The closed hand can be used to strike in many different ways. Nearly any portion of a tightly closed hand can be employed as a striking surface. The surface used will depend upon many factors including your intent, your position relative to an opponent, how your opponent is structured or aligned, and your intended target area.
Generally speaking, strikes involving the closed fist are considered to be quite impacting and potentially damaging to the recipient. These are powerful strikes that can inflict significant and potentially debilitating injury. You should not underestimate (nor overestimate) the amount of power than can be derived from these strikes.
You will want to practice each of the following strikes repeatedly on a bag or other protected surface so that you can ensure the fundamentals of the strike are well understood. Strike slowly at times so you can carefully examine your delivery method and ensure that the appropriate portion of the striking hand makes contact with the target. Since these are powerful strikes, they can injure you just as readily as they can injure an opponent. Your best defense against injury is to ensure you are employing proper strike delivery.
The word “Ken” refers to fist (among other things), so this is a thrusting fist, or, a punch. To form this strike the hand is closed tightly and then the thumb is wrapped over the middle bones (middle phalanges) of the middle and index fingers. DO NOT PLACE THE THUMB ANYWHERE ELSE or significant injury may result. Your fist must be closed very tightly to reduce the chance of injury to the hand.
When striking with a Ken Tsuki, begin from a guard position with the small finger side of your hand toward your target. Begin extending your fist toward the target. The elbows are kept down and in (absolutely not flared out!) as the hand is extended. As your fist nears the target the hand rotates (and now so will the elbow) so that the palm is facing downward and the large knuckles of the index and middle fingers (the metacarpophalangeal) strike the target. If the smaller knuckles of the ring and index fingers strike the target then it is likely the elbow flared outward during the early part of the strike.
The wrist must be properly aligned with the arm to prevent a severe strain, sprain, or broken bones. The back of the hand should form a continuous straight line with the top of the arm. If the wrist bends such that the back of the hand moves upward or downward beyond the wrist joint then there is a great risk of injury to the hand or, more likely, the wrist. This occurs because upon contact the bent hand stops moving but the arm keeps going forward due to inertia. This tears the connecting tissues in the wrist and causes a severe sprain and/or muscle pull. A significant injury is likely to occur whether the hand is pointed upward or downward. The hand must be straight to lessen the chance of injury.
Upon completion of the extension, the hand should be briskly returned to a guard position. Make this as direct as possible by not allowing the returning hand to drop, rise, or sway to either side except as necessary to return directly to guard position. Returning the hand in any other way will provide an opportunity for your opponent to strike while your guard is out of position.
The above description applies to a great many different specific strikes. So this is not a specific strike, but rather a strike methodology or pattern. This description might apply to a jab or a punch using the back hand. Portions of the description also apply to strikes such as an uppercut or hooking punch which both have different methods of delivery.
Tate Ken Tsuki
The word “Tate” means vertical, so this is a vertical punch. Your fist is formed identically to Ken Tsuki but it is oriented vertically instead of horizontally upon delivery. This exposes the largest knuckle of the index finger slightly ahead of the rest of the hand, allowing this knuckle to penetrate softer target areas. In this strike, the elbow stays inward and pointed down during the entire extension and retraction cycle.
Exercise care when striking upward with this strike. The upward movement might cause you to strike into the target with the smaller knuckles of the hand. This can be prevented, but only if you are aware of the potential for such injurious contact.
Angled Fist Punch
This is closely related to the Tate Ken Tsuki but the hand is rotated to 45° or about halfway between the striking positions for Ken Tsuki and Tate Ken Tsuki. This unique hand position has limited uses, but one of the most often cited is the ability for this strike to fit up and directly below the rib cage to penetrate deeply into the soft tissues in this area of the torso. Since the diaphragm is located in this area of the body this strike may result in a sudden but short-lived inability for your opponent to breathe (i.e. having the wind knocked out of them).
Kizami Tsuki refers to a Ken Tsuki delivered by the front hand. This is what an American boxer would refer to as a Jab. Such strikes tend to be faster and have greater range than strikes with the back hand, but this is at the cost of some reduction in the power delivered. Two or more Kizami Tsuki might be thrown in rapid succession to keep an opponent back at a distance, or a Kizami Tsuki might be delivered as part of a combination of strikes meant to overwhelm your opponent’s defenses.
One of the definitions for the Japanese word “Ura” is “back or rear.” Generally, this has the connotation of “reverse, back, another side, or opposite” when used in Karate terminology. An Ura Tsuki is, therefore, a strike in which the fist is delivered in a palm-up rather than a palm-down position; an uppercut. The elbows remain in and down throughout this strike and it is important to return the hands to a guard position (rather than simply letting them fall downward) after the strike. The strike is delivered in an upward AND extended direction so that it penetrates as well as strikes upward at the opponent. The strike might be used to strike at the face (chin), abdomen, ribs, or in some cases the groin or kidneys.
The Japanese word for “hammer” is “Tettsui”. Therefore this strike is commonly called a hammer fist. The hand is formed exactly like a Ken Tsuki, but the strike is delivered like a Shuto Uchi. The elbow rises to point at the target and then the hand strikes using the same part of the hand as the Shuto Uchi, but this time the hand is balled tightly into a larger and more powerful weapon. Like the Shuto Uchi, it is critical to quickly return this strike to prevent a counter grab from your opponent.
A slight variation in your fist configuration can be used to advantage here. This is entirely optional, but it is effective and worth exploring. This variation is achieved by extending the index finger under the thumb (the fingertip resting on the palm in the area of the thumb pad) and then wrapping the thumb over the middle bone of the index and middle fingers. When this is done you will notice that the ring finger side of your fist is smaller and denser than before, increasing the impact this side of the hand will deliver to the target.
The Uraken Tsuki should not be confused with the Ura Tsuki. The Uraken Tsuki refers to striking with the back of the fist. It does not mean striking with an inverted fist. The Uraken Tsuki is delivered exactly like the Tettsui Uchi but the knuckles of the middle and index fingers are used to strike the target. Again the strike must be returned quickly and the wrist should be held straight relative the arm.
The Gyaku Tsuki involves a Ken Tsuki that is delivered in combination with a transition to a Zenkutsu Dachi. From a Kiba Dachi, Sochin Dachi or similar stance the body rotates the center toward local angle 1. The back hand is then extended forward (keeping the elbow in and down as long as possible). The back hand turns over into a Ken Tsuki strike just as the legs and torso conclude the transition to Zenkutsu Dachi. The result is a very powerful and far-reaching strike, delivered with forward-momentum, using the back and more powerful side of the body. The hand must be immediately returned to the guard position and normally one would transition out of the Zenkutsu Dachi (unless some planned subsequent movement required it).
In some cases, a target area of the body may be difficult to reach using a Ken Tsuki strike. This is the case for the throat if the opponent has their chin tucked downward. It is difficult for a fist to reach this area. This is where the Hiraken Tsuki comes in.
In this strike, the fingers are curled so that the fingertips rest on the pads of the fingers in the palm. The tops of the first bone in the fingers (proximal phalanges) remain in line with the back of the hand, but the middle and end bones of the fingers tuck under to form a very thin striking surface. The second joint of the fingers is now used as the striking surface (the proximal interphalangeal joint). The thumb is tucked in alongside the hand to minimize the chance that it will be injured by being pulled away upon contact with clothing or other parts of the opponent’s body.
In addition to the throat as a target area, this strike can be used to penetrate between ribs or into any soft tissue area of the body.
A variant of this strike is called the “Leopard Strike.” In this version, the thumb presses tightly against the index finger to provide better support to the fingers. You will become much more familiar with the Leopard Strike much later in your studies.
A Mawashi Tsuki is a roundhouse or hook punch. Your fist is formed in the same manner as a Ken Tsuki and the strike is delivered by throwing the arm to the outside (of your opponent’s guard, presumably) and then into the head. This can be a very effective strike, especially if an opponent has become accustomed to a series of prior strikes delivered along the centerline.
Even though this strike is not delivered directly along the center it is still very powerful because the hand is going outside and then accelerating in toward the centerline. Additional power can be derived by letting the shoulder and upper torso “follow” the hand to its target. This simply means that the strike will be augmented by pressing forward with the upper torso to add additional power to the strike.
The strike should return directly to the guard position and should not contain any circular movement. It is important to get the guard back quickly as your face is fully exposed to your opponent (should they have blocked, ducked, or otherwise avoided your strike).
Ippon Ken Tsuki
This is a modified version of Ken Tsuki where the striking surface is the middle knuckle of the index finger. The strike is formed by taking the traditional Ken Tsuki fist and then extending the index finger until the middle knuckle protrudes forward. The thumb then presses into the index finger from the side to force all of the fingers tightly together to offer greater stability to the fingers. This strike is used when pinpoint positioning yet powerful penetration is required in a target area. Targets might include the temple area, sternum, solar plexus, or the void space between two ribs, but many other possible targets can be easily discovered.
Nakadaka Ippon Ken Tsuki
This is similar to the Ippon Ken Tsuki except that the middle knuckle is extended forward instead of the index finger knuckle. Experiment with the two different strikes to see where one might be more advantageous than the other. Think about wrist position, target position (when erect and bending over), and hand orientation when making these assessments.
Oyayubi Ippon Ken Tsuki
This is another knuckle strike, but this time the thumb knuckle is the intended striking surface. A typical Ken Tsuki fist is formed and then the thumb is moved to press in on the fingers from the side (similar to the thumb position in Ippon Ken Tsuki). The hand is then moved such that the thumb knuckle enters the intended target area first (often the hand is moving circularly).
Likely target areas for this strike are the temple area (when thrown from the front of the opponent), the solar plexus (when thrown from beside the opponent), the kidneys, and the neck area. The strike is useful anywhere larger circular momentum can be utilized to strike a small soft target area.
Improper Strike Delivery
Common problems students experience with this class of strike include the following:
- The hand is not closed tightly. If your fingers are not pulled tightly into the palm and your thumb is not wrapped around the fingers properly then there is a significant possibility that you will break one or more fingers or your hand and possibly your wrist upon contact.
- The thumb is out of position and not pulled over the index and middle fingers. If not in the proper position then the thumb is exposed and may make inadvertent contact with the opponent. Even worse, the thumb may become trapped in clothing or a shirt sleeve causing the thumb to be pulled violently out of proper position. In either case, severe injury to the thumb is likely.
- The elbow flares during the initial delivery of the strike. This causes the strike to move in a non-linear path to the target. It robs the strike of impact energy and causes the smaller digits of the hand to strike the target. These smaller portions of the hand and fingers are not as resilient as the index and middle fingers and as a result, there is an increased risk of injury. If you punch a bag repeatedly with bare hands look down at your knuckles to see which knuckles are red. If it is the two smaller knuckles, then you will want to pay particular attention to how your elbow is moving during the strike. Keep the elbow pointed downward as long as possible during a strike.
- The hand strikes the target but then descends downward or moves off-center. This leaves you open and without an effective guard. A strike should (generally speaking) move straight toward the target and then retract directly back to its original position without moving out of an effective guard position.
- The wrist is bent during delivery or impact. You may get away with this for a while, but you will eventually suffer a severe sprain, strain, or broken bone in the wrist or hand. Ideally, you want a solid column of bone to extend from your striking knuckle back to your shoulder.
- The punch extends outside of the center triangle. It will sound strange at first, but strikes should predominantly reside within your center triangle. Strikes outside the center triangle take too long to develop, are easier for the opponent to notice, lack sufficient power, and leave you more vulnerable to manipulation or counter attack.
- Strikes lack rotational delivery. You will benefit from learning out to deliver strikes with the rotational delivery method. This method helps improve your striking methodology and helps reduce your chance of injury.
Your instructor will spend time pointing out any of the above issues as you train. This is part of the learning process. You are unlikely to have everything perfect initially. You and your instructor will work together to identify areas of improvement and then take corrective actions to improve your overall strike delivery methodology.