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1. Strength Is Overrated
Bulked-up muscular strength, that is. Big biceps will help you choke someone out, but don’t do as much for straight-on strikes as the coordination of muscles with tendons and ligaments and overall body alignment. And if the muscles were strengthened with isolation exercises, chances are the result will be reduced mobility, shortened reach and increased risk of joint injury.
There are indeed a few athletes who can carry their bulk with unbelievable agility, but that takes an incredible amount of skill, is really hard on the joints, and is an ability more the exception than the rule.
In storytelling, the victory of the seemingly-weak over the hulking enemy is older than the Biblical tale of David and Goliath. It endures because there is truth in it. Sure, a haymaker thrown by a bulked-up fighter can indeed break a jaw and knock someone out cold, just like a sledgehammer strike. But there’s a reason bodybuilders aren’t boxers. Lots of reasons, actually. Most of those reasons have to do with agility and coordination. While the Bulky Guy is swinging that sledgehammer of a punch, you can land a few hits to his most vulnerable targets and get out of the way before the punch lands.
Speaking of vulnerable targets…
2. Weakness Matters
A most wonderful, succinct, and accurate quote about fighting comes from Mary Gentle’s Ash, A Secret History: “I don’t have to be stronger than you. I just have to be strong enough to kill you.”
When I teach self-defense, especially to those who have been acutely endangered and vulnerable before, I spend a great deal of time discussing what that means, and how its truth can be used. Truly, the depth of helplessness felt when you’re in the literal grip of a very strong person cannot be discounted. And if you saw my chicken-scrawny arms, you’d rightfully assume I wouldn’t be able to use muscle strength to break someone’s hold on my wrist, my biceps, my neck…
But I know the secret: I don’t have to break the attacker’s grip. I simply need to motivate the attacker to let go.
If your grip is stronger than mine, I’ve no reason to attempt breaking it. Why would I choose to pit my lesser strength against your greater one? Instead, I might shove my thumb against your eyeball. Or use my admittedly weaker grip to twist your even-weaker pinky finger. Or ram my pointy little knuckles against your windpipe. Or use the momentum of my body to snap your joint from its socket.
Y’see, my fingers are stronger than your eyes. My arm is stronger than your wrist. My whole body is stronger than the fragile bones in your feet or the tendons of your joints.
I don’t want to fight your strengths. I want to exploit your weaknesses. That’s the difference in mindset between rule-based fighting, and fighters who know their life is at stake.
And when understanding what’s strong and weak, remember…
3. Hard to Soft, Soft to Hard
Have you ever smacked a large branch against, say, a tree trunk in an attempt to break the branch? I have. The branch bounced off the tree trunk. The reverberation left my hands, wrists, and elbows vibrating and aching. I was attempting to break something hard against something hard. It was stupid and painful and I’ll never do it again.
I’ve also punched walls in anger, in years past. It’s why my left pointer finger can’t actually point straight at anything. That was stupid and painful, too.
The point (ha ha) is this: Hard against hard is always a gamble, and it’s quite possible for both hard things to break. This is really not cool in a fight when at least one of the hard things in question is likely to belong to you.
Unless I have tirelessly conditioned my fingers and knuckles, chances are good—and get better as I age!—that it’s my little phalanges (and carpels) that’ll break if I punch your jaw, even if I manage to dislocate your jaw or knock out a tooth. Same thing could happen if I try to bring your punch or kick to a dead stop with my forearm. But if I apply my hard knuckles to a softer target—under your chin, or to your kidneys, testicles, nose, bladder—then I can make some progress.
Similarly, an open-handed smack to the side of your head can do more damage by rupturing an eardrum, while attempting a closed-fist strike to the same target might just hurt me and make you mad. Punching your elbow doesn’t sound very smart—and that sound would be correct—but if I smack your elbow from below and the same time I smack your wrist from above, I can damage your tendons with only a little strength.
But whether it’s a hard technique or a soft one, what really matter is…
4. Throwing Energy/Punching Through
This is one of those mystical-sounding theories that’s actually grounded in science. The intent is to deliver the strike’s greatest energy deep into the target rather than to its surface. It’s a far simpler technique than you might think.
Do you stop the swing of a bat the moment it connects with the ball? Do you stop a hammer’s strike the second it touches the nail?
I hope not. Life would be quite frustrating.
Try this: Wad up a piece of paper, and hold the wad in your hand. Imagine you’re going to punch something hard enough to break your bones as fast as you can with that hand. Punch that imaginary thing, stopping your punch at the imagined moment of impact, and opening your hand at that same moment. Chances are the wad of paper won’t travel far.
Now take that same wad of paper in the same hand, and imagine you’re going to punch right through that hard thing. Deliver that punch as quickly as possible, releasing the paper at the last instant.
If the paper wad traveled farther on the second punch than the first, congratulations! You know understand the principle of punching through instead of punching to.
That doesn’t mean you also understand the snap—the quick contraction that keeps you from overextending the joint, suffering the recoil, and leaving yourself more vulnerable to a counter-strike. But you’ll have the basic idea!
And no matter how fantastic the strike is…
5. Follow-Up For the Win!
Part of it is that quick contraction—it’ll allow you to protect your vulnerable targets from counterstrikes, for example—but it’s mostly about understanding fabulous and isolated techniques aren’t a substitute for experience.
A single yet non-fight-ending strike does little more than piss off your opponent. Blocks without follow-up do about the same thing.
No strike should ever be delivered in isolation. It is, alas, a bad habit that often comes from a focus on sparring for points, where a well-landed strike results in the referee stopping the fight long enough to award a point. As for blocking… Well, most folks learn blocking in isolation from striking, but understand every block should also be a strike. Every. Single. One. It takes little time for me to block and strike, but takes twice as long for me to block then strike.
And this principle of follow-up incorporates all other four principles. Single strikes based on muscular strength alone can be more difficult to “reset,” limiting how swiftly a fighter can land a second strike. Weaknesses are easier to exploit with the second and third strike, especially if you know how to expose them with the first strike. Changing up the hand technique—closed fist, open hand, extended fingers, and so forth—expands possible targets with their hard/soft options. And punching through on all strikes feeds energy and momentum into the next strike.
With strikes—just as with every other aspect of self-defense—combination and adaptation rule the day.
And your added PSA for the day is this: Every one of those truths apply to life outside fighting, too.
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