Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The art and science of unbalancing.

I have become quite fascinated recently about the use of unbalancing principles in karate. It seems to me that it is an art form in itself; something that can and must be studied in isolation as well as in combination with various techniques.

Unbalancing is about disruption and control: Disrupting your opponent’s attack and seizing control of them. There is both art and science in understanding balance and unbalancing methods. It requires a scientific understanding of how the brain and body work together to enable balance combined with a sense of creativity in assessing the many ways in which your opponents balance can be disrupted.

To understand how to unbalance an opponent you first need to understand how we are able to balance in the first place. I wrote a previous post about balance called ‘martial arts – a balancing act’  where I described the three main tenets of good balance as being having a wide base of support, having a low centre of gravity and maintaining the head and spine in a vertical position.  In this article I also discussed the importance of the ears, eyes and proprioception in the maintenance of good balance. 

To unbalance an opponent then you have to disrupt at least one on the main tenets of balance: pull them out of their base of support (or reduce their base of support), raise their centre of gravity or disrupt their vertical alignment. Of course you must do all this whilst maintaining your own balance.

So how do you do it?  

Ways of disrupting the base of support:

Pushing or pulling: pushing or pulling will move someone out of their base of support but you need to know which way to push or pull. This requires some knowledge of the “eight points of off balance” which relates to stances. Look at this diagram:

diagram from 

As a point of principle your off-balance point is generally perpendicular to the plane of your stance. So if your feet are positioned on points 8 and 4 on the diagram (this could be a left foot zenkutsu dachi (weight forward) or kokutsu dachi (weight back) and facing point 1 or even a shiko dachi if you were facing towards point 2 or 6) then you will be off-balance if pushed or pulled in the direction of 2 -6 or 6-2

So for example, if you are grabbed by the wrist by someone standing in front of you in a natural stance i.e with feet positioned on 3 and 7 then you only need to trap their hand and step backward to position 5 to unbalance them.  In order that you don’t unbalance yourself you need to use fairly strong, deep stances to ensure your centre of gravity remains low, your base of support is wide and your spine remains vertical. I never understand why people argue that stances in karate are no good and only useful for building leg strength – good strong stances are great for pulling people off balance. Of course taking just one step back many not be sufficient and you may need to take two or three long low steps backwards to pull your opponent over.

Reducing the opponent’s base of support: you can reduce the opponent’s base of support by taking one (or both) leg away e.g. with an ashi barai (foot sweep) technique or just a plain and simple ‘trip’. You may want to follow this up with a push, pull or even a throw.

Raising the opponent’s centre of gravity:

If a low centre of gravity assists with balance then a high centre of gravity will help reduce it. Getting your opponent up on their toes will make them seem lighter and easier to displace. Getting a good arm/elbow lock on can often get them on their toes. They won’t drop their weight back down to compensate because that will tighten the lock and cause more pain. You will now have them controlled and not fully balanced making it easier for you to apply your next technique – this may be a sweep or throw or just maintaining the restraint to march them off (always walk backwards with your restrained ‘prisoner’, I am told on good authority, it is harder for them to resist).

Disrupt your opponent’s vertical alignment:

Getting your opponent’s head and spine out of a vertical alignment will disrupt balance because it stops them from pushing their centre of gravity in a downwards direction. It is also very disorientating because it upsets the ‘balance sensors’ i.e. the eyes can no longer maintain a horizontal plane, the cochlear fluid in the ears may start to swirl and cause dizziness and the proprioceptors may have a hard time working out the body’s position in relation to the ground.

Techniques to disrupt vertical alignment include pushing the forehead backwards. This is especially effective if the other hand is placed at the lower end of the spine to create a push/pull effect. Alternatively you can twist the opponent pushing on one shoulder whilst pulling on their opposite hip.
These are just a few techniques you can use to disrupt balance, I’m sure that with a bit of creativity you can think of more!

Of course your opponent will instinctively try to correct their balance once they feel it starting to go. They will do this in predictable ways – the same ways you will try to do it. If you are pulled forward you will put a foot out to steady yourself. You will put your foot out in the direction you perceive yourself to be falling. If you are falling backwards you will try to step backwards. To stop your opponent from trying to correct their balance you need to stop them from putting their foot in that optimal position for regaining balance – you do this by making sure your foot is there first, forcing them to put their foot in a sub-optimal position and thus still being off-balance. 

To conclude: Unbalancing your opponent is a good tactical self-defence principle. It enables you to disrupt your opponent’s attack and gives you an opportunity to gain control of the situation. Good unbalancing is both a science and an art form. It requires some serious study into the physiological principles of balance and an exploration of ways of disrupting those principles. In any martial arts class it is worth spending time with a partner just manipulating and observing the effects of balance point disruption. Experiment with this in isolation as well as incorporating these unbalancing principles into various strategies and techniques and notice how much more quickly you are able to disrupt and control your opponent.

Bookmark and Share
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


Creaky Karate Dad said...

Thanks for yet another useful and interesting post!

I've been a karate student since September and have learned enough at this point to see the numerous flaws in my techniques and execution. Your 8 points diagram makes a great deal of sense to me, and I'm looking forward to trying it its principles at the dojo tomorrow!


Felicia said...

Hey there, Sue :-)

Judo uses lots of kuzushi (unbalancing). I worked once (and only once, so I am, by no means, a Judo or kuzushi expert, LOL) with a Judo practitioner at a seminar who had us work on unbalancing by disturbing an adversary's base/stance AND wrecking his/her vertical alignment at the same time by push-pulling. His theory was that sometimes, you have to first upset the balance a bit in the opposite direction of where you wanted to disrupt (i.e forward first if you want to unbalance them backwards) to be successful - especially if the adversary was bigger (taller or heavier) and/or stronger. He compared it to moving a refrigerator box: just pushing it will net you nothing, but rocking/tipping it forward first (say towards 4 first to offset towards 8 for instance) will disrupt balance right proper :-). What was cool about it was that it worked when the uke's center of gravity was higher than yours and even when it was lower. Suffice to say it was a very interesting seminar!

Great post. Thanks for sharing :-)

The Strongest Karate said...

My unbalancing technique needs serious work - I've only been able to successfully do it against my sensei once. But one of the principles I've tried to adhere to is "where the head goes, the body will follow".

I liked the graph you've got there, too. and your explanation was very apt to put into words a concept that for many is merely instinctual.

Sue C said...

Jay, Hope it went well at the dojo - thanks for commenting.

Felicia, Interesting idea of 'rocking' the opponent - I'll give that one a try, thank you

Brett, "where the head goes the body will follow" - yes, I've heard that too. It's very disorientating to have your head moved around by someone so it's not surprising that it is a good technique for unbalancing an opponent. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

Charles James said...

Then there is vertigo ... arghhhhh

Journeyman said...

Hi Sue,

Unbalancing, as you said, is definitely both an art and a science. It is a core principle in much of what I study.

I enjoyed your article and the comments. Unbalancing your opponent can be done physically and mentally. Overwhelming your opponent and using effective distraction techniques are great ways to 'uproot' them.

A couple comments. Up on the toes works extremely well. Many of our techniques are not over until our partner is up on them.

The body does follow the head, no doubt about it. It also follows pain. This is why being an uke is so important, you must react as you really would under pain and attack.

I also like the comment about moving one way intending to go the other. When a person strives to regain their balance, they overcompensate but stepping deeper or pulling back harder. It is, as you said, predictable, and it is also quite easy to use that energy against your opponent.

Not all unbalancing requires lots of effort or strength. I've been playing a lot with manipulating fascia to unbalance. It doesn't take much to unbalance your opponent, and equally important, doesn't take much to cause the 'pull back' effect.

I liked the diagram. Isn't there a Karate system based around that type of diagram for movement?

I enjoyed your exploration of unbalancing. Thanks.

John Coles said...

This is an area I've done a lot of work on. Topic too detailed to discuss in comments. Kuzushi is concerned with stability and forces. Kuzushi is not unbalancing. Nage waza and taoshi waza are about unbalancing, kuzushi is about destabilising in order to unbalance with nage waza or taoshi waza. Kano's happo no kuzushi if often referred to and is a simple diagramatic tool to indicate direction. That is all. There is no alchemy in this diagram. A person can be destabilised or unbalanced in each of these directions no matter the stance. It simply means more of less force is required to be applied in that direction. If you're interested in more on this subject, email me.


Sue C said...

Charles, well, yes vertigo would unbalance you ;-)

Journeyman, Manipulating fascia? You may have to explain that one! Not sure if there is a karate system that uses the diagram but I think it's relevant to every martial art any way. Thanks for adding your thoughts..

John, I deliberately didn't use the word kuzushi in case I misinterpreted it! I probably would have done too...I'll drop you an e-mail...

Journeyman said...


I will find the reference to a martial art that relies heavily on a similar diagram to the one you posted.

As far as fascia goes, it's the elastic like gel that surrounds our musculature. Point being, you can unbalance people using less strength and effort using a deft touch. I posted about it a bit if you'd like to know a bit more. Just type fascia in the search window.

Sue C said...

Thanks Journeyman. I'll go read your post on fascia...


Related Posts with Thumbnails