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One of the techniques in many martial arts is a spear hand strikes, where you make your hand rigid and thrust into the opponent. There are a couple of different variations, e.g., in hapkido we have a flat-hand attack (palm down), inverted strike (palm up), and a spear thrust (palm perpendicular to ground) but the hand shape remains essentially the same in each. There are also a few variations in the exact shape of the hand depending on the source, but the gist of it is that the fingers are rigid and the thumb is pulled back.

A few different sources and some, er, practice indicate that this technique is very easy to jam or otherwise injure ones fingers with when practicing against a target, and many of the areas and objects that are safe to hit (i.e., soft targets) are not ideal for the strikes.

So the question is: How can one effectively practice for either conditioning or simply hand-training purposes spear-hand strikes with minimal risk of injury, while still knowing if you got the technique right?

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Bruce Lee investigated the same thing and you can find some conditioning exercise in his books. (I don't have them here, so cannot really read and report) –  tacone Feb 15 '12 at 22:53

6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Generally (though this is often mis-taught), any sort of fingertip striking is done to the soft tissues of the body, a notable exception being thumb tip striking which may attack bone. You'll notice the way the body must be positioned in each regard to the twisting of the hand to strike palm up, palm down, or palm perpendicular, which hints at positioning for the impact.

Like any other activity, it's best learned by doing; that is, if you want to train rigidity in the finger tips, only impact training will properly build the small muscles of the fingers to allow for this sort of activity. There is, after all, no similar activity.

Ultimately, any of this sort of training has the potential to cause RSIs (repetitive stress injuries), much the same way continuous typing can lead to arthritis in the hands as you age. You must be willing, to some degree, accept this as an eventuality.

I find that training with a BOB (Body Opponent Bag) gives a reasonable facsimile of skin over a more rigid core, as well as a body shape. Start slow, targeting the vital points you know are appropriate for those strikes (an inverted strike lends itself well to slipping under the floating ribs, for instance) and repeatedly make the strike in slow motion to build the muscle memory to go to that location. Push into that spot, and move back out. Go further out with each strike. Do this for a couple of weeks, pushing harder into the spot while maintaining correct alignment in your fingers. Over time, slowly build up speed.

Do not think of this as a strike in the same regard as a punch. It's dangerous to confuse these two strikes, and will lead to broken fingers. The sides of the human body are soft and sensitive, protected normally by the arms. You're exploiting this sort of nerve-dense tissues with quick, sharp jabs to create openings, not to permanently cripple or break anything. Look at it appropriately and you'll see how to use it; knowing how to use it leads to discovering new ways to train it.

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Shaolin has some conditioning training. (They have all sorts of conditioning training).

I don't know if it is worth the time to strengthen fingers to be able to jam into people. At least, it is not for me. I've heard of people with iron finger and hand skills to have shortened fingers. Though I'm not a professional musician, I make my living by typing, not beating people up.

There may be alternative ways to use a knife hand. I tend to use a variation of this on soft targets. Like locks or pressure points, I do this as opportunity arises. Or I might use this as a set up for sticking the palm or the back of the hand to the other person's movement. Or to fix their attention on the hand while I'm doing something else with a different body part.

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I'm not familiar with hapkido, so this may simply be a technique difference, but in Taekwondo usually you don't hold the fingers perfectly straight in spear-hand strikes--you do hold the fingers rigid, but with a very slight bend so that if you do hit something too hard the fingers crumple inward in the natural direction of the joints, which doesn't really hurt much. You can still get good force out of that if you practice (holding your fingers in that position can take some getting used to), and you're at no risk of jamming your fingers.

stslavik's points about target area/purpose of the strike are good ones also.

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This folding is how some sad fakers appear to break/smash targets with this technique - the fingertips are bent downwards and intentionally fold on impact so the second joint down the fingers is actually doing the breaking; such frauds then endanger others who underestimate the difficulty of doing it for real and mangle their fingers. That's not to say it can't work "for real", but be careful! –  Tony D May 10 at 2:53

A conditioning method Chinese fighters (used to) use, is spear-thrusting your hands into a pot/bag of beans repetitively. The idea here is to have some counter-pressure on your fingertips per strike, but not too much as it would when striking a single solid surface. Just like training muscles or bones, the fingertips grow stronger by just slightly damaging them by doing a lot of these 'bean spear thrusts'.

This may be what Ho-Sheng Hsiao is talking about by the way, although this method isn't limited to Shaolin training. Especially for Shéquan kungfu this is an essential training method.

Shéquan (snake style kungfu) is a kungfu style that focusses specifically on spear-thrusts, sybolising a snake (hence the name). As Ho-Sheng Hsiao already pointed out, it's important to only use this techniuqe, despite of conditioning, to certain softer and weaker parts of the body (pressure points and nerve centers, throat, etc). In fact, I'm pretty sure it's pointless to use this against most parts of the body, e.g. the chest.

Some martial art schools use a variation on this strike: instead of pointing the fingers towards your target, using the outer side of the hand. But, as a thrust forward, rather than a 'chop'.

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You can't. You can spear your hands into buckets of sand, try to practice something like the technique by wearing goggles while sparring, and thrust your hands into the air all you want...

...but in a fight, we don't rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training. (The transliteration from Musashi is, "You can only fight the way you practice".) If you never train eye pokes and fingers-to-the-throat pokes in sparring, you won't ever really have a good handle on the technique. Neil Ohlenkamp, judo 6 dan, notes:

I have never seen realistic training in throat strikes or eye gouges in any martial arts class, even though these are often recommended for self defense. The teaching generally done for these techniques helps students to understand what to do, but does not provide effective results for fast, reflexive and accurate application of these techniques against an unwilling opponent in real life combat.

And as Gillian Russell accurately points out,

there are a lot of martial beliefs that we do not get to test in such a direct way. Unless you're unfortunate enough to be fighting a hand-to-hand war you cannot check to see how much force and exactly which angle a neck-break requires, or learn from experience about the psychological effects and stopping power of an eye-gouge.

In an epistemically ideal--though morally horrible--situation, we'd be able to test the effectiveness of techniques by doing them in realistic set-ups over and over again. How many times out of 100 does your no-holds barred nukite to the throat result in death within 5 minutes? 20/10? 80/100? What's the most likely alternative outcome? Bruising? Scratching? Coughing? Unconsciousness? Internal bleeding? Partially crushed trachea? Escalation? Can subjects partially armour against it or roll with it? These questions have answers, but for good ethical reasons, we can't get at those answers by direct testing, and though martial techniques do get used 'for real', this rarely happens as part of a controlled experiment.

Our inability to properly test the answers to these questions has a knock-on effect. If you can't test the effectiveness of a technique, then it is hard to test methods for improving the technique. Should you practice your nukite (spear hand) in the air, or will that just encourage you to overextend? Is it helpful to practice 1000 a day, or would it be more effective to practice three sets of ten with good focus against a pad? Our inability to test our fighting methods restricts our ability to test our training methods.

(Source - Martial Arts and Philosophy, edited by Graham Priest and Damon Young, Open Court, 2010 - PDF, emphasis mine.)

You'd do better to work on your jab, wearing gloves, against a heavy bag and a good sparring partner. You'll know exactly how well it works. And anyway, as Luis Gutierrez points out, "If you can't even hit a guy with a 16oz. glove how the hell are you going to eye jab him?"

However, with modern gear, some useful practice is possible. You still won't know how much of an effect these techniques will have, but wearing goggles, elbow pads, and open-palm gloves while wrestling is an awesome way to find out where you can punch, elbow, eye gouge, and grab throats or whatever during grappling. You can also study how those strikes and grabs might be countered. Make sure both partners exercise good control, are wearing all the gear, and have full rights to execute the same techniques. Go light.

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Realistically, unless you practice and condition like crazy for many years the spear hand strike is only useful in a real emergency. A spear hand isn't going to be effective anywhere on the soft body. It is most useful for a life or death situation where you would finger jab someone in the eyes or throat with enough force where your fingers will probably be broken but your opponent would be worse off.

You should think of the spear hand more as a movement than a strike. It is more applicable to locks and throws though I won't go in detail as to how.

*DO NOT TRY THIS ON ANYONE. I AM MERELY TRYING TO PROVIDE MY OPINION ON AN ACADEMIC LEVEL AND WILL NOT BE RESPONSIBLE IF YOU HURT YOURSELF OR ANOTHER.

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I think giving a comment along with your downvotes would be a little useful. –  riotburn May 10 at 1:38

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