How ‘intentional arm bending’ allowed me to strike from almost any close distance.
Disclaimer: This post is not for you if (1) you’re concerned only with practicing ‘correct’ kendo, (2) you’re concerned only with learning techniques directly from high ranking Sensei, or (3) you’re concerned only with making shinai kendo directly representative of swordwork with a live blade.
I was never formally taught this. This technique is not an appropriate beginner’s teaching method. It might not be appropriate for an advanced practitioner. I’m not going to use the shinai as an analogy to a live blade.
My Sensei would could hit me from 50 distances. He could be awfully close to me in tsubazeriai. He could be far away in issoku-itto-no-ma. He could be too close to strike men but still hit my kote. He would hit with the correct part of the shinai on the correct part of my men. That classic “pop” sound would resonate from my men. This is even if we were a mere foot apart. It was some kind of sorcery.
It seemed like he was moving faster than me. Maybe he was moving his center of gravity quickly to get to the right distance. I was wrong, however. I decided to watch carefully and steal his technique. What I learned was that he was changing his arm extension to make up for different distances. His elbows would bend toward his body to make up for how close he was. He was ‘intentionally arm bending’. I’ll explain.
‘Intentional Arm Bending’ – A term I’m going to coin. It sounds awful, but it’s the best I can do.
What is ‘Intentional Arm Bending’?
It’s what lets you hit a target from multiple distances. This is without having to move your center of gravity closer to or further from the target. You can do this by standing in place.
1. Stand in place. Strike a target comfortably without stepping. Remember you naturally extended arm positioning (shisei)
(fig. 1) Extended typical strike position (shisei) for men uchi.
2. Take half a step closer to the target. Stand in place. Strike the same target in place. Use the same arm positioning as the first strike. You’ll strike the target with a deeper part of your shinai. This strike is too deep. You can feel its too deep, so can your training partner.
(fig. 2) Hitting too deep.
3. Now, bend your arms inward and strike the target with the correct part of the shinai on the correct part of the target. It’s a wierd position to be in. But, the datotsu strikes the datotsubui. It looks like an awkward posture. It really is. But, you can arguably create a valid point. This is even if the posture is not ideal.
(fig. 3) Bent arms make up for the close distance.
To strike the target with the tip of your shinai in the second example, you have to bend your arms. This assumes an ‘incorrect’ shisei or body posture. Your arms bending can make up for the closer distance. But, the posture looks a little strange. Your shinai moves closer to you. It comes with the cost of a different shisei positioning of the arms.
“The amount of ‘arm bending’ can change distancing significantly.”
Notice. People have been bending their arms forever.
I noticed that everyone extends and bends their arms differently in any strike. An athletic highschool kid will most likely extend both arms when their men strike makes contact with the target. Elbows can exaggerate and fully straighten as their joints are made of rubber. They aren’t as prone to elbow hyperextension as others. Someone with joint weakness will tend to keep their arms slightly bent when striking men. Some hyperextend for every strike. Some use a variety of arm bending and extending. Some ‘intentionally bend and extend their arms’ to effective manipulate distancing. They condition their opponents and exploit distance related tendencies. I’d rather learn the latter.
The difference in arm position is more exaggerated from a close tsubazeriai position. People rarely strike hiki-kote backing up from tsubazeriai with both arms fully extended. In keiko, it’s not so effective. It takes a long moment to back up and create the distance necessary to hit someone’s kote with elbows straight. That moment is so long. It’s too easy for your partner to respond and take advantage of the slow hiki-kote. People tend to strike with their body closer and their arms bent in this situation. It saves them the awkward timing of backing up before striking. Understanding the advantage of bending arms in a hiki-kote and executing the strike based on the understanding is an ‘intentional arm bending’.
Extending arms makes a strike look confident and finessed. I’ve noticed it’s a powerful tool in teaching kendo newer students. Imagine how complicated kendo would be for a 8 kyu below blackbelt student if he/she has to learn six different arm extensions for each men/kote/do/tsuki strike. It’s overcomplicated and ineffective for teaching. Striking exclusively with full extension lacks variety to me, as an above blackbelt yudansha. I hope that doesn’t come across as arrogant. Striking with only one arm extension creates an easily readable pattern that my training partner can anticipate and take advantage of in keiko.
My ‘Intentional Arm Bending’ Training
After watching my sensei strike from all these distances without moving his center, I was sold. I decided to isolate this technique of intentional arm bending. Practicing how to intentionally bend my arms took daily home training of short 10 to 20 minute sessions. I spend months drilling the many close distances of men/kote/do/tsuki. Starting from drilling the shisei arm positions and gradually building up to the full waza.
I found that there was a continuous gradient of shisei positions I could use to produce strikes of varying distances and angles.
The results were surprising. So surprising, that I hope others will notice and give it a try.
No more safe distances in keiko.
These are some of the results of my ‘intentional arm bending’ training.
- Tsubazeriai became dangerous (in a good way).
- People hang out in the close distance of tsubazeriai to catch their breath. It’s supposed to be too close to strike. It gives a false sense of safety to many people. After isolating the technique of intentional arm bending, I could create openings and strike targets when they least expect it. I could strike men/do/kote even if our bodies were a foot apart. People were required to be more responsive and alert in tsubazeriai when I would apply these close strikes. The idea of “We’re too close to hit.” was turned on its head.
- Close distance (chika-ma) became my zone.
- I’m 6’2” in height. That’s like 188 cm tall. It’s a guess though; I don’t measure myself. Close distances became a place where I could exploit an age old stereotype, “tall guys can’t hit your kote from a close distance.” Or, at least they usually aren’t planning a strike in close distances. An uncomfortably close distance became a place where I could still effectively create a valid strike.
- As ‘arm bending’ techniques became more effective so did ‘arm extension’.
- People react and try to exploit what you present them. Usually. In keiko, I experimented with arm extension as a way to condition my training partner. I used exclusively ‘full arm extension’ in four consecutive strikes. My partner reacted and attempted to exploit my fully extended strikes. My next strike was similar to the last four but I used intentional arm bending. Their reaction and attempt to exploit my technique was ‘off’. They expect extended arms, but they got this completely different distance at the last second. It took a while, but I learned how to condition people to respond to arm bending and extension. Later, I would use exclusively bent arms until their response and setups became tailored to bent arm distances. Once I was sure of a tendency of theirs that attempted to exploit my bent arms, I would pull out a fully extended strike. This was more exciting to me than the prior.
I doubt I can actually coin this ‘intentional arm bending’ term.