I love a good action movie as much as the next person, and I’ve watched WAY more than my fair share over the past decades of my life. But having studied traditional martial arts and the human body during those same decades has often left me disappointed in how fights and/or punches are depicted in these movies. Often, you’ll see one of two extremes: someone who gets knocked out and gets back up moments later, no worse for the wear or two combatants who pummel each other’s faces and neither goes down until the penultimate moment where one is finally knocked out.
When I’m watching the movie, I’m totally in the moment and I could care less if the protagonist suddenly sprouts a third fist in order to win the fight and get the happy ending that the audience is hoping for. In the aftermath, I usually get analytical and start describing why “that couldn’t have happened that way” as my wife rolls her eyes at my running commentary of proper technique.
First of all, if you’re new to my blog I should start by pointing out that I’m not a medical professional. This means that you can take my description and information regarding the human body at face value, although I’ve studied and applied it over three decades of martial arts training. So, although I don’t have a thick piece of paper on my wall from some post-secondary institution, my accumulated knowledge still has some weight and value.
Alright, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s get back to the topic at hand. Punching is one of the most basic and rudimentary fight techniques. I’m sure that prehistoric humans closed their fists to hit each other before language was even developed. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I may be old but I’m not THAT old. Give me a break, here…
But there is significant difficulty behind how a punch is supposed to happen and what the result may be. In considering my opening paragraph, what happens when someone is actually knocked out? The short of it, is that your brain moves around inside the skull and impacts with the sides. Once that impact occurs, the brain experiences trauma and brain cells start to die. Then, a combination of blood flow and neurotransmitter issues cause unconsciousness.
Now that the science of being knocked out is out of the way, quit yawning and take a sip of your coffee and listen to the important part. If you get knocked out as the result of a punch to the head, you SHOULD seek medical attention. Depending on how hard the punch is, there can be all sorts of permanent damage including but not limited to a concussion (which are not necessarily permanent but they are dangerous). But being knocked out will usually take several minutes to regain consciousness and once you do, its followed by confusion, lack of stability and balance. So what you see in the movies where someone gets knocked out then gets back up a few seconds later, full of indignation and ready to carry on is quite inaccurate.
Now that the target has been discussed, let’s cover the tool. Punching is a risky proposition. The human hand contains over two dozen bones, 8 of which make up the wrist. There are five metacarpals that constitute the palm with the remaining bones making up your fingers. The wrist and metacarpals are actually pretty delicate bones and require a little something extra in order to prevent fracturing and breaking if you’re to punch someone/something.
This is why proper bone alignment during a strike is so important, because it prevents such injuries. Martial artists will practice punching drills for hours where the proper alignment of the punch is engrained into our muscle memory so that when the moment comes to strike, the punch lines up without thought. This is why boxers and MMA fighters wrap their hands and wrists during training, because they focus on power as opposed to alignment and technique.
To be honest, unless you’re punching to the body or an area of soft tissue, a punch is a terrible technique to use on the head. Considering the fact that the head is wrapped in hard bone and is designed to protect the brain, coupled with the fact that your hand is chock full of tiny bones, throwing a punch to someone’s skull or even the jawline will likely cause injury to your hand. This is the part where you need to hope and pray that your first punch puts your opponent down.
The average punch, even from someone without training is strong enough to knock the average person out. Yes, I repetitively use the word “average” because every punch is different and everyone’s body is different. Something bear in mind. And I totally endorse the fact that the classic “action” scene where the two combatants exchange head strike after head strike without one of them going down can’t really happen. But should your strike not be strong enough, turns out to be a glancing blow or you just happen to be fighting someone with a thicker skull, you need to ensure your offensive tools remain intact long enough to survive the encounter.
All things being equal, if you NEED to strike the head I would recommend using an elbow strike. Yes, yes, an elbow strike means getting in closer to your opponent. But it also means less chance of injuring your hand and staying in the fight. An elbow strike doesn’t require bone alignment and your elbow is hard and stronger than you could possibly make your fist. If you plan on hammering a human skull, that would definitely be the better option. ☯