Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Karate Punch vs. Boxing Punch

This post is about one of those technical things that I realized a little while ago but isn't spoken about a whole lot.  I'm not sure if that's because it's incredibly obvious to everybody but me, or if it's spoken about a lot in areas I haven't looked, or if it's kind of esoteric.  Regardless, I'll post about it.  If this is absurdly obvious to everybody just post in comments how much of your time I've wasted.

Boxers, along with certain martial arts (systema comes to mind), have a very different method for throwing punches than karate does.  Look particularly at the shoulder.  A boxer is trained to raise the shoulder while punching - hunching the shoulder up towards the ear - to protect the jawline while punching.  You can see this taught on instructional DVD's, in books, and you can watch it in action in boxing matches.  The elbow is also lifted (this depends on the punch) - it points to the side or even slightly up (the way your arm turns when you're using a screwdriver to take out a screw - elbow pointed up slightly, shoulder rising) instead of down.

The traditional karate punch, on the other hand, is executed with the shoulder packed down (the lat tensed to keep the shoulder down in its socket), the elbow pointing down or mostly down, not up.  If you want to see this beautifully demonstrated, check out an iconic picture of Mas Oyama punching out a candle flame - his shoulders are pinned down, the chin tucked.  It's the way your arm would rotate to drive in a screw.

Why the difference in mechanics?  I think we can trace it back to the kinetics of a punch according to the two disciplines.  In boxing the image is of a thrown punch - the first/ forearm unit is hurled at the opponent.  At impact the damage is done by the fast moving fist - not by the torso or hips.  The hips twist at the beginning of the punch, to give it more initial velocity, not at the finish, to drive it through the opponent.  The punch is launched.  In karate, on the other hand, the punch is driven through the target.  At impact, the elbow, shoulder, and core tighten dramatically, dirrecting the rotational energy from the torso into (and through) the target.  The fist/forearm complex isn't a launched missile - it's the tip of a spear. 

If you doubt that the karate mechanics make a stronger connection between the fist and the hips, it's easy to test.  Stand up with a partner.  Hold your hand out in a fist like an extended punch.  Have your partner push back against your fist.  First try it with your shoulder up by your ear and your elbow pointed slightly upwards.  Next, repeat, but this time pack the shoulder down and keep your elbow pointed down.  I can guarantee your arm will collapse under much less pressure with the shoulder raised and elbow up.

How did this difference occur historically?  I'm not sure, but part of the motivation behind the karate mechanics is the history of training for punches on a makiwara, instead of a heavy bag.  The makiwara is like a spring - you hit it, and it bends and springs back.  If you hit it hard but don't sustain the pressure after the impact the makiwara will knock you backwards.  A heavy bag, on the other hand, just absorbs impact.  It won't spring back at you (it might swing away and swing back, but people don't hold their fist against the bag long enough for that to knock them on their butts).  If you need that kind of sustained force following your punch you'll never get it with boxing mechanics.  If all you're concerned about is the impact, then that's another story.

Which set of mechanics is better?  That's a question I wrestle with.  Figuring out which leads to harder hits isn't straightforward.  The physics are beyond me - too many variables I can't quite figure out.  Looking for hard hitters doesn't help.  Many of the hardest hitters in sports (Fedor Emelianenko, anyboy?) use boxing mechanics - but that might be a result of glove use or just the fact that most sport fighters study boxing, and they would hit even harder using karate mechanics.  Karate mechanics seem safer for the shoulder joint (which is strongest when packed, instead of raised).  Bruce Lee used karate mechanics for his punching. 

Take home point:  you should at the very least be aware of the fact that there are at least two competing views of how to punch properly.  If you're reading books on technique or studying fighters, you can't always apply their advice to what you're doing.  If you try to punch both ways simultaneously the result won't be pretty.  If you can't decide, go with whatever your style teaches.  I train the karate style - I suspect it's better, but I can't work out enough of the math to be certain.

To do the "karate mechanics" punch, tense the lat so your shoulder stays down - imagine you're trying to keep your shoulderblades (scapulae) in your back pocket.  I like to imagine squeezing the punch out of my armpit.  Your hips don't twist at the start, to launch the punch, they twist during and at the end of the punch, to transmit the kinetic energy of the torso into the target.  If your hips twist at the start then by the time the punch lands your torso isn't moving anymore - which means the energy is lost.

Caveat:  I call the packed shoulder - elbow down - body as one unit - method the "karate method" - I don't mean to say that all karate styles must punch that way or that it's more authentic.  It's simply the method taught in the karate styles I'm familar with.  If your style teaches the other style, I have no problem with that.


  1. Sorry for this, well, necrocomment. The point you make is very interesting and is the one I've been thinking about for months. From the anatomical point of view, karateka and boxers utilize different muscles to drive the arm forward. When the lats are tensed, shoulders are down and the movement is perpendicular to the chest, an athlete is completely disabling his deltoids and moving arms with the pecs. This is how the bench-pressing is done properly.
    On the other hand, lifting the shoulders, relaxing the muscles of the upper back are disabling the pecs and switching off to using deltoids.
    Now, where does this get us? I think that karate punches are the worse off because, well, they are really just hard pushes. The movement is slower and stiffer. Just ask yourself: do you really need to apply that much muscle force trying to "strike through" the opponent? You'd probably do, were he a makiwara, dumbbell or a breaking board, but against, say, human head - what is the point? Or even against the torso - karatekas could endure a lot of those blows in the course of the match, so I wouldn't call them exactly knockout-worthy.
    Compare, then, karate punch with the boxing punch. In the latter, the arm is moving freely and fast, with little to no power generated by the deltoids themselves. The puncher is using his entire kinetic chain instead, employing practically his full body (from the toes to the wrist) is one motion. When the arm is not fully extended, the punch has zero power. You can literally slap it out of the air because the hand is whipped freely, not pushed hardly. But, when the punch lands, the kinetic chain transmits the full energy: utilising all bodymass and the full speed of the punch. That's why I think it is superior: the boxing punch has longer reach, better speed, better power, less readable motions and so on. I don't quite understand your concerns about the shoulder stability, and indeed, this trauma is quite uncommon one. You'd sooner injure your wrist than the shoulder, I feel.
    And, of course, there are also short straight punches in the boxing, which are done at less than fully extended arm range and, I think, are quite similar to the karate ones: but boxers typically relax until the point of impact (something that I believe is called "kime" in karate).

  2. I disagree that the deltoids are disabled by anything the karateka does - delts, lats, and pecs often work together (see bench press) and it's a pretty common misunderstanding that the lats and delts oppose the way the biceps and triceps do.
    As for the contention that karate punches are slow or stiff - watch Enter the Dragon. Watch the scenes where Bruce Lee is fighting off the hordes of bad guys. Classic karate punch - shoulders down, body rigid, twisting at the hips to generate power. And Lee was not primarily a movie martial artist - by all accounts he was a very smart guy who did very well in a lot of intense street fighting. And he made a religion out of putting more realistic martial arts into his films.
    I suspect some karateka have a slow, stiff punch - which I suspect comes from the unfortunate tendency we have to do too many repetitions with our techniques. That's not the biomechanics, it's bad training. If anything, I wonder if boxers punch the way they do because of gloves - why do so many of the traditional empty handed arts focus on one style of punching, while the sport shaped by combat in 16 oz. gloves punches another way?
    Ultimately, of course, we'd have to do some expensive experiments to get the final answers, and that's not going to happen today :)


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  4. Enter The Dragon is a poor example of karate punches not being stiff. Bruce heavily used boxing as the basis of his punches. He never studied KARATE. He was a kung fu stylist who tried and liked american boxing, then he blended Wing Chun and Boxing into Jeet Kune Do.