The Study of Kuzushi
By Neil Ohlenkamp
I was teaching my Judo class the other day, and
I tried to explain the principal of kuzushi, or breaking
balance. The reason I was explaining kuzushi is because
during practice that evening most of the students
were focusing on how to get their bodies into the
proper position to apply the technique we were studying.
Very little attention was being focused on placing
the partner's body into the proper position. As I
explained the importance of breaking the opponent's
balance I could see that everyone understood that
it is easier to knock down another person when he
or she is off-balance. In fact I've noticed that is
quite common for the principles of Judo to be understood
long before they can be applied effectively. It is
obvious, even to someone who has never studied Judo,
that a throw will be more effective and require less
strength when applied to an opponent who is in a weakened
state of balance.
© 1992 Oscar Ratti
In this classical example
of kuzushi being applied for the throw taiotoshi,
tori's hands bring uke into a state of unbalance
while tori remains in a strong, stable position
ready to apply the throwing action.
© 1992 Oscar Ratti
From this position very little
strength or energy is required for tori to
complete the throw. Taiotoshi is classified
by the Kodokan as a hand throw and it is easy
to see how the hands pull uke off balance.
Additional power is brought to the kuzushi
during the pivoting action (taisabaki) as
tori gets into position for the throw.
One of the things that distinguishes a beginner from
a more advanced student is the ability to focus attention
on your opponent's balance. It is one of the differences
between learning a throw, and being able to effectively
apply a throw. Many martial artists tell me that they
know how to do basic Judo throws like seoinage (one
arm shoulder throw) or osotogari (leg outer reaping
throw) for example. However, learning to get your
body into the proper position to effectively apply
your strength is only part of learning a Judo throw.
The real trick to making Judo techniques work easily
is to find a way to catch your opponent off-balance
or to force your opponent off-balance.
Most people do a fine job of getting off-balance
by themselves. One way to apply Judo throws is simply
to catch the opponent at every opportunity that he
or she gives you. It is just not possible to move
without some degree of imbalance. It is certainly
not easy for your opponent to attack you without a
force and movement that makes him or her vulnerable
to your counter attack. However learning to take advantage
of your opponent's imbalance requires a finely tuned
sense of timing. In order to be at the right place
at the right time, you generally have to anticipate
the opponent's movements, a skill that requires a
great deal of experience.
Another way to apply kuzushi is to set up or force
your opponent into a weak position. There are many
ways of moving that will result in your opponent responding
in a predictable way so that you can anticipate it
and take advantage of it. It can be as simple as stepping
forward and pushing on your opponent, which usually
results in the opponent stepping back, bracing, and
pushing back. This in turn gives you the opportunity
to throw them forward in the direction of their push.
The most common way to force your opponent off-balance
is to use combination throws, where the first throw
attempted puts the opponent into an unstable position
so that a subsequent attack can be successful.
Kuzushi is very often thought of as simply pushing
or pulling. At more advanced levels however it is
much more than that. For example, kuzushi can also
be achieved by breaking the opponent's rhythm, fake
attacks, strikes, changes of body position or grip,
kiai (a shout), or a sudden change in speed or tempo.
A critical element in kuzushi is that it should disrupt
more than the body. Kuzushi is very much a mental
thing. Kuzushi should always disrupt the opponent's
concentration, resulting in a momentary opportunity
for an attack. This is one of the reasons confidence
is such an important factor in Judo. A strong and
positive mental attitude can often dominate a weaker
state of mind, resulting in effective kuzushi.
Regardless of the physical size and strength of the
opponent, kuzushi will always make a throw work more
efficiently. Of course the same principle applies
to any technique, including grappling techniques such
as chokes and joint locks. Jigoro Kano, the founder
of Judo, made the principle of kuzushi one of the
fundamental elements of Judo, distinguishing it from
old schools of jujitsu. The principle of kuzushi is
still considered to be one of his major contributions
to the study of martial arts. Don't neglect it in
your study of Judo.
"The Study of Kuzushi" is copyright ©
2000 by Neil Ohlenkamp, JudoInfo.com, California,
USA. All rights reserved. Published August 1, 2000.
Reproduced with permission.
Drawings by Oscar Ratti - Reproduced with permission
of the artist.
About The Author:
Ohlenkamp is a martial arts writer and founder of
He is a certified United States Judo Association instructor,
referee, master rank examiner, and master coach (the
highest level of certification), and he was awarded
United States Judo Coach of the Year for 1999. He
holds a fifth degree black belt in Judo and a sixth
degree black belt in jujitsu and has over 31 years
of training and experience in various martial arts
as a competitor, instructor, team coach, and tournament
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