One of those recurring arguments in martial arts and self-defense is this: open hand or closed fist striking, which is best? There is a lot of dogma there and I’ve seen too many people parrot those theories without giving them some closer consideration. It won’t surprise you that I believe things are more nuanced than these black/white statements. I came across such a statement by accident not that long ago, which triggered this article.
Hard weapon to soft target, soft weapon to hard target.
If you ask anybody with a bit of training about which is better: open hand or closed fist striking, this is the standard response they give you. If you use a fist to strike, hit a soft target like the stomach instead of the face to avoid breaking your knuckles on the hard bones of the skull. If you want to hit a hard surface, they insist you use a softer weapon, like an open hand strike.
This is by no means bad advice, but it isn’t written in stone. As a rule of thumb, for the average person and in particular for the person not interested in spending lots of time training, this works just fine. Hell, it works fine if you’ve been training for decades. So you won’t hear me argue against this rule.
What I will argue against is the implied assumptions that come with it and the dogma that surrounds it. There are several assumptions that people (subconsciously) adhere to when they see this rule as absolute:
- As if every single closed fist punch to a hard target results in a broken hand.
- As if it is impossible to punch a hard target with a closed fist without injury to your fist.
- As if every open hand strike ever thrown has a 100% no-injury track record.
- As if you cannot injure your open hand striking a hard target.
Like I said, this is not necessarily stated openly, but it is all too often implied in their reasoning and they train accordingly. Here’s the thing: I know form personal experience all these statements are complete bullshit. But it’s a lot easier to disregard this reality and focus on the “hard to soft, soft to hard” rule as if it’s a universal truth without exceptions or limits. In this article, I want to explore a couple of the factors that are typically overlooked in this discussion, but are nonetheless extremely important in determining the outcome.
Five types of impact
I learned about the five types of impact in an old Bushido manual some 25 years ago. It changed the way I trained forever. I wrote about this in detail in my Hardcore Heavy Bag Training book and demonstrate the concepts in my Combat Sanshou: Striking video. If you want more details and information, I suggest you get those as I will only cover them briefly here to avoid inflating the article. Here they are:
- Penetrating: The kind you use to break boards or kick in a door. It travels through the target as if to break it. This is the kind most practitioners think of when they speak about striking power.
- Shockwave: The weapon lands and sticks. It is fired much like in penetrating impact, but it doesn’t try to go as deep. When it lands, it imparts the kinetic energy in a relatively large area.
- Bouncing: The weapon hits and uses the impact to recoil quickly along the path it came. Think of it as throwing a ball at a wall to make it bounce back to you.
- Ricochet: Similar to bouncing impact but instead of reversing the direction 180°, the weapon shoots off at a different angle, for instance 90°
- Ripping: Picture it like slashing through a target with a sword. The weapon lands at an oblique angle, strikes the target and is then dragged across to come out the other end.
These categories are also not set in stone as there will be overlap between all of them depending on how you strike, the kind of weapon used, etc. But they’re practical to use for training purposes and determining how and why you use certain techniques.
The reason why this matters is that the type of impact used will determine the potential for damage to your hand when you use an open hand or closed fist. It also determines the kinds of results you get when the strike lands. Two examples:
- You can probably hit somebody in the face with a bouncing backfist all day long without breaking your knuckles. But after a dozen or so full-power, penetrating straight punches to somebody’s skull, there’s a good chance your fist will be all broken and mangled.
- A penetrating palm heel strike to an attacker’s face is likely to rock his head back and leave your hand just fine. That same penetrating palm heel at a slightly different angle and targeted at the sternum can break your wrist. How do I know? Because I busted my scaphoid when I did just that some twenty years ago. It took 5 months in a cast and surgery to fix it.
There are many more examples but you get the point: there is more than one way of striking and each particular way yields different results. If somebody claims “You always have to hit through the target!” or he insists you “Aim every punch at the back of his head!” then they don’t understand this is only valid for penetrating impact. It is not good advice for the four other types of impact, yet it is often taught as a universal truth. But it’s simply wrong.
The target itself also plays a major role, yet it is often seen as one homogenous whole instead of the more complex thing it is. Some knowledge of basic anatomy can be a good thing.
Let’s take the example of the human head. Many instructors see it as one single piece, but it is in fact comprised of multiple components. Each one of those has a different function, density and therefor it is useful to use different hand configurations and types of impact on them. For example:
- Hitting the frontal bone of the skull is not the same as hitting the temporal bone.The former is much denser and striking it hard in a linear fashion tends to lead to broken knuckles. The temporal bone is more vulnerable due to it’s shape, location and density. I still wouldn’t hit it with penetrating power with a closed fist, but shockwave works just fine for me.
- Hitting the mandible close to the neck from the side is not the same as hitting it from the side at the tip of the chin. In the former, the impact tends to move the head to the side more than anything else. If you’re unlucky, you just broke your fist. But if you throw the same technique at the tip of the chin, odds are good you’ll rotate his head and allow your fist to travel through unharmed.
In the same vein, if you hit a target that is unsupported, the impact will be different than when it is supported. For example, punching somebody in the head when he’s standing on his feet in front of you yields different results than when you pin his head against a wall and use that same punch. In the first case, some of the energy will bleed off due to his head moving on impact. In the second, his head will absorb all the force, but because of Newton’s third law, your fist will be under a lot more pressure on impact and might get damaged.
So not only the exact spot where you hit the target, but also the target’s immediate environment are factors that determine if you use an open hand or closed fist when you want to strike it.
Angle of attack
The vector or angle of attack your open hand or closed fist travels matters a great deal. I’ll gladly use a closed fist at a slightly downward angle on the side of the tip of the chin, because that angle makes it likely my opponent’s head will tilt away from my fist and not damage it. I’ll absolutely try to avoid that same angle using a fist if the target is the frontal bone. But I’ll gladly use that angle on the frontal bone with a shock wave impact using an open hand.
What path your hand or fist takes, along with the type of impact and specific target you’re going for, has a direct influence on what happens to your hand when it lands. There are too many variables to discuss them here, but if you look at that specific aspect, you’ll see your art has it’s own take on it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other possibilities.
We’re all built differently, even though it doesn’t necessary look like it from the outside: the shape of your skeleton, where your muscles insert on each joint (and the leverage (dis)advantage it gives), the ratio of different types of muscle fibers, the length of each bone, the density of your bones, etc. All of these can and do vary wildly from one person to the next. The only way to know those details is extensive medical testing, which most people never do until they get sick or injured.
For instance, I have a bad back. I never knew it until they took an MRI of my spine. Turns out the shape of my vertebrae isn’t that great and the canal my spinal cord has to travel through is narrower than average. This hasn’t stopped me from training extremely hard for the past 30 years, but it does have implications as I get older.
The same goes for one of the critical factors in choosing an open hand or a closed fist to strike: bone density. Some people have very thick and strong bones whereas others are more fragile. The only way to know which is the case with you is to measure it. This factor is why some people can punch a guy in the face with a closed fist and never break their hand whereas others break it every time they try. That said, bone density changes as you age (they get more brittle) so don’t go thinking you’re off the hook if your bones are solid as rock right now.
Type of martial art or self-defense system.
The system you train in also plays an important roll in determining your hand choices. For instance, I’ve seen predominantly karate practitioners place a heavy emphasis on penetrating impact and almost completely ignore the four other types. The opposite is true for other arts and systems, often leading to a “not invented here” attitude. Meaning, because it doesn’t exist or is rarely used in your art, you don’t see the point of trying it another way. Good systems typically have their own internal logic and don’t necessarily allow outside influences to change the curriculum. This is both good and bad, I’m not going to debate it. But it tends to make a karate practitioner who focuses heavily on penetrating punches look with suspicion at that Chinese martial arts practitioner as he’s doing nothing but shockwave and ripping impact. Yet both arts are more than effective when applied correctly.
If there’s one thing I believe cross-training is good for, it’s exposing you to exactly these kinds of things. No matter how hard you can kick in your TaeKwonDo, you need to train in muay Thai to understand just how hard you can roundhouse kick somebody. No matter how hard you can punch with your Kung Fu, you need to train with a boxer to know what striking power also is.
Look outside of your comfort zone for more knowledge.
You can throw the same technique twice in similar circumstances and have completely different results. Example:
- I threw a left hook at a student’s head during sparring and he wasn’t quick enough as he tried to duck. My punch landed flush on his forehead. It was a relatively hard punch and I was wearing 12OZ boxing gloves, but I still broke my knuckle. My student on the other hand was fine, it didn’t even phase him. Me broken fist, him not a scratch…
- In another sparring session, I threw the same left hook on a sparring partner. I didn’t feel the impact at all and I thought I had missed completely, but he dropped unconscious to the floor in front of me. I had apparently just barely clipped him on the chin and it was enough to turn out the lights. I was wearing the same gloves.
Same punch, same circumstances. Completely different results.
You can hit somebody hard with a closed fist and break your hand without any damage to him. You can also barely touch him and send him to sleep with that same fist. There are no guarantees in a fight, it’s all up in the air at any given time.
There’s more to the debate than this. I could have gone on about specific hand configurations and body mechanics, but this article is already long enough. The whole point I want to make is that a standard “Hard weapon to soft target, soft weapon to hard target” reply is at best, incomplete and at worst misleading or a flat out lie.
It is a good starting point for your training and you could do a lot worse than sticking to it. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking it is an absolute rule. There are many factors involved that can and will change the dynamics and therefor the results of a striking technique. Bear in mind that just because something doesn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean it’s useless or impossible to make work by somebody else. Whatever you decide to use, open hand or closed fist, do so as a conscious choice and not simply because somebody told you so.
As always, good luck in your training.
I know my students hate it when one of them asks a, “Which is better, this or this” question and I say, “Well, it depends.” Here comes a 20 minute lecture.
My students know that feeling too. :-)
John W. Zimmer says
Hi Wim, coming from kenpo – there are still a lot of the traditional kung fu strikes such as spear hands to the solar plexus and palm claws to the face and groin.
I have not thought of this in such depth other than I have not taken the tact of more traditional karate schools that practice hitting boards, thrusting spear hands into bucket of sand since I only intend on using moves for one or two fights for the rest of my life (if I am lucky).
So my guess is spear hands to the throat will not be my weapon of choice in a fight although if things get dicey – who knows what I will pull out of my hat.
If the fight is of my choosing it will the more keeping the critical distance, and punching at opportune moments when I have an opening. So I’ll avoid most inside fighting.
So I tend to favor punches in sparring so my guess is I come down on closed fists as my preference.
I’m not a huge fan of spear hands but they do have their place. I wouldn’t use them with penetrating impact though, I like my fingers the way they are right now.. :-)
There’s also nothing wrong with choosing fists over anything else. Personal preference is a valid reason for such a choice, providing you train for it (which you do).
This was a great article.
Question: When throwing a straight palm strike to an attacker’s head, how likely is it that your fingers can catch an opponent’s arms and bend your wrist back? Do you think this a serious concern?
Hard to say Marc, it depends on many factors. Where are his arms to begin with? Is it a first strike or have you stunned/distracted him? How fast are you? Etc.
Charles James says
Hi, Wim: Great article and very true. I have written on this subject and, honestly, fell into this inference trap because it was not “complete.” Your article goes a long way toward more clarity. Thanks for the article!
Thanks Charles, glad it was helpful.
Very informative article: Did not know about the five types of impact.
About the closed fist v the open hand strike: I have seen quoted an example of Mike Tyson when he punched Mitch Green as a reason not to punch someone as you will damage your hand: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitch_Green#Feud_with_Mike_Tyson
However, if you read his autobiography (Undisputed Truth), that night while shopping at Dapper Dan’s at 4am(!!, the stuff that was going on while champ was incredible and sadly he did not live up to his full potential imo but I’m still a huge fan), Mitch Green walked in and they started arguing. Mike left the store and Mitch followed him and ripped his shirt while getting in his face so Mike hit him with lots of punches and knocked him down finally with a roundhouse kick (well he was on his way to falling down according to the book). So Mike’s friend tells him to come on and to go back to the car but then Mitch Green pops up again so Mike punches him to the ground and does dirty stuff like stomping and smashing his head into the pavement until he was out cold. So now he and his friend get back into the car (Corniche Rolls-Royce, $350,000, 1988 prices) and they check to see whether Mitch Green is under the wheel so Mike rolls down the window and Mitch Green pops up again and rips the sideview mirror right off. So in Mike’s mind, that’s fifty grand right there, which leads to him grabbing Mitch Green by the head and delivering his signature punch, the right uppercut and sent Mitch Green up in the air unconscious. This lead to the fractured hand that postponed the fight against Bruno. So all up in the air as you say or he weakened it with the striking during the fight before the final punch.
Cool, thanks. I never read Mike’s book, nice to hear more background on the story.
Keoni Ronald May says
For 5 decades, I have used both.
Body part conditioning, by way of pounding away on sand bags, with lots of board breaking, brick breaking, cement breaking, and stone breaking insured that my hands could withstand the force without major injuries.
it is just old school body part conditioning.
Recently, I thought that the palm strike is better for women because of the fragility of their hand compare to men. If they strike with their close fist they will impact skin- next- to- the- bones and it may hurt their hand. Men who hardened their fist through makiwara can still feel pain when they punch on a hard target. If they will use the palm which is protected by muscle, they can strike the face on the cheek, chin, breast; and even hit concrete wall without feeling much pain because of the hardened muscles cushioning the palm. the way they should palm strike is like almost doing a chop in a pushing manner. It is not done in a straight palm strike in the way the palm is positioned when doing the push-up. I hope you can post your opinion in my email add. Thank you for your accommodation.