Posted by: B Gourley | February 8, 2013

Fight Science: Optimization in the Power-Speed Continuum

Life is full of trade-offs. In the martial arts there is a trade-off between the power and speed of a punch. This may sound wrong. After all, Newton’s Second Law says “force equals mass times acceleration.”  That sounds like speed and mass work together to produce a force on one’s opponent. However, if we go to Newton’s first law, we learn that an object at rest will tend to stay at rest. A more powerful strike involves putting more of one’s mass behind the strike. This means we first have to get our whole body in motion.  That takes time. Snapping an arm out involves putting a much lighter mass into motion.

A punch that drives all our body weight through the target as quick as we can move,  the most powerful possible punch, is unlikely to make contact with a skilled opponent. Alternatively, the fastest punch, one that just snaps the arm out and back, is unlikely to have a fight-ending impact on the opponent.

It’s important to keep in mind that one must consider the whole cycle of the punch. The whole cycle means taking the punching hand from a guard position through the punch and then back into a guard. One ignores the backside of the cycle at one’s own peril.

The martial art that I study puts great emphasis on the power end of the continuum, particularly in early teaching. There is value in this. In kobudō, we try to do everything with fight-ending intent. The fight is not a game of tag. There is also the value of building confidence in powerful movement. If one person is playing tag and the other is focusing entirely on maximizing power, the tag player will develop a false sense of security from landing a lot of shots and the power fighter may be falsely demoralized by taking the brunt of the shots.

Having said that, if one is interested in jissen (real fighting), one has to move away from power maximization to movement that has a high probability of landing strikes, even if one forfeits some juice in the process. Being able to deliver a thousand pounds of force on target isn’t that helpful if one can’t hit the target. Missing with a powerful strike is not necessarily just of no value, it has a potential negative consequence. That is, missing can put one in a vulnerable position.

Don't miss.

Don’t miss.

In the photo above one can see the front foot is still up as contact is being made. Many martial arts would advise against this because if the opponent slips the punch, one can’t do much to adjust until one gets one’s foot back on the ground. One’s weight is coming forward, so one is very strong on that line. However, one’s punch can be relatively easily deflected by a lateral force because one’s back foot becomes a pivot point and one’s center of gravity is forward of that pivot point.  This manner of punching has more of an impact on the target than either of the punches below; however, it’s harder to adjust to a miss.





I, personally, don’t think that there is anything wrong with the manner of punching in the top photo. As in all things, one just needs to be cognizant of the trade-off in which one is engaging. One definitely has to avoid letting one’s center of gravity lead one too severely.

This is risky.

This is risky.


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