Lunge punches: why bother?


The lunge punch is possibly one of the most identifying features of karate (and the external martial arts generally - eg. shaolin gong fu, taekwondo etc.). What is it? I define it as a punch with the leading hand, executed in a forward or "bow and arrow" stance (zenkutsu dachi or gong bu). In arts like karate it is typically launched after a full step-through.

But how "useful" or "practical" is this? Some would argue not at all.

Consider this account from John Vesia's "Martial Views" blog where he includes the lunge punch as one of 3 karate moves we could do without. John says:

"Lunge punch. This is punching that corresponds with the same side stepping foot accentuated with a long stance. Sometimes called a "chasing" punch. Lots of instructors like to demonstrate a self-defense technique against a lunge punch (or a knife in lieu of a punch); the lunging posture puts uke in a compromising position conducive to an easy counter. For this reason, no fighter worth his salt punches or cuts using a lunging stance."

And I have to say, I agree. A lunge punch is very problematic, particularly when performed in the now "standard" karate way, with the punch being effected in an ultra long, lunging step (with a pause at the end of the punch!) - as demonstrated towards the end of the video below.

A good video illustrating the standard "lunge punch" or "oi zuki" in karate

So what is so wrong with this technique? Ignoring any technical comments I am about to make, consider this: when you have ever seen an MMA fighter effecting this technique? Never?

Okay, so MMA isn't civilian defence fighting. In that case. when have you ever seen anyone executing a lunge punch in the "street"? How about just in "dojo sparring"? Never? Hmm...

Things are never quite as they seem

These observations might appear quite fatal to the notion of the lunge punch. But as we will discover, things are never quite as they seem in martial arts analysis!

What if I told you that in any given MMA round you will see dozens of lunge punches? You might call me mad, right? But just take a look at the following images - all taken from standard MMA fights:

In each case, the fighters are clearly punching with their leading arms, their bodies extended into a forward stance - no question. So aren't they doing "lunge punches"? Of course they are!

[There are 2 significant differences, but I'll get to that a bit later. In the meantime, can you guess what they might be?]

Punching in forward stance: powerful, but dangerous!

Of course, there is a reason why photographs of almost all fighting disciplines "in action" include snapshots of "forward stances".

In the case of martial arts, throwing a powerful punch requires more than just hand speed. It requires more than hip rotation. It requires whole body momentum - you have to throw your weight behind the punch as much as possible. And the forward stance is what makes this possible.

Time and time again, in martial systems across the globe, we see the foward stance emerging as the most stable platform for committed punches. And this is hardly surprising: biomechanics are biomechanics. There are only so many ways in which the human body can move.

But the forward stance also carries with it significant danger. Whenever you throw a such a heavily committed attack, you are in effect over-extending yourself.

Consider the gif below: the fellow on the left throws a lunge punch, but misses. He is in a dangerously over-committed position and gets caught by a counter - then it's all over.

[I discuss in my article "How the internal arts work: Part 1" that one of the identifying features of the internal arts is to address the problem of over-commitment, especially as it occurs in forward stance. While they each do so via unique ways of "continuing momentum", xingyi goes even further to avoid using the forward stance altogether: something I hope to address in a detailed article in the future.]

So it seems that lunge punches carry risks, but also benefits. They occur in MMA, implying that they aren't just a "traditional hang over". So why do most "pragmatic fighters" still view the karate-style lunge punch with contempt?

Difference #1: stepping-through

If you haven't worked it out, the first (and main) "differentiating feature" in the above MMA pictures is just this:

The MMA fighters aren't punching after a step-through!

They are invariably punching with their leading arm after extending their front foot. Even if they are punching from a totally stationary position, they certainly aren't stepping-through, then punching with their leading arm.

Consider the adjacent gif and note the punches that are executed with the leading arm.

Ignore the "wild swinging" quality to each lunge punch in the gif (neither here nor there for the purposes of this discussion). It is clear that the distinguishing feature from the classic traditional "lunge punch" is this:

The punch does not get thrown after a classic "ayumi ashi" (legs passing in a "natural" step).

Rather, the front leg (often followed almost immediately by the back leg keeping pace so as to avoid over-extension) launches the punch.

Difference #2: single punch

Now it's true that even in karate the oi zuki is frequently effected after a lunge (extension of the front leg) - not a full step-through. This lunge is called "oi ashi".

A video demonstrating "oi ashi" - lunging - with an "oi zuki" (lunge punch)

The obvious difference between the above video and, say, the animated MMA lunge punch examples above (other than the fact that my video depicts a very formal, basic exercise!) is that only one punch is being executed. Yet we know that when karate is applied it looks pretty much like any other fighting method in this sense: people throw multiple punches. In particular:

A lunge punch is invariably followed by a reverse punch (gyaku zuki) or some other reverse technique.

Why? Precisely because the lunge punch is, by its nature, a transitional move: it is used to "set up" and is not (usually) particularly powerful or determinative in and of itself.

So if you are going to take the risk of committing your body weight into a forward stance, you might as well do so with more than a lunge punch.

Indeed, unless you're throwing a few "test" jabs, any lunge punch will usually be followed by a powerful reverse technique - be it a punch or kick. Seen in this light, a jab or other lunge acts principally as a "lead-in" to the reverse technique.

But this still leaves us with the uncomfortable question:

Why do so many karate movements feature a single lunge punch executed with a full step-through?

Dealing with the "single punch issue"

I'm going to deal with the issues raised above in reverse order. First, why does karate have single punches?

Let us be absolutely clear on this: karate has many multiple punch combinations. What people often can't look past are the very basic kata like heian shodan (as I highlighted last month) which feature such single punches.

Even my own video above of the lunge punch from cat stance concerns only basics - very pared-down, formal exercises that are not intended to replicate or otherwise represent "realism". They are exercises in isolation, intended to teach principles of movement for developing motor learning and kinaesthesia in the particular isolated movement.

Otherwise, any cursory look at karate kata will reveal many "combination" techniques. Yes, non-karateka might be unhappy about the pauses (ie. lack of flow) in and around these combinations, but that is another matter.

By now we should be aware that the primary problem with the classic karate "lunge punch" isn't the fact that it involves only one punch with your leading arm. This is easily explained as basic isolation practice. At the very least, it is easily ameliorated by the addition of one or more extra punches. The main problem people seem to have with the lunge punch is that it involves a step-through.

Dealing with the "step-through issue"

The fact that a "step-through lunge punch" is very rarely seen (in its strict "karate-style" form anyway) - whether in MMA, the "street" or dojo sparring - is probably a direct function of "dead time".

This is an issue which I have previously discussed at length. Readers will recall that "dead time" occurs principally as one leg passes the other in "natural stepping" (ie. a "step-through"). Accordingly, fighters of all descriptions will go to great lengths to avoid such "dead time".

In a nutshell, this is why you don't see much "natural stepping" in the ring/cage. Certainly for the melee range, such stepping takes too long!1

Nonetheless, "natural stepping" does occur in the ring/cage. You see it all the time: it occurs when a fighter has to cover larger ground - ie. when he or she is chasing his or her opponent. In that instance, dead time or not, human biomechanics require your feet to pass each other. Shuffling or skipping steps only work in the melee range. Once your opponent is outside that range, normal locomotion must necessarily take over.

Consider the adjacent gif and count the number of steps the fighter on the left makes: That's right, there are 3 - each timed with a punch.

Yes, each of the punches is a reverse punch - but that is hardly surprising: as you walk or run, your arms naturally counterswing to your legs. So when you're chasing someone, your arms will work opposite to your legs, for both "power" and (more importantly) stability. (These are the factors that make lunge punches both inherently weaker and less stable than reverse punches).

This should make it clear why the lunge punch is rarely going to be useful with a full step-through. More often than not, it will only be useful with a true lunge - a reach to your opponent made with the front foot moving first.

So what possible reason could arts like karate have for teaching step-through lunge punches?

To answer this question I will have to return to my analysis of "stem cell" techniques commenced in my 2 most recent essays. And I will have to do that in the very next article!


For the time being, I hope I've clarified a number of distinct points:

1. "Lunge punches" are punches executed with the leading arm in forward stance (zenkutsu dachi) or similar.

2. Such lunge punches occur in every striking discipline and can be seen in any resistant context - be it the "street", ring/cage or dojo.

3. Lunge punches are necessary and useful because they enable you to move into your opponent quickly with your leading arm, utilising the forward stance to throw your whole body momentum into the blow. They are generally "entering" or "set up" blows, paving the way for a powerful reverse punch or kick, and any number of other follow up techniques.

4. Any punch executed in a forward stance is going to be risky precisely because it involves a great deal of commitment or extension. This is doubly so for a lunge punch because your body is relatively unbalanced by having one side extended (cf. a reverse punch).

5. Lunge punches are generally executed with a front foot lunge and not a full step-through. In other words, the punch is usually launched as your front foot initiates a move towards your opponent - but without your back leg continuing to pass your front. Lunge punches are generally not useful when executed at the end of a full step-through.

6. Such lunge steps are however not suited outside the melee range. In that case "natural stepping" (ie. involving a "step-through") comes into its own (eg. if you need to cover larger ground in chasing your opponent). In that case you are very unlikely to be executing anything other than reverse techniques as you step.

Yes, some karate kata do feature single lunge punches executed after a full step-through. And yes, this would seem contrary to my reasoning above. But, as I have previously detailed, such movements are not intended to be "realistic techniques". As unlikely as it seems, these manifestations of lunge punches have more to do with gross motor learning and basic kinaesthetics; they are "high on principle" and "low on realism" for a reason - one which I will shortly detail.

[Next time: Lunge punches as "stem cell movements": why karate teaches lunge punches after a "step-through".]


1. I have previously noted that certain modern dogmas, when inserted into forms, contrive to increase the dead time even more. Consider:No small wonder that you don't see neither "sine wave" nor "double hip" in any resistant context! Not when both dogmas simply add more "drag" to the already inherently problematic issue of "natural stepping".

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic