Saturday, June 6, 2015

Why Karate Punches Don’t Measure Up

Written by Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved

One main reason people study the martial arts are to develop power, or at least a sense of power.  I started studying Karate at a point in my life when I felt pretty powerless and the training gave me a sense of getting some of that power back.  By spend hours upon hours at my local dojo throwing punch after punch, and kick after kick, into the air I began to feel that I was powerful and being a small kid that really helped my self-esteem.

The problems came later when I really began to test my skills and see how powerful I really was.  At the age of about 12 I was a black belt in Taekwondo and studying Ryuku Kenpo and, while it was clear that it was all “Karate”, what I was learning in Ryuku Kenpo was so drastically different from Taekwondo that I decided I needed to test things to see what worked and why. 

I asked a lot of questions of my instructors, read lots of books, spent hours in the dojo and at home hitting punching bags and homemade striking pads, and of course getting into fights.  I learned that while both arts taught the reverse punch, they were different in their application and I found that I could hit a lot harder with a Ryuku Kenpo reverse punch than a reverse punch from Taekwondo; later I was floored to discover that I could hit a lot harder than either method by doing simple western boxing techniques.

Every now and then I hear about studies that say this as well.  In every study that I’ve been able to find is seems that when tested the force delivered by a boxer’s punch seems to range between 776 pounds of force per square inch on the low side to about 1,300 pounds of force per square inch on the high side.  A popular 1985 study of professional boxer Frank Bruno showed that he averaged about 920 pounds per square inch of force. (Note: it should be noted that these figures were compiled in a laboratory setting where boxers stood in one place and focused on punching as hard as they could.  In a ring where they have to move around and worry about getting hit the numbers you’d see would undoubtedly be a lot lower.)

When martial artists are given the same study and given the opportunity to put the reverse punch up against the boxer’s cross the numbers are considerably lower:  in most tests the force delivered by martial artists range between 325 to 412 pounds of force per square inch.

If the martial arts, Karate in particular, are so sophisticated and deadly why are our punches so much weaker?

The answer isn’t that difficult and can be found both by looking at physics and what other arts teach.  For example, Taekwondo is largely Shotokan Karate which was developed by Sensei Gichin Funakoshi.  Sensei Funakoshi grew up studying Ryuku Kenpo but then changed the art from the effective fighting system that it was to a greatly watered down version designed to improve the spiritual and physical development of school children.  He wrote about this in his autobiography about how his “Karate-Do” was a far cry from the skills he learned from his teachers.  Many things taught in Karate-Do are actually designed to NOT hurt people so it would be safe for children to practice them on each other during school.  However, when we look at the original teachings in Ryuku Kenpo and even the Chinese styles of Crying Crane and others that formed the original arts we can see that there are a lot of differences in the teachings that make the techniques more effective.

The first thing that robs a Karate punch of power is the lack of intent.  I’ve wrote about this numerous times, about how boxers tend to be able to beat up martial arts practitioners largely because of their intent, or in other words…boxers train to hit people and martial artists train to “preform techniques.”  Every time a boxer works their pads, the heavy bag, the speed back, spars with their partner, or even shadow boxes the air, with each and every punch they’re thinking about hitting their opponent and putting them down.  Boxing is the art of hitting people with punches and they do it very well. 

Contrast this with a typical Karate class; students and teachers walk up and down the floor punching and kicking the air.  In most schools they don’t actually hit things with their techniques very often and when they do throw a punch or kick they’re thinking about how their arm is positioned, where their knee is, etc.  More often than not a martial artist is focused on preforming the technique a certain way and that is a huge problem the martial arts face today if they expect their practitioners to be able to survive a real violent assault.  Sure, you have to get down the performance side of techniques but once that is done you should spend your time actually using it; learn to actually hit things with it and when you hit things with it start to build the intent of actually putting people down with your strikes.

By getting used to hitting things and by starting to develop that intent to deliver the force to put a person down will by itself greatly increase the power and effectiveness of all your techniques.

The second thing that robs the Karate punch of power is really the context of the punch.  While I do, from time to time, break boards or other objects for training I believe that board breaking is largely to blame for the lack of power in Karate punches.

I remember I was told that it took the same amount of force to break a pine board that it does to break a rib bone so if I could break a single board then I could break a rib and if I could break 3 or 4 boards with my punch then I should pretty much just register my hands as deadly weapons.  The problem is that while there are some great benefits to breaking boards, there really isn’t any correlation between the experience of breaking a board and the experience of hitting the human body.

To break a board you need to snap your technique so the force is delivered in a very short burst in a very small area.  Since boards are stiff and don’t give they fight you and break as long as you have that good snap.  Hitting a human body is the opposite; hitting the body is like hitting a big sack full of liquid and it bends, compresses, and gives in order to keep from breaking.   

If I hit someone in the ribs what will happen is firstly the soft tissue of muscle and fat will absorb some of the force, then the body will move away from my punch and it may bend, curl, and rotate to further dissipate the force of the punch.  After that the ribs will actually compress about 3 inches to avoid breaking.  If you want to hurt the things inside the human body you have to focus not on snapping your punch which will largely be absorbed by everything I just mentioned, but instead you have to focus on driving your punch through and penetrating with your blow. 

If you really want to be able to cause injuries and put someone down when you need to, you need to focus on driving your punches and pushing them through the target.  Since the ribs can compress about 3 inches make sure your punch penetrates at least 6 inches, or better yet why not 12?

The problem with this is that this “driving force” is very effective when it comes to injuring a person and putting them down but it is not what you want to do when breaking a board.  In fact, I remember when I first learned the difference between “snapping force” and “driving force” and when I did my board breaking went downhill.  I had a really good right reverse punch that could break 3 boards every time, but when I started to focus more on self-defense and “driving force” I ended up either pushing my board holders backward or, a few times, pushing the boards out of their grip.  That is when I really stopped breaking boards because it wasn’t fun anymore.

Karate largely teaches “snapping force” both because of Shotokan’s “Do” design and focus on breaking boards that requires that kind of power.  When you focus on that kind of power there are two specific things you end up doing that really suck the force out of your punches.

The first thing that board breaking and the use of “snapping force” teaches you that robs you of power is to make contact with your target very briefly.  I see all over the place, schools teach people to punch and then retract their punch right away.  Some schools teach to retract your punch faster than the speed at which you threw it.  The problem is, in the same way that the longer you hold on to a hot pan the more you get burned, there is a direct correlation between the amount of time your fist has contact with the target and the amount of force you deliver into your target.  If you punch your target and pull back right away then most of the force generated in your punch will be spent retracting the punch and won’t go into your target where it does “work.”  The best method is to punch your target and then push your fist into the target until the target moves away from your fist.  That way all (or most) of the force you generate isn’t wasted.

I see people punching and kicking pads that their partner is holding and in their “snapping force is good” mentality what they’re looking for to know they’ve landed a “good punch” is largely the sound.  They want a good snapping sound when their fist hits the pad; however, it would be so much more beneficial if they focused on going through the pad and knocking their partner backwards.   One of the drills my students do is one partner stands naturally and holds a kicking shield tight against their body and their partner has to hit them until they knock then all the way to the other side of the room; and then they switch who has the shield and the other partner knocks them back across the room.  By doing this student’s learn how to actually use the punch so much more than they ever will by breaking boards.

The second power robbing thing that board breaking teaches is the improper timing of the hip.  When you throw a punch you get most of the force by driving forward with the legs, rotating the body, and throwing your hip forwards.  The moments while your hip is traveling forwards are the most powerful moments in the punch.

After I had received my 3rd degree black belt I had an instructor tell me that I was ready to learn one of the closely guarded secrets of Karate.  He called it the “Double Whip Principle.”  He said the best way to generate force in a punch is to move your hip first and fist second.  He told me to start by bringing my hip back and then throwing my hip forwards and right about the time my hip was square I should start to throw my punch and finish my rotation.  I have to admit this was very powerful.  This works by increasing the acceleration of your fist which can greatly increase your power.  While I will always cherish this lesson it only took me a few weeks to find problems with this.

The “Double Whip Principle” is in fact a fundamental principle in Karate, and while not largely taught in the US from my experience, it is taught in both mainland Japan and Okinawa.  This technique generates a great amount of “snapping force” but it doesn’t generate “driving force.”

If you think about it, if I need to drive my punch a minimum of 6 inches into my target to make sure I break that rib then what happens at the end of my punch is the most important.  Since the time when my hip is in motion is the most power portion of my punch then it needs to come at the end as well.

I’ve seen more and more people in the martial arts community start to teach this and I think it is a great thing.  If you want to not just snap your punch and leave all your force at the surface of your attacker but rather drive you punch into your attacker so the force enters his body and defeats its attempt to absorb and compress to not be injured then you have to focus on the end of the punch and that hip needs to move second.

The best method for doing a reverse punch with power that I’ve ever seen is to start by bending your knees to lower your weight and ground yourself, then bring your right hip back so that it is at about 45 degrees from your target.  Chamber the punch and start by pushing with your legs and shooting your arm straight out with you palm facing the ceiling and your elbow tucked in and facing the floor.  Once your elbow moves forward enough to be flush with your side you both start to rotate your arm like a traditional punch (I always hit with my fist at a 45 degree angle) and you should throw your hip forward and rotate your body into the punch, finishing with an exhale and pushing your fist through the target, allowing the target to move backward and way from your fist.

By doing this you’ll notice that when your fist hits the target your arm isn’t straight and your punch isn’t done like it is in a normal reverse punch; rather your arm still has a good 6 or 7 inches to move and your hip still has a good 3 to 6 inches to move forward making sure you drive everything inside of your target.

While I’ve never used any electronics to actually test the pounds per square inch of force delivered in a reverse punch delivered in this manner I do know from personal experience that I can hit just as hard if not harder than any boxer I know.  I can have a partner stand naturally and hold a kicking shield tightly against their body and with a single reverse punch I can knock them backwards 4 to 5 steps and they all agree that if the pad was not there absorbing the impact they’d all be on the ground and wouldn’t be getting up.  Now while that is great for me, the important thing is that when I hold the pad and they hit it I have the same response.  It is the technique that works regardless of who does it.


Unknown said...

Um... no...

The first thing is :

Karate punches are "tsuki"... They're not punches. They are thrusts. The japanese word tsuki means to thrust or lunge it explicitly does not mean punch. They have an entirely different word for punch/hit which is "naguru".

The karate punches you see in kata are for a large part, pulls not punches. Grab and pull.

Second thing is. The hands have some of the most delicate bones in the body. Boxers train with and use large amounts of padding on their hands to protect them, they can afford to put large amounts of power into the punches. The first thing they do though when they hit without gloves is break their hands, google "boxers fracture". They all do it, tyson included.

Old style pugilists, pre-boxing rules with enormous gloves, used punches which were remarkably like karate punches.

Ed said...


I'm not surprised about the boxer having more power.

There are times when a horizontal punch is necessary, I totally agree with you about vertical vs horizontal punches.

matthew schafer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
matthew schafer said...

Thanks for commenting on my blog, “unknown” but I’m not quite sure what your point is. I don’t speak Japanese but according to the JKA “tsuki” means “punch or thrust.” A distinction probably exists where “punch” means to strike with a snapping force generated by the upper body and “thrust” means to strike with the whole body, but I’m still not sure what you’re getting at.

I am aware that there are many levels of bunkai for kata, and yes it is thought that some punches are pulls or part of throws or joint locks; I’ve also been told that many low blocks are attempts to grab and disarm an opponent’s sword. Still, I’ve been explicitly talking about the classic “karate punch” which is the reverse punch or the “gyakzuki.” I was talking about the mechanics of a particular technique and not examining bunkai.

I am also very aware of the delicate nature of fists. I view one the tell-tale signs of whether a person is a “serious martial artist” is whether or not they condition their hands and feet. I grew up studying Ryuku Kenpo beating my hands and feet on makiwara to strengthen them; now I have graduated to the Chinese method of Iron Palm training which I believe to be superior and much better for the bones and joints. Today I strike a bag filled with metal buck shot 300 times with both hands each day at near full force and I've noticed that if I hit someone during training I have to be very careful because it doesn't take much effort to put someone down. Well conditioned hands and feet are not unbreakable but do go a long way.

As far as the old boxers, the bare-knuckle boxers would only throw punches if they saw on opening because they didn’t want to risk hurting their hands if the missed. Most used vertical punches to protect their wrists and many stood with their palms facing them so there was still a degree of fist rotation in their punch before it ended up vertical. The lack of action caused gloves to be use and the demand for more and more “action” during a match caused the gloves to get bigger and heavier. So again, I appreciate your comment but I’m not exactly sure what point you were trying to get across.