Explosive punching techniques are the Holy Grail for most martial arts and self-defense practitioners. And for good reason: the more you increase your explosive punching power, the more damage you can do when you hit your opponent or attacker. It’s a no-brainer.
But I believe many people make the mistake on overly focusing on the physical training to develop their fast-twitch muscle fiber through all sorts of strength training protocols. Just to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. On the contrary, it’s an important part of the puzzle. That said, I believe there is another part that s equally important: pulling the trigger.
One of the most difficult things to do in a fight, both in the ring or in the street, is deciding when exactly to strike. As in: “Not yet, nope, too soon, not yet, no, no, NOW!” When exactly that “Now!” is depends on too many factors to list here and they also change all the time but just to give you an idea here are two examples:
- A guy is in your face, blocking the exit of a bar you want to get out of and he’s increasingly agitated. He’s giving off all the pre-fight signals and your de-escalation techniques aren’t working. You realize that the only way to get out is to go through him. When exactly do you make your move? Which factors or actions on his part determine your choice of that particular moment in time?
- You’re competing in the cage against a tough opponent. You’ve traded blows and he’s gotten the better of you a few times already. You need to do some damage quickly before he becomes even more confident and aggressive because you don’t know if you can keep on taking what he dishes out. When do you throw your technique? At which exact instant do you initiate that punch, kick or takedown and why then instead of before or after that moment?
There are multiple right answers to these scenarios, it’s not black or white. This is a field of study in and of itself and if you like, you can call it strategy and tactics. There are as many opinions on this as there are people so it’s up to you to figure out what works for you. But here’s the thing:
Knowing when to do a technique is one thing, having the ability to pull the trigger on your technique at that precise moment in time is another skill altogether.
It’s that skill you are primarily training with this drill.
You also train other things and I’ll point that out in a minute but I use the drill primarily for this reason. Here’s how it goes.
This is the nuts and bolts of the drill. You can do it differently but I like this version as a starting point.
- You and your partner stand close to a wall. He’s in his fighting stance facing the wall and you are close to it, slightly to his side.
- Hold up a focus mitt or a light boxing glove against the wall, well above head height of your partner.
- Without advance warning, open your fingers and drop the glove.
- As soon as he spots the glove falling, your partner throws a straight punch at the glove and tries to pin it to the wall.
- Repeat ten times and then use your other arm for the punching technique.
Her’s what it looks like:
This is the basic drill and it looks easy enough but you’ll quickly notice it becomes more difficult when you start tweaking it as follows:
- Change the height of the glove. If your partner catches it all the time, lower it half an inch. Keep lowering it in small increments until he no longer consistently pins it to the wall. That’s the point where he needs to work the most at right now.
- Add footwork. In the video, my student first has to throw left and right straight punches at the target from a stationary position. Then, he has to take a step back and do the same thing but take a step forward as soon as he launches the punch. As you can see, he has a lot more trouble doing that and starts both leaning into it and straightening out his back leg too much.
- Add another glove holder. Have another person stand on the opposite side against the wall and hold up a second glove. The gloves should be no wider apart than your partner’s shoulders. Now he won’t know which glove drops first, so anticipating becomes a lot harder.
- Position a second glove holder behind him. Do the exact same drill but have somebody else stand behind your partner with a glove held high. As soon as you release it and he pins it, he has to spin around 180° and face the second partner in his fighting stance. Then that one drops the glove when he wants to, preferably not too long after your partner finishes spinning around.
- Eyes closed. Have your partner close his eyes for a few seconds before you say “Ready?” so he opens them again. Then you wait one to three seconds before releasing the glove. Because he has to orient himself each time, the drill is a lot harder for your partner.
- Don’t use a wall. Do the same drill but in the middle of your training area instead of up against a wall. You might even start doing some slow footwork so your partner has to follow you around and react in time when you drop the glove.
You can obviously add your own variations to this timing drill for explosive punching techniques but the ones I listed here above are a good starting point.
Let’s take a look now at what can go wrong.
My student in this video had never done this drill before and he makes a couple mistakes. I’ll comment on those and add a few more pointers too:
- Don’t anticipate. This is perhaps the hardest part of the drill: don’t anticipate when you should punch. The whole idea is to not think at all but purely work off the visual cue of the glove dropping.
- Don’t look at the glove. That would be cheating… Instead, look straight ahead and imagine an opponent standing in front of you.
- Don’t “stutter”. You can see my student kind of “stutter” in his movements a few times. He starts moving, stops and then starts again to complete the punching technique. This is a sign that he’s anticipating the right timing moment; you should try to avoid doing this and instead be totally still until you explode. This part is key in getting the most out of this drill.
- Don’t lean. This is also something instinctive: you’ll notice people leaning into their stance to be closer (and therefor quicker) to the target. Again, this is cheating and it defeats the purpose of this drill.
- Don’t change your technique. Near the end of the video, my student has his rear leg fully straight instead of keeping it bent as he should. This is a result of being overly focused on hitting the glove instead of doing so with proper punching techniques. Don’t ingrain bad habits, on the contrary: if you can’t hit the glove with perfect technique, come closer to the wall or have your partner hold the glove up higher. Again, this is a critical point in making this drill worth the trouble.
- Don’t drop it at the same rhythm. When you hold the glove for your partner, don’t always drop it at the exact same moment after you first raise your hand up against the wall. He’ll easily anticipate it after a few tries and the drill will be useless then.
These are the most important aspects for making this drill effective in improving your explosive punching power. If you keep an eye out for those, you will quickly make noticeable progress.
This is a fun drill and I like to do it with my students from time to time, especially when I am emphasizing certain things during a class or if a student has trouble getting certain things right. Here are some examples of those:
- Pulling the trigger. When students hesitate too long before throwing a punch, their opponents can land one first. This drill helps them work on the decision process of actually launching the technique or not. This is a very simplified version of the shoot-don’t shoot simulator training law enforcement officers do.
- Working off visual cues. Especially for self-defense, you have to work off visual cues to decide when you launch and explosive punching attack. This drill helps you train that skill in a general way: the angle of the dropping glove is not meant to simulate an actual fighting technique, that’s not the goal. The goal is to teach you to react as fast as possible when you see something move in your field of vision and throw an explosive punch.
- Top acceleration. Many students have great top-speed with their techniques but slow starting speed. That makes it easy for their opponents to strike them before they get halfway through their attack, even if the student made the first move. With this drill, they have to accelerate hard if they want to pin the glove.
- Control. Pain can be a good teacher and everybody instinctively understands that hitting the wall too hard would hurt. So you can’t just lash out to hit the glove. You have to control the punch so it not only pins the glove but also stops before you drive your fist too far froward and hurt yourself.
- Explosive punching from a stationary position. Often, students find it easy to have explosive punching techniques when they are already moving with their footwork or if they do another technique first. Explosive movement from movement is easy. Explosive movement from standing still is a lot harder. But in a self-defense context, this is exactly the ability you need to train the most: to be able to explode from just standing there, minding your own business. This drill is a good place to get you started on that front.
- Counter-fighter’s timing. Once you do the drill in the middle of the training area with a moving partner, you’ll develop a much better sense of pulling the trigger on an opponent when he makes a move. Mastering this ability is the essence of being a counter-fighter: perfect timing with explosive punching techniques (or kicking, or throwing, etc) when your opponent leaves you an opening to blast him through. In the drill, it’s just a glove falling but against an opponent, you’d pull the trigger after he punches or kicks.
Once you get the hang of this drill and do the variations to make it harder, you’ll notice a definite improvement in not only your timing but also your explosive punching techniques. Personally, I believe the improved timing is more valuable because it is one of the keys to making any technique work both in the ring and in the street. Timing is also one of the most overlooked and unappreciated aspects of all fighting systems so any time you can improve yours, you’ll definitely increase your odds of overcoming your opponent.
I took this drill from the book Timing in the Fighting Arts, which I wrote together with Loren. W Christensen. It’s one of many drills in there so if you like this one, you might enjoy the rest too.
Have fun training.