No, I’m not being lewd or dirty-minded. I’m referring to something world-renowned but often disputed in martial arts circles. I’m talking about Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch. Depending on what circles you walk with, you may have grown up in the 70’s and 80’s watching movies such as Enter the Dragon, Fist of Fury and Game of Death. I loved those movies and spent my childhood throwing out my forefist, pretending I WAS Bruce Lee.
Lee is well-known for his fighting prowess, even to those who don’t travel in martial arts circles. And one of his best known techniques, famous even by today’s standards, is his one-inch punch. People are always quick to associate this technique to Lee, despite the fact that the one-inch punch is well-known in many traditional styles of Chinese martial arts. So the question is: does the one-inch punch actually work?
As you can see from the included YouTube clip, Lee is shown as able to impact a target from only an inch away, hence the name of the technique. The strike then sends a fully grown male staggering back into the waiting chair and sends him sliding back several inches while seated. The thing I like about this clip is that they show it in slow motion, allowing a trained martial artist to see exactly what may be going on when Lee executes the technique.
According to an article posted by Popular Mechanics, “[…] you first have to understand how Bruce Lee delivers the blow. Although Lee’s fist travels a tiny distance in mere milliseconds, the punch is an intricate full-body movement.” The article goes on to quote Jessica Rose, a Stanford University biomechanics engineer who points out that Lee’s technique starts with his legs. And that’s quite accurate. If you watch the video closely, you notice that Lee starts by carefully setting himself up and lining his entire body. This is followed by the explosive straightening of the knees, swivel to the hips, turning of the shoulders and straightening of the arm to deliver the punch.
It’s a matter of simple physiques. After all, Newton’s second law of motion tells us that Force equals the mass of an object multiplied by its total acceleration. So despite Lee’s average stature and slim musculature, the faster the fist travels, the bigger the expelled force once it impacts against its target. And all the individual components (legs, hips, torso, shoulders, arms) add to the total acceleration of Lee’s fist, prior to impact. This means that not only is the one-inch punch possible, it’s easily explainable with high school physics. Who knew?
It all comes down to proper bone alignment and velocity. That’s what makes it happen. Even in Uechi Ryu Karate, we train with a specific technique where we perform a structured, uppercut punch to the floating rib that looks suspiciously like a bastardization of the one-inch punch. We execute the technique by forcing from the thigh and hip, allowing all the major muscle groups to lend force to the fist, which is usually braced to the hip at the elbow. It’s effective and debilitating to one’s opponent.
This isn’t to mean that just anyone can do it. It actually takes years of training and precision to develop the technique in such a way that it can be effective in an actual fight. Even if it looks like the fist is only travelling an inch in distance, all the necessary parts require a whole lot of coordination. And even then, I wouldn’t use it. Gross motor function is always preferable over fine motor skill when it comes to a fight. If you have to take the time to line up your attack before you do it, it’s already too late.
It’s important not to believe everything you see in the movies. Especially martial arts movies, where the techniques and fights are grossly exaggerated. But as far as my personal jury goes, Lee is the genuine article and his one-inch punch is very real. It takes a lot of training and skill to properly execute it, but it’s real. At the risk of once again sounding lewd, for some people, one inch is enough. ☯