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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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by Jon Keeling

One of the first techniques taught to beginners and one of the most common techniques practiced in kihon (basic repetition training) and kihon kumite (basic sparring) in most Shotokan dojo, age-uke is obviously considered important to a lot of people.

But is this "rising block" really worth all the effort? Is there more to it? Or less? We do not see this technique used often in free-sparring situations. So is it just something to teach the beginners and then ignore as we become more experienced and find other blocks that can do the job better?

I feel that age-uke can be a great training tool. But directly applied as a block, it is rarely the ideal technique.

Let's start by breaking down the term, "age-uke" into its two parts:

"Age" means "rise"
"Uke" means "receive"

So "age-uke" basically means that one is "receiving using a rising movement". I will leave to a future article the debate about what "receive" means in relation to "block". Regardless, when an attack comes in, usually toward the head, age-uke can be use to deflect the attack upward. I believe most would agree that this is the most basic use of age-uke as practiced at most Shotokan dojo worldwide.

Whatever exact terminology you use, the arm moves in an upward trajectory, with the fist beginning at or near the hip and finishing just in front of and above the forehead.

This upward movement can be used to block a jodan (upper-level) attack, such as a punch to the face. It can also be used to block a falling attack from overhead. When the attackers wrist/arm is grabbed following the block, a takedown technique can be applied. There are many uses for age-uke. Let us examine a little closer the idea of blocking itself.

I recall an instructor at a university karate club once reporting that he conducted experiments with his new students almost every time a new session began. He would have them start with their backs to him and turn around one-by-one on his command. He would then lower a "stick" (I believe it was a long piece of rigid foam) toward their head from above. The relatively inexperienced "defenders" would almost always raise their arm in reaction to this, in a position that is roughly what we call age-uke.

So age-uke is a natural reaction to an overhead technique. As it is natural, do we really need to put any effort into training it? Do we put any effort into training biting and scratching, which are also natural self-defense techniques? If we are planning to use age-uke as a defense to an overhead attack, I think a little fine-tuning is all that we would need.

As for being used to push a direct attack (such as a punch) upward, it can work and to work well does require training. But is raising the attacking limb our ultimate goal in such a situation? I would like to present two related points to consider:

  1. Particularly when considering takedowns, having the attacker's body (not just his limb) higher can more easily result in an unbalanced position of the attacker, a position which can be taken advantage of when counterattacking or trying to force the attacker down by grappling and/or sweeping.
  2. The defender being in a relatively low position helps to keep stability. Whether the attacker rises or not, if the defender lowers himself under the attack, this can create a strategic advantage to the defender.

If we take this concept a step further, and concentrate on relative position, by making an effort to lower the defender's position (as opposed to raising the attacker's), I think age-uke can be an important training tool.

Please consider the following training exercise:

  1. Begin as in normal kihon-ippon-kumite (basic one-step sparring), with the attack side starting in a guard position (most places start in zenkutsudachi/gedan-barai) and the defense side starting standing ("yoi" position). See Figure 1.
  2. As with normal kihon-ippon, the attacker steps forward to attack the face of the defender and the defender steps back and raising his arm (age-uke).
  3. After practicing a few times in the normal fashion, slow it down and have the defender raise his arm to meet the attacking arm right in front of his face and pause, without yet stepping back (attacker's arm should not yet be fully-extended and wrist not yet rotated, stance only half-committed at this stage). See Figure 2.
  4. From this position, the defender should not try to force the attack upward but keep it from coming down as the defender moves back into the stance. The defender then steps back and the arm should end in the age-uke position with the attack above the head (or, more appropriately described as "the defender is lower than the attack"). The attacker should continue stepping and punching as the defender steps back and completes the movement. See Figures 3 and 4.
  5. Repeat, gradually increasing speed and intensity.

Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Figure 4:

Figure 5:

Note as in Figure 5 that the attacker should be aiming into the face of the defender where it is at the initial position. The final position of the defender's age-uke should simply keep the attack where it was headed, not deflecting it upwards but also not allowing it to come downard.

Please note that we should be able to apply the same principles to other techniques, such as soto-uke and uchi-uke. But, as a training tool, I think age-uke is ideal for this. For this reason, I believe this sort of practice can be very useful for a beginner and anyone interested in developing the self-defense aspects of training. Please note as well that, as structured as kihon kumite is, starting defense from a standing ("yoi") position can be considered relatively realistic for self-defense practice, as compared to starting in a "guard" position as in free-sparring. So basic sparring can actually be considered more realistic in this way.

Age-uke may not be a common technique in tournament sparring and may have limited use as a basic block applied directly as many traditional dojo teach it. But by using this type of exercise and putting some thought into it, I hope you can appreciate the value of age-uke as a training tool.

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