Bare Fist Training and Fight Balance – Robert “Sifu” McInnes WKO
The walls of the upper floor Muay Thai training room are lined with champions. Framed photos of boxing, K-1, and Lumpinee champions: Yodsanan, Chartchai and decade-long McInnes fighter Sakmongkol, are among the very best, but Peter Aerts, “Stan The Man”, Darun, Pedro Rizzo, Judd Reid, and Nick Kara are among the many who have trained here. But we are down two floors, in the Karate room, where the walls are lined with Japanese lettering, framed title belts and Karate black belts, with gold stripes indicating advanced levels; and some serious-looking weapons on the wall opposite the wall that holds the sparring gear. I’m filming my second session for Nak Muay Nation, a series of privates with the best instructors in Thailand. Sifu McInnes is going to walk me through the basics of his philosophy of fighting, which starts and finishes with establishing balance and stability. A large part of that is barefist strike training. Below is a segment of our balance work, which began the session, followed by some highlights of his teachings on the principles of striking in combination.
Karate and Muay Thai
Sifu teaches Shorin Kempo, which as I understand it is a full-contact Karate off-shoot of Shorinji Kempo originally developed by Doshin So, and closely related to the full-contact Karate style Byakuren Kaikan developed by Sugihara Masayasu, who was once a Doshin So top student. This all sounds esoteric, but the foundation idea of Sifu’s system is that the principles beneath all fighting styles are the same. He has and continued to train Lumpinee legend Sakmongkol, who teaches Karate at the WKO school here in Pattaya, and has trained many top Thai fighters and kickboxers over the decades. The bridge between Shorin Kempo and Muay Thai is a very comfortable one. When Sifu is teaching, you don’t feel like he is teaching “Karate”, you feel he is teaching “fighting” at a core level.
The full hour private is available for those in their second month of membership at Nak Muay Nation, for whom I am now a correspondent and filming content like this private with Sifu and last month’s private with Kru Dam of Sitmonchai. If you already are a 2nd month member the direct link to the full session is here.
What follows is the extended excerpt of the session for my readers and viewers, and a detailed breakdown of some of the primary elements of Sifu’s fighting system. I have to tell you, only training in these for a few weeks has already produced fundamental differences in my balance and power that I think will only grow. It is just the beginning.
above, about 12 minutes of the full hour I spent with Sifu McInnes
Working with Sifu on the Medicine Ball
Sifu explains that the unifying component of any and all combat sports is balance. That sounds like a “duh” kind of note, but then so does breath being such a key component of mastering not only martial arts but many of the soft arts (like yoga – the traditional kind) as well. Einstein has this great quote: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” That’s balance.
My husband Kevin wrote a guest post on 8limbs.us in which he explores this concept of “depth of technique,” which is the same principle as this bridging all disciplines through balance that Sifu talks about. Kevin uses Sakmonkol as an example, who has never trained “takedown defense” in the sense of how one would train this as a technique for fighting sports that include the takedown… and nonetheless it is nearly impossible to take him down. The depth of his technique in balance – in any situation – is at the ready, rather than being able to handle the specific, rehearsed movements of a few “moves.” Kevin put it this way:
A shallow technique is one where the deeper principles beneath the technique or techniques are not digested, so they work only in more narrowly defined circumstances, including often when opponents do not know countermeasures.
Dynamic Balance – The Key To Striking
This, as Sifu explains, is why some competitors will look great on the pads and then not be able to execute the same principles under the pressure and the unexpected in the ring. You’ve become well-rehearsed with your regular training partners, but as the saying goes: sport is not about perfection, it’s about adjustment. Being able to adapt to the opposing will and intentions of your competitors. But if you have practiced, rehearsed and fine-tuned your balance then you are able to make these flash-adjustments, to adapt between disciplines and scenarios. The way Sifu trains this important skill that rides as the undercurrent of everything, is a simple but difficult exercise using two medicine balls and a padded pillar. That’s it, it’s simple.
You start out with the two medicine balls about shoulder-width apart and a bit more squared up than you would normally stand in a Muay Thai stance. You balance atop the balls and grip with your feet, trying to keep your balance while throwing punches into the pillar. (Something stable like a wall-mounted uppercut bag also works; but a heavybag swings and that makes this drill more difficult than is necessary.) As you are able to balance a bit better, you move farther away from your target so that you really have to extend to normal punching ranges (with a bit of reach) to hit the pillar.
1) grip the balls with your toes and let the stability and balance come up from your feet, rather than using your arms or hips to right yourself. You’re learning how to balance from your very base; deep balance. 2) Throw your punches with force and confidence.
Here are the important points as I’ve gleaned: 1) grip the balls with your toes and let the stability and balance come up from your feet, rather than using your arms or hips to right yourself. You’re learning how to balance from your very base; deep balance. 2) Throw your punches with force and confidence. You can throw a few practice shots as you start to get your balance on the balls, but within the first minute you should be throwing as close to full power as you can. If you fall off the ball, that’s fine. Just get back on and keep working. It’s not about figuring out how to adjust your punches to keep your balance, it’s about adjusting your balance to throw powerful, stable punches regardless of your position. Sifu’s corrections to me while I was doing this exercise were nearly all about throwing the punches with force and confidence, not about how to balance. The balance will come as your body works without you really thinking about it and you will just gradually become more stable, so your concentration should be in mentally building confidence in those punches, even as you’re falling off the ball.
How I Brought This To My Main Gym
Medicine balls are still a bit of a specialty item in Thailand and not easy to find, as well as being expensive. In order to spend as much time as possible doing this exercise on my own I substituted basketballs (above), which are inexpensive here in Pattaya and with my size work out for the drill. The pillars at my regular gym do have padding wrapped around them to protect anyone falling through the ropes around the ring, but the padding is too thin and the pillars are too hard for punching. So I use the wall-mounted uppercut bag. When I first started out I could only stay balanced on the ball for a couple punches at a time, but I just kept making my attempts longer – so I’d start with my timer going for 1 minute and I’d just keep getting back up on the ball as many times as needed, then go back on a regular bag; then come back to the ball for another minute, then back to the round on the heavybag. Now I try to go on the ball for 5 minutes at a time; I don’t stay balanced that whole time but I don’t take a break from the exercise. It kills the tiny muscles in your calves. Because you’re making all these micro-adjustments by trying to stay balanced, all the muscles in your legs are firing away. What’s really remarkable is how quickly I’ve felt my balance improve and how drastically it has affected my balance everywhere else. When I get off the basketballs and start my heavybag rounds, or go with Pi Nu on the pads, my balance is like a fucking rock. My experience of that balance is remarkable – it feels great – but I can also feel how it’s a different kind of balance than what I’d been defaulting to before. In fights, I can feel myself getting “heavier” on my feet when I want to feel more solid; I can perceive now that it’s putting weight from the top down, which puts me on my heels and flat-footed. Because you have to grip with your toes on the ball, when I bring that balance onto the floor I can feel that the stability is coming from the bottom up, and on my toes rather than flat on my feet or on my heels. It’s a better, more true balance and it’s already carrying over to the very different context of moving around in padwork or on the bag. Sifu’s not making it up, this is a seriously useful method!
Confidence and Stability with Barefist Method
Just as Sifu highlighted the importance of throwing with intention and confidence while working on balance, the barefist method steeps you in the same mental fortitude. In the private session Sifu demonstrates the Karate method of using a punching board. He explains that the repetition builds up stability in the wrist, the small vibrations from the impact gradually building fluid in the wrist that acts as an internal, natural “hand wrap.” That sounds like a disorder, but it’s a good thing. Like building up the condition of your shins for Muay Thai, or a boxer’s knuckles. By working with the bare fist, Sifu also explains that you build confidence in your punches. It’s the same as using the ball to building your stability from your toes up – it’s all those micro-adjustments. And man, I can feel that when I punch the pillar, and on my own the heavybag, with bare hands.
In July I broke my right hand in a fight. I don’t know for sure how it happened, but my best guess is on an overhand right that landed wrong. It’s a good guess because I rebroke it a month later on the same punch and basically didn’t throw my right hand in training – at all – for three months (though I did keep fighting, about 10 fights with the fracture). Here’s why this is important: with gloves on, you can afford to be a little sloppy. With this big pad wrapped around your fist and tape and wraps underneath to hold your bones all together, you can kind of use your fist like a mallet and you’ll probably be okay. Until, that is, you’re not because you threw the punch wrong and now your hand is broken. Take all that away and punch with a bare fist and you’d think, “that’s stupid, you’re going to hurt yourself.” But no, it’s like the ball: you make these tiny adjustments and corrections because you can feel every tiny mistake and miscalculation. If the angle is even a little bit wrong, you feel it. If the angle is wrong in a glove, you’re still basically hitting your target – but you lose a lot of your power if the angle is off, even if it doesn’t hurt you. So, by practicing with a bare fist and making all those micro-adjustments and feeling all the bad angles, you train your punches to be really stable. Stable = power. Believe me.
For a long time after I broke my hand, when I started hitting with my right hand again, I had to be careful about the angle and every now and then I’d hit at an off-angle and hurt myself. Since doing barefist everyday, I never once have hurt my broken (now healed) hand with a bare fist punch…
Kevin was watching me punch the heavybag at Petchrungruang the other morning, no gloves. He hasn’t seen me hitting the bag in a couple months and his mouth dropped open. He kept muttering, “fuuck,” in exasperated awe of my increased power. He’s not one for compliments, so that wasn’t to make me feel good. That was his genuine surprise at a big improvement in a very short amount of time. In terms of how I go about my own practice of the barefist, away from Sifu’s classes (I take Karate with him 3 times per week, in the evenings, which is mostly fight-oriented striking), I’ve transitioned from wearing just wraps on the bag to just putting a strip of athletic tape across my knuckles. I wore the wraps at first because I was hitting the bag before padwork and sometimes get called in with Pi Nu when I’m not yet finished with my rounds. I prefer, however, and am trying to organize my training so that I only wear the strip of tape. And the only reason for the tape is that when I’m sweaty the skin on my knuckles comes off from hitting the bag and the tape protects against that, but doesn’t offer any kind of external stability. The result is that my punches are more accurate because my angles have to be more exact.
How Stable? Very
For a long time after I broke my hand, when I started hitting with my right hand again, I had to be careful about the angle and every now and then I’d hit at an off-angle and hurt myself. Since doing barefist everyday, I never once have hurt my broken (now healed) hand with a bare fist punch, but when I put my gloves on for padwork or to hit the bag a bit with gloves I will feel pain in the hand when I hit somewhat “off.” Goes to show how much I was able to “carpet bomb” what ought to be shot at with precision.
Below is an advanced look at a Sylvie’s Tips I’m working on, talking about my barefisted training at the gym, giving a sense of how it is working.
Knowing I can punch as hard as I do with nothing on my hand makes me feel confidence that having a hard punch in a glove never did.
I must warn you readers that punching without gloves does make your hands and wrists sore. It’s not an injury, it doesn’t even really “hurt,” it’s just uncomfortable. Almost like your hips after a long run – like you used a muscle more than you normally do, not having used it incorrectly (like a strain or sprain or tear). So, know that they’ll be a bit sore but that’s how you build up the stability in all those tiny bones of the hand and wrist. And this is what Sifu is pushing for with the method, building not only physical stability, but also mental stability and confidence in those strikes. Knowing I can punch as hard as I do with nothing on my hand makes me feel confidence that having a hard punch in a glove never did. It’s a little odd, but then it’s actually quite obvious and simple as well. Picture getting into a situation where you are going to punch somebody unexpectedly: a streetfight, or if you’re a good-guy maybe you’re breaking up a bar-brawl and it requires you to hit someone. If you have only ever punched with power in gloves, there’s a tiny bit of doubt. You can’t be like, “shut your damn mouth, but hold on a second while I tape my wrist… does anyone have gloves? I think I have gloves in my car…” Can’t do it. But if you know you can knock someone out with a naked fist, you’ll throw that damn punch. It’s the same with shinguards in Muay Thai. In the west we train with shinguards for sparring and drills, and in some gyms people wear them for kicking pads and the bag as well. I cannot tell you how many people from the west come to Thailand and their biggest fear about fighting is not wearing shinguards. It’s the same thing – the exact same thing. Once you’ve kicked without shinguards for a while, you lose that fear and your confidence grows. When I block a kick, I know it hurts her more than it hurts me; I have confidence in it. Put a shinguard over my leg and I might as well go kick a tank. Why not the same with a fist, a punch? It’s about confidence in the strike and putting in the conditioning work to build the physical stability.
In my own training history, I was largely taught to “hop in” and “hop out,” to close distance and create range. At my current gym, Petchrungruang, I’ve been slowly molded into a space-eating monster but being nicely planted and stoic, not jumping around. I like that because hopping around was never “natural” to me and it seemed like a big part of why it was frequently applied to me was because of my size, not because of my fighting style. What Sifu teaches uses a kind of leaning that creates an incredible range. Standing at a distance from your target where it seems like surely you couldn’t reach it, just by looking at the distance, but then you not only can reach, but you can hit with power. The feet don’t necessarily move for some of these strikes and instead you are leaning and gripping with your feet (like on the balls) to be able to reach out and then return to your starting point without shifting your feet at all. Picture Michael Jackson’s crazy lean in his iconic music video choreography. Kind of like that. And it looks like floating, which is what Sifu calls it when he tells me, “just float.”
I feel the float the most on my right cross. Sifu tells me to kind of “punch up,” but it’s not reaching my arm up from a lowered body position so much as lifting your whole upper body, from your knees, to bring the shoulder and fist up as a single unit and deliver the punch in such a way that you actually feel as though you’re punching down, even though it’s up. Sifu emphasizes that you should always be aiming for the chest just below someone’s chin, as they are more than likely to duck down on their own movements and you’ll end up clocking them on the chin, whereas if you aim at the chin you’ll end up on their forehead. It’s like a sniper putting where someone will be in their sight picture, giving the bullet time to travel and the target walks into the cross-hair. Or, you know, throwing a football pass to where your player will be.
Sifu shows me in the one hour private session how the tendons in his toes and around his shin are what he uses to be able to reach forward and pull himself back on those punches. It makes telegraphing not a thing at all, and if you end up needing to move forward afterall (like if your opponent changes distance) then it’s very easy to just add a step forward anywhere in that process of leaning forward. Your weight isn’t moving forward from your ass going back, which would put you off-balance if you then had to reach farther. It’s all coming forward together, floating.
YOU just think about smashing, your body will make all the tiny adjustments to make it happen.
Linked with this is the jumping hook (found in the full length session), which from the name you can tell already is hopping forward. This is to close a great deal of distance all at once, whereas the floating is more for picking shots at your opponent from a good stance that you plan to hang out at for a few shots before pivoting off or whatever. With the jumping hook, you set it up with a fake right cross or something to get your opponent to react into a position you want, then hopping with all your bodyweight to deliver a right hook with all your power on either the body or the head. It’s full bodyweight. This punch requires a combination of all the points discussed so far: balance, to be able to launch yourself and land with power and stability; confidence, to be able to believe that your fist will hit its target, without having to mentally coach your form into delivering a correct punch. You know your wrist and hand are stable and aligned, otherwise you’ll pull the punch at the last second and bust something; and finally the float, in that you’re launching forward and to the side in one fluid movement, not a series of movements. Sifu says all you need is to think, “my fist, his head,” and your body will take care of the mechanics. All your brain needs is the command and the confidence and the rest will take care of itself. It’s the same as when you are walking and you trip or stumble; your body rights itself or catches itself way faster than you could break down commands, mentally, to get that done. You’re confident that you can walk and not fall, so you don’t have to think about how it’s done, your body just does it because you’re pretty well-practiced at walking and not falling. Same with using the balls to train balance and the bare-fist to train confidence in the stability of your strikes. YOU just think about smashing, your body will make all the tiny adjustments to make it happen.
The Long Jab-Stop
This is one of my favorite new techniques. I actually learned it from Pi Nu first, but he uses it a bit sparingly and taught it to me as a move to push the chest of an opponent while they’re trying to knee, then following with a leg-kick while they’re still off-balance from your shove/stop. Sifu uses it liberally and it’s somewhere between the “stop” of an opponent already advancing and a punch to the chest that would stop anybody, regardless of which way they were going. As part of the float technique, you are punching down into the chest and the elbow is slightly bent. It is a hard punch; not “difficult,” but hard as in heavy.
I’ve started using this long jab almost exclusively in my training, mostly because I don’t jab in fights. When I shadowbox or hit the bag, I jab all the time. It seems I’ve come to use the jab as a timing mechanism in training, as a kind of “filler” between moves, when I need a bit of a break and want to keep moving… but it’s all been thoughtless and my jab actually kinda sucks. It’s too short and that makes it a bit useless. But the deeper issue is that I have no confidence in it, which is maybe why it’s thoughtless, and because of that I don’t throw jabs in fights almost ever. So, it’s been a huge part of training (tons of shadow, tons on the bag) and a virtually absent part of fighting. That’s not right; they should be the same. So to break this pattern I stopped throwing jabs in training and ONLY throw this long, stop jab, while picturing stopping my opponent and then I have to throw strikes to follow that stop. It has forced me to be more mindful in my shadowboxing and on the bag, not only thinking not to jab, but also using that long jab to set up what’s next. I’ve used it in fights a few times now and it’s absolutely awesome. It makes me feel like a terminator and looks like my guard is on point. Further, you slam someone in the chest with that long jab and not only will they stop in their tracks, they might stop all together. That shit hurts!
I hope this post and the hour private really helps others think a little more deeply about their training, balance and stability. I’ve trained very rigorously here in Thailand for 3 and half years, often full training schedules at multiple gyms in a single day, just to make sure I get every drop of training in as I can, and I have never had the kind of growth, as quickly, as I have had when taking up these principles shown by Sifu to me in this private. It has helped me understand and execute the Muay Thai I have been training all along, but more importantly, has started to build physical confidence in areas that really needed it, even though I fight all the time. It’s filling in the foundation of my fighting, and making me more free as a fighter. As they say, nothing is more dangerous than a confident fighter.
Thank you as well to Lawrence Kenshin and Sean Fagan for their support of 8limbs.us and through that support making this kind of content available to my readers (and their members). Without Nak Muay Nation this would never have been filmed. It is our collaboration which makes this kind of detailed reporting possible, and the support of my readers on Patreon. This post is 2nd in a series which begins with the low-kick specialist, Sitmonchai’s Kru Dam. You can see all my Nak Muay Nation features here.