The Many Varieties of Wing Chun Power: Acceleration Power, Joint Power, and Penetration Power

By Adam J. Pearson

Many people from other martial arts styles criticize Wing Chun kung fu for being, in their eyes, entirely focused on fast hand strikes which, while being rapid, lack much power or effectiveness. In many cases, they have arrived at this understandable point of view by observing Wing Chun practitioners practicing chi sao, or the exercise of ‘sticky hands.’ In chi sao, two fighters will ‘stick’ their hands and forearms to one another while rapidly shifting their weight and hand and arm positions and simultaneously attacking and defending each other. During this exercise, the two fighters attempt to protect their own center line from their opponent’s attacks while also attempting to gain control over their opponent’s center line. Chi sao is often about develop sensitivity to the opponent’s movements and pressure and fast, reflex-like responses to the same both to attack and defend. From an outside perspective, it can seem that while they may possess great speed, the blows exchanged in chi sao do not contain a great deal of power.

Those who have seen Wing Chun practitioners ‘chain-punching’ or doing cheung choi may also think these blows lack power. “They only have the limited strength that the arms can supply because they only come from the arms,” they say. “This is in contrast to the massive power of the boxer’s hook, which uses a hip and wrist rotation to put monumental power behind the blow.”  This way of thinking is an understandable conclusion, but it ultimately involves a great misunderstanding. The central point that must be understood to clear up this fundamental misunderstanding is that Wing Chun uses not one, but several different types of power to generate force in combat. For the sake of convenience, we can call these types speed / acceleration power, joint power, and penetration power. These three types correspond to power generated through speed of motion, joint rotation, and the forward-drive of body-structure respectively.

Bruce Lee and Grandmaster Ip Man practicing chi sao or ‘sticky hands.’

  Wing Chun Power 1: Speed / Acceleration Power The first type of power used in Wing Chun can be termed ‘speed power’ or ‘acceleration power,’ which is basically power generated through fast, speedy movements.  As physics has shown, force = mass x acceleration. Therefore, if one can accelerate one’s fists or elbow faster, one will generate more force than an attack that accelerates more slowly. Therefore, Wing Chun’s chain punching and other chain combination attacks (e.g. strings of punches, knife hands, and elbows) capitalizes on the power that comes from acceleration by emphasizing the rapid delivery of attacks.

Chris (black) and I (blue) demonstrating the speed / acceleration power of Wing Chun strikes.

Sifu Duncan Leung was a private student of Grandmaster Ip Man. In his article, “What Yip man Taught Me About Speed,” he reveals that Ip Man taught that there were 4 kinds of speed that produce ‘speed power.’ He urged Wing Chun students to develop all four of these types of speed in their fighting practice. Quoting directly from Sifu Leung, these four types of speed are: “1. SPEED OF TRAVELING: This is the type of speed we normally refer to, that is, the speed of a punch or kick, a speed which speed can be calculated in feet per second. With consistent practice, one gradually improves the speed of the movement. 2. SPEED OF DISTANCE: Wing Chun straight-line theory states simply that a straight line between two points is the shortest distance. Therefore, punching straight is shorter and quicker than a hook punch or a swing. To bring your foot with a roundhouse kick to the head covers a greater distance than a shorter and quicker punch to the head. It is the same as trying to punch to the shin; that is, it is much shorter and faster to kick to the shin. To use an analogy: if you and I both stand in front of a building and have a race to the back door and you go around the building while I go straight through the building from the front door to the back door, you may be the faster runner, but I may get there before you because I have less distance to cover. 3. SPEED OF READINESS: From a resting standing position, when one tries to throw a heavy punch or tries to kick with power, it is typical to cock back the leg or arm before executing the movement. This not only telegraphs the move, but also wastes valuable time in the extra motion. In Wing Chun, the power is not generated just by the moving hand or leg, so there is no need to cock. One uses the other side of the body to pull back as he or she rotates to push out the punch or kick simultaneously. For example, if one is going to throw a left punch, one initiates power by pulling the right arm and shoulder back as fast as he or she can, while punching with the left hand at the same time. 4. SPEED OF REACTION: In general, people spend most of their time practicing their techniques in their forms alone until they are very good with all the techniques, but in actual combat the application is ineffective. This is like learning to ride a bicycle by sitting in a chair moving the legs and arms simulating the bicycle experience. When that person actually tries to ride on the bicycle, he or she will surely fall. This is because the proper reflexes and feeling of balance have not been developed. Yip Man used to say if you want to learn to swim, go down to the water; don’t just move your arms and legs and think that you are a swimmer. A fight requires at least two people. You can train and fight with yourself all day long, but unless you apply the techniques with another person, you will not get very far.” Wing Chun Power 2: Joint Power In addition, the Wing Chun system  uses another kind of power which can be called ‘joint power.’ As all of the world’s martial arts agree, power can be generated from any of the joints in the human body. Part of the power of a Wing Chun punch comes from the rapid snapping of the wrist; however power for attacks can also be generated from the ankle, from the knee, from the wrist, and from the elbow joint.  Wing Chun uses joint power to a greater extent in its Biu Jee and Chum Kiu forms, but it is evident from as early as the first chain-punching sequence in Sil Lim Tao. While the twitch-fiber power used in chain-punching may not be particularly powerful by itself, combining joint power  with acceleration power already begins to multiply the total force it delivers. Wing Chun Power 3: Penetration Power The final type of power is considered by many fighters, such as Sifu Hawkins Cheung and his childhood friend and rival, Bruce Lee, to be one of the most crucial types mobilized by the Wing Chun system as well as a ‘hidden secret’ of Wing Chun. This type of power, which Sifu Cheung explains and demonstrates very clearly in his video “Chi Sau – Penetration,” is called  penetration power. Penetration power is power generated by the explosively thrusting the whole body structure forward  as a single unit. It involves launching a hand, kick, elbow, or knee with the whole body-weight behind it so as to drive the attack not only into, but through the opponent. It is this penetration power that allowed Ip Man, grandmaster of Wing Chun, at 5 foot tall and 120 pounds, to send 280 pound men flying across the room with a single blow.  Sifu Hawkins Cheung describes penetration power as involving “a bone penetrating movement and is especially important when your opponent is physically larger than you. To get the penetration your body has to move like a spring discharging a load, your body has to move in to the opponent and you have to align the penetrating part with the centerline of your body so you penetrate from your center. Thus, in penetration power, the whole body weight blasts the attack out from the center in order to knock the opponent back with great force. The fist does not move by itself; rather, an explosive shift of weight, sometimes accompanied by stepping forward and pushing off the back foot, which drives the fist forward. Sifu Cheung suggested that it was this above all that Wing Chun fighters need to develop and practice in order to stand a chance against fighters from other styles. Conclusion So, how can we put these three types of power together to respond to common critique from other martial artists that Wing Chun’s fast movements are ultimately weak and ineffective? The final answer is that, for example, a properly executed sequence of Wing Chun chain punches will not only use speed / acceleration power, but also joint power and penetration power. First, the punches will use speed / acceleration power by being launched at an extremely rapid pace with the elbows tucked in, each punch flowing from the fighter’s center. Second, the punches will use joint power by exploding out from the cocked fist driven by the snapping power of the wrist. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the punches will be driven into the opponent by being powered by the forward movement of the entire body in one explosive burst. It is true that when a fighter simply stands in place and delivers chain punches, they may not be particularly powerful since they are in that case only using speed / acceleration and joint power. However, when the fighter also moves forward while delivering the blows, they also take on penetration power or ‘body structure; power‘ (so-named because it flows from the forward movement of the Wing Chun body structure).  In closing, this penetration power is the final secret that adds explosive force to the dizzyingly rapid speed and technical strikes of Wing Chun and truly makes Wing Chun a system to be reckoned with.

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