The straight punch is one of the foundations of all branches of karate. It is a deceptively simple technique that most students do not fully understand or appreciate.
We’ve all seen martial arts movies where a mass of students are posed in horse stances deliver the straight punch over and over. While this version of the punch isn’t practical in terms of effect (it has no stance or hip shift to generate power and relies only on strength of arm and shoulder, along with the speed of the fist itself), it is one of the best ways for a student to perfect their punching for. Done in a natural stance, a student can practice the Jab and get much the same effect — a quick punch meant more for speed than power. Repetition will train muscle memory for the punch, and that muscle memory will translate over into real life, sparring, or kata uses.
For the purposes of training, a student will begin in a solid horse stance with one arm extended directly out from the body at shoulder height – this is a necessary step to gain the reciprocal motion needed to perform the straight punch properly. The arm should be completely straight, with the elbow locked and the palm parallel to the floor. The punching hand will be held in home position (near the base of the rib cage), with the back of the fist towards the ground.
The location of ‘home position’ (or chambering) is important. It should be near the base of the rib-cage – too low and the punch will be thrown at an angle, losing some power (an upper cut is a very effective punch, but requires a different stance set-up and body motion); too high and the punch becomes awkward as it needs to angle back down to strike a target. From the proper home position, a straight bunch will lash out in the straightest, most direct path, delivering the greatest amount of power.
The punch itself is performed by keeping the punching arm’s elbow tight to the body – poor form allows the elbow to swing out and away from the body, slowing the punch down, announcing intention to an opponent, and reducing the general effectiveness of the straight punch – and pushing the fist out in a straight line towards your opponent. At the last instant, just before impact, the fist twists from palm up to palm down position, and the student either kiai’s or exhales from the diaphragm to help extend their energy out from the body and into the fist.
The opposite hand is pulled back it home position at the same time the punching hand lashes out, resulting in the reciprocal motion necessary for proper punching technique. That reciprocal motion should be felt more in the hips and core, and less so in the shoulders of the student performing the punch. The wildly flapping shoulder motion seen in beginner students is a habit to break. Power will come from the engagement or twisting of the hips into the punch.
The two first knuckles of the fist, the largest on the hand, will be the area of direct impact for the punch. If the arm is completely straight and in proper position, those knuckles will be the ones that automatically connect. An improperly aligned punch (either hitting with the outside knuckles of the hand, or with the wrist bent up or down) will cause discomfort in the wrist that could lead to injury. Making sure the hand, wrist, and arm are completely aligned, and the elbow locked at the end position, are key, even when practicing in the air.
The best way to demonstrate proper and improper hand/wrist/arm positioning is with the use of a bag or striking pad. That feedback will immediate show a student what he/she is doing right or wrong far easier than anything else, a benefit ‘air punching’ doesn’t do.
The two more ‘practical’ versions of the straight punch are the reverse and front punches – named for whether or not the strike is being performed with the fore or rear positioned leg: i.e. a ‘reverse punch’ comes from the rear hand in stance (striking with the right hand in a left forward or fighting stance). A front punch would be performed with the lead (or front) hand.
Performing a straight punch in a proper fighting stance allows it to reach maximum effectiveness because a student will be able to engage their hips and make use of their legs to generate power behind it. For either the front or reverse punch, the majority of the power is driven by the back leg pushing from the ground and up into the body.
One mistake made, even by more advanced students, is trying to lean into the punch. Allowing the torso to leave its vertical alignment will throw off your balance, as well as leave you open to a counter from your opponent.
Of the two variations, the reverse punch is more natural. Take a look at how a person walks – left leg and right arm swing out at the same time. It’s always the opposite arm and leg. This makes the front punch feel a bit unnatural…and that’s not a bad thing. What that unnatural feeling does is force the student to remember to push off with that back leg – to drive the power from the rear planted leg – and push your power up into your fist. This is why we learn the front punch with the Red Dragon Karate Tiogas (Taikyoku in traditional Karate). It trains a student how to perform a proper straight punch.
Now get out there and practice your punches!
-Mat Nastos, The Karate Geek
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