You Say “To-May-To,” I Say “To-Mah-To”

A punch is a punch. Until you learn that it isn’t. To the untrained eye, nothing seems quite so basic as throwing a punch. But in reality, there are many small intricacies involved in the proper execution of a punch. Keeping the fist tight, proper bone alignment and technique are all critical aspects to making sure that your target will feel your strike as opposed to pointing and laughing as you sprain/break your wrist, fingers and/or knuckles against a hard, bony surface. So keeping this in mind, different styles train to throw a punch in different ways. This has been widely debated and written about, so I’m not providing anything original here; simply putting in my two cents. I’m referring to punching with your fist vertically or horizontally.

Example of a horizontal punch. You can ignore the terrible guard by sticking the other fist against the face!

In Uechi-Ryu karate, I’ve always been trained to punch horizontally. This means that my arm extends and the hand is horizontal to the ground, with the two foreknuckles of the fist being used as the striking surface. It’s what I’ve been training to do for over thirty years. For the most part, it’s always served me well and has always seemed to be effective (as effective as an individual person CAN make their punch).

Over the years as I’ve studied and examined other styles, I’ve come to realize that there are a number of different martial arts that use a vertical fist as opposed to a horizontal one. This means that the arm extends and the hand is vertical, with the striking surface being the last three knuckles of the hand. Some styles will still use the two foreknuckles for a vertical punch, but I personally feel it forces me to turn my wrist downward, compromising proper bone alignment. But to each their own… So, which is better? IS there a better one? Interestingly enough, I’ve used and trained with both.

Probably one of the most famous examples of a vertical punch, is Bruce Lee. yes, yes, I know… Not everything martial arts related needs to be compared to Bruce Lee. But the reality is he represents one of the clearest and easiest examples of the vertical punch, a fact that confirms that many (if not most) kung fu styles rely on this method. There are some benefits to vertical punching. Of most importance, it feels like a faster punch, as it relates to how it’s executed. Maybe that’s all in my head. But I definitely feel as though I can execute more vertical punches in the same amount of time than horizontal punches.

Another important issue is the fact that a vertical punch involves less telegraphing of the strike, since the elbow stays down. Considering most students train poorly during repetitive drills and tend to throw out their elbows when executing a horizontal punch. This is an important aspect, especially as it relates to letting your opponent know what’s coming. It also opens up your rib cage in an extremely uncomfortable way. Unless you train and execute for the horizontal punch correctly. You can do the horizontal punch without your elbow flaring out, and in fact you should!

Not all styles of karate use a horizontal punch. In fact, Isshin Ryu is a style of Okinawan karate that originates from very much the same source as my own style. They use a vertical punch that has a unique thumb placement involving pressing the thumb down on top of the second knuckle of the index finger. Many styles of martial arts use a vertical punch, but Isshin Ryu has made a point of having it as their way of doing it, with a unique twist.

A great article posted on Jesse Enkamp’s blog (KARATEbyJesse) outlines some of the differences, pros and cons of horizontal vs. vertical punching. Depending on the martial artist you speak to, everyone has their preference. Especially as it relates to their specific training. What’s important to remember is that just because a technique is done differently than how you’ve been taught, that doesn’t make it bad or incorrect. It’s all in how you execute it. As Jesse pointed out in the last sentence of the linked post above, “The tool depends on the target.” ☯

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I am a practitioner of the martial arts and student of the Buddhist faith. I have been a Type 1 Diabetic since I was 4 years old and have been fighting the uphill battle it includes ever since. I enjoy fitness and health and looking for new ways to improve both, as well as examining the many questions of life. Although I have no formal medical training, I have amassed a wealth of knowledge regarding health, Diabetes, martial arts as well as Buddhism and philosophy. My goal is to share this information with the world, and perhaps provide some sarcastic humour along the way. Welcome!

2 thoughts on “You Say “To-May-To,” I Say “To-Mah-To””

  1. Kenpo uses both, and it was indeed taught that the target dictates the type of punch.

    Yes, I’m back and so is my color commentary, lol. πŸ™‚

    The one thing I’d caution against is the vertical punch with the top two knuckles. The vertical punch works because the bottom 3 fingers are in alignment with the wrist joint / bones. Power transfers in a straight line up the arm and through the fist. As you pointed out, using the top two fingers for a vertical punch also creates a subconscious urge to cock the wrist, and lead to injuries. My (idiot) ex nearly broke a wrist that way in our Wing Chun classes. Actually just badly jammed it up. Luckily Sifu Fong was equally good with Acupressure and similar treatments.

    Odd that the problem doesn’t happen with using the first two knuckles when punching horizontally though. *shrug* πŸ™‚

    Keeping a tight fist… I’ve seen a few books advocate keeping a just slightly loose fist right up until right before striking. Tension is a big enemy of speed, so it makes sense. I’ve tried it with some success. The idea scares most instructors though. Scared of injuries and the related lawsuits. Can’t say as I blame them given the focus of the average kid forced into classes.


    1. I use both, as well. It all depends on the situation. That being said, the two foreknuckles are used in a horizontal punch because proper bone alignment occurs differently for both punches based on the pivotal axis of the arm. During a vertical punch, the three last knuckles are lined up with the bones of the forearm. During a horizontal punch, the fist turns so that the top of the fist is properly lined up.

      A lot of styles keep their fist loosely held until the moment of impact, resulting in a bit of a snap. It can lend some added speed, I agree. But keeping the fist well tightened and adding some power usually makes up for it. Granted, different styles have different approaches.

      Good to have you back!


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