Relaxing the Right Arm – Benefits, Tips and Gunslingers

This article is on an issue that I pay close attention to for myself (as described later) and for others at the dojo where I practice at:  a “tight” right arm.  I see it often among the beginners and, to a lesser extent, in some of the intermediates when they hold kamae, do suburi or spar in keiko.  And for those normally with a relaxed right arm in keiko at the dojo, the issue may arise unconsciously in more demanding situations such as shiai, shinsa or team try-outs where many eyes may be watching.

The tightness may appear in many ways.  The right arm may be stiff rather than more relaxed before and after the instant of impact of the shinai with its target.  As a result, the sae (snap) of the strikes may be poor and sound more like a “thud” rather than a “pop” (for the men or kote).  While in kamae, one or both shoulders may be raised and the forearm and shoulder muscles may be tense.  Some may tire quickly despite being in kamae and in fairly good health while making hardly any strikes.  The right hand and, in particular, the thumb and index finger may be clenching the shinai tightly.  Some may get blisters in those digits.  These symptoms are probably expected for beginners and those who are right-hand dominant, sparring initially with bogu or experiencing the aforementioned potentially demanding situations.

I had struggled with tight shoulders for many years as described in [KendoNotes TightShoulders].  More recently, thanks to a number of sensei’s including Tsumura Morito (Kyoshi 8 dan) and Kiyoshi Hao (7 Dan) sensei’s, I have become more aware of my right arm (including the right shoulder).  It has become more relaxed.  And when so, my movements and strikes seem quicker, more flexible and easier.  However, the tightness there may creep in when I become anxious, try very hard or try to create an opportunity to strike – for example, when participating in a shiai or facing a very strong opponent.  Then my movement and strikes seem slower, more rigid and more difficult.  As a result, I make sure to check the arm once in a while and loosen it if necessary.

The primary cause of the tightness for me seems to be the preoccupation of the mind on certain thoughts – such as losing, winning, how others may perceive or judge me or trying to force things – rather than being and being present.  The story of “The Samurai and the Tea Master” nicely portrays the effect of this preoccupation of the mind on such thoughts and the power of surrender and acceptance.  Secondary causes are sore muscles from, for example, either insufficient down time between practices or excessive striking.

I describe below some benefits of a relaxed right arm, tips to relax it if needed and a potentially useful imagery of gunslingers.

Some Benefits of a Relaxed Right Arm

Here’s some of the benefits that I have noticed with a relaxed right arm:

  • A more tension-free kamae that helps foster a more calm “usual mind” (平常心, heijoushin).
    • This, in turn, helps me become more aware of the opponent and do less “Wagamama Kendo” (selfish  kendo) as described in [KendoNotes_”O” Sensei].
  • A significantly stronger sae in the strikes.
    • Otherwise, the strikes seem flat and without much whipping power.
  • A better ability to strike faster and respond more easily to attacks.
    • This is much tougher, if not impossible, to accomplish with tight fingers, wrists, arms and shoulder muscles.
  • A more efficient kendo and more energy for keiko and shiai.

Some Tips to Relax the Right Arm

The challenge is in having or maintaining a relaxed right arm – making it into a habit.  Here’s some tips for those struggling with a tight right arm that I have found helpful – thanks to many teachers including Tsumura sensei and Hao sensei.  These are split into mind-related and physical approaches.

  • Mind-related Approaches:
    • The first step is perhaps the most important.
      • To become more aware of the right arm by periodically checking in, when in kamae, if the right fist, arm and/or shoulder is tight or loose.
        • This check can be performed during basic practice outside of keiko or during keiko when at a safe distance from the opponent.
      • A relaxed right arm in keiko at the dojo, a shinsa or shiai is probably better to acquire earlier than later.
        • Generally, the longer the life of a habit, the more entrenched and more difficult it becomes to change or fix.
    • If the arm is tight, I consciously try to loosen the arm muscles, the grip in the right hand (especially in the thumb and index finger) and the right shoulder especially if it is raised.
    • In case the arms are tight due to thoughts, anxieties or fears, such as those mentioned above, then the tips in the section “Mind-related (Psychological) Approaches” in this article [KendoNotes_Calm] may help.
      • Practicing meditation to develop more awareness of the thoughts and a better ability to manage one’s attention, as described in the articles under the category of “Mindfulness and Meditation” may help.
    • Some teachers suggest imagining that the right hand is cradling an egg – perhaps as a means to encourage a more relaxed grip.
      • As this may run counter to the teachings of others, more details on how to grip the shinai can be found at [KendNotes_Grip]
  • Physical Approaches
    • During keiko:
      • I have found a large and extended kiai or hassei (yell) very helpful in relaxing the muscles – at the very start of a match (or other times) when at a safe distance from the opponent.
      • In addition to consciously relaxing the arms as mentioned earlier, placing more power and tension in the core area (the tanden).
      • I have seen some perform a shoulder twitch where one shoulder and then the other shoulder is raised and lowered in quick succession – where even the hips may be wiggled as if drawing the letter ‘S’ with the body.
    • Outside of keiko:
      • Practicing jōge-suburi (上下素振り) in slow motion and consciously relaxing the right arm.
        • Closing the eyes helps direct attention to the arms.
      • In case the muscles are constantly tight to begin with, then stretching or deep-tissue massage therapy of the muscles before or after practices (as also described in [KendoNotes_DeepMassage]).
      • Developing stronger muscles in the left arm, wrist and hand to support the weight of the shinai.   This may come gradually with time and suburi.


To help motivate the importance and value of a relaxed right arm, I sometimes describe the following imagery for the beginners:

Imagine being a gunslinger in a duel.  Would you rather have a tight arm or relaxed arm?

May you be as fast or faster than Quick Draw McGraw (a cowboy cartoon character from years ago)!


[KendoInfo_Shikai] Geoff Salmon, “The four sicknesses “shikai” – is there a cure?” KendoInfo.Net, April 13, 2015.

[KendoNotes_Calm] Young, “Ways to Calm the Mind and Body for Shinsa and Shiai (Part 1),”, Oct 13, 2017.

[KendoNotes_DeepMassage] Young, “Deep-Tissue Self-Massage Therapy,”, Sept 12, 2016.

[KendoNotes_”O” Sensei] “Really Seeing the Opponent and Opportunities to Strike, – Part 1: “O” Sensei,”, Mar 3, 2019.

[KendNotes_Grip] “Relative Grip Strengths – Between the Hands and Digits (Overview),” Nov. 1, 2017.

[KendoNotes_TightShoulders] “Ways to Relax Tight Shoulders (肩の力を抜いて!),”, May 10, 2017.

Copyright 2019

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