In the past I have received questions from many people, in essence asking something like this; “When we turn, what part of our foot should we use as a pivoting point?” They specifically asked if they should turn on the ball or on the heel of the foot when they make a body rotation. We all know it is very important for all karate practitioners to be able to turn quickly and smoothly. In fact, I consider this an independent technique. Today I will attempt to provide a short essay to describe my understanding of this technique. I would like to hear back from the readers whether they agree or disagree or don’t care.
Now before we talk about turning, we need to pay attention to and understand two important concepts; “center of mass” and “center of gravity”. They are different but for our discussion they are interchangeable. I will quote some parts from Wikipedia to explain the definitions of the center of mass and the center of gravity.
In physics, the center of mass, of a distribution of mass in space is the unique point where the weighted relative position of the distributed mass sums to zero. The distribution of mass is balanced around the center of mass and the average of the weighted position coordinates of the distributed mass defines its coordinates.
Calculations in mechanics are simplified when formulated with respect to the center of mass. In the case of a single rigid body, the center of mass is fixed in relation to the body, and if the body has uniform density, it will be located at the centroid. The center of mass may be located outside the physical body, as is sometimes the case for hollow or open-shaped objects, such as a horseshoe.
A center of gravity (Wikipedia again):
In physics, a center of gravity of a material body is a point that may be used for a summary description of gravitational interactions. In a uniform gravitational field, the center of massserves as the center of gravity. This is a very good approximation for smaller bodies near the surface of Earth, so there is no practical need to distinguish “center of gravity” from “center of mass” in most applications, such as engineering and medicine.
So I have a choice for the term and I will use the center of gravity in my discussion. To shift the body even to take a simple step, you need to shift the center of gravity. Believe it or not, you cannot simply stand up from a chair if your head is prevented from shifting forward. Try the following experiment; have your friend sit up straight in a chair and you place the tip of your index finger on his forehead and prevent him from leaning forward. Challenge him to stand up and see if he can. You will find that it is impossible for him to stand up normally until you let go of his forehead.
First of all, do you know exactly how your foot is constructed? If you don’t know how your racing car is constructed you will never be a world class race car driver. The principle is the same with our body though our body construction is much more complex and precise than a racing car or even the most advanced jet fighter. Here is an illustration of our foot. You probably had some idea that the bone structure of your foot looked like this. However, I suspect you have not paid close attention to the finer details of the bones that make up this precise mechanism called the foot. The human foot and ankle is a complex mechanical structure containing 26 bones, 33 joints, 19 muscles and tendons, and 107 ligaments.
The precise numbers are not important. What is important is the you realize that your foot is made of a very complex construction. The muscles and the ligaments are around these bones so that you can make numerous precise movements with your foot. One of those precise movements is walking. It is not possible to do a simple walk without the harmonious workings of the muscles, tendons and ligaments of our feet. I am always so impressed and truly thankful whenever I study the mechanism of our body. Don’t you agree that it is really a work of a genius and that our body, indeed, is a master piece?
Believe it or not the first human like robot that could walk like us became possible only in the year 2000. A robot called ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, photo right) was designed by Honda and introduced in October 2000. I wanted to mention this because the precise mechanism of bi-pedal walking is unique. Bi-pedalwalking (and leaving the front legs or hands free) was necessary for the Homo sapiens to set themselves apart from the other primates. Bi-pedal walking can be easily perceived as a simple body movement but it is incredibly complex and difficult to be imitated by a machine. I have covered this topic in one of my books so I will not repeat it in this article. The point I want to emphasize is that we must never think light of the abilities of our body that were given to us.
Back to the original question…What part of our foot do we use when we turn? My answer is that there are basically three different ways to turn and the part you will use will depend on the situation. One situation is a turn in position or an in place bodily rotation (photo left). In this case you will line up the center of gravity through one leg (pivoting leg), hips, torso, and shoulder area and all the way up to the center of your head. If you can line up all these parts as straight as possible then your turn can be smooth and fast. This turn is often used in dancing, figure skating and gymnastics to name a few. A body rotation technique can be found in various karate katas such as; Kanku dai, Gankaku, Junro Yondan, etc to name a few. If you are familiar with these katas you will know which parts of the kata require the rotation. In these cases, you need to use the part that is directly below your shin bones. Again take a look at the illustration of a foot (below).
You may have a misconception that the lower legs were made up of only one bone. Actually, there are two bones; the tibia and fibula. There are two so that you can rotate and move your foot just the same as we have two bones in our forearm to move and rotate our hand.
As shown in the illustration they are not positioned in the center of your foot. The ankle is the point where these bones are connected and we now know the ankle is located nearer to the heel than to the toes. We also notice that there is an arch and that the foot is concaved inward in the midsection of the foot. This means there is no protruding point directly under the ankle to turn on. This makes it extremely difficult to turn at the best point, directly underneath the ankle. So most dancers use the heel part or the contact point of the bone called calcaneus. However, it is difficult to keep the balance if the rotation is complex or multiple, so as an alternative they can use the ball of the foot, the area underneath the third joints of the toes. Turning on the ball of the foot requires much more precision but we have the tools (joints and muscles) to control the turn and balance with the front part of the foot. The area of the ball of foot is rather large (illustration below).
The senior professional dancers would use only one spot (the best spot will be under the middle toe though some may choose under the big toe because it is usually the strongest toe) but the inexperienced dancers may float the spinning point across the foot which results a slower and a poorly balanced turn.
For an in-place rotation, the area underneath the ankle is themost recommended spot as it gives the best balance for the simple rotations that are found in most of the kata. However, we have discussed and pointed out that this method is the most challenging and most difficult one to use. I propose to the readers as the best alternative is to use the heel. I recommend the readers should try to bring the turning point as close to the spot directly under the ankle.
Sorry to have started with the most challenging technique. There are two other turning methods that are easier and you are probably already doing them. To turn as you are moving forward (for instance the left gedan barai move after the first ki-ai in Heian Shodan), you will want to use the ball of the foot. As I have mentioned earlier the center of the foot (third joint) is the best specific pivoting part in the foot. In a standard Shotokan dojo I suspect that you were taught to keep our body up right when you shift your body. As you advanced in your training, you might have found that it is better to lean your upper body slightly to the direction of your turn. By doing this you found that you can move faster and smoother. The first move of Bassai dai may be an excellent example. Even though an excessive amount of incline would be counterproductive, you want to incline slightly towards the turning side. Let’s take an example of the move I mentioned above in Heian Shodan after the first ki-ai. You want to incline slightly to the right as you turn from the right zenkutsu to left zenkutsu gedan barai. In this turning you may use a different part of your foot. It is still the ball of the foot area but maybe closer to or at the edge of the right foot. This requirement is the same with any other physical activities such as football.
See the player in the photo. He is inclining to his right as he makes a quick right turn. If you can expand the right foot area of the photo you can see that the runner is turning on the ball of the right foot and at the little toe side of his foot. Football has much more complex running and foot movement requirements in its play than in the karate kata. Thus, we cannot adopt the steep incline they use but the concept or objective of quick and smooth turn is the same. This will require a fine aligning of your foot to the leg bones. You may ask why.
Take a look at the illustration of the leg bones. Just to line up the leg you have to pay attention first to the hip joint, then the knee joint and the ankle in addition to the numerous other small joints in your foot. This is only in your leg. For the entire body, you have the joints of many other parts of your body but for our discussion let’s focus on the leg area alone. What is the key for a good turn? Simply put, the fewer joints you use in your body alignment the easier you can keep the balance and turn smoothly. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand this logic. Let’s look at a top which you must have played with when you were a child. It can demonstrate a beautiful spin or rotation. As you know the axis is straight and short. But imagine if the axis was long and made of several pieces that were not lined up straight. How about if those pieces are not firmly connected? Can such a top spin?
That is almost how our body is constructed. Now you know why it is difficult for us to spin. Look at the illustration of the foot again and you can see that the bone structure of the heel area is much simpler. The front area that covers the toes is much more complex. This is natural as we normally walk forward and less frequently backward. Then, can we do a turn moving forward using the heel part of our foot? Yes, it is possible so you can. You may feel more stable by turning on the heel, however, turning on the ball of the foot will give you a much faster turn.
Then what is the third method? You can easily guess that it is a turn as you move backward. Remember the third move of Heian Shodan? After the second move (right chudan oizuki) you will step back with your right leg and turn 180 degrees to make right zenkutsu with right gedan barai. What part of your foot do you think that you will use to do this turn? Yes, this was an easy question. Most of you probably said “heel”. As you step back it is natural and easy to shift the center of gravity to the heel. One word of caution on a heel use. The heel area (calcaneus) is a simple bone structure and it is a blessing in one way. At the same time, it can make your turn more challenging. The heel area is simple without the joints and ligaments. This means you are unable to do the fine tuning that can be done with the ball of the foot area. To master the heel area turning, you will need to do a lot of practicing and learn how to be stable and well balanced during the turn.
To be able to execute the most effective body turns in your karate, you need to be able to manage all three different turning methods.
A turn may look simple but the mechanism to deliver the most effective turn certainly is not. A good turn is important in all athletic games. So I’m sure you’ll agree that it is also extremely important in karate if you happen to be serious with perfecting your techniques. Shotokan is labeled as a linear or straight movement martial art. If you look at our kihon it may look linear but when you observe the expert Shotokan practitioners perform we all witness our karate is filled with circular techniques and body movements. Asai ryu karate is a great example of this as it adopts many tenshin (body rotation) techniques.
Did I give you too much information? Maybe so, but it will make more sense to you as you read this article several times. You may think this information was written only for the advanced practitioners or the instructors. Even though I want the instructors to read the information written here, I was also thinking of the beginner and the intermediate level practitioners. It is better for the beginners to learn the techniques correctly at the early stage of their training. As you known once you form a habit it will be very difficult to change or correct later. The ability to turn correctly is much more important than most practitioners give a credit for. When you play basketball, football or tennis, isn’t a superior turning ability important and necessary? If so, then why not in karate? To improve your karate you know that you need to practice all three K elements of karate; kihon, kata and kumite. Regardless of which K element you may be practicing, one of the key requirements for your improvement is that you master the techniques of perfect turning. Good training.
by Shihan Yokota
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