Two To The Head

The brain, they say, is the most complex object in the universe. So when it gets hit, it’s a big deal. It’s not made for that. We need to be aware of what our opponents may attempt, and what we can do about it.

The skull can take a lot of impact, relatively speaking, but the brain cannot: it takes less force to injure the brain than to fracture the skull. The neck and head disperse energy by moving on impact.  We are well equipped to perceive and evade head strikes.

An Olympic boxer’s punch delivers about 3,427 Newtons of force.  It takes less – about 3,200 Newtons of force – to break a brick.  (A “Newton” is a measurement of force used in physics, engineering and sports.) 

As a karate practitioner breaking multiple bricks you are hitting harder than that. The power of your front punch is more than enough for a knockout. And its power does not stop on impact. There is a ricochet effect.


When the head gets hit the brain gets shocked. That causes injury number one: concussion. 

Then the energy of the contact is transmitted from the impact site through the brain mass, contorting and damaging the brain. That is injury two: contusion. 

Then the brain matter travels to the far edge of the inside of the skull and hits it. The skull stops but the brain keeps moving, hitting the interior of the cranium. That is injury three: the countrecoupe.

The countrecoupe resembles what happens in a car crash: the car stops but the occupants keep going into the windshield. (This is why they make seatbelts.)

One head-punch generates at least three energy vectors, each one causing brain injury. 

If you hit the target twice it is more than twice as bad, because you are attacking structures that are already damaged. 

The Double Punch

If you hit it with a double punch – not two single punches but a double punch – the effects are multiplied geometrically. Since there is inadequate recovery time between the two impacts the tissue structures of the brain can be simultaneously compressed and sheared. 

In addition to the shock to the material of the body structures, the senses are disoriented and the balance-recovery and shock-recovery systems that automatically kick in when we are destabilized, may not function properly.

With loss of consciousness the injury to the brain, body structures, organs and vital systems is compounded.

In addition to the physiological effects on the target the double punch technique yields tactical effects that a single attack or series of single attacks may not. That will depend on the proximity of the attacker’s body weapons to the opponent’s briefly exposed targets and the momentary unsoundness of the opponent’s body structure and balance. 

To make the most of the fleeting opportunity in the dynamics of a combative exchange, the double punch is a uniquely potent tool. It appears numerous times in our kata. This technique was important to the Okinawans and others who devised our kata. 

It has variations. For example, it is sometimes led by a short punch with a full range punch follow-up; sometimes it consists of two full range punches. It can be used to body targets, but its use to the head is devastating.

For indicators of the intended targets of the double punch in the Okinawan combative curriculum consider:

The move in the kata that precedes and sets up the double punch;

The Okinawan use of makiwara training;

Insights from the use of the one-two punch in boxing; and

Possible alternative uses for the double punch suggested by techniques that follow the double punch in kata.

Preceding Move

We generally do not use the double punch toward a high target – the head – on an alerted and stable opponent because raising our arms would expose our mid-body to attack.

The double punch techniques in our kata are deployed parallel to the ground, toward a target at the level of our torso.

This technique is useful when the opponent is bent forward, his head is lowered and exposed, and he is momentarily destabilized. 

The set-up moves that directly precede the double punches in our kata (Pinan Yondan, Wanakn, Ananku, Rohai, Gojushiho and Kusanku) all drop the opponent’s head to your torso level and seek to have him off-balance as well as bent over. 

The techniques that set up the double punch in these kata include either a wrist counter-grab that locks the opponent’s elbow and rotates his shoulder using an ulnar hyperextension at the wrist, or a cavity or nerve strike to the head followed by a kick or punch. 

Your kata can be analyzed this way to see if a double punch is set up with a similar manipulation or strike combination.

One-Two punch

Since one of the objectives of kata design is to enable practical self-defense in a deadly force conflict, the application of an incapacitation or knockout is worth considering.

We might overlook applications of our double punch because most of us do not strike to the head in training.  We intentionally avoid head trauma as we train over the years.  This is good. It is essential for safety. But as we stay safe it is useful to recognize what the double-strike techniques in our kata are teaching and the effect we can produce with them in the event that they are warranted in self-defense in a deadly force confrontation.

There are differences between boxing and karate. We do not use our double punch tactically the same way as a boxer uses a one-two punch.  But karateka can learn from what boxers do.  The stun or destabilization effect of the first punch of the pair followed immediately by a full power technique is very similar. We might consider the parallels with boxing and see if there is something there for us to use – in training and in practical self-defense application.

Relevance of Makiwara to the Double Punch

Makiwara is useful in conditioning our hands to project power into any target.  But it is indispensable for conveying maximum power to a hard target without damaging our own fist, avoiding the injury to joint capsules and metacarpals that boxers and others get if they are not wearing wraps and gloves.

Makiwara conditioning is essential for striking hard targets because of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Forces come in pairs. Always. That is: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

If you punch your target with a lot of power then, on impact, an equal amount of power is coming back into your hand and arm. This holds true even if you are skilled in projecting ki into your target.

The difference in the effect of the punch on you and your target does not come from the amount of power in the action and the reaction – they are equal. The difference in effect comes from the structure of the target and the structure of your fist and body at the moment of impact.

If the fist structure is stronger than the target structure then the force of the technique damages the target and not the fist. The forces exerted on each are the same.

A tight fist alone may not be adequate for an effective strike to a hard target.  For that we need the kind of hand conditioning that we get from makiwara – conditioning we demonstrate when we do brick breaking.  Power alone is not enough to break a brick. A knife hand that has not been conditioned on makiwara or similar will not hold its structure under that much force. It will flatten out, disperse the force over the surface of the target, and risk injury to the hand.

Striking the makiwara mimics the physics of hard-target strikes. The attenuation of the forward motion of your fist is sudden, on contact with the makiwara, as your fist transfers and, according to Newton’s Law absorbs, force and kinetic energy, instantaneously.

Because of the steep pressure curve of the makiwara strike you get training and conditioning specifically adapted to strikes to hard structures.

The waveform of energy transfer from the fist to a heavy bag is more gradual. The force is attenuated and dispersed by the yielding material. It mimics a strike to the body – that is for penetrating a massive soft-tissue structure. It is valuable training. But it is not the same as the training makiwara provides. It does not have the same application.

Because of these characteristics good makiwara training can be used to develop follow-through. Using the makiwara we avoid the instinctive short, shallow strikes that, on contact with a hard target, may protect the hand from injury but do it by sacrificing power.

The rice-rope-wrapped-over-wood construction of traditional makiwara is similar in impact characteristics to hard targets on the human body.

Alternate Targets – Subsequent Move

If you look at the technique that follows the double punches in your kata you can find indication of the intended targets of the double punch.

Concluding notes: 

  1. The subject of brain injury is gruesome.When you see a damaged skull at a crime scene or on a steel table in the morgue it is grotesque, even if you are used to it.  People have a different look depending on their manner of death – if they died peacefully in bed, or from a fall, a crash, or a violent assault.

After the fact, from a distance, in a protected, clinical setting or in images, you do not see the battle, the collapse, shock, despair, rage, terror, sadness, struggle, misfortune, the right, wrong, good, evil, triumph, disaster, heroism, or courage that preceded that person’s final moment.

You see someone’s body reduced to material; you see the broken parts of a human being.

There are times and places in our world where violence is familiar.  People are repelled and horrified by it. Some take it for granted. Some use it, exult in it, or try to eliminate it. 

In analyzing our martial art, we may take its lethality in stride. When you handle anything dangerous for long enough there is a danger of becoming casual about it. We cannot afford that. We cannot afford to sever technique from its implications.  It’s not healthy. And it doesn’t work.

This essay is a description of a lethal technique in traditional Okinawan karate that is sometimes overlooked.  

I hope that because of this description and training suggestions you can understand the technique better, and defend yourself against it more effectively if you need to.  

  1. Double punches appear in these Shorin Ryu kata: Pinan 4, twice; Wankan, three times; Ananku, twice; Rohai, three times; Gojushiho, twice; Kusanku, once.

The double punch usually follows a rotational joint lock of the wrist that locks your opponent’s elbow and shoulder, breaking his balance momentarily, bending him over, and dropping his head to the height of your chest. That destabilization is transitory so the first punch of the double punch may be launched from short-range, from contact with the opponent’s wrist or forearm, for example.

  1. The usual pattern in our kata has the second technique, the power move of the double punch, coming from the right hand, which is the power hand for most people. This resembles the way many boxers train their one-two punch. You can also train this technique by reversing the power hand.

Note: Walilko TJ, Viano DC, Bir CA, “Biomechanics of the head for Olympic boxer punches to the face” British Journal of Sports Medicine 2005;39:710-719.


Post by Jeff Brooks, author of the influential book True Karate Dō, instructor, Yamabayashi Ryu, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC

This post is excerpted from “The Good Fight” by Jeffrey Brooks, on Amazon in paperback and Kindle edition

Post Copyright © 2019 Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate, LLC


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