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The Art of Using the Fist

The Art of Using the Fist

When it comes to physical conflict between two people the first weapon of choice is usually the fist. A solid mass of balled up bone and flesh thought perfect for crashing into someone’s body and causing pain and injury, the fist is a weapon older than recorded time. The fist is a noble weapon too; putting up your fists to protect your honor or boxing in a ring, are seen as noble, heroic, and manly by much of western society.

I remember when I started to train in martial arts and got my first real practice in using my fists. The first few years of my training in Karate I hit nothing with my punches and kicks other than air, and the air seemed to move out of the way of my lethal fists pretty quickly so I got quite confident in them. Then one day I was introduced to a heavy bag, and this is where the story changes.

I went up to the heavy bag which was probably about 75 lbs (at that time I probably didn’t weigh too much more) and hit it with a few light punches to get used to it. After building my confidence for a minute or two, I got into a left front stance and prepared to drive a right reverse punch into the bag so hard it would disappear in a cloud of smoke and all that would be left would be a shiny gold coin (Super Mario Bros had just come out). So I drove my fist forward and connected with the bag with a loud “kiai”… but the bag didn’t move and my hand and wrist were in such pain thought I had broken them.

At the time of this writing (May of 2009) I have been practicing martial arts for a little over 22 years and I have come to learn that my story is very common. Very few of the people I talked to have had positive first experiences with a heavy bag. Most were quite disappointed to find out that their lethal fists were more like marshmallows when actually hitting something of substantial size.

The problem people have is twofold: they don’t have the proper tension in their fist and wrist and/or they don’t have the proper bone alignment. What this all comes down to is poor training on the part of the instructor. An instructor should always be present the first time someone uses a heavy bag.

To try to help those who might suffer the same fate as I, and countless other martial artists, here are the fundamental lessons I’ve learned about using the fist during my marital art career:

Proper Tension

When you strike with a fist what you’re really doing is using your fist as a medium through which to transfer your body weight into your target. The ONLY way this will happen is if your fist is squeezed as tight as you can make it.

When you collide with your target a lot of force will try to go in a lot of directions, and force travels quite well thought things that are solid (like bones and tight fists) but it doesn’t travel very well through things that are soft. Things that are soft tend to ABSORB force rather than transfer it on to something else.

What does this mean to you? It means that when you punch something, if your fist is not squeezed as tight as possible and your wrist is not locked tight when it collides with that heavy bag, or a person, the structure of your fist will fail. I’ve sat on the testing panels of a couple different martial arts schools and my biggest pet peeve (I’ve got a lot of them) is seeing people doing their techniques with bent wrists, loose fists, and kicking with relaxed feet. I went to one school and I could actually see daylight through the fists of a lot of their students. At the end of one of these testings I told one young teenage girl that she needed to start making proper fists because if she ever actually hit anything she would most likely break her hand and the audience laughed. Clearly this school taught a “martial sport” and not a martial art.

The first thing that typically fails is the wrist, which will bend (more on this later on) and the second thing is your fist itself. When your fist or wrist fails to remain strong and solid they become soft and guess where the force from that punch is going to go? Once your wrist is bent or your fist is loose you’ve created a weak point that is going to absorb force rather than transfer it. In other words, the force from your punch is going to sprang your wrist or break your hand instead of being transferred into your target.

When you make a fist, start by fully opening your hand and relaxing it. Then curl your pinkie in followed by your ring finger, middle finger and index finger. Squeeze them into your palm as tight as you can, and place your thumb so it lies across the first joint of your index and middle fingers. The harder you squeeze your fist the stronger it is. There is a saying that you want your fist to be “knuckle white” which means that you squeeze it so tight some of the color drains from your fist.

We are going to cover the wrist in a little more detail later, but you want to lock it as tightly as you can. A good mental image to use during your punch to help put the proper tension in your wrist is to imagine that your arm is a high pressure hose similar to what a firefighter might use. When you set in your stance it is like turning the valve on the fire hydrant to let the water out. When the water starts flowing down the length of the hose your rear heel starts to push into the ground and then the water shoots up your rear leg. Then the water shoots into your hip and your hip begins to turn towards your target. As soon as your hip starts to turn the water jumps from your hip and shoots forcefully into your elbow and your arm starts to move, not because your muscles are trying to move it but the force of water inside your body, being under very high pressure, is making your arm move on its own.

The water that began by entering your rear heel in now shooting down the length of your arm and your fist is now going straight into the target, and when your fist hits the target the water forcefully and violently flows through you, up from your rear heel and out of your first, into your target. On contact visualize the water shooting out of your fist and going into your target. This imagery will help you not only hit as hard as you can but also put the proper tension in your wrist.

In terms of the structure of the fist, the only thing that really needs to be addressed is the striking surface. You want to hit with the knuckles of your index finger and middle finger. These knuckles are very strong while the knuckles of your ring and pinkie fingers are easily broken. Whenever I throw a punch I see my target and I think about bringing these two knuckles into my target. I don’t think about bringing the entire fist, I think about the two knuckles shooting into my target and pushing all the way through it as the water shoots down my arm and into my target. The fist is just along for the ride, those two knuckles are your striking surface during a punch.

Aligning the Wrist

The first problem people generally have when they hit a heavy hag, or person, is their wrist gives out. The reason for that is that people generally hit with a “horizontal fist”, or in other words when they punch they hold their fist so that their palm faces the ground and the back of their hand faces the sky.

The good thing about this manner of punching is that it leads with the knuckles of your index and middle finger so that the proper striking surface is out in front. The drawback to this manner of punching is that your wrist is in a very weak position. You have two bones in your forearm; the ulna bone is on the outside of your forearm and the radius bone is on the inside of your forearm.

When being held naturally both of these bones are in perfect alignment, but when you rotate your hand over your radius bone crosses over top of your ulna bone, taking it out of perfect alignment, and that is where the weakness comes from. What you’re really doing when punching with a horizontal fist is taking the bones of your forearm out of proper alignment and putting your wrist in a very weakened state, and then applying a lot of force to it. The horizontal fist fights the natural structure of the body and therefore I never use it.

It is interesting to note the old bare-knuckle boxers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s knew this too. They had to punch their opponent’s body with absolutely no protection for their fists and what they quickly realized is that it is very easy to injure your hands and your wrists. To help remedy this, the bare-knuckle boxers started using the “vertical fist” (which is also heavily used in the Chinese Martial Arts). In the vertical fist you make your fist the same way as the horizontal fist but you strike with it upright so the pinkie side of your fist is facing the ground and the thumb side of your fist is facing the sky.

The advantage to this is that the bones of your forearm are in perfect alignment so the force coming down the arm flows right through the wrist. This is the strongest way to hold your wrist and it is actually quite difficult to injure your wrist when held in this manner. However, the vertical fist does have a drawback; because of the way the fist is designed this fist tends to lead with the knuckles of your ring and pinkie fingers instead of the stronger index and middle fingers. So this fist is far better for your wrist but not as good for your hand.

The fist that I use is a compromise between the two that gets the benefits of both: the “diagonal fist”. Instead on holding my fist horizontal or vertical, I hold it at a 45 degree angle. At a 45 degree angle the radius bone crosses over the ulna bone only very slightly, so the fist is vertical enough not to compromise the structural integrity of the arm and weaken the wrist. Also, at the 45 degree angle the fist is still horizontal enough that you lead with the knuckles of your index and middle fingers.

The diagonal fist has been my fist of choice for well over 15 years and everyone who I know that has tried it has adopted it, save a few very traditional Karate practitioners who understood the logic and liked the fist but at the end of the day they could not accept it as “Karate”.

Above and Below the Shoulders

Get a partner and have him stand in front of you, just far enough away so there is about 6 inches distance between you and their outstretched fist. Have them extend their fist to your solar plexus and you’ll see that the knuckles of their index and middle fingers are right there at the very front of the fist. Have them lower the punch to your stomach and you’ll see the same holds true.

Now, have them raise their arm so that their fist is held level with their shoulders and you’ll see something, at this height the knuckles of the index and middle fingers and the second joints of those same two fingers are sticking out at about the same distance. In other words, if they punched a heavy bag and hit at their own shoulder height, because the knuckles and joints of those fingers are even, they would actually hit with the flat of their fingers in between the knuckles and joints.

Now have them raise their fist as if they were going to punch you in the nose. What you’ll now see is that the joints of the index and middle fingers are actually closer to you than their knuckles. What this all means is that when you are punching below the height of your own shoulders the knuckles of your index and middle fingers will be out in front of the fist so that the fist will strike the target properly. However, if you throw a punch at a height equal to or above your own shoulders the joints of your fingers are now going to hit first and that is not such a good thing.

The way you remedy that is to firstly don’t punch to the head or neck (more on that later) and secondly, if you do, you should use a “diagonal upset fist”. An upset (to force out of the usual upright, level, or proper position) fist means that you turn your fist over so that your palm faces the sky. If you turn a vertical fist over 45 degrees to the outside (so that your palm now faces upwards) you’ll see that the proper knuckles now lead the fist.

Anytime you punch above your own shoulders you really have two choices: 1.) Strike with the joints of the fist instead of your knuckles, or 2.) Use a diagonal upset fist and hit with the proper striking surface.

The Proper Use of the Fist

Now that we’ve covered the basic mechanics of hitting with a fist (structurally anyway) let’s talk about how to properly USE the fist. Bottom line, the knuckles of your fist are VERY easy to break. If you have your hand wrapped up and have padded gloves on you don’t have to worry that much (although professional fighters do break their knuckles all the time) but if we’re talking about surviving a real violent altercation where you have to use your bare fist directly against the human body it is a different story.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s bare-knuckle boxing was very popular in America (although it had been around since the at least the 1600’s). There was, however, a problem with bare-knuckle boxing that caused it to fall out of favor… namely it was often boring to watch. The reason bare-knuckle boxing got boring for spectators was the lack of action.

Without any padding on the fists, if you got hit by the bare fist just a single blow could end the fight by either seriously hurting you or by breaking the hand of the other guy. This lead to bare-knuckle bouts being more like sword fights in Japan, where the two would square off and measure each other looking for a weakness and they won by out-thinking their opponent, not by out striking them.

Since the fist could easily be broken if you hit incorrectly or missed your target (which could end your career and hurt you financially) you didn’t throw punches carelessly. You slowly circled your opponent and only threw punches when you saw a definite opening. Also, since you could get knocked out so easily you also tried to stay away from your opponent and you only closed distance when you saw an opening to throw a punch.

As far as spectators were concerned, what happened during bare-knuckle boxing matches was a lot of nothing. The longest bare-knuckle boxing match on record lasted 6 hours and 15 minutes and occurred in Australia on December 3rd, 1855. The fight ended when, after 17 rounds, Johnson Smith threw in the towel to his opponent James Kelly. After 6 hours and 17 rounds there was no big knock out, just one guy throwing in the towel.

The crowds wanted to see more action and that meant that more punches had to be thrown. The solution was to wrap their hands (to squeeze the bones together and ad tension and support to the fist) and to start wearing padded gloves. They started with 4 oz. gloves and today we’re up to 16 oz. gloves. The reason the gloves got bigger is because the crowds wanted more and more action so the fists needed more and more protection.

When many military and law enforcement units learn combatives they are often taught to NEVER punch. The reason is that these groups use a lot of weapons and tools and can’t take the chance of breaking their fists by punching. If a soldier or police officer injured their hand by punching someone now they cannot properly operate their firearm, use their radio, or even open a door.

A fist is an OK weapon, but it is just one of the weapons that a martial artist has in their arsenal. Just like every other weapon, the fist has a proper use… which is to hit muscle and organs. The knuckles of the fist are best used to hit soft tissue are should be (in my opinion and in the opinion of many other marital artists) used for hitting the soft tissue of muscles and organs.

Any place on the body that is heavily PADDED with muscles or contains major organs is a good target for the fist. The front and back of the torso, the arms, and the legs are fine. The neck is ok, but the hips and head are off limits.

The reason the neck is just OK is because the size of the fist makes it harder to strike the front of the neck. The fist is OK for the side of the neck and the back of the neck, but there are other tools that are a lot better for hitting the front of the neck than a fist.

The hips are off limits because they have many protruding bones and the head is off limits because it is nothing but a large bone.

Let’s examine the anatomy of the head in relation to punching. If we start at the top we find the top of the head and the forehead. These areas are where the skull is the thickest and the fist is the most useless; plus there really isn’t anything there to hit. There are some nerves you can hit but to get them you need to use your fingers tips or the joints of one of the fingers and to use those areas as striking surfaces takes numerous years of dedicated practice to toughen them up and even then they can still break.

The only three decent tools on your body for striking the upper skull and forehead are the ball of your foot, heel of your foot, and your palm. If you were to throw someone on the ground you could stomp on their head to try to cause a concussion (the brain hitting the inside of the skull resulting in unconsciousness) and you might also crack the skull open (this of course should only be done as a very last resort and when your life is in danger).

The palm is an excellent tool to use against the forehead because it can handle the hard surface better, and that palm to the forehead can jar the brain and cause disorientation and possibly a concussion. An excellent technique that I’ve seen some schools teach is as soon as your aggressor gets close enough you drive the palm strike into their forehead, and then repeatedly fire palm strikes into their forehead as they walk forwards essentially walking right over their attacker and dropping them into the ground.

As we continue down the front of the face we find the eyes; great targets but not for the fist. The eyes are best left for the fingers. If you were to hit the eye hard enough you can vibrate the optical nerve enough to cause a knockout but you’d also most likely break your fist.

Going down we have the nose. Yes, you can punch into the nose to break it but the nose is much easier to break if you hit if front the side and again you might break your fist.

Going down we have the mouth and this is where the old bare-knuckle boxers learned a big lesson. NEVER punch someone in the mouth with a bare fist! You can break their teeth and when a tooth breaks it becomes very sharp. Many bare-knuckle boxers have had those sharp broken teeth severe the nerves in their hands and end their careers. In addition, now days you have to worry about swapping body fluids. Those who punch people in the mouth often have to go to the hospital with a “fight bite”. If you want to see some nasty pictures do a image search for “fight bite” and see some of the infected hands.

The chin is a great target but not very good for the fist. Again, it is a hard bone so there is potential damage for your fist. Additionally, if you miss you will probably hit their teeth, which we know isn’t good, or their throat which is only good if your intention is to kill them.

Looking at the side of the head we find the temple. The temple is a great target, just not for the fist. The temple is good for three reasons, 1.) While the skull is mostly contoured (allowing your hand to skim off during follow-through and in do so dissipate a lot of the force) the temple is a fairly flat surface. This means when you hit the temple more of your force goes straight into the brain and surrounding nerves and arteries. 2.) If you place your finger on your temple you can feel your pulse. That is your “temporal artery” and striking this artery can result in unconsciousness or death (if the artery becomes pinched shut). 3.) In your head you have a “horseshoe of nerves” that exit the brain at each temple and runs down behind the jaw. Striking these nerves can result in them sending an electrical response to the brain that will overload your body’s electrical system and cause you to pass out. Again, the temple is a great target, just not for the fist.

Going downward the ear is next, but again the open hand is much better than the fist.

The TMJ (Temporal Mandibular Joint) and the jaw are next and here the fist could be used but again I wouldn’t. The jaw is a good target because you can cause the head to whip around and give them a concussion resulting in them passing out, or you can cause the jaw to slam into the skull and pinch down on the “horseshoe of nerves” and make them pass out that way. Again, if you miss you either go high and get the teeth or go low and get the carotid artery which could be lethal.

With the skull being a large bone the fist just isn’t a very good weapon to use again it. When I say “fist” I’m talking about the “two knuckle fist”, or the standard method of striking with the fist where you hit with the knuckles of the index and middle fingers. There are a couple of fists that do have some uses against the skull, such as the hammer fist (hitting with the softer bottom of the fist) and the four-joint fist (putting the thumb on the side of the fist, locking the wrist, and hitting with the joints just like you are knocking on a door).

Other more versatile methods of striking the head are with the base of your palm, your fingers, your forearm, an “ox jaw” strike (like a “karate chop” but instead of using the soft side of your hand you cock your hand slightly and use the hard bone on the side of your wrist), or elbow.

Training the Fist

The last thing I’m going to talk about is training your fist to handle impact. I’m a big believer in makiwara training. The makiwara is a training tool used in Karate to toughen the body to handle impact. I know a lot of people who don’t believe in makiwara training, saying that it does no good or you end up with ugly calluses, but this isn’t really true.

As long as you train correctly you don’t get hurt or develop those calluses. The trick is to not hit as hard as you can, especially in the beginning, and your makiwara has to be able to move a little bit. The standard makiwara is just sticking a post in the ground, wrapping it with some type of padding, and then hitting it repeatedly, but I believe this is too jarring for the body. I’m not going to go in depth on the makiwara here but from the point of impact the striking surface should be able to go back 4 to 6 inches. This is going to take a lot of that jarring force (wear and tear) off your body and help you learn to drive through your target, not just to your target.

The thing the makiwara does it is actually strengthens the bones. By repeatedly punching, chopping, kicking, etc. the makiwara your bones will develop little fractures and then heal itself by building new bone over top. The result is that makiwara training is for bones what weight lifting is for muscles. Makiwara training causes your bones to get denser and stronger so you can punch harder and harder without being injured.

Makiwara training also teaches you to transfer your body weight into something hard which results in you learning to hit harder and harder. The hardest punchers I know use the makiwara as part of their training. The effect of the makiwara is cumulative, so you don’t have to spend hours every day using it. If you punch it 20 times a day with each hand, focusing on perfection and not just getting to 20 as fast as you can, in just three months your punches will be greatly improved; in 6 months it will be a night and day difference, and in one year you’ll have to start pulling your punches during class as to not hurt your partner.