The Chi-Ishi (strength or power stone) is most notably used in Goju Ryu (hard/soft style), as part of their hojo undo (supplementary training methods). However, the use of this tool may also be found in other Naha/Shuri/Tomari lineages of koryu karate, along with various other pieces of equipment, as an adjunct to kata and their application practices. Indeed, the term hojo undo is generically used to describe the holistic attribute training methods undertaken to enhance the ability for the body, minds and spirit to combatively express the choreography of karate kata. As such, even with a plethora of traditional and more contemporary tools available today, the unique design and qualities of the chi-ishi can be used to play a key role in building the karate body and it is for this reason that I continue to make use of it in my own training.
No more advanced than a stick with a weight attached to one end, the asymmetrical nature of the chi-ishi is what provides its most challenging asset. Even to manipulate the weight to an adequate level of control takes a high degree of body awareness, proprioception and core integration. But it is often the subtleties of such exercises, the things going on underneath the surface, which provide the most benefit. Simply swinging the tool around for the sake of being able to claim that you ‘practice hojo undo’ simply doesn’t do the chi-ishi any justice and even though there are other pieces of training equipment around that can provide similar attributes, the classic saying that ‘a poor craftsman will always blame his tools’ is true for everything you place in your hand. So how we understand the performance of hojo undo and in particular, how the exercises we repetitively undertake connect with our karate practice is of chief importance – not necessarily how many reps we can push out!
Before any exercises are performed with the chi-ishi, it’s vital that one understands how to exercise the nigiri (grip), as it is this that physically connects us to the tool. Mindful awareness and maintenance of correct nigiri throughout the exercises will also have a significant effect on how the arms connects with the rest of the body. In addition, study of the grip also offers valuable insight into how the human hand is naturally designed and specifically, how its make-up may be best employed within the techniques and applications of karate. In this blog post and accompanying videos I’d like to share with readers some of the key points I gave during a discussion on chi-ishi basics during a workshop last month. I hope this will prove valuable for those practitioners who’d like to start out working with chi-ishi and for more experienced users who may not have made the connection between how the human grip functions and its effect on karate application.
The first time a karate student picks up a chi-ishi, they tend to grip tightly with a full fist, often squeezing extra hard with the index finger and thumb in an effort to hold and stabilise the uneven and challenging weight distribution. This actually makes controlling the tool more difficult and is counter-productive to not only the exercises themselves, but also to their relevance with respect to karate practice. The way the hand is designed, used and connected to the core via the arm/shoulder has a significant impact to both technique and application. Therefore, it makes sense that our attribute development (hojo undo) must also take this facet into account.
The make-up of the human hand offers two generic grip types, one that focuses on precision and the other on power. The ‘precision grip’ is achieved using primarily the index finger and thumb. In contrast, the ‘power grip’ makes more use of the little, ring and middle fingers. Think about the difference between writing calligraphy with a pen and performing a pull up whilst hanging from a bar. Whereas the index finger and thumb are used for sensitivity and control, the little, ring and middle finger are used for strength and stabilisation.
The function of the human hand has dominated ergonomic design since we first started making tools to support manual effort. In basic engineering or woodworking for instance, you are taught to hold a hand saw in a particular way that makes using it both effective and accurate. The power grip is utilised, with the forefinger and thumb employed to guide the saw along its path. Using this technique, it’s possible to make extremely accurate and energy efficient cuts. A power drill or hand gun is another example of good ergonomic design. Rather than using the little finger to pull the trigger, the more sensitive precision forefinger is used, whilst the little, ring and middle fingers are utilised in order to support and stabilise the load. Golf clubs, paint brushes, hammers, swords, bows, writing implements, keyboards and mice, scissors etc. The list goes on!
Gripping the chi-ishi too tightly with the index finger and thumb has the effect emphasising activation of the front deltoid, trapezius and neck muscles. This causes undue tension in these areas, disconnects the shoulder/arm from the torso and makes holding the weight outstretched a real challenge. Conversely, altering your grip to emphasise the little, ring and middle fingers will help switch on the underside of the arm, engage the large powerful muscles of the back, encourage the elbow to sink down and nest the shoulder. This feels completely different to the former grip – almost like the weight now has a ‘shelf’ to sit on – and allows you to hold the arm outstretched for much longer periods of time. In short, the chi-ishi becomes an integral part of the body.
This way of gripping the chi-ishi correlates directly to the way traditional karate often employs nigiri when making a fist. This is especially so when we consider the often controversial method of forming a fist where the index finger lies flat across the palm, rather than being curled with the others. This method is often considered as being a good way to break a finger, but when you take a look outside the box it begins to make more sense. The karate fist formation is not simply about punching. It is primarily about gripping. Thinking that you need to have a tight grip for punching is not necessarily true. Firstly, a tight grip can cause excessive tension in the hand/arm, making the strike less efficient. Secondly, all that’s structurally required to strike with force is the knuckles aligned with the forearm and enough supportive tension in the limb to protect the wrist from buckling. The fingers don’t actually need to curl over into the palm in order to achieve this structure and in fact, could theoretically be left loose.
Geoff Thompson demonstrating a 'loose' fist method of punching, proving quite clearly that there's no need to grip tight in order to hit hard!
"You never make a tight fist before hitting a target. Instead you simply allow the target to curl the fingers into a fist. The only time the fist tightens is during the fraction of an instant when the fist reaches the centre of the target." - Kiyoshi Arakaki (The Secrets of Okinawan Karate)
Laying the index finger flat takes it out of the ‘grip equation’ when forming the karate fist leaves only the middle, ring and little finger with thumb wrapped around. Given the above, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the very first technique most students learn in the karate dojo – choku-zuki (straight thrust) – happens to promote repetitive application of the ‘power grip’. This is especially important in the retracting portion of the technique i.e. hikite (pulling hand). In this way, the karate fist formation is actually a training method for understanding how the human grip may be best applied and how tension in certain parts of the hand can have a connective effect between the thrusting/retracting limb and the rest of the body.
Whether we apply tsuki (thrusting from the core) for striking, attacking joints or manipulating the opponent’s body, or whether we apply hikite (pulling back to the core) for seizing, limb clearance, grappling or controlling, the way we apply the ‘grip’ is an important consideration. Ask your partner to provide some resistance as you attempt to pull his arm back towards your hip in hikite. First emphasise grip with the index finger and thumb and then switch to gripping with the little, ring and middle fingers. You should find a significant difference. Try striking makiwara with these two grips also and note the difference in aspects such as impact delivery, heaviness, floor to fist connection and body integration.
So before any classic chi-ishi exercises are performed, I would recommend the tool be first used to foster the correct utilisation of grip, specifically for karate practice. However, such realisation is of no use if those attributes are not effectively employed in combative application and indeed, in other aspects of your life. This ‘holistic’ application of karate can (and should) apply to all areas of our art. For instance, try starting a patrol lawn mower, carrying your shopping, pulling open a heavy door or maybe undertaking some home DIY utilising the chi-ishi grip!
As always - my best wishes,
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.