Weapons of the Hand

c9f51538b48ed594e843a4ee67dc48e6In Hapkido, there are a number of striking surfaces of our hand. This diagram goes through some of the strikes we practice in class, and we will go through them and discuss their applications in this blog post. You will notice the names are in Japanese – I will use the Japanese name simply so you can see which diagram I am referring to – in our classes we use the english words for the strikes to keep our art accessible to everyone.


This is one of the first strikes we teach, yet it is in fact one of the more complicated strikes we learn. Therefore we need to have lots of practice to get it right! In the diagram, you can see the correct striking surface is the first two knuckles of the fist. When we strike correctly with a punch, the knuckles line up behind the wrist, which lines up behind the elbow, which in turn lines up behind the shoulder. In this way, when we strike, it hurts our opponent, not ourselves.


This strike is done using, as the name suggests, with the back of the fist. This strike is a simple strike to form up for, and so can be used quickly, right after a block. This strike is best used against hard surfaces, such as the temple, the bridge of the nose or the chin. This strike can be achieved either by pulling the arm across the body and striking outwards, by raising the fist upwards diagonally across the body or by striking in a downwards motion. This makes it a very versatile strike.


This strike also has the hand arranged in a fist position, however this strike uses the base of the fist as the surface to make contact. To perform this strike, the arm pulls across the body and strikes in an inward motion. Hammerfist strikes take some practice to perform with power, as they require the use of the shoulders and hips as well as the arm to deliver this strike with power.


This strike is usually performed at the neck, into the soft tissue. It can also be performed into pressure points, such as the inward of the upper arm. It is performed by forming a fist and then pushing the centre knuckle forward so the it sticks forward. This allows the strike to be highly targeted at a specific spot, to inflict damage on soft, vulnerable areas of an attacker’s body.


This is a strike in which the top of the fingers are curled over so that the strike is performed with the lower knuckles of the hand. This strike is also aimed at soft tissue areas such as the neck. The advantage of this strike over a punch is that it can reach more narrow areas than a punch can, so it can be used to strike effectively in areas such as the neck.


Knifehand strikes are used to strike into hard surfaces such as the temple. The strike is performed by tensing the muscles in the side of the hand, which is done by opening the palm of the hand as wide as possible. This can cause the fingers to curl slightly at the tips. The strike is done by pulling the arm across the body and striking outwards. It can also be done by striking downwards, or by pulling the arm back and striking inwards.


These three strikes all illustrate different angles that finger thrust strikes can be performed at. These strikes are aimed at soft areas such as the neck. They require all the finger tips to be lined up together in a straight line, and then the strike is performed by striking straight forward, much like a lunch.


The palm strike is a great strike to use as it can be performed much like  a punch, however with less danger of injury to the one performing the strike. The strike is done by pulling the fingers back and striking with the base of the palm. It is usually done toward the bottom of the chin, under the nose or into the solar plexus.


This strike looks as though it might be uncomfortable, however it is in fact a very direct and straightforward strike. It is done by folding the hand back and striking with the back of the wrist. This strike can be done very easily after a block, without even having to form up separately for the strike. It works particularly well when combined with a rolling block.


This is a very multi purpose strike which is used at close range. It can be performed in almost any direction, and is a great weapon for personal defence because of how close to the opponent the strike works at. For elbow strikes to be safe, thy should be done with the thumb in a downwards position. This will mean that the arm rotates into a position so that the strike is performed with the flat of the arm, and not the point of the elbow.

All of these strikes are specialised and work best when done at the correct angle and target. There are a large number of strikes so that at any position you end up in, there is a strike that will suit the situation. When we practice hand techniques, we work on variety as well as power in our techniques, so that we can be ready for anything.

The Power of Step Sparring

historyStep Sparring is an activity practiced from the earliest stages of training in the martial arts. It has been evolved to help students practice their techniques with full power but in a safe and controlled way. Sparring is designed to teach us the what, where, when, how and why of combat.

By practicing our step sparring, we have the opportunity to decide what sort of martial artist we want to be, and how we choose to respond to conflict situations.

As we practice, we aim to respond to attacks with mindfulness. We choose each step of the way how we respond, which techniques we perform and how we move from one attack to the next. Our aim, in step sparring, is to find the time, the pause between the stimulus of someone punching us, and our response.

While we want the individual techniques we practice to be locked away in muscle memory so we do not have to even think about how to do them, we want the execution of the technique to be a matter of mindfulness and choice.

Sometimes, in the beginning of our training, our responses in step sparring come from a siege mentality, where we feel under attack and we lash out. While in basic self defence it is certainly better to do something than do nothing, as a martial artist, we want to train ourselves to a higher level than simple stimulus-response.

In step sparring, we have the ability to condition our body and our mind, and become accustomed to the idea of someone throwing kicks and punches at us. When we become comfortable with our training partner, we know that they are not trying to injure us physically or make us look silly, then we start to relax into our training. When this happens, we start to see opportunities in our step sparring.

At the beginning, we do not see them in enough time to actually do anything about those opportunities, but we notice them. We start to see that before we act, we have a mental process where we select which technique we choose to perform at which target, and start to plan out a flow of attacks. By training our body and our mind to look for opportunities, we become very skilled at adapting our style to the circumstances we find ourselves.

This is a great moment where the training for our body can start to develop habits for our mind. Many student report that training in the martial arts gives them a new level of mental clarity and focus. This is wonderful, and is the deeper purpose of martial arts. When we start to train our body not to simply lash out, our mind is inevitably involved in this process. The skills we learn about dealing with conflict and aggression and class can be applied to conflict and aggression outside of class as well. This is not necessarily simple physical violence, but the conflict that we can sometimes come across at school or in the workplace, or even at times in the home. If we are able to stop and consider our options before reacting, we are able to make better choices and by doing so, build stronger relationships with the people around us.

imageIn correctly performed step sparring, the attacks and the responses are performed with full power and strength, stopping only just short of our partner’s body. This teaches us awareness of our body and awareness of the space we require to perform the techniques correctly. It also gives us the opportunity to practice with a ‘real live target’ which helps us understand how to accurately strike a range of targets without compromising the safety of either participant.

When it is your turn to attack in step sparring, you need to commit fully to the technique you are performing. Strike with accuracy, power and determination, with the full expectation that your partner will block the technique.

When it is your turn to defend, the most important thing is to get your body out of danger. As we learnt by watching ‘The Karate Kid’ – best block – don’t be there. Once our body is safe, we can consider what counter attacks to perform. Usually, we have a series of techniques that we feel comfortable with, our default response. This is useful in the beginning, however it can also cause to get stuck in a routine that does not allow us to show our full abilities.

Things we need to consider in step sparring are appropriate targets, and appropriate variety of attacks. Anyone can throw a random series of punches and kicks as anyone who has seen a toddler throw a tantrum has seen. The skill we are seeking to develop is the ability to perform the best possible response at the best possible target in the shortest time frame.

This requires practice, more than anything else. We need to feel comfortable with the activity, and we need to build trust with our partner. We need to have the confidence to try out new things, being prepared for not everything to work out quite like we planned.

aristotleThe best way to work on step sparring, is to do some planning at home, in the quiet and calm before the busy storm of class. Plan out 5 very different strategies to respond to an attack. Work on different steps to get your body out of the way. Work on techniques that use different distances – close range or distance techniques. Incorporate some suitably advanced techniques, such as advanced kicks or take downs, but build a suitable series of entry techniques to make sure the advanced skill has a good chance of success.

Once you have planned out a few good, solid defence strategies, perform these first when you do step sparring in class. While you do them, you should be thinking ahead. As you have some routine yet very well thought out defences planned, you have the chance to watch how your partner moves and develop some defences that are specific to the training partner and circumstances you have in front of you in that moment.

In any step sparring, we are aiming to perform all our techniques to the best of our ability, with power, flow and careful thought and consideration. Once we can do this, step sparring becomes a very enjoyable way to put our skills into action. We can immerse ourselves into the practice, comfortable with our abilities and searching for ways to improve. It becomes an exercise in mindfulness and awareness, and a rewarding way to put our skills into action.

Flexibility Masters Hardness

pheasant_bamboo_vintage_japanese_woodcut_art_postcard-r2bde70a5022142d3976322e7022e0b87_vgbaq_8byvr_512Flexibility is a very important component of the martial artists training. Look at the physique of any martial artist and you will notice that they are built for flexibility and movement rather than for rigid strength. Having a flexible body is also a great way to reduce the likelihood of injury while training.

A flexible person is a person with great control over their body. They are able to move their bodies into a variety of positions and respond fluidly to any attack, changing directions with ease and moving from attack to attack smoothly. This is achieved through serious practice of the martial arts, through stretching and through repetition of the techniques you wish to master.

A flexible person is also a person with great control over their mind. They are able to identify situations and decide on the best response for the situation. They seem to be able to change situations from attacking to reassuring, from challenging to calming, from stressful to restful through their actions. This is achieved by serious study of the principles of the martial arts, and through the application of those principles in a variety of situations.

Bamboo is a great example of how flexibility can master hardness. In strong winds and stormy weather the bamboo moves with the wind, following it, matching and yet with the ability to come back again, unchanged after the storm passes.

When we can bend our bodies to suit any situation, and our minds to respond to any stimulus without changing who we are, then we are practicing martial arts.

There is a great deal of debate about how to achieve flexibility, and surprisingly, little of it seems to be backed up by scientific research, much more of it seems to be anecdotal evidence specific to a particular coach or a particular sport. There is even some debate about whether stretching is even beneficial! However it is clear that stretching does have several advantages for the martial artist.

Firstly, it gets our muscles ready for the work we are about to do – we move our body through the range of movement we are about to ask of it. A huge benefit of stretching is that it increases our awareness of our own body, and helps us become connected with our body. We discipline our body to stretch it’s boundaries, and we then become more comfortable in our own skin.

As we stretch, it is important to get the balance right between a good stretch and doing damage to our bodies. Stretching should never cause pain, which is one of the reasons it is important to ease into a stretch. However, stretching should not feel comfortable. If we are to get any benefit from our stretches, we need to be right on the line between okay and not okay so that we get a benefit, not a set back.

There are several categories of stretches, and the ones which are most commonly practiced in martial arts are dynamic stretches and static stretches. They each have a place in our training, and doing both can help your body increase in flexibility.

02physed2_500Dynamic stretches are best done at the start of a training session, either before class, or sometimes as part of the warm up. One of the best examples for martial artists is the leg raise. This is done to the front, as shown in the picture to the side. To do this exercise, stand comfortably and extend one hand out to head height. Then throw the opposite leg towards the extended hand. Repeat this movement 10 times on either side.

This stretch can also be done as a side leg raise. To do this stand with one hand stretched out to the side at shoulder height, turn your toes on that leg down and throw your leg up towards your hand, trying to get your heel to touch your hand. For maximum stretch, keep your body upright, instead of leaning over to the side.

In these stretch, the movement and momentum of our swinging leg helps us get a bigger range of movement than we would get in a ‘sit and reach’ style of stretch. As the leg is swinging, it is thrown up in the air by muscles and is brought down by gravity. This means we do not spend overly long in the extreme end of our range of motion, which reduces the risk of injury.

The other type of stretch commonly used in class is the static stretch. This is the classic ‘sit and reach’ stretch. This type of stretching has the most benefit if done when the body is already warmed up. In these stretches, we hold a position and as we do so, we try and increase the stretch by sinking ever more deeply into the pose we are trying to assume.

For this form of stretching, ideally we try and hold the position for 20 seconds or longer. The reason for this is because this is how long it takes for our muscles to ‘give up’ and let go of their fierce hold and allow us to sink into the stretch. This is also the reason that sometimes we start a stretch feeling it in one place, and then as we hold the stretch it changes so we feel it in a different part of our body – this is because one set of muscles has relaxed enough to allow the next group of muscles underneath to start their complaining!

02physed4_650One of the best static stretches, in my opinion is the one shown in this picture. Start the stretch with your palms flat on the ground and your feet flat on the ground. Lift your hips us as high as you can and push through your hands to lift your hips even higher, trying to get them to be over your feet.

After holding this for 20 or more seconds, relax. Then, bring your hands in closer to your feet and repeat the stretch, again holding it for 20 seconds or so. Relax again, and then repeat one final time, with your hands a little closer to your feet. With regular practice, you will find that you will be able to assume the pose shown on the left of the diagram quite easily.

Completing these dynamic and static stretches will help you feel more comfortable with your body in a wide range of positions. It will also help your kicks have more power at higher ranges, and reduce your risk of injury if someone should manage to trap your leg in sparring.

Closest Weapon, Closest Target

When we train in Hapkido, we are predominately concerned with how to respond to being attacked, rather than initiating an attack ourselves. There are several stages which a student must recognise in an attack. samurai_attack_by_octopusdesenhos-d54ic45The first one is recognition that you are being attacked. Sometimes this is simple and straightforward, other times an attacker might be more subtle. We can be attacked in a physical way, and this is usually very obvious, however not always. Sometimes physical attacks can come after a series of minor steps towards an attack have been made. An example of this is someone, apparently by accident, brushing against you as they pass, knocking you a little, and then failing to apologise. Then maybe taking something that belongs to you, whether it is something tangible or some right, such as a place in line, your turn to speak in a group conversation. After a couple of such ‘trial attacks’ the attacker may then attack for real. It is important, in situation such as this, to trust your instincts. If you have a feeling that someone has not got good intentions, or there is something in a situation that is not right, trust that feeling. We often use ‘common sense’ or other people’s judgements to override our intuition. A person or situation being accepted by other people does not necessarily mean it is acceptable for you. It is always better to be alert and prepared for something that did not happen that to be taken unawares due to ignoring the subtle feelings we get that tell us when something is not quite right. Awareness of your personal space, of the space or room you are in is an important part of your training. When we are not accustomed to listening to our intuition, is can, like any muscle, waste away from lack of use. In order to tap in to our awareness we can use our breathing. When we breathe correctly, deep into our stomach instead of just in the top of our chest, we have the chance to get our mind to operate at deeper levels. We can also use gravity, a feeling of being connected to the earth increase our awareness. As we feel the subtle pull of gravity acting to drag us toward the earth, we have the chance to increase our physical and mental stability. We can also use our presence to help increase our awareness. This is about being completely focused in the moment, interacting with the here and now, not planning out the future or dwelling on the past. Being in the moment helps us see clearly, without the prejudice of the past or the future. We can also use stillness to help find our intuition. Stillness does not have to be for a long time. It can simply be a pause between stimulus and response, a brief time when we consider our options before taking action, rather than lashing out, or responding in a way we may later regret. self-awarenessWhen we use these tools, we are able to deal with all situations in a way that is meaningful and in line with our authentic selves. This not only helps us to keep physically safe, but also mentally safe from regret or a feeling of powerlessness. Using these tools also prevents us ‘freezing’ when a confrontation situation comes along. With these tools we are living in the moment and experiencing everything that is happening just as it is, not through the cloudy lenses of the past, or prejudice or desire to do anything except respond appropriately to each moment as it arises. If you are aware, you are likely to be able to prevent an attacker from even taking hold of you, by using your body movements to make it impossible for the attacker to get a firm grip on you. You can also release from grabs before they are firmly established if you are aware of your personal space and where objects and people are in relation to you. If someone does grab you, the most important thing is to do something. Consider a child who does not want to be put into the car. It is very difficult to make them do so without some compliance on their part. If you are attacked, do not comply! This is the most effective way of getting an attacker to back down. In order to release from a grab or hold, use the theory of closest weapon, closest target. This is very simple, yet sometimes deceptive to master. Use your closest weapon —hand, elbow, knee, foot, shoulder, head against your attacker’s closest target —temple, nose, chin, solar plexus, stomach, groin, knee, shin, foot This usually means that you attacker will not see the lead up to your attack, and so will be unable to anticipate the attack. Once you have a moment when your attacker is off guard, this is your opportunity to escape, or further restrain your attacker if appropriate. When we act to defend ourselves, it is important that we make a choice to defend ourselves, rather than simply lash out. When we do decide that action is required, we want to act as quickly as possible to end a confrontation as quickly and effectively as possible. By using the closest weapon on the closest target, we can prevent a long and drawn out conflict, which self defence always seeks to avoid. reactions-to-fear-quote-sun-tzuBy acting with awareness, we not only prevent ourselves from freezing under attack, we are also able to direct our attacks with the appropriate force to the correct target. We are also able to stop attacking once a situation is under control, and not carry on attacking  needlessly and inadvertently become an aggressor ourselves.