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Conditioning the Arms


Training the Upper Body for martial arts


This article was originally written as the third in a sequence of articles for JAMA which survey physical training methods for martial arts from the geographic view of East vs. West and the time line of Tradition vs. Modern methods. The editor informed me it was not appropriate for their journal so I now put it here.

In this article we focus on the training and conditioning of the upper body. By “upper body training” I mean primarily the muscular training of the body above the waist.

By “conditioning” I mean the toughening aspects of training which aim for increasing durability and endurance as regards giving and receiving types of impact. This would include inoculating a fist to hitting harder objects by progressively conditioning the skin and tendons with impact and external medicines. The same ideas of conditioning to endure shock pertain to the use of hand weapons.

Let’s start with the training of the hands and then make our way up into the wrist and the rest of the arm. Here are some stretches of the hand to study;




In the human body the hand is probably the most easily injured part of the body. A boxer or swordsman with a broken hand is practically useless. The hand itself is a relatively fragile part of the body. The bones are delicate, especially for taking impact. For this reason martial arts of both East and West have a large variety of finger, hand and wrist strengthening exercises. These range from exercises emphasizing articulation (wadding a sheet of newspaper laying on a table with the palm down-on top of it- using only the fingers to crumple it into a ball- to actual finger resistance exercises like inserting the hand into sand or peas while articulating the fingers and wrist-1.) .

Further types of gripping exercise evolve into lifting weights with individual fingers or gripping heavy objects like kettle bells or clubs -common in Indian and Iranian wrestling (3.) or vases of stones as seen in Okinawan Karate. These objects are not only lifted but also swung in various ways.

The Shaolin Martial arts of China and their cousins (i.e. Karate methods) have exercises whereby nails are plucked out of wood and also includes rhythmically opening and contracting the fingers for long periods of time .

The hands with their naturally curling fingers are- in their implicit design- primarily to hold or grip. Power lifters have to have a strong enough grip to lift a heavy weight for a short time. Tennis players have to have a strong but flexible grip for longer periods of time. So the grip developed in an athlete depends on the specific kind of activity. Both strength and endurance of grip are important and task specific. This is even more true in martial arts where the hands are an essential tool.

With weapons techniques-particularly as seen in old fencing schools of both East and West – the grip must be trained with a flexible wrist so a weapon can be articulated. When the hands are used to hold weapons the most efficient grip must be found to accommodate the weight and heft of the weapon.

After all under battlefield conditions a person becomes fatigued and dropping a weapon can mean death. So energy is best not be wasted with an inefficient grip. The grip will also vary according to factors involving the weight, length and edge (if any) of the weapon. When the practitioner decides on a particular grip with a particular weapon then with this grip and this weapon the entire musculature and nervous system is trained.

Bull whip 12 ft

Because some weapons are radically different in length, shape and weight weapon skills are not necessarily transferable. Therefore from the battlefield point of view it is desirable to train with a broad range of weapons or with weights which simulate the same broad range of weapons. After all there are the existential moments in battle or self – defense when a person has to be able to improvise. In these cases the broader your range of skills the easier it is to adapt whatever weapon comes to hand.

Deer Horn Knife


Indian katar

kukri nepal

There are also special techniques to condition the bones, ligaments and skin of the hand for impact. These exercises range from hitting the makiwara, or hitting post as is popular with Okinawa and Japanese Karate styles (7)- to hitting or bumping the larger and heavier punching post or “Wooden Man” popularized by Wing Chun Gung-fu but seen in other styles as well (8.). Other Chinese techniques include spearing hot iron shot with the finger tips (9.) This “Hot Shot” technique is interestingly reminiscent of a similar technique found in the West among the Celts. In the Irish tale of Cuchaillain he had to dance on the roof over the blacksmith’s forge -enduring the heat – til his feet became hard enough to allow him to stand on a spear tip(10.).

Bag punching is common world-wide in many fighting methods and can also be considered a hand training activity as it develops tight fists and correct muscle tonus in the wrist to support the punch. Modern punching bags often of nylon or leather weigh between 30-110 lbs. There are some heavier versions more reminiscent of those noted by Hsing I boxer Kuo Feng-chih of Tienching, China (11.) and bare knuckle champion Tim Geoghegan of Leitrim, Ireland (12.). The heavy bags mentioned by these men were in the 3-400 lb range. The density of the punching bag is also extremely important. Modern foam filled or water filled bags are much more easy on the bones of the hands as opposed to some of the older traditional fillings of sawdust or cloth scraps. The older bags also, when left outdoors often settle inside and can get water logged or in winter have ice frozen in them- making them impossible to hit.

Time spent on bag punching in the more modern Western tradition is often broken into three minute rounds to develop punctuated cardiac stamina commensurate with ring fighting.(13.) This may be practiced two or three days a week with necessary rest days between and perhaps extended to everyday to get a peak effect before backing off a week to two weeks before a fight. I have found no standard time periods for older methods of bag punching though 10-20 minutes of hard bag punching, chopping, swinging and kicking with the correct form is probably optimum -allowing for at least 48 hours recuperation time.

With the skeletal muscles and nerves trained for shock and the skin calloused for impact the external “machine” of the body is prepared for battle. However the driving force of this machine- the heart -needs to be considered. This is especially true in that the heart and the stresses of the heart-especially in hand -to- hand combat can be found to be amplified through the stresses on the hand.

Escalating muscular activity in the hand and fingers – also known sometimes as “fine motor skills”- puts additional strain on the heart. In fact the strength of the grip and the strength of the heart have always been known to have an interdependence.

In the Traditional Western Fencing world this too was well known. One of the more noteworthy fencing texts emphasizing this is Leonardo Terrone’s “Left and Right Handed Fencing” . In his text Terrone makes clear the importance of finger articulation and grip and it’s relation to the heart. One of his more interesting points is his note on the accelerated strain on the heart produced by prolonged articulated movement in the hand during fencing bouts. In other words if any part of the hand gets strained the heart can undergoes a strain. If the reader wants to get a physical sense of this they can try holding a one pound weight in their finger tips with their arm at full extension- and move it in a small figure eight continuously for a few minutes or maybe 60 revolutions. See how long you can do it and notice how your chest and heart feel. Fencers use similar motions for prolonged periods and experience similar heart/chest effects. When that fine motor hand skill – particularly with the arm at nearly full extension- is mixed with periodic lunging (another intense heart stressor) one gets extremely high levels of stress on the heart organ. With the additional strain of the wearing of Body armor combat becomes even more of a heart strain.

For these reasons you need a strong heart to go with a strong musculo-skeletal system which can absorb impact -as well as a somewhat hardened or inured skin -in order to withstand the various strains imposed by combat. This need for a strong heart brings up the need for cardiac conditioning in the form of running and related exercises. Running or leg training is not often linked with upper body strength but there is the hand-heart connection to keep in mind – particularly when training the arms for combat.

In modern physical training more time tends to be spent on the biceps and chest in strength training-which is largely due to aesthetic and cosmetic specifications from body builders— than on forearms, hands and wrists which are extremely important in martial arts. A good strong wrist, which is wider and thicker than an untrained one-is particularly important as it can take more impact from a punching fist and more flexing from a wrist lock. The wrist can be thickened by gripping and articulating (swinging, thrusting) weapons or if they are too unwieldy initially- by using lighter weights in sets of twenty repetitions. One of the most ideal wrist-forearm weights is the sledge hammer.

Simply vary your grip and it’s leverage by adjusting your grip from the head back toward the butt. Use a hammering movement-isolating the wrist joint -and wrist rotation. Prof. Cheng Man-ching who studied Tien Hsueh or the Art of Attacking Vital Points advocated a similar technique-on a much more refined scale- using a chopstick in the hand squeezing it with the thumb and a protruding index finger across the index finger knuckle. (14.).


A grip and arm developed through using a bull whip will have a different range of movement, strength and sensitivity from a wrist and arm trained with a wrestlers club. In fact the whole of the arm, rotator cuff and upper back are used differently with each weapon. Therefore training with a variety of weapons is extremely helpful for overall arm strength and durability. Weaponry also enhances eye-hand coordination due to new demands involving distance and speed and so also- through contrast -increases precise judgment of distance and timing in empty hand striking and blocking.

Sometimes the strength developed from using specific weapons or even non-martial tools can give unexpected advantages in empty handed combat. In World War II, Commando trainer William E. Fairbairn found his wrist locks would not work against the local Scots fishermen because their whole arm-particularly the elbow, forearm and wrist -was extraordinarily strong from throwing and pulling in the fishing nets each day. (15.)

Along this line of thought it is interesting to note that both Chinese wrestling and Western Boxing traditions have throwing and catching objects. Sand bags are used in Chinese Wrestling (16.)


and some Shaolin and related arts. Western Boxing uses the “medicine ball”. Both methods get some of the same results as those received by Fairbairn’s fisherman.


In our use of the arms we find three main functional actions- pulling, pushing and swinging.

To further clarify these, by “Pulling,” I mean any movement whereby the fingers are curled and the arm made to flex or bend-as in pulling a rope or doing a pull-up.

By “Pushing,” I mean the act of pushing an object like a person or a car or a shot-putt with a pushing forward action.

shot putt 1

shot putt 2

shot putt 3

By “Swinging,” I mean the act of swinging the hand around the body or over the head in various planes of movement.

discus horizontal throw

hook front 1

In reference to developing overall strength in the action of pulling, the exercise of the pull-up is probably the most comprehensive action for training the arms to pull – this is especially true of pulling at a downward angle.

The Pull-Up has two disadvantages-

1. It is pulling from directly above your head (not a likely place to need to pull from in martial arts), and-

overhead pull palm in

2. Many adults are simply too heavy to do them.

The pull-up is also often difficult to make progress on. One way to make progress is by slowing down your pull-up on the descent on each repetition. Another way is to work with a pulley with lighter weights approaching your body weight. Then go back to the bar and see if you have the additional strength to do more repetitions. The great thing about the pull up is that is also a stretching exercise. In other words it stretches your arm and your shoulder and even your ribs and whole spine.

The ability to do a pull-up – particularly in reps or sets, like many body weight exercises, depends very much on your body size. A person over six feet tall will often find any kind of horizontal bar exercises to be tough. Body weight has a major effect on any kind of horizontal bar exercise.

If you are actually able to do pull ups that is probably your best first choice arm exercise simply because it uses the largest amount of muscles groups. After that there are pulling actions from other angles like the so called bent-row where you bend forward – as in a dead lift – and bring the weight upward to your chest, or you can sit down -as in a Nautilus machine- and pull the handles to your sides/chest.

The angle encountered with the Nautilus machine- that is from the front of the body, is more likely to be encountered in hand – to – hand combat. The only variant to this training I would add is using pulleys to train pulling from the side of the torso rather than the front. In the early 1900s boxers and wrestlers used pulleys mounted on the wall. This “frontally mounted pull” is very practical and the pulleys or- your body- can be placed at different angles according to the angle of pull you want to develop. Some modern gyms have pulleys with adjustable hight settings which are ideal for developing the angles of strength used in combat.

The action of Pulling is extremely relevant to wrestling. In wrestling if you can pull your opponents head downward you basically have control of the rest of his body. The movement in Chinese Tai Chi Ch’uan popularly translated as “Roll Back” can also be accurately translated as “Pull” (17.). And it too can be used to control the opponents head by holding his neck.

It seems to me that some Judoka figured out the effectiveness of using pulleys due to their use of the Gi as a pulling handle. Many Ju-jitsu and Judo maneuvers use the lapel of the Gi/Jacket as a handle to maneuver the rest of the opponents body.

It is simply another way to control the opponents head. The old western boxers in the first half of the twentieth century used pulleys, both facing the pulley to develop a quick retracting punch and also facing away from them, for developing the punching itself (18.).

In India wrestlers do a partner exercise- pulling each others hands in a two handed mutual grip -as a slow motion resistance activity. (19.)

Many Asian martial arts have punches that combine pulling with a complementary motion of punching. In fact, the coupling of a pull with a punch or other tactic is one of the most practical combative techniques recognized world-wide. In World War II the, Finnish military were known for pulling the opponents hair while using a knife. (20). Judo often sets the opponent up for a counter throw with a preliminary pull. Tai Chi Chuan in its two man form called “Ta Lu” uses the act of pulling to set up an arm lock. ( 21. ) Japanese Karate shows the pull in its basic “Reverse Punch”.(22.) Pulling an opponent off balance is common in Western Free Style wrestling and in Judo as well as Ju Jitsu and Aikido.

Pulling works well if you are pulling a man toward you for a head butt or hip check-sometimes called a “Cross Buttock” in old wrestling/boxing manuals. Defensively the development of the pulling muscles, particularly the tendons from the forearm and wrist, is useful preparation for the practice of resisting wrist locks and compressions which make up the standard practices of Judo, Jujitsu and their Chinese cousin Chin-Na. Some of the same wrist locks are found in variations in Western free -style and “catch” wrestling as well as in modern “Submission” Wrestling.

When you pull at different angles, you feel the action in different parts of your hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder, back and chest. Pulling from the ground or from a pulley on the wall are distinctively different, even if the grip is the same. The shoulder has to do major adaptation to accommodate the angle of pulling. In fact, how we pull an object depends very much on how our muscles are already accustomed to being used. Kinetic memory or muscle memory is why it is so difficult to change punching styles or teach a body builder how to punch. It is also why when Karate men do Tai Chi Chuan, they still look like they are doing Karate positions. Your muscles remember their previous training and the preferences that go with it. If your shoulders are the stronger muscle set, you will pull in such a way as to enlist their help as soon as possible. This sort of “movement preference” is one reason why many martial arts teachers don’t want their students lifting heavy weights. It can get in the way of developing correct technique. For example, if you have strong triceps and biceps your pull is more likely to be of the “elbow in” or “elbow down” variety. This is important in our study because the elbow is often a control point or point of leverage for boxers as well as wrestlers.

Because of this – how you position your elbows-which largely come from habits of pulling -in both weightlifting and in fighting techniques -can be a key to how you present your body to your opponent. After all, your opponent “reads” your position and its vulnerabilities. Therefore it is best to train your pulling with careful observation of the angles of your elbows.
While looking at the elbow in a pulling action a tactical example from boxing may be useful. If we look at the motion of “Curling” or lifting a weight with your hand using primarily your bicep the best way to get the most stress in the bicep is to keep the elbow in and down. If you do this with emphasis on keeping your elbow straight down and towards your hip, you will also develop a good straight upper-cut punch for boxing. If you don’t keep your elbow straight down and you use your shoulders to help lift the weight then you will also develop the habit of turning your body or lifting your shoulder before you uppercut- giving your opponent a message of what you are about to do! It can of course work tactically either way but a shorter faster movement tends to catch your opponent off guard.

In Karate the Reverse Punch has the other hand PULLING back toward the hip and seemingly providing no head defense. However the returning hand has been out – this tells me something was already grabbed and pulled. If you are going to pull then pulling the opponents wrist or sleeve to your hip is a great idea. This is not for what it does for your punch but for where it places his head. Incidentally in self defense situations-due to mammal instinct-people often do try to GRAB AND PULL each other by the throat or collar or sleeve. This is not just a simple coincidence. Choking someone to death is a typical mammal -and even reptilian reflex -deeply embedded in the nervous system. It actually can work- mainly on a unsuspecting victim. So the grab and pull defenses as well as the grabbing and pulling attacks are extremely relevant to self-defense situations because they ARE used and they DO work. When you move from the realm of survival and instinct fighting into sports things begin to be forbidden – specifically when it comes to grabbing and pulling and holding. While you cannot grab and pull a western boxing style rapidly retracting jab- a pulling action can work on the boxers elbow, sleeve (if he has a jacket or shirt on) or wrist – IF – it is used with a deflection or block. My Ba-gua and Hsing-I teacher Hung I-mien would let me punch quickly to his head and he would dodge and deflect my punch and then grab the flesh on top of my forearm or under the tricep — as the punch was withdrawn.


On a Boxers jab though the hand and wrist move quick the elbow itself moves very little. The skin grab can also be used under the arm or over the kidney to move the opponent’s targets into position. Try it for your self. Grabbing is a useful tactic not only for jacketed wrestling but also for unjacketed wrestling and survival fighting. Many mixed martial arts techniques- especially the ground -work can be countered with skin grabs particularly using the grab and pull to the opponents nipples and over the back of his kidneys. Try it for yourself.

Of course this kind of technique will not work if the opponent is wearing a heavy coat or amor. But having a good grip on that armour plate or coat can be useful!

In summary if you are a light, thin body type or below five foot eight the pull up is probably your ideal first exercise for developing the pulling power of the arm. If you are heavier, then go to pulleys and other devices, which will allow you to approach the full pull up. Remember the pull-up works from above so it will not give you the advantages of a pulley, which will allow you to pull from the side or in any other horizontal plane. In combat your opponent may not always be directly in front of you so it is best to be able to pull with skill from either side as well. Pulling from behind you is more difficult and less practical, but the training of this movement is probably worth the overall body awareness and conditioning it develops. Vary your pulling training as much as possible to develop maximum overall ability. This includes varying your grips and the size of the object you hold with your hand whether bar, dumbbell, rope or weapon.

The Punch and the Push

The natural reflexive movement to have after pulling something heavy is to shake the arm out. If you take this same shake extending it hard and fast, it is in essence a punch. If you extend it slow, it is in essence a push. The push and the punch use the same basic muscle groups though the speed is much greater in the punch.

The muscles used to pull are also the muscles used to retract or pull back the punch. Before this happens the arm and shoulder can actually stretch quite a ways. To give you an example of this, I’ll go to baseball. A baseball pitcher throwing a fastball will actually -after the release of the ball-dislocate his arm some 2-4 inches or more (23.). After this moment the head of the upper arm bone – the humorus – will snap back -popping back into the shoulder joint. It is no wonder shoulder cuff injuries are so prevalent in baseball. What this means for us in Martial Arts is that the pulling and punching muscles have to be strengthened in proportion to one another. In this way the arm is secured in it’s shallow joint and kept from coming out of its shoulder joint a missed punch or a hard shoulder twist.

So to avoid injury it is best to have good strong pulling muscles in your shoulder before you go to working on your punching.

The muscles which do the Lion’s share of punching are basically the same as the pushing muscles. The difference being that they are used more quickly. One of the most common exercises for strengthening both pushing and punching muscles is the push-up or press-up. Variations of the Push-Up include changing the distances between the hands, changing the distances between the hands and the feet and articulating the hands onto the fingers, the knucklesthe edges and even clapping the hands in front or behind the head after pushing up.

These variations can be adopted according to the type of punch you are trying to perfect.

One variation of the push-up, which is particularly note-worthy, is the push done with the hands and feet elevated on three chairs. The nice thing about this push up is not only is it extremely difficult- it actually forces the shoulder cuff to stretch both to the front AND the back. This exercise adds incredible strength

push up tween chairs

to any punching or thrusting action especially the ones done below the height of the shoulder. (24).

The weight lifters “Bench Press” will do much of the same work but tends not to develop the shoulder flexibility and so also neglects some of the deeper muscle connections from the shoulder to the neck. To work with some of those deeper muscle connections try sliding your shoulder blades together on the bench before bench pressing or even try pressing from a Full Bridge. The additional shoulder flexibility of the chair push – up also assists with the use of heavier weapons which put a lot more strain inside the shoulder joint. The Chinese seem to have taken the same idea as found in the bench press and applied it to holding a chair. A person lie on the ground and holds a chair in front of their chest or face – articulating the chair in different ways. (25.)
This is a very useful exercise but you will need to be careful because it challenges your orientation to a weight from above -AND-in movement. With the “Chinese Chair,” you not only lift it up, you can also rotate it in your hands.

This will allow you to develop articulations of the arm within the context of feeling a constant forward pressure in your hands, arms and chest.The advantages of developing this kind of strength is it allows you to feel a constant flow of forward pressure in the strength of your arms -while your are-at the same time-using them defensively- and with this feeling in your nerve receptors you can launch a steady stream of counter punches with very little “wind- up” of any kind.

If you want a strong straight body punch, keep your elbows close to your sides and have your fists below your shoulders on your push- up. The Western Boxing style head jab will develop better if you have your hands or fists little higher than the line of your shoulders when you do your Push-up.

Punching and Pushing -Tactic and Anatomy

Pushing, like punching, works mainly along a line. A push can be articulated quickly like a strike- and do significant damage. There are specific strikes using the palm as a kind of “push-strike” against the floating ribs used in Chinese Ba-gua but not unique to it. These also occur in other Asian Martial Arts (26).Even Sumo wrestling uses the Push Strike. The technique of “Push” in Tai Chi Ch’uan is a particular kind of push which depends on the opponents reactivity-much like some throws in Judo. The main idea is to push when your opponent is about to withdraw. If your push is just a little ahead of your opponents reaction they will quite literally bounce off your hands like a thrown ball. This kind of Push requires very little strength and depends mainly on timing and highly trained baro-receptors in the arms. Tactically a push can be angled to move one attacker into another or simply put the opponents head into a wall.

As we look more at the most active parts of the musculature when punching or pushing with a fist or even piercing with a finger(s) or sword, ultimately we are looking at two very basic actions;

1. Raising the arm via the deltoid (shoulder) muscles, (strengthened through lifting relatively light weights straight out to the side) and

2. Straightening and extending the arm – which is primarily done by the the tricep (muscle on the back of the upper arm used in hammering actions and in Dips in the gym). The Chest muscles or Pectoralis are brought into activity to brace the shoulder and launch the punch- stabilizing the arm while launching it forward (the Bench Press and related exercises are good for this).

Tactically a straight punch is more difficult to “read” as it moves forward on a line (for instance straight from your shoulder to an opponent’s head) and therefore provides less to see laterally and less time to see it than say, a swinging movement. The classic example is the left jab or “lead” perfected by early Western Boxers like Jem Mace and Jim Driscoll. (27) Done quickly from a hands -up position it is very difficult to read much of its movement. It is a close cousin to the fencer’s lunge only differing in the length of the forward step or lunge. Though often used to set up the rear hand for a body punch, the jab — if the front leg is carried forward with it – will carry the body weight behind it — and the movement will feel like you have been hit in the head with a battering ram. I know because I have been hit with it. (28).

The Chinese appear not to have developed the jab until the incursion of Western Boxing in the 1930’s and 1940’s . In my own experience, I learned a head punching form as part of advanced Hsing-I in the the animals of Hsing-I (“Tai” and/or “Horse”). However the jab of the Tai is closer to a pecking action using the secondary knuckles- than a jabbing action. The Western Boxers jab may have been perfected in Europe even earlier in history with the very small shield (about the size of a paint can lid) called a “buckler”. To block with the buckler (which sometimes had a spike protruding from its center) you have to thrust it forward. It is also held in the front or “leading hand” and so develops all the same muscular habits as a boxers jab. (29) The punching action used in a buckler is also found in the forward movements of the square ancient Roman Shield and also still exists in the shield structure of the Zulus.


The main idea of the jab of the buckler is not only to block but also to deflect the opponent’s weapon AWAY from your body. In India for hundreds of years there was also likely a jab in their boxing as they also had a variety of bucklers and small shields of a broad range of materials including rhino hide and steel. The Chinese, prior to the incursion of Western Boxing in the 1920s- seemed to have used the finger spear to the eyes as their jab. This gets the opponents guard up and quickly exposes his lower body. The advantage of the finger spear, since the hand is already open, is that it can easily grab and pull the opponents blocking or deflecting arm downward as a response to their raising it. This use of the open hand in this way is where Asian methods show a marked superiority over present-day Western methods.



The Rear Hand

The rear hand, or as described in Western Boxing “the Right,” or “The Cross” is the hand often referred to as the “Power Hand” due to its connection to the traditional Right Cross which is a knock-out punch with the right hand. If you want to see a perfect right hand in western boxing watch George Carpentier in some of his old fight. It is the the turning of the torso as well as the advancing of the body weight that provide the power for this punch. In both East and West there are variations of straight punching with the rear hand that use the vertical fist (knuckles on a vertical line) and the horizontal fist (knuckles on a horizontal line). These articulations are both sometimes used for hitting the head though the vertical knuckle position has less potential for wrist bending and therefore less wrist injury. Some western boxers have perfected a right/rear hand descending punch that impacts slightly off-center on the opponent’s chin to create torque in the neck at the brain stem . The Chinese martial art of Hsing-I uses the same target with a “hammer” or side-of- fist strike. This is not seen in Western Sport Boxing because it is an illegal movement due to its deadliness. Most Asian martial arts have rear hand punches which include variations that rotate the fist as it impacts the target. These rotating or “cork-screw” punches tend to target the softer regions of the body below the ribcage, particularly the navel, and can be done very close to the opponent. In Asian arts- largely due to lack of gloves- straight knuckle punches are usually used as quick jabs against the rib cage.


The third action we will now look at is Swinging the arm. Swinging is a movement that combines muscles used in both pushing and pulling. A clear way to view the swinging movement of the arm is seen in the Olympic event of the discus throw.

Originally the discus throw was done with a step (not a spin as we see now in the Olympics) (30.). In its original form, we can see the rotation of the torso with a step forward. (pic) The step is necessarily forward if you are throwing the discus as a weapon at someone. Some of the old contests involved throwing the discus upward as well ( 30.). This reduces the necessity of a long step. The throwing of the discus in the two planes of movement very much embodies the hook and uppercut of Western Boxing and even some of the arm swinging methods which can be seen ranging from the Ukraine at present, into -reputedly- Tibetan Methods (Lions Roar) and types of Chinese Shaolin (Choy-lai-fut).

discus horizontal throw

hook front 1

Swinging is akin to throwing a stone. We need not go far into Classical Greek studies to find accounts in their warfare of the Psiloi or stone hurlers used on the flanks of the battlefield. ( 31. ). And this was not unique to the Ancient Greeks. All old cultures knew how to throw stones. Stone throwing can be done over hand, underhand and even using side arm techniques similar to what we see in modern baseball and softball—with remarkable accuracy. But to throw something invariably involves a swing and not a thrust or push. (The only exception I have found to this is the Olympic event of the Shot-putt).

Another aspect of the swinging or hooking action is that it is more frequently done with the arm that is in the back or – not the leading arm. By swinging the rear arm you can get more torso rotation and body weight in the movement. This often means the front hand has to move first somehow. It seems to have to reflexively prepare or “trigger” the rear arm movement by some kind of preliminary movement. The front arm movement may be a backhand action (as in Tai Chi’s movement of “Ward Off”) or a slapping forward action- to assist the rear arm action. Watch a baseball pitcher when he throws. First he swings his gloved hand forward and out-then he uses his rear or pitching arm. There is also the same reflexive alternating of hands in the left-right punch of the Western Boxer. The alternating of hands is even seen when we walk as we swing our arms alternately. So there seems a tendency to use one hand and then the other even if we are going to swing the rear arm.

Tactically this tendency to move one hand before another can become a significant point of reading which hand our opponent is going to use and when.

“Swinging” includes both backhand and forehand actions. A fore- hand swing done with a small motion is a “hook” in Boxing.

A boxers rear hand hook, punch or swing is also set up by a front hand action be it a jab or deflection movement. Since in Western Boxing the back hand or back-fist is illegal we see in competitive matches a jab or deflection prior to using the rear hand. As the back fist is not “illegal” in Asian Arts, particularly in Shaolin -we can see a swinging back hand movement that turns the torso and so carries the rear punch/hook with it. Due to lack of boxing ring rules the range of hooking actions is much broader in Asian systems than in Western Boxing.


It is likely that a man or woman, who specialized in a discus throw or throwing out fishing nets in ancient times would be predisposed to use hooking and swinging actions of the arms. Certainly this type of movement is referenced by both ancient Greek and Roman sources. ( 32.) The main reason I suspect this is that I have found, as one trains one’s body, that one develops a preference for the movements one is most familiar with. Of course the more one trains a movement the easier it becomes and the more habituated and conditioned also. However, along with this neurological habituation the muscles themselves also are shaped, thickened and enlarged in highly specific ways as are the bones. In this way both the musculature and the nervous system are co-conspirators to institute habitual movement in the body.

Hooking and Swinging when contrasted with the straight thrust or punch are often considered “inefficient” or “uneconomical”. This is because they usually take more time to do, cover more space and so are more easily seen by the opponent. But they also tend to hit harder.

The tradition of Western Boxing has shown some extremely efficient uses of the hooking punch, especially when kept short and close to the body. Fly Weight world champion Jimmy Wilde often used a left open hand parry (they were legal in boxing in his time) with a right hook to the body followed with a left hook to the head. (33.) This was done with such speed that he earned the nick-name, “the ghost with the hammer in each hand”. Joe Frazier brought his left hook to the forefront (literally) when he fought Muhammed Ali. In the Asian Traditions particularly in versions of Chinese “Boxing” or “Gung-fu” we find a large array of hooking punches performed both inside and outside the opponents guard (Choy Lay-fut, Hung-gar as well as Sun Bing Chuan and many forms of Shaolin all show this) (34.) The Overhand Punch or swinging strike from overhead with the bottom fist or forearm deserves a special mention. It is used with various articulations in western boxing, Chinese Hsing-I and in Tibetan Hop-gar/Lion’s Roar as well as in South Indian Kalaripyattu (35.). This technique is particularly effective as it comes from an angle difficult to see. Western Boxing uses it, though its use is somewhat diluted by having to hit with the front of the glove. Ideally this is a strike with the forearm-either side- rather than the hand, and it works best behind the neck, across the throat or on the collar bone. Burmese Bando uses it efficiently and gives it the title of “Stick Punch” (36.). Legendary Western Boxer Sam Langford also used this as a kind of hook with great success (37.) as did the Greeks in their Pankration (38.).

Swinging and hooking punches show a remarkably wide variety of variations and because of this they are difficult to “read” or predict in a fight. Sometimes a wide seemingly nonsensical hooking punch hits the sharpest most well trained economical boxer. For this reason all times and cultures have found them worth studying and practicing.


The relation of the swinging punch to the swinging weapon is found clearly in ancient times in the use of one of the oldest weapons, the club or mace. I suspect the Mace was favored early on as a weapon because it had been tested on animals in the wild and found to work. The Mace in one hand –used with a long stick or hooked stick in the other hand— give what we have in the words of the Psalmist in the Bible “Thy Rod and thy staff”. (Psalm 23).The same kind of pairing of weapons is seen in the crossed arms of the Pharaohs of Egypt who hold the Crook and Flail and also in the Samurai with his long and short sword.

Having seen an antique shepherd’s “rod” or “club” from Palestine, I was intrigued to find that it was about the same length as a walking stick but had a hollowed -out end with a lead filling. This made it heavy enough on impact to shatter a skull.

Later in France I found a Basque shepherds staff with a large enough curve to go around my waist. These discoveries made me realize these were serious weapons in the hands of a man used to a fairly rough life – living outdoors with wild animals. As I recall the Shepherds in Palestine included lions as well as wolves as enemies of their sheep. So there was no room for doubt as far as the efficacy of the weapons of the Shepherd. The key to using a club in the context of shepherding is using the longer-sometimes hooked- staff to distract, pin or hook the predator. This gives the time necessary to swing the club rather than poke or thrust with it. After all the idea was to kill the predator so he/it could not return.

shepherds weapons 1

These same two weapon “distract and swing” tactics easily transferred to the Gladitorial Arena of Rome or any combative encounter that allows the use of two weapons. A man with two swords will generally use the lead sword to Feint or “Lead” the opponent into position for the swing or thrust of the rear hand. This shepherding aspect may be the historical source for calling the Western Boxer’s front hand his “Leading Hand”. Not because it is in front of him, but because it leads the opponent’s attention, especially in feinting, in the same way that a red cloak leads a bull. This leading hand or luring hand is key to using swinging actions successfully with weapons.


In training the body for swinging movements of the arms with or without weapons- the conditioning of the shoulders is primary. The shoulder joint is a relatively shallow and unstable joint compared to other ball and socket joint in the body – the hips. Because of this, the shoulder has to be stabilized by the muscles that hold it in position. These muscles form the complex of muscles called the Rotator Cuff and they include portions of the chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) as well as the scapula (infraspinatus, supraspinatus, subscapularis). These sets of muscles can prevent the arm from coming forward and out of the joint under stress IF they are strong enough. We previously mentioned the fast ball pitcher and his rubber-band like shoulder cuff. Now we will see in more detail how we can keep the head of the humorus or upper arm in the notch provided by the shoulder blade (gleno-humoral joint). We previously mentioned the importance of the pull-up and related exercises. The lack of the horizontal element makes the pull-up rather limited. It only strengthens the shoulders in the vertical plane of movement, and it will tend to strengthen the arm primarily in that plane as well. So to prevent over specialized conditioning, the arm ideally needs to be trained in both planes of movement. On the horizontal plane we have some of the discus-like arm swinging which occurs in both Shaolin and Tai Chi warm-ups . When these are done with a turning waist they are sometimes called “The Constant Bear” and they are truly an axial practice of Yang Tai Chi Chuan (39.) .



These swinging movements can be trained progressively beginning with relatively light weights of 2-6 lbs depending on your body size. If you swing these around your body with care, at various heights, you will give your shoulder cuff the much needed strengthening on a horizontal plane. You will need to be careful with your lower back, however; since it is there the final torque of these arm movements find an anchor point. One way to protect the low back is to be sure the hips are allowed to rotate and take the strain off the shoulders. If you lock or “freeze” your hips you will develop your shoulders more – but the strain is much greater in the low back and shoulder. If you want to train the shoulders exclusively-without training the hips-do the movements with your heels together. Training these parts of the body is as much an art as a science. You are best served feeling your way through the movements with care.

The Wrestlers Clubs or Pins used in India and Iran can be used the same way (horizontally) in their lighter
indian clubs courtesy of loyd gore

versions. In their traditional function they are used within the range of movement of a saber so the vertical movement is strongly emphasized and the horizontal movement minimized.

This makes sense particularly in consideration of using a saber on horse back. The more horizontal your swing the more dangerous for your horses head. The reduction of the horizontal movements also becomes a necessity as the clubs get heavier and the body of the one in training becomes almost totally oriented to balancing the weight of the mace vertically in the hand. Also on an odd but vertical plane of movement the Iranians use the steel-bow with a chain string (40.). This is held and swung overhead in a side to side movement, as though preparing to shoot from each side. The momentum of the swinging chain makes it even harder to stabilize. However when one holds an actual archers bow in their hand it makes sense- as you will have developed an incredibly steady arm swing- into a perfect aiming position for an attack from either side.

In more modern Western Training, the “horizontal strength” of the arms- that is the strength of the arms in relation to their ability to pull or swing around the torso- is trained with pulleys, again at lighter weights with the arms extended. Rubber tubing works well for this too. In any of this training- especially with the lighter weights- high repetition is usually done in the range of 20-50 repetitions per set of a movement.

Isometrics also help develop strength horizontally. Pressing against the arm of the “Wooden Man”with your forearm, working on developing a steady forward pressure in your deflection or punch can be very helpful tactically. This forward pressure will be found to work very well on boxers who use good straight elbow down punches. Another example of isometric training is simply pushing or pulling against a static bar for lengths of time to develop more prolonged application of strength. The rising blood pressure that occurs with isometrics does however require the practitioner to exhale while exerting and inhale while resting. It is best to rest for twice as long as you exert in order to avoid developing headaches brought on by high blood pressure.

From the standpoint of modern equipment, the shoulder cuff can also be trained for swinging horizontally through the use of the “Flies” or dumbbell movements on the back where the arms follow a clapping motion. The bigger the movement, the better for your shoulder cuff, but you will want to be careful with the weight on these due to the limits of the strength of the shoulder cuff and strain on the elbow. Arms bent for shoulders and arms straighter for the tendons long connection muscles or “tracks” which go through the arms.

So far we have covered the movement, possible evolution and ways of training the musculature of the arms, hands and shoulders. We have also looked at specific techniques for fighting. What we have yet to look at is the effect of impact on the arm. In other words, the hand/arm has to be trained to absorb impact. So special attention must be given to either hardening the hand through making the muscles and skin and connective tissue stronger and more durable OR finding how to use the hand to hit specific targets that will not injure it. Both methods, emphasized in varying ways, are generally used by martial arts schools world -wide and throughout time. And this intelligent use of training is what makes martial arts an art. That is-how NOT to hurt yourself. Many fists -and even arms-have been broken on some very hard heads in street fights!

Hand exercises of all types will make the hand stronger and the fist harder. A good grip is cousin to a hard fist. But this fist, as still found in modern street fights, can be broken however strong it is. This is especially true if it hits the frontal bone of the forehead, catches an elbow or hits a belt buckle or a wall. And the rather devious technique of knuckle striking the opponents hands also brings the reality of the fragility of the hands into view. In Ancient Greek Pankration (“All Powers Fighting”) hand wraps were used from finger to elbow. Sometimes sheepskin was sewn on the back of the forearm leather wraps to wipe the sweat off the forehead. Some statuary shows a covering over the knuckle (41.). It was likely leather but probably changed to steel or a metal by the time of the Roman Gladiators. In the Coliseum of Rome, all sorts of armor and blades/spikes were placed over the hand. Going forward in history to modern times we find hand wraps/straps of cotton still used by Western Boxers to protect the hands and wrists – but not the forearms. Remember that modern boxing forbids the use of forearms as a hitting surface so the additional protection is unnecessary. The additional forearm support used by the Greeks and Romans allowed them to hit with the forearms. This allowed their swinging techniques an even greater tactical variety as we also find in Asian Martial Arts.


In modern boxing the large leather padded glove is slid over the hand wraps. Not only does the glove protect the hand, it defocuses the effect of the knuckles so one is, in essence, swinging a blunt object. This means that harder punching and swinging is necessary for effectiveness. Also by wearing the glove, the hand is supported-particularly at the wrist- for repeated impact. The traditional approach of Chinese and Japanese schools to this issue was to strengthen the wrist and forearm through twisting bamboo or rope and other forms of resistance training. Some Chinese schools often wore/wear leather straps on the wrist-forearm area to further support it. Both the hand and wrist training and their protection with a leather fore-arm guard was then coupled with conditioning the skin of the hand via the development of callouses by tapping or hitting on a hard object (like the Japanese hitting post or Makiwara) regularly and over a long period of time. Also the vascular system or blood vessels of the hand were additionally trained with the use of analgesics and lineaments which promoted blood circulation while at the same time strengthening the blood vessels of the hand and forearm through repeated contraction and expansion.

The main protocols for training the blood vessels of the hand include slapping or hitting bags of rice or stone to cause inflammation in the blood vessels of the arms and hands, and then applying herbal medicine that causes vascular constriction while carrying the substances of the herbs into the skin and membranes of the hand. Naturally this method has to be gradual and progressive over time to give the body both adjustment and healing time. Various schools have various schedules for this process. Health-wise the more gradual the training the better in order to reduce the chances of developing arthritis and other symptoms that can come from over-training and abuse. Dr. U Maung Gyi once mentioned in his Monks Training Workshop the training of the hands using heated river stones (smooth and round). Massage Therapists have been bringing hot stone therapy into their clinics the last few years too. R. Smith in his “Chinese Boxing” refers to Li Kim Sui- a Shaolin practitioner who would thrust his hands into hot iron shot to condition them. The heat is significant in that according to many traditional medicine schools (Chinese, Indian, Tibetan, Greek, Arabic) heating the body and maintaining body heat prevents arthritis-particularly as you advance in age. And this principle applies not just to the hand but to the whole body.


Even with the hand trained for impact, in both skin and blood vessels, and the grip and arm trained for maximum strength from gripping and pulling of all types-there is still the issue of being able to continue to hold a sword or stick or even gun after they have absorbed numerous impacts and under fatigue. The vibration of impact from a weapon going into the hand, arm, neck and body is
extremely exhausting. Here the Pel or standing post or tree -and the use of wooden weapons on it- is very helpful. The Indian Mallacam contains the same ideas. Western medieval soldiers used over-sized and over-weighted wooden weapons on the Pel, and this allowed them to develop a grip that could tolerate numerous impacts while developing the shoulder muscles that could lift the weapons with extreme speed.



The wooden man used in Asian martial arts allows similar training, but I have not found evidence of it being used for weapons training. It is however highly probably the Asians had versions of the Pell too, particularly for fighting on horseback, as made world famous by the Mongols. The Pell allows the skills of distance with a weapon on horseback to be mastered one can even hang archery targets from it.


Obviously this activity has its limits and usually targets the slapping of the shoulders, arms, ribs and thighs. Some Shaolin used it (42.) and it has been mentioned in my previous articles in J.A.M.A about Egyptian Yoga and the “Golden Bell Cover” of the Chinese which included the pummeling of the torso with various kinds of sticks and tools. A noteworthy aspect of this technique is to find out where your body is more sensitive and from that deduce the best way to hit a given target. This training also teaches how the hands can be relaxed or positioned initially- before hitting in a variety of focused ways. To slap with the open palm is very different than tapping the body with the knuckles or loose fists. By feeling the effects on your own body you can get a sense of how you would use these techniques on someone else.

The techniques of slapping and pummeling and using the hand in various articulated ways (in Swedish Massage called “Tapotement” while among the Chinese called “Tui-na”) enters the borderland between martial arts training for striking and physical therapies including massage and body therapies of different kinds. This “Martial – Healing Borderland” where the lethal and the therapeutic meet is a study in itself. It is also a good place for the martial arts student to begin to integrate both his psychological shadow and his tactical understanding through learning techniques of healing to go with the techniques of harming.

By contrasting healing and harming and understanding the relationship between them a new understanding of body and Psyche can be developed. In this way the searching student of martial arts begins to enter the Way of the Heart through training the Way of the Hand.


1.Tim Geoghegan on articulatory gripping exercises, private talk.
2. Asian Fighting Arts, Smith and Draeger, p.63
3. Wrestling of Persia (text in Persian) translated for me by K. Abolmoluki, middle weight wrestling champion of Iran in1952.
4. Asian Fighting Arts, P. 63
5. Shaolin Martial Art 1930

6. Chinese Boxing p.17
7. Karate-do My Way of Life p.117 .
8. Chinese Boxing p.95 showing Tung Chin-tsan
on a three arm wooden man.

9. Chinese Boxing, p.98 on the training of Li Kim-sui.

10. The Tain, p.29

11. Personal notes of Robert Smith on training with Kuo. In authors collection.
12. Personal notes from Geoghegan by Pittman.
13. Personal notes from the Rainbow Boxing Gym, working with Danny Emerick.
14. notes from Danny Emerick on the teachings of Cheng Man-ching to Liu Hsi-hen.
15. Personal notes on the training of William Fairbairn from an interview with his daughter.
16. Chinese Wrestling by Daniel Wang
17. Notes from Classical Chinese Scholar M. Wells
18. Spalding’s book of Physical Culture p.170
19. Authors notes on Indian Wrestling from Tim Geoghegan.
20. Authors notes from Kelly Yeaton whose brother was with Fairbairn and the Finnish recruits in WWII.
21. Ta Lu as demonstrated by Robert Smith and Ben Lo in their “Five Tigers of Tai Chi Ch’uan” in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts. This article will show it though I was taught a variation by Smith which was more specific in application and appearance.
22. M. Nakayama in his “Practical Karate” series shows this- it is a standard technique seen often in various Karate-do methods.
23. notes from Dean Gruell, baseball scout for the Milwaukee Brewers, California Angels during my time with him evaluating prospective players.
24. Hunter Armstrongs “Strength and Conditioning for the Combative Athlete” is the source for this and worth careful study on a number of other training techniques as well. IHS Press, Sedona, Arizona, 199?
25. “Authentic Art of the Wu Tang School” p.160
26. Authors notes from Hung I-mien, Robert Smith.
27. The Straight Left by Jim Driscoll p.37
28. Danny E. Private lessons with Danny on the method of Shanghai lightweight champion, Guo.
29. The Straight Left by Jim Driscoll p.37
30. Super Athletes p. 451
31. Nick Sekunda in his “The Ancient Greeks”. p21.
32. Combat Sports, P.84
33. Spalding, P.161
34. Personal Notes on various Shaolin and related forms from teachers C. Daniels (Lions Roar), H. Mosher, C. Bates (Shaolin-Gao Feng-shen).
35. Notes from Khilton Nangmeithem on N. and S. Indian Arts.
36. Notes from Bando Teacher David Daniel
37. Spalding Book of Physical Culture p.153
38. Combat Sports, p.84
39. Notes from Christ Bates on Gao Feng-shen’s Shaolin and Danny Emerick on Huang Shin-shen’s Tai Chi chuan and Prof. Cheng’s “Constant Bear” exercise.
40. Iranian Book of Wrestling p.
41. Combat Sports, p.74
42. Notes on Shaolin from Chris Bates


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