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Power is extremely important to any Martial Arts. Power alone can change a confrontation from victory to defeat. A martial artist trains for years to hone his or her body into such a weapon. What, though, is power? This is often thought of as muscle power, or brute strength, or size alone. A new student to the martial arts will undoubtedly come to this question sooner or later. What makes a technique powerful?

It's not an idle question. When training martial arts, most instructors have an intuitive grasp of what makes a technique stronger. The problem for a new student is that the only recourse is to rely on the authority argument. If I practice the way the instructor says, then I will generate power. While true in most cases, this site is geared toward critical thinking. Wouldn't it be better to know what makes power, as opposed to taking someone else's word for it? Well, yes, I admit, the underlying physics involved is mathematically based, but that's covered elsewhere. Here, the goal is to show how to approach the question: How do I generate power?

What is power?

How hard does a punch have to be to be powerful? That's actually not an easy question to answer. Most people think of a punch as a straight or curved movement of the arm that's intended destination is, typically, the chin of the opponent, though any vital point will work. It's usually delivered quickly, and the goal is a knock out. Does a punch only become powerful when a knockout occurs? If that's our hypothesis, then we could simply find a large sample of volunteers, and automated punching machine (obviously we want to control the force and speed of the "punch"), and maybe a few paramedics for laughs. Ramp up the power for each set of tests to determine when the average force is reached that will result in a knockout from a blow delivered to the jaw. Is this our definition of powerful, then? If so, phew!, then everyone knows exactly what they have to do. Buy a force meter, and punch until you meet that goal.

While a noble experiment (one that I would love to know the outcome for, though for pesky ethical reasons it might be hard to conduct such a test), there are several problems here. Let's take the same sample size above and change the target to the groin. (Assuming everyone is male, though women don't get a free card in this area, either.) For the sake of argument, let's use the same machine and record the force necessary to get the person to fall to the ground. Is this the measure of power, now? Maybe a technique that is only powerful enough to break concrete will meet the definition, though this is presumably more powerful than necessary to drop someone with a technique to the groin.

The only real definition for power for martial arts is that it's the force that gets the job done. People have different body types and sizes, and so it's impossible to put a gold standard of what powerful is, even though everyone can usually point it out when they see (or feel) it. As a general rule of thumb, the larger a person is, the more powerful the techniques they can land. This is simple physics, and the primary reason why most professional fighting systems are divided into weight classes. If you're a small person, you have an intrinsic disadvantage in that you do not have as much mass to accelerate. This doesn't mean that a smaller fighter can't beat a larger one (happened all the time in the early UFC), but with a disparity in force comes inherently more danger for the smaller fighter. With reasonably similar skill sets, the larger fighter will be able to deliver more power, and this will result in disproportionally more damage being inflicted on the smaller fighter. This stinks if you're not a larger person, but then consider that a larger person has to pay for that extra energy somehow. The smaller fighter will be faster at all times because he has to accelerate less mass, and much more likely to fight for longer periods than the larger fighter (assuming he's been eating his Wheaties and doing his workouts). What each fighter must do, then, is simply generate the maximum power their body type will allow and use that power where it will be most effective. (I realize that "soft" martial arts styles prefer redirection, lockouts, and more subtle techniques to overcome size disadvantages, but this section is titled the Riddle of Power, not the Riddle of Subtly. For now, we're only assuming that the goal is to deliver the pain!)

The Power of Physics

Let's just start with something very simple, say your fist. Our goal to is to make this fist the best possible weapon we can manage. What makes it a weapon? The knuckles are hard, right? Assuming a speed of forty kilometers per hour (25mph), would you rather get hit by a rock weighing one kilogram (about 2lbs) or a cloud 5 kilometers across weighing a thousand kilograms? What you don't want to get hit with should be what you do what to hit with, so the harder the striking object, the better it is. Your weapon is only as good as it's contact area. If you do not condition your knuckles, hitting something with them will be a very unpleasant thing to do. Even conditioned knuckles aren't enough, as the hand is simply a collection of numerous small bones, a veritable cornucopia of potentially broken ones, to be exact. A tight fist hitting straight with the wrist on a set of conditioned knuckles are the essentials.

As a thoughtful martial artist, you certainly have a right to ask why a tight fist is better than a lose one. I stated above that a lose fist is a potentially easy way to break some of those delicate bones in the hand. Why? It may seem obvious to you, but consider this scenario. Drop a piece of glass on the floor vs. a towel. Which one is going to get damaged? Glass is harder than a towel, but it does not take the impact well. Its brittleness is why it breaks, and presumably making anything tighter (like your first) will make it more brittle. A tight fist will be harder, but that does mean that enough force can break the bones in the hand. (Newton's third law!) A lose fist only opens up the opportunity to put more pressure on individual bones, or turn or twist things in a nasty way. A lose fist is "worse" from a power perspective by "giving" in that the power is applied over a longer period (while you hand is getting compressed). Boxing gloves are designed this way. Instead of a sudden (and much more satisfying) smash when they hit, they take the energy of the blow and spread it out over more time. In short, power is equal to (force times distance)/time. As time gets smaller, power gets larger.

So a tight fist is better, right? Well, yes, in some cases. If you're going to hit something hard, like bone or concrete, then the brittleness of the hand comes into play again. Professional fighters tape their hands heavily before any fights, and this is the reason. Barehanded fights would result in vastly more broken hands (and faces, but we don't care about that in a discussion on delivering power). Evolution did not prepare us for being pile drivers. In that case, you need something not quite as brittle, and your palm is a great substitute. (Delving into detail like this is a hallmark of critical thinking. The worst thing you can do is to simply accept whatever you're told without question. If you, or your instructor, cannot answer the following question, then something is wrong: "This is right because...")

So what else is involved in a punch that will make it more powerful? Turns out that there's quite a bit. Improve any part, and the whole will be better.

We can use physics to get a better idea of what makes a strike do anything at all. We've already covered how mass and speed can influence the momentum of an object in Mass and Collisions, and how to affect the force felt by an object when it is hit. Intuitively, it is clear that the faster something moves, the more damage it can do. This is why something as small as a loose screw can seriously damage a space vehicle. I imagine space screws aren't significantly more massive than they are on Earth, but they can be moving a lot faster.

Speed isn't everything, though. To see why, we'll examine the equation that governs the force felt by an object when it is struck. As we saw in Breaking, the equation is:

Equation 5: Force

F = Force, p = momentum, t = time

We used this equation to explain why a swift change in time, and a large change in momentum, resulted in a powerful strike. You can maximize the force by moving as fast as possible and transferring that energy over as short a time as possible. In practice, though, this is a lot harder than it seems. The denominator of the equation is the hard part, as it requires that you minimize the time of the strike itself. This is a mathematical representation of the discussion about the fist above. The less time, the more force. This is why faster is better, but it doesn't explain how.

So, how does one make his or her punch as fast as possible? First, let me digress into a tinsy bit more math. Assume you are standing in a train car. The train is moving at 50 kilometers per hour. Now, walk towards the front of the train, say at 5 kph. Finally, throw a punch as you're walking, and for arguments sake we'll say it's at 40 kph. What speed is your hand moving relative to someone at rest outside of the train? They are all going in the same direction, so you simply add them together.

50 kph + 5 kph + 40 kph = 95 kph

What this is representing is a concept called summation of velocity. Relative to the person outside of the train, your punch is traveling very fast - 95 kilometers per hour! It does so because every individual speed contributes to the overall velocity of the hand.

Obviously, we don't usually have trains handy to accelerate our bodies to increase the speed, but we have other things. Moving forward quickly will always increase the speed of your punch by that much. Another thing used by all advanced practitioners of punching is the motion of the hips. To illustrate, stand right in from of a wall with your arms outstretched so they both touch the wall. Now, turn your hips so one side faces the wall. Your fist should hit the wall, which means it's moving forward. It is more speed for your punch. Let's take our previous example of summation of velocity and apply it to this. To increase the speed of your punch, you have these factors:

  • The speed your arm extends outward
  • The speed you are moving forward
  • The speed gained in the shoulders from the rotation of the hip

To make your punch faster, you have at least three factors that can all contribute to making your punch as powerful as possible. If your goal is to make your punch stronger, you now have three things to work on. How exactly you get all these things to line up so they contribute to a punch is your job. Knowing what you have to do is the first step, but only practice and repetition (lots and lots of it) will give you the power you seek.

For a moment, let's go on a side-track. I've mentioned this before, but Qi is often used in martial arts as some kind of mystical energy that can be channeled to make your techniques stronger. I'm sorry to say that Qi is as likely to be real as fairy dust. The problem lies in the details. How do you really know something? Let's take the two competing hypothesis, which is good ol' plain science and Qi. Physics says that if your fist goes a certain speed it will have a given momentum, and therefore a given force. You can measure this. It will come out to be just what the math tells you it is. (Go ahead! Do some experiments! Be warned, though, that you really do need to learn the math to do it right.) What does Qi say? You focus it! How do you focus it? By channeling it! How do you channel it? By summoning it! How do you summon it??? This argument will go on ad infinitum, because there is no real explanation. It's supposed to be energy, but what does that mean? Banish all thoughts of a warm glowing energy field. You're either thinking of plasma or have watched too many science fictions movies (ahem, somewhat guilty here...) The concept of Qi just doesn't cut it when you base it on hard observation and learning. How do you punch faster? Biologists can tell you that by repeatedly punching, you build up the twitch muscles and make them denser. A muscle that has been used repeatedly for a technique will activate all of the muscle fibers in a shorter amount of time. How does science know this? Because scientists can look at these effects. They are demonstrable. They are repeatable, and most importantly, they are measurable. That's the power of science, and why Qi cannot compete. Wave your hands all you want, you will have a hard time providing a real explanation of Qi.

The story of power does not end here, though. Speed is an important consideration of a powerful punch, but if you're an advanced practitioner, you're undoubtedly thinking that a lot of important details are missing. That's obviously correct, but the point of this chapter is to show how critical thinking can make you think about how to make your techniques more powerful. If you're just trying to read something and be told, then you're missing the point. For deeper understanding, learn by reason and evidence. The next few paragraphs will provide a list, by no means comprehensive, or things that you can try to do to increase the power of your punch. (Note that this also applies with kicks, knees, elbows, and any other kind of strike!)

Are you relaxed?

What does relaxation have to do with a punch? The point is to use all your power and push as hard as you can, right? While true, most people don't do it right. As an example, if you accelerate a car, what is it that prevents a car from going faster? Clearly you have to obey Newton's laws, so to accelerate the car it has to translate a force from the engine to the wheels to push the car forward. Never mind the complex interaction between the wheels and the ground, the end result is forward movement. Let's say this is the muscle of your arm pushing forward as if you were doing a punch. Seems straight forward, but then when you consider the car, you have other things that may prevent the car from going forward. The axels of a car are not completely frictionless, so they slow the car's acceleration. The car has to push through the air to accelerate, which is also slows down the acceleration. There are other things too, but the critical bit is that the engine had to overcome some other opposing forces in order to accelerate the car. You punch is the same, and if you are not relaxed, you provide your own retardant force to slow down your punch. A good punch is one where only the muscles needed to push the punch are active and the opposing muscles are completely relaxed. Any stiffness at all, and you're simply robbing yourself of speed and therefore power. Relaxation is huge when it comes to speed.

Don't you need to be "solid" when you land a punch?

If you're punching something and you're standing on one foot, what happens? Most likely, if it is a good punch, you are going to go backwards. Any martial arts school will tell you the importance of a good solid foundation to throw your techniques from. Usually it's taught in the form of a formal stance. The point of the stance is to make sure that Newton's law for equal and opposite reaction does not interfere with the power of the punch. When you hit something, whatever you're hitting will push back on you with the same amount of force. If you are pushed backward by that force, then you lose energy in your punch and it is less powerful. To visualize why, any punch, no matter how fast, transfers its force over a given period of time. Transfer of force is not instantaneous, and so while you do want to make this time period as short as possible, you're still going to have some interval of time. If your stance is not solid, than during the transfer of force you may get pushed back when your punch lands and so you will no longer be delivering the same force over that same interval of time.

Think of it like this. At the beginning, which I'll call T1, you are delivering a force of X onto the target. If you stance is not solid, Newton's law indicates that by T2, the middle, you are no longer delivering a force of X, but maybe 0.9 * X. By time T3, your force is now 0.5 * X, or only half of what it was. If you're in a solid stance, then you reduce the amount of force you lose during the punch. No matter how hard you can punch, if you can back it up by absorbing the force being directed back at you, then you'll deliver more force, and more power, during the technique.

Hey, didn't you just contradict yourself with those last two questions?

Good question (assuming you thought of it.) If you're in a solid stance, and presumably holding yourself rigid enough to counteract the force being directed back into your first, then how can you be relaxed? Don't think of relaxation in the normal vernacular. Someone lounging on the beach may be relaxed, but then so can a martial artist during a fight. It's not a matter of going limp, but using only the tension required for each circumstance. Just because you're relaxed does not mean you don't have any muscle tensed. It's just that tense muscles, though they add power and stability, also have drawbacks. They slow you down when they are not necessary. Opposing muscles should not both be tight, or one will fight against the other, unless you goal is to be solid. Another reason is that tensed muscles are using energy. Presumably, it would be better to use that energy to smash your opponent's head than simply holding your arms rigid when they don't need to be. Stay too tense, and you'll get fatigued just standing in a fighting stance.

When you punch, you will use every bit of power your muscles generate. You will tighten your legs and your torso to counteract the force of the punch. But, that's it! If your punching with your right arm and your left arm is flexed, you're wasting energy. Unless it's contributing, keep it relaxed! This relaxation is very difficult to achieve, and normally martial arts students don't even recognize what it means for a very long time. Don't take this a discouragement, though. Once you get it, you will have more power.

I don't like all these math concepts, and martial arts schools can teach this stuff without it, so why should I even care?

Changes are if you've made it this far you probably already know or at least don't run away in terror from a few numbers. The truth is that you can improve your power without even the slightest knowledge of what exactly is making your punch stronger. If you were to throw 10,000 punches ever day for the next 10 years, chances are you're probably going to have a good punch by the end. Without instruction, though, you'll have to figure out the details of making the punch stronger yourself. You may realize, after the 324,947th punch, that turning the hips adds power. What if someone asked you why? You can respond and say the hips add power, but then that's not an explanation. Do you simply say using the hips channels the Qi? Does it draw subspace away from the target, thereby making your punch stronger? You should already know the answer, turning the hips increases the speed of the punch. It wouldn't be hard to show why (the angular velocity of the turning hips translates directly into linear velocity in your arm), and knowing this makes it easier to get the technique. Instead of 324,947 punches to realize that the hips add power, why not have this in mind beforehand?

Some of you are probably thinking that any good instructor is going to tell you use your hips when you punch. You still get the information you need, right? Yes you do, but then you don't know why. Knowing why something works isn't just useless trivia. If you keep these same things you learned in mind, then you can apply it to other techniques. This is where the power of it comes in, and this is huge. Knowing why things works gives you the ability to generate new knowledge yourself. This is the difference between real science and simply some stagnate knowledge base.

Consider this simplistic scenario. You're practicing a self-defense technique that you don't think will work very well. Let's say it's a delicate trip that requires you to unbalance you opponent. If you were the type of martial artist that simply copied the moves you were shown, you would either conclude that the technique is very difficult or useless. Perhaps there is more at play then you realize, however. What if there is a critical piece you're missing (a pull or tug at the right point) that makes the technique work? If you do not even ask these types of questions, then you are stuck with only the knowledge that you are told. This can work for lots of things, but why not empower yourself with the ability to ask and answer these kinds of questions? When you get to this stage, this is where the real answer to the riddle of power becomes clear. It's not simply learning a few tips that will make you stronger, but a whole new process of generating those tips yourself that will make you stronger.

Most of the time, the answer lies in a basic knowledge of physics. Of course, it should be obvious that you don't need to generate all new knowledge yourself. That would be silly, especially if, as a student, your instructor can tell you the answer. But where this runs counter to the argument I'm presenting here is when you accept knowledge simply for the sake of it coming from a trusted source. If you source provides an answer that works, then that's great, however, if the answer doesn't work, then questions need to be asked. Why does it work? How does it work? If you're told that it works because that's the way his or her instructor showed them, then you have what I call fragile knowledge. For deeper understanding, you need to know why. Knowing the why and how of techniques is really the only way to make it better. Above, I explained a few of the things that will increase the power of your techniques. Obviously, I don't have the space to devote to answering how to generate more power in every technique. If you think about it and ask the right questions, then you should know!






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