The Problem with Punching
Of all of the various factors in our curriculum, none has been more controversial than our decision to eliminate almost all punching techniques from the first year, self-defense curriculum. This has been one of the most significant and misunderstood distinctions between Via Potentia, "traditional" martial arts, and combat sports programs. (This and our physical conditioning pedagogy are the only significant differences between our self defense curriculum and Krav Maga's, for which we have great respect.)
The responses and comments have ranged from puzzlement to incredulity to open mocking. The problem is that most people -- even many well intentioned, skilled or experienced ones -- don't understand the difference between "fighting," martial arts, combat sports and actual self defense. Being familiar with fist fights, their own programs, boxing and the like, they believe that whatever they do is how one should protect himself.
They are almost entirely incorrect.
Self defense is not a competition to see who is stronger, more agile or who has better skills. In competitions, people agree to set rules, agree on allowed techniques, prepare for the matches in advance, and put on gear to protect themselves and the opponent. If someone gets injured, the match gets stopped, and injuring the other person is generally not the goal or a desirable outcome. In self defense, on the other hand, we are trying to protect ourselves from someone who is actively trying to injure, rape or kill us; to do this we must cause debilitating injuries to him as quickly as possible that will allow our escape. Breaking our own bones or joints in the process, or using techniques that limit the amount of power we can deliver to him, are not good choices.
The reality is that the hands are extremely fragile, sensitive, and improperly constructed to be used effectively as punching weapons without extensive training, conditioning and/or protective equipment like wraps, tape and gloves. In the absence of any of these factors, fist fights often result in broken hands and wrists. In addition, the very structure of the hand/wrist limits the amount of power that can be delivered to a target. The wrist buckles and carpal bones break under high stresses.
Everyone has a fundamental right and responsibility to protect his own life, and so an effective self defense curriculum must select techniques that a person with average (or less than average) conditioning can employ effectively. This means that punching is almost entirely out of the picture.
In its place we have clawing, hammer fist, palm and similar strikes. We also emphasize the use of weapons, and strikes at all levels of the body, especially using the elbows, knees and soles of the feet.
To put it simply, for self defense we want to take the toughest, most insensitive part of our body and drive it with as much power as possible into the most vulnerable, sensitive and fragile parts of the attacker's body. When you strike someone, your body experiences just as much force as the recipient of the strike. It is therefore critical that you use strong and insensitive body parts to strike, and if you are using your hands, strike in way that has the least chance of self injury and only to soft targets.
For those who have naturally strong hands and wrists, or are experienced and skilled with punching, they are free to use them (or any techniques they prefer). But for the average person, punching is not a good choice for a self defense situation, and so we emphasize developing skill with other techniques.
That all being said, the people who initiate assaults generally do use punching as their method of attack -- wild, overwhelming punching at your head and face. We need to know how to deal with this kind of an attack, so we do incorporate this and similar drills in our training.