Some time ago in my training I made a point to always keep my hands up. That is, I see all too often when people are doing kicking drills that they focus only on the kicking and their feet/legs… the rest of the body tends to be ignored, and this is most evident to observe in how they hold their hands or more typically how they aren’t holding their hands at all. I resolved to not do this, that even if I was focusing on something else that my hands must remain up in a proper defensive/blocking position: hands more or less guarding the sides of the face, forearms more or less vertical, elbows pulled in close so you’re not leaving your gut unprotected. Of course going with this, doing things like shrugging the shoulders, chin tucked, but that’s not the focus of my discussion today. The point of ensuring I always kept my hands up was to turn that positioning into my habit, that that’s just the place my hands naturally go — and stay. The stay is an important part. I see people might start with their hands up, but eventually the hands migrate somewhere else. Maybe their arms are getting tired (keep them up there, they’ll get stronger). Maybe they just forget (keep doing it, be aware of it, make it habit). Or many times they’re doing something dynamic and their arms leave their center so they can keep their balance. To that I say, you have to fight to keep your hands in. First, if with every kick your hands fly out so you can keep your balance that tells me (fighting/sparring you) that you’re not very balanced and I’ll either take advantage of that aspect or take advantage of the fact you’re not guarding yourself and attack those areas. Second, when you flail your arms you’re creating more movement, which will lead to further balance disruption, not to mention you’re wasting energy working all those muscles that don’t need to be worked. Keep your hands in, force yourself to do this. You’ll find that your balance will come along just fine.
One thing about keeping your hands up is what to do with your hands themselves. Should you make tight fists? Should you have a fist but just not clenched? Hands in a natural and relaxed but curved but not a full fist looseness? Or maybe have the hands fully straight, fingers extended, palm flat? I have been taking the relaxed approach, a semi-fist, if you will. A few days ago I started to play with keeping my hands flat. I’m going to experiment with this for a while and see where it goes. Here’s my thoughts.
- With my hands flat there is now more stuff guarding me. Measure from the tip of my elbow up the forearm to the end of my closed fist, then measure from the elbow to the tip of my extended fingers and you’ll find a few more inches there. That’s a few more inches of protection for myself. Granted it’s fingers, not someting that can absorb a lot of damage (nor do you want them to), plus having the fingers out there leaves them open to finger grabs/locks. Still, I’d like to play with this to see if it really does add any more guarding effectiveness.
- It’s good to use natural weapons, parts of our body that are naturally tougher, such as the palm heel. While fists are your traditional “fightin’ man’s” weapon, punching someone in the head with your bare fist is more likely to hurt you than them. Which would you rather do? punch a brick wall with your fist? or punch a brick wall with your palm heel? I’ll take the palm heel. The further implication is you’ll be more willing to put more power behind the palm strike because you’re not as worried about getting hurt. Keeping your fingers functioning is important, be you looking to further trap or manipulate your opponent, or perhaps transitioning to say a sidearm. So by keeping my hands open when up in the guard, I’m more apt and open to use palm strikes than closed fist attacks.
- One technique in Kuk Sool is the Sa Ma Gui Mak–Gi (사마귀막기) or Praying Mantis Block. This is a trapping and control technique, one that I’ve dabbled with a bit in the past, but I think I’d like to take the time to more seriously study and experiment with practical application. Starting from my hands-up guarding position, with open palms, a block can lead directly into a mantis block and trap.
- I think my desire to explore the mantis block/trap more actually started in earnest about a month ago. I was flipping through my copy of Dr. YANG, Jwing-Ming’s Analysis of Shaolin Chin Na book because he has a lot of exercises for wrist strength and I’ve been looking to improve my wrist/grip strength for other activities. I was reading over his exercises for trapping, twisting, gripping, but especially the coiling training. So it got me thinking about mantis blocking/trapping again.
As I was preparing to write this blog entry, I Googled around for more information on Chinese praying mantis kung fu. I found a video that was most interesting.
I admit, I don’t have a lot of direct exposure to any flavor of Chinese Praying Mantis Kung Fu, and most of what I do see is the performance of forms. But this video is the sort of thing I wanted to see: 2 man fighting techniques/drills, application. Here’s what stood out to me.
- Notice the attacker/defender (person performing the techniques) has their hands up, in the guard position. That’s the position they fight from, which is efficient and deceptive.
- I like how both arms are always doing something. One arm blocks the other attacks, then they switch roles. Watch the exchange that starts at 0:30 to really see this.
- Notice the use of natural weapons: palm heels, elbows, hammer-fists. Big strong meat of the forearms provides the block, the palm and the elbows provide the attack.
Very cool stuff. Something for me to focus my study on for a while.
Updated: All of yesterday I was involved in helping teach a different sort of combative art. One of the movements done is that you start out with your hands put up in front of you, open palms, palms facing out, hands more or less in front of your face. It’s not hands above your head in an “I surrender” position. It’s not hands pulled back so your arms are fully bent, elbows down by your hipbones and hands up at your shoulders, which isn’t quite “I surrender” but is a very submissive position. It’s not hands pushed out in front of you, arms fully or almost fully extended, as if to push a person in front of you back; this is a very aggressive position. No, it’s more that your hands are just out in front of you, just enough, palms open and facing forward, which is an assertive stance that could say “Hey man, I don’t want any trouble. Just stay cool. This is a very reasonable position to start from, especially in a self-defense situation. If you do some things like avert your eyes just slightly, it provides a little more submissiveness to the position, which can be good towards helping diffuse a situation (but that doesn’t mean you are being submissive, perhaps just manipulative of the situation).
When you look at this posture, what is it? It’s the same posture I’m describing above. That guarding stance, hands open, arms up. Look at the non-verbal message it sends to an attacker. It’s not taking an aggressive and obvious fighting stance (clench your fists or even loosely ball them). It’s not putting you in a negative position such hands above your head, or at your side, out of position to attack or defend. It leaves you guarded, defended, but sending a good message to an attacker. You can combine it with verbal commands “STOP, DON’T MOVE!” “BACK OFF NOW!” or perhaps just less assertive spoken words such as “Hey man, I don’t want any trouble.” or whatever is clear and appropriate for the situation. From this posture you can then transition to whatever may be necessary. You’ve got your hands in close, you can shoot your body inside his for takedowns. You can defend against strikes. You can do as I’m exploring above and be able to perform mantis-based traps and locks. You could transition to your sidearm. You could just transition to other non-verbals as needed, e.g. maybe you have to push your hands out further to be more aggressive and sending a stronger message.
The more I consider this sort of open handed guard position, the more potential I see within it.