Retracting punches vs. "leaving the hand in"

Over the last 6 months I have been staggered by the number of correspondents who say that karate and other traditional martial arts are ineffective because their practitioners "leave the hand in". By this they mean the arm is not retracted in a punch.

Simply put, this issue is completely and utterly misconceived. It is so misconceived that I hardly know where to begin in terms of addressing it...

Let me start by making this fundamental observation:

Leaving the arm there or retracting it makes no difference in destructive terms.

It's the outward speed that counts (and your ability to deflect it in its outward phase)!

In my school we train traditional punches first (no retraction) so as to develop kime (focus). This is the concept I refer to in my article "Visible force vs. applied force". After the students have developed focus they move to snap punches.

Nenad demonstrating kime in reverse punch

In the last 22 years of teaching I've found that if you go straight to "snap" punches the student won’t develop focus (shock blow technique) properly - the snap retracts too much of the outward energy.

And I don't care if my opponent grabs my wrist (something which many people lampoon as "never happening in a real fight" anyway). As Bruce Lee famously said, if he does you just hit him!

When faced with these explanations one correspondent replied with the following:

"I have to again disagree with leaving the hand in especially when you are a beginner as I feel it instils bad habits. Ok you say you do that in the beginning of training but why not start it that way and confirm good habits."

The answer is that it’s about not creating other (far worse) habits - the most important being that you never might develop "kime".

In any event, I go back to the fundamental issue: how is retracting the arm is going to make the outward speed/power any different? (Note that retracting the arm can make beginners retract momentum too.)

Suffice it to say that I have very good snap punches (no "bad habits") and I learned the basic karate punch first (I'm very glad I did). I've also tried teaching it the other way round with disastrous results in terms of students developing focus/kime.

The second issue is that basic punches are a training tool. Just because some people might attempt slavishly to apply their training tools literally, doesn't mean those tools don't have a function. The bigger issue is that many traditional martial artists don’t apply their techniques at all but default to a poorly copied "sport" method I call "faux boxing".

So what is this "kime" or "focus" I keep talking about? As I discuss in my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy", it is the ability to generate impulse – ie. transfer momentum efficiently. Well, pictures (or video) really say more than any words can. Take a look at the kime in Higaonna's punching in the video below at about 6:40 or so (and his snap is as fast as lightning and just as powerful if you’re wondering):

Morio Higaonna on "Way of the Warrior"

If you think this is easy, find a makiwara and try to hit like this. Now granted, I don't punch as hard as he does, but I do have good enough kime for my purposes. I can do it with a snap just as easily as with a thrust - I don't differentiate between the two. In fact our higher kata use snaps exclusively. But the thrust can be likened to a right cross - it follows through but in a linear fashion, with less push. The right cross doesn't retract, after all...

So is this "kime" necessary? Why not just punch like a boxer? After all, people like Higaonna might hit hard – but so does the average heavyweight boxer (even if they can’t hit a makiwara, they hit hard don’t they?).

As I said in my article "Visible force vs. applied force", it is simple physics that the more you move someone, the less your energy has been converted to destructive energy. It has been converted to kinetic energy. Contrast a hard push that throws you across the room with a focussed punch that drops you on the spot.

Most boxers haven't trained for this type of "focus". Unlike a boxer's punch (which has a certain amount of push to commit the same momentum given the padding of the glove) the karate (or any traditional punch) imparts a "hydrostatic shock" which doesn't move the opponent very far, but is calculated to cause maximum damage with the hard knuckles with minimal movement (ie. a punch with maximum efficiency).

I've been hit by people of Higaonna's calibre with punches that are not any where near maximum and they do, literally, drop you on the spot. Just as one example, I've trained with Higaonna's apprentice of 15 years, Graham Ravey who can hit very hard with this type of blow. On the other hand I've been hit many times with blows that have sent me flying - little damage in comparison. (Again, I discuss the exact physics behind hitting in my blog article "Hitting harder: physics made easy".)

I'm not saying that I'd like to take a full punch from Bas Rutten etc. I'm saying that focussed punches are more efficient for bareknuckle fighting - and you can't develop the concept with boxing style punching. On the other hand I don't differentiate between different kinds of punching nowadays - each has its place. To me its part of a continuum. Every boxing punch exists in karate: the right cross is what we call "kosa zuki". The jab is "kizami zuki". The fact that you only see basic karate training is neither here nor there for my purposes.

If you doubt me, find a makiwara and try to give it a bit a hit. Wear whatever padding on your knuckles you like. See if you can hit the makiwara with anything like the power (and without pushing it) in the way (if not with the force) demonstrated by Morio Higaonna. And he can hit the heavy bag as well as any boxer (even now in his 70s). On the other hand, I severely doubt that any top boxer, kickboxer or MMA practitioner could hit the makiwara properly. They simply don't train for it; "kime" or focus is not part of their "gameplan".

On the subject of kime, I'd like to share with you a kata performance from Tsuguo Sakamoto that I feel embodies excellent focus. Note the whip-like crack of each technique. This is real focus. As I said, you can't get it without learning thrusting punching basics. But if you think Sakamoto can't jab or has "bad habits", you've got another thing coming...

Tsuguo Sakumoto performing the kata Anan in 1986

Again, a snap is a feature of many higher goju kata. Consider the video below of me doing seisan in 1993: although the kata features a formal snap with a full chamber, you get the picture - kata is a formal exercise after all).

Me doing seisan kata in 1993

And punches don't just snap - they flow into other techniques. Again here I am demonstrating a basic block/parry and (back on topic) punch drill. Note that it doesn't change when you hit something (the telephone book at the end). At the time this was filmed I was one month out of being in a hospital bed for 3 months with bowel surgery - I'd lost 20kg, yet I could still "focus" (even though I wouldn't have been able to push someone across the room).

Me performing a punching drill

So, in summary "leave the hand in" is a non-issue. If you’ve built an "understanding" of traditional martial arts punching around this, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board (and re-examine your understanding of punching, martial arts and physics generally).

Presumably what people are criticising when they refer to "leaving the hand in" is the practise of ippon kumite or one step sparring. This is often done with a punch, kick or other attack executed with a single step - after which the attacker remains motionless while the defender executes (often elaborate) counters to a passive opponent. If this is the issue then it is a very different one - unrelated to the retraction of punches. Ippon kumite is a very basic training method, and one I shall deal with at another time. Suffice it to say that any confusion between these issues simply echoes the general level of misunderstanding of traditional martial arts.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. That kata anan was beautiful. It was the best kata performance I have witnessed. Thank you.


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