Practical punch alternatives

Written by Gary Martin

Practical punch alternatives, from kung fu to you

Most martial arts are obsessed with the fore-fist punch, despite there being much safer and equally effective ways to strike on the street. Considering that even professional boxers break their hands — despite their being conditioned from punching day in, day out, and protected by wraps and gloves — what chance does the part-time martial artist stand when forced to let bare fists fly?

Practical punch alternatives
Julie Martin

The old martial arts masters of Asia overcame this by building hands like granite blocks through years of repetitive and painful conditioning — but how many today are willing or able to follow suit? For modern self-defenders, writes traditional kung fu instructor Da Shi Gary Martin, there are many effective alternatives

On the wall of our kwoon there’s a sign that reads, “We train to end a fight, not spend five rounds in one.” This summarises perfectly the aim behind all our training: when a fight starts, our goal is to stop it as fast as we can. Kung fu is a battlefield martial art and we train with that in mind, both in terms of the spirit we bring to the training and the techniques and tactics we apply. The modern battlefield may be vastly different to those of ancient China where the hand-to-hand fighting techniques we use were spawned, but the human body has changed little and thus the strikes are as effective today as they were a thousand years ago.

Today, most martial arts focus on using the fist (impacting with the largest two knuckles, in most cases, or the lesser three in the case of Wing Chun’s vertical punch) delivered primarily to the front with a straight or hooked trajectory. In many cases, this is because the various sport incarnations of these arts have become the primary focus, and thus many of the strikes considered ‘unsafe’ for sport sparring (meaning, those most effective in taking an opponent out) receive far less attention in training. This, of course, is not a good development for those who train with self-defence as their goal.

The hand strikes we use, and the targets we deliver them to, are not intended for sport. The same can be said for our kick delivery. Here, we will focus on four of our strikes, each of which have been used for centuries in various systems of Chinese kung fu: the palm-heel, the willow-leaf, the tiger-claw and the hammer-fist. Each one is capable of inflicting stopping power on an opponent (and goes a long way to explaining why our classes are for adults only).

Kung fu & Intermuscle Co-ordination

Intermuscle co-ordination is the science of using a chain of muscles in a co-ordinated manner to increase striking performance. In Da Shi Gary Martin’s workouts, the first 30 minutes are dedicated to developing the efficiency of each muscle group, before doing drills to co-ordinate them together for maximum striking power. In a punching action the muscles act as either a primary punching force, an assisting force, stabilisers or retractor muscles. This punching action not only focuses on power but also on stability and the ability to reload and fire off combinations of strikes with power and speed.

The palm-heel:

As the name implies, this strike uses the heel of the palm, delivered in a rising action up under either the opponent’s chin or nose. Because of the padded nature of this part of the hand, the dangers of breaking bones in the knuckles, as can easily can happen with a punch, is eliminated. This strike is best delivered with the rear hand to allow maximum ‘intermuscle co-ordination’ to generate a greater striking force and thus create the desired concussing effect. Delivering the strike on a rising trajectory is essential, because if the strike is delivered straight-on, it pushes the target back rather than lifting it up as it should. An upward strike increases the likelihood of a knockout through kinking the brainstem, which happens when the head snaps back rapidly, and also reduces the opponent’s ability to move/roll with the strike to lessen its impact. As you can imagine, it’s much easier to fall/roll away from a punch travelling parallel to the ground than it is to leap upward to absorb the impact of an uppercut-style strike.

The willow-leaf:

One of the great attributes of our arts (Hsing-I, bagua and tai chi) is that their history has revealed what works and what doesn't work, and why. The willow-leaf strike is used in what we call ‘serious threat’ situations because it is designed to cause an opponent to lose their fighting spirit. The way the willow-leaf is held is critical, as real combat experience taught our arts’ founders that the eye socket won’t be penetrated if the weapon is held vertically. Holding the hand horizontally creates a more effective weapon. Knife attacks, strong groundfighters or multiple opponents would give reason to use the willow-leaf palm. Willow-leaf palms can be fired off the front hand as in a jab, or off the back hand with its force aided by holding the opponent’s head.

The tiger-claw:

The tiger-claw is one of our main weapons. Used in knife defence and against grapplers or much larger opponents, the tiger-claw will stop a fight. The human eyes are linked by a sympathetic nerve, which means that if we can strike one eye, both eyes will water, leaving the opponent with blurred vision in both eyes as well as debilitating pain.

The hammer-fist:

The hammer-fist is again one of our main striking weapons. Using the padded underside of the fist and not the breakable knuckles, the hammer-fist offers awesome power with little risk of injury to your hand. Delivered either horizontally or vertically — or indeed, any appropriate angle between the two — the two main targets are the temple and nose. Best delivered with the rear hand and aided by correct intermuscle co-ordination, the hammer-fist is used after a set-up strike.

In a street fight, hand protection (gloves/mitts) can't be used, so the conventional punching action can damage the bones in the fingers, knuckles and hand. The hand strikes we use in a street fight must not only reduce this risk, but must also have the stopping power needed to win. Rarely are street fights even — you could find yourself up against a much larger opponent, multiple opponents, or opponents with weapons — and conventional punching alone is unlikely to provide you with a sufficient arsenal enough in these do-or-die situations.

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