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Many reputable self-defence instructors teach palm strikes rather than punches. The question is why? The reality of the matter is there are pros and cons to both techniques, and you need to see what suits you.
The biggest argument for palm strikes and against punches is that there is far less chance of injuring the small bones in your hands while palm striking. This is very true. In sport fighting – MMA, boxing and kickboxing competitors have their hands tightly wrapped and they wear gloves, it is a common misconception but this is not for the protection of the opponent but rather it is designed to protect the hands of the puncher. In early UFCs, competitors fought bare-knuckled and many broke their hands in punching opponents skulls. When boxers get into street fights they also commonly break their hands.
So based on these examples of sport fighters breaking their hands it would seem punching is too risky. But that is not the complete story. First of all these sport fighters that break their hands in bare-knuckled fights, wrap their hands and wear boxing gloves even while training. By the way, if you have never worn boxing gloves you will know that you can’t hold a fist in them. It is bizarre to discover that as a result of this a lot of boxers don’t know how to hold a fist, and even more importantly they throw hook punches impacting with the ring and pinky finger knuckles. This is significant as the small bone behind the pinky finger is the most likely bone to break, this is so common amongst boxers it is called boxers fracture. For us, in Shinkyu we always train to strike with our index and middle finger (seiken) knuckles even when hook punching significantly reducing chance of injury. Equally importantly we train bare knuckled with pads especially in combat classes and as a result, we condition our hands to be tougher.
Some karate practitioners take conditioning their hands to the extreme with makiwari training and board breaking. If your hands are tough enough to confidently break a hard board, you are unlikely to hurt your hands punching an opponents head. But be under no illusion you need to toughen your knuckles if you want this level of reliability.
The other problem wraps and gloves create is an overconfidence in hitting people in the forehead. Because their hands are encased in both wraps and gloves sport fighters are more willing to hit people in the brow or forehead. Frequently sport fighters get eyebrow cuts, this demonstrates that for them this is a target they are willing to hit. The brow and forehead are hard and the neck supports the head from frontal impact so the head will roll less, as a result, this is the most likely target to result in hand injury. We must be smarter and more precise. As we are training for bare-knuckled self-defence we should discipline ourselves to aim for the jawline, base of the skull or temples only when striking the head. This will minimise hand injury.
But what if you accidentally strike the forehead and now your hand is broken? That is not the disaster that some people assume. If you chip a knuckle or break the small bones behind you knuckle you are not out of the game, you can still palm strike and elbow.
Breaking bones in your hand is going to hurt, but it shouldn’t make you give up.
So if you are accurate and have conditioned your hands by hitting “stuff” punching is a good option. If you are a beginner and you don’t trust the precision of your punches and you haven’t toughened your hands, palm strikes are probably a better option.
Some may ask even if your hands are conditioned and you are accurate there is still a risk of injuring your hand, why take the risk of punching? The answer is punch is simply more effective.
Let me ask you, would you rather me palm strike you or punch you?
Your knuckles are harder than your palms. Your knuckles present a much smaller surface area than your palms and therefore punches will hurt more and can penetrate guards much more easily. A punch also gives you 1-2 more inches in range. That may not seem like a lot but so often in fighting an inch is the difference between a tap and being stunned, or being stunned to being knocked out.
But here is the big difference; you can throw a punch faster. The twisting motion at the end of the punch allows you to put a whipping motion into the end of the punch. The faster you can throw a technique the harder it will be to defend. This extra acceleration also makes a punch much more effective, which is a big deal.
In a self-defence situation your goal should be to escape, but when blows are already being thrown that is not an easy feat. You must either make sure that your attacker is incapacitated and can’t give chase or they have lost all motivation for attacking you. If you have hit them but it hasn’t seriously hurt them all you have done, in terms of their motivation, is made them angrier and more determined to attack or chase you. Hit them hard and seriously hurt them they will be much more likely to give up on you. The punch is a better tool for that job.
Palm strikes have other charms too. If you need to maintain a push or thrust at the end of the strike, which is commonly required in grappling situations, the palm strike is the tool for the job. The classic example of this is in bursting where the after the palm strike the open hand allows you to continue to push and control their head orientation.
Palm strikes also provide an opportunity to follow up raking attacks to the face or grabs and grapples.
For children defending themselves at school, palm strikes are also perceived as less violent and are less likely to draw negative attention from authorities.
Read more about the importance and benefits of hitting stuff.