Making a Fist 4

A standard balled fist

The balled fist is a fairly standard tool in martial arts and it is a fairly natural method for forming your hand to strike someone.  That doesn’t mean it is the only method, or even necessarily the best method.  I would like to introduce two other methods–Shuri-ken and tate-ken.  The word ken we know to be Japanese for “fist”, while Shuri is the old capitol of the Ryukyu Kingdom and tate means “North-to-South” (this is how judoka would recognize it) or “vertical”.

My poorly-drawn rendition of Shuri-ken

The Shuri fist (Shuri-ken) is an old Okinawan method for forming the fist to make it as tight as possible, and has the added benefit of pulling the second knuckle of the index finger closer to the palm so that it doesn’t stick out as far and end up jammed or broken.  When I form this fist, I feel as though I am gripping significantly tighter than I do with a standard fist, and the tendon that runs over my first knuckle on my index finger lays flatter.  I also notice that it is much easier to align my fist properly, as the index finger lines up with the radius bone of my forearm.  I typically use this fist for most of my punches and it feels very strong.  That said, there are some situations where I do not use it.


The vertical fist (tate-ken) is most popular in Chinese martial arts and the karate style of Isshin-ryu.  The thumb is stacked on top of the fingers and serves to pull them in tight.  This also helps keep the index finger’s second knuckle from sticking out too far, but lines up the wrist differently in a way that is best served by keeping the fist vertical (hence the name) which means that it can also more easily slip between a person’s arms if they are raised to protect their face.  I like to use this fist for backfists (uraken-uchi), hammerfists (tetsui-uchi) and my jab.  Since it fits nicely through people’s guard it makes a great jab, and the alignment of the fingers makes for a very sturdy hammerfist.  As for the backfist, I find that doing a backfist strike with either of the other two methods (a standard balled fist or the Shuri fist) causes uncomfortable pressure on my index finger from my thumb, and the vertical fist eliminates that problem.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.

4 thoughts on “Making a Fist

  • SueC

    Interesting and informative, I’ve only ever used the standard fist so I’ve learnt something new – thanks…

  • Theodore Kruczek

    I am a little lost on how the vertical fist ties into a back fist, but am pretty sure it has something to do with us doing the back fist differently. Great article, and nicely drawn fist – way better than I can do!

  • Noah

    Thanks, Ted! When I do backfists in the air it doesn’t make a difference, but when I do backfists and make contact with a bag or makiwara my thumb puts a lot of pressure on my index finger as the mass of my fist comes to a stop unless I use the vertical fist. Since I’ve broken my index finger in the past I suspect that may be why I feel pain that way.

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