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Striking is the act of fitting a weapon to a target. Availability of targets may change very quickly, availability of weapons may change very quickly.  Learning to recognize these changes and adapt to them requires more time spent striking targets that are moving unpredictably and changing range than targets moving predictably or not moving at all. The speed and intensity of these activities should be varied to emphasize different attributes: tracking/accuracy, reaction time, fluidity, and power. Tracking, fluidity and reaction time are more important than focusing exclusively on power.  Reflection on which changes in target and range present the most difficulty is vital.

How Boxers Decide to Punch a Target: Emergent Behavior in Nonlinear Dynamical Movement Systems

Hitting a moving target is one of the most inherently athletic skills that I can think of, and it’s an absolutely vital element in a martial artists’ tool box.  I’m a strong advocate of the “hands off” approach of giving a student the conditions in which to explore range and which weapons to apply at different- and changing- ranges. Light moving targets, stationary targets, heavy moving targets and sparring all play an important role.

I’m amazed at how many conversations I’ve had with earnest karate/TMA people wherein they insist that distancing, timing, impact force management and the selection of the appropriate weapon (strike/technique) are best learned with minimal- or no- bag and target work. While some “traditional” martial artists insist that learning how to effectively hit something takes years to develop and master, it’s painfully obvious that a novice student can develop considerable skill in far less time if he or she is allowed to experience feedback instead of endless, abstract technical instruction. Several findings of the study provide insight into why this is so:

By allowing novice boxers
during the basic training sessions, when the
heavy bag practice is mostly used, to explore the
whole spectrum of constraints enabled by each
combination of parameters, they would learn
how to adjust emergent motor solutions to the
hitting task which are specific to their individual
organismic constraints. Once these efficient
coordination patterns have been established with
the heavy bag, learners could move to the task of
hitting moving opponents during light sparring…

…Novice boxers are able to discover and exploit
the scaled performer – target distance region that
affords maximization of the unpredictability (H),
diversity (S) and the efficiency ratio (E) of their
punching actions…

…Spontaneous emergence of boxer – boxer
coordinative states and strategic positioning as a
consequence of boxers’ perception of essential
interacting constraints points to the possibility
that practice should be less loaded with verbal
instructions from the coach to impose decisions.
Rather, practice could be directed towards
creating a variety of learning situations (by
manipulating the dynamics’ constraints) in
which trainees would themselves explore,
discover and thus adapt to the information …

There is no such thing as a perfect stance for all situations. The most effective stance or posture in a given situation is one that enables force production, reactivity and  manipulation of body weight without sacrificing stability and mobility. As conditions and objectives change, posture and stance change.  Holding stances for long periods of time is not as useful as being able to react to changing conditions with speed and control.

We had a lovely night of good, hard training on Tuesday, and I brought along the camera to get some examples of our performance/power phase training on video.

The first clip demonstrates a side plank. To many, “core exercise” is interpreted as doing lots of situps. Situps target the hip flexors more than the abdominal muscles, and are actually counter productive for this purpose.  Side planks strengthen the recruitment of the abdominal obliques and associated core stabilizer muscles. The variations demonstrated here further involve the stabilizer muscles around the shoulder, elbow, hip and knee joints in conjunction with added leverage against the core muscles.

The next few clips demonstrate agility work on a tape “agility ladder.” While moving down the ladder, the student is focusing on exploiting the rebound from stored kinetic energy to move lightly and quickly but powerfully. Hitting the pad at the end of the ladder gives the student an opportunity to experience how momentum and the drop-step can produce fast, powerful punches. As the pad holder advances, the student works on employing the same stability and agility while moving backwards and throwing punches as fast as possible, using the feet to dig in to strike forward powerfully.

Dave Campbell,  shown in two of these clips, underwent complete reconstruction of his left knee two years ago. This type of training, progressing gradually from slow to full speed, has helped him to regain mobility, power and speed.

This last clip is a very short sample  of makiwara work done in a more dynamic fashion. Instead of thrusting with the body as is commonly seen in karate, the student is punching ballistically, initiating with the chest and arm to generate speed. The momentum and drive of the body is linked upon impact. Although the hips are involved as a rotational center, the drive is primarily generated by the active propulsion of the legs. The rear heel is allowed to lift and drive forward, contributing to the forward momentum and allowing stored kinetic energy to rebound into the strike. Keeping the heels flat negates the rebound, lessening the dynamism and power generated, and also encourages excessive strain on the medial aspect of the knee and compression on the posterior lumbar spine.

Thrusting with the body produces a punch that is encumbered by the agonism of the latissiumus dorsi. Although it may feel powerful, such thrusting actually lessens the velocity of the punch, subtracting substantially from the power generated.

“I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but I can lick any SOB in the house.”

-Jack Dempsey

Note: this essay grew out of notes for an as yet unfinished review of Jack Dempsey’s 1950 book “Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense” and personal notes that developed over the course of a year of intensive work on punching

What does a black belt know about punching?

I first read about Jack Dempsey in an article written by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo for Classical Fighting Arts in 2006. The article, entitled “Jack Dempsey, Master of Xingyiquan” focused on a boxing manual written by the 1919 heavy weight world boxing champion. As I began reading the article, I wondered what an old-school Western boxer had to do with an Asian martial art, or karate training in general. I was still in the “karate is superior to boxing because it uses the whole body” phase of thinking that some people go through early on in their training (and some never leave, to their detriment). The book in question, “Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense” (1950) seemed quaint and outdated, right down to the rolled up sleeves and pompadours in the accompanying illustrations. By the end of the article however, my interest was piqued, and suddenly my dichotomous conceptions of boxing and karate began to mutate some. The utter clarity of Dempsey’s cited examples set off a new train of thinking: regardless of styles or arts, punching is punching. Using the fists to damage or knock another person out is a skill that is governed by the same principles, regardless of the art that develops it. To borrow a phrase from Harry Cook, we all practice the “two hands, two feet, one head” style of fighting.

We all practice this style, but the training methods that one chooses to pursue can either develop or detract from making it practical and usable. After reading this article, I began to look objectively at the differences between the way that a boxer trains a punch and the way that karate people- both in general and at my particular dojo- trained punching. Before long, I reflected that boxers, on average, spend far more time than karate people hitting things: stationary targets, heavy bags, focus mitts, reflex bags/balls, and of course, other people (yes, there are exceptions, but I am addressing generalities here). Their learning environment is incredibly rich with varied stimulus (static targets, moving targets, responsive targets, non-responsive targets) and opportunities to apply their skills under varying levels of pressure. Simply put, the best way to get good at hitting things is to hit things. I had earned shodan a year earlier, but I did not feel like I was hitting any harder, faster or better. Despite the fact that the dojo I trained in spent a considerable amount of time on pad work, and a makiwara and heavy bags were present and well-used, it was clear to me that despite hard, frequent training, my own punching ability was not what it needed to be (and this is in no way a disparaging reflection on my teacher- it was a critical look at my own pursuit of the skill).

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Sometime during the haze that was college, I lived down the hall from a South Korean exchange student. We met several times a week to exchange some Judo throws for WTF-style Tae Kwon do.  All in all it was a great educational experience, and I gained a healthy respect for his kicking abilities after he snapped two of my ribs like dry twigs with a side kick (right through a chest protector- so much for those). He was fast, fast, fast and his kicks were sniper-rifle accurate from any angle. However, one thing I could never get my head around was his habit of letting both hands hang down around his waist in sparring. Every time I asked him about the wisdom of this, his reply was the same: punches are not scored as highly as kicks in competition and he had never thrown a punch in competitive sparring, nor had one thrown at him, so his hands were more useful to guard against kicks. Fair enough- WTF TKD is a sport, and sports operate under rules, which in turn drive competition trends, which in turn drive training for competition. But what do you do when someone tries to punch you in a real fight? According to my friend, punches were easy to defend against: show them your back, which is less vulnerable, then move away to kick them. I immediately filed this particular piece of advice in the trash bin of my mind and enjoyed the rest of our training exchanges.

Later experiences in cross-training with TKD people and the offshoot “Freestyle” franchises that anchor most strip malls here in the States were not very different. Hand techniques were mentioned, but sparring tended to turn into foot-tag matches with the occasional leaping bop on the headgear (known as “blitzing”) to score without actually throwing a punch- it was explained to me that punches were far too dangerous in competition, so just touching the headgear with the glove was enough to count. A Freestyle place in my hometown actually penalized for contact. Half-assed round kicks from a foot away were regarded as more martially valuable than hooks or uppercuts. The more I questioned this practice, a certain rationale became evident- a)the legs are stronger than the arms, so kicking is better than punching; b)the legs are longer than the arms, so kicking is a better defense than punching. That may work fine for sport rules, but anyone who follows this rationale for self defense training will get their clock royally cleaned in a scuffle. Perhaps unfairly, I tend to lump most of the TKD/Freestyle stuff I see into that category and ignore it.

But today I came across a gem among the rubble fields of YouTube. A poster over at shared this clip of veteran TKD and MMA fighter Ramsey Dewey demonstrating the utilities of a very powerful and fast hand technique that appears to be unknown in the sport TKD world: the shovel hook. As Dewey explains, the lower point value is no reason to eschew punching in WTF-style TKD competition. As he very capably demonstrates, inside hooks can be used to cause all sorts of trouble for kicking-fiends and set up follow-up kicks. He’s preaching to the choir here, but I would love to see this rationale find it’s way into Kick Jockey schools.

Dewey’s clip is here

Years ago my group was affiliated with a larger karate organization. We used to occasionally get people who would move to the Saint Louis area who had trained at an affiliated club in another part of the country. As was the practice in the organization they would usually want to wear the ranks awarded to them in the other clubs.

Sometimes this has caused us some difficulty when someone from another club would come in wearing the rank they had from somewhere else, and then give out after a half hour. Ranks were a short hand my students used to assess how vigorous they could/should practice with someone, and what the other person could reasonably be expected to know. This occasionally caused some friction (once we became independent we de-emphasised rank and this problem gradually faded away). Adjusting just required time and support so that new person could get used to both the specific kinds of training unique to our group and the intensity of the training. It was harder to get them to see through what I will call the “magical” ideas floating around in the culture of this organization.

One such idea that had very tangible consequences was the idea that all power came from the hips. I have no problem with the idea that the hips must initiate many of the techniques in order to be effective. That was not what a lot of these folks seem to have absorbed however. What seems to have taken hold was the idea that if a movement such as reverse punch was initiated from the hips, and the hips were twisted somewhat quickly, then the resulting punch was going to be very powerful. In fact a claim that bounced around was that a karate punch could generate about 2000 pounds of force per square inch and that this could kill, or stun an attacker thereby allowing the defender to escape. In order to accomplish this the main requirements seemed to involve relaxing the shoulders, tensing the lats, twist the hips before the arm leaves the hip chamber, and practicing this in the air maybe a hundred times a class two to three days a week.

A few minutes of pad work revealed something else. Knuckles were bleeding, wrists were bent, it was obvious that they could not hit very hard, and worst of all, they were usually disillusioned. Finding a way to get them to commit their whole body, including the muscles of their arm, to the task of accelerating their fist toward the target was needed. They had to experience success before they got too frustrated by their failures and lost hope. It was also important that they did not injuring themselves trying to learn to hit hard.

In the eighties I remember going to a couple of seminars by Ray Dalke. He was charismatic, motivating, and his students all seemed to love him. What stands out most however is the commitment in his (and his students) techniques. His punch may have started in his hip, but everything from his toes to his hair seemed to add something to it. This contrasted sharply with what I have always thought of as the “coasting” punch that people who rely too heavily on hip action often make. What I mean by a “coasting” punch is a punch in which the arm reaches its top velocity just as it leaves the hip, and in which no effort is made to use the arm to further accelerate the fist. Such punches look to me like they are coasting, even decelerating, as they get closer to the target.

I visited Gillian Russell the other day and she had a couple of Mark Rippetoe’s books on strength training. I thumbed through one looking at the section on bench pressing. My benches are not that good. In part this is due to old shoulder injuries, and in part it is probably because I am just too lazy to do what I need to do to get better at them (yes, feel free to mock me. I deserve it). Anyway one thing that caught my eye was a point Rippetoe made about the bench press, he said that because it is relatively simple (compared to exercises like the clean, the push press, the squat, and the dead lift) it affords the person new to lifting the chance to feel what really pushing hard against a weight is like. He explains that the sensation is unfamiliar to many people and requires some getting used to. It is an excellent point. The feeling of putting everything into a technique is also unfamiliar to many people.

Eventually, frustrated by my inability to get people to really commit to their punches, I sat down and came up with a plan. I feel like it has helped. The basic elements are pretty simple and not that time consuming so little is lost if it does not work for you.

1) Regardless of stance, posture, hip movement, or anything else punching power is limited by the wrist. I have observed a very close relationship between punching power and grip strength. If the wrist is weak people will instinctively hold back their punches when they hit a target. As soon as you notice that the student needs help making power get them working on strengthening their forearms. There are a variety of ways to do this including working with light chi’ishi, using wrist rollers, and forearm curls. Variety helps keep it from getting boring so get creative here.

2) If they have not been regularly hitting things they are likely to feel some discomfort in their shoulders when they start. Have them do cable pulls, back flies, and push presses to build up their shoulders.

3) Tape up the student’s fists and wrist and have them wear training gloves. This will let them feel what hitting a bag is like without worrying about their wrists.

4) Do not put them on the makiwara right away. Instead use a punching bag and small target pads. Something that is not too stiff works best. If they are hitting and it hurts, they will hold back.

4) This is the odd one, but it really puts some explosion into punches pretty quickly; have them swing a baseball bat at a soft, freely swinging heavy bag. Wearing a pair of batting gloves makes things more comfortable. Use a strong solid bat, do not use maple. The heavy bag should not be too heavy, maybe 50 pounds, and the bag should not be tightly packed. Have the student try to make a high pop when they hit  instead of a low thud. Have them swing from both sides. As they get more used to the exercise have them swing harder with the bat.

5) This works well at the end of a training session before the cool down. Do not have them punch the pad after the bat drill, they are likely to hit too hard and hurt themselves. When it is time to work on power again start with punching the pads and heavy bag and end with the bat drill.

6) Transition gradually to having them punch the targets without using the tape and gloves. Starting the power training portion of the training by spending a few minutes without the tape and gloves before using the tape. Move on to the bat drill.

I have found that with in about two months punching power substantially improves. Try to build on successes instead of highlighting shortcomings. Do not follow the power training on targets with partner work unless you want a lot of broken noses and fat lips in your group. Partner work is best prior to pad work unless you are training people with a fair amount of experience.

Have fun.

"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


July 2020

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