Training high impact martial arts while maintaining low injury rate

Image courtesy and Copyright Duncan Grisby 2010

Martial arts are mostly designed and conceived as fighting systems.  Fighting is about hurting other people so it is about delivering intense blows to another person; anybody training realistically risks hurting or getting hurt during sessions.  Some styles like Judo were in fact conceived to reduce the risk of injuries by removing the most dangerous techniques from its ancestor: Ju Jitsu.  Other styles limit the teaching and practicing of dangerous techniques to advanced students or simply avoid full contact training or sparring.  Realistically speaking training with a certain level of contact and impact is necessary for anyone competing at full but also light contact level.

Training “full on” and maintaining a safe training environment creates a dilemma that troubles many martial arts clubs and some of them take one position in the spectrum of the impact vs. safety curve: some on the safe and sometimes unrealistic, particularly for those who want to use martial arts for self defence while others take it to an extreme and have a very high number of injuries some times serious ones.  Kickboxing and many other styles that are practiced wearing pads offer the advantage of covering some of the “weapons” like fists and feet so that they ensure a safer training practice.  In my experience of over 3 decades of training Kickboxing and other martial arts I definitely seen many incidents but, considering that we spend several hours per week kicking and punching each other, often at full power, the number of serious damages is negligible.  In the over 13 years I have been running CARISMA, my club in Cambridge, I can remember very few (3-4) broken noses, a few broken or cracked ribs (less then 10), a couple of swollen feet.  We obviously have the occasional, once per month or less, black eye and regular bruises, mostly on the arms when people receive attacks and block with their guard.  All in all I am sure we are safer than most football or rugby club.

Some Kickboxing clubs spend most of their times hitting focusing mitts and Thai pads; that a great way of practicing power while minimising the risk of injuries.  Personally I am a strong believer in one-2-one training combining attack and defence techniques and combinations that emulate the sparring environment.  I find that pad work is mostly conditioning body and mind to simply face a passive opponent that invites you to hit a target.  The pair training also helps improving defence reflexes together with blocking and parrying skills.

In my experience a proven formula to ensure a safe full contact training environment is to teach people to actively block the attacks they are subject to by using active blocks and parries rather than passively accepting blows on their guard.  This last strategy is taught as the last resource that people should use when in extreme difficulty.  When teaching blocks to beginners we always start from the technique with bare hands to show the exact mechanical movement involved and how to minimize the impact on one’s body while deflecting as much and possible the forces rather than absorbing them onto his/her own body.  Then, when gloves are worn, they add extra safety to the whole situation and further minimise the risk of bruises and scratches.  Many thousand repetitions later all movements become instinctive and automatic and they can work even at full speed and power.  Sparring obviously increases the risk of incidents and injuries but, once more, if students have very clear ideas about precise blocking the whole process becomes as safe as it can be although never 100% incident free.

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.

Applied Physics in Martial Arts

When considered from a scientific point of view, martial arts are an effective way of applying the laws of physics and bio dynamics to both your body and to the body of your opponent.

Most people, when asked to perform a movement that involve strength (e.g. lifting a heavy object, shifting a heavy piece of furniture around or push start a car) will erroneously use certain parts of the body that do not optimise the alignment of muscles, tendons, joints and more important will not join and align correctly the vectors of the various forces involved in the movement.   A properly trained martial artist will have both a conscious and unconscious co-ordination in most movements and she will look stronger than other people of equivalent build who are untrained.

Excluding movies and TV special effects – when you see anything that seems very difficult or impossible to perform from your point of view just think that there is no magic, no trick involved: just the correct use of limbs and weight alignment.

Concepts like power, gravity, friction, momentum, kinetic energy and impulse have direct use and application in usual training drills of all martial arts.  For this reason they could be easily called martial sciences: the scientific studies of how to fight.

So the question for you is: how aware are you of the correct way of aligning forces when delivering a punch or a kick?  How much is your instructor or coach explaining why and how power can be obtained and improved with proper execution of a techniques rather than shire force?

Is a puncher born?

This is a question I found this morning on Yahoo! answers. The following text was submitted by Bigchief and it reads as follows:

Well im a boxer.at our boxing club i was kind of surprised on who has the hardest punch.

During our bag drills we are asked to hit the bag during sets of 10, 20, 30, /// 30, 40, 50

Well we each get our turn to hold the bag when we are done, and during this time we hold the bag for the next guy. During this time i get a great understanding of the guys punching power.

Some of the boxers there who work out, and are kind of bulky , hit fairly hard, but not as hard as they look they would.
Some of the boxers who have muscle definition , but are not bulky hit just as hard.
What surprised me the most was that some of the boxers with little to no muscle definiton, hit the hardest.

This brings me to the belief that punchers are born, and muscle mass has little to no effect on power.

Id like to know if this is true, or if anyone else has had a different expierience , or if this is just a coincidence at my club.

And this is what I felt relevant answering:
In spite of the details about how bulky or defined each person is you are not specifying their weight: that can make a big difference in the power of their punches. Muscle mass and density will also have importance here, as some people are naturally stronger than others.

Punching power, given two punchers of equal weight, will depend in large measure from the overall body co-ordination when performing the action. A jab thrown using just arm and eventual shoulder power will have a certain level of power. On the other hand the same punch performed using the whole body, leaning toward the target even slightly and adding a half an inch step forward will result a lot stronger punch.

If you have access to a good coach he/she can teach you the concept in minutes: the point is then to practice it until it come natural, without thinking about the whole process.

I hope it can be as useful for you all.