Friday, April 27, 2012

To Punch or Not to Punch

One of the first things you learn in karate is how to punch. Karate punching methods are then trained assiduously thereafter. Karate punches are traditionally trained where the karateka (karate exponent) punches a makiwara board to develop their punching ability. Most martial arts are striking based, relying on punching techniques. Wing chun exponents train their punches by punching bags mounted on a wall. Boxers, and all those martial arts following the boxing method, train their punches by punching heavy punching bags.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the martial arts have some interest in teaching a person to defend themselves. Let's assume they have some interest in teaching a person how to survive a violent encounter. What punching method would you teach that person? Let's turn to one of the forefathers of modern close combat, Colonel Rex Applegate, for his thoughts on the matter. Remember Applegate is interested in teaching soldiers to survive in a war zone.
Hand blows can be delivered by using the fists, edge of the hand, palm, or knuckle. To use the fists effectively, a knowledge of boxing is a prerequisite. Experts state that it takes up to six months to learn to deliver a knockout blow with either fist. The ability to box is desirable and the other principles boxing teaches, such as the use of body balance. However, there are other means of using the hands which the layman can learn and use more swiftly, and at times more effectively. (Kill or Get Killed 1976: 21)
I have friends who trained jujutsu who now criticise jujutsu because they consider it takes too long to learn to defend yourself. I do not disagree with them. Some of them suggest other methods are more expedient; expediency being seen as a combat imperative. I do not disagree. However, the alternatives they advocate (wing chun for instance) likewise focus on punching techniques.
Knockout blows delivered to the chin by the fist may not only be ineffective, they also present the danger of a dislocated finger or knuckle, or a cut from the opponent's bony facial structure. The use of the fist has another shortcoming; that it does not concentrate force of the blow sufficiently. ... the average individual cannot use the fist effectively enough to do great damage in a single blow. The novice should limit the use of his fists to such soft, vulnerable areas as the stomach, groin and kidneys, and rely on other types of blows for other parts of the body. (Applegate, 22)
Injury is caused by the absorption of kinetic energy in excess of the tissue's tolerance levels. When an arm is moving in a punch it possesses kinetic energy. When it stops moving upon impact with an opponent's body, that kinetic energy has to go somewhere. If the wrist or fist are not optimally positioned, the kinetic energy of the punch may be absorbed in the puncher's hand or wrist resulting in an injury rather than that kinetic energy being transferred to the opponent to cause an injury in the opponent.

While Applegate does not say it, there is another issue associated with risking your hand or wrist by punching an opponent when in combat. Injuring your hand then compromises your ability to use your hand-held weapons, e.g. your firearm.

'Top of the head, hardest part of the body' - this is what Brian Dennehy's character says in the 1992 boxing movie Gladiator when he uses the tactic of ducking his head so that his opponent hits the top of his head when punching. This tactic is designed to injure the opponent's hand by punching a hard object. When a boxer's hand is injured, their weapon is injured, and they become relatively defenceless.

What 'other types of blows' does Applegate suggest to use in place of the problematic fist? The chin jab (aka heel-palm strike), edge of the hand, and knuckles. Captain W.E. Fairbairn is another who influenced the development of modern military combatives. What 'blows' does he include in his combatives classic, Get Tough: How to Win in Hand-to-Hand: As Taught to the British Commandos and the U.S. Armed Forces? Edge-of-the-hand and chin jab (aka heel-palm strike). No punches.

We will only consider the humble heel-palm strike here. Applegate suggests 'an average man can cause a knockout with only six inches of traveling distance from the start of the blow to the point of impact' (23). A fairly bold claim it has to be said.

Bolander, Neto, and Bir compared punches and palm strikes (see Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 2009 8: 47-52). They found that the accelerations of both strikes were similar, although the force applied to the target by the palm strike was significantly greater than the punch.
It is believed that due to the rigidness of the target, force would transfer through the forearm more efficiently than the metacarpals. The high speed video collected showed that for all strikes, regardless of experience of the subjects, there was always at least a small moment occurring on the wrist. Therefore it could be argued that a palm strike would be a better way to transfer force to the target.
No wrist involved in the palm strike means no training to maintain a strong wrist, very little possibility of the kinetic energy of the punch being absorbed in the wrist rather than being transferred to the target, and significantly reduced risk of injury.
The results of this study have many applications for all populations that are interested in any sort of martial arts or self defence training. ... Additionally for martial arts teachers, it would be important to teach novice practitioners the palm strike early in training so that they may have a better chance to defend themselves in a high stress situation, or if the student is inherently weak the palm strike and be an alternative to the punch to deliver a stronger impact.This research is also applicable to soldiers and law enforcement officers that are exposed to close quarters combat on a regular basis.
I deliberately chose the wing chun image above because it advertises that self defence now has a name. Presumably that name is wing chun. If self defence is wing chun, or any other martial art for that matter, it could be quite strongly argued that they should be teaching the palm/heel-palm strike first, and train it assiduously thereafter, rather than relegating it to some sort of second tier striking technique.

I deliberately chose the above picture of a heel-palm strike being used to break a board. I was involved in teaching a six-week women's self defence course where the participants were given the opportunity of breaking a pine board with a heel-palm strike at the end of their final lesson. The course did not teach any punching techniques, and relied principally on the heel-palm strike. I never saw a woman that could not break the board after only 12 hours of lessons. of which only a small proportion was devoted to this technique. The boost in confidence when successfully breaking the board was obvious.

Are you teaching heel-palm strikes? If so, when and with what emphasis?


  1. Hi John,

    I place a strong emphasis on body dynamics for striking and so I am happy for people to use either a fist or palm for strikes - because I am more interested in getting their hips and feet moving right than their hands.

    Having said that, they are obviously using fists while wearing boxing gloves against the focus mitts and for some forms of sparring. However, in cases where we hit the punching bag without gloves, I usually recommend using a palm heel for exactly the reasons you describe above. The gloves are a good start to learn body dynamics and for increasing "striking confidence" against the pads, but open hand prevails once the emphasis shifts to self defence applications.

    What do you think about the notion that people naturally clench their hands/fists under pressure? My jury is out on that one


  2. Hi Ash.

    Thanks for the comment. You'll be pleased to know that many studies from different martial arts, hidden away in academic journals, supports your emphasis on body dynamics. The difference in force application between experienced and inexperienced practitioners is consistently shown to be the increase in effective mass in the strike or kick by the experienced pratitioner.

    The use of gloves and strapping is an interesting one. It's been shown that the use of both increases the forces applied when punching and its hypothesised that is because of the increased confidence the puncher has in not injuring their hand or wrist. The question then becomes, is this misplaced confidence when the same technique is used unaided?

    Your question. I was going to say that I don't know and offer an opinion, something I am loathed to do. However, upon reflection, it depends upon 'pressure'. What I mean is, what is the emotion experienced at the time of pressure. The action tendency of anger is 'fight' and it has been seen that a physical manifestation of this action tendency is the clenching of the fists. That makes sense. The action tendency of fear is flight, and clenching fists does not assist in flight, so I'd suggest it might not be a natural tendency in these circumstances. But then if you subscribe to the emotion mixes, when anger is mixed with another primary emotion to form another emotion, the clenching of the fists may accompany the anger emotion. Aggression is a mix of anger and anticipation, and aggression can be defensive and offensive, so under those circumstances you might find clenched fists, I suppose.

  3. Great article on probably the best weapon on the body. Easy to use, hard to break, deals lots of damage regardless of the user's size. Perfect!

    In my Combat Hapkido days we'd do target training on the man-shaped punching bag where we would ridge hand, knife hand, or palm strike one of several red circles on the dummy's face. It was great targeting practice.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.