Why do we fight with our fists?

Okay, yes, I know there are martial arts that use other hand shapes to minimize the risk of breaking a bone in one’s hand or to maximize pounds per square inch of owie against the Bad Guys. There are also holds and throws and locks. Largely, when I see people get in fights, they use their fists.

Since we do break bones—so easily, in fact, that breaking the fifth metacarpal has a specific name for it, a “boxer’s fracture”—why do we fight with our bare clenched fists? Seems like that’s a little counter-productive. And to top it off, many people punch to the face. Bone against bone. Why is this? Does it go back farther than professional polite fisticuffs?

I’d say it’sinstinctive. I’ve seen babies strike out with closed fists, but I doubt they’ve developed enough to be imitating adults. So, attackign with closed fists msut be hardwired behavior. It’s likely the reason is that using an open hand poses a greater risk of breaking finger bones (unless one is specifically trained in proper open-hand techniques).

A fist can be made very quickly, forming a fair amount of mass that can be moved rapidly to the target. The intended target isn’t bone, but sensitive things like noses, eyes, and lips that happen to be on the face, which is within easy reach of the arm. I would think that without special training, the average person has a better chance of getting results with a fist than without one. And the fist does tuck the fingers away, where they’re much less likely to be harmed than if they’re protruding.

Actually I think the most “instinctual” form of combat is wrestling. Most bar brawls and streetfights end up on the ground with two guys who don’t know what they’re doing just grunting and not harming each other until they get exhausted. Kicking is much harder for untrained people to do effectively without losing their balance.

This could be looked at as an evolutionary advantage-it’s much harder for human beings pissed at one another to kill each other without some form of tool like a stone knife or rock. Animals with sharp teeth and claws don’t have this problem. This is why you can spend 8 rounds trying to punch someone in the head and they rarely ever die in the ring.

Most schoolyard scuffles I’ve seen were more like wrestling matches. And even when they tried to punch each other, it was more like flailing. By grabbing the other person, you take away their reach, making it harder for them to effectively kick or punch you. A lot of fighting becomes a match over who can overpower the other or exhaust their opponent.

The fist is the most natural basic weapon that human beings have. The earliest weapons were designed to resemble or enhance the basic fist. For example, a large round rock or a sharp pointy rock (to be fair some anthropologists think it would have been a heavy stick i.e. club). Weapons development really started when somebody thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could deliver my enhanced fist (i.e. the rock) at a greater range, with more precision, etc. The result was long pointy sticks, long sticks with pointy rocks on them, and primitive bows. The rest, as they say, is history. :slight_smile:

When under duress, most people will naturally try to pummel the opposition into submission with a series of heavy fist strikes. This often, due to the nature of the battle, will result in a grappling. The important aspect of this is that grappling is not the preferred mode of combat but that purpose of it is to get into a better punching position and if one fighter does get the better position he will start punching the other again.

A quick search at amazon.com under “stone age weapons” revealed only a couple of choices for books, neither of which I’ve read so I cannot recommend them.

I don’t think anybody really understands why this is per se. I certainly don’t know of any specfic studies of the phenomenon. My own thought, based on my experience and study, is that our hands are our primary tools. We use them for pretty much everything, so it would seem to be a natual instinct to also use them in our defense or to attack. Our arms are the most mobile portion of our body, meaning we can manipulate our arms to be able to assault another person with greater ease then any other part of our body. This makes the arm the logical choice to deliver our weapon to the enemy, and the hand at the end if the most logical choice for a weapon when no other is available. The hand as a fist provides more damage then the hand in any other form and also minimizes risk of injury. The exception to that is the palm heel strike, which causes less damage overall due to lack of penetration, but far less risk of injury.

A fist is strong. In martial arts you are taught to punch only with the two knuckles next to your thumb, they are more solid and do more damage than the other two.

I missed part of your question btw. Sorry about that.

Why the head? Three reasons.

First, the head area contains many vital areas of the human body and they are relatively exposed. The eyes and throat in particular are vulnerable to damage, they are simply hard to hit. Compared to say the lungs or heart, it is much easier to cause serious damage to your opponent by attacking the head and neck then the chest with your empty hand. You’re not likely to hurt or kill your opponent hitting him in the chest with your empty hand. The face also contains other areas, nose, ears, etc, that are more sensitive to a blow then most other parts of the body. In other words, hitting to the face on average is more likely to cause serious damage and/or more pain to the target.

Second, the head also contains the brain which although very well protected from direct damage from an empty-handed strike (myths about striking the nose with the palm aside :rolleyes: ) it is susceptable to being jarred such that the target will be knocked out.

Third, psychologically speaking, we think of the person, whom we are angry at, in terms of their face. Children, for example, tend to draw the face/head larger than other parts of the body. The ol’ classic throw darts at your hated enemy face on the dartboard, is another classic example, even if it is somewhat more fictional it represents the primal instinct of associating people to their face. So, when we get in a physical altercation we are naturally drawn to strike the face for this reason as well.

I think that’s everything now.

The Frenchmen are a funny race
They fight with their feet and they f… um nevermind, wrong forum.

It should be noted that “boxer’s knuckle” is probably a fairly modern phenomenon. In the old days of bare-knucked boxing, fists were formed differencly, and the favorite punches were different.

France is quite a peculiar land.
They fight with the foot and talk with the hand.

You will have a bunch of martial artists saying “the fist is stronger.” here’s why it’s true.

Human’s have a hand. The differences between a hand and a grasping foot-paw (what squirrels and racoons have) is the ability to bear weight on the palm surface. The human hand is not designed to do this – we have tendons that run down from the elbow, over the wrist and on the tops of the fingers that become strained if we put our full weight on our palms for any length of time.

We have this in common with our closest relatives, the great apes, who also cannot bear weight on their palms. They have adopted knuckle-walking – walking on the closed or partialy-closed fist – in order to avoid this painful strain. Humans can knuckle-walk too, although we lack the padding on our fingers and the arm/torso proportions that makes this more comfortable.

Try this brief experiment. Get a pillow and place your hand on it, open palm down. Lean your full weight on it and note how long it takes to become too sore to remain voluntarily in that position. Let your arm rest and repeat, this time closing your hand into a fist and placing it knuckles-down on the pillow. Compare.

Understanding that the hand is not designed to bear weight on the palm also clarifies why you can’t give your strongest strikes with your palm. By aligning the back of the hand with the arm (closing a fist) you utilize the weight bearing capacity of the hand while maximizing the striking surface.

After reading Hello Again’s post that makes me think about how in many kung fu movies (at least older jackie chan ones) you see the guys training with supporting their body weight and then some on their palms like they are trying to make themselves more effective with their palms

With all due respect to Hello Again’s anatomy lesson, I believe I can strike just as hard with a palm strike as with a fist. I’ve never measured this quantitatively, but I have lots of anectodal experience making heavy bags move around. The general rule in martial arts is to hit hard targets with soft objects (hit the head with the palm) and hit soft targets with hard object (hit the torso with the fist). I know from experience that I can easily break boards and other objects with palmstrikes which would severly injure my fist (even when I was doing training specifically aimed at conditioning my fist to punch). If you challenged someone to “punch” a hole in a wall or other solid object, how many would use a fist and how many would use a palm?

I’m not sure I agree that using fists is instinctive. Certainly small children will use fists, but they’ll also flail away with open hands. I think a lot of fist-fighting is learned behavior because we’re exposed to TV characters who fist fight with no apparent injury and we follow the example of boxers without considering that they wear gloves to prevent injury. Almost no one who bases their tactics on actual training rather than watching TV will hit someone in the face with a fist, at least among the fighters I know.

micco: Using a fist as the primary basic strike for fighting GREATLY predates television. Consider that most every martial art developed in the entire history of mankind has included some kind of fist strike should start to tell about the instinctive and pervasisveness of the fist strike. There are heiroglyphics in Egypt dating back to 4000 BC that show ancient empty hand techniques including fist strikes. In China, 12 century BC the character for the fist indicated martial strength. The first known recorded open hand school dates back to 500 BC in ancient Greece.

My own experience, having taught martial arts and self defense classes for 22 years, tells about the instinctiveness of the fist. Whenever I teach my short unarmed self defense class by far the most common attack used at the start of the class is the close-handed fist.

Finally, very small infants have been documented as using their fists to attempt to defend themselves when under physical attack. Numerous studies of police reports have indicated that the basic instinctive attack is the fist.

I did not mean to imply that fists were not effective weapons. Of course they are and, as you say, their use predates recorded history. My point was that using a fist to punch someone in the face seems to be a tactic made popular by television, but you only have to do it for real once or twice before you realize it’s a truly dumb thing to do. I don’t know about the Egyptians, but the Chinese techniques I’ve learned have all stressed the importance of choosing the appropriate weapon (fist, palm, elbow, knee, foot) for the target and range. You don’t just say fists are best and use nothing else. I use fists quite a lot in fighting (nice friendly sparring these days) but I’d only use a fist in a strike to the head if I’m wearing gloves, my target is wearing headgear, or both.

As it relates to the OP, I was just trying to point out that every martial art I’ve trained recognizes that the fist is a fairly fragile weapon and includes other techniques to use in its place when appropriate.

In his novel The Fist of God, Frederick Forsyth states (don’t know how reliable his info is though) that the making of a fist for (literally) hand-to-hand combat is fundamentally a Western trait. He includes a flashback scene in which one of the main characters, an English citizen being raised in Baghdad, is attending grade school with Iraqi children. When he gets into a fight, he is the only one who uses his fist and ends up pummelling several other kids as a result.

Actually, Col. Colt solved this problem for me years ago…

How would breaking techniques used on hard but brittle immobile surfaces like boards be applicable to dealing the most damage to a supple human body? Breaking techniques have little to no basis in reality outside the classroom.

In martial arts classes when we would do breaking techniques, as a lazy person I would always use the downward knifehand strike (karate chop). It’s by far the easiest technique to break a board with. Are you suggesting since the knife strike is the best board breaking technique that it’s also supreme in human confrontations?

If you have never practiced a palm-hand, you’re going to do little to no damage when you try it the first time in a fight. Anyone can hurt someone punching. It takes the least skill out of open hand techniques, grappling or kicking.

conzcepts is dead on when he says that most fights ‘degenerate’ into wrestling. Grappling someone is pretty damn easy for an untrained combatant, compared to hitting them with a fist and actually doing some damage.

As for why people use a fist in a fight, well, I think most people are pretty angry and not thinking very much, so they do what they’ve instinctively learned (thanks to repeated exposure from mass media), and lash out with the hands they use every moment of every day.