- 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 thus will grant you an unimaginable advantage over your opponent. We have so much to say about such simple-looking techniques, but you must practice with these nuances in mind, because they will pay dividends.
The crucial factor in punching is not strength, but speed. We could go into depth on the physics of this, but for the sake of (over-)simplicity, the kinetic (moving) energy of a body depends on its mass and its speed. This energy will evenly increase with increasing mass -- but it will increase quadratically with increasing speed. A freak of nature, who was twice the size of an ordinary man, could strike with the energy of two normal men. If a normal-sized person diligently practiced to the point where he could punch twice as fast as their normal-sized colleagues, then they could punch with four times the energy of a normal man. Think about bullets -- bullets aren’t heavy, but they are fast.
Throwing a karate punch feels different from the more intuitive "cowboy punches" above. Punches which feel strong are not strong; real power feels effortless. The quality of one’s techniques can be tested with a heavy punching bag; a quality punch will dent the bag, instead of swinging it. Flailing haymakers only work in movies, so if you have no previous experience, then abandon whatever notions you has about throwing punches, 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 get their power from the arms; but by driving in with the legs, via the whole-body motion of shifting from one stance to another. As such, punching is much like the rocking motion needed to push a car out of mud, snow, or sand.
Karate punches “turn over,” meaning that the fist rotates during a punch, taking a helical (corkscrew) path towards their intended target. The bones in your forearm -- the radius and the ulna -- will rotate around each other as the wrist turns, causing your arms to be 2” (5 cm) longer in the palm-down position when compared to the palm-up position. This is easily demonstrated by placing your knuckles against a wall at arm’s length, and rotating your wrist from palm down to palm up.
[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. Having a tightly clenched fist tenses your entire arm, slowing you down. Avoid turning the fist over too early; this causes the elbow to rise.
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 position is a setup for 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 following 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 squanders energy into making 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]
There is never any wind-up in karate techniques. Your fists must always remain in front of your shoulders. Pulling your fist back any farther will make your punches slower, since they will have more distance to traverse (the pulling distance, the return to the starting point, and the distance to the target). The closest thing karate has to windup is “re-chambering,” through reciprocal action.
For these same reasons, there is no follow-through on karate techniques. Letting your momentum to carry you forward leads to leaning. Don’t lean. Leaning to “throw your weight” into the punch for a little extra power just throws you off-balance. You will then need to exert additional energy to kill this forward momentum before you topple over -- only to spend even more energy to prop yourself up again. Poor posture or excessive motion is no different than wearing a weighted backpack.
In that same vein, you should always be “squared-up” after punching; end with your shoulders and hips in the same plane. While rotating the hips is critical to generating the power behind your techniques, over-rotation results in 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 explaining 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, focus on hitting 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 the famous karate parlor-trick, board-breaking. We aren’t striking the board; we’re striking an imaginary point behind the board. Karate punches are powerful because we attack specific bones and organs inside of people. Ideally, one would punch through their opponent, like Riki-Oh. (While no human person can actually do this, keep practicing until you become the first!)