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Monday, June 18 2018 @ 07:53 AM PDT

Open hands

Martial Arts_Like any other aspect of martial arts, fighting with open hands is a skill learned over time. This article describes some techniques one can use to reduce the likelyhood of damaging one's hands when sparring open-handed.

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So you've signed up for karate lessons and have finally progressed to sparring. The instructor shows you a basic fighting stance, standing sideways with fists clinched. As training continues, the instructor reminds you again and again to close your hands. You get your fingers jammed a couiple times, which enforces the lesson. Eventually, keeping your hands closed is reflex and injuries to your fingers become rare.

But at some point you realize that the more advanced students may be fighting open-handed, and you wonder why the instructor hasn't corrected them.

Keeping your hands closed is not an iron-clad, no-exceptions rule of sparring. It may be a good idea when a student is starting out, but may be something a student grows out of later. (Depending on the style -- open hands are so much a part of some styles that sparring with closed hands would defeat the purpose.)

There are a lot of advantages to an open-hand stance. The typical Uechi-Ryu fighting stance -- facing forward with the hands palm-out, looks non-aggressive to an untrained observer. Besides grappling and arm locks, open hands are very useful in trapping and breaking down your opponant's guard. But how does one learn to spar open-handed without injury?

As one is transitioning to an open hand stance, there are techniques one can use to keep injuries at a minimum. The ones I have found most useful are as follows:

  • Strengthen your hands. As mentioned elsewhere, the better shape you're in, the less likely injuries will be. Simply strengthing the muscles in your hands helps a lot. If you know someone who can instruct you, some light Iron Palm training would be beneficial also.

  • Slow down! Arrange with your partner to spar at half speed while you get used to using open hands.
  • Get in the habit of cupping your fingers slightly, instead of holding them straight out or worse, slightly bent back. A slight cup is a stronger structure and more immune to injury.
  • Avoid blocking with your hands. It's too easy to get in the habit of taking impact on one's palms. This is not only hard on your hands, but the palm is a very small area and missing the block and taking the impact on your fingers instead is very likely. At first, try to lose awareness of your hands, visualizing that your arms end at the wrist. Make an attempt to do your blocking with your forearm instead of your hand.
  • Try to block with the meat of the forearm instead of the bone. This tends to orient the fingers away from the impact, making injury less likely. For instance, using the big flexor muscles on the top of the arm for low blocks allow you to "trail" the fingers behind the block, where they're out of the way, and if kicked, are forced in the direction they were intended to bend.

    Low blocks with the underside of the arm are useful, as this puts the hand in a position to grab. It is vital in this case that the fingers be cupped, to provide a strong structure in the event of a side impact, and to orient the fingers in the way they were meant to bend in the event of a front impact.

  • Don't anticipate blocks, especially low blocks, and don't overreact. A lot of injuries happen because the arm was too far into the area of impact. For instance, performing a gedan uke (low block) to intercept a kick, your fingers end up getting kicked.
  • Center blocks can be problematic. Taking the impact on the radius (the bone facing outward if your palm is up) has an advantage because impact from a missed block would tend to be taken on the backs of the fingers. Taking the impact on the Ulna (the outward facing bone with the palm down) has the advantage that the palm is in a good position to trap or grab, but the fingers are in a more precarious position -- especially the little finger, which tends to take the majority of the impact if the block is missed. Again, cup the fingers slightly to reduce the possibility of injury.

I don't generally show these techniques to beginners, as they usually have too much else to worry about at that stage. As skill and strength improves, training with open hands becomes more practical.

Some schools forbid open hand sparring at all levels. But even these schools have open hand techniques in their katas -- why are they there, if not to use?

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