The call of the dangling punching bag from the far corner of the gym is hard to ignore. You approach it, tapping it a few times with your fists, letting it oscillate, à la pendulum clock which reminds you of the schedule for the day. You move on to one of those machines yonder. You would, with intent, get back to the bag a couple of days later, all gloved up this time, with the instructor’s validation to boot — bag-work is great to burn calories, it is a stress buster, and yes, you also learn to defend yourself. The bag can potentially do all of this for you.
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However, punching, the fitness version of it with the focus squarely on maintaining intensity at a higher level, could make the bag a major hazard.
The punch, contrary to popular notion, is not just a random jab at a target working the arm and upper body muscles. For sure, making a fist and hitting the bag is not rocket science. However, the punch, as martial artists and boxers put it, is the manifestation of a complex biomechanical chain that transfers force from the feet to the arms, and eventually the target. It carries emotions even – transferring aggression or intent of the puncher. Well, the emotional quotient of a punch won’t have a bearing on your joints. However, the technique would.
A perfect punch is thrown when it begins and ends while the puncher’s body remains in equilibrium.
“A good, strong punch requires full-body coordination,” says hanshi Chin Mok Sung from Malaysia, grandmaster and founder of the International Shorin-Ryu Seibukan Karate Association. “The focus of punch is derived from the mind. The emphasis is on coordinated movement which transfers the force generated by the push in the legs, through the knees and the hips, the core and onto the arms and the focal point, the fists. The timing, speed and breathing matter too. So, it is important to refine the technique under the guidance of a good instructor and practise repeatedly till it is mastered.”
Getting it right matters, especially when the target is a heavy bag. Of course, bags don’t hit back, but then, try punching them with all your might, and if it is one of those days, you may hear things snap.
The anatomy of a punch
The punch is one of the foundation techniques for all martial arts or fighting forms – from karate and kalarippayattu to krav maga and boxing. Since learning to punch is the fight-arena equivalent of taking baby steps, getting things in order matters.
“I cringe when I see someone punch the bag at fitness centres. They do it mindlessly,” says V Devarajan, a former international boxer and a World Cup bronze medallist from Chennai, India. “If the technique is not right, the punch can harm the puncher more than the target.”
The visual persona of the punch varies with the martial forms. The weight transfer while throwing boxing punches, for instance, is attained through gyrations of the body, powered by the toes, core and hips. In karate, the punches are mostly linear and the leverage of the punch is derived from measured, quick twists of the hips.
However, the basics remain the same. The movement begins from the lower limbs in a karate punch, much like a boxing jab, hook, or uppercut. The fist is made in the same manner and should be firmly shut. The wrist should be rigid right through the movement and at the moment of impact. The elbows should flex and the muscles in the arms should be strong to not just power the punch but to bear the brunt of the impact.
“Fists and how you hold them are important,” says Devarajan. “I have seen even pro boxers sometimes go lax about keeping the fists tight. It can lead to injuries. The arms and the other muscles involved should also be conditioned. The most important thing is how you move, how solid your stance is and how you initiate the motion of the punch and execute it. That will help you land the punch on target.”
How to land a punch
Landing the punch on target involves two distinct aspects. One is the literal landing of the knuckles on the target. The other is the extension of the arm during impact.
“The knuckles should take the impact. And, during impact, the arm should be not fully extended, nor overly bent,” explains sensei PM Xavier, a sixth dan black belt in Shorin-Ryu Seibukan karate from Kochi, Kerala. If it is not at the optimal distance, the power transfer would be less and you open yourself to injuries. The most prone areas are the wrist and the elbows.”
Hence training the stance and the muscles involved in punching is paramount, even before you even think of dancing with the punching bag.
“When I train novices, the first few weeks are primarily spent on teaching them the stance and how to move. That creates the base,” says Devarajan. “Punches, the action of it to start with, begin much later.”
Mirror, mirror on the wall: punching without bags
Be it karate or boxing, repeated drills are the norm – to learn the form and imbibe muscle memory. The mirror plays a huge role in this.
“Of course, coaches correct your action, but then the person has to keep repeating it till he or she attains something close to perfection,” says Devarajan. “I make them train in front of the mirror where they can see themselves, identify the mistakes or weak links in the chain of movement and correct them. There are only minute differences between a bad technique, a good technique and a perfect one. But the fine details matter a lot.”
It is also the fine details that will ensure the joints and tendons in the arms don’t face the repercussions when your fist finally lands.
“Initially, punching in the air is better than on a bag because this can avoid injury,” explains hanshi Mok Sung. “New students normally get over-excited when punching, so the instructor should closely monitor and ensure it is executed correctly. Every new movement you learn should begin with focused, slow execution. Speed and power can be increased once the movement is perfected. This way, you will have more control over your body. Once the technique is perfect, you may start to punch the bag.”
The drill (without target) and its execution and the extent to which it is repeated remain the same in the various fighting arts. The reps not just perfect the technique or condition the muscles, but can also act as a standalone fitness workout, says sensei Xavier.
“Depending on the way you train to punch, it can yield different results,” he adds. “From isometric activation of the legs when executing punches in a low karate stance to workouts akin to high-intensity interval training [HIIT], attained through fast punching, it can be a strength training routine or a cardio session. Of course, you should do them only after mastering the basic range of movement. That is honed by slow punching, focusing merely on the movement and the breathing [you exhale when you punch]. All of this can be done in a neutral standing position or the fighting stance, following the whole range of body movement.”
Slow punching is a common practice too and it has its benefits; slow exercising strengthens the muscles efficiently since they are loaded for a longer duration than normal. Another variation, diagonal punching, would ensure hip activation, while neuro-muscular coordination is improved through double, triple and multi-level punching.
The calorie burning, stress releasing and self-defence training objectives of using the punching bag can all be achieved without the bag, and more importantly, without the risk of impact injury.
This does not mean the bag serves no purpose. It does but should ideally be incorporated at a later stage when the technique has been mastered. Last, but not least, any form of martial arts technique should be trained under a qualified master or coach who would, invariably, become your mirror – reflecting not just the technical pros and cons, but also the esoteric values involved in the fighting arts.
- A punch, be it in boxing, karate or kung fu, is a complex biomechanical chain of movements which involves both the upper and the lower body.
- From the stance to the wrist position and the extension of the arm, the punching technique needs to be perfected before hitting the bag.
- Punching drills, without a bag, can act as a standalone fitness workout, depending on the way you train. It can be a cardio workout (fast punching), isometric lower body activation (punching in a low karate stance), slow punching and more.
Detailed article on punching, Leslie. Thank you!
Punching has deep psychological benefits too. As long as we are not punching a person ?