The Art (and Science) of the Punch

 in London - Sherbourne Martial Arts Academy: SMAA

The Art (and Science) of the Punch

Punching with a closed fist is a largely misunderstood subject in the martial arts, and most who believe they understand the science of punching are largely misinformed.  Although Boxing may be thought of as the most effective martial art for punching, modern MMA (and self defense) demonstrates that it takes more than Boxing to learn everything that is important. Different martial arts each offer a unique perspective on the subject, and each can offer important insights when learning the “punch”.  Accurate, powerful, and effective punching requires knowledge and application through effective drills, and ample training in Karate, Boxing, and MMA.


Unarmed combat may at first seem strange to the uninitiated.  However, with proper training methods, anyone can learn the basics of how to punch correctly.  Although Punching is generally thought of as an offensive striking application, quality Punching requires a focus on both defense applications, as well as offensive applications.  To apply the proper biomechanics of punching defense and offense requires an understanding of many interdependent applications of striking with your hands at the proper angle, with accuracy, while utilizing the right moment in time.  The synthesis of the elements of precision punching allow you to exert maximum impact on the target with pinpoint accuracy.


In Traditional Karate training this concept is paramount.  The reality of a one punch knock out is taught and trained for repeatedly through a variety of drills that improve: speed, force, angle, accuracy, range/distance, and timing in the midst of the onslaught of circumstance in combat. Let’s look at some of these important applications, and how practitioners develop proficiency through a variety of training methods.


Speed, Accuracy, and Timing

Speed, accuracy, and timing are critically important in landing a punch on the target. When training in the art of Boxing and MMA, a martial artist will spend countless hours using the “double-end” bag and “timing bag” to improve speed and accuracy in punching, while supplementing this bag-work with “focus-mitt” training with a knowledgeable coach.  For the uninitiated, a double-end bag is an inflatable leather ball (think of a soccer ball) that generally hangs at head-height, suspended by flexible ropes tied to both the floor and ceiling. The more the Boxer punches, the more the ball bounces, and the harder it is to find your target. These training methods allow the Boxer to develop speed and accuracy, so that the hands can “find the target” without thinking.  MMA strikers will also use many of these basic boxing tools to better develop their speed and accuracy in punching


When turning to Karate, we see some of these similar methods applied when training with the “Makiwara”, which is traditionally a flexible wooden post, such as a conventional 2x4, that is sunk in the ground (or mounted on the wall), and padded with rope and/or rice straw.  Although many Karate-ka (mistakenly) believe the Makiwara is designed simply to toughen the knuckles and hands, a primary focus of Makiwara training is accuracy - focusing a powerful, fast punch on a small 2-inch (5 centimeter) target. Many Karate practitioners may supplement this training by also employing a “hanging” Makiwara, which is traditionally a bundle of rice straw that is hung at head-height by a rope.  This simple tool has been used for at least 200 years by Karate practitioners, and closely mimics the traditional Boxers “double-end” bag and focus-mitt work, so that the Karate-ka can learn to let the hands “find the target” through accurate and fast striking.


Striking Force/Power

Although finding your target and striking with speed in important, we can’t forget about “power” in your punch.  In Boxing and MMA, strength in punching is generally developed on the “heavy bag”, which comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and weights.  The bag is meant to simulate a heavy, human body, and Boxers will spend countless hours developing the form, and power of their punch on the heavy bag.  Almost every training session will employ at least a few Boxing rounds on the heavy bag as the Boxer slowly develops power in the punch.


Karate similarly employs a variety of strength-building applications.  In revisiting the Karate-ka’s training, the Makiwara again comes into focus as a surrogate for the Boxer’s heavy bag. Here, a key difference is that the Makiwara provides a unique form of strength-building that does not exist in heavy bag training.  As mentioned, the Makiwara is a flexible post in the ground, so the harder you strike it, the harder it pushes back against our punch - BUT - at the same time, the harder you strike the board, the more the board yields/bends under the force of your punch (the harder the resistance, the more the bend/flex of the board).  This flexible force-resistance/bending not only protects the hand from injury much better than a heavy bag, but it also builds strength in the wrist and forearm in ways that the heavy bag cannot do as easily.

This Karate Makiwara training is also supplemented with training in Tameshiwari , or the  “Art of Breaking”.  Tameshiwari does not only apply to boards, bricks, stone, or concrete.  Tameshiwari applies to, and endures in the human spirit: One’s will to commit to the act of survival/ crushing the offender is the essence of Tameshiwari.  At a deeper level, it exemplifies the introspective philosophy of Karate’s method and translation: empty hand and open mind... Striking a board repeatedly with the endeavour of perfecting a single punch/act is a reflective process, and can be considered cathartic, therapeutic in some cases, but certainly practical for self defense purposes and mastery of any necessary skill set.  The enduring mental and physical applications of this practice cultivate an indomitable spirit with the tools to overcome 99% of life’s real world mental and physical entanglements that require self-defense measures.


Angle and Range/Distance

Finally, we look at employing angle and proper range or distance management.  Turning angles and stepping off the centerline is an important subject in Boxing, and requires a mastery of footwork and movement (yes - the feet are critically important in punching).  Many times, a Boxer or MMA practitioner will drill their footwork using lines of tape on the floor (think of the lines on a compass) or similar methods that help in studying and developing angles in your game.  Boxers will also spend countless hours employing a variety of other drills, including the practice of “shadow boxing”. Shadow boxing is the simple act of punching in combination in the air (often in front of a mirror), so that you can improve upon your boxing form and style.  Think of shadow boxing as a boxing match against an imaginary opponent. Shadow boxing allows you to train by yourself, and to correct both your footwork, movement, and form while observing your actions in the mirror.


Finally, a Boxer can develop mastery of range and distance management using all of the tools discussed above, including the use of shadow boxing, which can help you to slow things down, and study the minute details of the “sweet science” of Boxing.  Ultimately, the Boxer will need to “spar” or Box an opponent, in order to truly understand these applications, and develop a mastery of range by staying out of the way of your opponent’s punch, while also setting up your own punch - this is the art of “finding your range”, while staying out of your opponent’s range as much as possible.


In looking at traditional Karate, we see the very same principles being employed during training.  Karate study always starts with a focus on developing “stance” and footwork. Although the stances may seem very basic at first, the practitioner will slowly learn to employ this footwork in a more natural manner as he/she develops over time.  Karate builds on this basic footwork by employing a variety of training line-drills the focus on movement, and angle as the Karate-ka learns to integrate feet and hands together.


Although basic shadow boxing is used in Karate to develop this basic skills, Karate also has unique “Kata” training - a form of patterned movement (an imaginary fight, similar to shadow boxing), that focuses solely on the basics of Karate, including angle, distance management, and striking.  By studying the Kata, the practitioner can further study, and develop proper stance and footwork, as well as better understanding the range necessary to execute a punch.


Finally, Kata is no substitute for the actual fight - similar to sparring in boxing, Karate utilizes “Kumite” or sparring against a resistant opponent, and this is where the skills come together, so that the Karate practitioner can learn to develop proper angles and footwork, and find the right range to address an opponent.


In Conclusion

When we look at the development of the punch in martial arts, we see a lot of cross-over and similarity in training methods, but we also see some unique things in each martial art (Boxing, Karate, MMA) that can aid us in developing a proper strike or punch.

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