I think that a lot of people miss out on some things with martial arts, because they think it's all learning the techniques and sparring. Another thing which is incredibley important is knowing why you're doing what you're doing in the way you're doing it. I've noticed a lot of the arts or systems claiming to be more "realistic" for self defense say that it is better to strike with an open hand than a closed fist. A lot of these people and in fact, a lot of law enforcement, will tell you that you'll break your hand if you hit someone with a closed fist. Likewise, there are people who say that you have to do endless amounts of forearm conditioning to execute certain blocks without having a punch or kick get through. Surprisingly, these same people are the ones who would go on to suggest often times that a mere parry is better than a block. Well, in my experience, these points of view are almost always victims of one of two problems; incorrect technique or lack of correct conditioning. So, I hope to shed some light on these two subjects in this article.
First, I want to talk about the issue of striking with a closed fist in a real fight. Let's start with a little common sense. I know that today it's popular to think that we are at the penacle of anything that has come before us in pretty much every area of human life. Well, I'll leave most of these areas alone for historians and arrogant people to discuss amongst themselves. Martial arts is another story though. When Karate practicioners first started doing their reverse punches and the like, it was for self defense. In fact, it's said that the art was initially designed to be used against people wearing armor. Now, I'm not saying that noone ever broke a hand while trying to punch a guy in armor with a closed fist. What I am saying is that if they weren't able to effectively do so at least a majority of the time, wouldn't it have made sense for them to take this technique out of their art hundreds of years ago? Something to think about.
Aside from the thoughts on the historical use of striking with a closed fist, I'll address another common injury associated with closed fist striking. This one comes from simple heavy bag work. The heavy bag has always been the next best thing to a real opponent for me personally when training. Some times, it's even better, because you don't really want to punch your training partner full force and hurt him. I know those rubber human looking training tools with the hard base are popular these days, but they miss the mark if you ask me. They might have the right shape, but a real person has bones in their face and weight in them that causes a change in the impact for your fist, foot, or whatever you're striking with. Keeping this in mind, a decent heavy bag is still the better choice in my mind. Anyway, one thing that you'll notice if you punch a heavy bag is that if you don't line your wrist up correctly, keep it straight, and keep your strike focussed in one direction, you will missalign your wrist and could even sprain it. That's one of the most common mistakes I've seen with training striking in fact. So, if this holds true on the bag, there's no reason to think it wouldn't hold true with a person. Wrist alignment with proper follow through is essential if you want to strike with a closed fist.
Another thing to think about is your impact area. You need to know which part of your hand you want to make contact with your target. That is where your force and the force of the impact should go. Typically, you want to strike with your knuckles and not your fingers or top part of your hand. This creates a bone on bone or bone on whatever your target happens to be type situation. This also makes it much less likely that you will break your hand. That being said, it is really not that hard to condition your knuckles to be able to take more force and still stay strong. One of the easiest ways to do this is by doing knuckle pushups. Start on carpet if you need to. Then move onto tile or wood floors. Then, you can do them in the dirt and finally, on concrete or gravel. One of my teachers used to have me do these and then moved me on to punching the bark off a tree. I should point out that this was done slowly with control and breathing into the punches. This is important, because if you get reckless with this type of training, you can very easily injure yourself. I reccommend that if you're going to do it, do so with a qualified teacher's supervision. From there, we went to punching brick walls and steel beams. I can tell you right now, that if you're using proper technique in your punches and you can punch a brick wall for twenty minutes in a row, you should have no problem hitting some would be attacker in the face a few times with a closed fist.
Moving onto the blocks, I don't plan to spend as much time on this area as I did with the punches. I do want to address something I saw in an article in what used to be a fairly popular martial arts magazine once though. There was an article which was supposedly going to make the argument for why weight training for martial arts was good and didn't make you slow. Now, this article jumped around a bit and never really tackled the other side of the argument as far as I could tell. And for the record, I think weight training is fine for martial arts as long as it's done in a functional way and not just to be able to lift heavy things once or twice. That creates bulkier muscles and does reduce speed. Done right, weight training can help you to become stronger and still retain speed. Anyway, the part about that article which applies here is that at one point the author said that you'll find a lot of people who cannot propperly perform traditional martial arts blocks due to not being strong enough or not conditioning their arms enough to support the force of a punch.
This was like hearing another language for the first time to me. When I first started training in the martial arts, it was in Praying Mantis Kung Fu and we must have spent a good twenty minutes a day banging our forearms into the forearms of our training partners or into the steel beams which held up the ceiling. So, to not have conditioned your arms well enough to support weight was just unheard of to me. Aside from that, there was another problem though. A lot of the blocks I learned in Kung Fu were not so much to support weight as they were to deflect it and possibly grab. To do either of those things requires less strength or conditioning and more timing and accuracey. Something which I think is worth pointing out is that a lot of the best martial artists in history that we know of were pretty little people. Now, I'm sure that they were mostly well conditioned and stronger than the average person, but that still says something. You don't have to be big or muscular to make martial arts work for you. You shouldn't have to anyway.
That brings me to something I learned from Karate a while back. One of the most common blocks in Karate is typically done incorrectly. It's a low outward block, but the thing about it is that it also is not a weight bearing defense. As a matter of fact, it is more of a blocking strike when done correctly. You are supposed to strike at the inside of the opponent's arm (where things like nerves, muscles, and less bone are located) with the ridge of your forearm (and where that nice hard bone is). So, condition your forearms more if you want to. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but whether it's blocks or closed fist strikes, try to go back to the source. Look at what your art was originally trying to do and see if you can figure out WHY it was doing what it was. I think that more often than not, you'll come away with a better understanding of your art and something that may benefit you much more than advice the likes of which would simply have you do palm strikes and parries to defend yourself.