Friday, January 28, 2011

More on "Whipping" techniques

I am growing more and more convinced that the "whipping" model of punching technique I wrote about earlier this month is a dead end.  Read this blog post and watch the videos to see a very clear description of whipping technique.  I'm pretty sure it's a bad idea (no disrespect to anybody intended).

Briefly, in a whipping punch you rotate the hips first, relax the torso, and let a "waveform" pass through the relaxed torso, relaxed shoulder, and into the fist.  This may or may not be what some refer to as "staged activation."  It feels very powerful, and if you scout around on YouTube you can find some advanced karateka utilizing the technique.  Look for the hips to pre-load (pull back before launching the technique, then start the technique by rotating before the hand moves) and look for the shoulders and hips to move separately (even if only by a small amount) and, most telling, look for the hip to be stopped or even pulling back when impact is made.

Look at this from a fairly simplistic physics viewpoint - is there any conceivable mechanism by which having your hip pulling back at the point of impact could actually make your strike harder?  Remember, you're trying to hit your opponent.  When you snap a wet towel the "pullback" doesn't make the tip of the towel hit someone harder - it makes the noise louder because a greater force is put into the towel.  That's very satisfying, but it's not going to make for good technique.

Why does this "whipping" motion feel so powerful (because, in my opinion, it really does, which is part of why people fall for it)?  Well, think about where the feeling of strong technique comes from, especially when you strike air.  You're not feeling the impact of your fist - it's not even hitting anything.  If you hit a bag or striking pad, you still don't feel the impact - the person holding the pad might, but if you feel the impact it's only in the nerves in your fist, not from the rest of your body.  The sensations you get in your shoulder, core, hips, etc. are feedback from receptors in your own muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are reporting to your brain about forces generated in those areas.

When you "whip" a technique - when you pull the hip back while the technique is at full speed - and especially when you relax your core - you're going to get a tremendous amount of force through your body.  Basically, you're adding the momentum of the hip pulling back to the momentum of the fist traveling forward and stopping all that momentum in a very short time. That's going to require a lot of force!

Imagine Superman has to stop an out of control train by pulling on a chain or rope that's tied to the back of the train.  In one instance he braces himself, standing still, and when the slack in the chain is gone he'll feel a huge jolt and stop the train.  Now imagine that Superman decides to stop the train by running in the opposite direction very fast.  He grabs the chain and runs or flies in the opposite direction.  Once the slack is gone he'll feel another tremendous jolt as he stops the train.  Which "jolt" will feel more powerful to Superman?  I'm sure the one where he's traveling backward - he'll have to stop the train and himself.  Does that mean the train was going any faster?  No, of course not.

By pulling your hip back, or stopping it before the "impact" (before you stop the punch), you increase the subjective feeling of force because you're making your body pull harder to stop the punch.  You're making a bigger "jerk" travel through your body.  Does that mean your fist was traveling faster or harder (or in any way which would cause more damage to your opponent)?  No.  In fact, it was probably moving slower towards the opponent - because the hip wasn't driving it forwards anymore.

If your hip is stopping at the same time as your fist, roughly, the "jerk" you feel might be less even if the punch is stronger (going forward at a greater speed).  You're not snapping the towel - you're not adding the momentum of a backwards moving hip to the momentum of your punch moving forwards.  You'll feel less force at the impact and deliver more force to your target.

Watch this video of Tommy Carruthers, a JKD instructor:

It's not the easiest thing to see, but he's snapping the hips through his strikes at the point of impact, not before.  And he's fast.  That's good movement.

In addition, by keeping the torso tight instead of relaxing and twisting to create a waveform you're preventing rotation of the spine.  That's good from a health perspective - making a waveform actually requires relaxing the core and twisting the spine at the same time, which is pretty much what I'd tell someone to do if they were intentionally trying to injure their own back.  The whipping or waveform motion puts extra stress on your body while intentionally making your body less prepared to withstand that force while reducing the impact delivered to the target while slowing down the technique.  I can't see the good in it.

How do we train to strike properly?  Practice punching my moving the fist first, then snapping the hips through at the point where the fist should be making contact with the target (when the arm is about 85% extended, give or take).  Keep the torso very tight (your "core") and lock down the shoulder (tense the lats) at impact.  The timing isn't easy, and it's not as satisfying as using a giant pre-load, whipping the hips around, torquing the torso, then snapping the hips back at contact.  The latter feels wonderful and powerful, but all you're doing is pulling force out of your target and into the connective tissues of your own body.



  1. Nice post Joe - really convincing evaluation of the physics, and the perceived physics of the motion, as well as the potential physiological damage to the self in the process!

  2. Thanks, Jon! The "relax the body and send a wave through it like a whip" method of striking is very widely taught. I was lucky enough to have a teacher to challenge it (a guy I trained with for only 3 days!) and I've been trying to figure out what to do ever since.

  3. Well said Joe - a thorough analysis of what is truly a "dead-end".

    People are so overly concerned about how "powerful" an air punch feels that they never stop to think about how "powerful" it actually is!

    Well done!

    (And thanks very much for your kind words about my blog!)

  4. You're more than welcome!!! You're a big part of the reason I've been thinking through some of these issues (along with, oddly, something a guy I trained with for 3 days about 4 years ago tried to teach me, but I didn't understand it!)

  5. The whipping style works perfectly if you do not retract the hip before impact, allowing your weight to travel forward into the target. Peter Consterdine demonstrates it beautifuly here.
    I don't practice this style myself, but there is no doubting its effectiveness.

  6. I agree, Consterdine's technique looks impressive. I could be wrong but I watched the video a couple of times and it really seems like he's landing the strikes as the hip is still moving forward - it doesn't look like a whip to me, it looks like his striking shoulder is keeping alignment with the hip underneath it. If there is a whipping motion (the hip rotates, energy is stored in the core, the shoulder follows) it's certainly subtle - there isn't a big lag, and certainly not the kind of exaggerated whip you'll see sometimes where the hip moves clearly before the shoulders. In fact, I imagine you can't ever get the shoulders to move perfectly with the hips - there will always be some lag, even if it's very small, just because nobody's core can be perfectly rigid. Either way, thanks very much for the link! It's s wonderful video and one of the nicest demonstrations of the double hip I've ever seen.

  7. Definitely the hip is still moving forward on impact. I had some doubt as to whether this would qualify as 'whip like', but he's very clear in the section from 1:15 to 1:50 that he is using a staged activation type movement.
    This is a great blog by the way, I found it through Dan Djurdjevic's. I'm not giving up sausage sandwiches though.

  8. What I'd really like is some time in a lab with force sensors, high quality digital video filming technology, and some computer techs to figure exactly what's going on with some really good martial artists (in terms of just what parts move how and when)! I think we're basically in agreement, though, in that we both agree that staged activation certainly gets taken to extremes by some people and probably doesn't work when they do that.
    I wish I could eat sausage sandwiches myself! I just can't keep my weight down if I eat bread. And thanks so much for the feedback - I LOVE Djurdjevic's stuff, he knows far more about technique than I ever will!

  9. Thanks for the great article; I just discovered this blog! I realize I am extremely late to the party, but I just stumbled across this. It's something I've been wondering about lately, for similar reasons.

    I felt it was worth noting that, in both he case of the towel and the bull whip, it is precisely that pulling back that creates the snap, that can, in the case of the bull whip cause the end to exceed the sound barrier. (Though apparently it's a loop, not the tip, that causes the crack.) If you don't snap the handle back at the end of the swing, the whip still moves quickly, but nowhere near as quickly. In the case of the towel, try it for yourself. At best, with a unidirectional swing, you can make a towel thump or smack the other guy, but you really need that last second pull-back to get the whipping action that causes the sharp stinging. In both the whip and the towel, the pull back in the opposite direction of the swing is precisely what causes the tip to move so fast.

    I have read that the pulling back at the end of cracking a whip is responsible for accelerating the tip to up to thirty times the original speed of the handle. Clearly, the physics of the human body are somewhat different, but still...