Monday, January 11, 2016

A Punch is Just a Punch

One of the most basic striking techniques in any martial arts system is a punch.  Humans have been punching each other to settle their differences for centuries.  However, even though the punch enjoys such historical longevity, that doesn't mean that we inherently know how to properly execute the technique.

Many times, untrained fighters will injure themselves when attempting to attack with a simple punch.  Broken knuckles, sprained or fractured wrist bones, and jammed elbows are some of the more common injuries to be had from incorrectly punching another person or even a punching bag.  Even trained fighters can injure themselves throwing a punch.

Professional boxers and mixed martial artists wear gloves and wrist wraps to help minimize the damage done to themselves through continual punching during a bout.  How can a beginner or intermediate level martial artist hope to get through their training without rendering their own hands useless?  The answer is proper technique.

To the untrained body and mind, a punch is just a punch; no thought goes into throwing a punch.  They simply ball up their I fingers into something resembling a wad of flesh and bone and, mustering as much power from their bicep as possible, fling out their fist in the general direction of what they intend to destroy.  I'll let you in on a little secret; that's wrong and potentially painful to the person throwing the punch.  If that's your method of throwing a punch, you should fully expect to visit the doctor (or at least lose a portion of your full mobility for a while) after a fight.

A Punch is More than Just a Punch

There are many different types of punches but all share the same basic building blocks.  This article explains these building blocks from the perspective of what we generically call Exchange Punches in Karate.  These will directly translate to Reverse Punch and Lunge Punch techniques.

Exchange punches are executed from a Horse Stance without moving the feet.  Remember to not lean back or forward and to keep the shoulders relaxed to avoid premature fatigue.  With the striking hand fully extended in punch position and the non-striking hand fully chambered, the shoulders should be relaxed and in alignment with the hips and center of the feet.  This should be a very relaxed position for the entire body.

Forming a Proper Fist

From an open hand, roll the fingers in starting with the little finger and working toward the index finger.  Fold the first and second knuckles down so that the finger tips rest against the callous area or ball of the palm.  Now roll the third knuckles down and bring the base of the palm up to wrap over the finger tips.  Finally, wrap the thumb across the index and middle fingers between the first and second knuckles.  The fist should feel as if there's no gap between the fingers and the palm and from a profile view, the tip of the thumb should not stick out past the knuckles.  The primary striking weapon is the large knuckles of the index and middle finger; augmented for physical variation as necessary.

Proper Forearm Alignment 

When executing a punch, the wrist and forearm need to maintain proper alignment so that the joints
are protected from the force being exerted and the force can be properly transferred through the body and into the point of impact on the target.

Keep the wrist and forearm flat.  Imagine a ruler being fixed between the striking knuckles and the elbow.  Ideally, there would be no place along the ruler where there is a gap between it and the forearm.  The elbow should be aligned directly behind the fist along the vector of force being delivered.

Proper alignment of the elbow will also help eliminate or at least hide any telegraphing movement from the opponent's line of sight.  For beginners, this can be practiced by holding the forearm against the ribs during the initial extension movement of the punch.

Proper Hand Positioning

In addition to the starting and ending positions of the fist, there are also key points during the transition to pay close attention to.

While chambered, the fist should be palm up and resting on or just below the bottom rib of the rib cage.  The elbow should again be directly behind, though slight above, the fist (no chicken wing).  The elbow will be covered in more detail a little later.  Pay close attention to the wrist not being skewed or flexed in the chamber position.  The wrist should remain properly aligned at all times.

As the fist is launched forward from the chamber position, the palm remains up as the fist approaches the target.  The fist then rotates the palm downward just before the moment of impact.  This transitional motion adds an additional rotational force to the linear force of the punch.  By twisting and stretching the muscle tissue with the rotational force, the linear force delivered by the impact of the fist is magnified.  Think of forcefully reaching through the target with the striking point of the first two knuckles rather than landing the impact on the surface of the target.

Another, equally important, detail of this punching technique is to keep the forearm and fist properly formed with as little muscle tension as possible.  The idea is to keep the muscles loose and elastic during the transitional movements.  Then, the instant before the impact with the target, the hand and forearm muscles tighten so that the force of impact is passed through rather than absorbed by them.  Think of turning a rubber band into a piece of steel in a fraction of a second.

The Chamber

As a punch is executed, one hand advances as the other hand retreats.  The position of the non-striking hand is known as the chamber.

This return motion should be timed to coincide with the full extension of the striking fist.  Imagine standing sideways in a narrow hallway.  The striking fist and the clambering elbow should contact opposite walls at the exact same time.  They should also impact with the exact same force of power.  The chamber is not a lazy re-positioning of the hand but is actually a second strike to the rear of the practitioner.  The impact here would be the point of the elbow possibly striking the solar plexus of an attacker from behind.  Think of forcefully pulling the fist back rather than pushing the elbow out.

As with the muscle tension of the punching hand and forearm, the chambering hand and forearm should be relaxed until just before impact.

Timing and Power

Now that we have perfected the mechanics of the technique, we take a look at the timing and power to deliver a valuable strike.

An exchange punch does not draw as much power from opposing force generated by the stance positioning of the legs but other strikes do.  Reverse punches, lunge punches, Knife-Hand Strikes, etc. all generate power from the feet and legs through the entire body and into the point of impact.

The entire body should remain relaxed until the exact moment of impact with the target.  At the instant of contact, the entire body should tighten.  Again we think of the idea of a rubber band instantly changing into a piece of steel.

The power for a properly executed punch is augmented with a forceful exhale breath.  This component helps to focus the practitioner's Ki (life energy) from the Hara (center of the body) through the fist and into the target.  The rapid change from relaxed to tense generates additional power, beyond just that of the motion of the fist, which then transfers from the center mass of the body through the arm and into the striking point.  Kiai!

Becoming Just a Punch

It's easy to see how the initial thought of a punch just being a punch is vastly inaccurate.  What is less easy to see is how all of that complexity of technique, timing, and power can be merged into a singular expression.

Bruce Lee said, "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”  

This is the essence of how a punch becomes "just" a punch.  After the technique has been correctly practiced over the course of time, the mechanics are committed to muscle memory.  The body knows what needs to happen when a punch is executed which means that the practitioner no longer has to think about the detailed mechanics of perfect execution... it is simply done.

Ultimately, any technique executed from a state of "no mind" is a dangerous technique to come up against in a fight... even if it's just a punch.