Karate is literally translated as “empty hand” (unless you go by the original wording which translates to “China hand”) and striking with the hands is a large part of it, but have you stopped to think about the diversity of the hand techniques in karate? There are different methods of striking with the hands and different striking areas that can be utilized, and I believe that there is value in learning these methods.
Lets start with making a fist. There are several different methods of making a fist and several different ways to strike with it. Most people tend to make a regular, balled-up-fingers fist. This will work fine, but we can branch out from there–the Okinawans actually considered that a fist for beginners to use. The Shuri-ken (not to be confused with shuriken), or Shuri fist, is made by curling the bottom three fingers but laying the index finger flat over the meat of the thumb, then closing the thumb across the fingers as you would with a regular fist. This method of clenching your fist helps you make a tighter fist, which in turn makes striking with your knuckles and the back of your hand more effective.
This fist is very effective for punching but when you backfist or hammerfist strike, I have found that my thumb puts uncomfortable pressure on my extended index finger. That isn’t to say that everyone will experience this or that you shouldn’t use the Shuri-ken for those types of strikes, but I have another fist I like use for those. When I backfist or hammerfist strike I like to use tate-ken (vertical fist), which is a Chinese style of fist in which all four fingers are curled but the fist is held vertically with the thumb squeezing down on top, rather than across the fingers. This takes all of the thumb-pressure you can exert and lines it up with the bottom of your fist which makes for a better (in my opinion) fist for striking with a hammerfist, and it keeps it from applying pressure to your index finger when striking with a backfist. Some added benefits of tate-ken are that you can strike with the thumb (oyayubi-zuki), and because it is a narrower punch you have a better chance of slipping it between someone’s arms when they are holding up their guard to protect their head.
With any of these methods of making a fist you can strike a multitude of ways. Typically, karate practitioners will strike and twist the punch on impact (hiniri). Alternatively, however, you can also hold the fist vertically and lever the knuckles downward or upward into your opponent. Levering them upwards causes you to strike with the bottom three knuckles (popular in Wing Chun), so be aware that if you are going to do that you will need to strengthen and condition those knuckles, but be careful. The reason that we typically strike with the index and middle knuckles is because those bones in the hands are the strongest and most firmly held in place. The bottom two knuckles are “floating” in that they are very loosely held, as they share muscles in the palm (which is why the bottom three fingers are the strongest for gripping).
Sticking with the theme of closed fists we have oni-ken/ryuu-ken (demon fist or dragon fist) and kiko-ken (phoenix fist, also known as the phoenix eye fist), where-in each has a single knuckle extended. In oni-ken/ryuu-ken, the middle finger is extended from the fist so that its second knuckle can drill deep into a soft target. Kiko-ken is performed with the index finger’s second knuckle extended and is typically levered into the strike in a Chinese manner rather than twisted, though it certainly can be twisted. Both of these are used on soft targets such as the eyes, the solar plexus, and the nerves of the arms and legs. You will not find many people training these fists, even though they were likely taught them, because even to strike those soft targets you need to strengthen and condition the second knuckles of those fingers or you are still likely to injure yourself. That said, they can be very effective for quick strikes to soft, nerve-filled areas.
Remember, in karate we do not only strike with closed fists, but open and partially-open fists as well. In Part 2 I will discuss some of the open-handed striking that can be found in karate.