The “Corkscrew” Punch (The Devil In The Detail)

The “corkscrew” punch where we rotate the fist at the end of the punch is unique to Oriental martial arts.

Twisting the fist  is something that we all know about and take for granted.  And why shouldn’t we, we’ve been doing it since our very first class in Karate/Tae Kwon Do/most styles of Kung Fu .  The reason that I write about it here, is because I believe that it is something that though deeply ingrained into us, is still not done quite right by a good many people.

It may sound a bit strange to question something so basic, but bare with me.  Although many will be doing what I describe below, a good many others will not be.

Why not?  Because people will rotate the fist to get it into it’s correct finishing position, but not think about how the rest of the arm is moving to get it there!

It would be more correct to say that you should “twist your forearm”.   The fist is actually incapable of rotating on its own, it is only capable of moving up and down in a waving/hinged motion when isolated from any other arm movement.

Try this little exercise.  Perform any linear punch, then just freeze for a second with the arm in the extended punch position (no snap back).  Now keep check if the crease of your elbow joint (where it folds) is pointing upwards or inwards.  If you are not sure, then being very careful not to move the upper arm at all, bend the elbow.  It the fist rises up then the crease of the elbow joint is facing up.  If the fist moves inward (parallel to the floor) then the crease of the elbow is pointing inwards.

So why should you care about that?

Like the fist, the elbow is incapable of rotating itself, it is a hinge joint rather than a ball joint.  From the starting position with the fist at the hip, the crease of the elbow joint points forward.  As the arm is extended forward (without rotating), the elbow crease should end up pointing upwards.

For the elbow to rotate (so that the elbow crease points inward), you actually have to rotate the arm in the shoulder socket.  To be a bit more technical, you rotate the humerus bone in the ball socket at the shoulder.

This is something that you shouldn’t be doing.  Firstly it is an unnecessary movement of the shoulder joint and as we progress, we should be looking to take out all unnecessary movements.  Secondly, it creates a small jarring feeling at the elbow, so it is not good for the long term health of either shoulder or elbow joint.

Furthermore, it’s a less efficient punching technique, so it is less effective if you really need it.

Try standing in front of a mirror with you arm and shoulders exposed.  Now extend your arm in front of you and towards the mirror.  Don’t worry about making a fist or any technique, just relax.  Now rotate the whole arm several times at the shoulder joint.  You will notice when you look closely that upper arm actually moves very slightly away from the body when you rotate the arm so that the elbow crease points inwards rather than upwards.  Linear techniques are based on having the body weight behind them, so anything that takes the strike sideways away from the body will weaken that technique.

Granted, this is a very slight outward movement, but as you get more advanced, so it become more about fine detail.

It also effects your muscular alignments too.  The shoulder and lateral muscles (underneath the arm pits) act as shock absorbers and maintain the body structure when you strike a target and receive a reaction force from the impact.  Rotating the humerus outward in the shoulder socket slightly stretches those muscles making them less efficient at absorbing that reaction force.

Furthermore, when you punch, you use your triceps to extend your arm.  The triceps work more efficiently with the crease of the elbow facing upwards.  Don’t believe me?  Ask anyone who does weight training, or look up “triceps curls” on Youtube.

The bones of the forearm (the ulna and radius) are much smaller and they can rotate around each other.  There is not a big ball in socket rotation required as with rotating the humerus in the shoulder socket.

If you are not used to doing it this way, it may feel awkward at first and you may not be able to fully rotate the fist all the way over.  Stick with it, your forearm muscles will become more flexible and it will become easier.  You’ll find when you get used to it that the whole punch is much smoother than when you rotate the shoulder joint.

There is an argument that the bone alignment is weaker when the ulna and radius are rotated about each other.  However, the idea when punching is that you actually make contact with the target before rotating the forearm (when the fist is still palm up).  So the point of impact is when these bones are still in a strong alignment.  You only rotate the forearm after contact has been made so that the rotational energy is added to forward impact to the punch, giving it a very penetrating “corkscrew effect”.

This forearm rotation comes into many other techniques too, such as at the very end of Soto Uke (Outside Block), Uchi Uke (Inside Block) and others.  With these blocks, the rotation of the fist at the end of the technique cannot be supported by the rotation of the shoulder joint because of the arm being bent and the elbow joint being lower than the fist.  Practicing for maximum forearm rotation in the punches will help maximise the forearm rotation in these other techniques too, making them more powerful, even with smaller movements.  It helps to give a small “whip” on the the end of these other techniques.

Do You Train To Win A Fair Fight?

A little while ago on the BunkaiJutsu Facebook page, I put on the following quote by Gichin Funakoshi:-

“When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defence techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him, concentrating one’s whole strength in one blow to a vital point, and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter or help. It is most important to be on guard without becoming excited and to act with presence of mind throughout the situation from the beginning and even once the situation is in hand.
When delivering the one blow against the attacker, the importance of using one’s whole strength and being especially accurate cannot be overemphasized”.
Gichin Funakoshi, from his book Karate-Do Kyohan,

It generated quite a bit of interest and comment, so I thought I’d explore it a bit further.  What is easy to over-look here is that it shows a very different ethos and approach to how we are taught in most traditional martial arts today.

Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating on a makawawa

Today if we do any sparring, we face each other from outside of striking range, bow, take up our fighting stance, then start inching towards each other until we start to exchange strikes/kicks.  Basically, its all about having a “fair fight”.  It’s sport.

Even when we practice bunkai (applications) against more street style attacks such as haymakers, in most clubs, the attacker usually start out of striking range first, then moves into distance with the haymaker.  Again, this partially reflects the “fair fight” mentality; as if two guys have agreed to “step outside and sort it out”.

Note, I did say “partially” as I do realise that somebody could randomly swing at you, ready or not.

Even in that step outside scenario there is the concept of an even one on one fight.  I know it’s not always adhered to as one may pull out a weapon or mates my join in, but the concept is still there, and most traditional training seems to buy into it.

What most traditional martial arts do not train for the guy being right up in your face shouting and swearing, then head-butting you.

The old Okinawan masters did not practice sport.  Several of the old Okinawan masters are recorded as saying that Karate is mainly for defending oneself against untrained thugs (rather than matches with other trained martial artists).

Funakoshi always taught that fighting (even a “fair fight”) was wrong and should be avoided if at all possible.  He taught that Karate was mainly to make you a better person rather than a better fighter and as such if you were set about, he advised that the first course of action should be to run away.  That way nobody gets hurt.

On the few occasions that Funakoshi was forced to physically defend himself, he felt that it was a personal failure to have gotten into that situation in the first place, or for not having handled it better.  I personally think he was a bit hard on himself, but that’s just my opinion.

So if you hold true to the philosophy that you should decline any fights and run away if you can, then what do you do if you are cornered and have to fight whether you like it not?  The person picking on you is usually doing so because he/she thinks you are an easy target.  Are they looking for a fair fight?

No!  They’re looking for an easy victim.

So should you be expected to fight fair against somebody like that?

No, you shouldn’t have to, because you shouldn’t be put in that position against your will.  You didn’t pick the fight and you didn’t agree to have one.  Self protection is about defending yourself from harm, it is not about having a fair fight.

Should you step back into your fighting stance and warn them, “back off, I do martial arts”?

No.  That warns them to be more careful.

This is the scenario Funakoshi was talking about.  Let them bluster at you and become over confident, then hit them with a pre-emptive strike to a vital point.  Then run!

This is the way that modern Reality Based Martial Arts train.  Don’t you find it a bit strange that people talk about Reality Based Martial Arts as if it is still quite new, when Funakoshi was talking about it decades ago?

To my mind, it suggest that most of today’s so called “traditional martial arts” are not that traditional.  It isn’t what Funakoshi taught!