Explosive punching techniques are the Holy Grail for most martial arts and self-defense practitioners. And for good reason: the more you increase your explosive punching power, the more damage you can do when you hit your opponent or attacker. It’s a no-brainer.
But I believe many people make the mistake on overly focusing on the physical training to develop their fast-twitch muscle fiber through all sorts of strength training protocols. Just to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. On the contrary, it’s an important part of the puzzle. That said, I believe there is another part that s equally important: pulling the trigger.
One of the most difficult things to do in a fight, both in the ring or in the street, is deciding when exactly to strike. As in: “Not yet, nope, too soon, not yet, no, no, NOW!” When exactly that “Now!” is depends on too many factors to list here and they also change all the time but just to give you an idea here are two examples:
- A guy is in your face, blocking the exit of a bar you want to get out of and he’s increasingly agitated. He’s giving off all the pre-fight signals and your de-escalation techniques aren’t working. You realize that the only way to get out is to go through him. When exactly do you make your move? Which factors or actions on his part determine your choice of that particular moment in time?
- You’re competing in the cage against a tough opponent. You’ve traded blows and he’s gotten the better of you a few times already. You need to do some damage quickly before he becomes even more confident and aggressive because you don’t know if you can keep on taking what he dishes out. When do you throw your technique? At which exact instant do you initiate that punch, kick or takedown and why then instead of before or after that moment?
There are multiple right answers to these scenarios, it’s not black or white. This is a field of study in and of itself and if you like, you can call it strategy and tactics. There are as many opinions on this as there are people so it’s up to you to figure out what works for you. But here’s the thing:
Knowing when to do a technique is one thing, having the ability to pull the trigger on your technique at that precise moment in time is another skill altogether.
It’s that skill you are primarily training with this drill.
You also train other things and I’ll point that out in a minute but I use the drill primarily for this reason. Here’s how it goes.
This is the nuts and bolts of the drill. You can do it differently but I like this version as a starting point.
- You and your partner stand close to a wall. He’s in his fighting stance facing the wall and you are close to it, slightly to his side.
- Hold up a focus mitt or a light boxing glove against the wall, well above head height of your partner.
- Without advance warning, open your fingers and drop the glove.
- As soon as he spots the glove falling, your partner throws a straight punch at the glove and tries to pin it to the wall.
- Repeat ten times and then use your other arm for the punching technique.
Here’s what it looks like:
This is the basic drill and it looks easy enough but you’ll quickly notice it becomes more difficult when you start tweaking it as follows:
- Change the height of the glove. If your partner catches it all the time, lower it half an inch. Keep lowering it in small increments until he no longer consistently pins it to the wall. That’s the point where he needs to work the most at right now.
- Add footwork. In the video, my student first has to throw left and right straight punches at the target from a stationary position. Then, he has to take a step back and do the same thing but take a step forward as soon as he launches the punch. As you can see, he has a lot more trouble doing that and starts both leaning into it and straightening out his back leg too much.
- Add another glove holder. Have another person stand on the opposite side against the wall and hold up a second glove. The gloves should be no wider apart than your partner’s shoulders. Now he won’t know which glove drops first, so anticipating becomes a lot harder.
- Position a second glove holder behind him. Do the exact same drill but have somebody else stand behind your partner with a glove held high. As soon as you release it and he pins it, he has to spin around 180° and face the second partner in his fighting stance. Then that one drops the glove when he wants to, preferably not too long after your partner finishes spinning around.
- Eyes closed. Have your partner close his eyes for a few seconds before you say “Ready?” so he opens them again. Then you wait for one to three seconds before releasing the glove. Because he has to orient himself each time, the drill is a lot harder for your partner.
- Don’t use a wall. Do the same drill but in the middle of your training area instead of up against a wall. You might even start doing some slow footwork so your partner has to follow you around and react in time when you drop the glove.
You can obviously add your own variations to this timing drill for explosive punching techniques but the ones I listed here above are a good starting point.
Let’s take a look now at what can go wrong.
My student in this video had never done this drill before and he makes a couple mistakes. I’ll comment on those and add a few more pointers too:
- Don’t anticipate. This is perhaps the hardest part of the drill: don’t anticipate when you should punch. The whole idea is to not think at all but purely work off the visual cue of the glove dropping.
- Don’t look at the glove. That would be cheating… Instead, look straight ahead and imagine an opponent standing in front of you.
- Don’t “stutter”. You can see my student kind of “stutter” in his movements a few times. He starts moving, stops, and then starts again to complete the punching technique. This is a sign that he’s anticipating the right timing moment; you should try to avoid doing this and instead be totally still until you explode. This part is key in getting the most out of this drill.
- Don’t lean. This is also something instinctive: you’ll notice people leaning into their stance to be closer (and therefore quicker) to the target. Again, this is cheating and it defeats the purpose of this drill.
- Don’t change your technique. Near the end of the video, my student has his rear leg fully straight instead of keeping it bent as he should. This is a result of being overly focused on hitting the glove instead of doing so with proper punching techniques. Don’t ingrain bad habits, on the contrary: if you can’t hit the glove with perfect technique, come closer to the wall or have your partner hold the glove up higher. Again, this is a critical point in making this drill worth the trouble.
- Don’t drop it at the same rhythm. When you hold the glove for your partner, don’t always drop it at the exact same moment after you first raise your hand up against the wall. He’ll easily anticipate it after a few tries and the drill will be useless then.
These are the most important aspects for making this drill effective in improving your explosive punching power. If you keep an eye out for those, you will quickly make noticeable progress.
This is a fun drill and I like to do it with my students from time to time, especially when I am emphasizing certain things during a class or if a student has trouble getting certain things right. Here are some examples of those:
- Pulling the trigger. When students hesitate too long before throwing a punch, their opponents can land one first. This drill helps them work on the decision process of actually launching the technique or not. This is a very simplified version of the shoot-don’t shoot simulator training law enforcement officers do.
- Working off visual cues. Especially for self-defense, you have to work off visual cues to decide when you launch an explosive punching attack. This drill helps you train that skill in a general way: the angle of the dropping glove is not meant to simulate an actual fighting technique, that’s not the goal. The goal is to teach you to react as fast as possible when you see something move in your field of vision and throw an explosive punch.
- Top acceleration. Many students have great top speed with their techniques but slow starting speed. That makes it easy for their opponents to strike them before they get halfway through their attack, even if the student made the first move. With this drill, they must accelerate hard if they want to pin the glove.
- Control. Pain can be a good teacher and everybody instinctively understands that hitting the wall too hard would hurt. So you can’t just lash out to hit the glove. You have to control the punch so it not only pins the glove but also stops before you drive your fist too far forward and hurt yourself.
- Explosive punching from a stationary position. Often, students find it easy to have explosive punching techniques when they are already moving with their footwork or if they do another technique first. Explosive movement from movement is easy. Explosive movement from standing still is a lot harder. But in a self-defense context, this is exactly the ability you need to train the most: to be able to explode from just standing there, minding your own business. This drill is a good place to get you started on that front.
- Counter-fighter’s timing. Once you do the drill in the middle of the training area with a moving partner, you’ll develop a much better sense of pulling the trigger on an opponent when he makes a move. Mastering this ability is the essence of being a counter-fighter: perfect timing with explosive punching techniques (or kicking, or throwing, etc) when your opponent leaves you an opening to blast him through. In the drill, it’s just a glove falling but against an opponent, you’d pull the trigger after he punches or kicks.
Once you get the hang of this drill and do the variations to make it harder, you’ll notice a definite improvement in not only your timing but also your explosive punching techniques. Personally, I believe the improved timing is more valuable because it is one of the keys to making any technique work both in the ring and in the street. Timing is also one of the most overlooked and unappreciated aspects of all fighting systems so any time you can improve yours, you’ll definitely increase your odds of overcoming your opponent.
I took this drill from the book Timing in the Fighting Arts, which I wrote together with Loren. W Christensen. It’s one of many drills in there so if you like this one, you might enjoy the rest too.
Have fun training.
Looks like a great drill, and fun too! Hope your neighbors are cool.
Hehe. It is a school next door and we train after hours, so no worries there. :-)
wow, you really opened a can worms here!
explosive punching, well explosive power, i can think of few topics as big in martial arts controversy as speed, explosiveness, power, and the three combined into one discussion.
there are some finer points i have to disagree with on. sorry, but i guess sooner or late we had to disagree on something, but i can’t think of a better forum for such a topic. so here goes.
legally speaking, being preemptive is dangerous to your defense in a court of law. that said, the best time to strike someone is before they are ready. that guy blocking the door would get a sudden slap to the chops backed by a full force boot to the balls just to start.
and the cage situation where the other guy is out gunning you with punches would call for a strategy change. realizing in the middle of fight that you need to work of less impeded punching to defeat the other guy is a bit late. use more evasion, chase his jab side, through power shots at his underarm to slow it down, keep him circling by leading him one way then suddenly change to the other to make the reverse punch more difficult to time. move in close to limit his reaction time, work the thigh, blah, blah, blah…..
speed is illusive, in my opinion, for two very big reasons.
1. people do not what speed is
2. people do not understand how speed really works
for the first point you have to be willing to be honest with yourself and look inside. do you know what speed is? speed of hand, and speed of body may be separate from one another but speed is more than that. real speed in mental, you have to have the experience and understanding to realize when an opportunity exists, when is the best time to preempt someone, and how to be prepared for the situation before hand. isolated speed training is a start, but real speed comes from doing, not training. watch real street sluggers, they my look silly and luckily most lack the skill to through real power, but their lack of inhibition and the realization that NOW! is the time makes them dangerous to well trained fighters who lack these qualities. if you are going to be a guy who will respond to violence with violence (and yes, there really are those of you who will not because it simply isn’t who you are as a person no matter how much you train) then you need decide what’s your go button, how fast will you escalate to lethal force, how far will you go to succeed?
number two is the boimechanical part of speed. speed is a culmination of athleticism, skill, experience, and inhibition (some say confidence, but i feel that is matter of experience). the more athletic you are the better able your body is to move suddenly, add to this experience in actual fighting so that when you recognize a window of opportunity and your brain says to jump your body launches into that window. skill is important because as you work with the principles and guiding techniques you utilize you are better able to mate those techniques to an opportunity, and lastly you have to be uninhibited. this is what kills most folks. you have to allow your muscles to be as free from muscular tension as possible. a hint is that if it feels powerful because you can feel the ‘flex’, its not, its to tight, you have to relax those muscles before firing a technique off. also, being uninhibited also means holding nothing back. when you can let the body naturally just commit to a motion it will be fluid, even in an awkward position. this is why balance is so important, fighting to maintain balance inhibits muscular relaxation.
a lot of people confuse timing with speed. timing is that understanding of when in a fight. it isn’t simply interrupting the opponent’s rhythm either. timing is a culmination of experience and technique that allow you to realize when it is appropriate to use a particular technique. speed helps you pull it off.
explosiveness comes from that full on commitment of energy to achieving success. if you are inhibited by the doubt you may be unsuccessful then you will not fully commit for fear of needing that energy you hold back.
the best way i can think of describe this is that when you need to explode, turn it on. use as much of the body as possible, the whole body is you can, and just turn it on. think of a light switch, flip it on and power goes to the bulb, flip off and the power stops flowing. that is how you create explosive force. suddenly flip the switch and let it go. the moment you achieve your results or need to change to achieve success turn it off and move to the next thing.
mechanically, learn to keep your body well balanced so you can avoid undue muscular tension prior to commitment. push from the ground, twist through ankle, knee, and hip. aim the momentum of the body. project trough the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. conform the hand or foot to the technique. work with gravity, not against it. look at where you’re going, move into the opponent with all this effort as a unified projection.
power is illusive to define as well. most people think of it like they do firearms; that power is the ability to stop and individual in a single application (or shot). it doesn’t take as much power as you think to inflict a real injury in and unarmed exchange. the real problem is actually transmitting that power into the opponent in an effective manner. this is where skill and experience come in. with the skill to utilize a technique well you will be able to transmit kinetic energy into an opponent effectively, and experience will give the control to use more or less power as well know when to use more or less power.
the training drill depicted in this post was neat because it requires a fighter to be prepared to launch a technique. it would be a good way to train footwork, twisting the body, projecting intent, accuracy, and develop the ability to lead into the impact. but there is no way to through real explosiveness there because you are throwing into a solid wall. you would break your hand. it is hard to understand how to make explosive techniques explosive in modern martial arts because of sparring, most people simply haven’t gotten over the mental inhibitors to commit themselves until they have gone at for a while, this is hampered because sparring is control in such a way to prevent injury and it in itself enforces combat focused inhibition.
one of the big concepts of internal martial arts is the ability to create and utilize explosive power correctly. i study hsing-i chuan, and explosive power is a hallmark of our art. that said there are so many people who are high level practitioners of hsing-i that can’t do this that it is simply mind boggling.
sorry this is so long, i can go on for hours at times. and i am the only person i know that typically enjoys the sound of my voice.
Lots of stuff here, too much to take on all. Just some random things:
– Re. the bar scenario. Pre-emptive striking is not that much an issue if you can articulate clearly why you did it and witnesses back it up. Which is a whole other topic of discussion but critically important.
You say the best time to strike is before they are ready. I agree. My point was: when exactly is that? Recognizing that moment in time is a specific skill. Pulling the trigger on your technique at that specific time is another skill. That’s one of the things this drill teaches.
– Re. the cage scenario: I think you’re misreading this example. You talk abut the specific strategy and tactics. I wrote that those are not the topic for this drill. The issue isn’t what you should do, the issue is when you do something and being able to do it at that exact time. That’s a totally different issue from strategy and tactics.
– Re your definitions of speed, power, etc. I get the impression you’re looking at them from a specific art/POV. There are other ways of achieving them than what you describe. E.g.: Explosiveness doesn’t require “as much of the body as possible”. I can be plenty explosive using just one arm and get the result I want. How much of your body you use depends on the technique, goal, type of impact, etc.
Re. The drill: I disagree that it isn’t true explosiveness because you might break your hand on the wall. We use the wall on purpose, to make sure the student doesn’t over commit or launch his technique without control in an effort to be more explosive. Explosiveness without control is dangerous to yourself and breeds sloppy technique. Hence the wall.
– Re. Internal arts. Hsing-I does explosive movements one way, other arts do it differently. And even within a given art, different branches will not be the same. Who’s to say they’re wrong or right for that matter? My tai chi looks nothing like what other tai chi styles do. How can you judge it to be (in)correct if you only practice Hsing-I and only have that framework to compare it to. Like I wrote ad nauseam: the differences are just as important as the similarities.
Also, the so called external arts are sometimes surprisingly internal, despite their appearance. How could you judge them without practicing them?
That’s not a dig at you, it’s just my personal view on things. I fundamentally disagree with the theory that all arts are similar and “a punch is just a punch” or “the human body can only move in so many ways”. I don’t buy that at all because I have experienced it first hand. But if I say that, then I have to be consistent in my beliefs and admit my ignorance on those other styles too. Just because I’m good at my style doesn’t automatically make me good at others or qualified to judge them. I don’t practice them, so how would I know if a practitioner is doing it right or not? That just doesn’t make sense to me.
Granted, I’ll offer my opinion in a general sense and might say “I like it” or “I don’t like it”. Or that I don’t think it would work very well in certain contexts. But that’s a personal opinion, not a fact. I learned this the hard way, having my assumptions about other styles and systems handed to me along with a piece of humble pie and a bloody nose. :-)
You raised some good points, thanks for the discussion.
j. a. mullins says
it’s great to talk to someone who will actually talk about what they know in specifics and not just sprout out vague commentary.
i have no doubt about other methods, other styles, ans so on. just wanted to get a real dialogue going here. sorry to offer so much to deal with.
you should move next door this would be a lot easier. sorry if you feel set up or offended. i wasn’t really trying goad you or make you seem biased or anything. i bet if we had time, chairs, and a pitcher of cold beer we would end up discovering we feel the same way about a lot of stuff, even if we come at from opposite ends.
i can see your side as well, i have studied a lot of varied things over the years and have black belt in krav as well. i personally think internal and external have more to do with training methodology than anything else, while a hard versus soft is a lifestyle thing as it relates to an art’s origin.
btw, here state law places a preemptive strike in a fight anywhere except in your home as 1st degree assault with intent to do bodily harm, a felony. especially if you have training, it is assumed with training comes the understanding that you choose fight. it falls in the same category as vigilante justice laws. it something we pass on to students when we train them, having the knowledge and using it, even in a just situation, will not free you from prosecution just to prevent such situations from being staged in the future. sad, sad, sad.
anyway, like i said, i really enjoy these posts when they get involved. thanks for sharing man.
No worries. No offense taken at all or feelings of being set up. The value of a discussion lies in the exchange, not in converting the other person to your POV. So it’s all good.
J.A, would your state laws not allow you to defend yourself if as you moved forward to leave the bar, the agitated guy physically blocks and maybe bumps you back: Could that not be classed as an assault on your person?
basically if you go someplace where a physical confrontation is likely and consume alcohol or use narcotics you as willingly accepting that the possibility of a violent altercation resulting from impaired judgement is a possibility. this in on you, basically you are guilty of being part of the overall problem.
if you have training to aggressively and violently respond to a physical threat you are considered to be legally armed with a deadly weapon because you know how to hurt or kill someone else. if you actually get into an altercation, no matter how good your intentions were, you have now used deadly force with intent to do bodily harm. this leads to a (attempted) manslaughter charge pretty quickly if the other guy is badly injured or dies as a result.
because of the ‘he said, she said’ nature of most fights the law will tend to look upon all parties as being equally guilty unless there are some pretty extenuating circumstances. charges of combat by agreement, mutual assault, social combativeness, and so on have a basis in this line of reasoning. plus, no matter how right you are, you are wrong for taking matters, meaning the law, into your own hands.
A very good discussion! I simply wish to chime in on one point which I think bears mention.
“the training drill depicted in this post was neat because it requires a fighter to be prepared to launch a technique. it would be a good way to train footwork, twisting the body, projecting intent, accuracy, and develop the ability to lead into the impact. but there is no way to through real explosiveness there because you are throwing into a solid wall. you would break your hand. it is hard to understand how to make explosive techniques explosive in modern martial arts because of sparring, most people simply haven’t gotten over the mental inhibitors to commit themselves until they have gone at for a while, this is hampered because sparring is control in such a way to prevent injury and it in itself enforces combat focused inhibition.”
In the olden days I am not quite sure how one would go about doing this, but nowadays the use of a standing target shaped like a man would likely do much to bridge this gap. This would be similar to the way the military moved away from bullseye targets and began incorporating human shaped silhouettes. It would essentially be training in desensitization to striking something man-shaped.
That’s why I love the BOB mannequins so much. :-)
j. a. mullins says
in the times past where martial knowledge was tools of the trade, most of military types were taught quickly and harshly. often through trial and error against experienced fighters who were able to not only fend of a beginners attacks, but who were able to beat them down with control. learning was harsh, hence hard styles, conditioning was challenged, stress was induced on many levels, fears were confronted, and so on. at a certain level of ability and understanding a man was considered trained and then expected to continue with forms and assist with training others. not to mention at this point a man was considered in need of proving himself in battle and the need to get blooded led to a lot of duels with rivals.
Appreciate this tough type of military approach here which is replicated in a rather severe fashion in a kung fu style that I have done a few times. But I have to admit that I prefer the approach of doing the techniques and just getting fit from them then just brutal and punishing exercises which do teach mental toughness. Peter Freedman I think said ‘Train slow, learn fast’ which I like alot. Anyway, enough from me. Thanks!
for years people have debated about how to train soldiers to make them effective under duress but not alter them beyond there ability to function appropriately in normal society, this is all relative to the historical era and what would be normal in a given society of course.
realistic indoctrination training requires some severe mindset changes be imposed with the acceptance of a harsh life. we call it boot camp, it may not be deadly, but it is brutal and harsh by today’s standards of living. in gang culture the more violent gangs require those who want to join do this as well when they are required to commit violent acts on random people (like a ‘buck-fifty’ or a ‘marta bump’), endure physical violence (the beat in), and go through training with senior members (learning the bylaws, learning to use weapons and fight, and how to operate the business).
i feel the three levels of power used to exemplify this.
obvious power was the physical aspect of training where you learned the basic movements, conditioned your body, built the appropriate mindset, and took your lumps to learn the hard knocks lessens.
subtle power was consciously learning to slow down, to focus on what you are doing, like the old moving meditation drills, and develop a connection between the conceptual methodology and physical application. here is where you developed the real ability to fight.
mysterious power is is the culmination and continued practice of what came before influenced by your life experiences. at this point you are able see how others move and realize from experience what there intent is because you have dealt with such intent before.
many people think of the conditioning and sparring use in many martial arts as the harshest thing in there experience. later once they have become accustomed to it are able to look past it and begin to unravel the how-to of their martial art. if they stay with it, they will live through life experiences where the ability to cope with the harshness, push forward to achieve results, and make an appropriate decision at a moment of stress will pay off for them. it almost certainly will not be a fight, but being prepared to face a tough life situation is a useful thing. and something that many of these people will attribute to their martial arts training.
Lots of good stuff there, J.A. I’m curious as to why you say that some people would not be able to defend themselves as that is not who they are as I think the whole point of training in self defense is to overcome the mental inhibitions and giving yourself permission with the go button (ie they feel in danger) as you mention?
most people will never realize just how inhibited they are where violence is concerned. in any given fighting force derived from the common stock a nation only about 20% actually use killing intent in combat, everyone else typically goes through the motions unless they are really in immediate mortal peril. in most fighting forces a core 10%, which usually makes up the more experienced and elitist troops do the vast majority of the fighting and killing.
i believe this is comes from the fact that every society on the planet values life to the point that people are raised to believe that fighting and killing is morally reprehensible. historically, competitive fighting where severe injury and death were less likely has always been revered for its competitiveness and entertainment value. people like a good fight, but do not like combat or killing.
such cultural views mean some people just don’t have the mentality to kill someone else. you can train them as long as you want to in the deadliest things you can teach and in the end they are more likely to get killed trying to confront somebody who is willing to kill them in the fight. i don’t say this to belittle people who can’t go to violent extremes, it’s a point that people are who they are and training will not guarantee that they will even engage someone is they need to.
i have seen it happen here and there. it’s both mind boggling to witness and mind numbing to see it taken advantage of by those who would use violence against them.
i hope that makes more sense.
Okay, lots to think about with your responses. Much appreciated!
One way you can make this drill more explosive is if you do it on a padded wall or six foot Thai bag, that way if the person throwing the punch misses he’ll hit a solid object but with a little give to it.
Also you can use a 5 lb. sand bell instead of a glove, so that when you drop it the striker can really explode his strike into it.
You can get a 4-6 lb.sand bell at sandbell.com for about ten dollars.
Here is a video on how I use the sand bell to develop explosiveness:
By the way Wim I really like your drill and will be using it for my students, thank you for your knowledge.
I prefer not to use more padding as a back stop at first to prevent them from overcomitting and flailing. But once the students have enough control, they can indeed do it against the bag like you say.
I used to train with sand bags like that a lot. Loads of fun and tons of drills you can do with them.
Glad to hear you like the drill, let me know how it goes with your students.
Hi Wim, nice drill there! Would you be at all concerned with the possible criticism of this type of training being described as training to fail in the sense that it teaches good control that might be replicated in self defense and not hurt the attacker? I know you have said that you are training the student to be accurate and then go full power on the bag. Over the years, this type of training has been the norm for me being a karate practitioner ie sun-dome which means to arrest the technique before impact so kime (tensing) can be applied at the last instance. This type of training has received a lot of criticism which I accept fully but there is probably no other way when working with a partner (unless padded up) especially the head although I appreciate the pushes (and long energy techniques from tai chi) can be applied with much more force to certain parts of the body. So over recent years, I train both ways as I think the intent will come through the technique and not just be surface impact (hopefully!).
About a punch being a punch. I totally accept the difference between a karate, wing chun and boxing punch (ones that I am somewhat aware of). For the defender it is all just forward motion that he should hopefully get out of the way of.
About the timing issues, hopefully you learn all this from your training so it can become instinctive. See the target and hit the target. The best example I can give you from the karate world is Frank Brennan of the KUGB. I remember from one rugby world cup that the English were not satisified with their rugby team’s progress (this was quite a long time ago now) and the commentator said that the captain had been walked round the field before the games and given different scenarios and told what to do in each case whereas the commentator said they should just try and be like New Zealand who just played what they saw.
Such a criticism would only be valid IMO if the only thing you do is train this drill. But that’s not the case at all. Like I wrote, I use this drill for specific reasons, for specific people.
Also, the fact that they have to control their technique does not mean they have to “pull” their strike. That’s not the same thing. Once you get good enough at this drill, you hit full power at the glove.