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This is a basic piece of advice I was given early on, especially regarding boxers, who are particularly dangerous because they attack the brain and can end it in one, combination or blow. Essentially:

"Watch the shoulder not the hands, because they can't punch without moving the shoulder, and the shoulder is going to move before the fist."

I asked another question about the "warrior gaze", which renders this partially moot, in that one is taking in the whole frame of reference, but there is still an element of enhanced awareness. For instance, special note of the opponents footing so one can maintain a viable counter stance.

In the same way, I have found heightened attention on the shoulders is useful in practice.

  • Is "watch the shoulders" solid advice?
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Yes and No.

If I am close enough to you I can move my shoulder and punch you long before you can dodge or block. If I am far enough away I couldn't possibly hit you without your reactions giving you a good chance to evade my strike.

In addition many styles, boxing included, will teach ways to hide shoulder movement with foot movements and clever steps.

That said, what are the alternatives?

If they are bare handed then you can watch the forearm and judge the position of the fist that way. But if your opponent is wearing gloves you are not going to be able to judge the position of the hand easily because the glove will hide the forearm so in this case watching the shoulder might be a good plan.

Alternatively if you are really good at pushing-hands type drills you might be able to maintain contact with your opponent's arms at close range. That way you don't rely on sight at all.

In all of the above you have to consider the context of where you are fighting. If you are in a self defence situation of some kind it probably doesn't matter if you watch the shoulder or not so much. After all your goal should be survival not killing anyone.

As soon as you know that your enemy is trying to harm you you should be trying to think about exit routes and if they are close enough to punch you at all you have already failed in your best line of defence. In other words, watch for the monkey dance and the shouting not the first punch.

If you are in a ring watching the shoulder is more relevant. You are going to fight the guy, probably to unconsciousness. So this is where you actually have to think about their 'tells'. In this situation you should have watched videos of their fights and know what to look for anyway. The shoulders yes, but often also the mouth, the eyebrows etc.

In conclusion, reading a fighter is a skill in itself. There are no shortcuts, but watching the shoulder is one option.

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  • Good answer. I definitely have punches in my Chinese system that don't rely on much shoulder movement, but they're less powerful than a full on boxer or karate punch.
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 17 at 22:49
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    @DukeZhou I attended a jujutsu class a few times at my university where the students didn't understand distance at all. They without fail asked me to punch them as hard as I could from about a metre away... I declined and punched to the space to the left of their head until they realised they were not fast enough. I didn't want to kill anyone.
    – Huw Evans
    Jun 18 at 10:14
  • Good comment. I have that speed with that punch, but that type of "Fajin" is not my greatest strength. However I've trained with serious Wing Chung practitioners who produce power similar to what you're talking about. Really top-notch hsing-yi practitioners seem to be able to do it too.
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 20 at 0:02
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Can't say I've ever heard that one "Watch the shoulders". The guys we train with are typically fast enough that once you realize the shoulder is moving they have already made contact, not to mention, once they figure out your watching their shoulders they'll use shoulder motion against you. We look towards the chest, that way we can see both hands and peripherally both knees. With a little bit of experience you may find that your defensive reaction time get's better and your offense improves,.

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  • Good answer. I got the advice as a beginner. I keep awareness of all joint and their alignments in my peripheral, but was wondering if there was any special utility to tracking the shoulders specifically.
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 17 at 22:51
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The shoulders are about half a meter away from each other, so if you're focused on one the other could be comin' for ya. And I agree with @dawgdeelux, especially with the jab.

I was originally taught to look at the center of the chest, where your peripheral vision can see all 4 limbs to some extent and where you're not going to be eye-faked or intimidated by the guy's "THUG LIFE" neck tattoo.

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That's a good approach. But things move fast in there when you're sparring with professionals. They may throw combinations in bunches, and you won't get a chance to see the shoulders. Personally, I just go by feeling now in days. If their right hand lands on my gloves—I figure the left is coming, so I prepare to either move, block or counter. Landing effective punches at a certain level is an act that happens on exchanges, so it's between punches that you're landing. But in the grand scheme of things I'm still learning, and need to learn a lot more. So take my answer as a personal opinion.

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    Thanks for contributing. I feel like you're saying "Good strategy for a person just starting out, but the value and applicability is very limited."
    – DukeZhou
    Aug 10 at 22:02
  • Yes. But it's just an opinion. One of my favorite Muay Thai coaches in Thailand, says that there's no right or wrong when fighting. Just be aware of how you feel, and go with what works better.
    – felrech
    Aug 11 at 2:35

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