One of the first things I learned in Wing Chun that completely caught me off guard was the idea of pivoting on my heels rather than the balls of my feet. Now, you would think this is a fairly simple thing to do. I mean, we walk around every day and use all parts of our feet to move. But this was not so. Trying to teach myself how to move, or rather unteach myself the years of learning to pivot, proved to be a several week adventure.
It prompted me to start to examine and study the role of the heel in Martial Arts stances. Most Martial Arts disciplines that teach anything about positioning of the foot normally focus on the angle of the foot. Itís either straight on or at a 45-degree angle. Certain stances force the focus on the foot to be on the front or ball of the foot, such as transition movements like a cat stance or kicks. But very few actually specifically instruct the use of the heel of the foot.
Furthering this study, many sports and athletic activities emphasis the use of the ball of the foot as well. In dance, most movements are done with the heels purposely off the ground. In track and field, in order to be effective in running you normally land somewhere between the heel and the midfoot and spend as little time as possible in this position. Some runners even just use the balls of their feet to run. In bicycling, you normally pedal using the balls of your feet, not the heels. If the heel is used, itís normally for planting or holding a final immobile position such as in the long jump or shot-put.
Even the simple act of seeing how normal people walk every day, it is clear from the wear patterns on the soles of their shoes that the front of the foot is utilized far more than the back. So why did Wing Chun put so much emphasis on this seemingly awkward part of the foot?
The answer lies in the application and techniques. And itís a solution that can be applied to any Martial Arts study.
First off, one must acknowledge that Wing Chun derives most of its strength from close range attacks. Youíre often well within the normal armís length from your opponent. Thus the ability to move is limited. Pivoting on the heel rather than the ball of the foot in such close range allows for a larger generation of energy or force and minimizes the amount of physical displacement needed to generate such force.
When one pivots on the heel rather than the toe to throw a punch, the body alignment doesnít change. Pivoting on the toes causes the upper body to twist. Again, this is great for generating reach. But in at close range, it means that the power in that strike isnít realized until the full reach is obtained, which would be outside of a close-ranged fight.
Use of the ball of the foot allows for range, extending the leg and foot out further than the area of the body. Using the heel to step down first creates a shorter step, pulling the body back, which is exactly what is needed when thereís a small amount of space to work in.
On the defensive, pivoting on the heels allows for you to still generate some force even though you may be moving backwards. While some people are able to still generate some power when moving backwards, having the rooting of the heel as you move backwards allows for a lot more. The heel allows for rooting to occur, which makes the attacker have to push against the earth beneath the heels and not just the attacker.
Finally, because most Martial Arts movements are based on ball pivots and movements which involve the front of the foot, pivoting on the heel adds an element of the unexpected to your combat. The movements are less exaggerated, thus making it harder to predict when and where you might move to next. It could cause your opponent to over extend themselves and expose vital strike points that they would have otherwise not.
While it might be very awkward for some people to learn to move almost exclusively on the heels rather than the balls of their feet, there are clear advantages and situations where learning this skill would prove beneficial in Martial Arts. If you havenít yet, try to play around with heel pivots in your Martial Arts training. It may just give you the advantage you need.