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I've been renewing my attempts at getting good fist rotation in shadow boxing. The common wisdom is that fist remain vertical until near full extension, at which point it rotates. Often, it rotates 90 degrees into a horizontal position, but for training purposes, many people advocate rotating 180 degrees so thumb is facing down. It also helps with raising to shoulder to protect the chin. My rotation is often just 45 degrees, though I try to keep the chin beneath the shoulders nevertheless.

I came across less common advice to allow the elbows to flare out when rotating the fist for straighter elbow/fist/wrist alignment. The article acknowledges the telegraphing and lesser protection on the sides. The rationale for doing this is that when striking, you are abandoning a full commitment to defending with that arm anyway, and that telegraphing by the elbows is not much of a differentiator for advanced boxers because they are in constant motion and rely on a sense of when an opponent intends to strike.

I will never be an intermediate boxer, much less an advance one, but I do identify tried-and-true combinations that are right for me, for which I hope to build up muscle memory through shadow boxing, regularly but not for a long duration almost every day. Those are just my time priorities. So I can't afford to incorporate every possible variant of a technique or combination -- just some core ones that I pick out.

For such a limited commitment, is it better to go with arms flaring out (not a whole lot, but noticeable), or staying with the conventional wisdom of not doing that? I'm thinking about this from both a boxing and kickboxing perspective. For the latter, it may seem that one is accepting the risk of roundhouses to the torso, but I also keep in mind that the elbows flare only when striking.

In pondering the answer to this, I note that in a lot of videos, I do notice some elbow flaring, so I'm wondering if that's just the practical reality, and whether it is even worth worrying about. Here is an example of where the arm seems to be unhinging on an almost horizontal plane as opposed to the ideal vertical plane. In some boxing tutorial videos, the arm unhinges along the ideal vertical plan, with fist rotation at the end, but when the tutors speed it up, that goes away. The opening few seconds here also show unhinging of the jabbing arm along an almost horizontal plane (watch in half speed). Also 45-degree flaring here despite saying not to.

P.S. I notice that muay thai tends to have elbows out even in ready position, and some explanations is that elbows hurt incoming kicks more. I think that complicates my question too much. So please interpret my question as being about the situation where elbows are down, close to body when in ready position. It is about flaring when rotating the first for a jab/cross.

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From a purely boxing position - I would suggest it doesn't matter at all when the fist rotates as long as it's not affecting the efficacy of your punch (I've noticed in my students that if the fist rotates too soon, it can lead to a "knocking on the door" motion where the strike is with the tips of the middle knuckles rather than the flat section of the 1st knuckles). An earlier rotation will lead to greater flaring but the risk is mostly going to be if the opponent was already in the process of throwing a body shot and you're punching over it, which is advantage you to be honest.

Regarding the degree of rotation, I would suggest avoiding rotation greater than 180' as this can in the long term result in damage to the rotator cuff. Rotation should also be dependant on target - if I'm throwing a jab to under the jaw I may rotate out slightly rather than in to get a better angle in the fist to match the line of the jaw.

When it comes to kickboxing again the risk from hits (particularly kicks which are generally slightly slower than punches) is minimal during your offensive unless the opponent was already in the process of performing it. This becomes an issue in points fighting where if they make contact before you it could end up with the point going to them, but in light continuous and up yes, they get a point, but if you connect so do you so it evens out and then it becomes more tactical as to how many points you're willing to sacrifice. The same physiological issues (injury risk, targetting, etc) as boxing apply in this situation.

The only real tactical issue with early rotation comes when grappling starts to be involved. This is the reason why the classical pugilism crowd is very hot on vertical fists and late rotation (the presence of grappling in pre-queensbury boxing) which has carried over into modern boxing, and why it's more important in for example MMA, where the opening you provide can give grappling opportunities to an opponent.

Tl;Dr - For pure boxing and even kickboxing to an extent the timing of rotation is of minimal importance, but the angle of rotation has tactical and injury risk implications. For sports which allow grappling as well as striking, there is a risk of counter grappling if the flared elbow position presents too many opportunities.

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  • If those are the considerations, then it seems like a bit of flaring due to early rotation is nothing to get too bent out of shape over (outside of MMA). When you said that rotating more than 180 degrees is risky, I don't think I've ever seen the advice to exceed 180. It's usually 90 or more, up to 180. Did you mean more than 90? Sep 6 at 9:51
  • Also, the opportunity for counter-grappling, I'm wondering if this thought is from reflecting on the problem or from experience? Are fighters fast enough to shoot in for a takedown in the course of a jab? I mean, they might require less critical timing to slip the jab and then shoot in. I ask not in jest, as my experience with grappling is almost zero. Sep 6 at 9:53
  • Sorry, the 180' comment is my error - it was in relation to where you've put about the thumb being down and this is the position which can (but isn't guaranteed to) put the rotator cuff at risk. For the counter grappling, this is mostly coming from my interactions with the classical pugilism sphere where this is their justification. From my experience it's less of an issue/risk than the incorrect striking surface being used which I see fairly frequently with people new to punching who rotate too early. Sep 6 at 11:49
  • @Rog O'Neill: Thanks for the clarification! Sep 6 at 16:00
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One reason boxing and some other styles (including karate) recommend turning the wrist at the end of a punch is because a fist (gloved or ungloved) that is twisting at the moment of impact is more likely to tear the skin and/or cause subcutaneous damage.

Flaring the elbows is often criticised for:

  1. Telegraphing
  2. Reducing power
  3. Reducing defensive integrity

Telegraphing: The telegraphing complaint seems to stem from an assumption that prior to the punch, the elbows rise from a position closer to the body, but as has been pointed out, this argument does not hold if the elbows are always held out and away from the body, because then no lifting of the elbows needs to occur prior to the punch.

I recommend asking a training partner to deliver both types of strikes to you, and then to reverse roles. You will then have concrete evidence from which to draw a conclusion. Be aware though, that you might have flaws in your technique which taint the results of such an experiment. For example, you might punch well from an elbows-in position, but me more prone to retracting your fist prior to punching when your elbows are up, or vice versa. Get an expert to analyse your technique. Frequently. Especially when you're starting out.

Power Reduction: Even amongst experts, there are competing views here. I'll leave it to the physicists to debate the theory. I find I get significantly more power during straight punches by keeping my elbows close. I attribute this to my body weight staying behind my fist as it is propelled towards the target. Again, try it yourself and measure the results. You will quickly determine which technique is more powerful.

Defensive Integrity: This is the primary factor, as far as I'm concerned, especially if you're a beginner. An intermediate or advanced boxer will often be able to take advantage of the significantly bigger opening offered by a boxer with flared elbows. Uppercuts, straight punches to the solar-plexus, hooks to the body; all are made significantly easier when an opponent's elbows are raised.

It is true that as you get more advanced, as you get better able to control distance and to read attacks, you are able to diverge from the 'basics' more and more, and with less risk. Becoming confident with eccentric/unorthodox stances, strikes and movement adds a dimension of unpredictability to your repertoire which is very valuable in any fight.

Nonetheless, the old cliche that you should learn the basics before you learn to break them seems sound, for even as an expert boxer you will encounter many situations in which the best thing you can do is revert to foundational skills. Of course, if the foundation is not there, you will get into trouble.

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  • Thanks for that. You said that telegraphing isn't a deal if your elbows are already out. I was considering more the case where your elbows are down in ready position. I get that Muay Thai is more relaxed about that, but I don't know why. About trying both types of strikes to compare power, similar to your point about the dependence on proper technique, I also think it also depends on one's drills. When I've worked a heavy bag in the past, my advancing in would be more sideways, ... Sep 6 at 19:35
  • ...but only for an instant, and the jab was done with shoulder up + chin tucked (followed immediately by a cross as the rear leg follows the lead leg). If you train, you can make it quick and impactful, but it's not the kind of thing that I would realize through isolated testing because it required that I get to know the whole body dynamics. I just saw an advanced boxer do it and tried to make it work. I believe that this complexity is behind the competing views that you mentioned. Sep 6 at 19:35
  • About defensive integrity, I get what you say about opening up due to flaring. Can you comment on whether the importance is diminished if you only flare during strikes (and not like fully -- like I said, it seems that most people flare a bit, even those who say not to, which confuses me). I agree that the basics are important to nail down, but since most people seem to flare a bit, I'm wondering if that is the practical reality, even when drilling in the basics. Sep 6 at 19:35
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    @user2153235. Well, if you flare during strikes, you inevitably telegraph your punches more. Significantly so. Telegraphing is an unnecessary gift to an experienced opponent. Yes, a lot of people flare, even those who advise against it. Many of us are prone to falling into bad habits when we stop paying attention to biomechanics/technique. This is another reason to drill the basics to a point at which you are less likely to fall 'out' of them. Once you get the basics right, they reward you with a very efficient means of approaching the art of 'hitting without getting hit'. Persevere. Sep 7 at 1:13
  • When you flare during strikes, you also reduce the power of your punch. Punching straight conserves biomechanical energy, whilst flared punching dilutes forward power by using it for lateral movement. Sep 7 at 1:22
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Here is explicit acknowledgments that a bit of flaring is OK, but "excessive" flaring is not.

Here, the fist rotation is described as commencing at 75% extension of the striking arm, so if the elbows do point sideways, flaring will be minimal.

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