by the body 'engine' and versatility is created by the specific 'tool' and/or 'path'. With this in place, any extra distance or time offered may then be exploited as an added bonus, rather than being desperately sought after. Of course, distance and time (used correctly) will always help increase impact, but to entirely depend on these for success would be foolish in self-defence.
Let's say for example that during a physical altercation (ether being pre-emptive or re-active) your opponent has driven forward to clinch and pin you against a wall, effectively closing down any opportunity to strike sufficiently with primary tools. This is where knowledge of the hierarchy of impact, supported by the ability to generate close-range power comes into play.
Above shows a diagram explaining the hierarchy of impact, using empty-handed tools that may be accessed based on the amount of distance and time offered. Again, the core principles and mechanics of impact delivery remain constant (elements may of course be added depending on how much distance and time is available), but the aim is to progress through the hierarchy in order to create the space and opportunity to add significantly more purchase to your percussive response.
The hand, foot, forearm and shin tend to make up the primary tool box simply because they are the most natural weapons to employ at conversation range, where most altercations are likely to occur. If your opponent breaches this range (which is quite possible) and especially if they become 'attached' to you, then your ability to develop sufficient impact with these weapons may becomes limited. This is why traditional karate also contains supplementary methods of delivering impact through the use of secondary tools such as the elbows, head, shoulder and hip, in addition to more 'primal' methods such as biting and eye gouging etc.
So in the example above, you may first choose to try and create some space by indexing the opponents face/eyes and making use of grips, gouges, rips and tears. Should the opponent flinch back from the source of pain then this may offer the space and opportunity to strike with the head, shoulder and/or elbow. You may then choose to side step away from the wall and use it as a weapon of opportunity, then pull the opponents head down to your knee and hammer fist, or make more space to use primary strikes such as the palm. The aim is to make the best use of what you've got and work through the hierarchy of impact in order to maximise your percussive response, turn the tables and then make good your escape.
In incredibly tight positions, you may use the head to 'grind' or 'explosively push' against the attackers face before recoiling away, thus creating a little space to exploit. This can work quite well and for me, is a much safer use of your head when compared to an intentional 'smash', which may have disastrous consequences if targeting is even slightly off. Biting is also another option, but beware that at such close-ranges and especially if attached or restricted in some way, echopraxia tendencies to meet a particular attack in kind tend to be higher. As such, the head may also be used to purposefully turn the opponents face (and teeth) away to help protect against such primal options.
So in short, the more distance and time we have, the more availability we have to create percussive trauma using constant forward pressure. If distance, time and/or opportunity are physically restricted in some way, then we must make-up our lack of ability to generate percussive trauma by the use of secondary tools, working up the hierarchy of impact with the alternative aim of creating space. Any space offered should be immediately filled with another tool to create more space and a greater level of percussive trauma etc, until a sufficient level of impact may be gained.
Manoeuvring seamlessly up and down the hierarchy of impact and the use of positional angles as the situation demands are key skills for self-protection so it should come as no surprise that such skills are represented throughout the classical forms. Think about sequences in kata where techniques become progressively shorter or longer in their application. Maybe kicks to punches, punches to forearms or forearms to elbows and vice versa. Look also for repetitive techniques performed commonly in sets of two, three or five. This may indicate the use of constant forward pressure and/or the idea that if something is working well, then it's worth repeating. Think about places where short stances transition into long stances (or indeed, long to short), where distance and time become deciding factors even in solo performance. Finally, look to see where these characteristics may be combined with angles to open up new potential strike paths, if others in application may have been somewhat restricted.
Indeed, the hierarchy of impact is an important aspect of karate's percussive strategy and it's valuable to practice drills that enable you to work seamlessly through it. However, it should not be confused with the notion of combative ranges and their 'artificial' separation i.e. kicking, punching, trapping, grappling etc, as for core self-protection we tend to only have two worth focusing on...you're either engaged or not. And when you're engaged, there'll be little separation! This, since the principal aim of our physical response is to strike and escape, then application of the hierarchy of impact should be more of a necessity, rather than a choice.
Hope you enjoyed the read and as always thanks for dropping by,
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.