Looking back on martial arts and mixed martial arts discussions throughout the years one of the subjects with the most misinformation and biased perspective had been the debate on the effectiveness of the Palm Strike versus a bare knuckle punch.
Those who favor the bare knuckle punch will argue that you have a few more inches of reach using your fist. They will also insist that the bare knuckle results in more pain due to cutting and shredding of the area of impact. Others also claim that the bare knuckle provides for a better strike due to less padding on the strike versus that of the palm, which tends to have more flesh surrounding the bone. There is even argument in claiming that one strike is more effective than the other due to the distance traveled (a few inches of distance) before impact and also that a strike is slower with the palm.
The points above appear to be valid and might even lead one to believe that the bare knuckle fist is superior to the palm when striking. However, if you consider the science and some facts you may find that the reality is quite different from the rumor.
First let’s get some facts out of the way and use some science to explain how it all works. You should know that there is validity to the claim that a bare knuckle punch delivered with perfect form (this means perfect alignment of the lead knuckles, middle and index, with the radius bone during the strike and no bend, twist or tilt in the wrist upon impact) will in many cases inflict more pain or damage with the same force applied due to the smaller surface area of the two lead knuckles versus that of the palm heel.
Why does surface area matter? Well to put it simply think of this concept. It takes far less energy to break the skin with a sharp needle than with a blunt object like your finger tip. While elasticity has some affect on this scenario it only reinforces the example rather than invalidating it. (We also, obviously, do not recommend you test this on yourself or anyone else.) However, the reason for the needle requiring less force to penetrate skin is at the point of impact (or the pressure point) the force is concentrated into a very specific area. This concentrated force causes much more damage to a specific area, resulting in breakage of the skin, than that of a diffused surface like a fleshy finger. With a finger the force is distributed in a radial fashion extending outward at all edges of the tip of one’s finger, like that of light passing through a convex lens. When light passes through a convex lens it diffuses. This results in softer, broader, glowing light rather than a sharp, bright, penetrating light. The inverse of this example would be to pass light through a concave lens, thus concentrating light and creating a “focal point” where the energy is primarily directed. You may have seen this effect when playing with a magnifying glass in the sunlight. The concave lens in a magnifying glass can focus a beam of sunlight onto a more concentrated surface area, resulting in a higher temperature at the point, ultimately burning the contact surface.
The suns energy has not changed, you’ve merely changed the surface area of the distribution of sunlight. Another very good example involving concentrated light and diffused light is that of a laser beam and flashlight. A flashlight uses more energy from a battery to illuminate an area because the light from the bulb radiates outward in a diffused manner. A laser pointer for example uses far less energy than a standard flashlight but can illuminate a focal point at much greater distance than that of a diffused flash light.
If you were to take the similar mechanics used in the laser and apply similar energy to the light source in laser to that of the larger diffused flash light, you’d likely end up with a concentrated beam with the ability to burn surfaces. We could go on and on ad nauseum on this subject, but suffice it to say the physics speak for themselves.
While all this is relevant and quite interesting, in practice, in a fight, mulling over technicalities will not garner victory. In this article we are merely addressing practical benefits of palm strike versus a bare knuckle strike for the amateur to average fighter. Expert strikers, however, understand the above principles and master martial artists spend years training to focus the force of their strike to a smaller surface area with both the palm and fist in such exercises known as breaking (where the striker will break a block of wood or other object with a single blow).
All this talk of surface areas doesn’t explain one of the most important aspects of striking. What you may not be aware of is that most of the power for a strike doesn’t come from the arm, fore-arm, or fist, but rather from the torso. Twisting of the hips in the direction of the strike, aligned with the limp performing the strike, provides the momentum of your entire torso when striking. Even a slap to the face when using the momentum of your torso will provide more power than a poorly executed bare knuckle punch.
Travel distance only affects power to a certain point… When you talk about travel with a strike three factors can affect performance, velocity, absolute and relative distance. First let’s discuss distance. Relative versus absolute distance speaks to the fact that the distance of travel should be just enough for a full extension during a straight strike. (Hooks and uppercuts have slightly different rules as travel and reach have less absolute importance. They rely primarily on core strength.) The reason a full extension is important to achieve is that each joint in your arms can act as a shock absorber. The result being an incomplete extension will cause your strike to be less powerful as your joint will absorb a portion of the force behind your strike. In the case of velocity, a strike can be “stuffed” by closing the gap between the point of impact and striking object. If the striking object, for example, has already reached maximum velocity after traveling 3 feet and the point of impact is just three feet from the striking object then an additional reach of 2 to 3 inches makes little difference in the effectiveness of the strike. In fact, many amateur strikers will throw punches too close to their opponents to reach maximum velocity thus reducing the power of their strike. However, stuffing a punch not only affects velocity but it also impedes a strikers ability to reach full extension. These factors play in concert with each other and fundamental understanding of these principles along with practice will improve striking performance tremendously.
After all the technicalities are covered you should know that a bare knuckle punch and a properly executed palm strike can have equally effective impact on your opponent where with the palm strike the risk of injury to the striker is far less.
Now, let’s talk about the fist. Your hand contains 27 bones, but in addition to that it also has many more small sesamoid bones in the tendons. Striking with your bare knuckles puts all these at risk each and every time. Your hand also rests on a large pivoting base (the wrist, composed of the carpals and cartilage between those bones) which requires a great deal of muscular control to ensure stability is maintained when striking. Any play in the base of your wrist will not only absorb energy of the strike, there by making it less effective, but also requires more energy from you to maintain stability in the fist when striking.
Even the most seasoned fighters are susceptible to executing a sloppy punch when exhausted. The risk for fracture, tendon strain and joint injury is very high in these circumstances. Also consider that when you are fighting you often are aiming for the head (in order to take down your
opponent as quickly as possible). The human head has a lot of solid bone, even the jaw presents significant resistance to your knuckles. Even an impact with perfect form can result in a fracture from bone on bone contact.
In a regulated MMA or Boxing match you have, hand wraps, tape and padding on the knuckles which significantly reduces the risk for fracture. However, if you are ever caught in a street fight or an unplanned altercation then you won’t have time to grab your gloves and wraps… you need to be ready to fight.
This is where the infamous Palm Strike can be your best friend. The palm can provide a devastating strike when properly executed. Let’s see why that is…. Well first of all, you’re taking out most of those 27 bones, tendons and joints from the strike which essentially means you’re striking with the tip of your forearm. The bones in your forearm are straight and assuming you are striking with a jab or cross then proper extension means the full force of your torso is unimpeded by the shock absorbing effect of the bones in your fist, additionally maintaining a stable striking surface with the palm versus the fist requires less effort.
Taking out those bones and tendons means you also have less risk for injury to yourself when striking. The padding in the palm provides almost the same effect as the padding in some MMA gloves (although a good strike may result in some bruising on the palm). Regardless, for the less skilled fighter a palm strike can not only be effective but vital in surviving an unplanned confrontation. Palm strikes can knock out an opponent, seriously harm them and also protect your knuckles from unnecessary cuts and fractures.
Assuming all things are equal then why don’t we see more Palm Strikes in MMA? Well, to put it simply they just aren’t always necessary. There are some situations where they may be excellent options (i.e. during a ground and pound). However, with the hand wraps and padding on the gloves, the benefit of protection is already provided and those 2 to 3 inches of reach the fist provides can mean the difference between successfully avoiding a counter and being knocked out. Besides that, with the wraps, gloves and tape, it’s a bit difficult to raise the hand into the proper position to execute a palm strike without accidentally poking your opponent in the eye (which is obviously not allowed in an MMA fight).
Ok so you’ve sold me on the palm strike, but how do I actually execute one? It’s really quite simple. You want to execute your strikes just as you would with a closed fist, but instead of a fist you tilt your hand back to expose the base of the palm (the point that aligns directly with the wrist) and curl your fingers (all five of them) back as tightly as you can to avoid them getting caught on your opponent. (See the photo above for an example.)
Again, strike as you normally would, except with the base of your palm. You can practice this on focus mitts and also on punching bags. We recommend you get very comfortable executing the Palm Strike before attempting it in a fight. Also, keep in mind your angles may need to change slightly to accommodate uppercuts and hooks. Rather than telling you what we mean, we recommend you just go through the motions (shadow boxing) to get feel for the angle changes from fist to palm and back.
What do you think of the Palm Strike? Have you used it before and was it effective? Send us your feed back!
Updated: 3/15/2013 at 5:22 AM to account for surface area when striking. Credit for requesting this addition goes to John Warlock, one of our many devoted readers.