When making the distinction between recreational martial arts and self-defense, one must also make the distinction between what strikes to use at the gym versus the street. The world outside of the gym has many variables to take into account; lack of equipment (gloves/wraps), weather, light, skill, and safety.
The open palm strike versus the closed fist strike is the classic comparison for street versus gym training. Both have their own pros and cons, but as we explore the subject deeper in this article, one will prevail for self-defense.
Force vs. Safety
When done correctly, the straight punch is a more powerful strike because all of the force of the strike is concentrated in the top two knuckles of the fist. When using the palm strike the force is spread out in the heel of the palm and sometimes the whole hand. Although the straight punch provides more force, in the street it greatly increases your chance of a serious injury, since you will not have wraps and gloves to stabilize your fist.
Skill becomes a big factor when it comes to punching. Closing a fist properly actually takes a lot of practice, even though it seems natural. Beginner students will often have an incorrect angle in the wrist, punch with the wrong knuckles, or disengage the thumb from the rest of the fingers. So for individuals with limited time for training, palm strikes can be a good safe alternative, requiring very little skill.
Anatomically, females generally have smaller and weaker hands than men. Additionally, women tend to wear more rings and other jewelry that may prevent them from properly closing their fist tightly while punching. These factors coupled together create dangerous conditions for using a fist in the street. However, men can have weak hands as well. I have met plenty of men that have weak handshakes :)
Military/Law Enforcement/Security Professional/Armed Civilians
When carrying a weapon, one must always be prepared and able to use it. Keeping the hands safe and in good condition is of paramount importance for the soldier, police officer, security professional, and armed civilian. Losing the ability to shoot because of an injury while fighting an aggressor could cost lives (not to mention the lost working hours and burden on teammates).
Real World Conditions
In the end, the conditions we find ourselves in will dictate tactics. Darkness or low light will make it hard to see what we are striking, so a palm strike will be a safer choice. The position we find ourselves in, whether on the ground or next to a wall, will also dictate the strikes we use. Missing with a strike and hitting hard concrete with our bare fist could prove to be disastrous during and after the fight.
The above should not be considered only for palm versus the fist, but for any strike an individual learns and decides to put into practice. Not everything that is learned in the padded dojo will apply in the street.
Thank you for reading,
Founder | Chief Instructor