Is Your Karate Punch Powerful?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: karate, Self-defense
10 Jan 2016


When I was a kid I used to watch old karate movies and I used to see the master punch the bad guy and he would go flying! As a gullible kid it seemed that karate punches were almost magical. As I grew up and learned a bit of karate – I learned how to break boards and bricks and thought I had a good punch. I mean all of the board and bricks were scared of me. :)


That was always the argument when I first got into karate – did boxing or karate have the most powerful punch. Boxers thought they did and the formal karate guys thought the did. Well I’m not going to sway any boxers opinions here but in this article I’m going to discus boxing vs karate punches, where the power is generated and some differences. And I will give away my secret to throwing a really power punch… relax.. more on that later but first here is a video that frames the question very aptly.


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Well you probably recognized Bruce Lee’s narrative there speaking the differences about Jeet Kune Do vs Karate. Luckily for me some of Bruce’s fighting tactics came to the Tracy’s organization through Joe Lewis. But here is the thing – ideas are not stagnant and progress. So what Bruce Lee is stating in this video has been understood by some in the martial arts and improved over the years. I don’t think you can put a name to it but I think Bruce would have been proud of the progress in martial arts as he was a very forward thinker.


So here goes. Most people think that to through a powerful punch you have to be really strong. I think a non-fighter thinks you have to be strong and then really tense up and throw the punch. Kinda like Batman and Robin use to do to the Joker and Riddler. Or the old cowboy days where they would find a guy cheating at cards and the next thing the whole bar would be fighting!


To throw a powerful punch you do not have to be strong! More on this later but lets continue with the assumptions.


Many boxers think because they can throw a hard hitting cross or hook – that their top half (shoulder rotation) with some foot pivot makes the punch stronger. Sure but it is not as strong as it could be – more on that later.


Many karate practitioners think because they can chop and punch through their target and break boards – their punches are really powerful! Maybe but there is room for improvement also.


So if you do not have to be strong to throw a punch, is being really strong like a body builder bad for power punching? Yes. I’ll start answering the questions. Being really strong as in bulky slows a fighter down. Fights are all about how hits who without getting hit back. So if one fighter is really strong and the other is just average strength but can relax and do the moves right – the average build guy can actually hit harder than the bulky guy if it is done right.


Why? To answer that question and the others I’ve posed – let me tell you how to throw a powerful punch.


To throw a good and powerful karate (generic term nowadays) punch here are the elements:

  • relax your body, you do not tense up anything until the moment right before impact.
  • as you punch, pull back the other hand – this is the push/pull or snap back and Mr. Lee is mentioning.
  • as you punch you twist your body meaning your punching side is moving forward and the pulling side is moving back.


This takes a lot of practice as it is almost impossible to do this right and your are a bit vulnerable for a split second until your body snaps back for next attack or cover. It is a really hard concept to master relaxation. If you tense too soon your body does not twist nor get any extension.


If you tense up too soon your punch will not be powerful!!! So even if you were able to hit something (remember you tensed and did not extend (punch, twisting body), your punch would have no stopping power.


The ideal is how I used to throw my lunge and reverse counter punches. It did not matter if I was attacking, standing my ground or retreating, I would loosely twist my body with full relaxation and at the moment of full extension I would tense my fist and wrist (using muscle memory to line up my bones so I did not break them). Then immediately after the punch (where my punching side was fully extended and my opposite side was fully behind me) – I would then fully relax again and snap back to the next move or move to the next attack.


But here is the thing. A karate punch done right is more powerful than a boxing punch because you only have the push/pull of the shoulders/upper body in boxing whereas you have the whole body twist in the karate punches.


Do not misunderstand me here. I am not saying I would want to trade a boxer inside with karate hands. I have no intention of staying inside for long unless I have an advantage. Boxers are superior at inside fighting. But they punches just do not have as much of the body behind them as a karate punch has.


So now that I have told you my secret, let me give you an example. When I was a new black belt I went to a tournment in Chula Vista CA. I was matched up in the heavyweight division as I was at 175 pounds back then. It was common to have two weight divisions in smaller tournaments back then. While the rules states groin and face shots were legal – you could only use kiss contact to the face. Back then schools still taught students how to kick the groin because that is one way a smaller man or woman can best a larger attacker. So what I’m saying is it was hard to kick the groin – everyone expected it.


I was not a typical black belt fighter. I did not exclusively become a head hunter because everyone else was trying to do that. I could do that but found that most people did not expect a body attack since most people did not do that well. The rules that preventing hard shots to the face did not care about hard contact to the body. So that was my early niche back then. Body shots and lots of them.


The guy I fought first was kind of unnerving. He looked to be 30 pound heavier than me and a body builder. He took the extra steps in his tank top before the match wrapping his hands (ostensibly so he could hit harder).


When the 2 minute match started we moved around for a bit feeling each other out and then when he was not expecting it – I threw my lunge punch at his bread basket! I was fully relaxed when I threw it and had great extension and snap back. I ended up dropping him in place for a couple of minutes before he was able to continue. I finished that match easily only because I caught him perfectly with relaxation, extension (my how body), tensed for the instance of impact and then totally relaxed as I was snapping back.


So at 165 I was a very wimpy looking power puncher. That’s the point I am trying to let you know – you don’t have to be strong, mean looking, intimidating, or a super star. All you need to do is practice all of the parts of a proper punch.


Oh yeah – speed equals power. It really does in karate. But honestly most beginners don’t ever learn this until later if they get really good… and then it occurs to themselves… why didn’t I listen to my instructor when he told me this. I’ve had plenty of those moments. :)


So now that you know all of the secrets to a powerful punch… journey on grasshopper into the world of power punching!

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5 Responses to “Is Your Karate Punch Powerful?”

  1. Matt Klein Says:

    Good points about relaxing the muscles to achieve full power John. What I learned from boxing was footwork, punching from a high hand position instead of from the waist, and head movement, which I feel contribute to the boxer’s effectiveness inside. Chaining punches together was also something that makes it effective. I can see why Lee studied it and incorporated it into his way.

    Also, their sparring is more full-on, and takes a while to get used to. That said, I agree the reverse punch is very powerful and size makes no difference, except to the extent mass times speed equals power, so the heavier guy all things being equal will have more knockout power.

  2. Toby Massell Says:

    Hey John great info like usual. Your knowledge, skill and insight in fighting and self defense is rivaled by few.

    I also agree 100% with you on brick braking. I trained for about 3 years in a system that put too much into brick breaking only to find out that it was all but worthless in fighting. This became apparent when I joined with you guys at Tracy’s and AKKA some 35+ years ago.

    I also leaned early in my career that velocity = power. Simple physics, the faster something is traveling the harder it hits.
    So I based my early years on speed training and precision striking. I also trained boxing in the 70s.

    I trained probably 5 years with you John and everybody that came to the El Cajon studio from Dick’s. Open sparing with other styles was great training too. Then I think I trained about 2 years or so with David Hays. Then moved on to train with the rest of the top fighters at Dick’s AKKA.

    I trained hard with the point fighting tactics from AKKA and Joe Lewis advanced fighting tactics and of course the Kenpo self defense system, which IMO really sharpens up your shills for precision striking. However, I only trained about 3 years in actual tournament point fighting.

    I found this to be counter productive to reality fighting. Mainly because of the hitting soft, stopping and resetting after someone gets a point.
    While that kind of training is good for explosive speed, initial movement, bridging the gap, critical distance, timing, broken rhythm etc. it installs bad habits for reality fighting and street defense.
    So I focused on semi contact training, continuous fighting, kickboxing and power training and of course Kenpo Jui-jitsu, as this was my main concern for street survival. Obviously because of being small and living in the ghettos of southern Cali.

    So I agree with you 100% on proper execution of technique,(body position and moment of contact etc.) being one key factor in delivery of power. Speed is also a key factor. The key to speed is being relaxed. We wont go into detail right now about all the other benefits are in being relaxed.

    Back in the late 80s training with AKKA I was probably 125 lbs and the guys at AKKA told me I hit like a middle weight and that I was as fast as Bruce Lee. Don’t know how accurate that was but you guys all say the same thing.

    So I also agree with you John, weight and strength account for about 10% of power. The rest comes from proper execution of technique and speed. You and I are both living prof of that fact.

    I’m a little heavier now by 10,maybe 15 lbs.

    I started training Joe Lewis full fighting system a few years ago and that improved my power even more. Joe Lewis certainly did a lot of things right when it came to reality fighting. Training with Bruce lee was probably another one of those things he did right. He even said Bruce hit like a heavy weight. Bruce was 5’6″ and 135 lbs so.

    Kickboxing, mixing the power of boxing with Karate definitely takes power striking beyond the level of traditional Karate and boxing.

    But let’s take a look at modern MMA stand up fighting tactics.
    They got rid of anything in Karate, Boxing and Kickboxing that simply doesn’t have a lot of power, or as much power as what they are doing now.
    They refined the science of striking and kicking, physics, etc. and took it to a whole new level.

    I’ve been training these techniques for almost a year now with Larry McCraw and I can attest to the amount of power that can be delivered with these techniques. I’m hitting so much harder than I hit in the best of my years. You guys all tell me I haven’t lost any speed. I think you guys just don’t remember how fast I was. Because I’m sure I’m slower now at 60 years old.

    So even though I’ve slowed down in my old age, with these MMA techniques I hit and kick harder than I did 25 years ago and even harder than what I learned in Joe Lewis full fighting system in the last few years.

    Some of the Karate and point fighting techniques that we all know, I will never use in a reality survival situation. I’ll save those fore friendly sparring matches.

    I’m sure 5 or 10 years from now they may refined striking power even further.


  3. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Matt, thanks for opining. Fully agree different tatics have their advantages… I love combining footwork with striking.

    Toby, thanks for your thoughts. There is really a lot on this subject and hard to put in all in one article. While I don’t like MMA striped down techniques as much as I do Karate – they are both effective.

    For me point karate taught me how to hit without being hit back… I’ve survived a lot of street/bar fights. So I think we are going to have to agree to disagree on some points.

    Thanks guys for your thoughts!

  4. Dr. J Says:

    Great article, John! I always look forward to reading your thoughts on the martial arts.

    “The bigger they are, the harder they hit,” was likely my first credo in my karate training :-) I suppose now, I might add, “If you can get them to miss or hit them first, it doesn’t matter.”

    I feel I have learned to hit harder with all my training, not so different than Toby’s background. I continually practice on punching with power against a bag to gauge if I am doing it the best I can. With a moving target, it’s harder to stay relaxed until just before the moment of hitting as the dynamic nature of fighting affects where the target will be. I probably tense a little early or even late because of that. Joe Lewis said a pulled punch is stronger than a pushed punch. What do you think about that?

  5. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Dr. J! Yep Joe’s observation I agree with because that would show that push/pull motion that is so important in karate.

    Boxing hands are really good if there are no feet or your are inside fighting (where I don’t like to say long).

    Karate hands are really good at bridging the gap (exploding in and out) but not so great at trading toe to toe blows like boxing.

    One thing I recall Joe saying in a seminar once was you guys are winning at tournaments but what are the scores? Now that you are winning – you should concentrate on hitting without getting hit back. A great fighter not only gets the point but also does not allow a point on him.

    Thanks for commenting Dr J!