Horizontal vs. Vertical

There is a Chinese martial art that goes by the name of Wing Chun. Sometimes they spell it Wing Tsun too.

For those of you that have never heard about it, this was what Bruce Lee trained originally, before creating his own brainchild, Jeet Kune Do. Anyway, in Wing Chun they strike a lot, with their fists.

They really love striking. Like Karate.

But… there is one huge difference.

They always strike with the vertical fist.

Not like in Karate!

Why not? Is it better? More practical? Or is the horizontal Karate strike superior? Well, I have my theories as usual.

Let’s investigate a little.

First of all (for those with poor imagination), here is a picture of a vertical strike.

In Japanese we call this a Tate-ken. Vertical fist.

The opposite would be the “traditional” Karate punch, pictured below.

This is known as a Yoko-ken. Horizontal Fist.

Now, on one side we have some Chinese styles, like Wing Chun, and an Okinawan style, Isshin-ryu, that claims the vertical (Tate-ken) is better. On the other side we have Karate, Taekwondo, Boxing and some Kung-fu, that prefers the horizontal (Yoko-ken).

“My side” is that both are good, but the Yoko-ken is better, but only if you don’t misunderstand it.

And, sadly, I believe many do.

A comparison between Tate-ken and Yoko-ken is not that hard to do. Just try to do (correct) push-ups with both versions. A push-up is not that different from a punch.

You will immediately feel that the Tate-ken is indeed much more solid, and recruits the very important triceps and latissimus dorsi (your important punching-muscles) far better than your “normal” knuckle push-up does, while it effectively helps you from shrugging your shoulders at the same time, a common bad habit when doing push-ups.

The explanation for this is that the elbows are effectively kept tucked in when you do a Tate-ken push-up/strike. Looking at about 90% of the people doing Yoko-ken, the elbow points out.

And here lies the problem.

Because when the elbow points out… you loose energy. The energy splits. Some goes into your enemy, and some goes out to the side, through your elbow. Punching somebody like this is not optimal.

I believe this is because of a misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding is modernization of Karate. With its emphasis on long and large techniques (O-waza) the fixation of the elbow is effectively lost. But it doesn’t need to be, if you train corrctly from the beginning.

The Tate-ken does not have this same problem. At least not to the same degree. Using a Tate-ken, it is much easier to keep the elbow tucked in. The loss of elbow fixation usually occurs when you do that last turn, to make it a Yoko-ken.

What I’m trying to say is that the Yoko-ken can be better, but… only if you can do it with the body mechanics of a Tate-ken! And that’s where many fail.

This requires good muscular control.

Now somebody is going: “Why should you do that last twist anyway? Can’t you just leave it at a Tate-ken, and use that? Like in Wing Chun?”

No. Or, well, yes you can. But there is a valid reason for the last twist.

First of all, the last twist (known as the corkscrew) gives you more energy. However, the energy that this twist produces is minimal, so you can actually ignore this.

Secondly (and more importantly): Your forearm has two bones. A thick radial bone (radius) and a thinner bone (ulna). The corkscrew punch, Yoko-ken, makes your two forearm bones, radius and ulna, twist gradually around each other, making the whole structure of the forearm stronger, and able to withstand more force.

But be careful not to twist the hand too much. That would only make it worse. To find the proper balance is of utmost importance.

So, not only must you keep the elbow from flying out, you must also be careful not to “over-twist” the wrist! Add the proper details of hip work, legs, knees, shoulders, the back and some other stuff… and it really makes you wonder how hard a punch can be to learn!?

Maybe we should just stick to the old fashioned haymaker

Lastly, even though Sport Karate makes it seem so, the Yoko-ken is not the only wrist formation used in Karate! It just happens to be the more popular one. As a matter of fact, the Tate-ken, and even the uppercut, are used in traditional Karate all the time. Examples can be found in the kata Chinte, Seienchin, Paiku, Seisan, Pinan, Gekisai, Heiku, Saifa, Suparinpei and many more.

No twist, half twist and full twist!

Yoko-ken might be the most popular version, but it is not the only version!

The tool depends on the target.


  • Diego Romero
    Hi. I wanted to put in my two cents here. First, the comparison to the wing chun vertical punch (called 'chung choi') is inaccurate, since wing chun teaches to strike with the last three knuckles instead of the seiken. Secondly, the "straight" seiken-tsuki, isn't actually straight, it describes a spiral trajectory with the seiken, in particular with the index knuckle. By opening up the spiral, we get closer ranged circular punches, and by closing it, reducing it's diameter, the movement of the arm itself becomes straight. The thing about the elbow "sticking out" on punches is that people usually lead punches with their fists, while the force the body generates should be transferred to the elbow, and from there to the fist; most people neglect the role of the elbow entirely. This has to do with proper alignment while punching. on a straight tsuki, the fist, pushed by the elbow behind it, moves in a straight line, rotation or no rotation (in fact, the tate ken is simply the midpoint of the normal tsuki, no real need to make a distinction among them, in my opinion. Along the same lines, an ura tsuki is simply the start movement of a "choku tsuki"). By having a linear trajectory, the point of contact (In this case the seiken) should be linearly aligned with the forearm, hence the traditional hand position for tsukis. This is the same for a vertical fist and a horizontal fist, as long as the direction of the strike follows the way the hand is positioned and the direction of impact (Else you achieve only a glancing blow and possibly a hurt wrist). raising of the elbow, when done by improper posture, means the the elbow is not behind the fist, and thus all the kinetic energy generated by your body is lost. proper raising of the elbow should simultaneously raise the whole forearm (The elbow always leads the fist), and upon rotating the arm (Not the wrist, since this completely annihilates the alignment of the fist) you open up the spiral described by the seiken, resulting in either a diagonal strike that comes from the outside (As seen in kyokushinkai punches, for example, and to a certain extend in the kagi tsuki of shotokan), or in a circular hooking punch (Mawashi tsuki), which should also have a slightly bent wrist (Alignment follows trajectory). The energy only splits from a "stuck out" elbow if said elbow is moving away from the fist, which in itself is contrary to the way the correct tsuki is performed. Also, the crossing of the forearm bones does not lend it strength; it pretty much does the opposite thing. Take two sticks, tie them together at the ends, then press the ends together. They will be hard to break. now cross them and tie the ends together again, and press them. They will either break or separate. The wrist should never twist on a tsuki; the purpose of keeping the elbow down (Which can only be accurately done with ura and tate tsuki) is to protect the ribs as the fist travels to it's target. Past tate tsuki, it should have already made contact (The strongest point of a full-on horizontal punch is around 80% of full arm extension); the rotation is just to add that little extra bit of blunt trauma to the punch (Remember that in a bare-fisted tsuki, you are essentially trying to drill your seiken into the other guy; it might not add that much impact force to the punch, but it hurts like hell, pardon the expression, especially to a bony area like the cheek or ribs where the muscle is thin, and soft tissue is compressed between the seiken and the hard bone underneath. during this rotation, rib protection is taken over by the latissimus dorsi muscle, which pulls the shoulder down, and the serratus anterior, which pull the scapula forwards, leaving room only for a short uppercut to get a clean hit to the ribs, assuming a chudan punch between two opponents of similar size; then again, said window of opportunity only appears once your punch has already connected, which makes it kind of a moot point.
    • Jeff
      Doesn't the 'sei' in 'seiken' translate as "new" or even "Western"? Seems like I read that somewhere in reference to Seibu Nunchaku kata, new way - to differentiate it from Kobu Nunchaku kata, which is old way. Languages are not my strength, so I may be remembering it wrong, but it seems like "sei" could also mean 'western' in the sense of American/western hemisphere. If so, then seiken would be new fist, or maybe even western fist.
  • @Diego Man, I'm blown away. You should start a KARATEbyDiego! Or at least a PhysicsOfKarate(byDiego) :) I hope everyone reads your comment.
  • Diego Romero
    Hahaha, i'm flattered :p I'm just a run of the mill shodan with an unhealthy interest in general knowledge acquisition :p Oss!
  • I've heard about people breaking their wrist, or fingers with careless or improper punching. I've never heard about anyone breaking their forearm that way. It is probably worth noting that Wing Chun does not exclusively use a vertical fist either. In situations where the Karateka might use a horizontal fist, the Wing Chunner might choose a palm strike instead, having similar alignment of the forearm.
  • Diego Romero
    wasn't saying that your forearm would break, i was saying that crossed sticks do not give good alignment and support :p it's this support that helps prevent you from bending your wrist, and is natural for vertical fists, hence a possible origin for some styles' preference of it over the horizontal one :)
    • OT: Actually, I know one person who broke his forearm (snapped in two) in a tournament. Not from a bad punch though, but a kote-gaeshi. Ouch! It was a ju-jutsu tournament, so no problem...
        Jesse: Long before Bruce Lee the Isshin Ryu Soke Shimabuku Tatsuo introduced his style (1956 cir.) with the primary difference of the tate ken. There is a place for both punches, but the added ligament reinforcement from the way Master Shimabuku placed his thumb is unique to the style. The thumb is tucked (not buried) on the top of the vertical plain to allow maximum penetration, while limiting potential damage to the wrist or forearm. Knuckles are in line with the long bones of the arm. Holloway
  • Jack Brown
    Loved the post. I think we share the same passion for martial arts.
  • Lecé
    Amazing explanation by Diego. There´s a lot of debate about this. I do prefer tate Tsuki for yodan techniques, and preferably open hand techniques. Vertical punch is in my book much safer, ergonomic and effective for yodan center lined attacks, and I belive that it´s its main purpose, as used in wing tsun ( or the open handed shotei or eye gauge attacks from Seisan) is to open a way. But you have to admit that hiting the ribcage with a mawasi tsuki ( yeah you get that boxing look) has no match. So I dont think there´s any need to argue. Why people discard techniques just for the sake of having their style recognized? It´s soooo absurd. Buth punches are good and useful. By the way, the wing tsun punch has a final spin also, with the last 3 fingers, as Diego pointed out, so realy the technique is similar in both cases. Also, at least in most of the katas I practice, yodan attacks are mostly open handed or circular, that gives us a pretty convincing portrait of what was meant. no?? Clearly the tate tsuki is the position for holding the AK-47 as Jesse´s post reminded us :)
    • Diego Romero
      cheers! one thing i like about karate's tate zuki for jodan techniques is the possibility to use the wrist flick to "push" the jaw open with the seiken (effectively punching downwards a little), reducing the risk of breaking your hand against the jaw's edge by not striking it directly. the motion also provides a quick and easy way to break the nose, and is the perfect training method for ippon ken alignment, since the index finger naturally bends inwards, and more so when flexed. the twisting tsuki, if done jodan, IMO, should ideally be at least slightly circular, if not a full blown mawashi zuki, due to the risk of catching your second row of knuckles either on the jawline or on the teeth. of course, there's always hiraken :D
  • Fraser
    If you read boxing manual by Jack Dempsy he clearly states that not twisting the fists and using the last 3 knuckles like in wing chun is the fastest strongest technique at head level. On the main punches it is only the cross that uses a horizontal twist. Perhaps boxing is more in the vertical camp. Oh well another few years I might be able to condition the other 2 knuckles.
  • Des Paroz
    You kind of imply that all karate uses the horizontal fist. I know you mention Isshin-ryu, but then say "on the other side we have karate,...". Actually the originator of the vertical fist in karate was Kyan Chotoku, as I'm sure you know. Isshin-ryu is but one style descended in part from Kyan. Others that I know of are the Okinawan Shorinjiryu of the late Nakazato Joen sensei, and the Shorinjiryu Kenkokan system founded by Hisataka Kori shinan. I practice a derivative of Shorinjiryu Kenkokan, and we would consider ourselves as karate practitioners through and through, even though we dare use a vertical fist ;-) As you rightly say, tate-ken, yoko-ken, ura-ken, etc are all just tools that can be used for different effect. Some of us use tate-ken more commonly, others yoko-ken. Great write up on the mechanics, thanks.
    • How about 1/2 vertical , 1/2 horizontal ? Diaganol fist / punch ; works for me !
  • Dave
    personally i think of the tate-tzuki a a shorter range technique, like if your distance to target has shortened unexpectedly. conversley it can be delivered deliberately at this range with a very "okinawan" flick of the hips to deliver a whip like technique at shorter range than a traditional full length gyaku-tsuki ( like when you allow your attacker to move onto you as yuo strike/evade/re-engage..my two cents. loved the article and Diego-sans comments
  • brianb
    Hi jesse and all I have heard the debate between verticle and horizantile for years. Tatsuo shimabuku emphizied it because it is faster and easier to use in short distances and you are less likley to break somthing . As far as power take a look at bajiquan one of its main weapons is the verticle fist. Also pre queensberry rule boxers used the verticle fist because( as mike tyson learned it is easy to break your hand with a horizontial fist) though that is also due to most boxers not conditioning there hands any more. I have used both in sparing just depends on sitiuation and if you have trained your hands i.e. makiwara,punchng bag etc As far as twist so common in karate it has greater effect if you do it either just before contact or at contact. thankyou
  • Darin
    Some things I would add as an Isshin-Ryu stylist: 1) What is commonly called a "vertical punch" or tate-zuki in Isshin-Ryu should more accurately be called a "natural punch". If you watch the old Shimabuku videos, or any well-skilled practitioner of Isshin-Ryu do kata, you will see that the fist does not remain perfectly vertical. Rather, it follows body alignment naturally through the punching motion, often with a slight "corkscrew" (not quite a half-twist) at the moment of kime. IMO, a good Isshin-Ryu sensei will teach kime and chinkuchi endlessly--read some of Advincula's writings and you will find that Shimabuku emphasized this, which was also emphasized by my Sensei--a direct disciple of Shimabuku. 2) As another commenter has pointed out, Isshin-Ryu is not the only style of karate to employ tate-zuki. It may in fact originate with Kyan. Shimabuku alternated--first teaching tate-ken (before naming Isshin-Ryu, if my history is correct), then teaching yoko-ken--even after naming Isshin-Ryu), and finally back to tate-ken. He was always studying and improving the style. It was 1969 before he started advising people to practice Sanchin with tate-ken. That is why even today, many Isshin-Ryu lineages teach Sanchin using yoko-ken (including how I was taught) [it is remarkably consistent with most Goju versions when you see them performed side-by-side]. 3) One of the reasons, I have been told, behind many of the innovations Shimabuku presented was his questioning of "why do we practice one way and fight another?" If you read Bruce Lee, you will see that he was motivated by the same discomfort with practice being incongruent with application. Thus, Shimabuku "gave up" a bit of the power inherent in the corkscrew, to preserve (a) natural form and (b) speed in his style. It is simply a matter of what is important to you. Emphasizing speed makes great sense when you consider that Isshin-Ryu is largely (70-80%) a Shorin-derived system emphasizing snapping / whipping motions. If someone wants Isshin-Ryu with the yoko-zuki, then Shimabuku's brother Eizo has you covered with Shobayashi. Aside from a couple of kata differences, the systems are quite comparable (for good reason: almost completely shared lineage).
  • Patrick
    It shouldn't be a question of which punch is "better". As an Isshinryu practitioner, I love striking with a vertical punch because it feels natural and fast. I have no concerns about the amount of power I can generate. Overall, good article, but falls short by falling into the old temptation of trying to claim one style is better than another. We all think it, but we're not suppose to say it :)
  • Adnan
    And finally is there a better way for punching? I mean, which way is better to throw punches without worrying about our knuckles and wrists? Plus- which knuckles are generally preferable and which are more suitable for horizontal and vertical punching respectively? For me it is hard to answer to all this questions without ton of experience. I personally have street fights, but now I am so doubtful about the correct techniques... :)
  • jk
    Side Fist Punch or Vertical Punch ? Hmmm, My terminology has always been Side Fist is a reverse punch turned sideways knuckles facing outward since the 1970's. hmmm. have I been incorrect all these years in Kenpo. ( twisted smile) : } any thoughts ?
  • Lew roy
    "The Grandmaster" Chinese movie points out you only need Two Moves... "Horizontal and Vertical." So I Google what they meant about this comment. Your post came up. I am a 4th deg BB in TKD and use both among many kicks.
  • Ryan Hurley
    Having done both Wing Chun and Karate I was taught that the correct punch was with the fist, wrist, forearm, and elbow in alignment, so each is back up by the other. The problem I always had was that the Karate punch was out of alignment when punching head height and the Wing Chun punch was out of alignment when used low level. So I now use the one that works best in that situation. Also, Wing Chun has a little flick at the end of the punch which I always assumed was for the same reason as the twist in Karate.
  • j.h.g.
    very good article and awesome comments I personally agree with Ryan Hurley. The little flick and twist for me are very useful if you have good timing and experience in punching . in the shot put event in track and field a small movement of the palm before the throw has given me 40 cm bonus points ! j.h.g

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