Brain scans reveal clues to black belt punching power

August 15, 2012, Wellcome Trust
Brain scans reveal clues to black belt punching power
‘Punch’, by Adam J. Merton on Flickr.

(Medical Xpress) -- Brain scans have revealed distinctive features in the brain structure of karate experts that are associated with how well they performed in a test of punching ability. It’s thought the findings could explain how black belts are able to punch powerfully from close range.

Karate experts are able to generate extremely powerful forces with their punches, but how they do this is not fully understood. Previous studies have found that the force generated in a karate punch is not determined by muscular strength, suggesting that factors related to the control of muscle movement by the might be important.

Researchers from Imperial College London and UCL looked for differences in between 12 karate practitioners with a black belt rank and an average of 13.8 years' karate experience, and 12 people of similar age who exercised regularly but did not have any martial arts experience.

The researchers tested how powerfully the subjects could punch, but to make useful comparisons with the punching of novices they restricted the task to punching from short range - a distance of 5 cm.

As expected, the karate group punched harder. The power of their punches seemed to be down to timing: the force they generated correlated with how well the movement of their wrists and shoulders were synchronised.

Dr Ed Roberts, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, who led the study, explained: "The karate black belts were able to repeatedly coordinate their punching action with a level of coordination that novices can't produce. We think that ability might be related to fine-tuning of neural connections in the cerebellum, allowing them to synchronise their arm and trunk movements very accurately."

showed that the microscopic structure in certain regions of the brain differed between the two groups. Each brain region is composed of grey matter, consisting of the main bodies of nerve cells, and white matter, which is mainly made up of bundles of fibres that carry signals from one region to another.

The scans used in this study, called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), detected structural differences in the white matter of parts of the brain called the cerebellum and the primary motor cortex, which are known to be involved in controlling movement. The differences measured by DTI in the cerebellum correlated with the synchronicity of the subjects' wrist and shoulder movements when punching.

The DTI signal also correlated with the age at which karate experts began training and their total experience of the discipline. These findings suggest that the structural differences in the brain are related to the black belts' punching ability.

"We're only just beginning to understand the relationship between brain structure and behaviour, but our findings are consistent with earlier research showing that the cerebellum plays a critical role in our ability to produce complex, coordinated movements," added Dr Roberts.

"There are several factors that can affect the DTI signal, so we can't say exactly what features of the white matter these differences correspond to. Further studies using more advanced techniques will give us a clearer picture."

The study was supported by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, and the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and University College London.

The findings are published today in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Video: Martial Arts and the Mind

For a different take on the relationship between martial arts and the brain, watch the short Wellcome Collection film 'Martial Arts and the Mind'.

Many people think martial arts are solely about honing your fighting abilities, but could they really be more about developing the mind? The film features interviews with Tai Chi, Hapkido and Taekwondo practitioners, as well as a scientist and clinician who has been putting these ideas into practice when working with people with mental health issues.

Explore further: Specialized training of complex motor skills may induce sports-specific structural changes in the human brain

More information: Roberts RE et al. Individuals differences in expert motor coordination associated with white matter microstructure in the cerebellum. Cereb Cortex 2012 (epub ahead of print). doi:10.1093/cercor/bhs219

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Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2012
What!! No comments yet.
Do none of you science wise-asses have anything to say about this article?
5 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2012
ok i throw one, i think the Kata movements are not merely estetic show but essential practice to build a spatial map (where are your hands, legs and trunk in space releative). In time this gives enhanced synchronizing neural paths from many positions.
4.8 / 5 (4) Aug 15, 2012
in other news, people who practice punching can punch harder than people who don't practice punching. this seems like a no-brainer to me..
1 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2012
in other news, people who practice punching can punch harder than people who don't practice punching. this seems like a no-brainer to me..

Not exactly.

Most Boxers actually have terrible form for punching, even among ranked boxers. Although they are better at "reading" opponents within the rules of Boxing, because they are in an all-punches sport, so that makes up for it somewhat.

It would do a lot of boxers good to cross-train under a Karate black belt for several months.

I am in very bad physical health compared to the prime of my life in my late teens. Whenever I had been taking Karate for a couple years my instructor often used me as the demonstrate target, lol, because I had built up a tolerance to the pain of being punched or put in wrist and arm locks.

When a 3rd or 4th Dan heavy weight punches in the chest or solar plexus you with proper body torque and alignment it WILL knock you back several yards if you don't block, dodge, or at least give and go with it.
not rated yet Aug 15, 2012
The problem with boxing is the gloves. They are used as a shield which you have to punch around and so alter the "form" of the punches.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2012
"the force they generated correlated with how well the movement of their wrists and shoulders were synchronised."


Researchers totally left out the legs and hips?!?

The true power punch starts in the toes and travels up the body like a break-dancer's "wave" but as fast as the snap of a finger.

Hips are the fulcrum...
5 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2012
Picard, only "wise-ass" is you ...minus the "wise.."

Anyhow, why so many comments downplaying boxing? Boxing is an Olympic Sport and the profession of boxing creates a demand great enough to be consistently offered as pay-per-view events. There is a tremendous amount of technique involved. There are multiple types of punches, and subvariations of each type of punch. There is tremendous strategy involved. Competitive and elite level boxers train diligently and tirelessly. It is every bit as mental as elite level karate (or other martial arts). It seems evident that nobody who has posted about boxing thus far has spent even more than a year training in a boxing gym under guidance/instruction of an experienced trainer, for you would have a greater appreciation for the specialized skills developed over time through practice.

It seems PJP has it correct, whether it be from the standpoint of scanning the brains of a kung fu expert, boxing expert, or an expert baseball pitcher.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2012
Funny but true story. I did boxing (for fun) and am involved in a self defense martial art. When I did boxing, this 2'nd degree black belt in sport Karate came in and started sparring with someone who had been training in boxing for only six months. For the two minutes, the Karate guy was blocking and hitting the boxer, the boxer took the hits without flinching. At around 2 minute mark of the first round the boxer landed a good hit, after that first hit the boxer dominated as the black belt was now scared of getting hurt. The black belt quit half way through the second round.

What I took away from that is, learn to take a hit for sooner or later you will get hit. Is boxing or Karate or many other martial arts self defense? No, unless the guy you are fighting agrees to fight by the same rules you do. The martial arts I practice has no rules. (Other martial arts HAS self defense value, but many are sport, not true self defense, no put down intended on any art)
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2012
Hope to clarify, If I boxed with a boxer, I'm sure I'd loose. If I fought in a taekwondo match, I'm sure I'd loose. No put down on the training or skills they possess.

I once practiced with a real wrestler. He put me in a move which I got out of by using an illegal move. He told me I couldn't use that move. We wrestled again, he did that same move again, I used a different illegal move to get out of it. He told me I had to use legal moves, I told him if I did, I would loose!!!
1 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2012
Any thug can knock out almost any other thug given enough time and space to swing it. What both boxers and martial artists are good at is generating devastating power from real short distance.

I think it is fair to say that in martial arts greater emphasis is placed on the technique of basic actions than in boxing. To which degree this pays off is matter for debate. Doing katas will not turn you into a street fighter, but then again this is not the idea. You should however be able to drop an unsuspecting thug by a single hit.

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