How not to block a punch

There’s this video making the rounds of how fast punches can come at you and how you should not try to block them. In many ways, it’s pretty cool because you see the punches in those street fights in slow motion which allows you to notice certain details. But from some of the comments I’ve read on this video, people are jumping to all sorts of conclusions. What’s more, there are some glaring contradictions and issues in the video that nobody seems to pick up on, which I found weird because it seems so obvious. I’ll try to cover all those points and more here below.

Take a look at the video first:


There are many reasons why it goes wrong for the “victims” in these fights but I’ll limit myself to a couple of them:

  • They walk into punches. The first fight is a perfect example of that. The guy just walks forward, hands down, chest puffed up and he’s probably trying to intimidate the other guy. But the latter isn’t on the same page as he just tees off and lands a solid right hand. One person is there to posture, the other is there to fight…
  • They let the guy walk into striking range unchallenged. Whether this is by accident or because they don’t know any better, some people let their attacker move in on them without even trying to something about it. You see this happening in the second fight where the guy has his hands up but he doesn’t do a thing to stop his attacker from knocking him out. The same happens at 1min22 where the victim is actually leaning forwards, exposing his head even more.
  • They just stand there, in striking range of their opponent. They are shooting their mouth off to their opponent while they are right there, within arms reach, don’t have their arms up, no on-guard position, nothing. The just stand there flapping their jaws, a stationary target, oblivious to the danger. The third fight shows this perfectly: the guy in the red t-shirt suddenly has enough and he throws the bitch-slap from hell. The same goes for the next fight with the guy in the baseball cap throwing a right hook: at that distance, you won’t have time to block it if you’re just standing there.
  • Most victims don’t even make an attempt to block. Their hands don’t even begin to move because they just don’t see it coming.
  • They are not ready to fight. Look at the two kids in the hall at 1min12. The attacker sets up the punch with his left arm and touches his victim. Even this tactile feedback doesn’t give enough advance warning to get a block up in time. This is a crucial point and I’ll get back to it later.


The video then goes on to show the robot arm striking at the same speed as the punches you just saw and some guy trying to block it. Now I totally agree with the point he’s trying to make: at this distance, you need your hands up or you won’t be able to block a punch in time. Simply because most human beings can’t react fast enough: by the time they see the punch coming, it has already landed. You see this clearly in the first part of the video where the victims don’t even react to the punch: their arms never even do as little as move up to defend themselves.

So if the message is “get your hands up at close range” then I agree with it.

But I disagree with three other points:

  • It’s easy. At 3min02, he repeatedly states blocking with the hands held high is easy. OK, look at the guy in the boxing guard at 1min30. Even though he has his guard up and his attacker throws a sloppy, telegraphed punch, he is unable to block it or do anything about it. Why is that? If it’s “easy” to block with your hands up and ready (just like the boxer does) then why does he get knocked out? More on that in a bit.
  • The set up of the robot is limited. The robot strikes at 200ms, just like the fastest punch in the videos (let’s assume the measuring is accurate) but that is by no means the fastest you can punch. 100ms or even faster is not impossible, depending on your training and other factors. Now imagine how much faster you have to block to avoid getting hit by such a punch, even if you have your hands up and ready…
  • “If you allow a person to get near you, at least have your hands up ready to block.”  This is where I flat out disagree. What bugs me the most about this final statement is that it’s the other way around: if you allow somebody to come close enough that you need to get your hands up, you already messed up. By that time, the advantage goes to the first guy who makes a move and it probably won’t be you as you’re just letting him come that close without doing anything about it except getting your hands up. Which won’t help you much if his opening move is not a punch to your face. Guess what, a bunch of very effective opening moves, particularly those done by people with lots of experience, are not a punch to the head. Having your hands up doesn’t help you against those, not one bit. The real problem is that you won’t know which move he’ll make first until it’s too late. Granted, chances are good it’ll be a shot to the head as many people do that instinctively. But this is by no means a sure thing, so letting somebody close to you and thinking you’re good to go because you have your hands up is a very risky proposition. This may not be what the guy in the video means but it sure is implied in that sentence and people will (some already have) interpret it as such.
  • People aren’t robots. Sure, a robot arm doesn’t give you any hint that it’s about to strike but I feel the comparison isn’t entirely valid: people aren’t robots, they do give cues. And you can learn those too. In fact, picking up on these cues is one of the most important parts of self-defense. Because without that skill, you’ll pretty much always eat that first punch coming at you, which starts the fight in a really bad way for you. The biggest cue of them all is of course that the guy is stepping closer so he can hit you from a distance where you don’t have the time to stop him.


Again, I get the point he’s trying to make and it’s not that he’s wrong in what he says or demonstrates. It’s more that it’s only part of the story and the other part is just as important.

Here are some thoughts on what I feel is necessary to balance this information on how you can’t just block a punch form close by:

  • Keep him at a safe distance. Don’t let anybody come close to you like you see in the clip. Nothing good can come of it. Sure, there are instances where your attacker will get close, but that doesn’t mean you should accept this as a given. Do everything you can to keep him outside of striking range.
  • Move.  Don’t just stand there but use your feet. You don’t have to jump around like a rabbit on speed but there’s no law that says you have to stay put. Instead, use natural footwork and stepping to get a better angle on him, step away from his dominant hand, increase the distance, position yourself closer to an obstacle you can use against him, etc.
  • Know the distance. If you don’t know the distance, you can’t control it. You need to have an instinctive understanding of when it’s time to move (and in which direction) and when you should stay put. This can be boring to practice but it’s a vital skill as you can see in this video: when you let your opponent come too close or when you walk too close to him, bad things happen…
  • Know the cues. Learn to recognize the weight shift, the narrowing of the eyes, the furtive look-away,, the loading of the hips, etc. The more you know all the little (and large) “tells” that betray somebody is about to attack, the better you’ll be able to do something about it
  • Don’t just block. If you do have to block, then don’t just use your arm. Try to move your head out of the way, lean sideways or back, step away, whatever but don’t just stand there waving your arm around.  Add other components to your defense as well.
  • Don’t assume it will be a punch. In this entire video, I saw only a couple experienced people throwing the first punch. Most were sloppy amateurs. They can kill you just as dead as the pros, you shouldn’t think otherwise.,but the experienced fighter will not necessarily start the fight by punching you in the head. He might stomp your foot or instep first, push you off balance, twist your shoulders to get your back, hit both high and low at the same time, etc. Or he might have palmed a knife and plunge it into your gut. Having your arms up, ready to block a high punch won’t help you then. Keeping him at a distance will…

These are all things I believe are crucial in making any self-defense technique work but there’s one missing component, perhaps the most important one. It’s also the reason (in my opinion) why that boxer got nailed despite having his guard up: you need to be perceptually ready.

I’m using the term Peyton Quinn used in his book Real Fighting (which you can buy here and I recommend it; it’s a good book) but it’s something you find in most martial arts, in particular the traditional ones. I’ve seen it in combatives systems and RBSD ones too but they often seem to mistake it for aggression, which is not the same thing in my opinion. But I digress.

I learned this concept early on in my training but it wasn’t until I started practicing tai chi chuan that I dug deeper into it. Primarily because in this art, we prefer to counter attack, for reasons that go well beyond the topic of this blog post. Though we will certainly hit first when it is opportune to do so (for instance, when somebody steps into your range…). but whatever you do, you need to be perceptually ready for it. That means you need to have a certain type of mindset, focus and concentration to be able to pull off whatever you have planned. It is something you need to train for specifically and experience definitely also helps to understand this concept better.

If you’re unfamiliar with the adrenal dump and the mental and physical consequences of real fighting, chances are you won’t get this part right. Which is why I believe all the previous aspects are subordinate to this one: without it, even having your hands up high isn’t necessarily enough to block that punch in time.


If you look at the big picture I’m trying to pain with this post, you’ll find that I come to this subject with a specific theory: in a fight, time equals distance.

Whenever you fight, in the ring or in the street, time is measured in milliseconds (100ms or less for a well trained punch) which means that half a second is a long, long time. He who controls the distance between the combatants determines how long it takes to hit the other and therefor who gets hit first. In many fights, the guy to land the first solid blow wins the fight. Or at the very least, he has a distinct advantage.

This means that timing and distancing are two interwoven subjects. You can’t discuss one without the other. I’m not going to do that there but I’d like to refer you to Timing in the Fighting Arts, which I wrote together with Loren. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other book that covers this topic exclusively and in the amount of detail we did. So if you’re interested in more on this topic, you might enjoy reading it. Of all the products I have out there, this is the one I like best because timing is a fascinating subject to me and I keep on learning more about it.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this post and let me know what you think in the comments section.


Become a Patron and get access to unique content: my newsletter, instructional videos, violence analysis and much more!


  1. Great article, Wim. Very informative.

  2. As always, great analysis. A lot of people take simple stuff like this for granted specially in real life situation. Keep them away with a push kick to the face!! Lol
    Thanks again!

  3. Nice. With regards to the robot arm test, hope he realizes he was helped by the fact that he knew exactly where that “punch” was aimed (and thus could decide beforehand exactly how/where to block), that the “fist” was distinctively marked for easy visibility, and everything (apparently) was nice and brightly lit. At least two of those won’t be true in an actual altercation.


    how did u build that thing ?

  5. Hands up open palms, moving in a circle to his left (since most people are right handed) and keeping just out of arms reach, and using deescalating language is one effective way to prevent fists from flying.

    Won’t work in 100% of cases, of course, because violence is a dynamic process, but for the casual alpha-type of encounter it SHOULD be enough to keep your teeth off the floor.

    Now muggings…..that’s a whole other ball of wax.

  6. This is the first time I’ve come across your blog, and it’s fascinating, critical and insightful. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts, and then possibly your books!

  7. I noticed that a lot of those punches took place in crowded situations, not a lot of room to move around…

    • I understand your point but movement doesn’t mean you have to clear ten yards. Stepping ten inches can already accomplish a lot in these situations, if you time it right. Most of the guys in the video had that kind of space.
      Also, why would you hesitate to bump into somebody who’s stupid enough to stand so close to two guys fighting? :-)

Speak Your Mind