The basic principles of Shotokan include; contraction and expansion of the core muscles, big muscles drive the small muscles, proper use of the hikite (draw hand) makes the striking hand faster, relaxation leads to more speed, there are no blocks in karate, twist the wrist at the end of each hand technique, and changing directions.
Contraction and Expansion of the Core Muscles
Correct movement comes from learning how to control the contraction of the large core muscles in and around your hips and stomach. If you will tuck your pelvis under your body instead of having your tush stick out, it tightens the stomach muscles. Push your weight in the direction you want to go and tighten your stomach even more, now your core muscles are contracted. To move rapidly all you have to do is release the energy in your hips and keep the rest of your body relaxed.
Big Muscles Drive the Small Muscles
When we speak of letting the big muscles drive the small muscles we mean that to start each movement we contract the hips, pelvis, and stomach first. We release that energy to move and then the muscles in our back are what we use to drive each technique. For example, to throw a punch, you would think that you just push your fist out in front of you with your shoulders. In reality, we want to start the movement with the big muscles around your shoulder blades. One fist goes forward and the other comes back.
Proper Use of the Hikite (Draw Hand)
The fist that comes back is what we call hikite (draw hand). The hikite is actually what controls the speed of your hand movements. The faster you draw that hand back to your hip, the faster your striking hand will move. To test this theory, make fists with both hands. Put your left hand out in front of you. Keep your left in position and punch as fast as you can with your right. Leave your left out in front, pull back the right. Now, pull you left fist back to your left hip slowly and at the same time punch as fast as you can with your right. Third, put your left fist back out in front of you. Pull the left fist back to your left hip as fast as you can while punching as fast as you can with the right.
Did you notice the difference? In a nutshell, this is what our predecessors in karate have studied and developed; the fastest and most effective way to move our bodies. The human body only moves in certain ways. We try to maximize the efficiency, speed, and coordination of our movement.
Relaxation is the Key to Speed
Being relaxed leads to more speed. If your muscles are tense, it is very difficult (if not impossible), to move them as quickly as possible. To test this theory, get a friend to help you play the hand slap game. Face your partner at about ½ an arm's length distance. One person will lay their hands out palm up at elbow height. The other person will set his hands palm down on the palms of the other. Now, the person with is palms up will try to quickly and lightly slap the back of the other's hands. The person who has his palms down will try to move his hands out of the way before he/she gets slapped. The person who has his/her palms down should tighten his/her arm and shoulder muscles and try to avoid the slap as quickly as possible. Do this a few times and notice if you have enough time to move your hands out of the way. Now, relax the arm and shoulder muscles and try it a few times. Isn't the difference amazing?
There Are No Blocks in Karate
There are no blocks in karate. Each movement that looks like a block is meant to be an attack. If someone tries to punch or kick us, we want to throw the block so quickly and effectively that it hurts the attacker. The theory here is that if you can hurt an attacker with just a block, how much more will it hurt if you counterattack him/her. I believe that this is particularly important in today's legal, judicial, and lawsuit climate. For example, if you were in a scuffle at a local pub, someone threw a punch at your face and your hurt him with a block; wouldn't that discourage him or perhaps his buddies from continuing the aggression? Personally and morally maybe you would want to respond with even more aggression and damage. However, legally as a karateka (karate student/artist), you may have a problem if you over respond to a situation like this.
Focus and control is not just a mantra. Each person needs to find a way to focus his/her mind, body, and techniques. We all need to control our emotions especially in fight or flight situations like the one described above. This is one reason karateka train. When a fight is happening we don't have to respond with fear. We know what to do. Our training implants the muscle memory. Now we can respond appropriately.
Twist the Wrist at the End of Each Hand Technique
An essential principle in all styles of Karate is to twist the wrist at the end of each hand technique. The twisting motion amplifies or magnifies the effect of hand techniques. This theory best explains the difference between a push and a punch. To test his theory, again, get a partner to help you. Stand arms length from each other. One person will punch the other in the chest without twisting the wrist at all. Now, punch again twisting the wrist right at the moment of impact. You don't have to punch your partner as fast and hard as you can to have a good understanding of the results. Try to punch with the same speed and strength as the first punch to make it a fair test. Did you notice a difference in the impact and/or result of the 2 punches?
There are in effect 8 directions you can move at any time. They are: forward, backward, right, left, left front, left back, right front, and right back. It's not always best to move straight forward or backward. Sometimes you might need to use a little misdirection to effectively deliver or avoid a strike. To test this theory, have your partner rapidly move straight toward you. Back straight up rapidly. Did he catch you? Now, have your partner move straight toward you at the same speed. Step to the side as he gets close. Did he catch you?