Punching: Everyone Knows How, Right?

God only trusted fangs and claws to those creatures He felt
were responsible enough to handle them.

It is an indisputable fact of life that the things we learn early on in any discipline, impact us the most in subsequent practice or application of that discipline. What we learn, for example, in elementary school, and especially in those early years, carries over well into high school and college. Our values, study habits, presuppositions and much, much more, are established largely during the first grades. This is because the lessons learned and habits acquired in those first years of study in any new subject somehow imprint on the individual's mind. The impressions made on that "clean blank slate"1 are pretty much permanent, and the things first written there, regardless of how often the slate is erased and written over, those things stay with us (sometimes haunting us) for years.

Moreover, that "clean blank slate" principle is independent of physical age and is repeatedly demonstrated throughout life when, for example, individuals join the military2, enter the work force for the first time, and, as applicable to our discussion, when they begin martial arts training. Regardless of one's age, when we begin anything new, our minds in that discipline or area of knowledge are in reality, clean blank slates, and the task is to fill it with training that will serve us well over the years, rather than struggling to undo bad habits acquired early — habits that will remain stubbornly persistent. All of this brings us to one of the first things taught in modern martial arts: Punching.3

Elbows are more powerful, heel-palms are as effective as the best punches (and much safer for your hands), kicking extends one's striking range (and it's a lot flashier to boot Smiley Face ), but punching remains a fundamental skill and a basis for most techniques. Still, as simple as punching may seem — everyone knows how, right? — teaching it involves three distinct and critical components:
1. Punching Practice
2. Forming The Fist
3. Punch Presentation

The first two components are practiced largely solo, that is, without a training partner; the third component is the place where a training partner becomes actively involved. In this article, we examine all three, but we will discuss each in the order of their complexity and criticality. Let's start with the simplest: Punching Practice.
Punching Practice
Punching practice is little more than punching with and without contact on a target — be it a makiwara (padded striking post used as a training tool in various styles of traditional karate), a boxing-type hanging heavy bag or a double-end bag, a wing chun-type training dummy, the modern "Bob Punching Dummy," or a live training partner (hopefully not a dummy).

Little more needs to be said about this kind of punching practice, but much more needs to be addressed about Forming the fist, and  Punch Presentation. Let us begin with the forming of the fist — for either striking or punching (two different things).

Traditional and Contemporary Training Dummies

Forming The Fist
A Fist For Striking or Punching?
In its most natural formation, a fist is made simply by curling or rolling your fingers in, closing your hand, and allowing your thumb to fold over your index finger thereby locking the whole package together. Such a fist is suitable for striking (making contact with the meat at the bottom of the fist — primarily the Abductor Digiti Quinti muscle), for we've all seen even little children4 striking others with such fists. However, such a fist may not be the best for punching (making contact with the boney metacarpophalangeal joints).
The Natural Fist

Doubtless, the natural clenched fist is suitable for striking as it works very well as a traditional hammerfist. However, it must be pointed out that the hammerfist does not strike with the knuckles. Striking with the knuckles requires changes in the fist's basic shape as well as in its alignment with regard to the intended target.

Since fangs and claws were entrusted only to those creatures that could responsibly handle them, and with the exception of the human brain (which far too many do not exercise sufficiently to avoid fights), what other natural, purely physical tools have humans for personal protection? The reality is that all we have physically are feeble, blunt-ended limbs suitable only for striking other humans.

Before smashing immediately into that, we really need to understand something about what usually precedes punching: Namely, grabbing. This is important because in a fight, grabbing inevitably leads to striking. Let's take a quick look at how grabbing and punching can be very smartly connected and combined, and just how that impacts forming the fist. Mention grabbing and most immediately think of our assailants grabbing us. However, in this discussion we need to consider how we should grab our assailants or anything else for that matter.
If you train for punching (ergo, striking with the knuckles), then the first thing that needs to be considered in grabbing is doing so without your thumb! This is necessary because in a fight, the thumb very naturally resists any quick release of the grasp — you will see how important that is shortly. Grasping without your thumb, allows you to quickly release your grip and move immediately to a blow (often the thing grasped is jerked out of our grips anyway). The fact is, using the thumb when grabbing actually makes us more inclined to hang on (a good thing if your opponent has a knife). Instead, in a self-defense situation, most of the time we do better if, when we meet resistance, we simply release our grasp, strike a good target, and return to a grasp as need and opportunity presents it.5
Instinctively, we tend to stick with our thumb-based grip because it is one of two reflexes with which we are born that remain with us our entire lives. What do I mean by "reflexes with which we are born?" Well, put a finger in a new-born's hand and what does the infant do? The child reflexively grasps it. The picture below is of Samuel Armus — a 21 weeks-old (inside the womb) child who was undergoing fetal surgery to correct spina bifida. At some point during the procedure, little Samuel's hand poked through the incision in his mother's womb and when Dr. Bruner offered his finger, the baby grasped it and held on.6

Samuel Armas grasping Dr. Joseph Bruner's finger.
Samuel Armus grasping Dr. Joseph Bruner's finger.
(Copyrighted photo used with permission of the photographer, Michael Clancy.)

That same natural reflex (even in an unborn child) is reinforced throughout our lives from finger grasping, to bottle holding, to eating, and even to holding your daily newspaper. Want proof? Ask yourself, what will you most likely do if someone pulls on the newspaper you are holding? Answer: Like most of us, you will try to hang on to it!

Punching In General
With the obvious exceptions of hanging on to your daily newspaper and those grappling arts where thumb placement is critical to various hand and wrist locks, in our training we should practice in a way that tricks our natural grasp reflex so that we don't instinctively grab and reflexively hang on. We can do this by grasping without the thumb. "Grasping Without The Thumb" does not have the same mental imprint in the brain, therefore it does not trigger our natural, "hang on" reflex. This means you won't reflexively fight as hard to retain what you're holding.

Grasping a chest without using the thumb. Grasping a chest without using the thumb
(think of it as digging like a back-hoe).
Grasping a neck without using the thumb. Grasping a neck without using the thumb
(very painful and even women can pull this off).
Recognizing full well that no grip is unbreakable, one can quickly release any thumbless, resisted or failed grasp, and roll right into a strike. You continue striking until another grasp opportunity presents itself and then, if you wish to, you grab again. Until then, you continue striking, which, by the way, "may" include punching.7

Although many practice punching by working a traditional heavy bag, double-end balls, and speed bags regularly, experience shows that there are much better weapons for empty-hand striking than the fists. For example, slapping can be surprisingly effective, and elbow strikes are, well, not so surprisingly, extremely effective. We will leave discussion of those weapons for another day, but for now, just recognize that "punching" is not the only striking method available to you. That said, a smartly delivered punch from a well-formed fist can be a very effective blow for an otherwise unarmed human. Since delivery, hand position, fist shape, and striking point all need to be understood when punching, let's look briefly at each.
A truly powerful punch MUST be fast. That fact comes from basic physics. The energy of a blow (its impact), depends on how fast the punch is thrown and how much weight is behind it. But between the two — velocity and mass — velocity is most important.8

So what is the key to velocity? First, never pull back or chamber your fist before striking. This should be obvious, but the "chambering" practice still plagues most Asian martial arts practitioners, running counter to the ancient Chinese monk and martial arts master who said, "If you want to get from point A to point B really fast, don't start by backing up!" Smiley Face

Chambering likely does not change the impact of the blow (i.e. the terminal velocity is equivalent). However, the time from the decision to punch to the landing of the actual punch is slower for the chambered blow. This is because the chambering or backing up to the chamber position, regardless of how quickly it is done, results in a longer elapsed time for the blow — not to mention the telegraph you send to your opponent informing him that the blow is coming. But let us set this issue aside for the moment and return to it later.

The second key to gaining velocity in punching is relaxation. Put simply, your hand should be open and remain so until milliseconds before striking your target. A tightly clenched fist may be strong (it works in arm wrestling) but, compared to a relaxed hand, it is very slow. The relaxed hand that clenches up only at the instant of impact is much faster. Beginners often use tightly clenched fists because they lack the necessary coordination to use a relaxed hand, but proper training should quickly overcome that. Try it yourself. Compare, for example, a traditional strong and tightly-clenched backfist blow to the head, with a relaxed, open-handed eye-flick. You will quickly see that a relaxed hand is much, much faster than a clenched one. That's Delivery. Let's move now to Hand Position by comparing horizontal and vertical punches.
Basic Hand Position: Horizontal and Vertical Punches
Basic Hand Position for a punch can be horizontal (with the palm of the hand facing down), uppercut (palm of the hand facing up), or vertical.9 In our school, when we punch we use a vertical fist 90% of the time. The remaining 10% of the time we use either an uppercut or a horizontal fist.

Horizontal Fist Horizontal Fist Vertical Fist Vertical Fist Uppercut Fist Uppercut Fist
Some use the horizontal fist for striking down into the assailant's groin and occasionally for going over a guard (what many call an overhand strike). To visualize the "overhand" strike, imagine a tight right hook delivered with a vertical fist. Then rotate your arm up, so the hook is on an overhead arc (the hook has its arc on a horizontal plane; the overhand has the same arc but on a vertical plane). Your once vertical-fist hook becomes a horizontal-fist when used "overhand."

A great advantage of the vertical punch is that it keeps your elbow down. This gives you a much stronger punch because, through the entire line of the blow, your fist is aligned with your elbow, shoulder, and hip. Horizontal punches simply do not line up that way. Moreover, combining vertical punch delivery with good structural body alignment (fist, elbow, and shoulder, with hip, knee, and foot — what we label as six points of alignment) results in really effective power delivery.

Beyond sound structural body alignment, the punch's power potential can be further enhanced by adding directional harmony to his blow. ("Directional harmony" is a Parker Kenpo term describing your body moving in "harmony" with some other action — in this case a punch). The directional harmony here is simultaneously shuffling toward your assailant, coordinated with hip rotation, and coupled with the synchronized extension of your fist to your target. Proper breathing (exhaling through the blow) is also necessary but really outside the scope of this discussion. (For more discussion on that element check out Martial Arts America: A Western Approach To Eastern Arts, Chapter 10.)
The Fist
Tying all this back to our discussion about grabbing, the vertical fist shown here has the practitioner's thumb on top of his fist. This means that going from open hand to closed fist happens in a single action, something that happens twice as fast as the natural fist's formation with its fingers rolled up followed by the thumb's reflexive lock-down. Because the thumb is placed on the top of the vertical fist, Okinawan players might see it as an Isshin-Ryu style fist,10 also known as a sun-fist11. They are correct as far as the thumb is concerned. The only difference is that in this fist, the fingers are not tucked in or otherwise "rolled up". Instead, the fingers are relaxed! (Some may know this fist as a tai chi or pakua "hollow fist".) Whether from tai chi or not, the term, "hollow fist" accurately captures the fist's structure for it is, indeed, hollow.

To visualize the hollow fist, begin with an open hand, then fold your fingers flat against your palm, as if trying to answer the Zen koan: "What's the sound of one hand clapping?" Smiley Face  The fingers lay flat against the palm, and your thumb (tucked in) rides the top of your fist. Whether vertical, horizontal, or uppercut, this is the fist many well-trained fighters use for all their punching.

Begin with open hand
Start with open hand
Begin forming a fist
Begin forming a fist
Vertical fist fully formed
Fist fully formed

Striking Point
Striking point is also important when punching. Striking "point" (singular) is emphasized here because the blow with this fist is made primarily using the center knuckle12 — the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint knuckle of the "Middle" or "Saturn" finger. If you must lean on another knuckle, then you use the index finger knuckle, but that is strictly secondary and not what you primarily want — ideally you want the center knuckle making the bulk of the contact on the target.

Some folks might ask, "Won't you break your fingers striking like that ... I mean, won't your fingers take the impact along with your knuckle?" Actually, no. What happens is that as the fingers are pressed, they almost flatten, and in the process, the knuckle is thrust deeper into the target.  

To visualize this, have one of your body-builder friends stand before you, squeezing his pectoral muscles together. Make a variety of standard fists and punch him in the sternum. (For this experiment you don't have to strike his sternum hard; you're just trying to see the kind of penetration each punch provides.)13

What you will find is that when the center knuckle of the vertical fist (a right fist in this example) makes good contact with the sternum on even a well-muscled chest, the opponent's right pectoral muscle makes contact with your fingers. Instead of causing your fist to rotate counter-clockwise (on a horizontal plane), as it would if your fingers were tightly rolled or tucked in, your fingers simply fold and the knuckle penetrates deeper — right into his sternum. Even though we are experimenting with a very specialized blow, it illustrates well how the fingers are not as vulnerable as some imagine. On top of this, the hollow fist actually does a better job of keeping the wrist properly aligned. Proof of that last point is easily found by doing so-called, "knuckle" push-ups.

When most folks do knuckle push-ups, they form a standard vertical fist (fingers tucked in, thumb wrapped over the index finger), then place their fists on the deck spreading the weight over the 8 knuckles of the entire fist. If you do that with your elbows and forearms close enough to touch your ribs (precisely what you want in a good vertical punch), you'll find your wrists are bent !! Instead, try the same push-up on just the one knuckle. Your wrist will be straight! (Sure, your wrist may be shaking at first, but better practice and conditioning will resolve that Smiley face.)

One more point before concluding this discussion: Let us look once more at the previously mentioned hammerfist. Early on we said that "the natural clenched fist is suitable for striking as it works very well in a traditional hammerfist." That statement remains true. What is timely to add here is the fact that the hollow fist can also be used to strike as a hammerfist. Just as traditional fists can be used to strike with knuckles as well as the hammerfist butt of the hand, so can the hollow fist. This means that training to use the hollow fist for punching does not imply that one needs a different fist for other blows made with the fist — like the hammerfist.

The hollow fist is as versatile as the natural fist, but just as it takes the child more effort to move up from crawling to walking to running, it takes a little more time to become completely comfortable with the hollow fist. That said, once you reach that level of confidence — just like the child who moves up from crawling to walking, you'll never want to return to crawling with that "natural" fist.
Punch Presentation
Punch Presentation is a term that describes how punches are presented or delivered to one's training partner when practicing, for example, self-defense techniques. Regardless of the Asian martial art studied (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, etc.), in most martial art schools today punches are presented in a way that has one student (the puncher, the one pretending to be the assailant) feeding his training partner (the punchee, the defender) essentially a right lunge punch: that is, the typical straight right punch delivered from a right lead.

Note: We use stick-figures to illustrate our points now because we wish to embarrass no one by asking them to be photographed demonstrating the following traditional punches.
Right Lunge Punch Ready To Begin Two players facing off in L/leads. Puncher advancing Halfway through the lunge. Right Lunge Punch Completed Traditional lunge punch completed.
This "traditional" presentation method has several problems, but a big one up front is the lunge. The typical lunge punch has the puncher starting in a left lead and delivering his right punch, while stepping all the way through to a right lead. From a punching perspective, that takes a long time! Some may argue that it delivers the most powerful blow. Even if that were true, if it was also effective, one would see it in the boxing ring. Anyone seeing that there? Since such a punch would break none of their rules, we would love to see it used effectively in mixed martial arts (MMA) matches — but alas, none have been used there either.

No such punches are used in boxing or MMA rings, so how about in traditional karate tournaments? Surely we would see them there. Not so. As a friend of mind living in Japan has said,

The right lunge punch does not work in karate sparring. All karate players know that, even if they don't admit it. How do they know? Like myself in the past, they all tried it in free sparring (usually done in all training) and it did not work at all. There is simply far too much telegraphing in it for the other guy to miss seeing it coming.

The right lunge punch is taught religiously in traditional martial arts, but it is just as religiously ignored by those seeking practical and effective self-protection skills. Though few will admit it, everyone knows it does not work, so no one actually uses it. But beyond the "lunge" part of the problem, there is another issue here: the fact that because the punch is a straight right punch, the defender facing such a blow is taught primarily to seek a position outside that incoming blow. Why? Because being outside that punch is simply a safer position than being inside it where one faces blows from both arms. While the desire to get outside any punch for reduced risk seems reasonable, the fact is, unless you expect to fight other "traditional" martial-art-trained assailants, very few of the punches fired in the street are ever really straight! Talk about reality conflicting totally with training!

Despite those irrefutable facts, straight right lunge punches are still practiced in many Asian martial arts. Why? Since the facts presented in this article will, by themselves, be downright offensive for many "martial artists" out there, we will not add more flame to the fire by providing "possible" reasons why they are taught and practiced the way they are. However, in fairness, we must add one flame-depressant: Straight right punches are actually good! Setting aside the lunge issue and teaching students to try to get outside such a punch, the fact remains, a straight right punch is a very effective way to deliver a blow. Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line — undeniable.

Compared to a haymaker, a straight punch is much quicker; it can also be much more powerful than the haymaker because the punching arm is actually supported by good alignment with the puncher's body (fist and elbow aligned with the torso). So while we do not see much practicality in the lunge (starting in a left lead and stepping through to a right lead), we definitely agree with the use of straight right punches; we even teach and practice them in a variety of ways. We simply refuse to deliver or present them as the bad guy would in self-defense applications. Instead, when practicing self-defense techniques, we have the puncher start in a left lead and fire his right punch while remaining in that lead. The following three figures illustrate this.

Ready position: Real Right Punch Typical face off:
assailant and defender in left leads.
Defender Blocking Assailant closing the gap.
Real Punch Completed Defender blocks inside the punch
(ready to fire his right punch).
Training with your assailant in a left lead is critical because the overwhelming majority of opponents whom you will face, deliver their right punches from left leads. Understand that world wide, left-handers range from as low as 3.4 percent of the population to as high as 27 percent. The world-wide average is generally accepted to be around 13 percent. Of that 13 percent, half are actually raised to be right-handers. That means that of those we might face in the street, 87 percent will be natural right-handers with an even greater 93.5 percent actually facing us in a left lead! Because of that, in our training, while we practice most of our hand drills with each player in a right lead14, when it comes to practicing self-defense techniques, we almost always have the one playing the assailant delivering his right cross or haymaker from a left lead. This way the student seeking self-defense skills becomes far more comfortable actually getting inside the incoming blow. And there is a bonus with this method of training. Such a defense strategy actually handles all presented punches: crosses, haymakers, and even straight rights.

Speaking of a bonus, in the three figures that follow, you will see the assailant (on the left) in his left lead, facing the defender in a right, strong-side forward lead. As pointed out earlier, we believe straight right punches are superior to crosses and even more circular haymakers, but they are even more powerful and quicker if they are fired from a right lead (something like a boxer's jab, but far more effective than that range gauge because the defender's punch in this example is straight, with the fist vertical, and maximum hip and shoulder rotation capability). And there is a bonus above all that! If the defender advances, shuffling forward while delivering his right punch, he is very likely to step on his assailant's lead foot — something far less likely when both are in left leads! We know. We do it all the time Smiley Face.

Ready position: Real Right Punch Assailant in left lead;
defender in a right.
Puncher Advancing, Defender Blocking Assailant closes the gap
with his punch;
defender blocks it with block-left.
Real Punch Completed Defender now advances
(shuffles forward)
with a straight right punch.

We could go on and on about our critical components (Punching Practice, Forming the Fist, and Punch Presentation), but why? The issues and arguments presented are both clear and concise. Traditional Asian martial arts teachers have never provided logical answers and responses to these issues. Never! Oh some have provided illogical and weak answers, but no one on their side of the issue has ever provided an answer that both proves their punch presentation to be effective and explains why professional boxers and MMA players do not use those "straight right lunge punches" in their contests — much less in their own traditional karate tournaments. For us then, we think we can rightly say, "enough said."
The Punch Line
Unlike the boxer, for the martial artist the punch is only one of the many weapons available for a fight. Still, a properly formed fist moving quickly and striking the right target with the right form behind it can make for one very devastating blow — a blow that can end most fights quickly. Hopefully, you now realize that the forming of the fist is far and away different from the natural fist that so many try to make fit for punching. Making a fist suitable for punching involves an understanding of how the human hand grasps, as much as knowing the best way to form this primary striking tool. Doubtless, some will argue that training your fist like this is a waste of time, but do not these same individuals work just as hard to train their bare feet to strike using a variety of surfaces and positions (for front, side, hook, and round house kicks)? Whether you agree or no, at least you have the facts and reasons. If you disagree, don't just dismiss all this. Come up with your own thoughtfully reasoned counter arguments. If nothing else you'll be smarter for it and you may even punch better.

Hopefully, you have also seen how punch presentation is so absolutely drop-dead critical when it comes to self-defense. No matter how you form your fist, if your training prepares you for totally unrealistic assaults, then you will be shocked (not to mention, smitten) by how the thug in the street struck you. The reality is that what we see in our training and how we are taught to respond to that, becomes both habits and reflexes. What we do in diligent training will be what we do in the street. For the teachers out there, we sincerely ask, if you teach for self-defense, please make every effort to present the most common human blow — the punch — as realistically as possible. Doing so will actually save lives.


Footnotes (along with a few feeble attempts at humor)
  1. The Blank Slate theory or Tabula rasa (Latin for blank slate) has been around for literally thousands of years and essentially refers to the mind in its hypothetical primary blank or empty state before receiving outside impressions.
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  2. Tough training in boot camp followed immediately by Infantry Training Regiment (ITR), is probably the biggest reason why United States Marines are so awesome in combat. The toughness, tenacity, and basic combat skills are first ingrained within those earliest months of training right on that "clean blank slate."
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  3. More than a few Modern martial arts are taught differently from the way the same arts were taught 100 or more years ago. A century ago, weapons were often taught before empty hand. In those days practically everyone carried a weapon of some kind and expected to use that weapon when attacked by a likewise-armed assailant. In those days empty hand training was your backup. In most modern "civilized" societies, the citizenry is largely unarmed, so modern martial art training makes empty hand instruction the primary focus, with weapons training being relegated to secondary.
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  4. Like biting, few (if any) ever teach their children to strike with the natural fist (what most martial artists call a hammerfist). Untrained little kids strike with the "natural," hammer-like fist just as naturally as they would bite. Smiley Face
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  5. I reinforce this habit in my gym workouts by not using my thumb to grasp any bar, weight, or dumbbells.
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  6. Obviously, little Samuel's hand was too small for him to place his thumb around the other side of the good doctor's finger, but the grasping reflex remains, nevertheless, unlearned, instinctive and otherwise completely natural.
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  7. As we indicated earlier, there are better, more powerful, and safer tools for striking than punching with the fist. The first hand strike that comes to mind is the heel-palm. It is as powerful as a punch and much safer for the user since the fingers and knuckles are far less us susceptible to being broken during the blow.
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  8. Kinetic Energy is the energy of motion. This energy is equal to half of the object mass multiplied by its velocity squared or K = ½ mv2.
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  9. Obviously, the fist position can range anywhere from the horizontal punch to uppercut punch positions, but these three are generally recognized as basic or reference punching positions.
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  10. Shangtung kuntao players make a similar fist.
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  11. The Chinese character for sunChinese character for 'sun' ) with its 3 horizontal lines and two vertical lines, resembles a vertical fist with the its three lines formed by the gaps between the fingers, and the two vertical lines delimiting the sides of the fist.
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  12. The single knuckle striking point should NEVER be used to strike the bonier parts of an assailant's head. The circular shape of the human skull is designed to take (and preferably deflect) blows delivered to it. The single knuckle punch (or any punch for that matter) is really intended to strike targets inferior to it — not superior. Anyone training to successfully strike superior (harder, denser) targets is training for early arthritis in the knuckles. Serious martial arts training is supposed to teach the practitioner how to hurt the other guy — not yourself!
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  13. Besides, hit your body-builder friend too hard and he may pull your arms and legs off. Smiley Face 
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  14. We practice our hand drills with each player in a right lead primarily because ours is a strong-side forward [meaning "right side forward"] school. As such, from our right lead we fire very quick and highly effective straight punches from our lead right hand.
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Our  emphasis  is  on  the  practical.
©Copyright Bob Orlando, 2009-2016
All rights reserved.
E-mail: Ron@OrlandoKuntao.com
Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.