Should You Punch in a Fight?


The debate regarding punching in a fight has been going on for a long time.  There are arguments on both sides, so I wanted to take an objective approach and explore the facts.  I’ve been training in striking for a long time in addition to my grappling game, but in fights I’ve tended to lean towards grappling.  My punches were used more as a means to open or distract my opponent, allowing me to follow-up with the clinch or joint locks. You can find this technique in several forms of traditional jujutsu, aikido, and aiki-jujutsu. However, I train just as much in striking as grappling. So what does this mean in a real world street fight with no gloves or rules? Should I cut back on my striking?  Is it useful?  Should I change from a fist to palm strikes?  These were the questions running through my head.

First let’s examine the arguments on the side of those against punching:

  • Hands are delicate – The human hand has 27 bones. These bones are small and fragile. Injuries of the hand and wrist are among the most common traumatic injuries seen in emergency rooms, accounting for up to 15% of all injuries. One of the most common injuries seen is the boxer’s fracture. As a result, boxers and other combat athletes routinely use hand wraps and boxing gloves to help stabilize the hand, greatly reducing pain and risk of injury during impact training or competition. In the real world, these types of precautions are not available, thus increasing risk of injury.
  • Bone density changes as we age – Bones tend to decrease in density as we age, and for some individuals, it can lead to osteoporosis. This decrease in bone density can increase damage or risk of fractures. This becomes more important to consider when we get older and a self-defense situation arises.
  • The human skull is extremely hard and sharp – While the top portion of the forehead is the hardest part of the body, the skull also have lots of ridges and edges.  This is much different than hitting a punching bag, which is very smooth. In addition, fights are dynamic.  The head is constantly moving, so landing a perfect shot becomes harder. Add the stress and adrenaline of a fight and this creates unpredictability along with unexpected injuries.
  • Exchanging punches creates risk – Getting into effective punch range means that the opponent is also in effective punching range.  Entering a situation that forces opponents to trade punches is not as ideal.
  • Potential legal implications – In the real world, if there is a knockout, they could hit their head hard enough on concrete, and you could end up with a manslaughter charge depending on the circumstances.

Now let’s examine some arguments on the side of those who favor punching:

  • Human hands may have evolved for punching – A 2012 scientific study suggests that the human hand may have evolved for the purpose of efficiently punching. Their study indicated that an open palm strike delivered as much force as a fist strike, except that the fist strike concentrated more force in a small area. This indicated a punch can inflict more damage.  In addition, the clenched fist locks the index finger and the middle finger into place, making the fist stiff.  This configuration, the study claims, prevents people from injuring their hands while throwing blows.
  • If a punch in thrown with proper technique you won’t injure yourself – By creating a proper fist with the thumb locking the index finger and middle finger will allow one to strike correctly with the first two knuckles of the hand. In addition, proper alignment from the shoulder, to the elbow, and through the fist will prevent injuries.  For example punching with a crooked wrist could cause the hand to bend at an awkward angle, causing injury.
  • Hands can be conditioned to withstand damage –  Repeated impacts to bones result in microscopic fractures. When they heal, bones often become more dense and resistant to impact as an adaptation of hard training. This conditions your hands to makes them tougher due to calcium deposits that are triggered by the damage they incur.

So if we apply the razor to all this information, what do we get? Fact is that the bones in the hand are very small and parts of the skull are extremely hard. Since the metacarpal bones in the hand are minuscule compared to your attacker’s skull, solid fist-to-head contact is likely to injure your hand. If your fist isn’t perfectly formed and right on target, you could sustain what’s commonly referred to as a “boxer’s fracture.”

What if you’re an experienced puncher? Is someone who has trained to deliver punches, such as a martial artist, less likely to damage their hand when punching? To  minimize getting broken hands, you must not only throw correctly, but you have to land perfectly too, which is hard to do with moving targets. While a trained puncher understands the mechanics of throwing a proper punch, they may actually have a greater chance of injury. This is due to two reasons:

  • They are going to generate considerably more force than the novice. The resulting impact is much greater and can cause a higher degree of hand damage.
  • The trained striker may not be used to striking outside of the gym/sport environment. They are used to striking pads, bags, and wear cushioned gloves. The dynamics change when they are in a real fight.

I disagree that our hands evolved to strike.  If this was the case then why didn’t our hands evolve into a more robust contraption? Why aren’t they more club-like?  Instead I believe our hands evolved to manipulate small objects. This is what helped humanity develop tools and other technology. That wouldn’t really work with big club-like hands.   A great article disputing the evolved fists as a weapon theory was written by John Rennie and is worth a read if you want to dive deeper into this.

Am I seeing that punching is not effective?  Absolutely not.  If you have a powerful and strategically placed blow to the head, the attacker might be down for the count. However, if your punch is off-target due to a slight miscalculation on your part or due to the attacker’s actions, you could severely injure your hand. What I am  saying is that in a street fight punches may not be practical. If you’re going to strike, let’s look at some safer variations:

  • Striking with the palm of your hand. It’s hard to damage your palm and it is just as effective as a punch.
  • Use elbow strikes instead. Elbows are very hard and create a lot of damage, in particular at close range.
  • If you do attack with a punch, throw your punch at your attacker’s neck. The neck is much softer and can leave your attacker in severe pain as well.
  • Throw the punch with less power than you would in the gym or sport environment.
  • Strike softer areas of the body and avoid the head.

So what’s my take? I wouldn’t give up on striking completely.  Rather, I’m advocating for a general awareness of the dangers striking can present in a real street fight.  Each fight is different, so you will have to evaluate your strategy and figure out if striking will be effective in your particular situation. Experiment with your techniques, you may find that grappling and joint-locking to be more effective and safer than striking.

Daniel Brackins
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