There is an awful lot of talk regarding the power of the karate punch. I haven’t seen enough unbiased data regarding the force generated by karate punches to feel comfortable with any of the claims floating around. I have seen individuals who could hit heavy bags and makiwara with a surprising amount of force.  I had the opportunity to watch Harry Cook hit the makiwara at the TKRI dojo in Virginia recently, suffice it to say that I would not want to receive the full force of such a punch. Harry hits hard (to say the least). I think one key reason he is able to is because (apologies to Egami) he hits stuff, and he does it a lot. Put simply you need to hit stuff, a variety of stuff, in order to hit hard. Ideally you should be able to punch, kick, and strike stuff that stays put (like makiwara) and stuff that moves (bags, sagi makiwara, speed bags, etc) as frequently as you hit air. Unlike weaponed arts, karate strikes generally require a great deal of power in order to be effective. All that said I am uncomfortable with all of the “kill with one punch” rhetoric in karate. It results in the prioritization of power over other factors which are equally important to the effective use of karate in combat.

Some people may protest that this talk about one-punch kills is really just hyperbole, what is intended is really something like the injunction to train so that one may “stop an opponent with a single blow”. The expansion is important. There is world of difference between “punch” and “blow” and I am sympathetic to the idea that it is possible to knock out or seriously injure an opponent with a single blow. The problem lies in how difficult it is to get the chance to use such a blow, and whether it is wise to train oneself, or one’s students to rely on single blow strategies.

My experience is admittedly limited, but I have worked with boxers, full contact fighters, and traditional karateka. Boxers hit hard and fast (and unfortunately for me, often). I was always surprised by how quickly they exploited my smallest openings, and by how much damage their punches did. I love traditional karate, but I do not believe that the karate punch is intrinsically more powerful than a boxing punch (I doubt very many karateka could punch like the legendary Rocky Marcianno), Boxers tend to spend a great deal more time working set ups and combinations then karate people do, and I think most of us would do well to incorporate more of this sort of training. I suspect that factors other than power, especially strategic concerns, contributed to the form of the karate punch (these other factors will be the subject of a future posting). While it may be correct to regard all of this “ikken hissatsu”( kill with one-blow) talk as just designed to motivate students to practice. The degree to which it is entrenched in karate culture should prompt karate instructors to consider what effect it is likely to have on their students.

Dealing with real world attacks is likely to involve wading through a tangle of insults, environmental obstacles, and worries about the the threat to uninvolved innocents. One’s opponent’s most vulnerable targets will be partially, or fully shielded, or out of range. Opponents will move and roll with blows, reducing their effectiveness. It will be hard to find your footing, and the ground is likely to be slippery, uneven, sloped, or otherwise difficult. I doubt that the vast majority of black belt holders, even when the field is limited to the most legitimate and earnest of karate lineages, would be able to stop a fit, determined attacker with a single blow. Some lucky few may be able to land something like an elbow to the back of their opponents neck, or hit at just the right moment, at just the right angle, when one’s opponent is unprepared, and thereby settle things. It is more likely that you will find yourself scared as hell; you will notice a pronounced loss of fine motor control, your peripheral vision will deteriorate, and before things are over your limbs will feel like lead. It is also likely that you will find yourself on the ground fighting for your life, and that you will never have found an opportunity to throw your big finishing blow. It is extremely difficult to negotiate for an opportunity to fit a technique to a target when all hell is breaking loose. The effect a blow will have on an opponent is the result of many factors besides power. Karate instructors should give a great deal of consideration to how much emphasis they put on power in their classes.

I doubt there is an easy answer to this. If I am teaching a group of large, strong, athletic, and agile young adults I may emphasize powerful strikes and take downs. If I am teaching a group of bookish, non-athletic people I may emphasize something else, perhaps something like reality based, adrenal-stress drills. If I have a group of students who are in pretty good shape, but who have lighter frames, then I may be likely to spend a great deal of time focusing on shifting, combinations, and contingency drills. This requires a great deal of investment on the part of the instructor. It is hard, but it is important to keep in mind that the training the student receives could mean the difference between life and death for them in a real encounter.

Happy training.