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Why do they teach person to hit with knuckles horizontal in especially MMA and Muay Thai? It seems this can cause wrist damage, and hyperextension over the years. In Krav Maga they say to rotate muscles at 45 degrees.

a) if you test your bare knuckles against wall, for most people index/middle knuckles will naturally hit at 45. https://youtu.be/67fcgggDIDc?t=204 (there are certain exceptions, as everyone has different anatomical features)

b) if you hit at horizontal, it will work. However, you may have to bend wrist down so your knuckles naturally hit (this can cause wrist jam or hyperextension)

c) can also punch with 135 degrees of rotation, with index/middle knuckles down. However, this may cause wrist twist jam and inflexibility. https://youtu.be/fWeo0Od8xxM?t=117

Punching uses index and middle knuckles, so not sure why people are going with options b and c. Sure rotating can cause more damage, but by how much? I actually get little more power and flexibility range, with only slight rotation. Any insight is helpful.

Resource: Complete Krav Maga: The Ultimate Guide to Over 250 Self-Defense and Combative Techniques, Darrin Levine

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There are lots of different ways to punch: There's perfectly vertical like kung-fu / wing-chun does it, also known as a "half-twisting" punch. There's the 3/4 twisting punch like your krav-maga and Okinawan karate tends to do. There's perfectly horizontal like Japanese karate and Taekwondo does it, also known as the "full twisting" punch. There's the corkscrew punch after that, which you're going to see most often in boxing.

So which is right? Which is better?

The answer is: It depends, all, none.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all of them. While the risk of breaking your finger bones or spraining your wrist is higher when punching hard objects like heads, no particular punch does better in this regard. That's provided you're doing them right. And to know if you're doing a punch wrong, you'll want to punch a heavy bag to see whether or not it would cause any problems in real life.

That's absolutely vital. If you don't train using a heavy bag or some kind of hard resistance, it won't matter if your form is technically perfect, you're just going to end up hurt. You need to condition your body to punch solid objects. And you can condition your body to punch in any of these ways without getting hurt.

So, let's just get that out of the way. None of these punches will end up hurting you any more or less than any of the others, so long as you're hitting a heavy bag and conditioning your body to punch with those punches.

If you do actually find that you get hurt when punching the bag even if you're going light, then it says that the punch you're doing can't be done without hurting you. So you learn not to do that punch. It's just that simple. This takes just a minute or two to figure out.

What you'll notice with a half-twist punch (the vertical fist that kung-fu / wing-chun likes) is that it requires you keep your elbows in and pointed down. The force you generate is with your legs rather than just punching with the arm. There's very little biceps or triceps involved in the punch. And it feels like you're driving a wedge down the center line of the body. People that use it will just keep walking forward and use the force of stepping itself to attack. Since you're not swinging it from the outside, it lends itself well to short range fighting. Martial arts which use center line theory utilize this punch as their main punch.

But that half-twisting punch has some problems. First, it often relies on short power, which really depends on how skilled you are at it. Beginners will have very weak punches. It's debatable, but even experts at it tend to have weaker punches than western style boxing punches would be. But power is not really the goal with half-twisting punches. Or I'll say it's not the only goal. The main focus is to deliver quick, somewhat powerful strikes down the center line in order to attack your opponent's structure. And for that, it's fine.

The worst part about the half-twisting punch is that it leaves you wide open for punches to your face. Your elbow and shoulder are down. You can't deflect a hook punch to your head without taking the time to move first.

A western style boxer has this figured out by utilizing the extra, downward twisting turn at the end of the strike. Ever notice that about boxing punches? Ever wonder why they do it? It seems "wrong" to most people.

Ramsey Dewey did a whole video about this, which you should see:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLVj7orEGcs

His take is that you do that corkscrew turn at the end of the punch in order to raise both your elbow and your shoulder. That provides a shield to defend against punches to your face while you're performing the punch.

It has nothing to do with power, but rather, with defense. Or at least, it's debatable whether you can get any extra power or lose power by doing that extra little twist at the end.

So, power isn't the only goal of a good punch. It's just one of many goals. If your punch leaves you wide open to punches to your head, then your punch is kind of "weak" in a sense, regardless of how powerful it is.

Let's get back to the 3/4-turn punch that you mentioned from krav-maga, and which is similar in some ways to that of Okinawan karate. Now that you understand how important the shoulder and elbow are in defense, do you see now how the 3/4-turn punch might leave you more vulnerable than the horizontal punch or the corkscrew punch would?

In terms of biomechanics, the 3/4-turn punch does cause the bones of your forearm and your first two knuckles to align. Again, it's not super important that those bones align in terms of avoiding damage to your wrists or the bones of your hand. Punching a heavy bag will condition you to punch in any way without hurting yourself. And if the argument is that you can avoid hurting yourself even if you're not conditioned by utilizing this 3/4-turn punch, the answer is no. You will get hurt no matter what, so long as you're not conditioning yourself to punch.

Okinawan karate also adds a dipping motion to the first two knuckles that krav-maga does not. But you can only do that motion when you're doing a karate style lunge punch down the center of your opponent through his torso, rather than punching to the face. It's a very penetrating punch.

Now here's what I think. It's my judgment that boxing has the best understanding and application of punching of pretty much any martial art or self-defense system. They take a very dynamic and realistic approach to it. They're not just looking at power. They're looking at the entire game. I think one year in a boxing gym, going 2 to 3 times a week would give you a better understanding of punching than krav-maga would give you in decades of training. Or at the very least, you would find it complements your krav-maga style and gives you a base you can use for performing other krav-maga skills. My opinion, anyway.

What I hope you walk away with after reading this is that there's a lot more to punching than just biomechanical structure. Above all else, put it to the test. See how it does in the ring and on a heavy bag. And speaking of that heavy bag, you need to be hitting it hard in order to condition your body to punch for real, or else it won't matter how technically perfect your punch is.

Hope that helps.

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    @mattsmith5 Agreed. Punching hard objects in real life risks breaking the bones of your hand. That's a fact. It doesn't matter if you use the krav-maga technique or others. That's because the bones of the hand are pretty weak. There are many martial arts instructors who outright tell their students not to punch the head, but rather to use an open palm strike instead. But palm strikes can cause your wrist to sprain or break, and it might not achieve a KO like you want. So, meh. I'm gonna say go ahead and punch hard. But condition yourself. And be ready to break your hand doing it. Oct 21 at 17:01
  • @mattsmith5 I edited my answer to make that point clear. Fourth paragraph. Oct 21 at 17:44
  • @mattsmith5 Every type of punch is okay, so long as you know when to use it. That elbows in and pointed down quality of the vertical punch means you require more time to raise the arm to block or guard the face than all the other punches. That means you’re vulnerable to hook punches to your head. But it also means you can punch fast so long as your opponent is right up close in front of you. The speed may mean your punch connects before his does. But with little power. So that punch can be used effectively, just in very particular scenarios. You have to know when to and not to use it. Nov 6 at 19:11
  • thanks appreciate it, interesting varieties, as I test around in punching bag and sparring, "the horizontal-fist requires raise both your elbow and your shoulder" , I always thought to keep your elbows down, as a raised elbow signals to opponent eye that you are punching now youtube.com/watch?v=CWlxzmNmCBQ thanks for the info
    – mattsmith5
    Nov 6 at 23:30
  • @mattsmith5 Yeah, I see the video you've linked to. I'll just say that particular demonstration is somewhat exaggerated to show you the main principle behind what he's explaining. So it's a bit idealized and doesn't look like what you'd find in practice. I'd say go out and take a look at boxers explaining the proper way to do a jab punch on youtube. You'll find they do raise their elbow, but not like what your video shows. Here's an example which clarifies things a bit: youtube.com/watch?v=OeedpzLRe2E Nov 7 at 3:40
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It may have less to do with the wrist, and more to do with the elbow and shoulder. The rotation involved in a horizontal fist tends to stack the elbow and shoulder into the punch more than a vertical fist, making it easier to use your torso musculature to add power to the punch, and providing more of a stiff frame to deal with recoil.

The horizontal fist position is more powerful not so much because of the rotation of the fist but rather the rotation of the elbow. With a vertical-fisted punch, the elbow stays down and doesn’t support the wrist until the very end where the arm is extended straight. Whereas with the a horizontal-fist, the elbow rotates and lifts up immediately supporting the wrist much sooner.

Having the elbow come up behind the fist is the key difference here. The wrist has so much more support and delivers more power when the elbow is behind the fist to give your forearm a straighter impact angle. It’s important to know that punches can land with the arm bent at varying angles. Rarely does the punch land when the arm is completely straight. It’s more common to land punches with the arm bent (at the elbow) to some degree, even if only minor.

(The author of that article actually sees vertical and horizontal punches as being equally as useful in different situations, but this is part of the horizontal reasoning)

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  • Good find....the central question of 45 vs 90 degrees rotation isn't addressed yet though Oct 21 at 13:32
  • thanks for the answer, btw you should check out the answer from Futilitarian
    – mattsmith5
    Oct 24 at 2:51
  • isn't this bad? "Whereas with the a horizontal-fist, the elbow rotates and lifts up immediately supporting the wrist much sooner." , I always thought to keep your elbows down, as a raised elbow signals to opponent eye that you are punching now youtube.com/watch?v=CWlxzmNmCBQ
    – mattsmith5
    Nov 6 at 23:23
  • @mattsmith5: There might be tradeoffs involved. A one-inch punch at the end of the range is very unexpected but has little power. A big haymaker carries a lot of power, bit it's highly telegraphed. Nov 7 at 18:53
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Some of the claimed differences between horizontal and vertical punches do not exist. There are many competing claims about the utility of each, but you can test these claims and arrive at your own conclusions by analysing each claim at home right now or when you're next at the gym.

(The claims I make here are based on honest appraisal of my own biomechanics. My physiology might be somehow different than that of most people, but I have no reason to believe this is the case. My background is in boxing and Kyokushin Karate. Both disciplines are respected for the strength of their punching techniques. The arguments I make here are motivated not by any contrarian intent, but by the evidence I observe when examining the techniques under discussion via analysis of my own punches).

  1. "Rotating your fist to horizontal raises your elbow and shoulder into a stronger defensive position".

False. Try it now. You can punch with your fist vertical, at 45 degrees, and horizontal and, unless you consciously raise your shoulder, it remains at virtually an identical height with each punch.

As regards elbow position, you will notice that the difference is so small as to be negligible. A horizontal fist results in the elbow shifting slightly more to the outside of the arm. Hold your fist out with a straight arm and rotate your fist. Note how minimal the change is. Neither technique offers a greater defensive advantage than the other, although a lower elbow position will have greater utility than a wider position in certain contexts, and vice versa.

  1. "Rotating your fist to a certain position results in a better alignment of the forward knuckles and the bones of the forearm".

False (or negligible). Again, hold your arm out straight. If you rotate your fist independently of your forearm, you will lose alignment. But if you rotate your forearm and fist together, they stay in alignment, regardless of whether or not your fist is vertical, horizontal, or somewhere in between.

  1. "A horizontal fist results in greater elbow support for the fist".

False. The angle of the elbow joint remains virtually the same; it is determined not by fist attitude, but by the distance of the fist from the body. Turning the wrist simply shifts the plane of the arm's bend from the vertical towards the horizontal. If the angle of the elbow joint is the same, the amount of support for the wrist provided by the elbow is the same.

  1. "A horizontal fist results in slightly greater reach".

False. Hold your arm out. Keep your fist rigid. Turn your fist. Your reach will likely be unchanged.

Horizontal or Vertical Fist?

As has been pointed out, punches can be effective when executed palm down, palm up, vertical, anywhere in between, or even when rotated past horizontal to a thumb-down 45 degree position. A competent boxer eventually learns that there is no one type of jab or straight, hook or rip, overhand or uppercut, but that true skill lies in being able to launch a variety of techniques - from a variety of body-positions and stances - which enable quick exploitation of openings as they appear.

Expert Boxing presents a relatively thorough article on horizontal vs vertical punches, but like always, there's an immense amount of often contradictory information out there. Be skeptical. Test advice before accepting it. Common advice is not always good advice.

One thing I've noticed about many of the greatest fighters is that they are/were all quite intelligent and that many of them employ/ed unorthodox techniques - techniques rarely taught in gyms - to extraordinary effect. I'm not suggesting we disrespect our teachers or that there is not a great deal to be learned from many centuries-old practices, but instead that there is much to be gained from developing a skeptical and experimental approach to our own training, and that if this approach is habitualised, a fighter becomes able to draw on their own capacities in order to competently answer many of the questions which arise during the course of their martial arts journey.

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I see two benefits to rotating the fist to a horizontal position:

  1. You get a little more range, and
  2. The shoulder is raised automatically as the wrist rotates, providing valuable cover for your chin and, to some extent, the temple.

As for the knuckles hitting the wall, and bending the wrist, and all that: forget it. In reality, you are not trying to knock out a flat wall. You are punching a hard, roundish, irregularly shaped object, and you can be happy if you land a powerful punch without hurting yourself. Bending your wrist because you want to "hit with the knuckles" is a bad idea. Keep your wrist straight and your fist firmly closed, and hope for the best.

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  • I'm confused on the "more range" part; I don't see any meaningful difference. Oct 23 at 17:41
  • @DaveNewton: Try it - with your shoulder forward, extend your arm in a "vertical knuckles" position. Then rotate and raise the shoulders and elbow until the knuckles are horizontal - your hand should move forward an inch or so. Oct 24 at 8:51
  • I did. I rotated my fist; why would I rotate my shoulder? Oct 24 at 10:34
  • "why would I rotate my shoulder"? To increase your reach and hide your chin. Oct 25 at 7:09
  • But the question was about fist orientation, not shoulder ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Oct 25 at 9:06

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