Saturday, December 22, 2012

Our Hands Evolved For Punching & Isshinryu Karate Fists

A study was published this week in The Journal of Experimental Biology which argues that human hands evolved for punching and not just dexterity. The complete paper can be read here. The researchers were associated with the University of Utah and a copy of the University's reporting of the paper can be read here.

I'm only going to touch on one small aspect of the paper.

Humans buttress – strengthen and stabilize – fists in two ways that apes cannot: The pads of the four fingertips touch the pads at the top of the palm closest to the fingers. And the thumb wraps in front of the index and middle fingers, and to some extent the ring finger, and those fingers are locked in place by the palm at the base of the thumb.

The second and third experiments found that buttressing provided by the human fist increased the stiffness of the knuckle joint fourfold (or reduced flexing fourfold), and also doubled the ability of the fingers to transmit punching force, mainly due to the force transferred from the fingers to the thumb when the fist is clenched.
The authors of the report are describing the common garden variety fist configuration and the biomechanical benefits of this configuration (see figure at top). However, Isshinryu karate teach to place the thumb not wrapping in front of the fingers but to the side of the fingers (see image right).

Based on the abovementioned study, it could be argued the Isshinryu karate fist configuration is biomechanically less efficient than nature's configuration which most other martial arts have adopted. Is there any explanation why Isshinryu karate may have adopted this unique fist configuration?

A possible explanation lies within an obscure but interesting paper published in American Anthropologist. The researchers investigated the relationship between commonly occurring types of violence and those that are popular in sport. They found that common injuries to the hand in modern society where boxing is popular is to the little finger and ring finger bones in the hand, which is commonly known as a boxer's fracture.

The researchers gained access to the 857 bodies when a cemetery was being excavated in England. The bodies were buried between 1750 and 1850. They found significantly more fractures of the thumb than boxer's fractures. This puzzled them because boxing was popular during that time.

They suggest a possible explanation might be found in the style of fighting employed by boxers during the period when the burials were made. Boxing was bareknuckles and boxers used vertical fists rather than the horizontal fist of the modern day boxer. A boxer's fracture often occurs then the little finger side of the fist impacts rather than the intended pointer finger side of the fist. A similar argument applies the to ancient boxers using vertical fists. If the boxer misses with the intended part of the fist the thumb impacts resulting in an injury.

Isshinryu karate may be sacrificing biomechanical efficiency in order to reduce the risk of injury when using a vertical fist to punch. Now there is support if any Isshinryu karate exponent argues the safety aspect of their unique fist configuration.


  1. You are totally wrong. The Isshin Ryu punch is superior in many ways. It is not only safer like you mentioned for the bones of the fingers, but helps prevent the wrist from buckling under impact pressure, as well as keeping the thumb from being snagged and broken. It is also faster because it allows the forearm muscles to remain in a balanced, more natural state. The elbow remains pointed down which allows more power to transfer from the body, and prevents a counter attack injury to the elbow joint. The punch always ends with a snap back to the ready position, like a piston or a gun being cocked. Although this action prevents force to be exerted into a follow through "push" action, it is superior for a number of reasons. First of all, when properly executed, there is an energy transfer into the body by several inches, damaging internal organs instead of superficial exterior damage. The fist being instantly pulled back also prevents the opponent from grabbing the arm. Also, once it is back in a ready position, it can punch again, like a machine gun, or can be used to block. A trained "vertical" or Isshin Ryu punch practitioner can literally execute 4 to five targeted strikes in the time it takes most styles to land just one.
    You should do more research before assuming you opinions.

  2. Mr Ling

    Thank you for your comment.

    If you study my post you'll see that (a) it is evidenced based, and (b) in no
    way disparages the Isshin Ryu punching method. Your argument extends far beyond the scope of the article and which is based on anecdotal rather than substantive evidence.

  3. Yet during sparring, I have NEVER seen an Isshin Ryu Karate - Ka use the vertical fist. And even moreso, I have personally watched Senior Dans in Isshin Ryu rarley ever keep to the Isshin Ryu fist?? As for outpunching other styles..... that's truly debatable. Isshin Ryu Practioner of MANY years.

    1. There are two Isshin Ryu schools, completely unrelated. One was invented in Japan in the 1950s; the other by Ticky Donovan in London, in the mid 1980s.

      Donovan did not know of the pre-existing use of the name.

      We assume you are a member of the UK Ishin Ryu school, which is (I think) descended from Goju, Kyokushin and Shotokan (I trained under Donovan in the late 70s) - but in any case is a 'normal' karate system in that it uses the horizontal fist punch.

      When I trained under Donovan he was, I think, training Kyokushin under Arneil, but was much more interested in point contests. As you know he was a phenomenally successful England team coach, taking the world title many times.

  4. Mr Cole. Great article. I don't believe you to be wrong! I am an Isshin Ryu practitioner of 18 years to date. I must say I would have to witness scientific evidence in order to believe the 4 to 1 punch theory? If we stand with our arms at our sides, our hands are neither vertical nor horizontal but in between??? So which is the fastest / strongest punch??
    'Speed is fine, but accuracy is final'


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