Blocks, parries and passes describe a continuum of defensive options based on redirection of an opponent’s attack.
Though employing different energies, each method is a means to an end, which is to avoid injury and create an opening to counterattack or escape. In any martial technique, there are two essential phases: entering or opening your opponent, and what you choose to do after that.
Blocks are kind of the workhorse of the trio. They are powerful sweeping strikes, the kind usually taught to beginners in martial arts to give them structured form and develop muscle control. Advanced practitioners don’t need the big wind-up, though. Their movement is direct and efficient, integrating the whole body in explosive movement. Power comes from focus at the point of impact.
The lower part of the forearm, from the midpoint down to the elbow, should be used for blocking. This is the strongest part of the bone, well supported by muscle, and doesn’t exert a lot of leverage against one’s elbow and shoulder. Some arts, like Isshin-ryu karate, strike with the muscle on inward or outward sweeps to protect the bone from injury, but most arts use the hard edge of the bone as the weapon.
While sometimes disparaged as slow or basic, as used by an expert these are dynamic and powerful limb destruction techniques. Muay Thai is famous for elbow strikes, and some empty-hand styles of Filipino martial arts employ a variety of hard joint-breaking techniques as well.
While hard blocks can be devastating if successful, the risk is leaving oneself in a vulnerable position as a consequence of committing too much power. This is as true of a fencer being open to a riposte as it is of a driver losing control of a speeding vehicle in a corner. Control of balance allows options.
Parries might be thought of as lighter blocks, redirecting an opponent with less force, a way to bypass an opponent’s attack with minimal energy. Parries can range from soft touches to forceful pops, slaps and whipping motions that attack joints and pressure points. These can be done with the upper forearm or various parts of the hand, which, because of the extension and leverage of the arm, move faster than the elbow. Being speed based, the whole body dynamic is generally lighter and more mobile for parries than blocks, though both methods seek to focus against an opponent’s weaknesses while avoiding their power.
Both blocks and parries intercept and deflect the trajectory of an attack. A stop-hit is a form of defense that uses aggressive timing and angles to beat an opponent to the punch. A vigorous parry performs a stop-check type of hit, generally grabbing or sticking to the opponent’s limb for control rather than knocking it askew.
Filipino arts often utilize 1-2-3 timing in sequences like parry-check-hit. Some classical arts teach 1-2 block-and-strike timing while other arts may teach simultaneous block-and-counter moves. The 1-2 timing is a natural rhythm that often winds up with trading blows, whereas the 1-2-3 timing interjects a limb immobilization through checking that disrupts an opponent’s natural instincts.
Simultaneous timing works best either by surprise or if there is a clear technical superiority against an opponent. In other words, there is a higher risk/reward factor here, less opportunity to get out of trouble. 1-2-3 timing helps establish control over potentially dangerous counterattacks, and practicing this form of continuous checking develops one’s sensitivity and quickens the reflexes for both defense and offense.
Sometimes the best option is to pass, essentially a longer parry or block that sweeps the opponent’s attack along using momentum and knowledge of leverage to gain a tactical position of advantage. Whereas I think of blocks and parries as mostly linear deflections, passes tend to be more 3-dimensional and use misdirection as well as redirection of energy to overextend or exaggerate an opponent's movement.
The general intent of a pass is to reposition oneself either from the inside to outside of the opponent, away from the opposing hand, or vice versa to attack vital centerline targets, all the while keeping him unbalanced while moving purposefully oneself.
Passes can be categorized as high or low, and to the inside or outside. These are the four key components. Beyond that, they can be smooth redirects, such as a single parry that sweeps an attack away harmlessly, or can utilize a disruptive check/hit as a setup for the pass. Here again we see the 1-2-3 timing as parry-check-pass, which should be the lead-in to a follow up finishing sequence such as strikes or holds.
Passes cross our centerline, a vulnerability of the tactic. Control your opponent’s reach without changing your own range by extending the vertical angle of the opponent’s limb. In other words, if passing a low slash, suppressing it downward as it crosses your midsection is equivalent to taking inches from his reach while pointing the weapon further away from its target. A straight pass alone may only hasten or lead the opponent in to his target. If doing an overhead pass, give it some lift to upset an opponent’s balance and limit his options.
Passes, as well as blocks and parries, are not executed by one part of your body but by the whole. The three key elements I first identify in techniques are right hand, left hand, and body alignment. From these I should be able to identify balance, footwork and movement.
To make any technique work, body language must be congruent. This means top and bottom, left and right, front and back, inside and out. To block hard, feel strong. To parry elusively, be quick. To pass effectively, take charge and be directive. You are controlling not just your own timing but your opponent’s as well, dictating where he goes and predicting his responses. Done well and he has as much free choice as a mark on the street playing Three Card Monty.