Thursday, April 11, 2002

Mobility and the Snap Front Kick by Gerald Moffatt

Mobility and the Snap Front Kick by Gerald Moffatt

Date: 1999/01/10 

I had real trouble posting the previous version and I'm not sure it got through - if this is a repost I apologize. Here's the whole series in one go.


Here's another of my mini-series for your delectation and edification. Feedback, questions, comments, critiques, even flames are welcome.

There is a discussion of the Thai-style application of the front and roundhouse kicks in the February issue of Black Belt magazine which, while cursory, is a lot better than most of BB's articles. The article discusses using the lead-leg front kick either to maintain distance or to unbalance, disrupt, and set up the opponent for the powerful Thai roundhouse kick. The article also mentions the occasional use of the rear-leg front kick as a power kick. The Thai form of the lead-leg front kick is usually delivered as a thrust or even just a push - kinda, sorta a leg jab. This can be a very effective way to use the front kick. (As an aside, the article even mentions the cross-body bent-knee Thai roundhouse which lands the shin very roughly horizontally across the opponent's thigh. Great move!) The BB article and the thread on Thai kicks and its digression into oblique kicks made me want to bring up a slightly-unusual application of the good old-fashioned front kick that I think would be more popular if it were better known.

To get started I believe that there are three (rather than two) fundamental ways to deliver a front-kick: the thrust, snap, and (the less-emphasized or well-known) rising/momentum versions. I'm going to continue to neglect the thrust and rising/momentum versions (although I think they are effective) to talk about a particular way to use the snap front kick, mostly from the front leg. This kick is definitely not a finisher, even when repeatedly landed - it is a supplementary technique that must be integrated into a more extensive repertoire of hand, leg and other techniques. But it is a quite effective way to use the lead-leg front kick, especially for light- or middle-weight fighters (or any others who rely heavily on mobility as a fighting strategy). It really frustrates, wears down, breaks the rhythm of, and opens up other fighters.

Enough teasing, here's the core idea: the snap front kick is delivered low with no pause or setup, (potentially) on each and every step, and while constantly moving forward, backward, circling, or sideways (usually off the line), and without breaking off from the opponent. If you fully grasp the implications of using the front kick this way, then you can work out the details for yourself without reading further. Or you can endure the tedium while I expound on and develop the concept.

Before getting into how to apply it, let's look at a few subtleties (well, I think they're subtle) regarding how to do it. The first point is that this kick is delivered below-the-belt targeting belly, balls, thigh, knee, or shin. A second key point is that for the sake of fluidity, rapidity, and mobility there is no chambering - the kick starts from wherever the foot happens to be and the foot travls directly to its target. Yeah, I know there's a downside to this - life's full of tradeoffs. Another fluidity tradeoff is that upper body movement/contortions should be minimal, to avoid both telegraphing and over-commitment. Here's a tricky, but quite important, point: the kick is usually delivered not from an *unweighted* foot but from an *unweighting* foot; the delivery of the kick is coincident with weight transfer done for mobility reasons.

I'm going to give some exercises to develop this type of mobile snap kick starting with a childishly-simple preliminary exercise. (I presume you already know how to do a generic snap front kick.) Stand facing a full-length mirror with your feet together. Snap kick with alternate legs. Return to the original position between kicks. (For now I don't care whether you chamber or not.) Make sure you can't tell whether you are kicking or not by looking at your reflection from the waist up; I don't care how low your kick must be or how much power you must sacrifice to accomplish this. Paradoxically, in many of the exercises that follow, you should almost think in terms of how to make your snap kick weaker rather than stronger; it will help develop the other attributes of the overall technique. Later we'll look at ways to get some power back into the move, but even then it will still remain a sting technique, not a finisher. The value of using the snap kick in the way I'm in the process of describing is (mostly) not from the kick itself but from its synergy with mobility and other blows.

For the next exercise start spread your feet sideways about shoulder-width apart (a bit like an "at-ease" stance). Alternately snap kick with each leg (initially at a slow to moderate tempo) and set each foot back to the original position. Don't chamber (in the sense of bringing the kicking foot over toward the knee of the stationary leg before going forward), not even if you feel as awkward as a duck. And again I don't care how low or weak the kicks have to be. Try also to minimize rocking and tilting of the upper body. Once you get this down try speeding up the tempo (but continue to pay close attention to minimizing upper body tilting, etc.) As you speed up you will start to get the feel of kicking as the kicking foot unweights. And you may notice that the alternation of the weighting also "pre-loads" the supporting foot for the next kick - this is the dynamic part.

Now we're going to add a few additional components to the exercise (there is nothing sacred about the order in which I present them - feel free to combine them in any way that works for you. This next bit is to enhance your feel for the technique - it is not quite how it is used in a fight. Experiment with almost (don't get exaggerated about it) hopping from one foot to the other, still landing the feet in the original positions. As you do, try different amounts of bending at the knee of the leg you land on and then push-off/thrust-up from that leg as you transfer weight to the other leg and kick with the unweighting leg. The thrusting up doesn't stop when you have unweighted the leg - the leg continues to rise and becomes the snap kick all in one continuous motion. You begin to see why we don't chamber the kick. I'll come back in a while to discuss how the thrusting up increases the speed and power of the snap kick (and another way of doing it that's even faster).

Building on the previous exercise which started with your feet spread sideways shoulder-width apart, let's introduce another element. Instead of stepping/hopping from foot to foot as we deliver snap kicks replacing each foot in its original position, this time try for distance, lateral displacement, as you push off each time. The feet no longer land in the original position. Do the move purely sideways at first but eventually add a slight twist/reorientation to face your imaginary stationary opponent. With lateral displacement don't waste energy and telegraph your kicks by bobbing your centre of gravity up and down. The rule of "quiet upper body" still applies. Don't emphasize the leg that steps out - instead still focus on the push-off that will add power to the snap kick. While the kicking foot must come over a little laterally, still don't chamber it.

Next level of the exercise: This time instead of moving your foot purely sideways each time, try sideways and backwards at roughly a 45-degree angle. Experiment with the step, hop, and distance versions (and vary the angle). The 45-degree backwards version is the one most used defensively in sparring or real combat.

Next - this one is tough - try going purely backwards. I'm anticipating a bit here but have a partner help you with this one by coming forward at you (have him adjust his intensity so he doesn't overwhelm you while you're learning). The reason for the partner is that your objective is to maintain (or at least control) the distance between you and the opponent without getting run over or backing off too fast/far and losing contact. The pure backwards version is by far the toughest way to practice this - but if you get it right (and your opponent is not too fast) you should be able to neatly tap him in the belly/balls on each step for two or three moves. (If he's fast you should still land one, maybe two.) The reason you want to maintain distance is that you are not depending on the kick to seriously hurt him but to disrupt his attack and permit you to counterattack at any point. The break in your opponent's rhythm caused by your kick is only momentary - you will only be able to exploit it if you can react immediately, not if you must "re-engage" him. (In the exercise you are not yet counterattacking, but you are training yourself in distance management while highly mobile.) Depending on how much pressure your opponent puts on you, you'll probably spontaneously do the second or third step 45-degrees backwards/sideways rather than straight back.

Now try it stepping forward/sideways at a 45-degree angle. Strictly speaking each snap kick will now be a rear-leg rather than lead-leg one, but don't overpower it. The kicks should still be more flick than power. (Later we'll do it the power way, but for now the emphasis is on fluidity and mobility.) Keep working on various amounts of step, hop, distance, slide, etc. And still emphasize the push-off leg. The push-off and the kick with that same foot should be one seamless integrated move with no hesitation or discontinuity.

Now I suppose, for completeness' sake, you could also do the exercise moving straight forward. I haven't found this variant to be particularly useful. It's hard to push back a powerful (but less mobile) opponent with just flick kicks and you would soon bump into him if he didn't give ground. (Remember, we're the ones favoring mobility.) You will find that the kicks become power shots, which is OK, but isn't the mobility strategy we're working on. (The temptation to use power is particularly strong since the kicks are delivered with the rear leg.)

The next level is fairly obvious - try doing the moves in combinations and sequences, either alone or with a partner. (It all reminds me a bit of a Scots lass doing a sword dance.) From here it starts to get a little hard to describe the nuances, so I'll duck that problem for now while I figure out how to approach it and instead talk about a different aspect.

I've talked a bit about how to deliver the snap front kick, but now I want to say something about how to land it and how to step down. There are three main ways to land the snap front kick: ball of the foot (toes curled back), instep/shin and toe-point. Toepoint is risky in the dojo unless you have "toes of steel" but with shoes that aren't outrageously flimsy, the risk is small and the concentration of force on the target is high. BTW, "toes of steel" can be trained, although it doesn't seem very worthwhile if you mostly wear shoes. Also BTW, the instep can be quite vulnerable to damage even if partially protected by a shoe, although the risk is not so high as to disqualify its use. The ball of the foot is fairly safe and versatile, although you can "snag" or bend back a toe in the dojo and street use can sometimes be limited by the flexibility of your footwear.

The way you prefer to land the snap front kick can affect whether you want to use one other good method of initiating the kick. I've already talked about using a bent leg to push-off the (more-or-less flat) foot both for mobility and to launch the kick. The other method uses the calf muscles to push off and speed the kick. Instead of just pushing off flat-footed, push off with the ball of the foot. The heel leaves the ground first. Any cyclist knows that he would throw away considerable power if he didn't use ankle flexion and extension, so we should use it too. This propulsion method tends to favour the instep or toe-point methods of landing the kick, but I have known those who can use the method with the ball-of-foot striking surface. If you like this propulsive method you can augment it by landing on the ball of your foot and then (almost) setting the heel down before springing into the pushoff/kick. This engages the "stretch reflex" of the calf muscles and really adds speed and power to the kick. The main point is: don't use just your hip flexors (psoas, etc.) to lift the leg in preparation for the snap kick, explosively propel it off the floor by pushing down with the ball-of-foot (calf muscles) and/or extending the leg and "unflexing" the knee (quads, etc.). But, remember, if you do this, you mustn't squander the speed and energy by stalling or hesitating, however briefly, in chamber.

Now for the second half of the kick, the part after it lands. Some people favor actively retracting or snapping back the kick. I don't, at least not the way we're using it for mobility. There's no chamber on the way out and none on the way back. I don't like even a hint of slowness (in mobility, not the kick) from having "retracting" muscles contracted. It's part of the reason I emphasize using less rather than more power when learning. Let the kick hit and recoil/bounce-off passively while the "snap" muscles relax (actually just lose their acute tension). Then (it's continuous, without lag or hesitation) put the foot down wherever you wish it to carry you (it's not just a kick, it's also a step). The "retracting" muscles never get used or tensed, muscles are only used (lightly) to guide the foot to its landing zone on the ground. You should feel very relaxed and loose the whole time you are moving around - the kicks are just little blips or pulses in the smooth flow. Don't sacrifice fluidity to "get set" and deliver more power (you'll only violate this rule when you "shift gears" to seriously counter).

But what good are these flicky kicks? Not much, except they work. Imagine you could land a jab at will to your opponent's face - go even further and imagine it's only a slap but you can always land it. The opponent, in principle, should ignore it and walk right through it. And maybe he would, the second or third time he fights you. But right now he's distracted - the slap is nothing but what if the next one were a bilgee? Or what if the next one were a power punch? This kick is the same kind of thing to his belly or balls. It's hard for him to assess it - he just knows he's open and getting hit and that it's breaking up his attacks on you. If it was the only thing you had you'd be dead meat - but it isn't (at least, I sure hope it isn't). And even though I'm discounting its intensity, in reality, with practice, it hits hard enough that, although not usually a stopper, it sure can't be ignored. The opponent is even more aware than you are that if you "set" and deliver it hard he could take serious damage. And for you, it's great to have an uncertain, hesitant, and frustrated opponent.

Now the mobility and range parts come into it. I'm not going to try to discuss all the mobility aspects, just give some examples so you get the flavour.

I imagine your opponent to be powerful, fairly skilled, but less quick (particularly in footwork) than you. You would be reluctant to fight him in direct opposition (either because of his skill or power) and you will try to fight on the angles. Against such an opponent the main mobility variants will be the sideways and 45-degree sideways/backwards movements. You want to make your lateral moves so he must turn to face you (to bring his centreline to bear). And you want to move again, not once he has lined you up, (and certainly not after) but just as he is lining you up. At the simplest level you can "windshield-wiper" him by repeatedly crossing his centreline to the opposite side. And of course there are those little kicks on each move. (Even some WCers who are used to opponents trying to fight them from the outside lines and who are ready to realign their centrelines, are often not prepared to have to realign so frequently.) Now if you do it this simplistically for too long the opponent will read and time you, so mix up the direction changes, repeats, etc. You will also (unless you are fighting an incompetent) generally have to use your hands to help your disengagements to the outside. The possible hand moves (defensive and offensive) get so complicated, I'm not even going to try to describe them, but they are exceedingly important nonetheless. The problem you want to create for the opponent is never knowing whether to set and pound you or get ready for another movement. Even though the opponent is the aggressor and chasing you, you are in control, because with respect to mobility, you are the actor/initiator and he is the re-actor.

You are avoiding the opponent (while pecking him with those little kicks) but you are not breaking off. As long as you are emphasizing your mobility (you'll counter later) you don't want to break off or disengage but to always be tantalizingly at slightly the wrong angle or just out-of-reach (or, even better, a little closer, just at the limit of his power). And we're talking his hand power - he can't deliver a kick worth anything unless he sets. If you can lure him into overextending or leaning even slightly your little kicks will really start to hurt.

I talked about moving side-to-side and angling backwards (and there is always pure retreat backwards). Forward angling can have two purposes: getting "past" him so it takes a large-angle turn for him to realign his centreline (feel free to punch him once or twice while he's doing this - the "light" counter), or delivering the power kick/knee (or maybe big punch) surprise heavy counter. This is the safest position from which to deliver your big counterattack. But you can also counter on the other angles by uncharacteristically and unpredictably "setting" and delivering a combination (hand and/or foot) - don't stay too long or stop to admire your work - and immediately resume the mobility game. You must set, deliver your combo, and then move off just as he's bringing his heavy guns to bear. Easy to describe, but it takes a lot of experience not to tarry too long.

Up to now I've talked as if you snap kick on every move and that's exactly the way you should do it in solo and partner practice and in sparring the first few hundred times. I joke, but the point is that only when you feel you could kick on every move (even if pressed by a formidable opponent) should you permit yourself sometimes not to. It's not just for the sake of always being able to kick - you will have trained yourself in lightness of foot and mobility. You will never feel as though you are trapped (even briefly) with your weight on the wrong leg pinning you to the floor, while some heavy-hitter unloads on you.

To close this series out I'm going to touch on a pot-pourri of topics.

The first is broken rhythm. At the simplest level this consists in making each step-and-kick in a varying tempo, such as 1…2…3…4,5…6…7,8…9 etc. Now here's the tricky part, even for such a simple scheme. Since the opponent is generally attacking while you are moving, the opponent may set the basic timing rather than you. But even if he sets the rhythm you can break it by occasionally doing a double beat, beat-and-a-half, etc. If you're even slicker, you can attempt to take over the primary rhythm - since the opponent is the aggressor this takes considerable finesse. It's sort of like leading when dancing.

The other way you can break the rhythm as well as punish him is by occasionally setting and delivering a power combination. In terms of footwork rhythm this is nearly equivalent to a musical full stop (even if it involves a kick or two).

Now I'm going to ignore hand combinations and hand/foot combinations to talk just about the more limited (but hopefully more manageable) topic of integrating power kicks into the process. When using the lead-leg snap front kick for mobility the rear leg is generally available as a power followup instead of just continuing with flick kicks. The threat of a power kick followup to the flicky snap kicks is one consideration that prevents the opponent from throwing caution to the winds when turning to face us or chase us. And while the power kick can be a front kick (snap, thrust, or momentum) it doesn't have to be - for instance, a Thai round kick also works well. The 1-2 foot combination is analogous to a hand combo of jab/straight or jab/cross.

But there can be some problems with distance management when integrating power front kicks from the rear leg - if you have maintained contact during your maneuvers, you may be just a little too close. I find that power knees are often the better choice. However, the distance may still be too far for a rising knee. The knee strikes that seem to work best are the forward-thrusting knee and the roundhouse knee. These are especially good choices when you do a forward-sideways step as a counterattack rather than for pure mobility. (And usually don't stop with a singleton knee kick - if you land a hard one go to plum position and give him a few more. Maybe throw in a few elbows for good measure. Then - if he isn't finished - push out, but don't lose contact, and resume the mobility game.)

I want to talk about one footwork move that integrates beautifully into the snap-kick mobility strategy (although it also has many other applications): the scissors lead-leg change. The basic mechanics of the scissors step are simple - from, say, a front stance, change leads by simultaneously moving each leg, landing in a front stance with opposite lead. On completion you have moved neither forward or backward. Try to be light and smooth, and just skim above the floor, without too much up-and-down bobbing of the upper body when you unweight. This move has a lot of uses, such as, changing leads for mobility (e.g., to circle in the opposite direction), retracting the lead leg from a roundhouse kick (or a shoot), or setting up an "instant-return" power kick (front, round, or knee) from the rear (former lead) leg. (And there are even some good wrestling moves based on it.) There are any number of other footwork moves that also work well with mobility, but I don't want to digress into a general discussion of footwork and kick setups.

We'll end with one modification of the lead-leg snap front kick for use at closer than ideal range. To deliver a snap front kick close, really curl your whole back (curl - don't lean back and don't bend forward either) and tilt your pelvis up while bringing your knee high and close to your chest (actually it's not this exaggerated - I'm giving a training description). It feels almost as if you were trying to curl your pubis up to your chin, rather than your chin forward or down. The lift of the knee is not so much to target the kick high on the opponent but to fold the knee a bit more tightly when the opponent is just a little closer than optimum (if he's definitely too close, you're asking to be jammed or dumped on your ass by trying this.) Because of the curl of your back your hands can continue to engage the opponent's and there is not that much telegraphing. (Some telegraphing is unavoidable, but it's way less than if you lean forward or back. Distracting the opponent by keeping his hands busy definitely helps). My personal "feel" for the right range is about when my and my opponent's slightly-bent lead arm would just cross. No chambering and don't hesitate or "pose" with your knee high - the foot accelerates directly from floor to target. Try kicking a wall, progressively inching closer each time, in order to initially "tune" the technique in terms of distance, height (and power) - afterwards refine it with a partner.

Some day I'll describe how to (try to) thwart the snap-front-kick mobility strategy, but for now I'm done.

Gerald Moffatt


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Please check out 2 other articles by Gerald Moffatt:

  1. Headbutts or How to be a Nutter by Gerald Moffatt
  2. Iron Palm - A Simplified Method by Gerald Moffatt

Iron Palm - A Simplified Method by Gerald Moffatt

Iron Palm - A Simplified Method by Gerald Moffatt

Date: 1997/05/18

In response to several requests I am posting a simplified method of iron palm. I will post additional installments as my time permits. I would be interested in comments, critiques, even flames. :-)


This is the first installment of a series presenting a simplified guide to the iron palm. It uses a combination of western and Chinese methods. No book or video, let alone newsgroup posting, is sufficient to properly learn the full technique - that takes expert personal instruction. Hell, would you think someone could learn to ride a bike or fly-cast from printed instructions?

I am not an expert in iron palm, but I would classify myself as a competent journeyman. I will focus on the core "big" iron palm using the full palm and fingers although I will also comment on the "small" iron palm, and other delivery variants, as well as other different striking surfaces, such as palm heel, backhand, etc. I will say only a little about breathing and dit da jow. The breathing is important - the dit da jow less so. The method I use is derived from the Pak Sing Fut Ga substyle of Choy Li Fut.

The reason I emphasize incorporating western methods is that a lot of the trappings of iron palm are traditional and it is somewhat unclear whether they are really necessary. (I am reminded of the statement ascribed to a Borneo chieftain, "It has been conclusively proved by hundreds of experiments that beating drums will restore the sun after an eclipse.")

The iron palm is ultimately a "power slap" and derives much of its power from simultaneously combining two power generation techniques from the martial arts: torquing/rotation of the hips and the body drop. These are the engines of the technique; the delivery system is the whipping motion of the arm. The objective is very high hand speed - this explains the similarity to the baseball throw.

Most martial artists are familiar with hip rotation as a method of generating power from the large muscle groups of the body - the body drop seems less well known. The body drop is used in the short punch of Chinese martial arts. An explanation of the body drop follows.

The body drop has two subtechniques: the knee buckle and the abdominal crunch. The first part, the knee buckle, is well explained in the booklet Bruce Lee's 1 and 3 Inch Power Punch, James W. DeMile, 3rd ed., Tao of Wing Chun Do Publications, 1979.

Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Step the right foot back about one foot or so (depending on your body size). Both feet point roughly straight ahead (this is for training, not fighting). The heel of the rear foot should be slightly elevated (although some people leave it flat). The knees are just barely bent. Suddenly let your knees relax and buckle, dropping your body mostly down by several inches but also a bit forward. The heel of the rear foot lifts as the body drops. You should bend the rear knee a little more than the forward knee. This will have the effect of more weight shift to the forward leg as well as some rotation of the hips. The rear knee will come partially over towards the side of the lead knee (but not exaggeratedly so).

The abdominal crunch is similar to the training exercise that is performed supine, except now we perform it standing. It is not like a sit-up. Think in terms of trying to touch your chin to your pubic symphysis, resulting in a uniform arch in your back (i.e., no reverse curve in the small of the back). The recti abdominii are strongly tensed, yet most other muscle groups stay fairly relaxed, especially the shoulders which must stay dropped. The tensing of the stomach muscles is a short explosive pulse, not a sustained contraction. The breathing is important here. During the contraction pulse, expel your breath (not all of it) leaving your chest rather concave and hollow, and your belly somewhat distended and full. As a result of this pulsed abdominal crunch your head and shoulders will come forward. Augment this forward movement with a slight additional bending from the hips and waist.

Practice integrating these two movements. As you master them, you have only to add the arm and hand techniques to be able to develop the basics of the Chinese short punch. In the next installment we will start adding additional aspects of the iron palm.

Date: 1997/05/19

This is the second installment of a series presenting a simplified guide to the iron palm. In this installment I will discuss hand conditioning for the iron palm. I will post additional installments as my time permits. I would be interested in comments, critiques, even flames :-)


The key point about hand conditioning is *go slow* and don't overdo it. If you are training by yourself without guidance by an experienced sifu *go even slower*! The line between strengthening the hands and injuring or deforming them from repeated trauma is a fine one. This is especially true for impact exercises. If you overdo it, you may impair the mobility and dexterity of your hands and set yourself up for later problems such as arthritis from joint inflammation, etc. Even for martial arts, using the hand to grasp is at least as important as using it for striking. Loss of hand sensitivity will impair both ordinary daily activities (e.g., writing, picking your nose) and your martial arts.

I believe that ordinary western methods of strengthening the hands without impact exercises will go a long way towards developing an iron palm. These include the various hand grippers and squeezing exercises. I also recommend strengthening the forearms and wrists with wrist rollers, etc. Finger pushups are OK if approached slowly and progressively. The key point about hand conditioning for iron palm is that strengthening involves more than an increase in muscle strength. Sinews, tendons, ligaments, and fascia must be strengthened and this is a slower process than building muscle. Bone density will also increase from a regimen of exercise continued over a long period. The process of strengthening consists of the stimulus of training followed by time for recovery and response - be sure to leave sufficient time between training sessions or you will tear down rather than build up.

The impact methods include thrusting and striking. Thrusting consists of plunging the extended hand into a bucket of granular material. The bucket is supported on a sturdy low table or bench (a bit more than knee height). The granular material can include a progression through a mixture of black and green peas, BBs, gravel, marbles, iron filings, and ball bearings. I personally think the peas are good enough - they also seem to be easier on the skin leaving a "soapy-feeling" residue. (Avoid iron filings. Despite iron's association with the technique's name, filings really tear the skin up and slivers stick in, etc. Some fanatics even heat the iron. That isn't training - it's masochism!) The thrust is performed downwards with the wrist straight, the fingers together, and the thumb tucked alongside (somewhat like a karate nukite strike). After the strike the fingers are curled closed as a resistance exercise. At first the thrusts need not be full speed or powerful - slowly build up to it. Traditionally the technique is performed in a horse stance. (Just a tip. Sweep up afterwards. If the little peas, ball bearings, etc. get scattered about, they hurt like hell when stepped upon in bare feet.)

If you have access to dit da jow, use it according to instructions. The hype is that dit da jow, will soothe the skin, prevent or relieve bruises, relieve congestion, prevent blood clots, and even toughen and harden the skin, sinews, and bone. Maybe. To quote my sifu (who was also a herbalist), "Or you could use Absorbine Jr." One funky old book on iron palm I have recommends "sipping hog's blood on alternate days" during training and abstaining from all sex. Hmm....

I will defer discussion of the striking methods until later since they must be performed in conjunction with other aspects of the iron palm technique.

In the next installment I will discuss wrist snap.

Date: 1997/05/22

This is the third installment of a series presenting a simplified guide to the iron palm. In this installment I have added some additional material regarding hand conditioning and some thoughts on chi. I then discuss wrist snap for the iron palm. I will post additional installments as my time permits. I would be interested in comments, critiques, even flames :-)


I should add one item to the previous installment regarding hand conditioning. As thrusting training continues, separate the fingers a bit rather than keeping them in the nukite position. In fact, sometimes hyperextend the fingers when thrusting. This helps to strengthen the finger extensors, an often underdeveloped small muscle group. When doing this, some people find it helpful to think in terms of chi flowing from their fingertips. Finger extension or flowing chi - pick whatever explanation suits you. Try to think of chi only as an explanatory mechanism - not something esoteric and mystical. (As an aside, western physics required the "kinda mystical" ether as a propagation medium for electromagnetic waves before Einstein developed the distortion of space-time as an alternative explanation. The four differential equations of Maxwell for "electromagnetic propagation through the ether" still are very mainstream physics even today, as anyone who has designed a wave guide will tell you. Nowadays, such concepts of physics as "string theory" are far removed from everyday experience and are certainly not directly demonstrable. Accordingly, do not lightly discard concepts such as chi - evaluate such concepts instead by their ability to unify, explain, predict, and control a range of phenomena in a given domain. I recommend taking such an "operationalist" view of chi rather than characterizing it as true or untrue.)

Wrist snap movements form another component of the iron palm (and of other techniques from Chinese martial arts). These techniques may be unfamiliar to some martial artists, particularly those from schools that keep the wrist rigid and straight for most blows. There are three primary sets of complementary pairs of wrist snap techniques:

  1. flexion and extension
  2. ulnar and radial deviation
  3. overturning and its reverse

To perform flexion and extension of the wrist, first place your arm in front of you with the palm facing the floor and the wrist straight. Extend the wrist by bending the hand upwards; flex the wrist by bending the hand downwards. Now perform the exercise slightly differently. Extend your arm with the hand flat as before, but this time leave the fingertips and elbow relatively fixed in space and achieve the wrist bends of flexion and extension by alternatively moving the wrist up or down. Next perform the same wrist movements with a *snap* from fully flexed to fully extended and vice versa. The extension snap, in particular, is used for some types of iron palm. Both of these wrist snap movements are the basis of some blocks in various styles of kung fu including the "fish hand" alternate blocks in which the flexion/extension wrist snaps are performed side-to-side rather than up-and-down.

To perform radial and ulnar deviation of the wrist, first place your arm in front of you with the wrist straight and the hand flat in a vertical plane. Your thumb, if extended, would point straight up . Radial deviation of the wrist is performed by pointing the fingers somewhat upwards up with the hand still in a vertical plane, ulnar deviation by pointing the fingers somewhat downwards. Now perform this exercise again slightly differently. Extend your arm with the hand flat as before, but this time leave the fingertips and elbow relatively fixed in space and achieve the wrist bends of ulnar and radial deviation by alternatively moving the wrist up or down. Next perform the same wrist movements with a snap. Most people find getting good "deviation snaps" more difficult than for flexion and extension - it takes considerable practice. The radial deviation snap, in particular, is used for some types of iron palm as well as for the short punch . Both of these wrist snap movements are also the basis of some fairly uncommon blocks in various styles of kung fu, although the static, non-snapped wrist positions are widely used in Chinese blocks.

It is possible to combine these two types of wrist snap. The combination of wrist extension and radial deviation, especially, is the basis of some powerful strikes and blocks, including some iron palm strikes.

Now for wrist overturning. This is the "pie-in-the-face" technique. Stand in front of a fairly high bench or counter (roughly level with your navel). Place the back of your hand flat on the counter. Your elbow is comfortably bent. Turn your hand over in one smooth movement so that the palm is flat on the counter. Palm overturning is the key movement for several varieties of iron palm, including "big" iron palm. Now reverse the movement so that you return the back of your hand to the counter. This movement is the basis of the "backhand" iron palm. Practice the forward movement with some snap, but don't hit the counter too hard. When you snap your palm over, don't just turn it - imagine that you have a runny pie on top of your hand and you must flip it over without spilling it until it lands upside down. The reverse movement should not be performed with snap unless some type of padding is used. That will be discussed in the next installment on impact training methods.

Date: 1997/05/24

This is the fourth installment of a series presenting a simplified guide to the iron palm. In this installment I discuss the baseball throw and horizontal slapping. In the next installment I will discuss vertical slapping. I will post additional installments as my time permits. I would be interested in comments, critiques, even flames :-)


In this installment I will talk a little about the baseball throw movement and also discuss impact training by slapping horizontal bags.

Most people are familiar with the overhand throw of a fastball. I just want to make a few remarks on the mechanics of the movement. A fastball has great speed; a good pitcher can achieve hand speeds and therefore ball speeds of 40 metres per second (about 90 mph). The great speed of the ball and the hand comes from many sources:

  1. Weight shift to the rear leg and back to the front leg
  2. Torquing of the hips
  3. Stretching and subsequent contraction of the major and minor muscle groups involved in the throw
  4. Accelerating the hand over a long distance
  5. Whipping the arm
  6. Some degree of abdominal-crunch type snap (some pitchers do - some don't)
  7. Follow-through

The value of item 3 above is that the muscles are first dynamically stretched which results in their subsequent contraction being considerably stronger - the physiology and kinesiology of this phenomenon is well-established. It also ensures that the muscles contract through their full range, contributing their force for a longer distance.

Also contributing to the distance to accelerate the ball is item 4, because the hand is accelerated over virtually the entire perimeter of a large 360-degree circle.

Arm whip, item 5, causes the elbow to lead the throw, with the hand left behind and the wrist extended. Then the wrist and hand catch up and the wrist flexes.

How does follow-through, item 7, help speed? After all, the ball can't accelerate after it leaves the hand. Follow-through works by ensuring that no braking starts prematurely before the ball has left the hand. (In terms of baseball, we want to avoid actions like the batter's check-swing.)

Now let's move on to horizontal bag slapping. This is the main traditional Chinese exercise for developing the iron palm. For equipment, you will first need a very sturdy low table to support the slapping bag. The slapping bag should be made of canvas or other strong material (I like ballistic or cordura nylon because they are less abrasive to the skin). The bag should be at least 12 by 16 inches, in a pillow shape - a bit larger is better (up to, say, 16 by 24), but the problem is that it is amazing how much material it takes to fill a large bag to the required uniform thickness of about 3 inches. The bag can be filled with peas, BBs or other granular material. Peas are a good start; BBs are too hard for beginners and for any but experts when performing the backhand slap. Avoid any filling that will pack and become rigid - the bag should always have some "give." For the same reason don't overfill the bag. (By the way, some materials like peas break up and will eventually have to be replaced.) The top of the bag should be about level with your navel when you stand in a not-too-deep square horse. Also, make sure the table is supported on a solid floor - otherwise, for instance, the thumping of the bag will drive your neighbours crazy in the apartment below.

To perform the training, stand in front of the slapping bag in a shallow square horse. (You can also train in a one-foot-forward stance, switching leads for each hand. This involves slightly different body mechanics. The square horse is traditional. Start with it first, and try the other stance later if you wish.) Raise your hand in front of you with the hand and fingers hanging down relaxed (almost, but not quite, limp) and the wrist flexed. The back of your wrist is about level with your forehead, your elbow is bent a little, and your thumbnail is about 12 inches or so in front of your nose.

Slap down onto the bag. The shoulder drops a little, the elbow starts down, and the hand is left behind with the wrist going into extension (passively from the acceleration, not from deliberate muscle contraction.) At the end of the movement, the entire palm and fingers land flat on the bag, with the wrist in extension. As you do it, the legs dip a little and there is the explosive abdominal contraction just as the hand is landing. The feeling is very much of "throwing" your hand onto the bag, as if someone asked you to throw a rock as deeply as possible into the mud at your feet. It should not have a tense, muscular feel like pounding your fist on a table. Do not "muscle" the slap - think in terms of a baseball whip, not a shot-put thrust. Also, let the bag stop your hand - do not decelerate in a misguided attempt at "focus."

When you start, perform the movements at slower speed and increase speed in steps once you have gotten the feel of the movement (To continue the baseball analogy, do a lazy warmup throw, not your best fastball.) The other reason for building up slowly is that your hand will sting a lot after a fast slap.

As you progress, experiment with slightly different methods of landing the palm. Besides the all-at-once flat palm, you can slightly "roll" the palm on as it lands from wrist to fingertips or vice-versa. The difference is subtle, not exaggerated. You can also experiment with slight "cupping" of the palm, fingers together or slightly spread, etc. Don't be afraid to make adjustments in order to personalize and tailor the technique so it works best for you.

There are other methods of striking with the palm which may also be trained on the slapping bag, including the full palm-heel, the part of the palm heel in line with the little finger, and a shuto-style chop (except with wrist snap, not a rigid wrist). The main points about each of these methods compared to the slap method described above, is the alignment of the hand on impact (various degrees of extension and radial deviation) and the fact that the wrist snap is now deliberately performed rather than just a passive result of acceleration. Although there is an explosive muscular toggling of the wrist from flexion to extension, the rest of the movement still includes the whip of the arm and the throwing of the hand. Don't perform the techniques like a focussed karate shuto (which is a perfectly good technique, but isn't iron palm).

The backhand slap is performed by throwing the back of the hand onto the bag. It is usually trained as a followup after a palm slap. The hand is lifted up from the bag (just a few inches in the beginning, eventually building up to head height), the hand is turned over and the back of the hand is "flopped" onto the bag. (It's a whipping "power" flop, though.) The movement is done with a relaxed wrist, although there is a little tensing on impact. The problem is that the back of the hand is less padded than the palm and the metacarpal bones and other structures can be easily injured if training is too aggressive. Take a long time (if ever) to build up to full reverse slaps that rise to head height before heading back down. Be sure to perform any reverse slap by moving the hand in an elliptical loop (it isn't really a circle), rather than up and down in a linear fashion.

Last, and IMHO, definitely least, are the "dotting" methods of iron palm. I almost never do these, so I will only discuss them in passing for the sake of completeness. In the dotting method the blow lands on the bag with the fingertips strongly curled, and with the wrist fully extended. The position is essentially that of the tiger claw of many kung fu styles. I think this is a wonderful way to break fingers unless the blow is focussed rather than thrown onto the bag. I also find that strong forearm contractions inhibit developing the relaxed whipping motion of true iron palm. It is claimed that those who train this method can deliver it as a tiger claw, a nukite (spear-hand thrust), or a "kinda, sorta" power biljee. I can't.

Date: 1997/05/28

This is the fifth installment of a series presenting a simplified guide to the iron palm. In this installment I discuss training on the heavy bag as well as some variants on delivery methods for the iron palm. In the next installment I will discuss some fighting applications of iron palm. I will post additional installments as my time permits. I would be interested in comments, critiques, even flames :-)


In this installment I will talk about training the iron palm on the heavy bag. The heavy bag permits delivering several types of iron palm on a vertical surface. This facilitates incorporating the full baseball whip of the arm. It also allows more realistic simulation of delivering the blow against an opponent. Lastly, it permits practicing the iron palm in combination with other blows, such as standard punches. Traditional Chinese methods of training iron palm usually under-emphasize striking vertical bags, although they are not entirely neglected..

We'll begin with the slap version of the "big" full-circle iron palm. Adopt a one-foot-forward stance in front of the bag. The exact foot position will vary depending on your style of martial arts and personal preference. Deliver a slap against the bag using a full 360-degree baseball type whipping motion. The hand strikes the bag with the wrist fully flexed and the fingers pointing roughly upwards. The hand lands a bit higher than your shoulder (although it can be varied from head to solar plexus height). The elbow is slightly bent. Keep the elbow and shoulder down. This movement uses arm whip and hip rotation.

Next add some body drop movement just as the blow lands. You will find that this causes your hand to drop several inches on impact. The effect is like throwing a pie in someone's face and then "smearing" it in by moving your hand downwards. These actions cause just the right amount of tensing so that the palm lands with something between "focus" and pure momentum. With sufficient practice, the amount of tensing can be used to "tune" the "penetrating power" of the blow. The closest western physical explanation I can find is "impedance matching."

When you combine these mechanisms together properly, the palm will land with an explosive bang on the bag (and not just from trapped air causing a sharp slapping sound). When you don't, it will be a much more mushy hit. The iron palm is a culmination technique and incorporates many other subsidiary techniques. Getting them integrated, timed, and sequenced just right takes practice. When you don't get it right, it's like firing the third stage of a rocket before the second stage.

You will find that even more power can be generated by moving your forward foot (say, the left) a bit forward diagonally to the eleven o'clock position as your hand starts to move forward.

Now although big-circle iron palm is extremely powerful, a horrible truth may be beginning to dawn on you. You are never going to be able to land this blow frontally on any opponent whose reflexes are even marginally faster than those of a three-toed sloth. It is the ultimate telegraphed technique (here's the's the pitch). The opponent can roll a "J," write his mother, and still have time to stop-hit you. You should mostly use the big-circle version only in training to develop maximum power.

We will examine using the iron palm in actual fighting in the next installment. For now, let's look at less extreme versions of the technique. These mainly use the approach of making the circle smaller or using only a portion of the circle. There are, however, some subtle changes in the technique because of this.

Practice the medium-circle as if you had to throw a baseball without your hand ever travelling below your waist. Next add the additional restriction of moving the circle forward, as if there were a rule that your hand couldn't go behind your shoulder during the movement. With practice the medium-circle iron palm will still generate considerable power. Learning how to develop power over less than a 360-degree arc is best learnt with small-circle iron palm and then retroactively applied to medium-circle iron palm. However, you can try it now by starting the palm from a position near your right ear. Just be sure to keep the "feel" of an arc and the whip; don't let it become a palm-thrust type of move.

The small-circle iron palm uses a lot of "pie-throw" movement - hand overturning. Put your hand in front of you palm up, fingers almost touching the bag. Your elbow is down and fairly strongly bent, about 90 degrees. Now "throw the pie" onto the bag and smear it down using body drop. You will probably find that you use more body drop and not as much hip torquing. At close range you will also find that your body drop puts you a bit beside the bag rather than purely in front of it and your palm is hitting off-centre (compared to you, not the bag). This is correct. The other thing that will happen is that you may find a lot of shoulder roll or snap coming into the movement. That, too, is OK. In the ultimate small circle, the hand never loses contact with the bag during the palm overturning.

With all sizes of the circle you may find that the windup portion becomes less apparent with practice, and becomes only a vestigial remnant or disappears altogether when you use the technique in actual combat. Different people use different proportions of whip, body drop, hip torque, etc. depending not only on the size of the technique but also body type and personal preference. For instance, heavy powerful men often use a lot of body drop; lighter men a lot of arm whip. I should also point out that most martial artists only practice iron palm on one side of their body. There are many hokey explanations for this (e.g., fear of "accidentally" killing someone) but I think the main reason is lack of sufficient coordination on the non-dominant side. How well can you throw a baseball left-handed?

I will have a little to say later about the wrist-snap rather than slap types of iron palm. For now, I want to mention the other delivery techniques of sidearm and underarm iron palm, as well as backhand slapping.
The side-arm variant is performed with the type of arm whip you would use to skip a stone over the water. The slap is delivered to one side of you with the fingers roughly horizontal. It can be performed with the arm nearly fully extended or more strongly bent. This method favours using a lot of hip torquing and little or no body drop.

The underarm palm is delivered using an arm motion similar to the softball throw. The striking surface is usually the palm to the groin or lower belly, but the back of the hand can be used instead. Lots of hip torque, no body drop.

The backhand iron palm can be delivered with a motion similar to most backfist strikes. Instead of focussing, keep it loose and whippy. There is a rotary vertical backfist that is a specialty of Choy Li Fut, which is often combined with trapping, etc. This version works extremely well in combination with the iron palm backhand.

Date: 1997/05/31

This is the sixth and last installment of a series presenting a simplified guide to the iron palm. In this installment I discuss using iron palm is sparring and combat and speculate on how it works. I would be interested in comments, critiques, even flames.

Good luck with your training

Gerald Moffatt.


In this last installment I will talk about using the iron palm in sparring and combat. I will concentrate on the "slap" versions or iron palm because they are the purest forms and also because they are somewhat more difficult to apply. I also want to briefly discuss the "snap" versions, including their use as blocks as well as blows.

First, I will say a little about targets and speculate on why iron palm works. The primary targets for slapping iron palm are discontinuities in tissue density within the opponent's body. These discontinuities are most pronounced for hollow body organs. The best targets are the lungs (especially the upper lobes, but I'm not sure why), but also the kidneys, heart, and bladder. For some reason, the stomach does not seem especially susceptible. These targets have been empirically confirmed as best, albeit incidentally, from practitioners' experience using slapping iron palm.

You may be wondering why a slap that makes contact over a large area on the opponent's body does not spread and dissipate its force and have little effect. The following explanation is suggestive and metaphorical, not definitive, but I think the reasoning is not entirely specious. The slap seems to propagate a hydrodynamic wave within the opponent's body with energy dissipated at points of reflection of the energy. (Yes, I know that the hand velocities are far below the threshold to initiate true shock waves; even most handgun bullets are too slow.) What I think probably happens is that a displacement wave travels through the opponent's body and internal tissues are overextended and ruptured near the internal density discontinuity where propagation velocity changes and tissues are less supported on one side. By way of analogy, compare this to a chunk of glass spalling off a window on the **opposite** side of a hit from a BB rifle. The tissue damage would happen over an internal area comparable to the "palm imprint." The ability to "couple" the energy of the palm strike to the opponent's body is dependent on the force-displacement curves for both the deceleration of the blow and the corresponding "sponginess" of the opponent's tissues. Producing this match over a hollow organ would require a fairly large area of contact. This is derived from the concept of impedance matching. The snap versions of iron palm have a much more focussed (high force - short distance) deceleration pattern and are better used against strong but rigid body parts, such as collar bones. In this case, impedance matching requires that snap versions of iron palm use a much smaller contact area, such as the base of the palm on the little finger side. This also produces a stress concentration effect. For these reasons snapping iron palm has less "penetrating power" than slapping iron palm.

Turning to applications of iron palm, I have already said that landing the large-circle slap version frontally is very difficult. I suppose it could be used a finishing blow against a dazed opponent. The main way of using the big-circle slap is "pull and step in." If both you and your opponent are standing in a left-foot-forward stance, you would first grab the opponent's left wrist with your left hand. You could initiate this or it might, for instance, occur in response to an opponent's jab. The Chinese name for the grab is "lop sau." You pull the opponent's arm forward, down and diagonally across his body (using "jing"), while using the pull to assist making a full step in with your right leg to the outside of the opponent. You generally must twist into a square horse (i.e. if you were originally facing "north" you are now facing "west" in a square horse).. The opponent is usually somewhat bent over from the pull. Deliver the slapping iron palm to a preferred target on the opponent's back (generally lungs or kidneys). This is a finishing blow. Nothing will happen for a few seconds and then the opponent will drop like a stone. If the lungs were targeted, he may cough up some blood. (If you aren't sure you nailed him, you can follow up with uppercuts, etc. or go to his back, throw him down, choke him out, etc.). BTW, there are escapes from this (indeed, from any) attack.

Instead of attempting an exhaustive list of sequences for the small-circle and medium-circle iron palm, I will instead give a key rule and a few examples. The key rule (it's more than just a rule of thumb) in applying medium and small circle slapping iron palm is that contact must be made with the opponent prior to launching the blow. (Once you get good enough you can violate this principle on occasion. As Bertrand Russell observed, "All generalizations are false, including this one.")

At the lower level, this is similar to the boxing adage of never leading with your right. The iron palm can be used after an introductory blow such as a left jab, or a block with the off hand (your block and blow are usually simultaneous, not sequential, in accordance with Chinese boxing precepts).

The higher level (with probably wider applicability) is to launch the iron palm after a block or blow with the same hand. This is analogous to hooking off the jab, and there are a large number of iron palm combinations built on this. For example, you land a right vertical fist to your opponent's chest or floating ribs. Withdraw your hand and relaunch it using a medium or small circle to deliver a slapping iron palm over the upper lobe of the opponent's left lung. This move (and variations) is one of my favorite close-in techniques. I will list a few variations and comments:

  • note the similarity to the Wing Chun running punch or the Choy Li Fut rolling backfist
  • the same-hand strikes can be sustained (in principle, indefinitely) by continuing after the first slap as a sequence of backhand slapping (perhaps to the right side of the opponent's neck) followed by the palm to his upper left lung.
  • the sequence can be embedded in a larger combination. For instance it could have started with your left jab. Then the right punch and right slap. There might be an right elbow strike after the slap. The elbow strike could be followed with right backhand iron palm, etc. Long single-arm sequences can be developed, although, of course, only subsections would be used in a real fight. For recovery after an elbow strike, the backhand slap (delivered like a near-vertical backfist) is a very handy alternative to using a blow with the opposite arm to recentre yourself.
  • Instead of starting with a vertical punch, you might have used a same-hand palm-up block (taun-sao), then the slap. This version gets a lot of "pie-in-the-face" overturning into the slap.
  • a popular followup to the slap is a push with the same hand. This can get you back to longer range or it can become a tai-chi type of uprooting.
  • The punch, slap, push from the same hand can be a progressive entry or closing-the-distance maneuver. One use of this particular progressive entry sequence is to make a full right step across your opponent's body, ending with osoto-gari or the roughly equivalent shuai-chiao move.
  • it is clearly possible to insert checking and trapping into the sequences.
  • the initial contact with the opponent can be very brief. The hand can be used during the fight (amongst other purposes) like a probing feeler or antenna. If it touches the opponent it instantly recoils (as if it touched a hot iron) and then strikes (this is best performed as small-circle slap).

It is possible to substitute the snapping versions of the iron palm into the combinations. The snapping versions tend to be a bit more linear and less flowing, but, say, a snapping palm heel to the neck or collar-bone is a good alternative to the slap over the heart/lung.

There are also sequences that can be developed off the sidearm or underarm slap. The side-arm slap lends itself well to tai-chi uprooting or to transitioning to waist-encircling movements (clinches) that lead to grappling continuations. The snap version of the bent-elbow sidearm delivered just over the xiphisternum or solar plexus is very powerful also. (The best short-snap version conforms to the "contact before strike" rule - the fingertips touch the opponent and linger there from milliseconds to several seconds. Then the wrist suddenly toggles and snaps. The blow can even be repeatedly pumped. This is a wonderfully low-profile low-visibility blow for dropping aggressive drunks. Beware - they may "power puke.")

Two examples of followups after the underhand iron palm to the groin:

  • rotate off the elbow to iron palm to the chest. This is big-circle iron palm. It also regains fighting position.
  • go for a single-leg wrestling pickup.

Lastly, I want to talk about snapping iron palm as an adjunct to some blocks. Try the following drill to develop them. Put both hands loosely-open in front of your chest. Your elbow is bent a bit more than 90 degrees. For now, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and knees straight.

Perform a snapping iron palm with your right hand ending diagonally just in front of your left hip. Your hand is roughly horizontal, palm down, with your fingers pointing to the side (and a bit up), not forward. The striking surface is the palm heel on the pinky side (or the full palm heel).

If you next perform the technique adding body drop (especially the knee-dip, but little or no ab crunch) and a bit of twisting of the torso, you will find that the end point is at a level just below your crotch. By slightly exaggerating the move, the base of your thumb could touch your knee on the opposite side. This block can be lightning fast yet very punishing against low-line strikes to your torso (including kicks) without overcommiting yourself. Recover your hand to fighting position instantly after landing the block. When you stand in a one-foot-forward stance, perform this block mainly with the rear hand. This avoids exposing your upper line by moving your forward hand to block (although it can punch simultaneously with the rear hand block, if required).


  • Posted to Usenet's newsgroup rec.martial-arts. Archived with kind permission.
  • Posted 10/16/13 as of  4/11/02 mirroring
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Please check out 2 other articles by Gerald Moffatt:

  1. Headbutts or How to be a Nutter by Gerald Moffatt
  2. Mobility and the Snap Front Kick by Gerald Moffatt

Headbutts or How to be a Nutter by Gerald Moffatt

Headbutts or How to be a Nutter by Gerald Moffatt

Date: 1998/03/10 

1.0 Introduction

I decided to write about head butts not only to indulge my boundless ego and sense of self-importance but also because I feel they are neglected techniques, Most MAs think they know how to do head butts, but really don’t. Few MAs ever practice or train for headbutts - offensively or defensively. (Other techniques in this category are biting and eye gouging.) 

I will talk about head butts primarily with respect to stand-up situations (head butts with groundwork are a whole different realm). This stuff is just one man’s opinion - I would be very interested in any input, comments, arguments, etc. from other nutters. I will try to cover the main types of head butts, basic mechanics, setups and combinations, and a bit on training. 

I categorize head butts into four main types: forward, rising, sideways and backwards. There are also variants and hybrids (e.g., diagonal butts). In understanding how to do head butts it is important to recognize that they are primarily (but not exclusively) head-versus-head techniques. Accordingly, it’s important to know which parts of the head make good weapons and which make good targets. Let’s divide the head into the face (eyebrows down) and the skull. The face is exclusively a target area (unless you’re a lot tougher than I am). For the skull the rule is simple: thick bone and/or high local curvature make good weapon areas, while thin bone and/or flat areas make good targets. A prime example of a weapon area would be the forehead near the hairline (unless yours has receded), while the temple is a good target area. The targets are quite localized - for instance, some parts of the forehead may be moderately vulnerable (not prime targets but often the most available ones). 

2.0 Basic Mechanics 

I will initially discuss headbutts from a more-or-less static position (no stepping) , between two opponents of roughly the same height, and with no holding - later I will offer some comments applicable to when these conditions do not apply. 

2.1 Forward Headbutt

The forward headbutt is the one that everyone is sure he knows. When you consider how much practice it takes to develop a powerful, well-timed, and accurate soccer header (which has very similar body mechanics) you may be less sure. The strongest and most common way of doing it uses a mix of two main body motions, a head bow and a stomach crunch, optionally augmented by a knee dip (or step back, etc.). The head bow is more-or-less the same as a sneeze. The stomach crunch is like a sit-up but done explosively. The weapon area is near the hairline (if done straight on). Be sure to keep your mouth shut (closed but not clenched). It is possible to add more power to the front headbutt by dipping your knees (i.e., a slight body drop) just before impact. This dip also helps align you to the prime facial target area rather than going forehead to forehead. The dip can also help set up many followups such as a rising headbutt or an uppercut. (With footwork added, a step back instead/plus the dip also sets up a followup knee.) The ideal places to land this headbutt are the bridge of the nose, the cheekbones, or the top edge of the eye-socket (eyebrow ridges are tough, but not as tough as your forehead). The middle of the opponent’s forehead is an inferior secondary target but one that is usually readily available. If the opponent isn’t square on, the temple, especially near the outside corner of the eye, is a very vulnerable target or sometimes (it’s rather far to get to) the hinge area of the jawbone. Besides the powerful disorienting effect of any head blow, any of these strikes can chip or fracture bones. Another prime ‘benefit’ of the headbutt is that it is a wonderful cut generator - many opponents freak out at the sight of their own blood and head wounds bleed profusely. Hitting the opponent’s mouth and teeth is effective and will probably break them, but this often results in mutual cuts. Because of this, I would not normally aim lower than the opponent’s upper lip (but you take what you can get). Almost any opponent who isn’t asleep will duck his head as you strike (a very few may turn sideways) - to avoid getting his ‘defensive headbutt’ (planned or otherwise) aim a bit low (the knee dip or step can help here). 

It is possible to land repeated forward headbutts using the technique as described above - however, after each, you must withdraw your head quite far back in order to ‘recock’ and this gives the opponent some chance of retaliating. A fast, but weaker, forward headbutt (especially for the second and following strikes in a series) can be performed as follows. After the first strike the body is left leaning slightly forward. For the second and later butts the stomach crunch will be less pronounced. The head is moved forward and back with a forward thrusting motion that I can best describe as ‘walk like an Egyptian.’ Because of the forward tilt of the body, these butts are directed slightly downwards, rather than purely horizontally. There is little or no knee dipping with this technique. This quickie forward headbutt fits in well with butting combinations.
Next installment, the neglected superstar, the rising headbutt. 

Date: 1998/03/11 

Now for my favorite, the rising headbutt. 

2.2 Rising Headbutt

To perform the main version of the rising headbutt imagine that you have just completed the main type of forward headbutt previously described and are frozen in position. Your knees are bent, you are inclined forward slightly with your stomach contracted and your back rounded, and your chin is (nearly) touching your chest. It’s better if you start even lower - with your hairline touching the opponent’s chest. Now straighten up and unwind explosively. When first training, exaggerate the lift of your head until you can just see the ceiling above you through your eyebrows. You don’t just stand up - you thrust up. The striking area is again the hairline or perhaps slightly further into the hair. Be sure to keep your jaw shut with this butt. The impact is not always a pure strike with this headbutt - there can also be a large smearing component (which is a tremendous cut generator). If the opponent keeps his head down, then the blow will land as a mixture of strike and smear - if the opponent’s chin is up, it will be mostly a striking impact. With the smearing version, you can sometimes get cut from the opponent's teeth - oh well, every technique has risks! Here's an important detail. To ensure that you ‘get under’ the opponent’s face or chin, stay very close - make sure that you ‘wipe the sweat’ off your forehead on his shirt as you rise up. Otherwise he can lean/sway his head back and you'll just graze or miss him entirely. 

Now for a common variant of this technique. From the (low) start position described above, turn your head to look towards your left (or right) shoulder before you start the butt. Turn your head to the straight ahead position as you rise. It’s like tracing the shape of a ‘J’ from bottom to top as you strike. You may hit with the same spot as before (hairline at the middle of the forehead) or more outboard on your forehead (anywhere at or above the slight knob on your forehead above each eye near the hairline - a previous poster [Thanks, Chas, for reminding me it was you] once said to imagine you have small devil’s horns.) The J version works well from a clinch. 

I'll have a bit more to say about the 'horns' when discussing linking diagonal forward and rising headbutts, but that will first require a look at sideways headbutts. And I'll do sideways (and rear) butts next installment. 

Date: 1998/03/12 

2.3 Sideways Headbutt

The sideways headbutt is performed by briskly tilting the head sideways. The striking surface is the outboard curved part of the parietal bone on the side of the head. The striking zone is a line (it’s not really that crisply defined - more of a band) starting about 3 inches directly above and slightly behind the ear-hole and extending forward from there roughly 3 inches. In order to locate the exact striking zone on your head, apply the earlier rule regarding areas of high local curvature. The main thing is to strike with an area high enough on the side of the skull - lower down on the side of the skull, the temporal bone and further forward, the temple area, are each pretty flat and these are therefore prime target areas for headbutts. 

There are two variants of the sideways headbutt: the long and the short. The long headbutt tilts the head from the base of the neck, as if you were trying to touch your ear to your shoulder with a snapping strike. The head and neck tilt as a unit. The short headbutt is performed by mainly tilting just the head, kinking the neck. It’s as if you were trying to touch your ear to the base of your neck rather than your shoulder. The long sideways headbutt has a bit longer range and is arguably more powerful. However, I generally prefer the short version since it brings my striking area further down on the side of the opponent’s skull as well as making it difficult for the opponent to counter-butt the side of my skull. 

For an even stronger strike, the force of the sideways headbutt can be increased by turning your head away from the direction you will strike before starting the headbutt. This adds the force of head rotation to the primary motion of tilting the head as you turn back to straight ahead. 

2.4 Rear Headbutt

The rear headbutt is performed by snapping/tilting the head backward - the head motion itself is somewhat similar to the rising headbutt but instead striking backwards. The strike will be more powerful if you start with your head tilted forward, chin (nearly) touching your breastbone - although this risks telegraphing the technique. The ideal striking surface is the bump on the occipital bone just below the crown of the head, but the whole occiput is pretty strong. The blow can be directed straight back or diagonally back to either side.
The movements that can be added to this headbutt are in the grey zone halfway between how to make the technique land harder and how to set it up. The main supplementary movement is to tilt forward at the waist or hips prior to delivering the blow. This body bend is generally done not just to increase the force of the subsequent headbutt but also to get free from some hold applied by the opponent, or get ‘working space’ between his head and yours. For maximum force (some might say utter overcommitment) you can bend your knees and then thrust/arch back as if you were attempting a backwards somersault. 

Although the rear headbutt can deliver a very hard blow to the opponent’s face/head, I think this technique has been oversold. I mostly find it can only be landed on the stupid or unwary - and how did such a person get behind you? It also exposes the neck to chokes. 

2.5 Diagonal and Linked Headbutts

What we’re now about to discuss covers diagonal and linked headbutts but also wanders a little into training methods. The diagonal headbutts rely heavily on Chas’ horns as striking weapons. The diagonal headbutts blend the movement of the forward or rising headbutts with the head tilts and rotation of sideways headbutts. I’ll discuss them in terms of an imaginary opponent directly on front of the headbutter. 

You can perform the forward and rising headbutts alternately in a pure up-and-down fashion as if you were mimicking the body language of a ‘yes’ (and I suppose you could invent a pure side-to-side rotational headbutt that mimicked a ‘no’). A better method, I think, is to practice linking the forward, rising, and diagonal headbutts by moving your head as if a spot on the middle of your forehead was tracing an imaginary ‘figure 8’ or alternatively an ‘infinity’ symbol. I find the infinity version especially good for diagonal headbutts using the horns - be sure to practice it both rising up (‘goring’ the opponent with your imaginary horn) and dropping down (striking the opponent with your horn) at the crossover part (X) of the infinity symbol. You can occasionally add (one or more) pure forward thrusting headbutts (the ‘Egyptian’ kind) into the middle of the X. You can also incorporate a pure downward or rising butt from time-to-time. Hell, you can even link the figure 8 and infinity moves. By now your head should be reeling - literally. The whole thing starts to feel a bit like knife or stick methods from the Phillipines or Indonesia. And you can actually apply these moves in a real fight; however, you don’t deliver a great long intricate sequence - just a brief ‘excerpt.’
An important warning: Never practice this training method outdoors - you could find that you are viewed by some large bird as having successfully performed a mating ritual. 

Date: 1998/03/12 

Here's installment 4. 

2.6 Other Headbutts 

Before we move on from the types and mechanics of headbutts, let me state that what I’ve discussed so far are the main types but I don’t pretend my list is exhaustive or encyclopedic. For instance, there are some long-distance ramming techniques with the head, about which I know nothing. I also know little about using the head for guntings, but at least I know that I don’t know (and that’s the beginning of wisdom according to Socrates). Maybe Chas or other gunting specialists will add info. 

3.0 Setups and Applications

There are many ways to apply headbutts, but they usually can’t be launched against skilled opponents without first setting them up. And it’s hard to talk about setups without also discussing specific applications, so I’ll bend the two topics. Setups include several subtopics: footwork, grabs and controls, helper moves (shoulder bumps, etc.) and complementary moves (uppercuts, elbows, knees, etc.) 

3.1 Footwork

Now footwork is a huge subject all by itself and moreover it tends to be style-specific. I’m only going to touch on a few aspects. The main areas of footwork applicable to headbutts are: entering into close range, positioning the head for a blow or increasing its power, and setting up followups. Everyone knows to use a preemptive forward headbutt if a (prospective) opponent is mouthing off at close range. Or a close position suitable for butting may just arise naturally during the course of a fight. Otherwise you must get close enough to butt him and to do that you can use whatever entering methods are in your style. A few suggestions for entering (assuming you’re both in left foot lead): 

1. Slip his left jab over your right shoulder (or fold inside his hook), step forward with your left foot (about eight inches to about 11 o’clock position - the right slides up afterwards to narrow your stance), bend forward, dip the knees, and put (that ‘put’ can be a forward headbutt) your forehead on his breastbone or your cheek on his chest (looking to the outside). You’re now set up for a rising headbutt. The forehead-on-breastbone (with your hands on the inside) is a wonderful position for inside punching (a good place to be if you’re the smaller man) as well as for butts. Use the cheek-on-chest if you favour clinching before butting. (You can sometimes do a ‘rear headbutt’ from the cheek-on-chest. Bend your head forward so you’re looking down and then unwind to strike the bottom/side of the opponent’s jaw with the back of your head. Your cheek stays in light grazing contact with the opponent’s body throughout the delivery.) 

2. Slip the jab etc. as above but step in deeper and more diagonally to the left. Don’t bend or dip, just right sideways or diagonal butt as you tie-up on the inside. 

3. Do a wrestling-style penetration step (don’t hit the knees) with the left leg going deep. Rise up a bit when inside and again go for forehead-on-breastbone or cheek-on-chest. (You can also rise up as if you had tried for a snatch double, gave up, and were just coming up into a clinch - don’t stop and clinch but keep rising, resulting in the ultimate rising headbutt. If he leans back to avoid it, go for a takedown - or step in further and forward butt.) You could instead have simply gone for some version of a wrestling tie-up that may result in a forehead-to-forehead or cheek-to-cheek and you could than initiate a butting duel form there (although you must get your hips closer first). 

I also should mention that in a wrestling tie-up you can sometimes ‘post’ with your head (forehead or even top of the head) in head-to-head or head-to-chest position. You mustn’t linger here or you will eat uppercuts, get snapped-down, etc. but it can be a good starting point for butts. 

4. One of my favorites: the drop-shift. Starting at medium range slide the left foot back about 10 inches and then take a full step forward with the right foot - you are now in right leg lead and deep inside. This move is a distant relative of some of the triangle stepping methods (although it comes from western boxing). 

With respect to footwork applicable once you get to (or if you start at) the inside, I’ll mention two: 

1. Step back with one foot and bend your knees as you tilt your head forward. This is usually a defensive reaction to the opponent’s forward headbutt so he strikes his forehead on your forehead or top of head, but it can also be done as an attack by pulling the opponent’s face into your head/forehead (using a neck hook, etc.). It works well against a taller opponent. A natural followup after the headbutt is to knee with the leg that was drawn back, or you could add a rising headbutt in between the forward butt and the knee. 

A typical combination based on the step back is: forward pull-in headbutt with left leg stepped back, left knee to groin (belly, leg, etc.) with knee somewhere between a front knee and roundhouse knee and your head leaning past the left side of the opponent’s head, place left foot on ground (forward) and sideways (or diagonal) headbutt to opponent’s head just as your weight comes down on the left foot. (You might have had a double lapel grab throughout this for control.) 

2. If you start with your feet fairly close together as you stand in front of the opponent, step forward diagonally with one foot or the other and forward butt him. (Your foot goes out diagonally but your body and head go nearly straight forward.) With a longer step you could take your head past him and then land a sideways (or diagonal) butt. Again, some form of grab helps ensure that the technique lands. (If you don’t have a grab and he turns/leans away from the sideways/diagonal butt, nail him with a hook, uppercut, or palm-heel with your far hand.) 

Next time: grabs and controls

Date: 1998/03/14 

Here's installment 5. I changed my mind - I think I need to do helper moves before grabs and controls. 

3.2 Helper Moves

The helper moves I want to talk about are shoulder strikes, bumps, and pushes; the rising shoulder; and the elbow roll. (I won’t cover ordinary hand/arm pushes and shoves.) These moves have a larger sphere of application (both offensively and defensively) than just helpers for head butts, but that’s the only context I’m going to discuss now. 

The shoulder strike is such a beautiful inside move that it brings tears to my eyes (and if you do it right it will bring tears to your opponent’s eyes). The shoulder strike is comprised of many elements: hip twist, shoulder twist, shoulder roll, leg turn and dip, twisting ‘sit-up’, and body lean. That’s a lot of subtlety to pack into one technique. Put up with me while I walk you through its components (in exaggerated practice form). 

Practice the hip and shoulder twist by standing with feet shoulder-width apart and twisting to alternately bring you shoulders to right angles with the line between your feet. At first do it without moving your feet, which requires twisting your shoulders more than your hips. Then let just the rearward foot twist on the ball of the foot. Exaggerate the foot twist until on each turn the big toe of the rear foot points to the middle of the other foot (getting more hip into it and ‘leading’ with the hip rather than the shoulders). Now instead of an even-weighted twist, shift weight to the forward leg each time, bend the rear knee and raise the heel.
The twisting sit-up part is done just like the supine version - now we’ve involved the belly muscles (recti, obliques, etc.). The shoulder roll part brings just the shoulder forward (and slightly in) without involving any other body motion. And the body lean is a simple forward tilt about the hips or waist. 

Practice the shoulder moves on the heavy bag three principal ways (but with different mixes of the component motions): as a strike into (the centreline of) the bag (from short to very short range), as a near-centreline push (in backwards and diagonally-backwards directions) starting with contact with the bag, or as a bump to the right or left side of the bag (does a bag have sides?) in order to keep it centered in front of you. Try adding small steps as well. 

You may have some trouble keeping a bag (or opponent) centred using just shoulder bumps. You can improve your control by adding an elbow roll. The elbow roll is easy to do but tricky to describe. I’ll break it into parts, but remember the following is explanatory, not a fighting application. The first (and main) part is rotation of the upper arm. Take a boxing stance, left leg forward, hands eye level, elbows bent about 90 degrees. Rotate your left arm clockwise (only in the shoulder socket) about 180 degrees until your forearm is roughly vertical, hand pointing down. Your elbow moves only a little, rising perhaps 2 or 3 inches. Now perform the same move but also try to move your elbow horizontally further towards your centreline (depending on your flexibility this will be zero to a few inches.) You may also find that you spontaneously tend to add some shoulder roll - that’s good. With the elbow roll the bumping/pushing surface is the outside (almost back) of the upper arm. Now you don’t have to rotate the arm into position to get the benefit of the elbow roll - you can just start with your arm already down. You seldom do an elbow roll by itself - you usually add a little to a lot of shoulder twisting or rolling as well. Although illegal, this move is quite popular with boxers who fight on the inside. What you give up (temporarily) with the elbow roll is good hand striking position, although there are fighters who can do a pretty fair job starting with the hand down. You can practice alternate left and right shoulder-bumps/elbow-rolls starting with your hands down and leaving them down throughout - good on the heavy bag. 

By raising the elbow, doing more snap/follow-through and less push, and similar small adjustments, you can eventually develop a seamless progression of the elbow roll into the conventional horizontal or diagonally-downwards elbow strike (e.g., elbow roll - raise elbow - elbow strike). Or you can deliver a rising or diagonally-rising elbow after a roll (e.g., rotate the left elbow back counterclockwise, then go forward and up). For instance, if the opponent pushes back against your elbow roll, suddenly let him ‘win’ by relaxing the elbow roll, using his force to help power the rotation of your elbow back for a rising strike on the inside. You should also practice speedy ‘recovery’ of the hand to standard guard by way of blows such as backfist, hook, sidearm strike, etc., so you never get stuck in an awkward position after an elbow roll. (Damn, this keeps expanding; it’s becoming a treatise on inside fighting, not just headbutts.) 

The last shoulder technique is the rising shoulder. It’s easy to describe and the move is very useful (don’t let the shortness of the discussion convince you it’s trivial). The move is a simple shrug of one shoulder with possibly a bit of forward roll. You can add to it by first dipping the knees and then thrusting up. Or you can pull the opponent down towards it first. It works great against a shorter or same-height opponent, particularly in the cheek-to-cheek position. 

In closing this section, I want to emphasize the value of shoulder moves and elbow rolls. I jokingly used to say that if you’re good enough at shoulder moves, elbow rolls, and headbutts you can beat up an opponent on the inside while keeping your hands in your pockets. 

Next time (for sure): grabs and controls

Date: 1998/03/15 

Here's installment 6. 

3.2 Grabs and Controls

Because head butts are short-range techniques, grabs and controls are a major part of keeping the range, feeding the opponent into the butts, shoulder strikes, or other blows, and defence. Now grabs and controls can encompass a wide variety of techniques: trapping, chin na, wrestling tie-ups, judo grips, Thai head controls, etc. I’m not going to even try to tackle the fancy ones, but instead I’ll try to give an inkling of some applications of three simple ones, neck hook, double lapel grab, and double elbow grab (and even these aren’t all that simple). 

3.2.1 Neck Hook

The neck hook is a key technique in at least two martial arts, Thai boxing and wrestling, although it is applied somewhat differently in each. I’ll try a hybrid explanation. 

Bend your (right) wrist into flexion with a lot of ulnar deviation as well. Slightly cup your hand with fingers together and thumb alongside. Now put your forearm across the left side of the opponent’s shoulder where it joins the neck and hook his neck (there’s no grab) with your wrist and the meaty base of the hand (little-finger side). Pull forward and down. Here’s an important detail. Keep the ulnar surface of your forearm touching/pressing against his clavicle and your elbow well down and on your centreline. It is anathema to let your elbow flap to the outside. Don’t just pull - ‘hang’ some of your weight on him (but don’t rely on him for support) - to do that you’ll have to bend forward a bit. Your elbow is bent 90 degrees or so and points straight towards your centreline. 

Some variants and applications: You can use more elbow bend and go for a cheek-to-cheek tie-up. You can push with the forearm on his clavicle. You can pull the opponent into your headbutt (several varieties). You can release the neck hook and forward/rising elbow him in the chest (the exact reverse of this is a good way to get the neck hook in the first place). You can push him to your left or, less effectively, pull him to your right with fingertip pressure, to set up headbutts (or elbows, knees, etc.). (I’ll ignore fancier stuff such as shucks, but you can do them too.) You can suddenly snap him down or, do a weaker snap intended to ‘fail’ and forward butt him when he pulls up and away. 

A few more points: You can pull him into your left shoulder strike (the pull starts to include a palm-heel guide part-way through) or, less effectively, into your right shoulder strike. Defensively, if he attempts to forward/diagonal butt you, the pull-in to either shoulder can smother his attempt. Release him unexpectedly and side-butt him. 

Two more ways to get the neck hook: A wrestling style forearm-to-clavicle block as he shoots/rushes or, deliver a (say, left) jab that he can easily slip over his right shoulder and hook his neck as you retract the missed jab. You can also use a double neck hook (very ‘Thai’). This allows you to do side-to-side moves that completely break his balance and leave him open for all kinds of hurtful things. It’s like a slower-speed version of a terrier shaking a rat. Be sure to keep your elbows together in front (most defences/escapes come up the middle). (FYI, the reverse neck hook is also a great move, but it doesn’t lend itself well to head butts.) 

3.2.2 Double Lapel Grab

The double lapel grab is much maligned as an inferior technique only used by the untrained or inexperienced. Maybe so, but it can be polished into quite a sophisticated helper method that is well-adapted to butting. In discussing the double lapel grab I will assume that the opponent is wearing a sturdy garment that transmits forces well to his body (i.e., not too loose or stretchy). Now the actual grab can be knuckles up, knuckles down, or vertical - I’ll assume the vertical. The grip can be quite wide (more a shoulder grab) or narrow - I’ll assume moderately wide. Lastly, the grab can be bent or straight arm - bent arm is necessary for butting (and generally superior anyway). So imagine we’re now grabbing the opponent with both hands, with our elbows down and bent about 90 degrees. 

There’re more moves available than just a straight pull into a forward headbutt. The hands can pull or push to/fro, up/down, or left/right or in mixtures of these directions and each hand can act independently. This leads to lots of different combinations - let’s look at some: 

Just like the neck hook, it’s usually best to hang some weight onto the opponent. The double grab gives you an excellent ‘feel’ for the opponent’s moves. For instance, if he starts a (left) knee, you pull his left shoulder diagonally down and to your right while pushing his right shoulder (less vigorously) up, back and to the left. This traps his weight on his left foot and points his knee away from you. Depending on distance, butt him with a forward, diagonal, or sideways strike on the right side of his face. (If you exaggerate this move with more push you can twist him to the point that you can oblique-kick/stomp on his rear knee as you turn him into a choke, go for osoto-gari, etc.) 

One of the main sub-techniques to practice with the double-lapel grab is the double-arm swing. A description of the practice method follows. Stand square, legs shoulder-width, with each elbow touching your side and forearms horizontal, pointing straight ahead. Pretend there is a rod between your hands always keeping them the same distance apart. Rotate your (right) forearm horizontally inwards until your hand touches your ribs - the left hand is forced outboard. Alternate to either side. Now raise your hands to mid-chest height and do as before. Next, try underdoing and overdoing where you bring the inward hand so it lands either on your breastbone or further out near your shoulder. This is how to use this particular variant against an opponent. You guide one shoulder of the opponent towards your chest more centrally (and a bit down) when you wish to forward or diagonally butt him or shoulder-strike him, but more outboard when you wish to sideways butt him. You move him even further outboard when you react defensively to his attempted headbutt or shoulder strike (by taking him shoulder to shoulder). And, yes, you can even pull him straight in for a forward butt. A good trick is to pull him in and if he resists let him pull his head back, (even help him with a push), then forward butt him (or, instead, duck your head, and then pull him in again, this time onto the top/front of your head or even into a rising butt.) Or you could have pushed him first and when he resists pull him in. Any of these moves can be done a bit sideways by pulling/pushing more strongly with one hand than the other. Experiment and explore. 

3.2.3 Double-Elbow Grab

The last move I’m going to discuss is a double-elbow grab, another ‘street’ move that can be refined and polished and then used with butting. Grab (i.e., clench the cloth in your vertical fist) the opponent’s sleeves just above and to the outside/back of each elbow. (The opponent has lots of counter-moves available but that’s a different story.) Your control is a bit similar to the double shoulder/lapel grab. With this move you have less efficient control of his body but better control of his arms. You can apply most of the same techniques as for the double-lapel control - it’s best to keep him pretty close (you can then do stuff to thwart his escapes such as trap his hand/wrist in your armpit, etc.). The head moves with elbow control often feel as if you were planting a French ‘bec’ on each cheek of the opponent (but with forward, rising, diagonal and sideways headbutts). There are many ways to get the position - one way is to start your hands at his shoulders in a chest-to-chest clinch and then slide your hands down to the elbow. You can also flow into it (on one side) after a biceps stop with your palm/palm-heel. You can also flow *out* of it into overhooks, etc. - don’t think of this position (or any of the other positions) as something you obtain and never relinquish or change - the ‘flow’ is much more important than the individual techniques. 

Next time I’ll look at a smorgasbord of variants and applications. 

Date: 1998/03/17 

Here's installment 7. 

I have not organized the following material and so I’m going to present it as a ‘core dump’ in point form. 

Head-Butting Applications

1. With respect to the holds I discussed, it is obviously possible to mix-and-match them. For instance, the neck hook with an elbow grab is a street version of the collar-and-elbow wrestling tie-up. 

2. There are many other holds that can be used with head-butts; I’m fond of butting after trapping. Traps, pummeling, etc. can also be used to release the opponent’s holds and then counter-butt. For instance, there are many escapes from the double-lapel grab. 

3. A *major* point to note with respect to head-butts is that many of the positions are symmetrical - if you can butt him, he can butt you. This puts a big premium on timing, control of the opponent with bumps and holds, and defensive reactions when you lose the initiative. If you train and practice headbutts, however, you will be light-years ahead of both streetfighters and (most) martial artists in being able to ‘flow’ with your headbutts and complementary techniques. The average fighter can only deliver a headbutt as an isolated ‘singleton,’ if he even tries one at all. 

4. Defence against the headbutt mostly consists of moving (slightly) away, moving far away (breaking the range), staying so close (touching) that there is no room to butt, blocking with the hands, stop-hitting or countering with the head or shoulder (or palm-heel, etc.), and applying smothering pull-ins and deflections such as I described earlier. 

I’m going to elaborate a bit on some of these defensive aspects. A major defensive method to prevent butts is to put your head against the opponent’s head. But you usually must do more than just touch heads - otherwise the opponent can quickly pull away to get room to butt. You must either press so that your head follows his if he attempts to get separation for butting (sensitivity required), or you must push his head to the limit of its range of motion so he can’t pull away to butt (strength required). 

Moving (swaying back, turning) your head away from a butt must be done in a flowing manner - otherwise it opens you up and gives the opponent the distance he needs to initiate another butt or other blow. Think in terms of slipping, bobbing, and weaving from boxing (for instance, incoming butts should ‘just miss’ not ‘miss by a mile’). If moving stops working, ‘clinch’ with your head - that is, go back to a tight head-to-head (or head-to-chest) position. These days I’m trying to borrow a page from Bruce Lee and apply fencing theory. For headbutts, this might mean cutovers, presses, beats, disengagments, linear, circle, and half-circle parries, etc. 

If things are going badly you can try to break off the butting duel - push away for greater range. For instance, the double shoulder/lapel grab usually allows you to exercise this option. You can also suddenly push away even when you’re winning the butting duel in order to sneak in an over-the-top elbow, etc. Mixing short and very-short range and the techniques that go with them really confuses an opponent. Very few MAs appreciate the subtle distinctions between these two striking ranges (adding grappling further complicates the picture). (My classification system for striking ranges and corresponding typical techniques goes: long range = kicking only; medium range = ‘outside’ punching/shorter kicks; short range = bent-arm blows, elbows, knees, trapping; very-short range = head-butts, shoulders, palm-heels. The ranges are obviously not sharply-defined and exclusive but a continuum and blows can be used outside their ‘home range.’) 

5. A plug for the shortest striking technique using the hand: the palm-heel. When even short hooks only land as rabbit punches and the uppercut is crowded out, the palm-heel can still be used effectively. Use it not just as a pure strike, but as a ‘grazing’ strike, as a (bastardized) pak-sao/slap, a push/strike, or a pure push. 

6. A few words about blocking with the hand(s). The hand(s) can be used to stop or cushion a butt by absorbing the butt as it comes in (think of catching a fastball bare-handed - you would absorb it, not put your hand up rigidly). If your hands are already on the opponent’s head you can resist by tensing/pushing whenever he tries to butt (sensitivity required). 

I’m not a believer in eye strikes on the fly. (Although bil-jee is a great move, it’s not to my taste - it’s too natural for the opponent to duck and too easy to break a finger). To get the opponent’s eyes, start with your hands already on his head/face or block the opponent’s butt with a double palm-heel, fingers curling horizontally to the outside - then reach the fingers a bit further back, stabilize the opponent’s head, and gouge his eyes with your thumbs. Butt him on the bridge of the nose if he pulls his head back to decrease the pressure on his eyes (or on the temple if he turns away). 

7. For equal-height opponents all the head and shoulder techniques work. For moderate mismatches in height the taller man will find it hard to position himself for rising strikes while the shorter man gives up downwards strikes to the face of his opponent (he should target the breastbone instead) The rising strikes are tricky - for a slightly shorter man they work magnificently, but if he is just a bit shorter than that they start to be hard to land with power. A pull-in of the opponent’s face into the top of the head works well for a moderately shorter man; for that reason a taller man must be alert to avoid any defensive duck or butt when he butts downward. The shoulder strikes can be used by both, but usually work a bit better for the taller man (especially true for the rising shoulder). 

If an opponent is much shorter, the taller man may only be able to use shoulder strikes, not headbutts - the much shorter man has only the butt to the chest (the shoulder moves would still work but they don’t have good targets). However, the head-on-chest is (ignoring grappling) one of the best places for a small man to be in a fight. (And grappling just makes it different, not worse.) 

Next time, we finish off with training methods. 

Date: 1998/03/19 

This is the 8th and last installment (Whew! This has felt like Mao's long march.) 

Let's look at training methods. Most of this is fairly obvious except perhaps for a few small points. There are two schools with respect to training headbutts: heavy and light impact. I'll reveal my prejudice now and tell you I'm of the light-impact school. Some people have heads of stone (do they operate from a nexus halfway down their spine?) while others get killer headaches from even medium contact. Regularly butting full power onto heavy bags, etc. is too much for me. I'm afraid I'll become like the punch-drunk fighter in Jerry Lewis' sketch who says, "I've had...uh...forty-two fights and...uh...I've won 'em all...uh...except forty-one." 

In point form: 

1. Neck strength is an obvious asset when executing headbutts. Exercises include isometrics, headstraps and weights, rubber bands, self-resistance (hands against head, etc.), and partner resistance. A particularly valuable solo exercise is the wrestler's bridge (forward, backwards and transitions). Once you gain sufficient strength statically, be sure to dynamically work the neck through its entire range of motion with the bridges - flexibility is important as well as strength. A good partner exercise is to single-neck-hook' each other and really hang your weight on the hook while moving around, snapping down, resisting, etc. - go easy the first few times or your whole back and neck will really ache the next day. (And remember, it's an exercise, not a contest.) 

Neck strength is important for wrestling but the defensive benefits for striking arts are often overlooked. A strong neck helps the head and body move (nearly) as one when the head is struck - this results in less 'whiplash' to the head and 'sloshing' of the brain inside the skull. 

2. It's worthwhile to shadow-box with the head using, for instance, the linked butting exercises I discussed earlier. Try to practice the head moves together with the rest of your short-range repertoire (palm-heels, elbows, shoulders, knees, etc.). This helps develop rhythm and coordination. 

3. A solo exercise I recommend for head butts is light-contact using some sort of speed-bag. (Speed bags are too lively for shoulder-strike practice unless you have lightning reflexes.) There are two types that I think are good. For each type you can use a commercially-available bag or the roll-your-own kind. 

The first type uses a head-sized inflatable ball (very like a soccer ball or basketball) suspended on a taut bungee cord above and (important) also below so it returns fairly quickly when hit. It's very convenient to be able to adjust the height so you can practice against simulated tall, medium, and short opponents. Be sure to sometimes mix in the odd palm-heel, elbow, or head pull-in with your head-butts. 

The second type is like a boxer's speed bag (in fact, one of those would work pretty well). It also uses a head-sized inflatable ball. The ball is suspended only from above, quite close to the ball. The apparatus may also include a (removable) backstop a few inches behind the ball from which it can rebound; the bag motions with and without the backstop add variety. I have only seen adjustable-height versions of this type of bag on expensive professional-boxing models. This second type of bag is much faster than the first type and will really sharpen your butting reflexes. (If it's too fast, try deflating the ball a bit to make it deader.) 

4. Heavy bag work is great for shoulder strikes but I would go easy on head butts. Even if you favour light-contact, however, occasionally do a *few* full-power butts to get the feel of them. Be extremely careful (especially before your technique - and your neck - are very strong) to avoid a fast-approaching swing of the bag hitting your head - you can seriously injure your neck. As for breaking boards or other objects with a headbutt, you can do this if you like - I'll abstain. 

5. The last training method is light sparring with a partner. You both wear full-contact type headgear complete with chin, cheek, and face protection. I like plastic faceshields for face protection better than wire grids but shields *are* rather 'steamy' and claustrophobic. The protection lets you do light *not heavy* sparring - don't overdo it! Wear a chest-guard if you're going to include shoulder strikes or butts to the chest. And don't forget your mouthguard! Even with padding and only moderate impact you will gain an appreciation of the power of a good headbutt. 

That's it from me - good luck with your training. And remember: One good butt deserves a nutter! 

Gerald Moffatt


  • Posted to Usenet's newsgroup rec.martial-arts. Archived with kind permission.
  • Posted 10/16/13 as of  4/11/02 mirroring
  • There were 22,377 pageviews of this entry on my old archives site

Please check out 2 other articles by Gerald Moffatt:

  1. Mobility and the Snap Front Kick by Gerald Moffatt
  2. Iron Palm - A Simplified Method by Gerald Moffatt


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Stickgrappler's Sojourn of Septillion Steps