Punching with snap and elbow lock - is it traditional? a topic of elbow injuries

Elbow injuries related to punching with snap and elbow lockout - is it the traditional way to do the technique?
by Jason Armstrong PhD, 6th dan

The below is a sub-section taken from the book: Karate technique selection & Street Fighting Statistics & Medical Outcomes

In the early 1990s the primary author came down with a bad flu that prevented training for 1 month and immediately following the break re-commenced training for 2-3 hours per day for two weeks in preparation for a key tournament. The intensive training following a rest period resulted in an elbow injury that lasted for the next 2 years – the injury was similar to tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis – a form of tendonitis) and prevented snap punching for most of that multi-year period. One of the world‘s leading Goju Karate sensei, Morio Higaonna provided three hints to the primary author that seemed to fix the injury and moving forward prevented himself, and any of his students since, developing the same problem over the last 15 years. This chapter will discuss the nature of these tips in relation to both the punching technique and elbow injury. Therefore, we will address the issue of ―snap punches‖ with full fist rotation – is it a modern sport innovation rather than the older/traditional Okinawan/Chinese way?

As mentioned above, elbow injury is a topic especially relevant to martial artists returning to training after a break and the prevention of ―punching elbow‖ is an important topic for instructors to consider. The elbow is a hinge joint that is formed by 3 bones - the humerus (upper arm), the radius (thumb side) and ulna (little finger side) of the forearm (Figure 89 of Karate technique selection & Street Fighting Statistics & Medical Outcomes).

At least three things can cause this type of injury:

  1. biomechanical stress from repetitive motion
  2. after returning to training following a period of no training, the ligaments and tendons may no longer be as conditioned as they once were to handle the force the muscles may be able to produce and the stresses take their toll
  3. stress on ligaments and tendons from mis-timing the joint lock in a punch i.e. hyper-extending the elbow. Joint locking is the event around the summation of forces via timing muscle contractions, length of technique and technical approach to a punch.
Symptoms may start with an elbow that gradually worsens over weeks or months, or it may be an injury that is instantaneous. For simple soft tissue injuries of the elbow, PRICE (Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) should be applied as a first step followed by consultation with a GP and Physical Therapist. If there is reason to believe the elbow has more than a simple soft tissue injury, one should proceed to an emergency hospital/medical center so a dislocation, or other more serious injuries, can be ruled out. In long-term cases treatment may include steroid injections and even surgery (as discussed in Section 41of Karate technique selection & Street Fighting Statistics & Medical Outcomes).

elbow stretch karate punching
Image 1: In some cases the stretch shown allows the elbow to return to normal functions (combined with appropriate rest). This advice came to the primary author via the famous Sensei Morio Higaonna of Okinawa. The stretch should be part of most martial art warm-ups as it can act as a preventative.

elbow injury martial arts

Image 2:
In 1994 the primary author could not do a simple internet search on tennis elbow, or elbow injuries in general and a couple of physiotherapist visits had unfortunately not lead to the simple advice passed on by Sensei Morio Higaonna in 1995. There are a number of other stretches and exercises that also help with ―tennis elbow‖ and similar problems and those same exercises often also serve to help prevent the problem. However in this text the aim is to introduce only two stretches and quote the source. Of course over time strengthening the muscles of the arm, shoulder, and upper back to aid elbow support will also provide added protection i.e. appropriate cross training.

Punching with snap and elbow lockout - is it the traditional way to do the technique?

Is snap punching with a full fist rotation the traditional way, or something that evolved for impressive form - rather than simply doing an action applicable only to function and safe repetitive training? Obviously snap punching, either through its end-point lock, done in repetition, or through accidental hyper-extension, can lead to elbow problems. A number of sources the primary author has interviewed over the years have argued that the full length lock of a snap punch is in fact a modern evolution of martial arts which evolved to enhance form/appearance. One such source was Taira sensei (chief instructor in Okinawa at the Jundokan - probably the oldest and most closely linked dojo to Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju).
Kyoshi Bartholomay (7th dan, Shito-ryu) makes this comment on the topic, ―one of my sensei, David Krieger, a direct student of Shukukai‘s founder Tani Sensei (a direct student and Shihan of Kenwa Mabuni); always warned us against locking the elbow on the punch. I always teach my students to keep an ever so slight bend at the elbow to avoid hyperextension.

Looking at Chinese Kung-Fu forms (the origin of most martial arts today) it is common to see fully locked out punches but to also see bent elbow punches. In a fight one may well need to extend to a straight elbow position for the required reach/penetration, however, that is a different issue than whether one should always apply full lock-out in basic high repetition training. Impacting a bag avoids the issue altogether as the elbow does not lock out with a snap and this actually provides a further guide as to why high repetition ―air punchingshould follow the same form.

Karate practitioners from such styles as Isshinryu, Kenpo and Shorin-ryu generally do not lock arms out completely. The instructor who the primary author lived with in Japan (8th dan Uetake - who was of Kenpo origins before he migrated to Shito-ryu) often talked about the form of basic high repetition punches in his early Kenpo years and the fact that they did not involve a full elbow lock-out. The
difference between the two punch styles is only subtle in appearance but the biomechanics create quite a large difference in feel to the person executing the technique.

Also common to many of the above ―old school‖ martial art styles is the downward position of the point of the elbow at the completion of the punch i.e. the tip of the ulna in the region of the bursa is pointing downwards to the floor. This means the elbow tip does not rotate out like one would typically see in modern sports karate practitioners. Thirdly, the combined approaches of not locking out the elbow and keeping the point of the elbow towards the floor, is complemented by only a partial fist rotation – so the fist either stays at the vertical, or rotates to only a 45 degree angle (again different to the full rotation of the fist by modern Japanese Karate and Taekwondo practitioners). The best test of why these three anatomical positions make for a supportive punch can best be felt when impacting a bag – which is the closest test to ensure one has impact practicality in their technique. The specifics of the muscles involved and other factors related to the biomechanics of fist rotation are also discussed by Chou et al. in the 2011 textbook ―The Anatomy Of Martial Arts: An Illustrated Guide to the Muscles Used for Each Strike, Kick, and Throw.

Image: Punching with or without elbow rotation and complete fist rotation
elbow fist rotation martial arts punch

The above is a sub-section taken from the book: Karate technique selection & Street Fighting Statistics & Medical Outcomes

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