The human hand is a wonderful thing and is comprised of almost three dozen bones. Some of those are pretty damn small, making your hands some of the most delicate appendages on your body. Our hands are used for a number of things that we often don’t realize and take for granted. For example, your arms and hands are responsible for helping you with balance when you walk, run and even while standing. None of which mentions that you need your hands to pick your nose and eat burgers. But I digress…
Given that they’re comprised of so many small bones and have those brittle, breakable fingers on them, why do we depend on hands so much in the fighting arts? This is pretty bold talk, coming from the guy who studies a martial arts style directly translated as the “way of the empty hand.” But it’s not so much the use of one’s hands that’s the issue. It’s the WAY and manner in which we use those hands that’s important. And that reminds me of a story. Buckle up!
Decades ago, I was a green belt in class with Sensei and one of the brown belts. It was a quiet night of just the three of us, and the brown belt was slated to test for black belt within the next month or so. As such, Sensei’s attentions were focused on him for the evening while I was relegated to a corner to practice forms on my own. I was fine with this since, as you all know, I love forms. But I was also keeping an unseen eye on the two of them as they were caught in a rather heated sparring match.
As their speed and movements increased, the brown belt tried to perform a grab of some sort. I can’t be sure if he was trying to grab Sensei’s sleeve of gi jacket, but it didn’t work. Sensei isn’t one for sitting still and he kept moving as the brown belts hands was still trying to get a grip (pun fully intended). Two things happened simultaneously: Sensei executed a strike against the brown belt AND the brown belt’s pinkie finger snagged in the open mouth of Sensei’s sleeve and snapped.
The brown belt made every effort to conceal how much pain he was in, but it was very clear that the finger had broken. He and Sensei stepped out so that Sensei could drive him to the hospital to get splinted. It was one of the first times I was left completely alone in the dojo, which was interesting to say the least. And it gave me a wake-up call very early (or what felt early) in my martial arts career about the importance of hand placement and guarding one’s fingers.
Depending on the style you study, an open hand may be necessary. It rather hard to perform proper technique in a grappling style with closed fists. On the flip side, it can be a bit difficult to practice a striking art with your hands wide open. For a style like Uechi Ryu, that combine strikes, grappling and pressure points, it can become a little bit convoluted as you’ll need to combine all of those things. But even while using ANY open-hand technique, the important part is to properly protect your fingers. A broken finger isn’t lethal, by any means. But the pain can be enough of a distraction to cost you dearly in a real fight.
I’m not often a big fan of kicks and I usually favour hand techniques in lieu, especially since raising one’s foot off the ground places all your weight and your centre of gravity on one leg. This leaves you vulnerable and isn’t a comfortable position to be in. That being said, I usually prefer a solid punch or an elbow to using open-hand techniques because I like my fingers and don’t want them breaking. At the end of the day, there’s no easy solution to this dilemma, if you study the martial arts.
You can see Master Uechi’s hand positioning in the photo above. Notice the open left hand while he delivers an empi (elbow strike) with the right arm. Far be it from me to question the way a master places his hands, but those spread fingers make me nervous. Sensei has taught us that above all else, keep the thumb tight against the palm and the fingers pressed together. It’s comparable to bamboo; a single finger can be weak but all four fingers combined will be much stronger.
So, that’s the take home lesson in this instance. I always like to relate things back to the street and in an actual street-based altercation, technique and style usually go out the window in favour of just staying alive. This is why muscle memory and training drills are so important. And if it means life or death, a distraction can mean the difference between walking away or being put down. Protect those fingers, people!