- Front-foot punch
- Reverse punch
- Pursuit punch
- Tate tsuki
- Mountain punch
- Hook punch
- Double punch
Given the opportunity, most people will punch like this:
[video of flailing haymakers, from front and the side.]
...and this is utterly tragic. Learning how to throw decent punches will grant you an unimaginable advantage over your opponents. We have much to say about such simple-looking techniques, and you must practice with these nuances in mind, because they will pay dividends.
Strength is not the crucial factor in punching; it is speed. We could discuss the physics in depth, but for the sake of (over-)simplicity, the kinetic (moving) energy of a body depends on its mass and its speed. This energy will increase evenly with increasing mass -- but it will increase quadratically with increasing speed. It is obvious that a giant, who was twice the size of an ordinary man, would be able to strike with the energy of two normal men. If a normal-sized person diligently practiced to the point where they could punch twice as fast as their normal-sized colleagues, then they could punch with four times the energy of a normal man. (Bullets aren’t heavy, but they're fast.)
Throwing karate punches feels different from the more intuitive "cowboy punches" above. Punches which feel strong are not strong, because real power feels effortless. The quality of your techniques can be tested with a hanging heavy punching bag; a quality punch dents the bag instead of swinging it. Flailing haymakers only work in movies, so abandon whatever notions you have about punching, and start with a clean slate.
Like all techniques, punches derive their power from three sources: focusing, driving, and snapping.
You punch with your legs. Punches do not derive their power from your arms; the power comes from your legs, via the whole-body motion of shifting from one stance to another. As such, punching is more like the rocking motion needed to push a car out of mud, snow, or sand. Alternately, it is like smoothing wood with a hand plane.
Karate punches “turn over,” meaning that the fist rotates so the punches take on a helical (corkscrew) path towards their intended target. Your punches will penetrate deeper since your forearm bones (i.e., the radius and the ulna) will rotate around each other, so your arm will be ~2” (~5 cm) longer in the palm-down position then they are in the palm-up position. This is easily demonstrated by placing your knuckles against a wall at arm’s length, and rotating your wrist.
[video of a seiken touching a wall, and rotating it back]
Most of a punch’s power is generated as it turns over, when the punch "snaps," like a bullwhip, or a wet towel. Without snap, punches are just pushes.
[video of a side view of a series of reverse punches, hitting a kicking shield. The first three are arm-only, with no turn over. The next three are 6” punches. The next three are full-power reverse punches. Make it dramatic.]
All punches make contact with the seiken. Your fist should be slightly loose until the moment of impact. A tightly-clenched fist tenses your entire arm, slowing you down. Avoid turning the fist over too early; this causes the elbow to rise, which will be discussed in the next section.
Raising your elbows is a common mistake when learning to punch. This results in weak, slow punches which only use arm strength, instead of driving with the whole body. Raising your elbows exposes your floating ribs to counterattack, and this awkward position sets up many aikidō moves (e.g., ikkyō, nikkyō). To break this bad habit, simply throw punches while standing next to a wall.
[video of a front view of two raised-elbow punches, and two punches next to a wall.]
Another common mistake is not punching in a straight line to and from the target. Many beginning students will pull their fists in, to their own centerlines, before pushing them outward. This “S”-shaped path diverts your energy into useless side-to-side motions; the end result resembles the “bow-and-arrow” motions from cheerleading, or a Nazi salute. To keep yourself from throwing these “cheerleader punches”, have a friend hold a pole over your centerline 1’ (30 cm) away from your chest. Good punches will miss the pole. If you are alone, you can still practice this by standing in front of a young tree or load-bearing column.
[Video of two improper “cheerleader punches” from the front; then hitting a bo with “cheerleader punches”, the two proper punches]
Karate techniques never "wind-up". Your fists must always remain in front of your shoulders. Pulling your fist back any farther makes your punches slower, since they must traverse more distance (i.e., the pulling distance, the return to the starting point, and the distance to the target). The closest thing karate has to wind-up is “re-chambering,” through reciprocal action.
For these same reasons, karate techniques never follow-through. Letting your momentum carry you forward results in leaning. Don’t lean. While “throwing your weight” into a punch might add a little extra power, it also throws you off-balance. You will then need to exert additional energy to kill this forward momentum before you topple over, and spend additional energy to prop yourself up again. Poor posture or excessive motion has the same effect as wearing a weighted backpack.
In that same vein, you should always be “squared-up” after punching; that is, your shoulders and hips end in the same plane. While hip rotation is critical to generating power, over-rotation is a wind-up. Be sure to keep your fists in front of the hips, and quickly return to a squared-up position. Being off-center prevents smooth rotation, robbing you of power generation and the ability to evade. Mr. Miyagi's "drum punches" were just a metaphor which explained the need for hip rotation; do not emulate young Daniel-san and actually flail like a rattle drum.
[photos of being squared up and not squared, from the front and side]
Don’t try to hit a target, hit inside the target. Punching at the outermost surface of a target will only tap or tag it. Punches must penetrate. As such, punches should be directed at some imaginary point 2” (5 cm) inside of the target. This is the secret behind board-breaking, the most famous karate parlor-trick. Karateka don’t actually strike boards; they strike an imaginary point behind their boards. Karate punches are powerful because they attack specific bones and organs inside of people. Ideally, your should punch through your opponents, like Riki-Oh. (While no human person can actually do this, we advise you to keep practicing until you become the first.)