Tag Archives: punching

Shoulder Stabilziation for Striking: are you Focusing on the Right Muscles?

When considering upper body striking, martial artists tend to focus on the pectoral, triceps and deltoid muscle groups, and the glenohumeral (GH) joint, which is the most obvious shoulder joint. The GH joint consists of the humerus and the glenoid fossa of the scapula (the “socket” of the shoulder blade). Since this joint is essentially like a ball resting on a shallow dish, and not a deep socket like the hip joint, ligaments and the attached muscles provide most of the stability. There are also three other joints in the shoulder complex that play important roles in maintaining stability for the GH joint, with the scapulothoracic being most prone to abuse in combative training. This joint is formed by the fibrous connection of the scapula to the posterior torso wall, which allows the scapula to glide and rotate as the GH joint requires.

The serratus  anterior and the trapezius provide the ability to adduct (pull close to the ribcage), retract, depress, and upwardly or downwardly rotate the scapulae.  They maintain alignment of the glenoid fossa  with the head of the humerus.  A strong, reasonably flexible rotator cuff group is important, but the trapezius needs to be able to provide rotation and stabilization so that the GH joint stays centered and the rotator cuff isn’t impinged. The trapezius and serratus need to work synergistically with the GH joint movers. Striking in general requires the same coupling of scapular and humeral actions that has been reported for other overhand actions  (Kibler, et. al., 2007) such as the tennis serve.

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A Brief Discussion on the Relativity of Skills

Ed. Note: while the examples used in the piece below relate to punching and recreational/athletic MA training, the concepts can easily be applied to all other fighting skills and situations in which they might be used.

How many ways are there to skin a cat? Or in this case, throw a punch? Among both novice and experts (and “experts”), it can seem as if there is a “right” way to perform a fighting skill, yet variations are to be found from style to style,  from individual to individual, and even from moment to moment within the same encounter. The Q & A below came out of a discussion with martial artist and CSCS Daniel Ramos (fellow ATSU Human Movement Science alum).

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Using the Overhead Squat Assessment to Identify Reductions in Punching Quality

The overhead squat assessment promoted by NASM (Clark & Lucett, 2011) provides a useful evaluation of the functional status of the latissimus dorsi during a common movement (video example here). The OHS requires that both trunk extension and shoulder flexion occur simultaneously, either or both of which may be altered if the muscle has become chronically shortened and tight. When the lats are hypertonic, shoulder range or motion (ROM) is altered due to excessive internal rotation and depression of the humerus, which further affects the actions of the scapula. This can be seen when an individual’s arms habitually fall forward past the line of the torso during the eccentric phase of the squat in an OHS evaluation, which is an indication of the arthrokinematic (joint movement) compensations needed to accommodate functional ROM as the muscle attempts to maintain a shorter distance between origin and insertion (for an excellent visual of how this occurs, take a look here).

Rear view of the latissimus dorsi. Note the broad connection to the pelvis, and the insertion on the humerus. An overactive (hypertonic) lat will cause alterations in shoulder and hip function, impairing good technique by reducing strength and mobility, while increasing the chances of an avoidable chronic injury.

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Corrective Exercise Concepts for Striking

Regular feedback from practicing strikes against resistance (hitting bags etc.)  is essential in the fighting artist’s training regimen. As important as hitting is, it can be over done. In order to prevent muscular imbalances, that in turn lead to avoidable injuries and performance impairments, measures to counter or correct them must be included in programming. The following guidelines are designed to assist instructors and students in both improving performance and preventing injuries associated with training.

Conditioning Guidelines:
  • If you are conditioning the anterior (chest and shoulder) musculature, don’t neglect the posterior (back). These muscles form force-couples of agonistic and antagonistic action; if one side is chronically short and tight, the other will be long and spastic, and vice avers. Neither condition is very efficient, and will likely  lead to a more serious injury.
  • If you are conditioning the large prime movers (ie, pectorals), don’t neglect the smaller stabilizers (ie, subscapularis).
  • For every session of bag intense work,  consider including 2-3 days of active recovery for the chest and shoulder muscle and associated striking & conditioning actions (see below).
  • For every 3-4 weeks of regular striking, include 1 full week of active recovery into your training routine. Don’t worry about de-training in a week’s time- this takes up to 4 weeks of inactivity to become significant.

Tissue Quality:

  • Muscle and connective tissues remodel along lines of force.  Repeated actions, particularly forceful ones, will alter tissue extensibility, elasticity and mobility, and potentially effect nerve tissue mobility (especially in the case of the brachial plexus and it’s divisions).
  • Corrective exercise and self myofascial release are  recommended to provide the optimal length/tension relationships for the agonist/antagonist muscles, and break up fascial adhesions (“trigger points”, “knots”) within and between muscle tissues. This helps to promote efficient technique as well as protect the shoulder joint and cervical-thoracic spinal systems.
  • For SMR, hold sustained pressure on areas of tight and tender muscle for a full 30 seconds. A foam roller can be used for most exterior muscles, but a tennis ball or lacrosse ball is needed to access smaller, deeper ones. Avoid SMR in bruised, ruptured or acutely sore tissue.
  • For static stretching: hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, repeat x 2 times per day, especially after hitting bags/pads/makiwara.
  • Avoid extensive static stretching immediately before engaging in heavy, intense striking work. A light pendulum stretch can activate the rotator cuff muscles and mobilize the superior thoracic outlet and sub-acromial space, which may be tight from training/fighting in a “hunched” posture.
Stretching & Myofascial Release Techniques 
Prime Movers (these vary in their contribution or action according to the strike in question):
  1. Pectorals : Flex, internally rotate and adduct shoulder arm at shoulder, pec minor specifically pulls the scapula forward and down. Do one at a time, avoid the double arm “hanging” doorway stretch.
  2. Triceps: Extends forearm. This muscle is heavily used in straight-arm punches and strikes.
  3. Biceps: Flexes and supinates forearm. Used heavily in hooks and uppercuts, the flexion of the upper arm at the shoulder, as well on the return to guard from a strike. Counter intuitively, the biceps has a major role as both a mover and stabilizer for straight punches; it is often neglected because of the assumption that punching is dependent on the triceps (or momentum, in some circles).

Stabilizers (these vary in their contribution or action according to the strike in question):

  1. Subscapularis: Shoulder internal rotator. There are also ways of performing this using a stick or towel for assistance, but starting out in the lying position makes it easier to monitor the head of the humerus (upper arm) to ensure that it is not rotating forward.
  2. Teres Minor and Infraspinatus. Shoulder external rotators. Notice that she is not forcing her arm down. If the head of the humerus wants to bulge forward and the shoulder up off of the table, don’t push it past this point.


  1. Levator Scapulae: Scapular elevator and medial rotator,  neck rotator and lateral flexor. This muscle attaches the cervical vertebrae to the upper medial aspect of the scapula. The upwardly rotated, “hunched” position that many fighters adopt during bag work and fighting can shorten and tighten this muscle.
  2. Upper Trapezius: Assist in elevation and retraction of scapulae. This region of the trapezius may be tight from forward shoulder “hunched” posture common to fighting and training.

Primary Antagonists:

  1. Rhomboids: Retract and elevate scapula.  These may be lengthened and inhibited from the forward shoulder “hunched” posture common to fighting and training.
  2. Latissimus: connects the humerus to the lumbar and thoracic spine, adducts, extends and internally rotates arm at shoulder. These are often tight in people who kick a lot or engage in excessive “air punching.”  Hint: if you can’t do a squat with the arms stretched overhead and keep the hands in line with your ears, or can’t help but fold at the waist as opposed to the hips, the lats need serious  attention to restore mobility to your shoulders.

Relevant surface muscles of the back and chest

Deeper relevant muscular anatomy

Random Training Notes 11

Striking is the act of fitting a weapon to a target. Availability of targets may change very quickly, availability of weapons may change very quickly.  Learning to recognize these changes and adapt to them requires more time spent striking targets that are moving unpredictably and changing range than targets moving predictably or not moving at all. The speed and intensity of these activities should be varied to emphasize different attributes: tracking/accuracy, reaction time, fluidity, and power. Tracking, fluidity and reaction time are more important than focusing exclusively on power.  Reflection on which changes in target and range present the most difficulty is vital.

Linked Study: How Boxers Decide to Punch a Target: Emergent Behavior in Nonlinear Dynamical Movement Systems

How Boxers Decide to Punch a Target: Emergent Behavior in Nonlinear Dynamical Movement Systems

Hitting a moving target is one of the most inherently athletic skills that I can think of, and it’s an absolutely vital element in a martial artists’ tool box.  I’m a strong advocate of the “hands off” approach of giving a student the conditions in which to explore range and which weapons to apply at different- and changing- ranges. Light moving targets, stationary targets, heavy moving targets and sparring all play an important role.

I’m amazed at how many conversations I’ve had with earnest karate/TMA people wherein they insist that distancing, timing, impact force management and the selection of the appropriate weapon (strike/technique) are best learned with minimal- or no- bag and target work. While some “traditional” martial artists insist that learning how to effectively hit something takes years to develop and master, it’s painfully obvious that a novice student can develop considerable skill in far less time if he or she is allowed to experience feedback instead of endless, abstract technical instruction. Several findings of the study provide insight into why this is so:

By allowing novice boxers
during the basic training sessions, when the
heavy bag practice is mostly used, to explore the
whole spectrum of constraints enabled by each
combination of parameters, they would learn
how to adjust emergent motor solutions to the
hitting task which are specific to their individual
organismic constraints. Once these efficient
coordination patterns have been established with
the heavy bag, learners could move to the task of
hitting moving opponents during light sparring…

…Novice boxers are able to discover and exploit
the scaled performer – target distance region that
affords maximization of the unpredictability (H),
diversity (S) and the efficiency ratio (E) of their
punching actions…

…Spontaneous emergence of boxer – boxer
coordinative states and strategic positioning as a
consequence of boxers’ perception of essential
interacting constraints points to the possibility
that practice should be less loaded with verbal
instructions from the coach to impose decisions.
Rather, practice could be directed towards
creating a variety of learning situations (by
manipulating the dynamics’ constraints) in
which trainees would themselves explore,
discover and thus adapt to the information …

Random Training Notes 10

There is no such thing as a perfect stance for all situations. The most effective stance or posture in a given situation is one that enables force production, reactivity and  manipulation of body weight without sacrificing stability and mobility. As conditions and objectives change, posture and stance change.  Holding stances for long periods of time is not as useful as being able to react to changing conditions with speed and control.