The Pullback (Hikite) in Martial Arts

In several martial arts, including Karate, Kung-Fu and Taekwondo, it is very common to see practitioners performing techniques with one hand while pulling back / drawing back the other hand. This pullback, called hikite (or hiki-te) in Japanese, is evident in blocks, strikes and locks. Many have noted that, while the pullback/hikite is prevalent in the performance of forms and “sterile techniques,” in sparring the pullback/hikite is seen much less often (and, sometimes, rarely). This invites several questions:

  • If the hikite is in fact not useful in sparring and self-defense, why do we martial artist practice it all the time?
  • What is the purpose of the hikite?
  • Can a forceful hikite increase the power of your punch?
  • When should you pull back the opposing arm and when should you not?

The Hikite/Pullback

The illustration below shows a karateka performing a front punch (oi-tzuki) with a typical hikite/pullback. As the punching arm moves forward, the opposing arm is drawn back to the hip, into a “chambered” position. The chambering position of the pullback arm could be as low as level with the hips or as high as under the armpit, all depending on the style (ryu) of the martial art. The Japanese word hikite (引き手) literally means “drawing hand:” to draw or pull (hiku 引き) the hand (te 手).

Oi-Tsuki-HikiteA quick note on terminology: I use the terms hikite and pullback interchangeably. Whereas some martial artists use the term pullback for the act of “pulling a punch,” as in the snapping punch that is common in karate styles such as Shotokan, this articles uses the term pullback to mean the act of drawing back the arm, that is, the hikite.

Common Criticism of the Hikite in Real-World Fighting and Self-Defense

A common argument against the hikite/pullback is that it “doesn’t work in real fighting.”

In sports karate, hikite is typically seen in jiyu-kumite (free sparring). Some sports karate kumite rules only award points to techniques with “good form,” the latter being defined in that style to include a hikite.

Jyu-Kumite-Oi-Tsuki-Hikite

The criticism lobbed against such use of the hikite is multi-fold:

  1. Drawing the hand away exposes the practitioner’s body to a counter-strike.
  2. Drawing the hand away slows down the speed of consecutive strikes, since the drawn hand needs to travel a longer distance to its target.
  3. Drawing the hand away is “wasted effort” which serves no purpose. It is the opposite of economy of motion.

The hikite creates an “open position”, which is contrasted with the generally “guarded” punching position of Western Boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA, where the non-punching hand is held in a position covering the face (although, unfortunately, the cover did not help the poor chap below).

MMA-Punch-Covered

Here is a specific example for the criticism of the hikite, in this case from a “real world” self-defense scenario of an overhead attack with a beer bottle. I call it the “perilous hikite” because, as you see, it puts the martial artists in a dangerous position.

dangerous-hikite

One explanation for the hikite is that, in Okinawan Karate and other martial arts, the martial artist uses multiple and near-simultaneous techniques to respond to an attack. This strategy allows the martial artist to get “in-between” the techniques of the perpetrator, break what would otherwise be an onslaught of attacks, and gain control of the fight. In real-world self-defense such a strategy has also been called “searching for a Golden Move” (a Rory Miller term) – a single action which fulfills several goals:

  1. Protects you
  2. Injures the perpetrator
  3. Improves your position
  4. Worsens the perpetrator’s position

Limb controls through muchimi (pressure and friction) and), grabs and locks play a large role in such strategy.

In the context of controlling the opponent, the hikite is a very useful tool. For example, if the martial artist has grabbed the opponent’s limb, the action of rotating the arm while returning it to the chambered position establishes an automatic lock on the attacker’s arm. See the same beer bottle attack example below, with “proper” use of the hikite:

effective-hikite

Another common use of the hikite is to “pull” the opponent into a strike. This is similar to an arm drag technique which can be seen in MMA (although in MMA most commonly the arm drag is used as a setup for a takedown to transition to ground fighting, whereas in self-defense the preference is to remain standing).

hikite-control-center

So it seems like the general rule is:

If you secured a hold on your opponent, pull that arm back while striking (hikite). Otherwise, keep both hands in front of you during the fight.

Certainty, when the hikite is used to immobilize the opponent, or pull the opponent into a strike, it acts to increase striking power. A valid question is whether, with no grabbing, the motion of the hikite increases punching power. Judging from the prevalence of hikite in the performance of kata or in the way that basics and moving basics (kihon) are practiced in many karate dojos, you would think so. As the logic goes, otherwise what is the purpose of continuously practicing a technique that has no utility?

pinan-godan-kata-hikite

Kata practice. Note the hikite (pullback)

In training with different instructors I have heard different explanations for the purpose of the hikite even when one is not grabbing. One common direction is:

“If you want to punch hard, pull back even harder”

I also heard instructors invoking Newton’s third law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” as a reason for pulling back the opposing arm. That explanation usually goes something like:

“Since your punch is moving forward, pulling your other arm back will provide an “equal and opposite” reaction for the body moving forward and therefore increase the force with which you strike.”

I apologize in advance if I am offending anyone here. However, with no doubt, this invocation of Newtonian physics as an explanation for the hikite does not hold water. Whether you pull back your other arm or not, the third law of Newton will hold. There is always an equal and opposite reaction. The pulling of the hikite arm, in it of itself, does not generate power.

In fact, certain movement of the hikite arm actually reduce the power of the punch. For example, in a square punch (a punch with no rotation at the torso), a hikite will undoubtedly reduce the amount of power delivered to the target. Here is an experiment that will prove this to you: with your shoulders square, hold both arms out in a double punch. While keeping one fist out, pull the other fist to your hips. As you may notice, your body and front fist is moving backward, away from the target you intend to punch. How can such motion increase power?

Digging a little further into the physics, we can discover that the hikite as a power boosting tool does have some utility. Karate and other martial arts use several different modes of power generation, with forward movement being only one mode. Another mode of power generation is rotation. Rotational torque generation is prevalent in Western boxing (and in MMA, where many fighters borrow their striking skills from Western boxing). In that regard, allowing the rotating hikite arm to come closer to the body does increase the rotational velocity of the torso. This does increases power somewhat, although the effect is not large. Without getting into the physics, simply think about how ice skaters increase the speed of their rotation by pulling their arms close to their bodies. Look at Rocky Marciano punching “Jersey” Joe Walcott below. Marciano, regarded by boxing historians as one of the best heavyweight boxer of all times, knew a thing or two about power generation. He won 87.75% of his fights by knockout.

Rocky-Marciano-punch-Jersey-Joe-Walcott

 

The Mental Hikite

Putting focus on the reverse motion is not entirely misplaced. In a real fight the attacker and the defender are both moving, and the mass being punched reacts to the strike (as opposed to, for example, a heavy bag that just presents dead weight). In such cases we must recognize the importance of stance and proper alignment. As anyone who punched an opponent as the opponent closes in on them has observed, one has to take care not to be knocked back by the opponent. This is done through proper stance and joint alignment, and is referred to as “rooting” in martial arts such as karate and tai chi.

Take a look at the illustration below, of a response to an overhead knife attack. Both the attacker and the defender are moving in and “colliding.” The attacker is a large male, and the defender is a slender female. If the defender is not properly aligned and rooted, her block and counter will collapse and/or they will be knocked back or down. In this particular case, the “block” made by the defender’s left hand is improperly aligned, and is likely to collapse.

knife-overhead-strike-self-defense-rooting

In self-defense and street fights, where grabbing and pushing are prevalent (a natural reaction, especially by untrained people), and where you are likely to be attacked by someone much larger than you, rooting is of prime importance. Rooting is less of a concern in sports such as Western boxing, where grabbing and pushing are prohibited, and where competitors are matched by weight. In fact, in combative sports, striking from an unrooted position may in fact be preferable as it allows the combative athlete to generate additional torque and power, and also allows for extended reach. The raised heal position of Western boxing and, by extension, MMA, allows for such extended reach and added torque.

To see how rooting is related to the hikite look at the marital artist in the illustration below, who is punching a Makiwara. Unlike a punching bag, the Makiwara provides a counter-push while being struck, so it simulates what happens when two bodies collide. (For a discussion on the differences between training with a heavy bag and training with a Makiwara, read this.) As you can see, the joints of the martial artist are aligned so as to provide an uninterrupted kinetic path to the ground for any reaction force. (I am primarily referring to the force from the opponent’s reaction to our strike, rather than the third law of Newton.)

 

power-generation-reaction-force-vector-makiwara

In the context of rooting, the mental hikite is very useful. By mental hikite I am referring to the mental intent for generating a strong root. Unlike the physical hikite, the mental hikite does not require the opposing arm to be pulled back. The mental hikite is responsible for creating the uninterrupted kinetic chain to the earth.

Just as with a tree, the root grows in a direction opposite to the trunk’s direction of growth. So if we intend to generate a striking or blocking force forward, the root must grow backwards. And in this regard the mental hikite and the physical hikite are the same – they both go in a direction opposite to the main “action.”

At a basic level, at the same time that I am striking or blocking forward, I am creating a root backward. At a more advanced level, to counter the opponent’s reaction, we can grow the root by expanding our intent in all directions – up, down, forward, back, right and left – as shown below. (See this article on power generation and gamaku (center) for more information). As Yang Luchan, the founder of the Yang style of Tai Chi said:

“With an upward comes a downward, with a forward comes a backward, and with a left comes a right. If your intention wants to go upward, then harbor a downward intention.”

I can’t help feel how close this Tai Chi explanation is to the karate explanation of the hikite.

power-generation-six-direction-expansion

In Summary

In summary, the hikite is a useful physical and mental tool in martial arts. Using both hands in tandem is a hallmark of Okinawan karate as well as other martial arts. A general rule for the hikite is:

If you secured a hold on your opponent, pull that arm back while striking (hikite). Otherwise, keep both hands in front of you during the fight.

The hikite is also valuable when the opposing arm is not physically retracted. In that case, sending and intent backwards creates a root for the forward technique.

 

What do you think about the hikite? Your comment is welcome below.

Keep training!

Brian is a life-long martial artist, athlete, and serial entrepreneur. He teaches martial arts and self defense to adult and teen students in San Diego, at the Full Potential Martial Arts dojo in Carmel Valley.

8 comments on “The Pullback (Hikite) in Martial Arts
  1. E. L. Sol says:

    The hikite is used to propel the tsuki in a catapult fasion whilst at the same time grabbing, pulling and ripping body parts, hair skin and arteries which actually makes the tsuki into a mai hikite.
    All the while and at the same time a well drawn hikite is also an oshiro m.p.
    And more.
    Studying the hikite takes years.
    Hikite should not be taken lightly as a secondary technique but is actually an important and leading technique disguised as a lesser one.

    • Hi Elad!
      I agree that, like (almost) everything we do in Okinawan Karate, power comes from the lower body and core, and then gets channeled through the limb. When we use the term “pull back” it is really not the arm muscles pulling back, but rather the legs and the core.
      The utility of the hikite (physical or mental) is indeed vast.

  2. 佐藤 庸弘 says:

    引手は非常に大切で、私も稽古中は厳しく指導しております。

    • For those who are not versed in Japanese: What Hiroshi-san is saying is that the hikite has been very important in his karate training, and a strong focus has been placed on training the hikite.

  3. James says:

    Points on the advantages and drawback of hikite is taken. This one is really a good read.

    • Hi James! It’s not so much that the karate hikite has advantages and disadvantages. It’s more that there are circumstances where the hikite is appropriate, and others where it is not appropriate. Generally, I tend to think “if your arm is holding/seizing something than pull back. Otherwise, leave it at guard.”
      Keep training!
      Brian

  4. Debra says:

    This movement is first taught through patterns. Patterns are precise movements representing theories of power. They also teach students body awareness. Exactly where are my hands, where are my feet and to have control of both. Every punch or kick is rechambered to a certain extent depending on the circumstance and target. Targets change on the fly so knowing where my body is in relationship to my opponent and what target is open dictates what technique I use.

    Downblocks are another technique that is misrepresented. Many artists say it’s used to block a kick. Not true. I’ve held shields while people kick and if you used a downblock to block that kick you’d have a broken arm. Downblocks are more appropriately used as strikes such as to break someone’s grip on a wrist and rechambering the arm that was grabbed now gives you an effective palm heel or elbow to use.

    • Hi Debra!

      With respect to “blocks” in martial arts and karate, there has been a misconception that they are solely intended for blocking. This is not true.

      First, the Japanese word for the what we call “block” is uke, and uke means “to receive” and not “to block.” As you pointed out, trying to employ some “blocks” for the purpose of blocking, can result in a disaster. A karate practitioner trying to block a strong kick with their arm is one example.

      “Blocks” can be used for parrying, trapping, hitting, locking, throwing, and much more.

      Perhaps a subject for a future blog article.

      Brian

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