It's the Kick That Gets No Respect, But It Works!
The front thrust kick isn't the most dynamic technique in the dojo. Perhaps it's because there isn't a lot of excitement in seeing or performing it.
Unlike a front snap kick that flicks up to head height or even higher, the front thrust kick looks more like you're stomping at a door that won't open. It just doesn't have the elegance. And unlike the snap kick, it's nearly impossible to make an effective thrust kick any higher than you can raise the knee of your kicking leg.
However, the technique can be devastatingly effective and undeniably versatile.
Unlike the snap kick, which directs force upward, the thrust kick sends its energy forward.
The Japanese name for the technique is mae-geri kekomi, which translates as "front kick, thrusting." Unlike the keage, or rising kick, which directs force upward, the thrust kick sends its energy forward or, better yet, down.
Ideally, a front kick is best used when the target is below the height of your waist. If you're flexible and have good springing power in your hips, you can direct it at the chest of your opponent. Problem is, as your knee chambers in front of your chest, your intentions are fairly obvious. If your opponent has even a basic grasp of shifting or evading, he won't receive the full force of the kick and may avoid it altogether.
In a rising kick, power comes from the upward motion of the foot as well as from its forward momentum, leaving your opponent to deal with energy coming from two directions. In a thrusting kick, the power comes in a single, straight line. That makes it easier for him to anticipate and neutralize it. The advantage is that the thrusting kick travels with more power.
The striking weapon in a front thrust kick is the ball of the foot or the heel. Why not the entire foot? With a hard-soled shoe on, the bottom of the foot might have good pushing power, but when you strike, you want to concentrate that power in as small an area as possible. Making contact with the ball or heel does that.
The heel is harder, less susceptible to injury. For it to be the focus of your strike, though, you need considerable flexion in your ankle so you can draw back your toes. Doing heel raises with the ball of your feet on a platform is essential for this kind of flexibility.
More than any other kick, the front thrust kick depends on the proper use of your hips. To see how this is best done, stand with your heels together in a natural stance. Lift your knee and make a thrust kick to the front at waist height.
Now, ask a partner to stand behind you with his open hand just touching the back of your head. Kick again, paying attention to what happens to your head. It will move back a couple of inches. If it moves back more, your power may be coming from your hips but part of it is "leaking" out through your torso. Energy is going backward, not to the target.
Another way of analyzing the execution of the kick is to examine the role of your supporting leg. It cannot be locked. It should have some springiness to it, with your knee bent slightly. If you want a guide, have your partner watch you from the side. When your kick connects, your buttocks should be on a vertical plane with the heel of the foot on your supporting leg. The knee of that leg bends just enough to support that action.
When you kick, try to keep your arms hanging naturally at your sides. If balance is a problem, your arms will tend to come out, like a tightrope walker with a balance bar. Avoid that. The less movement you have in your upper body, the more likely the kick will be successful — which leads us to its major drawback.
No one would describe the front thrust kick as a stealth technique. When you're doing it, as I noted, it doesn't come as much of a surprise. Your knee is chambered, your foot is cocked — there isn't much question about where it's going. That means your opponent need only shift back enough to let the focus of your kick land in the air in front of him, and you've basically offered him your leg for grabbing. The higher its intended target is, the more easily it's grabbed.
There are at least two possible solutions to this weakness, aside from the oft-heard and good advice that you must retract your kick quickly.
First, know that the front thrust kick is most effective against an attacker's knee or the area just above the knee. With the kick aimed there, its force tends to come down. The action is more like a stomp, with the weight of your body and gravity adding to its power. If you miss, you'll have driven deep into your opponent's stance.
Using all caution and good sense, try this: Face your partner in a fighting stance. Lift your knee and execute a front thrust kick aimed at the inside or outside of his knee. (Let him know in advance which one.) Deliberately miss the knee as you move in slow motion with minimal power. When you miss, instead of retracting your foot, leave it out; drive your body in behind it. In effect, you're making what amounts to a big stomping forward step. You'll land well inside the comfort zone of most people. At this point, you should see which close-range techniques are available to you.
Second, follow the way of Okinawan karateka. Start by facing your partner in a natural stance. Stand close enough so that when you stretch either arm out, you can just pinch his uniform at the shoulder. Hold onto the fabric. This is the distance at which you should practice your front thrust kick.
Can you lift your knee high enough — remember to move slowly — to connect with your thrust? Can you use your foot to touch him at waist level without losing your balance or pulling him? This exercise demands flexibility in the hips. If you haven't practiced the basics of the front thrust kick, you'll see your weaknesses now. Your buttocks will stick out or you'll lean forward, trying to maintain your grip on his uniform and still get the kick out.
In all likelihood, this will most often be how the front thrust kick is used. It works well when it's polished because an opponent at close range, even grappling range, doesn't expect you to kick and because there isn't any warning. If you and your opponent are at arm's length, his perspective is dramatically shortened. He doesn't see your knee being chambered, and he can't anticipate the straightforward direction of the kick.
The mae-geri kekomi will never have the grace and fluid beauty of the front snap kick. Practice it, though, and you'll see that it definitely has its moments.
About the author: Dave Lowry is a freelance writer who's trained extensively in the Japanese and Okinawan arts. He started writing Black Belt's Karate Way column in 1986.