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.

Powerful strikes: my top 5 martial arts punches

Martial artists and sport fighters with some level of experience are aware that some punches or kicks are stronger than others; some people just accept that as a fact, some of us try to understand the reasons behind by studying the human anatomy, how the body works and how biomechanics actually apply to these techniques.

If the first step in this process will help you understanding why things work in a certain way the natural evolution from there will be to better train the muscles involved in the movement and improve your performance.

Although different people will achieve different results when striking with various punches I will list below my 5 top favourite martial arts punches (e.g. not limiting ourselves to IBA boxing strikes):

The Jab

I think of the jab as an amazing technique; when well trained it can be super fast, ideal to strike the opponent at both medium (abdomen, chest) and high level (face).  In boxing (as much as in kickboxing) the Jab is very much the bread and butter of the fight, mostly used to strike often the opponent in order to check and maintain the distance and as a preparation for other more powerful, but often slower and more energy demanding, techniques.  The Jab should always travel on a straight line, directly from your guard toward its target and then being withdrawn immediately to go back ready for the next strike.  The total number of muscles involved in the jab is relatively small: mostly the triceps, with small contribution from deltoid, pectoral and trapezium.  Extra power can be added with a well timed little step forward while some people add an extra torsion on their core to involve a few more muscles; I generally don’t as I find it time consuming and less easy to follow up.

The Hook

It’s the most powerful punch I can throw, with either hand or from either stance, reason being the high number of strong muscle groups involved in the motion: the bicep, the deltoid, pectoral, some of the abdominals, good part of the core and, if well performed, the calf, quadriceps and the hip area. Although all hooks hits the target sideways in a circular motion, from a mechanical and geometrical point of view the hook performed with the leading (front) hand is totally different from the hook performed with the rear (back) hand.  In the first case the only way of delivering power is to perform a counter turn that while shifting weight on the rear leg builds up momentum to be transferred to the arm and the fist.  When striking with the rear leg it’s important to push from the rear leg, starting from the ball of the rear foot, twisting the hips forward in synch with the arm moving forward in the strike.

The Cross

The Cross shares the simplicity offered by a straight trajectory similarly to the jab, but it develops more power for two main reasons: it travels for a long distance therefore it builds up more momentum, delivering more damage; it involves, on top of all muscles involved in the jab, the hip torsion (core, gluteus) and the push from the rear leg as previously described in the hook from the rear hand. Adding a little step even if moving just a few millimetres it can help to add a substantial amount of extra power.

The Back Fist

The Back Fist punch (as in the picture above) is a typical martial arts punch that derives from traditional styles like karate and kung fu; it was never part of the IBA boxing repertoire but, funny enough in the UK it is being progressively removed from various light and full contact kickboxing rules.  The Back Fist is not a particularly powerful punch as it involves just triceps and the shoulder muscles; at the same it is very fast and annoying because it hits people on the side of the face or some times on the nose.  Very popular in semi contact kickboxing it’s an ideal technique to be used while fighting in side stance and combined with side, round and hook kicks with the front leg.

The Spinning Back Fist

The Back Fist is the only punch that makes sense when performed while spinning back; while maintaining the limitations of being by its own nature a weak punch the spinning movement, if well performed and timed, can deliver an unexpected amount of power.  The spinning should always being performed in a way that the eyes (e.g. your vision) hit the target before the punch, in short, look at what you are striking.  The Spinning Back Fist was acceptable within kickboxing rules until a few years ago but it’s now been abolished in every style for its apparent lack of control and the amount of damage it can deliver when properly performed.

What experience gives you

Recently I was running a lesson with the Cambridge University Kickboxing Society and I was pointing out to two young ladies, part of the beginners course, how one was not hitting as hard as she could while performing a simple exercise.

Her partner was surprised of my remark and she stopped asking how I could tell she was not hitting “as hard as she could”.  Surprisingly that was the first time somebody questioned my teaching in this way and I pondered for a few seconds before answering.

Many years of experience allow you to recognise and evaluate very quickly, within matter of seconds while a person is practicing martial arts, whether the he/she:

  • Is Powerful
  • Is Fast
  • Is Well co-ordinated
  • Has good reflexes
  • Can bear strong attacks
  • Has a good sense of fighting
  • Her body mass and shape allows a certain level of power

As I listed to her the above, non exhaustive, list of features and mentioned my experience in years that exceeds by a decade her age she quickly accepted my comment and carried on training.

Many instructors like to feel powerful and imposing their dogmatic teaching to their students expecting them to simply trust and believe him/her.  As my teaching is fully based on scientific principles everything can be explained and showed how techniques can be improved and fine tuned to deliver maximum efficiency and power.

So I quickly helped her partner to adjust her posture and angle of attack and within a couple of exercises she was hitting 30-40% harder.  Physical fitness can be and will be improved by continuous training  while the right technique will improve your performance in a very short time.

That’s what experience gives you.

Regular training to avoid injuries

There are lots of people out there that play the occasional football or tennis match or spend a week per year skiing.  Most martial arts require a different approach and cannot be practiced occasionally if you want to enjoy the benefits that they can bring and avoid injuries.  While I adopted a regular, quasi religious training regime since I was a teen ager I see many of my students or other fellow martial artists having a very irregular training regime: I believe this can be the strongest cause of injuries and loss of motivation.

When you are at the beginning of your training you have a steady increase of performance in terms of speed, power, flexibility and, progressively, technique.  Your mind, as well as your muscles, get trained and they learn the subtle intricacies of how and when firing the right muscles in the appropriate time and order.  You can consider that some of the muscles used in certain techniques are not used much in our normal daily activities.  For the same reason these muscles have a stronger tendency to loose their performance when not used.

While in regular training you enjoy progresses in your training and this enjoyment is released in the form of endorphins that make you feel good.  If, for any reason, you stop training for a few days or weeks your muscles tend to loose some of their fitness.  When you try a technique that was nice and easy last time you did it you find yourself suddenly struggling with it or, if that happens in a self defence situation, risk your life in the process.

A regular practice for amateurs should be considered when training 2-3 sessions per week, possibly practicing all year round: each training session should be between 1 and 2 hours long.

Regular training to avoid injuries

Some physics about martial arts

I found this video (see below) on you tube and it shows, supported by scientific evidence, a number of facts about what martial art deliver the strongest punch, kick and so on: the video is a National Geographic production and it’s very well made.

Here some of the facts that emerge:

  • Boxing delivers the strongest punch.  Boxing is solely based on punches so boxers continuously refine their techniques until is well polished and super powerful.  Another interesting aspect to consider is that there are many people that practice oriental martial arts for a number of reasons outside sport fighting.  Boxing on the other hand is for fighting and punching hard is part of the specs.
  • The power of any kind of strike is very much based on proper footwork and the co-ordination of the whole body.
  • The most powerful kick is a spinning back side kick: as know it is the combination of using the large groups of muscles from the leg and the bottom, together with a fast spinning action that adds momentum to the technique.
  • A knee strike from a professional Muay Thai fighter may deliver the same impact of being hit by a car travelling at 35 Mph.

I enjoyed watching this video that alternates real life scenes of martial artists striking a dummy in a lab, together with some computer graphics animations that show the physics of the impact while it’s happening.  There are also a few scenes from kung fu movies typically choreographed in Hong Kong style.

While I agree with the general conclusions shown in the video I would like to point out a main factor that makes it a bit unfair.  It is a fact that number people of similar size and body shape might have completely different muscle density and deliver very different results in term of strength and power when striking.  At the same time body weight plays a very strong role in the power delivered in a strike.

I don’t agree in measuring and comparing in absolute terms the over thousand pounds of strike from the boxer, to the lower result obtained by the kung fu master who is obviously much lighter than the rest of the people in the show.