Less Common Strikes
While striking with fists and open hands is the most commonly seen aspect of empty handed striking it is also important to train the less commonly seen strikes with the arms. The back of the wrist, the forearm, the elbow and the shoulder can all be used to strike with–even the bicep can be used in some situations. Some of these strikes are utilized more in some styles than in others, such as elbow strikes in Muay Thai or forearms strikes in Uechi-Ryu, but they all have value if properly applied.
Striking with the back of the wrist (kokuto) is a very solid method of striking that can be described as “medium” in the hard vs. soft classification of striking (eg. knuckles vs. palm heel). You will often see this strike in kata as a follow-up to a lower strike, but it is also an effective technique to use following a block. I typically only use kokuto to strike under the chin, to the jaw or to the temple, although it can be used to strike the groin, ribs or even pressure points. Often you will find that another technique would be at least as effective, but may not flow as quickly in your combinations, and that is where it has the most value–used in combination with other fast strikes.
The forearm is actually one of the most utilized tools in the karate arsenal, if you think about it. Virtually all of your blocks utilize the forearm and so we end up toughening them, so why not use them as weapons? The blocks can be used to hurt the attacking limb, of course, but there are other ways to use them. Shinjo Sensei of Uechi-Ryu is famous for breaking a baseball bat using kote-uchi (forearm strike), and I find it to be a very effective strike against the base of the neck and the groin, but it is easier to see it coming because of the swinging motion. An alternative to consider is jodan-uke (high block), and Pinan Nidan is a good example of this if you look at the series of high blocks while stepping forward. If you perform a high block while stepping forward into your attacker you can smash them beneath the chin using your forearm (or elbow) and they won’t see it coming nearly as easily.
Elbows are very effective weapons at close range and while grappling, but many people do not realize that they are part of karate because Muay Thai and MMA practitioners often say that they aren’t in order to promote their own arts. Empi-ate/uchi (elbow smash/strike) techniques can be thrown backward, outward, across, upward, downward and at angles which makes it incredibly versatile and the small, hard striking surface provides excellent penetrative force. The key to using elbows effectively is to use your body to generate power and that is where you will see many beginners having trouble. If you strike with your elbow using only the muscles of your arm and chest or arm and back, depending on the type of elbow strike, you will have a very weak strike and much of the energy will travel back into your arm. If you torque your body from your feet through your legs and hips and up into your shoulders the same way you punch you will have much more effective elbow strikes and will be less prone to hurting yourself in the process.
One of the less-practiced methods of striking with the arms is the use of the shoulder. Shoulder strikes are used in MMA, hockey, rugby, football (both types) and many other sports, but somehow it was lost to time for most karate practitioners. Kata-ate/uchi (shoulder smash/strike) can be found in kata, but it is a very subtle technique and can be blended into others–a good example is the “shaking elbows” in Chinto. Shoulder strikes can be used most effectively from the clinch (grasping the back of your opponent’s head/neck with your forearms/elbows pressing down into their collar bones is the most basic clinch position) and while performing single- and double-leg takedowns, but they can also be used to off-balance an opponent with very little movement or dislocate an elbow from various different angles.
Inner Elbow Strike
The final method of striking with the arms that will be discussed in this article is the use of the crook of the elbow. This is a bit of an obscure striking method but it does have some valuable uses. The technique that many karateka will have seen is locking an attacker’s arm straight and punching beneath it which will cause the crook of your elbow to slam into their locked elbow, dislocating it. The less obvious uses are actually more likely to be used, albeit by accident. When performing koshi-guruma (hip wheel throw) or makikomi (wrap-around) variations of throws you can wrap your arm around your opponent’s head–why would you not hit them in the process? Slamming the crook of your elbow against the base of someone’s neck will cause some pain and whiplash, as well as having the possibility of striking a nerve and weakening their legs. Another situation would be while trying to apply hadaka-jime (rear naked choke) because if they are fighting against the choke then you can punch across their body to force your arm beneath their chin–again, this provides an opportunity to strike them with the crook of your elbow. Because the crook of the elbow is soft and filled with nerves, blood vessels and tendons it does have limited uses, but it is not a tool that should be neglected.
Chosin Chibana said that your fingers and toes should be like spears, but he also says that your arms should be like iron–never neglect to train with all of the weapons that your body provides.