Teaching Strikes

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Teaching students is hard, especially for new instructors. For most of us, the only way to learn to teach is to get out on the floor and do it. I know a lot of us start of as color belt sempais, helping the main instructors out on the floor as best we can, and that’s generally the extent of our “learning to teach.” We watch our teachers work. We try to mimic the way they teach. And that’s not bad, but it can lead to a bit of inbreeding when it comes to that instruction. We begin make our own shortcut versions of the shortcuts our senseis have already created.

What I’ve done is sit down and tried to analyze each of the basic strikes we teach to our color belts. To break down each strike into its basics and give my thoughts on what each should be and how I go around to correct mistakes I see pop up in student form. This sort of thought (something anyone looking to teach should do) and self-examination is key to not only improving the technique of our students, but is one of the best ways to improve our own. Being able to break down any technique or form into clear and easy-to-understand language, and to communicate that to students will give you, as a martial artist, an even truer understanding of what you’re doing. Hopefully this guide will help other instructors out on their own floors, or at least give them something to think about as they do their own analysis. As with the “Teach Stance” guide, I’ll be doing individual video instruction for each technique.

BASIC STRIKE GUIDE FOR COLOR BELTS

A quick note: I’m just going over a few of the basic strikes — the beginning strikes we teach to the lower color belts — and some of the things I do to adjust students out on the floor. This is by no means a comprehensive guide. I will be doing those (as with the videos) and elaborating on them more over in my “Tips & Techniques” section. You can check out my guide to the Straight Punch right now. Use these tips/adjustments as additional bullets in your teaching gun.

Straight Punch: The basic, foundation strike for karate. There are a number of variations for it – front punch, reverse punch/cross. All use the same principals.

Begin with your rear fist in home position (just above the bottom of the rib cage, with elbow pulled tight towards the body).
Hips should be off center, towards the rear leg
Back of the hand towards the floor.
Hand shoots out straight at target in the same position (keeping arm straight and not allowing the elbow to swing away from the body)
As the fist approaches the target, engage the hips and rear leg to add power. The force of the punch comes from proper use of the hips and rear leg.
Just before impact, the fist twists over, connecting with the first two knuckles of the fist.
The arm, fist, and elbow should remain in a straight line in order to deliver the maximum amount of power
Targets the head or body.
Keep your thumb in and braced just below the middle knuckle of the fingers.

How to adjust the strike:
One of the most common mistakes is a misaligned hand. A fist tilted up, down, or off-center (left or right) will not only result in a loss of power, but also can cause injury to the student. Striking in the air is not an effective way to show this. Pull out the bags and have them practice. They will feel the difference immediate.
Another HUGE problem is thumb placement. Students will wrap their fingers around it, have it jutting out vertically, and a number of other problems. Improper thumb positioning can result in a broken finger! Watch where they are putting their thumbs…your students will thank you for it in the long run!
Next is the “flapping elbow.” Beginning students, or those who have become lazy in their technique, will allow their elbow to drift or flap away from its position tight against the body. This causes the punch to fire out at an arc, reducing the effectiveness of the straight punch
To teach additional power and crispness of technique, have students begin with the lead hand out, either fully extended or in a guard position. As the straight punch is begun, the student should pull back the lead hand at the same time. The greater the speed of the pull back, the more effective the reciprocal motion of the straight punch, and the more power that will be delivered by it.
Watch the student for excess movement of the shoulders, or leaning. The back leg should be supplying the power and distance of the punch. Extraneous shoulder movement, or leaning, will throw a student off-balance or leave them open for a counter-strike.
Also be aware of students pulling the hand/shoulder back just before delivering the strike. These are clear “tells” that a strike is coming and will allow an opponent additional time/warning that it is coming.
Finally, keep an eye on home position. Many students will get lazy and drop their hands down to their belt. This weakens the punch, as does pulling the fist up too high.

The variations:
Front Punch: Straight punch delivered from the lead hand – different than a jab because the student will engage the hips and make use of the rear/opposite leg to drive power up from the ground and into the body. At RDK, students are exposed to the front punch before any other version of the straight punch with the TIOGA sets.
Reverse Punch/Cross: Straight punch from the rear hand. More natural in feel than a front punch, the reverse punch follows the body mechanics of walking – opposite arm moving with opposite leg.
Jab: A close relative to the straight punch, the jab is a speed punch that doesn’t involve a student rotating their hips into the strike to generate power. The strike comes from the lead hand and fires out with the same technique as the standard straight punch. Without the addition of the hips/legs for power, the jab is a “shock” punch, used to stun or distract more than to stop. Most often used as a lead in to another attack. Generally used for targeting the head/face, although it can be used effectively to the body in sparring.

Palm Heel: This is a powerful strike that is great for protecting the hands of the student. The padding of the palm heel is much harder to injure with the strike than are the knuckles of the fist in a punch. The general mechanics of a palm heel strike are nearly identical to that of a straight punch.

Curl fingers in, but keep the palm flat and aimed at the target.
Pull back to home position.
Hips should be off center, towards the rear leg
Extend arm straight out, lining up the heel of the palm with the bones of the forearm.
Engage the hips and rear leg to add power. The force of the strike comes from proper use of the hips and rear leg.
The striking surface is the lower palm, or the palm heel.
Targets face, nose, under the chin, or ribs.
The palm heel can be done with either the front or rear hand.

How to adjust the strike:
This is another strike where proper aligned means the difference between an effective strike and one that can cause discomfort or injury to the student. Striking too high on the hand can force it back, resulting in pain.
Make sure the student keeps the thumb folded in tight against the side of the hand. Same for the fingers.

Hook Punch: A powerful, close-range punch. Cannot be used as a head-strike in sparring.
Get into a basic fighting stance, with one leg slightly ahead of the other and your torso perpendicular to your opponent. It can also be done from a squared up stance.

Fist is held in vertical position, with the fist lined up with the forearm (as with all punches, keeping the pieces lined up is necessary to avoid injury)
Shift your lead foot onto the toe and twist inward as if you are stamping out a cigarette. Rear leg remains planted. Body should twist outward.
Step down onto the rear heel to anchor the punch and generate force.
Keep arm bent 90 degrees at the elbow.
Arm follows an arc. As arm/fist moves in to target, body twists with it, adding additional power. Unwinding your body with as much force and speed as possible aids the punch.
Return striking fist back to guard.
Target side/body, jaw, or temple.
The Hook can be used from either the front or rear arm.

How to adjust the strike:
Remind student that the hook is a close-range punch. Attempting to use it at a longer range gives the target more chance to block and can leave the student open for a counter.
This strike is often used as a set-up for a combination, but can be deadly on its own.

Upper Cut: A powerful punch that is as effective as it is misunderstood. The proper uppercut is a short, deadly punch that can move under an opponents guard and knock them out.

Bend your knees. Power comes from starting low and exploding up with the punch.
Fist will be upside down, with the back towards the floor (at first, and then toward the opponent as it connects)
Elbow is locked at 90 degrees.
Direction of punch is from the home position (or near the belt) aimed up and out diagonally at the target.
Plant lead foot as the step into the punch. The rear foot will push up onto the ball to help generate the power needed for the strike.
Rotate the body/hips into the punch.
Target chin.

How to adjust the strike:
Don’t forget the horizontal movement in addition to the vertical! When practicing, a lot of students will keep the direction of the punch too close to their own body. This is one of the dangers of “shadow-boxing” for the new or sloppy student. Remind them to imagine a target a step or two away from them to get their targeting properly attuned.
Power is generated from turning the hips, not from jumping up. Rotate don’t jump should be the mantra here.
Keep hips UNDER the punch.
There should be an end-point in mind with this punch. It should lash out and then return. Don’t let it go zipping past your target if it misses. Strike and return.
Keep your hands up!

Roundhouse Punch: The haymaker. A rear-hand punch that is slower but more powerful than a reverse punch or cross. The roundhouse is very effective for punching around an opponent’s guard.

Punch generally starts from the guard and utilizes the rear hand
Hips should be off center, towards the rear leg
Elbow comes up and away from the torso – from a 45 to 90 degree angle, depending upon the individual
As the fist approaches the target, engage the hips and rear leg to add power. The force of the punch comes from proper use of the hips and rear leg.
Rear leg pushes up from the ground, generating power and distance, while the front leg is planted and pivots.
Aim with the first two knuckles of the fist, targeting either the side of the head, chin, or side/kidneys of your opponent
Fist should follow an arc from should to just past target – Punch through the target without stopping or recoiling

How to adjust the strike:
The biggest issue with a roundhouse is that it tends to be a strike that is easier to read than a straight punch. If a target is expecting a roundhouse, it is easy to block or counter. Most efficient way to use the roundhouse is when an opponent isn’t expecting it – that’s where the roundhouse’s other name, the sucker punch, comes from.
Have the student focus on keeping the path of the strike as horizontal as possible.
A roundhouse to the head will generally be a horizontal strike, while a body shot will have the fist oriented more vertically due to the mechanics of the arm.

Back Fist: A whipping strike, often used to surprise an opponent.

Strike is made with the back side of the fist – generally the back of the knuckles closest to the thumb.
The fist, angled vertically with the back facing the target, moves out from guard, with the elbow going nearly horizontal as it does.
Arm extends out completely before snapping the fist back to guard.
Target is the side of the head in sparring, but can be aimed effectively at any part of the head or face in a ‘real world’ situation
Can be done from nearly any stance effectively, although it is done almost exclusively from the lead hand.
Does not need to engage the hips or legs to add power. The back fist is all about speed.

How to adjust the strike:
Have the student stay relaxed. Arm and fist should move out like a whip, smooth, relaxed, and high-speed. Thing of a bullwhip or snapped with a towel.
The back fist is a speed strike and should flip in and out quickly. It does not lock out.
A great stunning or “shock” strike that can lead into another attack or combination.

The Variations:
The Back Knuckle strike: Similar to the back fist, but done with an arm placed vertically in front of the student. Often, the second (non-striking) arm is used to support the elbow of the arm/hand performing the strike. For the Back Knuckle, the hand is in a horizontal orientation in relation to the target.

Ridgehand: A fast, powerful strike that seems to come out of nowhere. Great to get around an opponent’s guard. Shares some similarities in mechanics to a roundhouse punch.

Hands are held tight, fingers extended, with the thumb tucked in.
Hand starts at home position (or at guard in sparring), with the palm facing inwards toward the body
Elbow swings up and out to bring the strike in high and around a target’s guard.
Before impact, the hand flips over, allowing the area from just below the index finger to the thumb joint to strike the target (palm will be facing out, away from the target)
Hand strikes and moves back out just as quickly in this speed strike
Target is the side of the head.

How to adjust the strike:
Warn the student to watch thumb positioning. It should be drawn in against the hand to avoid breaking it during the strike.
In tournaments, the hands needs to flip completely over to be counted as a valid strike.

The Variations:
Ridgehand Spear: Similar in to the standard spear, the ridgehand spear is generally aimed at a target’s groin with the thumb towards the sky. Ridgehand spear moves straight out from home position, at a slight downward angle. The wrist will be tilted/locked down toward the floor to brace the hand, and the impact will be the top of the hand in the area just above the thumb.

Generally, this strike is a front hand attack, allowing it to have the greatest distance. Power is generated by the rear/opposite leg pushing up through the body from the ground.

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Karate Geek
Mathias Nastos is the Karate Geek, Amazon Best-Selling Author, writer for film/tv/comics, with black belts in American-form karate and aikido.
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