Punching: alignment and conditioning

Choson Ninja and the question of "conditioned" knuckles

The other day one of my colleagues at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums alerted me to a fellow who calls himself Choson Ninja. He has a series of videos on Youtube and in this particular one he tells you about the dangers of getting "ugly" knuckles from hand conditioning.

The general thrust of his argument is correct: conditioning can lead to deformed and ugly knuckles - especially so if you are doing it incorrectly. Certainly, even moderate makiwara practice will cause you to develop callouses. How "unsightly" these are will depend on how much and how "hard" you do your conditioning.

However I disagree with Mr Choson about much of what he says in his video.

To begin with, his knuckles are not really that conditioned. Rather, they appear to be damaged from breaks. Mr Choson certainly doesn't have anywhere near the kind of callousing one gets from regular conditioning such as striking the makiwara (see the picture below of Don Buck's knuckles, which is quite standard really for many karateka I've known over the years).

What conditioned knuckles really look like. Note the callousing.

The correct knuckles for striking

More importantly, I disagree completely with Mr Choson about the notion that you should have 3 knuckles in a row when landing a punch. This is, I feel, a basic and fundamental misconception. Your first 2 knuckles should be in a row. If your third (ring) finger comes into the picture, your forearm and knuckles are no longer properly aligned (as is then clearly demonstrated by Mr Choson in the still below taken from his video). In other words, if you have 3 knuckles in a row you will have a kink in your wrist rather than a straight line from your first 2 knuckles down through your forearm.

The incorrect (Choson) alignment of knuckles/fist.

On the other hand, having only your 2 primary knuckles in a row makes your forearm line up perfectly with the striking surface: a straight line is created right through your knuckles down your forearm. You can see this (correct) alignment in the adjacent image.

When you are striking with great force, correct/optimum alignment is critical - both to land an effective technique and to ensure your own health and safety. I suggest that Mr Choson's own "damaged" knuckles are more the result of incorrect punching than any "conditioning" that he has undergone.

Conditioning your knuckles

I have always maintained that some level of conditioning is important for punching. I recall a friend of mine being attacked in South Africa and punching his way out of his predicament (he was walking home from work late one night and was accosted from the front and rear). He got away, but severely broke his knuckles. Even a moderate amount of conditioning would have averted some of this damage. The face can present a hard and sharp target, depending where and how you land your blow.

Not only is the conditioning going to strengthen your knuckles for impact, but the act of conditioning should reinforce correct alignment, further reducing your chances of injury.

One of the most basic ways I maintain some level of conditioning is through knuckle push-ups. The importance of alignment is demonstrated in the adjacent images. The top image shows how "not to do it" (note the kink in the wrist), while the bottom shows the correct emphasis on the 2 big knuckles (note the straight line through the forearm).

Wing chun

I should add that an important rider this article: the art of wing chun utilises the 2 smaller knuckles and the middle knuckle in its punches. In these punches, the last 3 knuckles are brought to prominence through a twist of the wrist in the course of a "vertical fist" punch (see the adjacent picture of Bruce Lee with Yip Man). This is something I’ve trained in extensively over the years and I can see how it works. Importantly, this is not what Mr Choson is talking about: he's using the first 3 knuckles - not the last 3.

On the whole, I don’t favour the wing chun “3 knuckle” as the “standard” method of punching, although I see it as a good secondary weapon (but that probably reflects personal preference).

Boxing and Dempsey's view

Also, a good friend of mine has pointed out the following:
    The most common argument I've heard is that the two-knuckle alignment shown in your post places the wrist in a weaker position than the three-knuckle alignment and supposedly increases the risk of injury. This is usually demonstrated by having the student face a wall with an outstretched arm and then taking turns to support his body weight by leaning against the wall: first with the fist in the two-knuckle alignment and then in the three-knuckle alignment. The idea being that the student realizes that the three-knuckle alignment is the more 'natural' of the two.

    Interestingly enough, I found the exact same exercise in Jack Dempsey's book on boxing. He too emphasized the three-knuckle landings as opposed to two-knuckle landings. There's a copy online here.
My answer to this is as follows:

A boxer's power punches have at least some element of follow-through which creates an arc. This arc exists even on the straight cross. In the arc of the follow-through, the smaller knuckles will be in prominence and will align more naturally than the 2 main knuckles.

As discussed in my article "Karate punches vs. boxing punches") I don’t favour follow-through punches for civilian defence. Rather (reflecting my karate/internal arts) background, I favour straight thrusts, which are more conservative (potentially less powerful, but less risky, as is appropriate to civilian defence goals).

Regardless of whether I am right in this respect or not, if you practise a traditional eastern martial art like karate, then the boxing fist alignment paradigm simply doesn't apply to you. If you don't like it you can always change to boxing or some similar art. But I don't think you can have it both ways.

It is important to remember that boxers have strapped hands and gloves to protect their knuckles. I don’t recommend boxing punches for ungloved (civilian defence) fighting. This is precisely how my friend broke his knuckles while defending himself. The last 3 knuckles are far more prone to breaking on power punches, especially when they are not protected by strapping and padding.

I also think that the "lean against the wall test" is misleading: most people who are untrained will find the 3 knuckle more comfortable and “natural” since the force is spread over a wider area.

Consider for a moment the knuckle push ups I demonstrate in the images above: most beginners who walk in to my class can't even do one "correct" knuckle push up. They default to the last 3 knuckles almost immediately. Some tell me they think it is impossible (until I do 50). One might say this is because the beginner's way is "more natural". However I would say it is a function of insufficient training/conditioning. Not everything we do au naturale is going to be better/more efficient/safer - otherwise rank beginners would be masters. And bear in mind that what feels "natural" to them is different to what feels "natural" to me...

Regardless of the above, note the height at which Dempsey's illustration has you holding your hand: my comments relating to knuckles are intended to apply to punches that are level with your shoulder. Once you raise your arm sufficiently it will be impossible to keep the 2 knuckles in prominence without sharply/unnaturally twisting the wrist downwards. Rather, using a straight fist and Dempsey's angle, the last 3 knuckles will automatically be the first to impact a flat target (as illustrated below).

On this subject, note that in Dempsey's illustration the alignment of the knuckles to the forearm is actually identical to that demonstrated by me in the push-up: all that has changed is the trajectory of the punch.

Finally it is important to note that the question of what knuckles you use in boxing is largely a moot point: the broad, rounded sweep of the gloves makes it almost impossible (in my experience) to put any particular knuckle in prominence. Rather, you hit with the whole surface of the glove without any thought of the underlying knuckles. The surface of the glove diffuses the blow over the entire fist and any analysis of what knuckles you are using is usually academic.

While Dempsey certainly had some important and useful things to say about fighting in general, I am more interested in reading a bareknuckle boxer's perspective on what knuckles one should strike with.


Accordingly, my comments on knuckle alignment should be taken in their context: they are appropriate to punching systems that use straight corkscrew thrusts as the default punching method - ie. arts such as karate, taekwondo and the Chinese internal arts. Arts such as wing chun (which involves a fairly unique "vertical fist" punching method) or western combat sports (such as boxing) might have different criteria.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic