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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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ZENKUTSU DACHI - THE WOBBLY KNEE

By Scott Langley

The first thing that most karateka are taught is that stance is the foundation of all karate power. Its more important than upper body strength and targeting, and possibly more important than hip movement, because without a solid foundation even a strong and accurate technique can be made ineffective. However, one of the most difficult aspects of Zenkutsu-dachi is keeping the front knee from shaking and, therefore, weakening the stance. It seems a simple enough task, to keep the knee still, however, when throwing a technique at full speed and power, it often becomes a near impossible task. So it is important to identify why the knee is so out of control (all photo examples use left leg forward zenkutsu-dachi). I have found in many cases that the problem originates in the way we shift our weight from hanme (hips back) to shomen (hips square on) and back again. Many people have been taught that the back leg remains straight at all times when twisting the hips and that the pivot action takes place down the centre of gravity. This can be seen in many Karate books, where hip movement is shown pivoting along a line that runs from the top of the persons head, right down the centre of the body. However, if you pivot down the centre of the body you will find that the right side hip moves forwards, but the left side hip moves backwards (left leg forward), which obviously pushes the front knee back and forwards when you perform any hanme-shomen movement. This, then, has the effect of shaking your very foundations every time you throw a punch or perform a block. The way to overcome this problem is to pivot using an axis which allows you to rotate your hip but at the same time keep your front knee motionless (i.e. pivoting along a line that runs from just inside your left shoulder, down your left side and through your left hip). By pivoting from the left side hip it will enable hip movement without pulling and pushing the knee as the ball and socket joint of the hip allows the pelvis to rotate and open up, without affecting the front leg. This means that your whole torso will move backwards in hanme and forwards in shomen, creating greater power with increased stability. Not only do you have the twist of the hips, but you also have lateral movement backwards and forwards. Therefore, all your power and `weight' can be put behind a technique. An equally important point in stance stability is knee positioning. Many people don’t understand the way in which the knee should point, and I have seen many students with their front knee pushed out to the side – even over their little toe! This is very dangerous to your knee joint, plus it reduces the power of your techniques as the line of power is off to the side and not on target. When making a stance, you should simply start at the beginning. The front foot should be pointing perfectly forward (that is the outer edge of the foot should be straight, so in actual fact the foot is pointing slightly in), and the back foot should be pointing as much forward as possible (depending on the flexibility of your ankle). Once in this position it is easy to know where the knees should point. The knee is a hinge joint, and as such has only one way to bend; forward. So simply bend the front knee forward, don’t push or pull the knee left or right. This is the only way to maintain a triangle of power, that is, whether in hanme or shomen, the front and back knee, plus the technique all point to and converge on the target.

Even when the hip is pulled back into hanme, the back knee should still remain pointing forward. The ball and socket joint of the hip allows you to move your pelvis back, and by bending the back knee, the lower leg and knee joint are kept pointing forward, rather than pointing to the side as it does if the back leg is kept straight. And so the triangle of power is kept. The only part of your stance that moves when performing any technique is your torso and the right thigh, moving forward and back pivoting and moving laterally around the left side hip.

The final part of a correct stance is the “tucking in” of the tail bone. A lot of people tend to relax the lower back when in front stance and this tends to allow the bum to stick out. One must always, whether in Hanme or Shomen, feel like the tail bone is being “tucked in” and squeezed forward. This will allow the points of contraction (right hip when in Hanme and left hip when in Shomen) to be maintained. If one does not do this, then it puts excess pressure of the lower back and can cause problems.

Once these problems has been rectified many people then have the problem of their left knee moving left and right. When performing a technique at full speed and power it is very difficult to stop the pivoting and lateral movement of the hips from pushing and pulling the knee sideways. A common teaching method to prevent this is to have someone hold the knee steady as you practice various techniques. However, the benefits from this are often minimal, as you only become used to the pressure of your partners grip. In my experience the best way to overcome this problem is to try to mimic your partners grip on your knee by feeling as if you are slightly pushing and pulling your knee sideways when doing a technique. As your body is moving, it takes active affort to keep other parts of your body still. For example, if you were practicing left hand kizami tsuki, right hand gyaku tsuki, when in hanme (kizami tsuki) the left knee tends to move inwards as you pull the hips back, and when in shomen (gyaku tsuki) the left knee tends to move outwards with the push of the hips. To prevent this when punching kizami tsuki imagine pushing you left knee outwards, and this will "fight" against the knee wanting to move inwards, and, therefore, keep the knee still. The same is true for gyaku tsuki, except this time pull inwards instead. The principle can be used all the time regardless of technique, and if practiced slowly at first, then gradually building up speed, it will teach you to be constantly aware of the changes in pressure in your stance, adjust accordingly to maintain stability. With practice it is possible to have a foundation which maximizes your stability and at the same time increases your hip power.

I have trained with many great instructors at the JKS hombu dojo in Japan. All of them place great emphasis on stance, and the point that is constantly taught is the naturalness of karate. These sensei have trained intensively every day for most of their lives, however, they don’t have the same knee and hip injuries that many Karateka have in Europe, and this is because they concentrate on how the body works, rather than trying to understand how the technique works. Karate is the understanding of the body mechanics and the maximization of its efficiency. Once the use of the body is mastered it is easy to master any technique, and use it in a natural and safe way. So the next time your sensei says keep your front knee still, try to understand why this is important, and try to understand your body well enough to know how to do it.