- Front-foot punch
- Reverse punch
- Pursuit punch
- Tate tsuki
- Mountain punch
- Hook punch
- Double punch
"You must empty your cup..."
Given the opportunity, most people will punch like this:
[video of flailing haymakers, from front and the side.]
...and this is utterly tragic. Learning how to throw decent punches grants you an unimaginable advantage over your opponents. We have much to say about such simple-looking techniques, and you must practice with these nuances in mind, because they will pay dividends.
Strength is not the key to punching; speed is. We could discuss the physics in depth, but for the sake of (over-)simplicity, the kinetic (moving) energy of a body depends on its mass and its speed. This energy increases at a constant rate with increasing mass -- but it will increase quadratically with increasing speed. It is obvious that a giant, who was twice the size of an ordinary man, can strike with the energy of two normal men. If a normal-sized person diligently practiced to the point where they could punch twice as fast as their normal-sized colleagues, then they can punch with four times the energy of a normal man. (Bullets aren’t heavy, but they're fast.)
Throwing karate punches feels different from the more intuitive "cowboy punches" above. Punches which feel strong are not strong, because real power feels effortless. The quality of your techniques can be tested with a hanging heavy punching bag; a quality punch dents the bag instead of swinging it. Flailing haymakers only work in movies, so abandon whatever notions you have about punching, and start with a clean slate.
If you punch someone without making a seiken (literally: “proper-fist”) you will break your hand. Often, when new students make a fist, it looks like the photo on the right. Punching like this is guaranteed to break your thumb, and probably a few other fingers too.
To make a seiken, curl your fingers individually, from smallest to largest, and then wrap the thumb around the outside of the fingers. Twist the wrist slightly, so that the first two knuckles are perfectly in-line with the forearm. Only allow the front of the first two knuckles to contact the target, as this is the hardest and most robust part of the hand. Refer to the photos below.
[Photos of a proper fist from seiken from bottom, front, side, top]
Curling the smaller fingers first makes a tighter fist, which protects the many small bones in your hands. In addition, this pulls the smaller fingers farther down the hand, so that the third and fourth knuckles will not contact the target. Avoid punching with the smaller knuckles of the ring and little fingers. The wrist and forearm offer no support behind these knuckles, breaking the third and fourth metacarpals (a "boxer’s fracture"). When done correctly, the third and fourth knuckles make diagonal line from the thumb to the bottom of the shutō. When done incorrectly, the third and fourth knuckles make horizontal line running across the hand.
You cannot form a seiken with long fingernails. Though long fingernails can be used to scratch an attacker, gaining the ability to deal superficial scratches is a poor trade for losing the stopping power of karate techniques. It is in your best interest to keep your nails neatly trimmed.
The back of your hand must be co-linear with your forearm. Beginners tend to twist their wrists upward, which directs the impact of the punch along the long axis of the finger bones, breaking them. Likewise, hanging or limp wrists collapse downward upon impact, causing a painful (and entirely preventable) wrist sprain. Keeping the forearm and the fist straight and level with respect to each other will keep you safe when punching.
Like all techniques, punches derive their power from three sources: focusing, driving, and snapping.
You punch with your legs. Punching power does not not come from your arms; it comes from your legs, via the whole-body motion of transitioning between stances. As such, punching is more like that rocking motion used to push cars out of mud, snow, or sand. Alternately, it is like smoothing wood with a hand plane.
Karate punches “turn over,” meaning that your fist rotates, and follows a helical (corkscrew) path towards their target. This improves punch penetration depth since your forearm bones (i.e., the radius and the ulna) will rotate around each other, so your arm becomes ~2” (~5 cm) longer in the palm-down position then in the palm-up position. This is demonstrated by placing your knuckles against a wall at arm’s length, and rotating your wrist.
[video of a seiken touching a wall, and rotating it back]
The turn over "snaps" the punch, like a bullwhip or a wet towel, generating most of the punch’s power. Without snap, punches are just pushes.
[video of a side view of a series of reverse punches, hitting a kicking shield. The first three are arm-only, with no turn over. The next three are 6” punches. The next three are full-power reverse punches. Make it dramatic.]
All punches make the target with the front of the first two knuckles. Your fist should be slightly loose until the moment of impact. A tightly-clenched fist tenses your entire arm, slowing you down. Avoid turning the fist over early; this raises your elbow, which will be discussed in the next section.
Don't raise your elbows; this results in weak, slow punches which only use the arm's strength, instead of driving with the whole body. Raising your elbows also exposes your floating ribs to counterattack, and this awkward position sets up many aikidō moves (e.g., ikkyō, nikkyō). To break this bad habit, throw punches while standing next to a wall.
[video of a front view of two raised-elbow punches, and two punches next to a wall.]
Don't deviate from a straight line to and from the target. Many beginning students will pull their fists into their own centerlines, before pushing them outward. This “S”-shaped path diverts your energy into useless side-to-side motions; the end result resembles the “bow-and-arrow” motions from cheerleading, or a Nazi salute. To stop throwing “cheerleader punches”, have a friend hold a pole over your centerline 1’ (30 cm) away from your chest. Good punches will miss the pole. If you are alone, you can still practice this by standing in front of a young tree or load-bearing column.
[Video of two improper “cheerleader punches” from the front; then hitting a bo with “cheerleader punches”, the two proper punches]
Karate techniques never "wind-up". Your fists always remain in front of your shoulders. Pulling your fist back any farther makes your punches slower, since they must traverse more distance (i.e., the pulling distance, the return to the starting point, and the distance to the target). The closest thing karate has to wind-up is “re-chambering,” through reciprocal action.
Likewise, karate techniques never follow-through. Letting your momentum carry you forward makes you lean. Don’t lean. While “throwing your weight” into a punch might add a little extra power, it also throws you off-balance. You will need to exert additional energy to kill your forward momentum before you topple over, and then spend additional energy to prop yourself up again. Poor posture or excessive motion has the same effect as wearing a heavy backpack.
In that same vein, you should always be “squared-up” after punching; your shoulders should be directly over your hips. While hip rotation is critical to generating power, over-rotation is a wind-up. Be sure to keep your fists in front of the hips, and quickly return to a squared-up position. Being off-center prevents smooth rotation, robbing you of power generation and the ability to evade. Mr. Miyagi's "drum punches" were just a metaphor to explain hip rotation; do not actually flail like a rattle drum.
[photos of being squared up and not squared when punching, from the front and side]
Don’t hit targets, hit inside them. Punching a target's outermost surface only taps or tags it. Punches must penetrate, so direct them at some imaginary point 2” (5 cm) inside of the target. This is the secret behind board-breaking, the most famous karate parlor-trick. Karateka don’t actually strike boards; they strike an imaginary point behind their boards. Karate punches are powerful because they attack specific bones and organs inside of people. Ideally, your should punch through your opponents, like Riki-Oh. (While no human person can actually do this, you should strive to become the first.)