19 August 2011

Blocking in ITF Taekwon-Do

In a previous post regarding “Defensive Techniques in Taekwon-Do” I grouped blocks in Taekwon-Do into two categories: hard blocks and soft blocks. My correspondences¹ with a fellow martial art blogger, Dan Djurdjevic of “The Way of Least Resistance”, made me contemplate the whole issue of blocking techniques again, causing me to realise that a simple dichotomy of hard blocks versus soft blocks doesn't adequately reveal the nuances of blocking techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do.

What is a Blocking Technique?

For purposes of our discussion we need a definition for what a blocking technique is. To do this, let's start by looking at the Korean terminology. The Korean word for blocking technique is makgi gisool 막기기술; blocking is makgi 막기. The root verb is makda 막다, which carry the meanings of obstruction, i.e. “to obstruct the way” 길을막다; to curb, check or prevent something from happening; to guard against something; to ward off something, like “warding off attacks” 공격을 마다 or “preventing the enemy from entering into” 적의 침입을 막다.

Based on this we can define a blocking technique as a method (typically involving a blocking tool²) to prevent an opponent's attack (i.e. his attacking tool) from entering into your sphere of safety. A blocking technique “obstructs the way” of the attack to prevent the attacking tool from reaching its target. The Korean root word reveals to us that a blocking technique is purposed to “prevent” something from happening—to ward off attacks, by somehow obstructing the way. To “prevent” the attack from reaching its target, the blocking technique has to intercept it and to “ward off” the attack it has to redirect its force.

Put simply, all blocks have this one thing in common: to prevent the opponent's attacking tool from reaching its target. With the exception of checking blocks, this is achieved by intercepting and redirecting the attacker's attack.

Not all blocks achieve this goal in the same manner and some blocks have additional goals beyond merely preventing the attack from reaching its target. Part of the purpose is to also decrease the attacker's tactical advantage and if possible, increase your own tactical advantage.

Hard Blocks / Offensive Blocks

A (Front Forefist) Pressing Block in
Sitting Stance. This block literally
punches the instep of an opponent's
front kick, making it an obviously
offensive type of block.
-- Image Source.
Apart from intercepting and redirecting, another purpose of some blocks, as I have tabled before, is also to hurt the attacking limb of the attacker. The block, therefore, acts offensively. Previously I've called these offensive-blocks “hard blocks.” See my post “Thoughts on Hard Blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do.”

While Mr Djurdjevic (reasoning from his involvement in traditional Karate and Chinese internal styles) effectively argues against blocks also being attacks (see his post “Why blocks are not 'strikes in disguise'”), the idea that some blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do have an offensive function is undeniable since the ITF Encyclopaedia states that the “defense itself . . . carries out the attacking role at the same time” (Volume 3, p. 185). That ITF practitioners are therefore to view some blocks as also offensive techniques is part of our tradition. However, I agree with Mr Djurdjevic that “[b]locks can be strikes – but that doesn't mean that they always are.” We ought not unnecessarily interpret every traditional block as a possible attack. In my mind there is a certain category of blocks—what I used to call “hard blocks” but now prefer to call “offensive blocks”—that has this function “to intercept and redirect” while also “[carrying] out the attacking role at the same time.”

Of course, there are also other types of blocks that are not offensive in nature.

Other Blocks

In my previous post on “Defensive Techniques in Taekwon-Do” I proposed only two categories—hard blocks and soft blocks. Hard blocks are blocks that are also offensive and soft blocks are the rest. I've realised that this is an oversimplification. So in the rest of this post I hope to take another look at “soft blocks” and identify some other categories. So far I have identified four additional categories: deflections, diversions, disequilibriums and checks.

Deflections / Parries

Forearm Downward Block in
L-stance -- Image Source
All blocks intercept and redirect the attack, but it is the way in which they do so that differ. Deflections are blocks that bump into the attacking limb at an angle (sometimes acute angles, other times perpendicularly), which causes the attack to divert from its path. The amount of time the blocking tool is in contact with the attacking limb is very short—just enough to bump it off course. These blocks usually cover a relatively short distance and have a forceful “snappiness” about them.

A deflection-block can rightly be called a parry.

Examples of deflection-blocks are the waist block, some palm or back hand blocks, parries from one's sparring guard posture, on occasion some of the typical forearm blocks, some upward and downward blocks, and so on.


A Palm Hooking Block with the
Rear / Reverse Hand in
Walking Stance -- Image Source
While a deflection-block forcefully changes the course of the attack, a diversion-block changes the attacks direction in a smoother or less forceful manner. The amount of time the blocking tool is in contact with the attacking limb is relatively longer, so that the blocking tool guides the attacking limb into a new direction. This type of block also covers a relatively longer distance, usually in a curved path, as it guides the opponent's attack astray. Diversion-blocks are usually what we have in mind when we think of “soft blocks” and is the type of blocking one would imagine for soft style martial arts like Tai-Chi Chuan.

Examples of diversion-blocks are the hooking block, palm pressing blocks, the circular block, and so on.


A disequilibrium is a blocking technique that aims at breaking the balance of the opponent and do so by either pushing the attacker off balance or pulling (“luring”) him off balance.

A Palm Pushing Block
in Sitting Stance -- Image Source
Blocks that function in a pushing manner aim to intercept the attacking tool as high up the limb as possible—the closer to the shoulder or hip the better. In fact, blocks like the pushing block target the shoulder or pelvis. If the block is done below the major joint (i.e. the elbow or knee), it is performed against the natural bend of the joint, because otherwise the lower-limb may merely bend naturally without the opponent's balance being affected. The scooping block is an example.

The luring block is “designed to put the opponent off balance or to make the attack in vain by drawing the attacking tool beyond its intended point of focus” (ITF Encyclopaedia, Volume 3, p. 287). The luring block might function by actually pulling the attacking limb beyond its point of focus, but often it merely “leads” the limb further than intended—not necessarily holding onto the limb, but rather guiding it along the same path, beyond the opponent's position of balance. This concept is comparable to a principle found in Aikido where the opponent's vector is exploited by enhancing it.


Knife-hand Checking X-block in
L-stance -- Image Source
There is a special name in ITF Taekwon-Do for the blocks in this category—they are known as checking blocks. Checking blocks are authentic blocks, in that they function as actual obstructions put in the way of the attack's path. Checking blocks do not intercept and redirect, they literally just “obstruct the way” 길을 막다. There are different types of checking blocks, but usually they involve both arms to function as barriers against the attacking limb, for instance the X-checking block or the twin-straight forearm checking block. These blocks are often used against powerful kicks, where the mass and associated force of the kicking leg will overcome the attempted interception and redirection of a much lighter and weaker forearm block.


It is possible to group blocks into a dichotomy of hard blocks and soft blocks. Although sometimes useful, this proves to be a too simplistic view of the ways blocking techniques are used in ITF Taekwon-Do. Instead, a more nuanced differentiation group blocks into five categories: (1) offensive-blocks, (2) deflections or parries, (3) diversions, (4) disequilibriums or unbalancing-blocks, and (5) obstructions or checking blocks. Offensive-blocks aim to injure the opponent's attacking limb. Parries deflect the attacking limb off course by bumping into them at an angle, which changes the trajectory. Diversion-blocks guide the attacking limb off course, often at a curve. Disequilibriums focus on breaking the balance of the opponent. Finally, checking blocks put a barrier in the path of the attack and so literally block or obstruct the way of the attack.

Read More:

The catalyst that inspired me to write this post was Mr Djurdjevic's post on “Hard Blocks.”


1. Our “correspondences” refer to comments we left each other on some posts here on my blog (see here) and also at his blog (see here).

2. Volume 2 of the ITF Encyclopaedia identifies the most common blocking and attacking tools; i.e. parts of the anatomy that are most commonly used for defence and offence.


Ymar Sakar said...

I think your 5 categories closely mirror my own personal view of things. Unfortunately, this knowledge doesn't seem to be available or taught in some of the martial arts places I've observed.

Some of my fellow students would have benefited much from knowing this before they started blocking or punching.

I'm not a big fan on people always talking in class. In fact, I adopt Tim Larkin's training model where people doing two man drills should be thinking about serious life and death stuff in an asocial environment, and refrain from using eyes to communicate, facial gestures to communicate, hand gestures, or words or laughing. However, that being said I would approve taking 10 minutes out of every 60 minutes to do a lecture on the primary theory required for the physical drills that will be done non-stop for 50 minutes. By the time they get tired and exhausted, that's when their real time of learning will begin.

A few students had 1-2 years of experience in one or two arts. Not much, but compared to what my standards were, they looked like they just walked into a dojo, a complete newcomer to all martial arts, once I saw their punching and blocking abilities and timing. They put in the time, but they didn't get anything useful out of the training. Part of it was because it wasn't repetitious enough. They didn't get enough repetition to figure stuff out. By the time they did 1-5 reps and started working through the "fuzz" of which foot to place first in the "pattern form", the drill is called and another replaces it.

50 minutes of doing the same... drill. I do not think I would switch drill work in 2 man partnerships every 15 or 20 minutes. Some people really need the repetition work to improve. Really need it.

And since they don't understand the principles or even goal and methods of what they are doing, they can't improve at home either. Catch 22.

If the dan rank of Dan, Sanko, and Iain Abernethey are any indication, they give great distinction to such a rank. One of the benefits of the internet is that I get to learn from people I would otherwise never have known about. It really puts into perspective how Shodan is only 10% of the way to mastery. 10,000 hours of useful training, with shodan only using up 1k of it.

In conclusion, the reason why people learn so slowly in traditional martial arts is because they are not given access to information as fundamental as this one on blocking. It takes high dan ranked individuals to communicate these concepts and research it, yet it is information that forms the foundation for much of the training students do. Otherwise, students often find themselves wasting their time. In this modern era, that's not exactly a luxury that can be afforded in martial arts.

SooShimKwan said...

Thank you, Ymar, for the kind words. While I know I'm not a beginner in the martial arts any more, you may be surprised to know that I do not consider myself a master and often still feel like a beginner. There is still much room for improvement.

I think that there is definitely value in teaching the fundamental principles in classes. I know how that helped me when I started learning Hapkido. One of my Hapkido instructors taught me the underlying principles in Hapkido. It took me about two or three months to internalize those principles where after I just flew through the colour belt ranks. Had someone not taken the time to teach these basic principles to me, I'm sure it would have taken me two or three times as long, following the conventional monkey-see-monkey-do method.

Of course knowing the principles does not substitute many repetitions to commit the motions to your muscle memory en reflexes.

Btw, you mentioned that you also have a blog. Please send me the url sometime.

Ymar Sakar said...

Actually, I'm not surprised. Those with real abilities have this knack. It's called always finding a higher plateau. So even though their current skills outmatch 90% of the entire human population, to them, they are still "learning". Still improving. Higher and higher. Miyamoto Musashi didn't just get high regard in one skill, swordmanship, and just sat on his laurels. He went back to being a beginner with painting, calligraphy, and even had a line of aesthetic tsuba art for katanas (the guard part). He learned all those skills in his free time, integrating them based upon his knowledge of swordmanship and strategy principles.

The so called "masters" that don't have this ability, will eventually be left in the dust by those with true enlightened skillsets. Those that seek to maintain the status quo will be supreme... for a time. Like the rabbit and tortoise. For a time.

As for my blog, I think Dan mentioned that. http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/

If you're mostly interested in martial theory and arts, I suggest using the drop down menu and hitting up war, violence, TMA, etc sections.

It took me around six months to integrate Target Focus Training principles of injury, penetration (linear force ala xingyi), and rotation (bagua like movements). If I had been practicing more physically, I think it would have sped it up along. In order to make up for that, i spent a lot of time learning and studying the principles mentally speaking. It's like when Dan was in the hospital and he couldn't do any martial arts training except visualizing what his hand could move... when he couldn't move his hand. Then he came out of the hospital and used the technique he visualized, and it was much smoother than may have been expected.

I would return to the principles periodically after a few months to relearn the "form" of the ideas in question and compare what I know to what I saw back then. By the time I entered training in aikibujutsu, descended from Yoshinkan aikido that was said to be "complex" and not easy for beginners to learn, I had a relatively easy time adapting to their techniques. Too easy that I wondered if I was fooling myself. Yet compared to my fellows that had 2-3 years of training, only the 3rd kyus to shodans had what I deemed skill on par or beyond my own. It was the first time I had a chance to compare my individual progress with those in the traditional martial arts. It was strange. I was expecting some advantage from learning TFT's principles, especially the six base lock joint locking principles, but the reality exceeded my expectations. And I felt unfortunate that others were not being taught such, for they were very interested in improving.

Ymar Sakar said...

One of the newer students, 13 year old from a local high school, was doing a knife technique with me and one of the higher 3-4th kyu ranked guys. A result of head surgery made the higher ranked kyu, the one with TKD sparring and ATA experience, not up to anything too physical. So I took over much of the physical demonstrating. I was to get a knife in my right hand and lunge or power forward, and the defender, with their knife, is supposed to deflect and control my right attacking arm used in an overhand ice pick grip, and use his right arm to stab his knife into my collar bone/neck area. Well the 13 year old, because we were doing it with a playstyle speed of 25-50%, kept using his hands to grab my forearm. It was working because... I wasn't really intent on stabbing him. So me and the other guy kept telling him to stop using his hands to grab my forearm, but to use his forearm to deflect my forearm. I showed him once or twice, then we went again, and he kept doing it. Obviously because he thought it works and wasn't confident to do anything else. So I asked the higher ranked kyu that I'd like to try a little more force to show why that kind of movement is dangerous to use in this context. He told me to be careful not to hit him, so I angled out my stab so that it would shoot to the (way) outside. Then I launched myself with full body weight commitment at him, and he made contact with his hand on my forearm... and slipped. My arm then had the momentum to carry through, and in this context, I just reversed the blade and stabbed him in the back of the neck. Target would be the cervical spinal column. If the stab doesn't cut it, I would then saw through it sideways to make sure I'd get the target. Could also have stabbed kidneys, if I wanted to take the long way around.

Anyways, using the hand or palm was a fine motor control skill. Even if the technique was using one, I wouldn't have taught it to a 13 year old with barely standard body coordination skill sets. So the technique, using a gross motor deflection, was important for him to comprehend, not to use fine motor "thingies". After that "demo", he was able to now deflect my attacking knife arm with his forearm.

I ranged the mai, or distance, so that I'd end up with my dagger at just beyond his shoulders. That meant I was still half or a full step out from him than would be proper. If I really wanted to stab him, I'd run between his legs, which I didn't do. He didn't even feel the full force of my incoming momentum because I had dampened it. But he felt enough to figure out what mistake he was making and correct it.

Never seen that technique before in my life. Never did a dagger technique like that before. Apparently, I didn't need to.

When teaching principles, I prefer to use gross motor techniques as base examples. Because in my experience, a lot of people try to learn principles with complex motor techniques, and so they spend the predominant amount of their time figuring out the details of the "technique". Which is missing the point.