Punching or Open Hand Strikes? It's Not Rocket Science

Punch vs Palm Strike

Most people in the world have received no formal self-defense training whatsoever, and yet they (men) instinctively know to ball up their fists and strike their opponent with them, while women tend to use open hand strikes.

That's just the way the sexes are "hard wired." You don't believe me? Go inside any bar in the world on a Friday night, whether in Frankfurt, Germany or Los Angeles, USA and observe two men go at it. It's a slugfest. On the other hand, what do you think you're going to see when two women are fighting each other? They call it a "cat fight" for a reason: scratching, slapping, pulling of hair and clothes. Obviously, nothing is 100% of the time, because I've seen some female gang members ball up their fists and beat their victims senseless, while I've seen a few men go spastic with slapping like motions. As a former law enforcement officer, I've have had to break up a lot of fights, not to mention being attacked many times by both men and women, and I feel confident standing by the stereotypes.

Let's face it. There's not much to punching. It's not rocket science. You make a tight fist, then as fast and as hard as you can, you drive it through someone's face, ribs, or stomach.

Combatives TrainingTwo of my students in my Special Operations Defensive Tactics Course go at each other full contact. Even though they have boxing gloves on, and they were allowed to use open hand strikes, but they didn't. They instinctively knew, backed up by their professional training, that closed fist are more effective than open hand strikes when trying to stop or hurt someone (unfortunately, the only way to stop someone is to hurt them). The fighter on the left is a police S.W.A.T. team member, and the fighter on the right is a corrections officer on a Special Response Team.

As a self-defense instructor I always start a student's training with human instinct, and then I go from there. For example, I'll tell a student, while holding up a focus glove or standing him or her before a Century Martial Arts Body Opponent Bag (B.O.B.), "Strike it like you would if someone were attacking you." Notice that I use the word "strike." I do this for two reasons:

1. I'm able to observe human instinct, and mentally note the statistics.

2. I'm able to observe the student's level of balance, coordination, power, and speed.

What a surprise? Most untrained men punch, while most untrained women use an open hand strike, a slap.

Now, if a woman instinctively uses an open hand strike, why would I start her training off by going against her human instinct and teach her how to punch? If a man punches the target with his fists, why would I start him off with open hand techniques? It's better to go with nature than against it.

Women's Self Defense Strike

This Dutch woman in my "Women's Survival Course" is being attacked by a man (my assistant instructor), and she was told simply, "Get out of this situation" to see what she would do. As you can see, this is what she chose to do, an open hand strike. After this photo was taken, I taught her how to improve, and the proper use-of-force to use.

I remember one time in the jail, a male police officer, who was well trained in a traditional martial art, preferred open hand strikes. A prisoner attacked him and was really kicking his ass before I jumped in. The police officer, in fear of his life, started flailing away with, not open hand techniques, but closed fists. When he found out, the hard way, that his open hand strikes were ineffective, his survival instincts took over.

Don't get me wrong. Men should be taught open hand strikes, and women should be taught how to punch so they'll have both methods in their "arsenal." However, when I was teaching at the Israel Police Operational Fitness Academy in Havatselet Hasharon, Israel, I liked what one of my students, a riot police instructor, said to me, "We use open hand techniques to control people, and we use fists to hurt people."

Think about it. If you punch someone with your fist, you are striking bone to bone. The knuckles of your fist smash against the bone of the opponent's face or ribs. That is the "hurt" the Israeli police officer was talking about. Yes, a punch to the gut is the exception, bone against soft tissue, but a closed fist can strike at the proper angle and penetrate deeper into the abdomen than an open hand technique can. How many instructors teach an open hand strike to the stomach? None that I know of.

If you strike someone with an open hand technique, what is the striking surface? It's the palm of your hand or the knife edge of the hand, both of which are soft tissue. So, an open hand strike is soft tissue against bone. Even if you do a palm strike to the opponent's face, the proverbial "send his nose into the brain," your hand is almost at a 90-degree angle to the wrist, and if that soft tissue does not land perfectly against the intended target, then the bones in the hand risk hyperextension backwards, and thus injury. Do a "karate chop," with the knife edge of your hand to the bridge of your opponent's nose, and if you miss the target ever so slightly, you risk breaking the pinky finger. A "karate chop" accidently to someone forehead is not going to work, but an accident punch to someone's forehead can ring their bell.

Wait! some of you may be thinking. You can also break your fingers punching someone's face with a closed fist. That's why open hand strikes are better. This is what my instructor taught me.

The average fist fight is no more that 15 seconds long. Yes, you could get a finger broken upon impact from the bones of the opponent's face or jaw. However, in the heat of battle, will you even detect it in those 15 seconds? You may feel a tinge of pain upon impact, but there will be no immediate visible indicators. You'll keep slugging away. However, if you break a finger in the heat of battle, using an open hand technique, and you see one of your fingers bent backwards in the wrong direction, that will be instantly psychologically demoralizing, and your tendency is to want to "fix" it mid-fight or stop using that hand altogether.

The whole purpose of a closed fist is for "stopping power," and by stopping power I mean substantial injury. Although untrained men all over the world get into fist fights, because that's what they do, good scientific self-defense training will make anyone better at punching. The first rule of punching with a closed fist is to strike only with the third knuckles of the index and middle fingers (Phalanges), and to keep those same bones behind the knuckles (the Metacarpals) in a straight line with the two bones in the forearm (the Radius and the Ulna). This straight line, provided you keep the fist tight and aligned, also protects the seven bones in the wrist (Carpals) with evenly distributed muscular tension. Refer to Photo A. In the x-ray you can see the Metacarpal bones 2 and 3 (index and middle) in line with the Radius and Ulna in the forearm. This is GOOD.

Good Punch Technique

Photo A: This an x-ray of my own right hand, and I made a fist so you can see how a proper punch lines up the index and middle finger bones with the bones in the arm when you strike with the two knuckles. A strong structure means a strong punch.

Since combat is fluid, let's say you unintentionally make contact with the guy's face with the knuckles of your ring finger and the pinky finger while throwing a close fist. Such and impact can definitely break a finger or a bone in the hand. Referring to Photo B you can see in the x-ray that the Metacarpal bones are at an angle to the Radius and Ulna. This is BAD. You can see it by looking at the hand, but in an x-ray it's quite evident.

Bad Punch Technique

Photo B: If you strike with the knuckles of the ring finger and pinky finger, then you can see in the x-ray that the larger bones in your hand are not lined up properly (they're at a diagonal), and this is how you end up breaking the smaller bones in your hand or the wrist. However, open hand strikes have even less support and structure than closed fist strikes.

When it comes to striking with the hands, I start my female students off with "slapping," because, like I said, that is what they are "hard wired" to do; most of them anyway. Although a slap can sting, and leave a nice red mark, and even perhaps give a man a bloody nose, a woman slapping a brutal male criminal in the face is not going to do any real damage, and the sting is only going to piss him off. Therefore, I take what most women already do instinctively, and then I teach them how to turn that slap into an effect self-defense tool by generating more impact force. The trick is to teach a woman to slap with the palm of her hand, instead of with her fingers. Plus, instead of slapping the cheek, she must penetrate the target: temple, nose, ears, or jaw. In other words, don't just strike skin, but the idea is to "go through the head" from one side to another. This is penetration. To generate maximum power, she must also rotate the entire body to deliver the strike, thereby utilizing torque energy. But, then again, against a brutal criminal even this may not even work. Against a pushy date or boyfriend that doesn't understand the word "No," maybe, but not against someone who uses violence as a tool to get his way all the time. For this type of attacker, you'll have to go to my achieve and read Self-Defense Advice that's Only for the 5% of You Willing to Listen – Women.

I also teach men the same open hand strike – drive the palm through the target using torque. Against a focus glove or punching bag it's not a problem but do it against a training device that has the same consistency as a real human head, and it hurts the hand. In fact, I even notice that when the men try it a second time, they tend to strike lighter. However, when I tell the men, "Now start punching," they I can tell the difference just by the sound of the impacts. Striking with the fists is more efficient and has more power. What falls faster, and hits the ground harder? A sheet of plywood or a cannon ball?

Going back to the Israeli riot police advice, "We use open hand techniques to control people, and we use fists to hurt people," I did learn a fantastic technique for stunning an uncooperative person using an open hand, but it is for very specific situations, and for another time.


Follow Jim Wagner on:




Introducing Martial Arts School Listings on Black Belt Mag!
Sign Up Now To Be One Of The First School Listed In Our Database.
Don't miss a single issue of the worlds largest magazine of martial arts.