That first punch: can you really "block" it?

Introduction: that nasty first punch

I recently had my attention averted to a blog post of the (always interesting!) Wim Demeere, ie. "How not to block a punch". I find myself agreeing with pretty much all of what Wim has to say, but I have my own gloss on the issue – particularly as it relates to that all important first punch that people so often face.

First, let's have a look at the video that Wim critiques. I have embedded it below:

A video featuring an assortment of punches to the face – all of which are unanswered – and a particular practitioner's answer to how to "block" such punches.

"It's not possible to block this sort of punch – and here's the evidence!"

The first thing people think of when watching a video like this is to question whether it is at all possible to "block" such a punch. They will draw distinctions of the kind I make later in this article under the heading "What about the practitioner in the first video?" and conclude that blocking a fast punch of the kind seen in the video is, in fact, impossible.

This conclusion is wrong for so many, many reasons. I'll explain why below.

Most people who don't practise traditional "blocks" aren't entirely clear about what they actually are. Often they assume that the arms might be used to provide some sort of "shield". And in this assumption they are partially correct: blocks can indeed function as a simple obstacle.

In fact, boxers use this sort of "block" all the time, if you consider that having your guard up prevents your opponent getting a clear shot at your head. Indeed, the guard and "block" are really so inseparable that they could almost be regarded as one and the same: a good bare knuckle guard not only provides a physical barrier (a block) to attacks, it also allows you to slip or deflect punches when the attacker thinks there's a gap.

The guard as a punch deterrent

But more importantly, a good guard usually deters the attack from being launched in the first place. If your guard is properly up, an attacker will be reluctant to launch a punch at your face. Why? First, the attacker doesn't really want to be landing punches on your own bony arms and knuckles. It is not only a waste of time and energy, but can be painful. Second, and more relevantly, people understand instinctively that every time they punch they leave an opening. So no one is going to punch to a well-protected target and risk being counter-punched when their arm is extended.

A video in which I discuss how every technique you throw leaves an opening

Yes, fighters must, sooner or later, throw an attack. But a good fighter knows that timing that attack is essential. You must time it to ensure that you'll hit your target while minimising your own exposure to counter attack at the same time. Punching a well guarded target is, accordingly, the very definition of folly.

Milliseconds count!

The video at the start of this article makes various assertions about the speed of punches. And for the most part, I suspect that it is broadly correct.

It takes, on average for a youngish person, about 0.2 s (or 200 ms) to react to a punch. If it is true (as the video above alleges) that a punch can reach you in 200 ms, then you might be reacting as the punch hits you!

However, I don't think that being so completely beaten by sheer speed is a realistic fear. It is certainly inconsistent with my own experience. Yes, there are people who can hit you so fast you're only starting to react as the punch lands. But this isn't the norm. Not only can I say this from personal experience, but I can also rely on my experience in prosecution of cases involving punches outside nightclubs etc. (many of which were caught on surveillance camera). In other words, not every punch is going to take a mere 200 ms to hit you.

Rather, I think the time for a typical fast punch (not to mention a slower one thrown by someone affected by alcohol) lands in about 250 ms. This 50 ms difference might not seem like much but it is enough, as I will shortly detail.

The "80% rule"

You see, if a punch is going to hit you in 250 ms, and you react at 0.2 s (or 200 ms), you will react when the punch is 80% of its way to landing on your face.

Yes, someone young, fit and strong might be able to hit you in 200 ms. But then again most young, fast male attackers aim their aggression at other young males. In those circumstances, the victim might (like many young people) have a reaction time of 0.16 s – in which case we're back to where we started: the victim reacts when the punch is 80% of its way towards his face. [Remember that this is true of young people even if they are physically weaker than their attackers; reaction time is not dependant on your "fitness" or strength. It is what it is. Thankfully, the art of deflection does not rely on "strength" but rather on good technique and "situational reflex".]

This "80% rule" is consistent with my experience and observation over the last 31 years. It has consistently shown up in my training, that of my students and in my observations of fights (in my private and professional lives). Mostly, you will have 20% of the "punch time" left at your disposal (assuming you have an effective "situational reflex", of course).

Now I'm not suggesting that you should rely upon this! Indeed, you should take every measure to stack the odds in your favour, as I will soon discuss (see under the heading "Having a solid defence strategy"). This is particularly true for older people whose reaction time has decreased; you have to fight smart, not just hard - this is where an experienced fighter can still have the edge over faster, stronger (but less experienced) opponents.

For example, an experienced fighter would have noticed the "tell" of the hand gesture in the above screenshot taken from the first video (see point 4 titled "Look for non-verbal cues of imminent attack" towards the end of this article), not to mention observed all the other points I raise as tips for a solid defence strategy.

Despite this, the "80% rule" does provide some general guidance as to what to expect in relation to attack speed vs. reaction times, so I raise it for this reason.

"You can't beat 'em all" doesn't mean you should give up!

I also mention this "80% rule" in case some readers despondently conclude that if ever you are attacked with a punch, the situation is "hopeless". I know many people who would feel this way after watching the first video above (and that's despite the practitioner showing his own ability versus the 200 ms punching "robot"!). Common sense should tell you that not all punches land – whether it be on the street, in the ring or in military hand-to-hand combat. People can and do evade/deflect/block punches. They do it all the time.

What if you're an older person (with slower reaction times) being attacked by a fast and strong young man? Well, one might well ask: "What if you were attacked by an 8 foot giant? or "What if you are faced with a crowd of angry men with big sticks?" In the end, martial arts training can't prepare you for everything, nor did anyone ever suggest it could.

Anyway, even if you have a slower reaction time and you happen to be faced with a younger, faster and stronger opponent, there are things you can do to stack the odds in your favour (again, see under the heading "Having a solid defence strategy"). "Blocking" isn't the answer to everything (which was, I think, one of Wim's main points).

"What can you do in 50 ms?"

Okay, so you have 20% of the time left – maybe 50 ms. Is this enough? The answer is a resounding "Yes!" You can indeed "block" (ie. deflect) a punch in that time, as the practitioner in the opening video demonstrates. I will shortly explain why (ie. the science and art underpinning deflection).

Please note, I am not saying (as per the first video) that deflection (I'll call it "deflection" from now on to avoid misunderstanding) is "easy": this implies that the science and art of deflection is easy – which it most certainly isn't! If it were, no one would need to study martial arts. What I am saying is that if you have the requisite training and skill, the remaining 20% of the time left before impact is quite sufficient for the deflection of the punch that is flying at you.

Let's see how you can go about doing this:

The "centre sternum rule"

I've already made the point that, when it comes to punches to the face in particular, the guard and "blocking" are really indivisible. So it should come as no surprise that you can't expect to "block" any attack if your guard is down (in fact, it is highly improbable that you will be able to do so). After all, you might only have 50 ms (ie. 0.05 s!) to achieve your deflection! It is very hard to do anything in that time when your hands are down at your sides. It takes more than twice as long for them to be raised into the guard!

If you have only 50 ms or so at your disposal, you want your deflection to comprise a movement over centimetres or millimetres – not one metre or thereabouts!

Most traditional deflections are based on the anatomical model of the raised arms, where the elbows are kept low, but your hands are over the line drawn at the centre of your chest (ie. usually the line drawn through the nipples).

I call this the "centre sternum line".

In other words, traditional deflections against attacks to the upper body all proceed on the assumption that your hands are over the centre sternum line. If your hands are elsewhere, the deflections simply won't work.

A video in which I discuss the "centre sternum rule"

It is interesting to note that in all my cross-referencing of traditional martial arts from China, Okinawa, Japan and the Philippines, the same themes come into play and the same deflection principles are employed (often with identical movements – for example the rising block or "jodan/age uke").

In fact, the principles are really the same in Western boxing, savate, Muay Thai, capoeira, etc. And this shouldn't be surprising. Basic anatomy, hand speed and reaction time remain the same for humans across the globe.

With your hands above the centre sternum line, you should be able to achieve a deflection using a very small movement, as I illustrate in the video above. You don't need a huge movement of the arm; rather it moves only a few centimetres at most. Can you move a centimetre or two in 0.05 s? Absolutely! That's why deflections can and do work against punches to the face.

Forearm vs. palm

From the preceding discussion it should be apparent that your attacker's punch will be quite close to your face by the time you can realistically expect to react. Assuming you have your hands higher than your centre sternum line and you have them extended a bit outwards, it is accordingly likely that by the time you react, the punch will have passed your hands. For this reason, traditional martial arts overwhelmingly favour the forearm over the palm as a deflecting instrument. I discuss this more comprehensively in my article: "Why block with the forearm – rather than the palm?".

A video in which I discuss the use of forearms instead of palms for deflection

Yet the demonstration of blocking against the "robot" in the first video showed palm "slaps". Yes, there are times where palm deflections (including those from wing chun, such as jut sau, pak sau etc.) are useful and necessary. But the forearm is, and should remain, your primary deflection instrument. (Even wing chun uses its palm "slaps" more for trapping and control, not necessarily for the initial deflection. For the latter, wing chun uses forearm deflections such as bong sau and high and low gaun sau.)

Your forearms will always be your most useful deflection surface – particularly if you have a bare knuckle guard rather than one suitable for gloved fighting. This is for the simple reason that it will be the most available surface (given typical attack speeds and reaction times, combined with the safest guard posture).

What about the practitioner in the first video?

The fact that the practitioner in the first video manages to deflect the "robot" effectively using his palms is a testament to his own excellent skill and fast reaction time.

However it is in part aided by the fact that there is very little penetration with the blow: critics of the video might point out that there is a world of difference between how he is using the "robot" (ie. with shallow penetration) and how the punches in the first video where being thrown (ie. with a very deep penetration).

Had the practitioner stepped in half a step closer to the "robot" I'm not at all sure he would have been as successful (particularly given the fact that he is intercepting the attacks with his hands so close to his face - he is picking them off at the very last millisecond where the angle of deflection and the speed of his hands need to be much greater).

Furthermore, most of the attacking punches in the first video had some element of "curve" to their path. In my experience this greatly increases the difficulty of applying deflections generally, particularly palm ones which are really designed for countering "wing chun style" linear, direct punches.

By contrast, I'm fairly confident that forearm deflections of the kind I demonstrate in my video on the "centre sternum rule" would have had no such issues; in other words, he could have deflected the attacks even easier, and at a closer range, had he used suitable forearm deflections.

Moreover the deflection would also have worked against "curved punches" as I demonstrate in the centre sternum" video.

I demonstrate the single whip deflection from taijiquan against "curved" punches in the video below from 2:13 onwards.

Despite these comments, I feel I must commend the practitioner on his high level of skill and excellent analysis and presentation in terms of his video. In particular I am greatly impressed with his "robot" - I want one!

Many movements in traditional forms - eg. single whip from taijiquan - go to great lengths to keep both your arms above the centre sternum line, and for good reason as you can see from this video.

Having a solid defence strategy

Needless to say I have experimented with deflections and guards for the last 3 decades. But I came to some of the above realisations very early on in my "career".

When I was a teenager, there was a particular idiot at my high school who used to walk up to people and "give them the eyeball". Then, without warning, he would punch them in the face. I must stress that there was no provocation, no lead-up – nothing. He was a sociopath – pure and simple. He wasn't stupid by any measure: he won the economics prize in our final year. But he was utterly devoid of any sense of empathy and remorse – which, together with language define us as human beings, in my opinion. Anyway, seeing this happening to some of the young lads I knew, I trained for months and months for this scenario. I had a friend "eyeball" me and throw punches at my face. I kept training until I had a 9/10 chance of responding with a block/counter utilising the basic rising block.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, this idiot never picked on me, so I never got to test it. I'm fairly confident I would have flattened him and remained unscathed.

But one thing I did realise was the importance of having your arms raised above the centre sternum line. I began to experiment with ways of getting my arms up in a way that would not give this idiot warning of what I was trying to do (such as scratching my head or rubbing my chin or pinching my lip).

Overall, I came to the conclusion that I needed to be, at least in some senses, "proactive". In particular, I needed to avoid "playing his game". Here are the "proactive tips" I discovered way back then:

1. Don't do the "monkey dance"

Whatever you do, don't do the old "eyeball" or "chest bumping" routine – what Rory Miller calls the "monkey dance". It is pointless and dangerous. Don't posture at all. It is absolutely the stupidest thing you could do. So reserve it for stupid people.

Either hit or don't hit. There should be no "in between". If you do the monkey dance and you get smacked you have only yourself to blame.

Many of the punches shown in the first video are the direct result of a monkey dance. Notice how many of the victims either walk into their attacker's punch or simply let the attacker walk up to them and punch – all as part of some sort of "chest bumping" ritual. Don't do it!

2. Keep your personal space - as much as possible anyway!

Part of not doing the monkey dance is keeping your attacker at a safe distance, which equates to having them outside the melee range.

Unless there is good reason for someone to be within that range (eg. when you're in a queue or at a rock concert, etc.) people will normally feel most comfortable standing a "safe" distance from each other when conversing. Entering the "personal space" is usually interpreted as (a) an act of intimacy; or (b) an act of aggression. No small wonder then that we can be disquieted by someone moving into that "personal space", however innocently.

I'm sure you all know people who don't have "personal space" – people who somehow don't realise that they are standing at a distance that is uncomfortably close for you. In most cases, these people are benign; they simply don't have the instinct that the rest of us have of keeping people out of the outside the melee range!

I have known many people who haven't had this instinct. When having a chat with them, I've had to consciously tell myself that it's "okay" to let them remain so close!

But with a physical aggressor it's not okay. If they approach within a certain distance you might well be justified in interpreting the act as an impending assault – and reacting with an appropriate (defensive) response (subject to my qualification below).

So I advise my students to step back with their preferred leg in a kind of defensive stance. Depending on the context they can push the attacker away and warn them, or if an attack really is imminent, strike. There are many shades of grey, so there can be no definitive advice. You have to take each case as it comes.

In this regard, please note that you can't go round hitting (or even pushing!) people just because they get too close - whether in argument or just because they don't have the same sense of "personal space". Sometimes you have to let people into that space; it's a risk we all take countless times in our lives. Many people will argue verbally at close range and there is no point in escalating the situation with a push - never mind a strike.

Note that many "reality based schools" go overboard here and advocate all sorts of simplistic violent solutions that, while manifestly effective, are so over-the-top that they are not only inappropriate and unethical/immoral, but practically guaranteed to bring you a great deal of trouble with the law.

A large part of wisdom is understanding exactly when a situation is truly verging on a physical confrontation. This wisdom comes from experience - it is not something about which anyone can give some sort of "guide". And in the end, many seemingly irrevocable conflicts have been "talked down" in that range.1

In any event, whatever you do, don't do what everyone in that video did, namely:
  1. willingly step into the melee range with someone; or
  2. let that someone hang around in that range,
when you suspect on reasonable grounds that this someone is intent on a physical confrontation. To do so is to invite disaster.

[In respect of "hanging around the melee range", my first teacher Bob Davies used to say: "Beware of the dog who hangs around the kitchen!"]

3. Keep your hands above the centre sternum line

Whatever you do, keep your hands up. This doesn't mean you have to adopt a formal guard posture. The latter can often escalate a situation pointlessly. Rather, use whatever is appropriate in the circumstances.

A "hands up and palms out" gesture is often seen as conciliatory but many attackers will be wise to this. It doesn't negate the usefulness of the "guard" but it is something to consider.

Another alternative recommended to me by the late Erle Montaigue and, more recently, Richard Norton, is the "contemplative pose" where your arms appear to be "crossed" with one hand near your lip. This is not as safe as the "palms out" posture but it is a lot less aggressive while still enabling your hands to stay above the centre sternum line (albeit with a bit less accessibility).

Other alternatives include gesticulating ("nervously" or in "exasperation", if you have to), counting with your fingers (eg. "I think there are two main things to consider here..."), scratching your head, rubbing your chin (or both!), etc. Most hand gestures involve you keeping them above the centre sternum line. Be imaginative! Remember: you don't have to be Italian or Balkan to gesticulate! Whatever you do, just keep your hands up.

Take note of the victims in the first video: how many had their hands up above the centre sternum line?

4. Look for non-verbal cues of imminent attack

A common tactic I grew up watching is that of an aggressor walking up to his/her victim, making some sort of "joke" or other (often nonsensical) statement, then looking away. The look away might seem innocent but it serves to allow the attacker to step deeper into your personal space and/or wind up for an explosive, unprovoked punch.

This "look away" is usually accompanied by a "weight shift" - a classic "tell" of an impending attack - as shown in the video below:

If someone is behaving strangely near you, whether with a "look away", weight shift or any other strange, inappropriate or confusing gesture or statement, be very, very careful – especially if they do so while moving into your personal space. Expect an attack and do the other things I've mentioned (widen the gap, raise your arms, etc.).

Take another look at the punches in the first video and see if you can spot the non-verbal cues that indicated an imminent attack. Most of the ones that erupt from nothing have some sort of "tell" beforehand – whether it is a weight shift, a glance downward, or a even a strange hand gesture. All of these are intended to distract you. How many of the victims responded to, or even seemed to notice, the "tell"? Not one.

Consider the fellow in the shop making a strange hand gesture: the victim does not even seem to notice that it is a "tell"; a subliminal partially clenched fist and a distraction from the other fist that will soon be hitting him. "Tells" like this are subconscious. Look out for them.

5. Keep your eyes on your attacker

This brings me to another, rather straightforward, but very important point: keep your eyes on your attacker!

This will not only allow you to do the obvious (ie. see any attack as it is launched) but it will also let you spot the "tells" of which I spoke above.

Consider again that fellow in the shop showing his strange hand gesture (ie. a partly clenched fist): the victim has his eyes averted, almost downwards, throughout the entire conversation.

Now have a look at the "weight shift" video above and you'll see an even more glaring example of the victim casting his eyes down.

In male dominance displays (ie. "monkey dances") this is normally a sign of submissiveness. Those who are dominated will do it subconsciously in the "hope" that the aggressor will be appeased and leave them alone.

Whatever you do, don't fall into this trap. Don't place your welfare at the mercy of your attacker - you might well find that he/she has none whatsoever! Keep your eyes on your attacker at all times.

6. Learn some defensive skill!

Last, but not least, learn some defensive skill for heaven's sake! I know I'll get the inevitable rush of responses about how "attack is the best form of defence", yada, yada. As I've noted before, if you face a surprise attack, chances are you will barely have enough time to intercept the attack – never mind hit your attacker.

Think about it: if you find yourself facing a punch – one that you couldn't "pre-empt" – you'll have maybe 50 ms to do something before a punch smashes you in the face. A strike to your attacker will take you at least 200 ms. A move from a guard to a deflection will take you 40 ms. Which one should you try?

This is why even top MMA fighters, who never use "blocks" in the cage, are occasionally seen to default to "blocks" when facing a surprise attack in a civilian defence context.

Consider Guy Mezger's successful defence of a woman who was being assaulted and note his own words:
    " He was throwing a really kind of wild punch, which I thought was a punch — I didn’t know he had a knife in his hand — and I kind of blocked it with my left and hit him with the right and knocked him out again."
Yes, Guy got a bad cut on his hand courtesy of this defence. But he didn't get killed. And the "block" was his instinctive, defensive response.

The art of deflection ("blocking") isn't "easy". You need to study it. Don't rely on your natural "flinch reaction" to throw up a "block". Learn how to do it properly; groove the angles of attack, the planes of deflection, the different ways of slipping a powerful punch or strike. Make these movements second nature.

And don't just learn how to "block". Learn how to evade as well. You can't rely on arm movements alone. If your body is moving away as your arms are moving outward, you have the best chance of not being hit. If you rely on only one and not the other, you have twice as much chance of getting hit – it's as simple as that.

Moreover, as I argued in "Surving the surprise attack", you can "buy more time" through evasion. In fact, I've found that evasion can easily double the "time to impact" (if the impact is even going to land): in other words, you can increase that 50 ms to 100 ms or even more.

You might use evasion alone to avoid the impact, but generally a punch launched in the circumstances seen in the first video is too fast and too close to be evaded completely. (Remember that it takes much more time to move your head or body than it does to move your hands, which are so densely "wired" for speed.) This is why even experienced MMA fighters like Guy Mezger can be forced to include some sort of "block" in their defence of a sudden attack in a civilian context; the "reactive" nature of the context1 and the consequent "short time" (say, 50 ms) available usually necessitates both evasion and deflection.

Now take a look at the video at the start and take notice of who does what in response to the attack. In all but two cases, the victim doesn't react at all. No "block", no "evasion". Nothing.

Yes, in two cases the victim starts to lift an arm or tries to evade, but in the rest there is barely a twitch in response to the punch. This is an absolute failure of any appropriate reflexive response – what I have called a "situational reflex blindspot". You need to make sure that you don't have such a blindspot.

And in the two cases of attempted defence (depicted above and to the left), the movement was so late, and so inadequate, that it might as well not have occurred at all (the fellow to the left has his hands up in guard but does no more than look away from the punch - instead of ducking/bobbing/weaving, and despite having his hands in a perfect protective position to deflect or block the attack).


The sort of assault depicted in the first video is, realistically, most people's main "defence nightmare". Not because it is the most serious form of assault they could possibly face: far from it. Such punches, as serious as they might be, are a far cry from an attempted murder, a gang attack, or a rape, to name just a few of the more serious violent offences.

Assaults of the kind depicted in the video are normally over in one punch; the attacker doesn't press the attack relentlessly. Yes, that one punch can even be fatal, particularly if you strike your head heavily as you fall. But in the end, it is hardly the same as facing an attacker with a knife or a gun, or multiple attackers, or anyone who intends to kill or seriously injure you (rather than throw a punch at your face as part of some dominance display).

No, it is most people's main "defence nightmare" precisely because it is the most likely to happen - particularly in the case of young men.

You can help to avoid this "nightmare" through some simple measures:

First, avoid the chest-bumping male dominance display (ie. the "monkey dance") that so often leads up to this sort of assault. Second, keep your personal space. Third, keep your hands above the centre sternum line. Fourth, look for non-verbal cues of imminent danger. Fifth, always keep your eyes on your attacker. And sixth, learn some proper defensive skills - in particular skills appropriate to civilian defence tactics (as opposed to the tactics of cage fighting or some sort of modified military assault system).1

These 6 lessons are what most ordinary folks need to observe in avoiding violence. The rest of martial arts and combat sport lore is of variable significance to them.


1. As I will discuss in a future article, due to legal and ethical/moral constraints, the tactics (as opposed to the techniques/skills and conditioning) of the cage/ring, where attack is the very aim, are profoundly unsuited to civilian defence.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic