If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to defend yourself through physical violence. But if that time ever comes, or if you’re ever enrolled in a Fight Club against your will, would you know what to do? You’ve seen punches thrown on TV plenty of times, but do you actually know how to throw one correctly? We asked three elite martial artists and a boxer to share their best takedown tips.
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Warning: Although knowing the fundamentals of punching is useful, it’s also not enough to properly defend yourself without practising. It’s definitely not for you to go out and pick fights, but you all should be smart enough to figure this out on your own.
We’ve asked a few experts to help us learn the proper method of punching. We have martial artists Aiman Farooq, Christopher Waguespack, Keith Horan and boxer Pete Carville.
Our pros will show you the right way of making a fist, the proper way of orienting your wrist, what part of the person you should hit and what you should do after the punch. The goal is to throw an effective punch without injuring yourself in the process.
How should my hand look and what part of it should make contact?
When you’re punching, the fundamental thing you should know is that your thumb needs to be on the outside of your fist, between your first and second knuckles on your index and middle finger.
“If the thumb is on the inside upon hitting a hard target you WILL break your thumb,” says Farooq.
Horan says to make sure your thumb is tucked below your curled fingers, to be out of the way of the impact. Chris Waguespack adds:
You do NOT want to keep your thumb on the side of your index finger (like you’re keeping a frog or something in your hand). Instead you want to take your thumb and wrap it down across the bottom of your curled fingers. You also want to keep your fists tight, “but not so tight that you start cutting off circulation. It is important, in martial arts, to remain fluid and yet still powerful.”
As for your knuckles:
There are varying schools of thought on whether you should have the knuckles of your index and middle finger out a little farther when punching in order to drive them in farther (this is typically emphasised in more traditional styles). I would say this is more of a personal preference issue and you should do whichever feels more natural. Technically speaking though that may work slightly better when punching specifically at certain pressure points as opposed to going for strictly for impact.
Horan recommends a linear punch, which most martial artists do, that looks like a “cross” punch in boxing.
[It’s]known as a Front Punch, or a Front Two Knuckle Punch. It is extremely important that you align the first two knuckles in your hand with the bones in your forearm for maximum structure so you don’t hurt yourself. Commonly people will hit with their ring/pinky knuckles and break their hand (known as a boxer’s break) and that obviously impedes your ability to fight.
Waguespack says that the main reason why people hurt their hands when they punch someone is “because they punch with the flats of their fingers instead of their knuckles.”
When you see people shaking their hands after a punch, it is usually because they impacted, more often than not, with the wrong part of their hand. Many people think that you punch with your fist straight. The truth is, you aim to punch with the first two knuckles. In order to achieve this, you need to slightly tilt your wrist down (which actually strengthens your punch as well). By tilting your wrist down slightly, you put your knuckles in front of your fingers. You also align your wrist with your forearm, so you are less likely to bend your wrist back or down and break it.
Farooq agrees that you should pay attention to how your wrists look as well.
The part of the fist that should be taking the impact is the flat area between the second and third knuckles. You want to keep your wrist straight while making impact there to maximize the force. The most common mistake I see with newer students is that they are bending their wrists either forwards or backwards and hitting with the top of the hand or the area between the first and second knuckles and the heel of the palm.
What types of punches should I throw?
If you’ve seen any boxing movies or played any type of fighting game, you’ll know there are different types of punches thrown with varying speeds and angles. You might be tempted to throw the largest, heaviest punch you can, because you want to finish off your attacker quickly and get out of there, but Carvill says that’s not the best idea. (It’s probably the worst idea.)
Instead, it should be the basic one-two (also known as the jab-cross) that gets thrown. The reason for this is that one-two punches travel in a straight line and, therefore, are harder for your opponent to detect. For a beginner, your defense will also be tighter. And it should be thrown from the correct stance—a good example is the video above. You should throw any punches so that your arms stay level with your shoulders. If you have your chin down and the punch comes out straight, the shoulder will rise automatically and further protect your chin. Throw out the jab but don’t throw it too hard—it’s a range-finder. Then detonate your cross.
Where should I aim?
Because you want the fight to end as quickly as possible — you’re not fighting just to fight — you want to incapacitate your opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible so you can escape. So where should you aim to do so?
Keith Horan says that, unlike what you might think, you should not punch the face. “You’ll either miss, or commonly punch wrong and hit the jaw and break your hand. The punch for the beginner is best used on the body, towards the chest, or if you’re on the side, to the ribs.”
Pete Carvill suggests a slightly different tactic, but also advises against the head.
If you want to knock someone out cold, aim for the throat. When they see the punch coming, they’ll automatically drop their head, bringing their chin in line with your fist. If you want to piss them off, hit them in the nose. However, knocking people out cold in the street (been there and done that, and I’ve never been as scared before or since) is a terrifying experience for the person throwing the punch. If you know how to and can, throw a left or right-hook to the body. With the left-hook, you’re trying to hit the liver. With the right, you want to get it under the heart. Hitting somebody in the body is a lot more effective, and safer, than hitting them in the head. Plus, heads are solid and made of bone.
Waguespack explains further why you should mix it up and go for body shots.
People always think that aiming for the face is a one time knock out blow. What they fail to realise is that, knock outs are usually lucky shots. You don’t throw a punch and intend to knock the man out. If it happens, then great, but you got lucky. You throw a punch with the intent to cause your opponent to stumble/shake his head/blind him/etc., so on the street in a fight, keep your composure and remember that you are causing him pain in order to make him back down. Look at what he has open, take pot shots at his face, don’t be afraid to punch a rib or a stomach. Remember that an untrained opponent knows nothing about breathing right when taking a hit, so one shot to the stomach could be more effective than a shot to the face.
As for your followthrough, don’t think of it as a baseball pitcher. By using your hips, your follow through will be natural, even if you snap the punch back after punching him (like a boxer). This will also keep you from the “from the country” swings again.
Aiman Farooq, on the other hand, says that there are instances where you can go for the head, or more specifically, the nose.
When we are talking just an average fight you’re going to want to aim for the face, however don’t go straight on directly in. You want to come in at a slight angle where you are actually hitting the cheek bones first and moving in towards the nose or similarly from just above the jawbone moving inwards. The reason for this is that punching straight into the nose can be quite painful if you hit it incorrectly. This method maximizes damage and minimizes risk.
In more brutal situations (i.e. self defence) areas I would recommend hitting are the throat and the sides of the neck (close to the carotid artery). These strikes will severely disrupt the assailants breathing allowing for a much easier escape from a situation. If the situation somehow prevents you from hitting that high on a person points of contact I would recommend are the sternum (using the two knuckles extended like I had mentioned earlier to drive in) this is a style of punching very common in forms of Karate, it can knock the wind out of a person. However another point that would be very helpful is the kidneys. Hitting the kidneys can cause severe flinching and is very common in boxing.
If for some reason you find yourself knocked to the ground, the best point to strike would be the middle of the inner or outer thigh. While it may not be as vulnerable to a punch as many of the other previously outlined points the pressure points here are very sensitive and hit hard enough they can be very surprising to an opponent and cause them to drop. The typical attack to these parts however, is a kick.
What shouldn’t I do?
If it hasn’t been clear by now, your punches should be quick and compact, rather than crazy wild swings that you see drunken brawlers execute. Waguespack says:
Another important part about a punch, is to remember that you need to use your hips to maximize the power. What i mean by this is, as you go to throw your punch, roll your hips into your punch. This also forces your shoulder to support the punch, as well as engaging your core and causing more torque and power through the punch. Rolling your hips, also causes you to stray from the “from the country” swing that you see so many people do. This is a BIG no-no to throwing a punch. A) it’s obvious B) it’s wild C) it leaves you WIDE open if your opponent is faster and D) it’s just not very effective.
Before and after the punch
Keith Horan is a vocal advocate for making a lot of noise while punching.
The most important part of throwing any punch: You’ve gotta yell. There’s a reason karate guys yell: It’s ferocious, gets the adrenaline pumping, and awakens that animalistic nature in us that will drive us to overcome our fears of the fight. So yell and punch, and don’t stop punching until they’re on the ground. But don’t follow them there, leave it at that and get out.
As for after the punch, Carville’s tip helps you have the proper followthrough. “Wherever you punch, aim for two inches beyond so you’re punching through it.” Farooq expands on this.
Followthrough is VERY important. Followthrough is actually, contrary to what one might believe, what will minimise the pain you experience when throwing a punch. The punch should follow a straight path in towards the target and out away from the target This is not to say that the punch should be slow, but there should be a full extension of your arm which allows for follow through followed by the hand coming back straight towards your face ready for blocking.
He also says that the stuff you do before you throw a punch is equally important.
Another key to punching is how the punch is prepared. Think of any fights you’ve seen. Compare a boxing match to a drunken brawl. The key difference in the punches is the part before the punch. Boxing has mastered the art of the effective and efficient punch. Typical untrained people will bring their hands as far back as possible in order to “wind up” their punches. This is extremely counter productive as it will actually lower the power of your punch and make it extremely telegraphed. You want to start your punches from right by your face and keep your motions tight. The way to maximise power is to engage the full body though and this is done by twisting your back foot and hips in to the punch. With a power punch (typically a right cross) you’ll pivot your right foot up to the ball of your foot as you extend the punch outwards and twist your hips as well, this allows you to push up from the floor and use that towards the power of your punch. Similarly with a jab (more of a speedy punch off of the front hand) you can do a lighter twist with your front leg in order to get a little more power.
While this is less related to the actual punch itself and more of a general fighting tip, it is VERY important to keep your hands up by your face, basically bringing the top of your knuckles to just below your eye level. When punching you want to punch from there and snap the hands straight back to there after the punch.
The philosophy of punching
I want to emphasise that even though you may know how to punch, it doesn’t mean that you should, because once you do, things are out of your control. Pete Carville explains:
The most important thing about punching is that it should be the LAST thing that you do. If you can walk away from a fight, do so. If you are being mugged and they just want your possessions, let them take them. There’s no sense in trying to be a hero or thinking you can take on the world. When a punch is thrown, the game changes—you could get a beatdown, or worse. You could even land a punch on someone and kill them if they fall badly or there’s something wrong with them (I know of two separate incidents in which people were hit once and lost their lives, and it’s not worth it).
And when you’ve thrown your punch and your opponent is either down or recovering,
Run. Outside the gym, I’ve only ever had one street fight where punches have been thrown. I was seven years old and was stopping this bully from pushing another seven-year old around (it was a girl as well). I pushed him away from her, he attacked me and I knocked him on his backside with one punch. I then ran like hell. Unless you want or have to stay there, there’s no point in sticking around.
Acknowledgements: A big thanks and a properly-thrown fist bump to all our contributors that found time between punching objects/people/animals to show us how to do it correctly.
Christopher Waguespack has been a martial artist in Karate and Tae Kwon Do for 21 years.
Aiman Farooq is a second-degree black belt and a member of the board of examiners. He practices American Martial Arts, which teaches basic Taekwondo techniques, Muay Thai, American Kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as well as military fighting styles like Haganah and Krav Maga.
Keith Horan is a fourth-degree black belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate and has owned his own school since 2005.
Pete Carville is a freelance writer and journalist, has been boxing for ten years, and runs a boxing class called BoxClub Berlin.
This article has been updated since its original publication.