Years ago my group was affiliated with a larger karate organization. We used to occasionally get people who would move to the Saint Louis area who had trained at an affiliated club in another part of the country. As was the practice in the organization they would usually want to wear the ranks awarded to them in the other clubs.
Sometimes this has caused us some difficulty when someone from another club would come in wearing the rank they had from somewhere else, and then give out after a half hour. Ranks were a short hand my students used to assess how vigorous they could/should practice with someone, and what the other person could reasonably be expected to know. This occasionally caused some friction (once we became independent we de-emphasised rank and this problem gradually faded away). Adjusting just required time and support so that new person could get used to both the specific kinds of training unique to our group and the intensity of the training. It was harder to get them to see through what I will call the “magical” ideas floating around in the culture of this organization.
One such idea that had very tangible consequences was the idea that all power came from the hips. I have no problem with the idea that the hips must initiate many of the techniques in order to be effective. That was not what a lot of these folks seem to have absorbed however. What seems to have taken hold was the idea that if a movement such as reverse punch was initiated from the hips, and the hips were twisted somewhat quickly, then the resulting punch was going to be very powerful. In fact a claim that bounced around was that a karate punch could generate about 2000 pounds of force per square inch and that this could kill, or stun an attacker thereby allowing the defender to escape. In order to accomplish this the main requirements seemed to involve relaxing the shoulders, tensing the lats, twist the hips before the arm leaves the hip chamber, and practicing this in the air maybe a hundred times a class two to three days a week.
A few minutes of pad work revealed something else. Knuckles were bleeding, wrists were bent, it was obvious that they could not hit very hard, and worst of all, they were usually disillusioned. Finding a way to get them to commit their whole body, including the muscles of their arm, to the task of accelerating their fist toward the target was needed. They had to experience success before they got too frustrated by their failures and lost hope. It was also important that they did not injuring themselves trying to learn to hit hard.
In the eighties I remember going to a couple of seminars by Ray Dalke. He was charismatic, motivating, and his students all seemed to love him. What stands out most however is the commitment in his (and his students) techniques. His punch may have started in his hip, but everything from his toes to his hair seemed to add something to it. This contrasted sharply with what I have always thought of as the “coasting” punch that people who rely too heavily on hip action often make. What I mean by a “coasting” punch is a punch in which the arm reaches its top velocity just as it leaves the hip, and in which no effort is made to use the arm to further accelerate the fist. Such punches look to me like they are coasting, even decelerating, as they get closer to the target.
I visited Gillian Russell the other day and she had a couple of Mark Rippetoe’s books on strength training. I thumbed through one looking at the section on bench pressing. My benches are not that good. In part this is due to old shoulder injuries, and in part it is probably because I am just too lazy to do what I need to do to get better at them (yes, feel free to mock me. I deserve it). Anyway one thing that caught my eye was a point Rippetoe made about the bench press, he said that because it is relatively simple (compared to exercises like the clean, the push press, the squat, and the dead lift) it affords the person new to lifting the chance to feel what really pushing hard against a weight is like. He explains that the sensation is unfamiliar to many people and requires some getting used to. It is an excellent point. The feeling of putting everything into a technique is also unfamiliar to many people.
Eventually, frustrated by my inability to get people to really commit to their punches, I sat down and came up with a plan. I feel like it has helped. The basic elements are pretty simple and not that time consuming so little is lost if it does not work for you.
1) Regardless of stance, posture, hip movement, or anything else punching power is limited by the wrist. I have observed a very close relationship between punching power and grip strength. If the wrist is weak people will instinctively hold back their punches when they hit a target. As soon as you notice that the student needs help making power get them working on strengthening their forearms. There are a variety of ways to do this including working with light chi’ishi, using wrist rollers, and forearm curls. Variety helps keep it from getting boring so get creative here.
2) If they have not been regularly hitting things they are likely to feel some discomfort in their shoulders when they start. Have them do cable pulls, back flies, and push presses to build up their shoulders.
3) Tape up the student’s fists and wrist and have them wear training gloves. This will let them feel what hitting a bag is like without worrying about their wrists.
4) Do not put them on the makiwara right away. Instead use a punching bag and small target pads. Something that is not too stiff works best. If they are hitting and it hurts, they will hold back.
4) This is the odd one, but it really puts some explosion into punches pretty quickly; have them swing a baseball bat at a soft, freely swinging heavy bag. Wearing a pair of batting gloves makes things more comfortable. Use a strong solid bat, do not use maple. The heavy bag should not be too heavy, maybe 50 pounds, and the bag should not be tightly packed. Have the student try to make a high pop when they hit instead of a low thud. Have them swing from both sides. As they get more used to the exercise have them swing harder with the bat.
5) This works well at the end of a training session before the cool down. Do not have them punch the pad after the bat drill, they are likely to hit too hard and hurt themselves. When it is time to work on power again start with punching the pads and heavy bag and end with the bat drill.
6) Transition gradually to having them punch the targets without using the tape and gloves. Starting the power training portion of the training by spending a few minutes without the tape and gloves before using the tape. Move on to the bat drill.
I have found that with in about two months punching power substantially improves. Try to build on successes instead of highlighting shortcomings. Do not follow the power training on targets with partner work unless you want a lot of broken noses and fat lips in your group. Partner work is best prior to pad work unless you are training people with a fair amount of experience.