Mobility and the Snap Front Kick by Gerald MoffattDate: 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.
- Posted to Usenet's newsgroup rec.martial-arts. Archived with kind permission.
- Posted 10/16/13 as of 4/11/02 mirroring http://stickgrappler.tripod.com/rma/gmkick.html
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