Feature Article of the Quarter


By: C. Bruce Heilman (IKKF President)

Note: Photos accompanying this article are presented in the new section Virtual Dojo

Okay, you've been studying your martial arts for some years now; your school is a good one, and you've been putting in the hours and effort. Your training includes substantial sparring and self-defense skills, and you feel pretty confident that you can take care of yourself if need be. But then consumes the test. A small group of hooligans is on the prowl and they single you out as their next victim. Your reactions are reflexive, born from long hours in the training hall. The situation is under control until your retreat becomes blocked. As you go for the man on the outside, hoping to get outside the group, you suddenly trip on that deep crack in the sidewalk and go sprawling, head over teakettle, right into the middle of the group. Your life flashes quickly through you mind - you are finished - or are you?

If you are a typical karate student, you probably spend most of your training time practicing techniques from a standing position. You might have been exposed to a few ground fighting fundamentals, but it is quite doubtful that you have drilled with them regularly, even though they might well be crucial to effective self-defense. After all, a good fighter - a trained fighter - should be able to keep on his feet, right? Wrong!!

Street survival is not sport karate, with its rules and its judges, It is not kata practice with its perfection of technique. Even full-contact sport fighting virtually ignores the area of ground-fighting. Ground fighting, in fact is a vital aspect of real life, down and dirty self-defense - one that should be practiced by every well rounded karate-ka. And indeed, ground fighting can be nearly as versatile and effective as upright fighting if practiced with the same dedication.

Ground fighting obviously has several inherent limitations, the largest of which is mobility. However, the same basic fighting principles are involved as those in standard, erect fighting. It is only that the actual execution of these techniques may differ somewhat. These principles include:

o Conservation of motion,
o Multiple-opponent methods,
o Critical distance,
o Explosive action, and other familiar concepts.

The overall goal of learning and practicing ground fighting techniques is not to supplant normal fighting methods, but rather to provide greater versatility and competence in the event of an actual incident. Through the practice of ground fighting techniques such as those which will soon be described, the student should at the very least, be able to fend off the attacker(s) until he/she can manage to regain a standing position.

As in any other training, it is important to practice techniques in their proper order. Here, break falls should be practiced and drilled until they are reflexive and natural. Basics: on-guard positions, basic attacks, ground movement, etc., should follow. Last is practice in the actual applications of the ground fighting techniques. The actual application should start against one opponent and then progress to multiple-opponents. Students are cautioned not to attempt to master the application of ground fighting before becoming thoroughly familiar with the pre-requisites: break falls, and basics, as ineffective and possibly hazardous techniques applications could result. The accompanying text is designed to introduce the student to a logical training program for learning ground fighting.


As a pre-requisite to ground fighting, a student should have a through familiarity with beak fall techniques. Once the student has over come the fear of falling he can concentrate on the ground fighting. Start our by assuming the final break fall position and practice the slapping motions. Then move up to a crouched position, ultimately working up to a full standing position from which to start the bread fall. In starting your bread fall practice, a mat or other padded surface is recommended to minimize injury due to incorrect technique. Break fall practice should include: side, front, rear and roll break falls.


There are four (4) basic on-guard positions utilized for defense in ground fighting. The each provide varying degrees of protection / mobility. In all cases the arms and legs should be kept close together to minimize body targets and maximize offensive mobility. The Low Guard position is generally the first position to be utilized after a break fall technique. The Medium Guard position is the most mobile and is normally used prior to offensive pivoting and or kicking attacks. The High Guards are transitional portions between ground fighting techniques and raising up to a standing position.


The basic attacks presented herein are limited to leg / feet techniques, although offensive hand techniques such as straight punches, ridge hands and knife hands are practical when used in counter attack situations.

o Front Thrust - This kick starts our from either a low or medium on-guard position. Thrust the high leg out into a thrust kick with the lower leg brought up to provide coverage / support.

o Side Thrust - Similar to above except that you are executing a side thrust kick using either the edge of the foot or the heel edge.

o Roundhouse Kick - Again similar to the above, except that you are executing a roundhouse kick with either the ball of the foot or the instep.

o Hook Kick - This kick comes from the outside of the opponents guard and uses either the heel of the sole of your foot as the striking surface.

o Double Leg Thrust Kick - This is a more complicated kick which is generally executed from an offensive circular roll. Kick upward with both legs supporting your body with your arms.

o Leg Sweep - This is a quick little technique used to get your opponent off balance. Hook his lead leg at the ankle and pull it forward about a foot or two.

o Front Scissors - Explode from your on-guard position extending both legs outward to catching your opponent's legs. Note the left leg is high and behind the opponents leg with the right leg low and in front. By twisting your body to the right you will force your opponent to fall forward. By switching your legs you can turn the front into a rear scissors technique and reverse the direction of fall for the opponent.

o Leg Takedown - This technique uses both of the defenders feet to entrap the opponent's lead leg and execute a takedown.


Ground movement techniques are the heart of your ground fighting. Through effective use of these movement techniques, the student can evade attacks (by straight or angular distances), move toward an opponent as part of an attacking movement, and fakes / baits to set-up an opponent. As a general rule - the student should try to keep his feet between himself and his opponent at all times.

o Pivot - The pivot movement works from all three on-guard positions. The key point here is to use your support arm to turn your body to maintain position to an opponent.

o Side to Side - This movement works from either the low or medium on-guard positions. From your right on-guard position you can turn to your right ending in a left on-guard position.

o Circular - The curricular movement technique provides for the maximum extent of ground movement. It can be used for both defensive and offensive actions. The student should practice by combining a series of these circular movements to roll in a circle.


As with normal fighting, ground fighting techniques can be divided into three distinct types. These are synonymous with traditional karate's principles of: Sen; Sen-no-sen; and Sen-sen-no-sen. Attack options for each of these situations are described below.

o Direct Attacks - In the direct attack situation you maintain your position to the opponent keeping your legs close to the body. When your opponent gets within range you can attack with any one of the basic kicking techniques.

o Counter Attacks - When your opponent attacks with a kick or punch, you block the attack with your hands and counter with your legs.

o Set-Ups - In the set-up situation, you bait your opponent (ex: by exposing your back) to lure him to move toward you, then execute an offensive circular roll followed by an appropriate attacking technique.

The following presents a quick overview of the various defensive / offensive technical options available to the student.

Direct Attacks:

Counter Attacks:


In summary, a karate-ka adequately training in ground fighting techniques can successfully defend against single or multiple-opponents while on the ground. A few basic guidelines to keep in mind are as follows:

o The first rule of ground fighting is to become proficient with the break fall techniques,

o Always attempt to minimize your target vulnerability,

o Always keep your legs between you and your opponent except when you are working a set-up,

o Remember - your legs are the first line of defense and offense,

o Use high effectiveness / low risk factor techniques,

o You only want to engage a maximum of two opponents at any one time whenever possible,

o Ground fighting is only a temporary defense until you can regain a normal erect fighting position, and

o The keys to effective ground fighting are break falls, body positioning, ground mobility and unexpected reactions / attacks. Physical strength and technical proficiency are important but secondary considerations.

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