The punching-bag game at the arcade or county fair always looks so tempting. After all, punching seems like the easiest thing in the world: You ball up your fist and hurl it toward your target, just like in the movies. In reality, however, there’s a lot more to punching than throwing wild haymakers, especially if you want to do it with power and without breaking your hands.
Throwing a punch is a specific skill, one that boxers, martial artists, and self-defense professionals rehearse tens of thousands of times over the course of their studies. To use a common martial arts trope, practicing punching is like sharpening your sword.
While you should never punch a person unless it’s absolutely necessary, having the basics down—before you try to go all John Wayne on a bad guy—will prevent you from hurting yourself more than whatever you’re swinging at.
In this guide, we’ll talk about the most useful and straightforward punch, called a straight punch, or a “cross,” typically performed with your dominant hand. You can throw lots of other types of punches, but unless you have someone to teach you the proper mechanics, and plenty of time to practice, then doing your best Jason Bourne impression is ill-advised.
Make a fist
There are lots of ways to make a fist, and when it comes to punching, a surprising number of them are wrong.
Start by curling the tips of your fingers into your palm, then wrapping your thumb around the first knuckle of your ring finger (and sometimes onto your other fingers, depending on the length of your thumb). It’s important that you don’t wrap your fingers around your thumb. That’s a very efficient way to break or even dislocate your thumb, which is incredibly painful.
When your fist impacts a hard target, the forces are not gentle on your delicate hand bones. In fact, the large gloves boxers wear are more to protect the puncher’s hands than the punchee’s head and body. To protect yourself, make your fist tight enough that it won’t give when it hits the target—but not so tight that your arm shakes and you cut off blood flow to your hand.
(Above: MMA fighter Vitor Belfort generates power from his legs during a punch and so should you.)
Place your feet
It’s an old cliche that the power of a punch comes from the legs, but it’s absolutely true. You’ll want to find a happy medium between standing flat footed and taking a wide karate stance. Standing with your feet close together will make it easy for someone to throw you off balance and put you on the ground. Go too wide, and you’ll inhibit your own movement and take away power from the strike. Veteran martial arts instructor Alan Condon refers to the perfect placement as a “solid base.”
To find it, stand squarely facing your target, then drop the foot on your dominant side back and out to an angle between 30 and 45 degrees. You should keep your feet a comfortable distance apart, but the exact difference is a matter of personal preference. Some fighters, such as traditional Muay Thai practitioners and American kickboxers, tend to prefer a more narrow stance, while traditional boxers and Dutch-style kickboxers typically gravitate toward a wider one.
When you find your sweet spot, make sure that your hips are turned slightly away from the target.
Once you’re in this stance, try to maintain that space between your feet. If you have to move forward or back, make the motion more of a slide than a walk, because the latter requires you to cross your feet. You want to keep a strong base, even when you’re moving—and you can’t do that when your feet are crossed or planted right next to each other.
Get your arms and shoulders right
Your upper body’s position will, again, depend on your personal preference. Karate-oriented fighters tend to keep their shoulders turned well away from their opponents, while many boxers and Thai boxers take a more squared-off approach. Once you start swinging, you’ll be able to adjust your shoulder position in real time and observe how it affects your punching power.
When you’re getting ready to throw a punch, your forearms should stay nearly vertical, with your elbows tucked into your body, not flared out like chicken wings. Squeeze your abdominal muscles tight. Your hands should stay up to guard your face. This gives you an opportunity to protect your body and face when you’re not mid-punch. Leaving a big gap between your hands and your elbows exposes a large chunk of your center mass to strikes.
Throw the punch
Now it’s time to send some fingers flying. The first thing to remember is that the punch should go straight forward, rather than out to the side. The idea is to send your fist out and bring it right back to its original position, with as little extraneous motion as possible.
If you flare your arm out, like in the movies, your target will have plenty of time to avoid or block the strike—and you’re going to leave yourself wide open to getting a punch in your own face.
The full punch motion stems from turning your hips. Imagine swinging a baseball bat with just your arms and no hip swivel: It’s not very powerful. The same idea applies to hitting with just your fist.
When you start the punch, pivot your back foot on its ball and push your body forward. You don’t want to exaggerate the motion and throw yourself off balance, but you want to feel your lower body pushing your arm forward. As you push off your foot, turn your hips and extend your arm straight toward the target. Don’t flare your elbow or try to loop around in a big hook punch.
Also, don’t overextend into the punch. You want to feel in control and balanced at all times during the process. If you over-commit and fall forward, you’ll put yourself in a vulnerable position.
(Above: MMA fighter Luke Rockhold keeps his other hand up when he throws a punch so no one strikes his face. You should, too.)
Prepare for the impact
This is where things can go wrong for people who aren’t used to throwing punches. Boxers and other martial artists typically wear cloth or tape wraps to protect their wrist and hand bones. But in the real world, you don’t have that option.
When you hit your target, you want to strike with the first two knuckles, not that flat front part of your fist or the smaller knuckles on your ring or pinky fingers. You should also try to keep all the bones in your forearm, down to your knuckles, in alignment. That way, you won’t apply force to your bones and wrist at a weird angle.
The actual angle of your fist at impact is something that changes from practice to practice. Boxers and kickboxers throw straight punches with horizontal fists. More self-defense-oriented practitioners like Krav Maga specialists recommend tilting your thumb outward at a 45-degree angle or even punching with a vertical fist in order to reduce the chances that the impact will buckle your untrained wrist. Wing Chun practitioners often use vertical fists for punching, too. Choose the angle that feels best to you, and then aim to keep it consistent as you practice.
Bring the hand back to the face
Once your strike lands, you might be tempted to leave your fist in midair or drop your hand to your waist. That’s an invitation for retaliation. Instead, as soon as your punch reaches the end of its journey, you want to bring it immediately back toward your face for defense, whether your original punch landed or not.
As your hand comes back, reset the rest of your body as well. You want to get back to that solid base, with your feet in a strong position and your arms ready to protect your face and core. Even if you’re just hitting a punching bag, establishing good habits during practice will prepare you for throwing a punch in the real world.
Rehearse these movements many times, and they’ll eventually start to feel natural. So when you actually have to throw a punch, your body can respond automatically. To get even better, we recommend finding a reputable self-defense or martial arts instructor—rather than feeding hundreds of dollars into that punching-bag arcade game.