Stepping into a Punch: Fact or Fantasy?

By Norman Marcus on October 31, 2013
Stepping into a Punch: Fact or Fantasy?
The force of a punch results from three factors—(1) force, (2) acceleration, and (3) wave.

When I received my self-defense training in the Marines, I was told to always step into a punch if you couldn’t avoid the blow…

This argument comes up quite often at gatherings where the tactics of the sweet science are discussed. It doesn’t matter if the guests are fight fans or even physicists. There are strong opinions on both sides of this debate.

I am going to present some facts to you, minus the equations and formulas, so Homeland Security doesn’t think we are talking about building a dirty bomb. You are going to hear about mass (the quantity of matter), velocity (the rate and direction of motion), acceleration (the rate and change of velocity), and wave (a disturbance that travels through a medium). Don’t let these words intimidate you. I will try to dumb it down for all of us, just keep reading!

When I received my self-defense training in the Marines, I was told to always step into a punch if you couldn’t avoid the blow. This was the conventional wisdom back in the day. I took it as gospel, since it came from my senior drill instructor. He was considered to be a god during those twelve weeks of boot camp.

Some physicists try to explain the delivery of a punch to the head this way.

1. All agree the best way to avoid damage to your brain is to avoid the punch in the first place. If you can’t avoid it, some believe you should step into it early. Others feel you should roll with the punch and go in the same direction as the high velocity blow, to reduce the impact. Similar to how you catch a baseball barehanded.
2. The mass behind a punch is time-dependent. The longer the wave, the harder the impact of the mass.
3. If you consciously step into a punch, your neck and shoulder muscles will automatically tighten up in anticipation of the blow. Your skull will also drop downward as you step in, which will cause you to receive the blow high on the forehead. Angle you head toward the attacking arm. The skull is the hardest bone in the body. The impact will move through the skull, down through your tight muscles and dissipate throughout the body with less chance of concussion to the brain.
4. If you take the impact moving back from the punch, the muscles are loose and the shockwave stays in the impact area, which can increase chance of a concussion. Also, if you lean back, the head comes up and you expose your jaw rather than your skull to the punch. The jaw is of a thinner bone, which can break or cause more severe damage to the brain.

Sir Isaac Newton’s 2nd and 3rd Laws of Motion was published in 1697. They describe the body and the forces acting upon it. But you have to be an Einstein to understand them. But here goes…

2nd Law of Motion—The acceleration of a body is directly proportional to, and in the same direction as, the net force acting on the body, and inversely proportional to its mass.

3nd Law of Motion—When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.

Maybe we shouldn’t have gone there? Newton’s Laws give me a headache. Let’s hear from someone who has field tested these theories. No laboratory, chalkboard or white lab coats here.

Martin Ziegler has a 4th degree black belt in Taekwondo, as well as a black belt in Karate and Judo. He was a combat military self-defense instructor in the German Army. He is forty-six years old with a body like a steel spring. He has been teaching martial arts for decades. If you ever stumble into a bar fight, Martin is the guy you want to be there and have your back.

I sat down with him one night at our gym to finally put to rest the debate on whether stepping into a punch is a credible defensive move. Here is some of what he told me.

“There are various theories on this tactic. The force of a punch results from three factors—force, acceleration and wave. Stepping into a punch or a kick is always dangerous because the punch will already have 70 to 80% of its power. Shorten the wave by stepping in and deflect the punch, before it reaches its full acceleration of 100%. The key factors again are stepping in, deflection of the punch and response. It is much easier to deflect (block) a punch and respond if you get there early (stepping in). You also get to immediately respond with your own punch at 100% force. If you wait for the punch to come to you, it is harder to deflect. You could possibly break your arm in the deflection. It will land on you at 100% force, rather than the reduced 70 to 80% early on.

“It is very common in self-defense to step into a punch. If you see someone ready to attack you, go into him to minimize the force. The game is reaction. You want to avoid, you want to be able to step in, deflect and respond. You want to step in while the punch is in development. This way you reduce it’s force. Boxers often lean back from the waist to avoid a punch. Leaning back from the waist puts a fighter off balance. If the punch lands at that time, it could result in a knockdown or KO. The best thing to do is to jump back in this situation, so you land in a stable position on both feet, then attack. While martial arts students do this, boxers do not.”

I then asked Martin about short punching. After all, these punches have a short wave and less time for velocity and acceleration to build up, yet they can land with terrific force. So how does that work? Is it the exception that proves the rule? Jack Dempsey was said to have been the best short puncher in the business. What was Jack’s secret?

Martin responded: “The secret of the short punch is that it is a straight punch. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Power, full force, focus and straight and intense alignment all have to be there. Everything has to line up. The full force of the entire body is in the punch. A short, straight punch of two to five inches is all that is needed. The key is to have the weight of your whole body behind the punch.”

Having heard from physicists with advanced degrees, they still can’t agree about stepping into a punch.

Martin Ziegler has little doubt that it works for him. From what he explained and demonstrated, I’ll have to go with his take on things. Stepping into a punch… It does reduce the force of a blow. The move is fact not fiction.

Author’s Note: Martin Ziegler holds two Master Degrees, one in Mechanical Engineering and the other in Economics.

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VideoBrief: Newton's Laws of Motion illustrated with 3D animations and motion graphics



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  1. Michael Ballard 03:06pm, 11/18/2013

    Great article, great arguments fellas! I have enjoyed it.  Mike Ballard

  2. Norm Marcus 02:12pm, 11/02/2013

    Jack, all I can do is repeat what my expert told me. Martin stated that when you step in and know you will be hit this time - your muscles automatically tighten up in anticipation of the punch landing. As an expert witness I have to take his word for it. It is an involuntary response that happens in a split second. Best I can do Jack. I have already asked Martin to read your comments and write an answer. Best I can do buddy.

  3. Jack 01:21pm, 11/02/2013

    Norman, I’m like a dog chewing a bone here!! I don’t disagree with any of the defensive techniques used to avoid getting hit square with a punch, I am very familiar with them 1st hand. What I disagree with is being rigid when getting hit with a punch. Crash technology and the fact that when you brace for impact, injury is more likely, support what I am saying versus being rigid. That is the only point I disagree with you and your expert, that’s it. I love this website, best boxing website on the net!!!!

  4. norm Marcvus 12:49pm, 11/02/2013

    Jack: First of all the pictures used at the top of the story are always picked by our editor Robert. I do not pick them. The picture used does make it seem like you want to make your face the bulls eye. The would not have been my pick for a photo. I probably would have used a pic of Sir Isaac Newton!
    Second the concept of rigidity transferring down the tensed muscles to dissipate into the rest of the body was a direct quote from Martin, a fighter with 3 black belts and a degree in mechanical engineering. A hard combination for me to argue with.
    Look, I understand what you are saying and I respect it. But if you had been in the gym with me that day you might have changed your mind. All of the time Martin stepped in on my punch he deflected it easily. Taking a punch to the head when stepping in is always a last resort. If you are going to be hit anyway, i.e. the deflection didn’t work, you might as well lower your head, step in with tensed muscles and catch it on you forehead to lessen the force of the punch.
    I knew this story would get people hot and it did. 3000 reads in 2 days! I think that may be a record. You can agree with the story or not. We both love boxing and a good argument, win or lose is sheer enjoyment to me.
    Keep reading the stories and keep writing in- love a good discussion!

  5. Jack 10:10am, 11/02/2013

    Norman, I still can not accept any type of “rigidity” being involved, in order to lessen the impact of a punch. Crash technology is based on “Crumble Zones”, not being rigid. If 2 people are involved in an impact, the 1st person sees it coming and braces for the impact. The 2nd person is asleep or drunk and doesn’t see it coming, which person “normally” receives the more serious injuries? IMO, stepping into a punch using any technique that includes tension or rigidity is not the answer to minimizing the impact.

  6. Jack 08:03am, 11/02/2013

    Norman, I can tell you exactly where the confusion lies here. You show a picture of a fighter getting smashed square in the face by a punch, as if he walked straight into it, ( hence the stepping into a punch ). If the title was: techniques of stepping into a punch ( in order to avoid the full impact ) then there would not be as many experienced guys, whether with boxing and or martial arts backgrounds interpreting the article the way we did. I know there are many techniques of stepping into a punch in order to avoid the full impact, other than face first but the article is talking about impact in relationship to face first, I think? I would like to know your opinion about 2 people involved in an impact. The first person sees it coming and braces for impact. The 2nd person is either asleep or drunk and has no clue. Which person “normally” receives the more serious injuries? The answer to that question, may answer whether or not stepping into a punch ( minus the techniques to lessen the impact ) is the best option regarding the impact of a punch. I think this may have been a trick question!!!! Only kidding. I still stand by my car analogy regarding impact.

  7. Norm Marcus 03:36am, 11/02/2013

    I have read all your comments and you make some valid points. But you miss the main point. If you cannot avoid the punch, or step in and deflect it. If you cannot roll with the punch, then step into the punch. Again, you reduce the force on impact and the tensing of your muscles dissipates the force on landing throughout the body. Just as a car body spreads out the impact in an accident to minimize damage to the passengers.
    Stepping into a punch should only be used when avoidance, deflection, rolling is not possible. But there is a place for it in certain circumstances. I think the physics of it explains how it works.

  8. Ken 10:25pm, 11/01/2013

    Any boxer knows that avoiding a punch, slipping a punch, blocking or parrying a punch, is better than getting hit with a punch.  And boxers versus martial artists…..boxers always punch off-axis, and even off balance….that is typical of boxers. Martial artists punch from a balanced stance. 

    Boxers hit the hardest. If you are in a boxing match with a skilled boxer and you step into the punch, you are in danger of getting knocked out. A good boxer has such hand speed that interrupting the punch early will not necessarily save you.

    The truth in your article is that closing range can take power out of a pure boxer’s punch, but close-fighters can still deliver power in tight range. Plus, adding your own velocity to the punch will increase the overall velocity. I think the fellow with the car analogy has the right idea.

  9. Jack 01:25pm, 11/01/2013

    Koolz, I understand exactly what you are saying and would like to relate a quick story to you regarding Qi. My ex father-in-law, who was a very experienced in Kung Fu and weapons, was good friends with Y. C. Wong in San Francisco, knew Bruce back when he was in Oakland, did a little experiment with me, regarding Qi. He had me get him in a bear hug from behind and squeeze him as tight as I could. He was able to impact a blow to my chest that hurt me and I immediately released him. Made me a believer!!!

  10. Koolz 12:29pm, 11/01/2013

    I will explain a little better.
    you never make yourself a wall.  you let energy flow away from you.
    you do not make yourself a barricade for energy, you constantly flow with energy.

    ok back to boxing.

  11. Koolz 12:22pm, 11/01/2013

    Why do you have no options in defense? 
    Step into a punch?  Use your body energy and mass to negate the energy of the punch ?  ok Fine I see that. 
    and it’s BS there are three moves that require next no motion or energy to stop someones attack.  and there are moves for offense as part of the defense. (collapsing the attack over someones arm)
    and no the power comes from you inner energy and mind.  You don’t punch your mind punches your body follows.  It’s starts from your middle, your center (earth), you ground yourself with the energies of the earth.
    Bruce Lee could knock someone back 10 feet from an inch away.
    if someone is going to attack you stop them at the knee with your leg then they can’t even reach you. 
    Once again your mind is everything your body just a vessel of those energies.

  12. Jack 12:21pm, 11/01/2013

    The best solution to the issue is, to improve your boxing skills so you can either slip, duck under, parry or block your opponents punches with something other than your head. Make sense? Stepping into a punch doesn’t make sense IMO.

  13. Jack 11:55am, 11/01/2013

    Norman, I will try to uncomplicated your article’s premise, whether it is better to step into a punch or not, with a simple analogy of 3 different scenarios. Scenario 1- You are in a car traveling 60mph, hit head-on by another car traveling 60 mph. Scenario 2-You are in a car sitting still, hit head-on by a car traveling 60 mph. Scenario 3-You are in a car traveling 30 mph in reverse, hit head-on by a car traveling 60 mph in the same direction as your car is traveling. Any guesses as to which scenario creates the greatest impact? I can tell you what car I would rather be in!!!! Good article though.

  14. Matt McGrain 08:00am, 11/01/2013

    Great work Norman.

  15. Ted 07:11pm, 10/31/2013

    Also Tyson-Holyfield #one

  16. Ted 07:11pm, 10/31/2013

    This one always convinced me that when one gut coming forward meets another coming forward, the results are ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ sedation


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cC0U3IVUe70

  17. Ted 07:07pm, 10/31/2013

    Ha. Soon as I saw the photo, I knew it was Sam.

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