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Chambering the Fist

A reader emailed me a question about chambering the fist and I thought it wold be good to address the subject generally.

"Chambering the fist" refers to bringing the fist back to the side of your body when you punch, block, or strike. When you punch with your right fist, for example, you generally bring your left fist back to your left side.

I must admit that I never heard the word "chambering" when I started learning Karate. We just brought the fist back. There was no term for it. I do not know the Japanese term. It probably is some form of hikeru.

Where you bring the fist back differs greatly from one school or style to another. When I started learning Shorin-Ryu, we brought our fist back pretty high -- the idea was for the forearm and fist to be parallel to the ground. With such a high (parallel) alignment, it was thought that a punch would be more direct -- on a straight line. This alignment was stressed by Choki Motobu.

Today I chamber my fist much lower, about the height of my lowest (or floating) rib. The idea is for the fist to move along the arc of a natural pendulum for the beginning of the punch and then to thrust forward.

I must say that with the parallel alignment, you must make numerous small adustments as you punch to keep the arm parallel to the ground. With the lower chamber, I find punching to be much easier and natural. I also found that I raised my shoulders with the high chamber. This caused many problems, including shoulder and neck strain.

I met a gentleman who lives here in Hawaii. He learned from Chotoku Kyan in Okinawa. When he showed me his punch, he used the low chamber (at the floating rib). However, he hid his fist behind his back. When you looked at him from the front, you could not see his fist because it was tucked behind his side/back. He also used a hanmi body alignment.

He explained that hiding the fist made it harder for the attacker to see it and to react to it. It thought this was very interesting. I also thought that it would work better with the old style of clothes in Okinawa and Japan.

Thus, it is possible to chamber high (like Motobu), low (like Kyan), and all points in between. I believe it to be a matter of personal preference.

Now, that said, I believe that chambering is overused and not that practical in real self-defense. We must be able to punch wherever our hand may be. It is not natural to bring it back to our side. That is simply callistenics.

The only reason to bring the hand back is because you are pulling, tearing or blocking something. If you are not doing something, it would be better to keep your fist and arm in front of you. This makes it harder for the attacker to hit you and also reduces the distance you must punch. I like the idea of a "one inch punch." If you can generate power in a short distance, your Karate will be incredibly efficient -- no wasted time due to long movements.

The chambering approach also has a certain assumption -- that you would hit with one hand and bring back the other. Perhaps you would block with your left hand, and then hit with your right, at which time you would bring back your left hand.

However, some styles of Karate teach that it is better to block with the left and then hit with the left. The right would be kept as a guard. Again, block with a hand and then hit with it. The idea is not to alternate between hands. Using this approach, there is no chambering.

I personally follow this last approach. I do not believe in chambering the fist except for basics, as done in kata, or to pull back something -- like hair, an arm, to twist a joint, etc.

What about the rationale that bringing back the left arm transfers power to the right? My answer is that that are better ways to generate power using the core of your body/koshi. I do not like zig-zag Karate (alternating between right and left). I prefer to keep one side forward and to change orientation seldom and with great care.

I should add a caveat about the Motobu high chamber. If he brought his fist back high to the side of his chest with his elbow parallel to the ground, then I see problems. But if his fist was high with his elbow low (about the level of the floating rib), then this alignment makes much more sense. In this way, the arm covers the side very effectively and the shoulders will not be raised. It is a more natural position.

I think that the problem occurs when people interpret Motobu as requiring a high chamber with a high elbow. A high fist with a low elbow works very well. In fact, I would do that with my fist extending a few inches in front of my body (almost like the beginning of Tensho).

This alignment is also like the back hand of a chudan shuto uke. The idea is to protect your side and have your hand in front of you, ready to block or attack. Your elbow is also in position to block kicks.

Lastly, watch a boxer punch. They never bring their hand back to the side. It is kept in front of them for a good reason. And remember, boxers can't pull body parts -- thus there is no reason to bring the hand back to the side.

Ok, one more thing. It is possible to bring the hand all the way back to the side in order to strike to the back with the elbow. This is a good technique but would be used only when necessary, not with every punch. Since the attacker is generally in front of you, it is better to keep your returning hand in front of you too.

To the reader who submitted the questions, thank you!


Charles C. Goodin