Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Taekwondo Guarding Block Explained

The most common hand technique in the ITF forms is probably the knifehand guarding block, let alone all its variations (closed-fist, low, ridgehand). I wanted to dedicate a post to this technique, because I find it to be poorly understood. It's usually interpreted as a corruption of the karate move shuto uke, because it uses a different chamber. This perspective is frustrating for two reasons.

(Top) ITF Taekwondo guarding block
(Bottom) End of karate kata bassai dai
Source: shotokankataman
Firstly, the chamber does come from karate. Historically there were multiple versions of the shuto uke chamber, just like there were multiple versions of the low block chamber and rising block chamber (fnt 1). It's likely that multiple versions of the same uke were taught precisely because different chambers had different applications, but as karate became more standardized and uke became nothing more than blocks, practicing multiple chambers became unimportant. A remnant of our chamber still exists at the end of the karate kata bassai dai (fnt 2). Either early taekwondoin liked this variation better or were eager to differentiate their own art from karate.

Secondly, our chamber has plenty of applications; it's just that they are different from those of shuto uke. We shouldn't say that a spoon is a poor utensil because it can't cut like a knife. Furthermore, the ITF forms are designed with this chamber in mind, so we must take it into account when discovering applications. Something to keep in mind is that the knifehand guarding block -- like all makki or uke -- is a template movement. It has several applications, albeit by varying the movement slightly. This is a feature, not a bug: it's intended to make learning the forms easier because you don't have to learn a new movement for every single application.

In this post I will cover eight such applications -- six for the knifehand version, two for the closed-fist version -- using examples from the forms. Two obvious applications I'm skipping are 1) using the guarding block as simply a block or 2) as a "fence" to keep distance from your opponent, as neither utilizes the chamber.

Application 1: Against a roundhouse punch

One use of the chamber -- in fact, I'd say the primary use -- is to block a roundhouse punch (haymaker). I've found numerous examples of this; a few are in the image below. Use the high (back) arm as the primary part of the block, with the other hand supporting. In the next motion, simultaneously strike the opponent's neck (front forearm) while overhooking their arm (back arm). This is a simple, effective response to a haymaker that you see in several self-defense curricula.
Sources: John Tichen Karatemannymelgoza, Gun Carrier, CrossFitFight Method, and Victor Marx
The block isn't quite a wedging block. It's more like a steeple block or leverage block from barekuckle boxing. You're parrying a punch with an upward arm motion.

This application lends credence to the idea that karate/taekwondo blocks are done in two motions because the first motion (the chamber) is the block. In this case, the block-proper is a strike since your front forearm strikes the opponent's neck, but it's not a strong strike and the purpose of the move is to control your opponent. You can follow up with more strikes -- particularly knees or hand strikes to the back of the head.

Application 2: Head Crank

I was skeptical of this when I first read about it in Stuart Anslow's books (Ch'ang Hon Taekwon-Do Hae Sul), but after analyzing the forms myself I find this is one of the more common applications. If you move your hands closer together (remember: template motion), then it's like you are grasping someone's head in between them. Your hands twist as you move from the chamber to the block-proper, cranking the head.

Sources: Richard Conceicao, Stewart McGill
Generally, any 180-degree turn into a knifehand guarding block could be a head crank. One example is the first three moves of Choong-Moo. After blocking an attack with the twin outer-forearm block (move 1), you perform an inward strike to your opponent's neck while pushing up their jaw (simultaneous inward strike and knifehand rising block, move 2). You then turn 180-degrees and crank the head (knifehand guarding block, move 3), throwing them to the floor.

This may also be used for Toi-Gye move 22 -- after the upward knee strike -- the end of Hwa-Rang, and in the Kukkiwon form Koryo.

Application 3: Deflect, hook wrist

Single whip for deflection and striking.
Source: Enter Tai Chi
The chamber can also be used to deflect inward, in a manner similar to Tai Chi's single whip (see image). Rather than grabbing the arm and pulling to your hip -- like we do in most basic blocks -- we can instead hook the wrist, which allows additional follow up techniques.

One example is the following application for Gae-Baek 19-20, which I learned in an Aikido class. After using both palms or forearms to deflect a straight punch or knife stab (guarding block chamber), you then strike the opponent while simultaneously overhooking their wrist (guarding block). It's important that you hook so that you can grab your opponent's wrist from underneath. This allows you to supinate their arm as you pull it out with the nine-block.

Grab their wrist and pull it out and downward while raising your other forearm under their elbow, spraining their arm (nine-block). This is shown in the image below. You may then use move 21 as a takedown.
Application for Gae-Baek 19-20. Source for right column: Howcast
Application 4: Tackle defense

The guarding block works as a simple defense against any tackle or charge. Stepping backwards into the defense, the front arm blocks the opponent's neck, while the back arm overhooks their arm. This allows you to redirect your opponent's energy as they shoot for your legs.
Source: Gun Carrier
From here a few follow-ups are possible. You could strike your opponent's head, or you could try to transition into a lock.

Application 5: Front kick catch

The overhooking motion of the back arm can also be used to catch a front kick, as I detailed in my post on Joong-Gun. The front hand either strikes or posts on the back of the opponent's head. You may then use the follow-up move in Joong-Gun -- front stance upward elbow strike -- to throw your opponent as you simultaneously pull down their head and lift their leg. Use the stance shift to step outside the opponent's standing leg, tripping them as you throw.
Application for Joong-Gun 7-8/9-10. Source: TakingItToTheMMAT
Application 6: Pushing takedown

Source: Yin Style Bagua
Occasionally you see the guarding block used as a type of wedge throw, trying to push your opponent down over your hips. I think there are better techniques for this, but you do see this sort of thing in Chinese martial arts such as Bagua (left gif). The idea is that you are deflecting then returning energy, taking advantage of your opponent's retraction.

This is commonly applied to using multiple guarding blocks in a sequence, such as in Won-Hyo and some Kukkiwon forms. In the following defense for a grab, perform an elbow strike as you shoot back your arms (first guarding block chamber). Then push out the side of the opponent's head (first guarding block) while hooking their shoulder. Continue into the chamber for the second guarding block, pushing and throwing the opponent via their head and shoulder.
Source: Bunkai Jutsu
Application 7: Two-handed pull

This is specifically for the closed-fist version of the guarding block. The parallel motion of the two fists makes a good two-handed pull. You may have noticed that in a number of forms (Won-Hyo, Joong-Gun, Choong-Moo, and Gae-Baek), this pull follows a side kick. You may use the side kick to either kick out the opponent's leg or to set up a trip/reap, and the closed-fist guarding block to pull your opponent over it.

Tai otoshi throw
One form that this may be the intended use for is Choong-Moo, because you land backwards after you side kick (move 15). This allows you to trip as you pull your opponent, similar to a tai otoshi throw. The follow-up 45-degree roundhouse kick may then be used as a contingency move in case your opponent steps over your tripping leg -- a common defense against tai otoshi. Use it to sweep our their front leg.

Application 8: Standing Armbar

A similar interpretation is grabbing your opponent's wrist with your front hand and elbow with your back hand. You may then use the pulling motion to create a temporary armbar. We can use this for the same set from Choong-Moo described above, this time for a distance grab. Kick the opponent (side kick), pull them forward into an armbar (closed-fist guarding block), and then use the 45-degree roundhouse kick to either kick their head or sweep their front leg.
Possible sequence of defenses for Choong-Moo 15-17, from the Self-Defense section of the Encyclopedia

I have provided 8 applications for the taekwondo guarding block. To those of you searching for applications within the forms you know, I hope this has been helpful.

The karate chamber for shuto uke has its own share of applications: knocking away a limb, parrying a straight punch, etc. I would encourage you to learn both versions and keep what works for you.


1) In Hayashi Ha Shito Ryu Karate, the rising block is chambered inside the reaction hand like in ITF taekwondo. The founder, Soke Hayashi, claims he learned and practiced both versions and that they had different applications. Source.

2) Thanks to rjan Nilsen of Traditional Taekwondo Ramblings for bringing this to my attention.

3) Incidentally, the application for the end of Bassai Dai makes a good follow-up to this application of the guarding block. You can view it here (practical kata bunkai). Combined with the roundhouse punch defense, personally I would teach this as an application for the two consecutive guarding blocks in Won-Hyo. 

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