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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Norman Robinson’s Effective Karate

– Part 1


Sensei Robinson with Sensei Tanaka


Basic karate – static balance


Norman Robinson Sensei has been practicing and teaching martial arts for more than 50 years and has a number of impressive achievements behind his name. As Chief Instructor and head of the Japan Karate Shotokai organisation in South Africa, he is developing a unique brand of traditional karate. What distinguishes him from many karate practitioners is the ability to fight at distance as well as close up due to the combination of his training in shotokan as well as judo. Not for nothing was he known as the “Broom” in Japan, so adept is he at sweeps.


This is the first in a series of articles aimed at publicising the foundations of what Asai Sensei referred to as “effective karate” i.e. karate aimed at developing effective fighters. The essence of this philosophy is captured in, and our training focused on, the concept of “ikken hisatsu”.


Understanding movement requires real insight into the dynamics of technique: Correct starting and ending points (the stances), fluent transition and movement, eliminating superfluous movement, intent, effectiveness and economy of motion. This is very similar to the best sprinters using the same starting position as each other if they are to be at all competitive.


Effective karate the Norman Robinson way (which Norman Sensei will say is traditional shotokan karate) has four pillars: knee-over-toe; early preparation; posture and isolation. How integration of these leads to effective karate will be discussed in future articles.



Forward stance (zenkutsu dachi)


Modern shotokan stances are typically low, principally to develop strength. What makes a good JKS forward stance?


1. The front foot carries 60% of the weight


2. The front knee is over the ball of the front foot


3. The rear leg is flexed – not rigid as used to be taught


4. The outside edge of the front foot points directly forward


5. The rear foot is turned forward as much as possible (typically about 30 degrees out from straight forward, but not more than 45 degrees


6. The heel of the rear foot is flat. For many people this is very difficult and requires flexibility training of the ankles


7. The upper body is kept upright, with the eyes level


8. When punching, the hips are kept square i.e. facing forward in shomen


9. When blocking, the hips are at 45 degrees; in either hanmi or gyaku-hanmi, with the shoulders aligned with the hips, i.e. neither more nor less open


10. The legs are ‘solid’ and stable in all directions, especially laterally. This is achieved by exerting outward pressure that prevents the knees falling in.



Fig. 1


Why this is a good basic stance?


Developing the forward stance in this way leads to improved stability, mobility and ability to respond (Fig 1).


1.       Knee-over-toe ensures that the muscles in the legs are stressed and ready to react forwards, backwards or laterally, without having to first move into the correct position. If the knee is behind the foot then one or some combination of the following will be needed to be able to effectively move in any direction:


-           The front foot will turn out, telegraphing intention and reducing effectiveness of the adductors


-           The hips will rise, leading to loss of drive, a longer path and ‘falling’ into the next stance


-          The upper body will lean forward to generate momentum, inactivating the rear leg and reducing drive as a result


-          he front foot will pull back to establish drive, closer to the centre of gravity, in order to use body momentum to move forward.


2.       Flexing the rear leg allows proper alignment of the hips and upright body posture. A rigid back leg as seen below (Fig 2) requires a preliminary movement before any other movement can begin and tends to induce a forward lean in the upper body. Besides generating poor mechanics, this has the effect of advancing the vulnerable target area of the head closer to the opponent ahead of the hips / body.


Fig. 2


3.       The position of the rear leg and foot determines the position of the hips. A flat rear heel allows drive to be generated from the rear foot through the hips to generate additional power. For advanced karateka, pushing off the rear foot may be instantaneous in application but remains a good training aid. Correct rear leg and foot position enhance:


-          The ability to rotate the hips from hanmi to shomen or shomen to hanmi, which one should be able to do without moving the feet –simply extending or contracting the rear leg and driving or pulling back the rear hip. The rotation that accompanies the transition from hanmi to shomen should be centred on the front hip, not the base of the spine. If the rotation is around the spine, the front hip will inevitably pull back, reducing both range and power. This in turn leads to overextension of the technique, loss of balance and poor finish, which reduces continuity and flow.


-           An open rear foot results in hips being too open and no ability to drive off the back foot, resulting in the upper body being thrown forward in order to move forward.


Fig. 3


Negative effects of an open back foot:

-          Hips too open

-           Front knee collapsing

-          Back leg too straight

-           Not ready to move


4.       Correct hips require correct positioning of feet and legs. Correct hips allow maximum radius of motion without compromising posture, and allowing the karateka to close the gap on attack, or open the gap on defence and being able to move earlier than the opponent. The reason is simple: if the karateka starts from the ready position then the gap is closed before the opponent reacts, which means there is no need to over extend by leaning forward, pushing/turning the shoulder forward or pushing out the kicking leg in maegeri. Even though these techniques may land, both effectiveness and ability to follow up will be reduced.


5.        Straight limbs are rigid, and rigid does not react very quickly. Achieving lower stance heights by spreading the stance is like a giraffe drinking water – not a good place from which to attack or defend. In order to achieve the training benefits, explosive strength and flexibility through lower stances in training, it is better to simply lower the hips by bending both knees deeper rather than lengthening the stance.



Back stance (kokutsu dachi)


Back stance seems to enjoy greater emphasis in shotokan than other styles of karate. As with other stances, it has become progressively deeper with time. Whereas zenkutsu dachi could be seen as principally offensive, kokutsu dachi is typically seen as a defensive stance.  What makes a good JKS back stance?


1.       The traditional stance has 70 percent weight on the back foot. For most karateka this reduces mobility and JKS tends to use a 90:10 weight distribution. A simple test is the ability to lift the front foot without having to adjust the stance or shift the body first.


2.       The posture of the upper body must be vertical with the eyes level


3.        Rear foot needs to be at an angle of 90 degrees to the front foot, which needs to be pointed directly forward. Common faults are that the rear foot is turned out more than 90 degrees and the front foot points slightly in. Both of these indicate restricted flexibility in the groin area and ankles.


4.        The rear knee must be over the ball of the rear foot. A common fault is for the knee to fall to the inside of the foot.


5.       The front leg must be flexed, without ‘buckling’ to the inside. This allows for correct hip positioning and prevents injury to the front knee. 6. The hips should be in a natural 45 degree hanmi position and level, with the buttocks tucked in.


6.        Depending on application, the shoulders may follow the hips or be more open.


Fig. 4


Knee over toe forces the hips to be properly aligned. Both knees are flexed.

Hips are level and posture upright.


Why this is a good JKS stance?


The back stance is useful to create distance, without moving the feet, by riding an attack. Proper body posture ensures maintenance of balance during motion, leading to continuity.

Moving forwards or backwards requires contraction followed by extension, while the front hip should be driven forward at the moment of completion of technique… whether moving forwards or backwards.



Factors to ensure that it can be used effectively:


1.       Upper body kept upright throughout, maintaining body posture in transition.


2.       2. Discipline on the hikite hand is essential – don’t allow the rear hand to flare or flop


3.       Many karateka adopt a modified kiba dachi stance as back stance, with something approaching a 50:50 weight distribution. Although this might look good, it is not a good basis from which to move quickly.


Fig. 5


Modified “kiba dachi” is not a good back stance.

Difficult to move quickly from here and hips are not correctly positioned.

“No – mans land”. Vulnerable to foot sweep.



Fig. 6


Test for a good back stance – can you lift your front leg without first having to shift weight onto the back leg. This is a good position to avoid foot sweeps and be able to counter attack.


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