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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Making Use of Zenkutsu-dachi
by Tommy Pressimone

If we look at Shotokan as a mid to long range fighting system we can see similarities to Kendo and their “one strike one kill” philosophy. Stepping forward swiftly with an oi-zuki (lunge punch) intent on ending the confrontation with a single decisive blow is a common technique for the Shotokan practitioner. From here we can look at the importance of forward movement in our system. We have many other stances and all of them are also important but for me zenkutsu-dachi (front stance) can lead to a better understanding of the rest. All the stances work in conjunction with each other to create the perfect angle to put us at an advantage for that one decisive blow, while simultaneously leaving our opponent at a disadvantage. That final blow may very well have the forward direction of energy that comes from a strong zenkutsu-dachi. It is easy to pick out a Shotokan stylist by his almost trademark deep front stance and gyaku-zuki (reverse punch) or the perfect timing of his oi-zuki (lunge punch).

With that aside I would like to propose a different view on the Shotokan front stance. I would like to look at it as a key to our learning about what it is we do and the stepping stone for many other aspects of Shotokan, a platform for training if you will. It is my opinion that the front stance is an easy stance to learn thus as it is first introduced to us via the Taikyoku or Heian kata. It is also fairly straightforward and less awkward or delicately balanced as some other stances such as neko ashi dachi (cat leg stance), kokutsu dachi (back stance) or kiba dachi (horse stance) among others. Teaching a beginner the fine points of zenkutsu-dachi can, in my view, open the doors for mastering all other stances as well as learning proper punching technique and power transfer, blocking, weight distribution, centering and upper and lower body connection for the performance of strong technique to name a few. Starting with foot positioning and weight distribution we can teach the new student the purpose of a front stance and how it can direct power forward by stepping, or in a static position attempting to mimic the mass of a stepping punch by trading it for hip torque and rear leg thrust. Transferring weight into a technique is just part of the equation however. How do we do it smoothly and efficiently?

Breathing is an important factor, the breath must be kept low in the diaphragm so as not to raise the center of gravity by breathing too shallow or high in the chest, not to mention cheating ourselves of the full capacity of our lungs, but for now we’re focusing on our center. We want to move from our center, we should strive to move our body around by our center and not by just the feet or leading with the chest. I sometimes use the knot of my obi (belt) as an example. When I step toward my opponent I am looking to step into his space, I move my belly to his belly as if being pulled by the knot of my obi focusing on keeping my center and not raising up or moving with my chest. The importance of what is taught here is the basis for understanding other stances to come. How we make use of the center of gravity in a given stance is very important in controlling your movement as well as your opponents. In kumite (sparring) how can you react to, or hope to control your opponent’s movements if you can’t control your own? A better understanding of what a stance is trying to accomplish by where it’s directing its force or center of gravity may also aid in a better understanding of kata application as well as its movements.

From a zenkutsu-dachi (front stance) we next have connection to the ground which dovetails nicely with upper and lower body connections. By having the heel planted firmly on the ground we create a solid connection between the floor and the target. Some will argue that a raised heel doesn’t take power from an attack and while I may not completely disagree I will leave that for another article. For now the focus is on front stance for the beginner and I believe the stance should be learned properly first before experimenting with advancements. Moving forward while punching may not suffer from a raised heel but connecting a block to the ground, or having a solid foundation while standing static or moving back may require the planting of the heel to counter the well known law of physics that says "for every action there is a positive and equal reaction”, but like I said, that’s another article. Using jodan uke (upper level block) works well in conjunction with zenkutsu-dachi when teaching this principle. Having a partner step forward attacking with jodan oi-zuki (upper level lunge punch) the defender can step back into his own front stance blocking with an upper level block. Paying close attention not to make the common mistake of stepping back too far or shifting the weight backwards we also learn how to utilize centering and weight distribution, now putting to use some of the lesson we learned at the beginning.

In the case of a left block against a right attack the right leg would shoot back with the heel being planted firmly on the ground. Care should be taken here to “drop” into the stance rather than merely stepping backward. Stepping too much and sending the center of gravity back takes away from the forward projection of the stance, which is what front stance is about, I find this to be something easily missed and a common mistake. The planting of the rear foot/heel should be timed with the blocking arm making contact with the target to add support to the technique. I see many a trainee flailing the arms while their upper body is totally disconnected from the lower leaving the arm alone to stop the attack. Learning this from front stance allows the student to feel where the power is coming from by utilizing the rear leg and heel. Later it will be these same principles that will be applied to other stances as the student advances. Although some variation may be necessary depending on the stance the principles remain the same. After learning these principles as applied to zenkutsu-dachi applying them to other stances or areas will be easier.  

Punching is the next step and maybe the most important one in understanding the connection to the ground. Feeling the solid contact with a target and the reaction of the rear leg/heel into the ground along with the power of the rear leg thrust brings it all together. Education here comes from the use of targets and the actual feel of the transference of power into the target. Of course hip action is involved here and should be taught and stressed throughout all that I have already outlined. Learning to use the hip at this point opens the door to understanding the role of the hip structure in all our stances and movements. The use of hanmi (half facing position) should also be explained in conjunction with the blocking movements detailed above. We will get into that a bit later in this article but for now we will concentrate on upper and lower body connection.

The upper/lower body connection goes hand in hand with connection to the ground. We can have a perfect block and we can have our foot planted but that doesn’t ensure that it has the timing or the power to do the job and the same goes for our punch or strike. The upper body must work together with the lower to create the right sequence of events to maximize our efficiency. How many times have we seen trainees (or even ourselves) step out to the left or right into a stance and then let the arms fly into a blocking position? The step is made, the feet are planted, the hip goes and then the arm(s) are last. This sequence separates the movements thus breaking the connection to the power source. If the upper and lower body are working together the initial step will be smaller (by not jumping into the step) and the landing and hip action will be working together with the arms to power them into the block. This is where the explanation of hanmi and hip movement are explained to highlight the coordination of these movements.

Above we stepped back into a front stance as we performed an upper level block. We will be cocking our hips at this point (hanmi). For the beginner it is usually explained as reverse rotation and in its simplest form cocks the hip in preparation for the counter attack. Learning proper use of this now will aid in more advanced use of hip rotations and hanmi later on in the intermediate to advanced stages. I am of the opinion that hanmi is also a springload for a natural catapulting of a counterattack when used properly but again that’s another article, for now we will stick with the simple cocking of the hip. Exercises from a front stance using block and counter maneuvers work the student through connecting with the target strongly on the blocking phase while setting up a solid base from which to launch a counterstrike. Without the proper upper and lower body connection this will be weak and uncoordinated, surely not decisive. Hip movement has already been sprinkled throughout the lessons from the beginning and must be reinforced to tie everything together. An important point to make here is combining hip torque with moving the center forward to project into the target rather than just turning the hip alone.

When we step forward swiftly using a powerful oi-zuki, we have the bonus of mass behind us and we are moving our whole body forward into the target as an added extra. The support leg is driving into the ground (ground connection) as it drives all our mass forward into the target. We are utilizing what we have learned in the lessons above about breathing through our lower abdomen, keeping the center of gravity low and not raising the breathing into the chest, moving our center forward and not lunging chest first, proper timing of the technique with the target as well as keeping the rear heel on the floor. Later on as the student advances he will learn to experiment with timings and altering contact with the target and the landing of the front foot.

In the case of a reverse punch performed from a static stance we don’t have the benefit of launching the whole body forward and sending all our body mass into the target. Mastering all the above points can aid in at least mimicking some of the effects of such a punch. Proper breathing, centering, balance and weight distribution, hip action, upper/lower body connection and connection to the ground all play an important role in powering a strong gyaku-zuki (reverse punch). If these lessons aren’t learned how can one expect to get the coordination of body parts needed to launch a devastating attack? While we aren’t stepping forward with the execution of a reverse punch we can still benefit from moving the center forward in coordination with the turning of the hip into the target.

In conclusion I would say that in my opinion and in my teaching the zenkutsu-dachi (front stance) in the most important stance in Shotokan. The ease in which it allows the above lessons to be taught and learned make it a valuable tool in setting up the student for more advanced techniques and smooth transitions. The points I have outlined above are somewhat simplified for the sake of space but one can see how these principles will be important when other harder to master stances are learned. Learning how to manipulate our center of gravity and connect our technique to the ground is an important factor when faced with an opponent. Transitioning between stances depends greatly on being in control of ones center. Being firmly planted in an instant while transitioning takes a full understanding of weight distribution balance and coordination between upper and lower body as well as limbs. Again, I’ve only touched on a few important points, there is a bit more to these lessons and each can be expanded on in a never ending lesson on body movement. I love the front stance for this and feel its value is without compare.

I would just like to add that this article is in no way meant to be instruction or a “how to” on front stance. While minor points may differ from school to school, the basis remains fairly close and the principle can be applied almost anywhere. This is about principles and how I believe they apply throughout Shotokan. For me, zenkutsu-dachi is a key that unlocks many doors, how deeply you enter is up to you.