by David Elkins
Sandan, Uechi-Ryu karate
I’m intrigued by the similarity between the Olympic hook grip and a Uechi-Ryu karate hand structure called the Bushiken (coiled thumb). It’s ironic that the same hand structure serves two masters as diverse as those of lifting and karate.
Let’s explore the similarities and differences between the hook grip and the bushiken. One supports the lifting of massive weight and the other is a delivery system of one of the most lethal strikes in karate.
GRIPPING THE BAR
There are several ways that one can grip a barbell when lifting. These variations are particularly relevant to the pulling motions of clean, snatch, power clean, power snatch, hi-pull, pull from blocks, bent row, deadlift, etc. You get the picture….the movements that are characterized by coach Bill Starr as “defying gravity.”
· The most common configuration is the parallel grip. This is just what it sounds like–both hands address the bar palm down. This is the “weakest” grip as both thumbs are oriented in the same direction (remember how to get out of a grab? Go against the weak link in a grip–the thumb.)
The advantages of the parallel grip are that it strengthens the grip and forearms to a greater degree than the other two varieties. It is also safer than the reverse grip as I shall explain in next section.
· The next most common is the so-called reverse grip in which the hands are configured one/palm up and one/palm down.
This grip is stronger than the parallel grip since it eliminates the weak link of parallel thumb placement. It does, however, suffer the disadvantage of allowing one to lift the bar only in a limited range of motion. It’s greatest utility is found in the performance of the deadlift. It supports prodigious weight; however, there is a cost. Such a structure may cause the spine to torque to accommodate the configuration of the upper extremities. Coach Louie Simmons advises us to reserve the reverse grip for strength contests. He suggests compensating for the bar’s tendency to “windmill” by placing the foot corresponding to the hand in the curl grip out an extra inch or so when preparing to lift.
The reverse grip structure is common to the so-called Yin/Yang hands of Uechi-Ryu and many martial traditions. In martial arts this hand structure usually “hides” a meaning of either placing a very secure grip upon the upper extremities of an opponent to perhaps pull him into a kick, or a grappling maneuver in which the opponent’s body is rotated to take-down or vertebral fracture.
· The least common is the hook grip. In this grip used by Olympic lifters, the hands are parallel and the thumbs are wrapped around the bar prior to closing the fingers. This grip will allow the lifter to hoist much more weight than the parallel grip in a greater range of motion than the reverse grip. This is a variation that is made for the karate-ka (practitioner.)
An additional advantage of the hook grip is that while you are lifting, you are building one hell of a strong bushiken! Go easy at first as the grip can hurt if you’re not used to it — the bushiken will always hurt!
GRIPPING THE THROAT
The Bushiken is formed by holding the hand out as though to stop traffic; tensing the first and second joints of the fingers so that the hand is concaved with the fingers touching each other; and then tucking the thumb against the edge of the palm so that the knuckle is underneath the index finger and the tip under the middle finger.
The finger structure described above is the foundation for bushiken and can be modified to fit the anatomical configuration of whatever target the practitioner strikes. The fingers may be open, closed, begin closed and then open, or begin open and then close. These variations will be clear when applications are presented.
The exact placement of the thumb can also vary depending on the target to be struck. The knuckle and last segment of the thumb are used in striking. The bushiken is effective against both hard (the head) and soft targets (the throat, pressure points on the torso, the kidneys, the testicles, and the vulnerable inner aspects of the upper and lower extremities.) The bushiken can also be employed as the “encoded message” of an iron palm open hand slap. A well-placed, bushiken-powered slap to the temple by a trained practitioner is entirely capable of rendering its recipient unconscious.
The bushiken hand structure is found in almost all Uechi-Ryu kata (forms). A good way to conceptualize the bushiken is to imagine your open hand as a mallet striking, and the thumb as a ball peen hammer in the center of the mallet.
It is important to realize that the strike is only the beginning of the impact of bushiken. Once the strike has been made, the thumb and remaining digits move in a pincher fashion to rip and crush whatever they encounter.
APPLICATION AND VARIATION OF BUSHIKEN
“WHY YOU #@^**&!, I’ll TEAR YOUR HEAD OFF
Your opponent punches at head height with a looping right hand (a very common occurrence in a real fight.)
Strike into the centerline (the imaginary plane that connects the core of your body to his) with your left hand. Your strike will describe an egg shaped path and strike upwards into the chin. Don’t strike straight out — allow the trajectory of your strike to have an elliptical shape so that contact is made from underneath. This strike although simple in appearance and execution, represents a high level concept: that of simultaneous attack and defense. When you defend with this movement, you have both blocked his strike and returned fire all in one motion
“THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING”
Our attention thus far has been exclusively on the first phase of the bushiken strike, the impact of the palm heel and coiled thumb. There is more to discuss though — the bushiken is “a gift that keeps on giving!” The tensed fingertips strike the nose, cheeks, and/or eyes either simultaneously with, or immediately following the impact of the palm heel/coiled thumb. The exact location of the finger tip strikes is a function of two variables: the length of your fingers and the degree of lethality your attack demands.
“IS IT SAFE?”
Remember these chilling words of the infamous Dr. Mengele in the movie “Marathon Man?” Alas, if you are the recipient of the bushiken strike, the pain is not yet over. The third and final phase of the strike is a ripping/tearing motion. A hand conditioned by the kata and ancillary exercises of Uechi-Ryu karate, or hook-style lifting is capable of causing massive trauma to flesh.
Although the movement involving the bushiken is now complete, the attack is not necessarily over. Your adversary may be in an altered state of consciousness or just plain mean. Any number of follow up sequences may be used to finish off the opponent. The description provided above only addressed use of your left hand. No one wants to engage in combat with “one hand tied behind their back.” Similarly while you are deploying the left hand consider any number of strikes possible with your right hand or elbow. Various options of kicking or knee attacks are also possible if you have successfully trapped your opponent and are using the ripping motions of the bushiken to bring his head in a downward trajectory.
In conclusion, even if you have no aspirations to Olympic style lifting, consider using the hook grip. Its advantages are threefold. It will allow you to lift greater weight that the conventional parallel grip. It will strengthen your fingers, hands, and forearms to a greater degree than the reverse grip. And finally, its use will cultivate the bushiken, the coiled thumb of Uechi-Ryu karate.
To that end, give pause should you ever find yourself inclined to hassle a lifter. He or she may be a trained karate-ka, in full command of the hook grip, the secret weapon of mayhem.