Have you ever thought it would be fun to have a go at a punching bag or practice dummy in the gym and had a rough time of it? I’m talking bruised knuckles, irritated or broken skin, the works? To some degree, that’s to be expected. However, you can minimize these issues through an often overlooked practice called “knuckle conditioning.”
Here, we’ll talk about who should be thinking about knuckle conditioning and why. We’ll also talk about how to approach it in some (mostly) painless ways.
What Is Knuckle Conditioning?
We can break knuckle conditioning down into two main categories, but in some ways they work together. The first category has to do with mastering your punch, and the second has to do with the actual conditioning of your knuckles.
Toughening Your Knuckles
“Classic” knuckle conditioning refers to toughening the skin on your knuckles and fingers through long-term, repeated, incremental exercises. The idea here is that your knuckles and fingers can be irritated or damaged during punching activities and exercises because the skin on these parts of your body are too soft.
This kind of knuckle conditioning helps if you experience abrasion or cuts when your activities or exercises involve punching. However, it doesn’t prevent bruising and there are a few other things that it doesn’t correct. That’s part of why you need the other half of knuckle conditioning.
Perfecting Your Punch
This aspect of knuckle conditioning isn’t included in most uses of the term, but we think it’s at least as important. It can minimise bruising and, more importantly, it can keep your hand in one piece. More on that later.
Essentially, when you punch, you want all of your knuckles to connect with the target at the same time – not just the knuckles of your index and middle finger. This comes through practice, but it also comes through exercise and adaptation, which is why we include it in our definition. You have to learn how to use your fist, but your fist can actually change shape with conditioning.
Why to Condition Your Knuckles
To be fair, not everyone needs to condition their knuckles – just people who use their knuckles a lot. Think about boxers, martial artists, even people who do parkour.
ALSO FROM HTBM: Parkour: Running, Jumping, and Climbing
As we alluded two above, knuckle conditioning can minimize superficial damage to the skin on your knuckles as well as internal damage to your joints and bones. That is, in terms of impact.
If you don’t put a lot of force into your punches, for example if you mainly shadow box or hit the peanut bag for some cardio, knuckle conditioning probably isn’t worth your time. However, if you want a punch that will break boards or bones, you’ll need tough skin and tougher technique.
How to Condition Your Knuckles
Some knuckle conditioning exercises and activities are kind of awkward. Others can fit pretty nicely into the standard workout. Pick and choose through the following suggestions based on your needs and workout habits.
Learn to Punch
Punching is about more than just throwing hands. A proper punch can help you do maximum damage to the target while sustaining minimum damage yourself.
Again, all four knuckles should contact the target, not just the first two. This distributes the force of the punch more evenly, making it less likely that you’ll hurt yourself. One bad bunch can hurt your hand, but a lifetime of bad punches can do serious lasting damage to your fingers, hand, wrist, and even the bones in your lower arm.
Further, your fist should hit the target directly. A glancing blow is more likely to scrape and cut your fingers. And, if you’re hitting a bag, watch out for those stitches. Those bags are tough and a glancing blow off of a sewn seem can really do a number on your knuckles.
Flatten Your Fist
You might have taken issue with us when when we said that all of your knuckles should contact at the same time. Your fist isn’t shaped like that. Well, the next time that you meet a seasoned martial artist, give them a fistbump. After enough knuckle conditioning and enough proper punches, your fist can actually change its shape to present a more even contact plane.
This can happen after a long enough time landing properly disciplined punches. However, there’s another way: When you do pushups, do them on your knuckles instead of on the palms of your hands.
This can help condition your knuckles but it can also help you think about your punches. If you do pushups like this and your first two knuckles are red, it means that you’re not distributing force evenly. Because a punch should see your fist in line with your shoulder just like a pushup, perfecting your pushup can help you perfect your punch.
Toughen Your Skin
According to legend, Bruce Lee practiced knuckle conditioning by pushing his fist into buckets filled first with sand, then gravel, then stones, &c. You can do that if you want, but there’s an easier, softer way.
They’re a little niche to find at your run-of-the-mill fitness store, so you might have to go online to find wing chun bags. These are usually canvas bags filled with sand that hang on the wall or hold in your off hand.
You can also make your own by filling a cloth bag with sand, rice, beans, whatever you think you need to toughen up. Then, just punch away.
Eighty-Six the Gloves – With a Caveat
Another scheme for knuckle conditioning involves a classic – going at the bag without gloves. That doesn’t mean going at the bag without protection. Like we’ve said, you can do lasting damage going hard on the heavy bag as a rookie. However, boxing gloves provide a little too much protection for those looking to toughen up.
So, how do you get all of the joint protection of boxing gloves while still developing knuckle toughness? Wrap your wrists instead. Knuckle wraps (or cotton bandages, if you’re a character from an arcade game), when used properly, allow you to toughen up while supplying the necessary support to your wrists.
Target Accessory Muscles
We touch down on this from time to time: your muscles help to keep your bones where they belong. And, as we’ve been saying in this article, bones getting jarred out of place by a mislaid punch is a serious risk. So, developing your muscles can help to protect those joints.
Here, we’re talking about the muscles of your wrist and forearm. In addition to not being the most … “aesthetically valued” muscles, these muscles are kind of awkward to target. That’s because, for the most part, the muscles in your limbs control the body parts further down the limb from the body. In this case, that means your fingers.
Why Punch Stuff?
We talked about why to condition your knuckles to punch stuff, but we haven’t talked about why to punch stuff. There are several highly compelling use cases for punching stuff.
Because Martial Arts
The first is as a part of martial arts. We here at HTBM are huge fans of martial arts. Martial arts can serve as a full-body workout for all of your muscles. It also brings these additional benefits just to name a few:
- A killer cardio and respiratory workout
- Improved balance
- Improved proprioception (awareness of body position in space)
- Improved self-esteem and self-image
- A philosophy of health and wellness
As its Own exercise
There are a lot of benefits of punching within a martial art. However, there are some limited benefits to punching as its own little workout.
Go fast and workout your rhythm on a peanut bag for some light cardio. Or, go hard on a heavy bag for a workout for your shoulders and upper arms. In either case, amp things up a bit by working in some footwork.
As Stress Relief
Maybe you don’t want to punch stuff all the time. But, the time will come when you want to punch stuff. And, there’s nothing wrong with being prepared.
If this describes you, you probably don’t need to buy a wing chun bag or any of that crazy stuff. But, think about how you do push ups, make sure that your full-body workout works out your full body, and sure, buy some cotton bandages.
Move Fast and Break Things
Knuckle conditioning is on the list of things that a lot of tough-guy movies skip over. A lot of agro media even romanticizes damaged knuckles on a protagonist. (Of course, some do both? Like, Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders has perpetually bruised and bloodied knuckles, but he also wears wraps and gloves when he boxes? But he’s his own beast and gets a pass.)
The important thing is to be sure that the thing that you’re breaking is the board and not your hands. Knuckle conditioning is a simple practice that you can and should employ, to get the best of both worlds.