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I've been studying taekwondo for about 15 years, and I've always been taught to keep my fists closed tightly in sparring to reduce the chance of finger injury. Splayed fingers seems to be a common error, especially among younger students.

By the time a student receives their black belt, they've learned to keep their fists closed all the time. But a few years after that, once they start getting into the dan ranks, open-handed blocks always seem to creep back into their repertoire - I've noticed this in myself and plenty of other senior students. These aren't the splayed-finger disasters that junior students sometimes do - the thumb is tucked in, fingers are nice and tight.

My question is, should we still try to avoid open-handed techniques even once we've learned to make a decent knife-hand? Or are open-handed blocks safe, once you've developed enough experience?

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Clarification: is this about open-handed blocks or open-handed techniques? The latter includes a whole host of unrelated stuff like palm strikes, eye pokes, and grabbing, whereas the former is just about parries and blocks. Very different questions IMO. –  Dave Liepmann Apr 30 '12 at 20:48
    
@Rophuine What branch of TKD do you study? It may help get you better answers (hand position may vary from branch to branch, not just style to style). –  stslavik Apr 30 '12 at 21:58
    
One thing that I would like to see answers address is the type of injuries (David's answer does a job with this). I prefer an open hand for many blocks during sparring and have seen far more jammed fingers than breaks or other injuries, but my experience may not be that of Rophuine. –  rjstreet May 1 '12 at 0:52
    
I'm just interested in open-handed blocks - based on the fact that most blocks can be performed either open- or closed-handed, and junior students are usually told to keep their fists closed during sparring, particularly when blocking kicks. –  Rophuine May 15 '12 at 1:08
    
so give me a simple answer. should we or should we not block with an open hand? how great are the chances of injury blocking with an open hand? –  Drunkenmaster Dec 10 '13 at 2:15
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6 Answers

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I can give a Hapkido perspective on this, since at least at my dojang we are taught that you keep your fists closed until you reach 1 dan, at which point you can open them (and do so more and more as you go up from there). We relax it a bit for blocks (we don't teach hard blocks until 9th kup), but not for attacks.

There are two major reasons we give for emphasizing closed-fist technique in sparring:

  1. It prevents an injury to yourself from a jammed finger or something similar.
  2. It prevents you from injuring them.

In TKD there may be tournament reasons for keeping your fist closed which do not apply to HKD, but I can address these two reasons.

Injury to Self

From my perspective, once your technique gets into the dan range then it is both natural and desirable that you would open up your hands when doing the techniques where appropriate.

Assuming, of course, that your technique is good enough to justify it. Your training by that point should be good enough that the risk of injury to yourself is substantially reduced, and you can actually make a more nuanced decision about when it might be appropriate, and also are more prepared to deal with the consequences if you are wrong.

Injury to the Opponent

This mostly is involved in attacks. Here the problem is that many open handed techniques–especially if improperly aimed or if there is a mistake–can cause substantively greater damage than a fist is likely to do. It's one thing to miss a bit on a punch to the chest, it's another to screw up on something designed to hit their eyes. Especially in arts where head strikes and throws are banned, there's also less reason to employ open-handed attacks.

Here I think there is still merit in limiting your repertoire that your use while sparring.

Conclusion

With blocks, unless your instructor says otherwise, I'd say "go for it" since many of the safety concerns are obviated by the point that your technique has solidified a little. That said, I might have that conversation with your instructor, since he may have a set point where that becomes more allowable, or may feel that you personally aren't ready for it. On the other hand, he may also feel that now it is time to learn it and use it in a sparring context.

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Agreed, though in TKD, depending on the style and type of sparring gear, the point around damage to others is much less (particularly those who use hand guards). –  rjstreet Apr 30 '12 at 11:45
    
It is part of the techniques you learn. Open hand blocks in a tournament (psuedo-blocks and the like) are fine. Even at brown belt level, ridgehand techniques are allowed as long as it isn't a blind technique and has control. –  Berin Loritsch May 9 '12 at 18:24
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An open hand requires less tension, which means faster movements. Once you have acquired the awareness/control over your hand, and your fingers aren't all over the place, it is to your benefit to modulate the tension and change your hand's position. I know that when I spar, with closed hands, I feel like I have much fewer options available, and I feel like I'm losing sensitivity to what's happening around me.

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Perhaps injury come from holding the open hand rigidly. Or sparring fast with lots of tension. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Apr 30 '12 at 17:54
    
Both of those are true - especially the last one (I have "first-hand" witnessed stories, no pun intended), though coming from a karate background, I think it's mostly injuries from a non-rigidly held hand and fingers getting in the way of a punch, bending the wrong way, or getting caught in a gi, and bending the wrong way. Or blocking incorrectly. And bending the wrong way. There's a pattern. :) –  Trevoke Apr 30 '12 at 20:19
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In other words, if you are going to punch, punch. If you're not punching, don't punch. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao May 1 '12 at 1:38
    
I could go for extra glibness with "Make up your mind" :) –  Trevoke May 1 '12 at 8:42
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Based on my training, open handed blocks are acceptable and even encouraged, but these may be different then what you are thinking of. We use an open hand to push the blow aside by striking the side of the incoming fist, the wrist, or the forearm. This is certainly something which requires having built up a sense of timing, but it can be quite effective. The potential for injury would probably be in a mistimed block which causes the open hand to be hit.

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I am now studying TKD after many years of sparring open handed whilst learning Kung Fu. Tonight my sparring partner took exception to this non TKD technique. I obliged him with closed fist inner and outer blocks. I did not have the same level of control and of course this means striking bone against bone, rather than palm against bone. The consequence is that we are both now nursing sore arms and shins.

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One should have dramatically less confidence in techniques which have not been validated in sparring and, optimally, competition.

That said, striking sparring with open fingers leads to broken, sprained, and jammed fingers, as well as accidental eyepokes. You should evaluate your need for open-handed techniques accordingly.

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We teach knife-hand blocks for a reason. They're faster, require less energy and reduce the chance of a strike glancing off and hitting you anyway because the knife-hand block is more elastic than the closed fist variant. In other words, it remains in contact with the strike slightly longer than a more rigid closed-fist block. It also puts you in a more favourable position to perform a grab in one motion, if it is prudent.

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