Should You Punch in a Fight?


Instead of easing into the realm of self-defense, we’re going to jump right in with the hotly-debated subject…

Should you punch in a fight?

Proponents to punching say it is one of the most natural fighting instincts we have and it’s incredibly effective at dealing damage to an assailant.

Opponents claim the risk of injury is too high and it could leave you trying to finish a fight with a bum hand.

So which side is right?

Well both are.  Discussion over.  See you all on Monday.

Ok! Ok! I was kidding.  I’m not going to cop out on you like that.  So what EXACTLY is the truth behind using the punch in a self-defense situation?

It’s complicated.

Yes, punching is a basic, instinctual method of attack, BUT if done incorrectly, can result in broken knuckles or a sprained wrist.

Like any other technique, there are multiple ways to throw a punch and different considerations you need to take.

Let’s cover some of these considerations and I’ll add my take on each one.

Striking area

Many martial art systems teach to strike with the first two knuckles (pointing and middle finger).  The reasoning behind this is the first two knuckles are the biggest and thickest of the knuckles and therefore can take the biggest beating without breaking.

They’re right….but they’re neglecting another factor.

Kung fu teaches to punch with the last three knuckles (middle, ring, and pinky finger).

What in the world could be the advantage of that?!

Well, let’s look at this from a bio-mechanical point of view.  For anyone that’s broken concrete, the first thing you are taught is to make sure you have your bone structure lined up behind the striking implement.  This ensures maximal force and decreased risk of injury.

For example, if you perform a downward palm strike on a concrete block and your arm isn’t directly above your palm, your wrist is going to bend back (and likely break) when you hit the concrete.  Same reason we hit with the heel of the foot on side kicks; because it’s backed up by the bones of the shin and thigh.

Let’s now look at the punch

hand support2

As you can see, the red box outlines the area of support provided by the bones of the forearm.  Notice how the first knuckle isn’t supported.  This means that by striking on the first two knuckles, I am receiving less structural support from the forearm and arm therefore less likely to keep my wrist in line (as is illustrated in my pretty picture by the yellow arrows).

You can test this out for yourself.  Make a fist and push against the first two knuckles with your other hand.  See how the wrist wants to bend inwards?

Now make a fist and press against the last three knuckles.  No bend.  Solid as a rock.

That’s the argument for striking with the last three knuckles.

So which do I prefer?

My style teaches striking with the first two knuckles so that is what I’ve always been taught.  However once learning the other method of punching, it makes more sense to me to punch that way for a variety of reasons.

  1. You’re less likely to hurt your wrist.  I have had wrist sprains so bad that I was in constant agony for weeks (not fun driving stick shift one-handed) and I’ve busted my knuckles up so badly that my hand was black for 3 months.  I honestly wasn’t sure if it’d ever go back to normal.  Out of the two, I’d take some busted knuckles over a busted wrist any day.
  2. Less likely to learn bad habits.  If you focus on striking with the first two knuckles, you’re more likely to overcompensate by turning your wrist out a bit to ensure you’re hitting the correct striking area.  This prevents you from locking your wrist in place and increases the risk of injury if you don’t hit just right.
  3. Makes sense bio-mechanically.  It just feels more natural because my wrist, knuckles, and forearm line up to provide maximum support without me having to focus too much on it.
Striking targets

Regardless of which style of punching you prefer, there’s good targets to aim for and bad ones you should avoid.

The simplest rule to remember where to punch is you don’t strike a hard surface with a hard striking implement.  Knuckles against bone isn’t fun.  This is especially true if you don’t regularly train in punches.  Your wrists simply won’t be able to take the punishment.  Some generally safe targets for punches are soft areas like the ribs and kidneys as well as nose.  Take care when striking to the face however.  A person’s natural reaction when they see a strike coming to the face is to duck their head down.  If they do that, you run the risk of hitting the dense bone of the forehead.

Say bye-bye hand.

My final verdict

For self-defense, I personally would be hesitant to throw too many punches.  Part of the reason is because I know from first-hand experience (see what I did there?) how easy it is to sustain an injury while trying to execute a punch.  They definitely have their place, but I wouldn’t solely rely on them for my hand strikes.

I believe that most people will have better success with attacks like palm strikes to the nose or chin and eye gouges as opposed to getting into a boxing match with someone on the streets.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the discussion on punches.  As always, leave a comment and provide your experience/insights on the subject.  If you feel I am in error, tell me and we’ll discuss it.  Have a great Labor Day weekend everyone!

***Also, we’ll be having a big release this Sunday morning!  Be sure to check back then!***


12 thoughts on “Should You Punch in a Fight?

  1. Interesting! thanks,

    my friend who used to practice Southern Praying Mantis Fist told me that all knuckles should be a straight line (flushed to the red line in your box). makes sense.

    i don’t think our school (Long Fist — Northern Chinese style) stresses punching as much. although it seems to have a whole body holistic approach. i remember being told NOT to stick out the thumb, keep neutral wrist & elbow.

    we practice punching w/ a bag, so it can still cause strain or injury if not careful. so it is nice to learn even for recreational practitioner. (+ i’m a pianist so hands & fingers are very important to me)


    • Pam, great point about not hyper-extending your elbows while punching. This is a common occurrence with overzealous new students. Usually they learn quickly after the first time they strain their arm.

      I think punching on a heavy bag is key to really developing good punches. It’s one of the best ways to provide feedback as to whether you’re punching correctly or not. One wrong punch and you know it! As with everything else, it’s best to start light and slowly increase the power.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Stick around for some weapons drills coming soon!

        • I dabble in some weapons. Tinkered around with nunchucks and the bo staff years ago but found it wasn’t my cup of tea.

          I am really getting into escrimas and knives. Stay tuned. We’ll be posting some weapons drills once I can get some pictures taken. Hopefully no later than Saturday.

  2. Interesting post. I took self-defense classes from a guy who was in Canadian Special Forces. He had us do two-knuckle push ups in the point and middle finger in order to toughen up the point of impact.

    Never knew that Kung Fu taught the opposite.

    • Most people are taught to punch with the first two knuckles and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I feel it poses a higher risk of people (primarily new students) bending in their wrist in order to punch with those 2 knuckles; essentially overcompensating to do the technique “right”.

      I rarely tell students to punch with a specific specific part of the hand. Rather, I focus more on having a neutral wrist that isn’t going to break when it impacts against a hard surface.

      Knuckle pushups are a great exercise that I regularly do. It also gives a greater ROM than regular pushups.

  3. Yeap … Interesting,

    I just observed what I do naturally, and I use the Kung-Fu approach. I tend to naturally aim the 3 last knuckles in alignment with my forearm … for more power I suppose .

    But I, indeed, remember that I learn the other way in my karate class a while ago.

    Your argument make sense!

    A lot of other things I learn in Kempo Karate seems to not be really practical in the real world… Like Bruce Lee peached, I think we have to keep ours mind open when it comes to martial art!

    • Bruce Lee was way ahead of his time. “Discard what is useless and keep what is useful.”

      Even though I tell people I train in Taekwondo, I do so more for the sake of not confusing them. While my primary style is indeed TKD, I am open to all styles and pull different techniques, drills, and philosophies from them that I feel build upon what I already know.

  4. Sorry this is a rather late response, Jacob, but I’m still playing catch-up with your older posts (and enjoying them very much).

    I learned to punch with the first two knuckles while keeping the top of the fist and forearm in a straight line, and the striking knuckles in line with the forearm. This means adjusting the position of the fist slightly away from the centre line, otherwise the striking knuckles jut slightly toward the centre line and weaken the forearm-wrist-knuckles line. The elbow is always slightly bent and pointing downward.

    After that long description, I have to say that I’ve never cared for knuckle punches, as the position of the arm and fist just don’t feel natural to me. Also, distance is critical if I want a knuckle punch to be effective. If the distance is too great the punch won’t land or will merely glance off the target, and I’ll be off-balance (or flat on my face) and vulnerable. If the distance is too small I won’t get enough extension/reach for the punch to be maximally effective. In either case, I will have wasted a lot of energy with very little – if anything – to show for it.

    I prefer open hand strikes such as palm-heel strikes and, as girly as this sounds, slaps – to the ears, temples, throat, etc. And never underestimate the effectiveness of elbow strikes, gouging, biting, and the classic Liverpool kiss (head-butt) for close-in fighting.

  5. Hey Helga, glad you’re enjoying my posts. The standard punch with the first 2 knuckles has always felt a little awkward to me…just a little too much contorting of the wrist in order to make sure everything is all lined up properly. I find punching with the last 3 knuckles much more natural and intuitive.

    Like you, I typically prefer to teach my students open-handed techniques for self-defense purposes. I do believe punches have their place in self-defense but are typically misused. I plan to dig into this topic a little deeper in the future based off one of my earliest articles “Know Your Zones.”

    As always, glad to hear your input.

    One last point, when in close don’t forget the brutal and effective art of Kino-Mutai, the art of biting and pinching.

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