The four key ingredients for effective strikes

Round Kick

Image courtesy and copyright of Duncan Grisby

I got inspired about writing this post by reading the 4 Hour Chef by Timothy Ferris. In what it looks like a cookery book Tim packs tons of amazing methodologies about how to learn a huge range of different skills. This post is about using the key components that help delivering a great strike as if they were ingredients for a recipe. When cooking it is possible to deliver different kinds of food by varying amounts of the same ingredients; by the same token we can deliver strikes that have different effect on their target by adjusting the dosage of each individual component or ingredient. I am exploring in this post how that can affect and improve your striking skills.

When I teach total beginners from scratch I first focus on the basic movements and soon after trying to explain how each ingredient should be used. Around a third of my students have previous experience from other clubs and unfortunately, in many cases, they were not taught things the right way. I find that many people understand or even master well one or two of these ingredients but often cannot blend and vary all of them at once. The right combination of the four ingredients makes a strike, being a punch or a kick, very effective.

The same principles I am about to describe apply, albeit in slightly different contexts, when you are sparring in your club, fighting in a competitive bout or in a self defence situation. The expected outcome will determine the combination, essentially the recipe, about how to blend these four ingredients in a way that will make your strikes remarkably effective.

Here are the ingredients:

  • Speed
  • Power
  • Frequency or Pace
  • Accuracy

Let’s explore each ingredient, together with a few training tips that can help improving them individually and then how to combine them effectively.

Speed

Using an approximate definition (sorry for the physicists that read this) by speed we define how fast your strike can travel from its resting position, e.g. your guard, all the way to its target and back. By travelling fast the strike will offer the following physical advantages:

  • It will build up more momentum, increasing the damaging power that will hit the target
  • It will give less time to the opponent to block or avoid the attack, increasing your score rate
  • It will keep you off guard for shorter time so offering less opportunities for counter attack, decreasing your opponent’s score rate

There are other advantages, sometimes less tangible and more depending on your opponent: if every time you hit the opponent he/she is struggling to cope with your strike or getting overwhelmed you are in a very advantageous position.

Speed is very much function of your muscle structure; some people can naturally tense their muscles in the appropriate way to deliver fast and smooth movements while others less so. If you would like to improve the speed of a particular strike here are some tips that you should however check with your coach before applying. If you would like to improve speed on more than one technique please apply these tips to all of the techniques:

  • Repeat the same strike several times, trying to increase speed, even so slightly, every time; a simple way of doing this is consciously relax all muscles involved before the strike and then try to tense them in the right order, in to maximise execution speed
  • Alternate very slow techniques with very fast ones; the slow ones should be delivered while tensing all muscles in the arm or leg used to strike while the fast ones should be following the principles explained at the previous point
  • Deliver the technique in bursts of two, three or more strikes aiming at delivering equally powerful and fast techniques throughout the sequence
  • Ensure that each strike ends at the same point where it started, e.g. back in guard or where the next strike will start from; this will help you with frequency as described later
  • Use resistance, either an elastic band that goes against the movement or holding / attaching weights to the limb that you are working out.

Power

Again I will apologise to physicists about my crude definition of power: power in a strike is about delivering damage. A strike is powerful when you can shake an opponent with a kick, push him/her in the same direction of the strike and so on. When the opponent’s body hurts he/she is less likely to hit us back. Several powerful strikes are likely to deliver the damage that a single one cannot deliver.

Power is both function of your speed and you body mass, however in different proportions. A powerful strike should be hitting the surface of the target and shake it inside; powerful strikes are not about pushing opponents off their position but leave them where they are, in pain. In order to maximise power we must be hitting with the whole body, aligning forces in the same direction rather than just using the striking arm or leg.

Here are some suggestions about training for power:

  • Work at the bag or on pads and concentrate purely on power; many of the suggestions above about speed can be applied to power training
  • Try some isometric exercises by touching your target first and then try to push it as you were delivering the strike from there
  • Repeat the same strike twice or more times and ensure that each strike has the same power

Frequency or pace

By frequency and pace I mean how often you strike and how many times. Speed is directly related to frequency. If your speed is high you will be able to hit more times in a certain period of time, increasing frequency. That will keep the opponent busy and he/she will have less time to defend or counter attack.

Frequency makes sense to be practiced on multiple strikes so start working at combinations. All of the suggestions mentioned above can be used to improve and workout frequency. Work first at combinations of the same or very similar techniques then start varying them. If your style is about punching and kicking then try optimising frequency on mixed combinations of punches and kicks.

Accuracy

Accuracy is about delivering strikes to the right spot, at the right time, maximising the amount of damage delivered and saving energy. The same strike, delivered with the same power and at the same speed to a neutral spot, say a shoulder, might just waste the time and energy used for it. On the other hand if accurately delivered to the right spot, e.g. the jaw, the temple, solar plexus or the liver, it might knock somebody out. Accuracy is not just about striking precisely within a 3D space but it is also involving time; the right spot might be available to be hit just at a certain point and just accurate timing allows you to hit the right target at the right time.

Accuracy is easier said than done, particularly while fighting a non cooperating opponent that is trying his/her best to avoid being hit and fighting back at the same time.

Here are some suggestions about training for accuracy:

  • Start by hitting static targets and ensure that the strike hits as accurately as possible the spot you are aiming at. You should always aim at small targets, e.g. a coin size, rather than a large one such as a dinner plate
  • Work on individual strikes first, then repetitions of the same strike then combinations of different strikes
  • Work on moving targets; a partner or coach with focus mitts will help you to improve and focus on accuracy on both 3D space and timing

A few consideration about how to best blend the 4 ingredients

In an ideal world you would like to deliver super fact, accurate and powerful kicks and punches in bursts of 3-5 strikes and overwhelm your opponent. The underline limitation is obviously the amount of total stamina or energy available, very much a function of your fitness level. Powerful punches use more energy than soft ones; powerful kicks use about 3 times the energy of each punch.

Here below a few facts about combining the four key ingredients in different martial arts and styles:

  • Boxers tend to apply good combinations of speed, power, accuracy and frequency
  • Free style Karate and Semi contact kickboxing fighters tend to use speed and accuracy to score points; often their strikes are not too powerful and the very nature of their styles keeps frequency to a minimum because they aim to score with one key technique and the fight gets stopped by the referee
  • Full contact Karate tend to concentrate on the single killer strike, therefore speed and power are good, often matched with good accuracy, but frequency is just not there for the same reason as semi contact fighters
  • Thai boxers train for power and speed, some time frequency; in my experience their accuracy could be often improved and they try to overcome the lack of it by hitting harder
  • Light contact kickboxers have to balance speed, accuracy and frequency but they must be controlled on the power they deliver simply because excessive power could be penalised
  • Full contact kickboxers should be delivering a good combination of high power, speed, accuracy and frequency and some of them do
  • Prectitioners of Wing Chun tend to hit at a very high frequency and often with accuracy but power is some times neglegted.

Conclusions

Regardless the martial art you are training you should always consider these four ingredients as the basic components to deliver effective strikes. It is very important to understand and master the right combination of these components so that you can deliver the strikes you really want to.

How rules affect fighting styles

Front Kick

Image courtesy and copyright of Duncan Grisby 2013

Have you ever heard a sentence like: “this guy fights like a karateka or like a Thai Boxer”? There are indeed typical techniques that characterise various fighting styles.  However, while different martial arts styles or even individual schools promote or enhance the use of certain techniques it is more often the case that rules will have the strongest influence on fighting styles; this post analyse how and why this is happening.

Fighting rules affect two key aspect of a fight: what punches, kicks or other strikes are allowed and what area of the body can be hit with these strikes. A typical and very obvious example comes from American Kickboxing that I have been practicing for over 30 years and teaching for more than 20. When fighting full contact or light continuous style, assuming no kicks to the legs are allowed, fighters tend to adopt a front stance with their weight on the front leg that allows easy use of punches from both arms in a very similar fashion to boxing. Adopting a front stance enables kicks with the rear leg to be delivered quite naturally, usually as the natural final part of powerful combinations of punches.  Kicks with the front leg can be delivered by quickly switching into cat or side stance.  On the other side of the spectrum when fighting according to semi contact rules (also called point fighting) the importance of delivering super fast kicks is paramount, together with a reduced need of complicated punching combinations; single punches often rule.  Equally important in semi contact is the need of offering the smallest possible scoring area to the opponent because every touch scores; for this reason most of the semi contact fights see fighters adopting a side stance and same apply to Tae Kwon Do as they hardly ever punch.  Shotokan or Wado Ryu Karate fighters will usually fight in front stance with low guard in front of their chest because they don’t use many punches in combination; Kyokushin Kaikan Karate relies on the fact that no strikes will hit face or head.

Thai Boxers face a completely different reality due rules allowing strikes to any part of their body including to kicks to the legs.  If Thai Boxers relied on the same front stance that we use for American Kickboxing they would find themselves in lots of troubles as their front legs would become easy targets for strong kicks. That’s why they adopt a stance that keeps their weight heavily shifted backward.  Boxers naturally know that nothing but punches will come their way while fighting therefore they can swing and bob their head quite low and wide around their opponent’s punches.  Some of these positions would attract troubles if performed while kicks or knee strikes are allowed.  Final example is how MMA rules, allowing grabs and grappling, condition their stand up fight.  Most MMA fighters are great boxers and kickboxers but they simply cannot exploit their full potential as strikers because of the strong risk of their limbs to be grabbed and them being thrown on the floor for the grappling that will follow.

I have been experiencing for years how rules affect one’s fighting style when I welcome new members to my kickboxing club and some of them join after years of experience in various other styles like Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Thai Boxing and Kung Fu.  At the beginning they all try to keep their style and use techniques and stances they were used to; as their experience evolves their whole style also mutates and they become more and more like the other members of the club.  Although we teach our techniques and combinations according to our style there is no implicit or explicit suggestions that people should give up what they learnt, as long as they are fighting respecting our rules; however fighting according to our rules progressively inspires them to adopt the techniques and combinations we teach because they fit very well with such rules.

Sparring with your friends to win against your demons

I saw the other day this very inspirational video from Benny “the jet” Urquidez and after some initial hesitation I literally had to write something more than a little compliment note.  I always considered myself a martial artist more than a fighter; for me learning and being good at techniques was and is more important than simple beating up people.  However, martial arts are about fighting and being at ease with it is essential, in order to put in practice what we learn from a technical point of view.

Some school push the fighting concept to the extreme and just spar all the time; these school often produce aggressive fighters that might have an easy early career but then face the reality of other aggressive fighter which are also technically very good.  Other schools simply use excuses like “what we do is too dangerous and we cannot practice it” and just don’t spar at all.  I mentioned in previous posts the importance of realistic training as well my view about fighting and winning.

In this short video Benny “the jet” highlights fears and worries that many people have when they start sparring and just by keep training, perhaps by asking to some people to go easy of you until you get better, will help you learn and improve your sparring technique and, eventually, become a champion if that’s what you aspire to.  By sparring your friends you will learn to fight and win against your inner demons that ultimately are the ones who are slowing you down and hindering your fighting skills.

The Wing Chun foundation for Jeet Kune Do

I just the found the video below on you tube and I just could not resist to write this post.  Having read many books and articles about Jeet Kune Do (JKD) as well as having practiced wing chun solidly for over 5 years I was kind of giving for granted what I see in the video but it’s obvious that for some people it is not.

JKD is a concept and not a style; basic principle behind JKD is to learn various martial arts and just retain what works for the individual, discarding what doesn’t work.  This is somehow a precursor concept of MMA fighting, mixing styles to have a complete repertoire of techniques that cover all ranges of fighting including grappling and ground work.  In my opinion that is somehow fine for a person which has decent experience in one style, then moves on to the next one and so on.  Trying to learn at the same time different styles just creates confusion because a correct stance for one could be wrong for the other and you never know which one is which.

In principle different practitioners of JKD could have developed, given the hundred of martial styles available, completely different kind of JKD.  However if you join a JKD school, as long as it is authorised from one of the original students of Bruce Lee (Dan Inosanto, also portrayed in the video, comes to mind), you will learn from scratch techniques that seem to be unique of JKD but, apart from some simple adaptations of footwork and other details they replicate very precisely basic Wing Chun techniques and concepts.  Enjoy the video:

My thoughts about fighting, winning and losing

winningFighting sports offer a broad range of opportunities for competitive people that are interested in measuring their skills and performance against others.  Martial arts were invented to improve fighting skills, initially for warriors and soldiers then for ordinary people to help them defending themselves.  Best way of testing one’s skill was to challenge somebody else and see who the winner was.  Obviously when weapons are involved the result could be lethal for one of the fighters but, the evolution of unarmed combat has developed many different fighting styles that, fast forwarded into the 20th and now 21st century, originated nearly as many sports regulations.  Unless you are practicing a very specific and traditional martial art like Aikido or Wing Chun you will have the opportunity of testing your skills against another fighter in a properly organised tournament.

I have always embraced martial arts practice in a very holistic way trying to develop all aspects of self development and skill improvement they can offer; that means that for me sparring and fighting was never the only or the most predominant activity in my training.  However there is no doubt that fighting itself is the ultimate test that measures how realistic you training is and how applicable the techniques you have been practicing are.  I could probably describe my whole thoughts on the topic as: you must fight and being good at it but when training for it sparring is not the only part you should concentrate on.

If you are taking part in a marathon you know that there will tens of thousand participant and one winner; there a very high probability it won’t be you.  So entering a marathon is the kind of thing many people do for the sake of actually doing it with very little ambitions of actually winning one.  When fighting a martial arts bout you know it will be just you and another individual; by the end of the fight one of you will be the winner and the other… the looser; there is no problem about that but many people take the whole thing way too serious.

Winning is good, it makes you feel good and gives you amazing personal rewards.  Losing is not so good but, particularly at the beginning, you need to take into account that losing is part of life and it’s not the end of it.  Personally I don’t like losing and therefore, when I was competing, I would not enter a tournament unless I knew I worked very hard and felt ready for it I knew I had a fair chance of winning and most times I did win.  Now that I am coaching athletes I consider their victory or defeat as much as if I were fighting myself.  For that reason I work very closely with them and make sure I push their skills and preparation beyond their normal comfort zone so that they can have their fair chance of winning.

The actual physical martial aspect of fighting need to be blended with the psychological aspect of how one’s mind will accept and process very fast thoughts before and during the fight as well strong feeling associated to the irrational act of entering a ring or a cage and trying to beat somebody else up, even if by obeying to some rules. Many people including myself consider normal what and how they do things and some times unusual or odd other people’s approach when different.  So in my opinion everybody should apply the simple rule of entering competition just when well prepared and with a fair chance of winning. I felt very uncomfortable a few weeks ago while watching the Cambridge University Tao Kwon Do club losing very badly in a Varsity fight against Oxford University.  I was stunned by how poorly prepared most of the Cambridge boys and girls were and how they have been pushed into a fight without their fair chance of winning, surely due to little or no sparring practice during their training.

Losing in a martial arts bout can hurt your body and head, on top of your ego and soul; you must train hard until you have done everything that was possible to prepare your self and being ready, so to have your fair chance for a victory.