The tall and the short of it, part 1

For some reason, we've never had that many female students in our dojo. Which is odd, because our school tends to eschew the sometimes over-the-top, testosterone-fueled, machismo that predominates many other fighting art schools, an attitude that I would suspect turns off a lot of women. On the contrary, although mainly men, we're such a nice, easy-going bunch of guys (heck, our old dojo cho used to, on rare occasions, dress in a pink gi with a black sash around his waist and demonstrate as "the Aikido Fairy"), you'd think women would feel more at home.

I think it's a shame, really, because I think as far as defending yourself goes, aikido and even judo are ideally suited to situations where bigger and stronger are pitted against smaller and—well, I hate to say "weaker", but perhaps "more delicate".

Recently, though, we've had a new student start attending aikido and judo classes who happens to be a girl, and a relatively small one at that. It's been interesting to observe. I also worked with a nidan (male) the other week who is a good foot shorter than me (older, too, with some metal parts implanted in his hips and legs that even further limit what he can do), and half the time, he kept explaining that this is the way he did it because he was shorter and it worked better for him.

That brought up an interesting few days of contemplation on my part, followed by a discussion in class this morning. While aikido (and judo) should theoretically "work" regardless of your size or build, there are different ways to "approach" them that can take advantage of one's size compared to our partner.

At it's core, it has to do with which axis of off balance works best for you. By axis of off-balance, I mean that uke can either bend backwards (shoulders behind hips/feet) or bend forward (shoulders in front of hips/feet) or to bend to either side (one shoulder off to the side of one foot). With that in mind,...

If you're tall, break uke backwards.
For example, take me. I'm six foot two, which is taller than the majority of the people I work with. I find that, for the most part, I tend to use that height to my advantage and get my uke's bent backwards in spine lock, sort of "looming" over them.

If you're short, break uke forward.
If you're short, the singular advantage you have is that uke has to come down to get at you. He's already directing his energy somewhat downward, so you might as well keep it there. Let him come to you.

Whether you're tall or short, break uke to the side.
To the side, or if you think about it in terms of catching uke while walking, down the line of his feet seems to be fairly universal. However, I've noticed that short people tend to do well extending uke down the line from in front (again, letting uke come down to you) whereas taller people, such as myself, do well knocking uke down the line of his feet from behind. I hesitate to put it in terms of "pull" and "push" lest anyone think I'm advocate exerting any kind of undue force, but it at least describes the basic action and direction tori should be thinking in.

I've also noticed that there's also a difference in how taller and shorter players either compress or extend uke's structure. You see, everyone, regardless of size, is relatively strongest when their arms are at about mid-distance from their core. Imagine trying to lift a fairly heavy dumbbell. If you hold it out all the way at arms length, it's pretty tough to lift or curl it. If you pulled your hands all the way to your chest and tried to manipulate the weight, it would be pretty tough, too. But if your hands are out in front only slightly, elbows near your sides, you can affect that weight in a lot of ways. So,...

If you're taller, compress uke.
In general, you compress smaller people, well, even smaller. Wad them up into little balls. More on that later.

If you're shorter, stretch uke out.
Take that length and stretch it out.

I'll elaborate and clarify on all of those ideas in upcoming posts: first with aikido; then, with judo nage waza (throwing techniques); and then, with judo ne waza (grappling techniques).

Now, are there exceptions to all this? Probably. They're not rules, after all. Just some thoughts to consider.

I also plan on grabbing the new girl and experimenting a little, and I'll let you know what we find. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the next installment, where I'll go through junana hon kata and talk about a few variations you might try based on whether your taller or shorter.


  1. thank you for this great article!


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