Open hand or closed fist striking, which is best?

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.

Here goes.


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: [Read more…]