(Bag work for empty hand and weapon based systems)
by Tuhon Bill McGrath

( In this essay I will discuss how to train using equipment such as the tire stack, heavy bag and focus mitts to develop powerful strikes and which weapons are best trained on each training tool.)

Watch a baseball batter hit a home run. He steps into the swing, then his hips twist to move his torso, and finally, his arms swing the bat.

Or watch a heavyweight boxer known for his punching power. During a cross, his lead leg steps in, his hips turn, which moves his upper body, then finally his pecs, deltoid and triceps add the final push of power to the punch.

If you look at old school Okinawan Karate masters and most Kung Fu styles, you will see this same sequential power build up. Legs, then torso, then finally arms.


So, how do you train this? The fastest and easiest way I know of to get this idea across to beginners is to have them hit a stack of tires with a heavy stick and swing it just like a baseball bat. When time and equipment are available, I will start like this:

Give the student a heavy rattan stick long enough for a two handed grip and tell them to hold it like a baseball bat. (Or use a real baseball bat. I prefer using either an aluminum bat or one made of polycarbonate like Cold Steel uses for this exercise, as wooden bats can break when hitting a stack of tires). Have the student stand at a 90 degree angle to the tire stack, with with their left leg forward, just as they would if standing in a batter’s box in baseball. The stick or bat should be held farther back than a batter would, with the stick resting on their right trapezius muscle. The stick or bat should move in a smooth, horizontal line when swung. I prefer using small car tires for this exercise, as the target should “give” when hit to help prevent straining of the tendons and ligaments in the arms.

I start the students off with a light warm up set of 10 easy strikes with just 10 percent of their effort. This functions as a neurological warmup for firing the muscles involved in the correct sequence. 

Next, they do a set of 10 to 20 reps at 50% effort to warm up the joints for impact. This  helps them feel the impact of a harder hit through the stick, which in turn develops a feedback loop between their body and the amount of impact on the target. It’s easy to tell if they are doing the strike properly; the more efficiently they move the harder they hit with a given amount of effort.

The final set consists of them doing reps at 80% effort until they become tired or start to lose good form. This is important - when they begin to get tired during this set and lose good form, stop and change sides to their non-dominant hand.

If this is the first time they are using their non-dominate side for this exercise, I have them do  extra reps at each of the first two stages so they have time to “teach” the non-dominate side how to do the technique.

When the student has done both sides with the “baseball bat” swing, I then have them go to a regular size rattan stick and practice a forehand strike using the same footwork and torso twist as the baseball bat swing, but this time with their left hand grasping the right wrist in what we call in Pekiti-Tirsia a “double force” grip. (this grip has the thumb on top with the other fingers and gives you most of the power of a two hand grip, while also retaining most of the flexibility of a one hand grip).

Next, the student does the same exercise with a regular one hand hold on the stick, using the same footwork and torso twist as the baseball bat swing. Remember to change sides once they begin to tire during the 80% effort set.

The next drill is to stand with the feet parallel with the target and go through the three grips used in the previous sets while moving with sidestepping footwork. Remember though, the students should still be moving in the sequence of legs, then torso, then arms. The movement will just be a bit more compact when using this footwork.



Remember Bruce Lee’s one inch punch? It wan’t as strong as his right cross of course, but the idea was to hit hard enough in a small space to get the job done. In the first stick exercise you are learning how to hit hard from a full chamber position. In this exercise you are learning how to hit hard in half the space of a full swing and taking half the time to do it. When you are standing with your dominant leg back and swing a stick or sword, it is like a boxer throwing his right cross, (his power punch). When you are standing with your dominant leg forward and swing your stick or sword, it is like a boxer throwing his jab as it has more reach. Think of this next exercise as learning how to throw a jab that is fast, but still hits really hard.

Start by standing in the southpaw version of a boxing stance; right leg forward, feet shoulder width apart, with your knees bent.

For this drill keep both feet flat on the floor and parallel with each other as we are going to use a tight rotational force to generate power, (keeping your feet in this position, with your knees bent will help protect your knee tendons from twisting injury).

Think of the legs and lower body as the bottom barrel in the figure below, while the upper body is the upper barrel. The two barrels are connected by the strong rubber bands of the abs, obliques and lower back muscles. Instead of stepping into the hit for power, you rotate your hips, which stretches the muscles around your core, which in turn moves your upper body.

Start with 10 easy hits on the tires to get the distance right. Remember to keep your feet flat and don’t move them for this exercise; as the movement should come from the hips, rather than the feet. Rotate your hips counterclockwise until you feel the stretch in your abs, then use this stretch to help power the rotation of your upper body, which in turn moves your right arm to swing the stick. Remember the sequence, hips move, then upper body moves, then arm moves, then stick hits target. Next do this drill with 50% effort for 10 to 20 reps. Finally, do this drill at 80% effort until your form begins to suffer and then switch hands (and remember to change your stance to left leg forward).

Now let’s see how hard you can hit even when you don’t have much room. In the first set of drills you chambered your weapon on your trapezius muscle. Now begin with your stick held in the air at the halfway point in your swing. Snap your hips and hit from that halfway point.

If done right, you will find that when you use your whole body you can hit harder in half the distance than you can when hitting from a full chamber, but only using your arms to generate power. That’s one of the goals of this type of training; learning how to put your whole body into a strike so you can hit hard even when you are fighting in a tight space or when time is short.      

Once you are done practicing your forehand strikes, try these exercises with your backhand strikes following the same progression of sets and foot placement.


When I first started bag work with empty hand techniques many years ago, we used different bags for different body parts. Much of my teacher’s equipment was either home made or designed for other arts or sports.

For most punches we used a half sized heavy bag filled with a mix of fine sand and clay. It was about as dense as a bag of dry concrete and must have weighted about 50 pounds. We wore boxing bag gloves, but not the wraps, as we wouldn’t have wraps on in the street. This wrapping of the hand is a big factor in allowing pro boxers to hit so hard, (about 1,000 psi for a pro heavy weight boxer, compared to about 500 psi for a heavy weight karate black belt in one study I read).

100 years ago you saw bare knuckle boxers go 20, 30 even 40 rounds without getting knocked out. This is because, if you hit a man’s head hard enough to knock him out, you stand a good chance of breaking your own hand. When boxing became a profession the managers began to have their fighters wear wraps and gloves. This was not to protect the opponent from brain damage, it was to protect their investment; their own fighter from getting his hand broken in the ring.   

When I was teaching at the NYS Court Officer’s Academy back in the 80s and 90s, the NYPD academy used to send us their officer use of force reports.

One of the lessons that sticks in my mind from these reports was that 20 to 25% of the injuries to NYPD officers during assault on officer cases was the officer having a broken right hand. This came from the officers punching the bad guy in the head without the benefit of a boxing glove and hand wraps.

In training, boxing hand wraps also protect your wrist from sprains when hitting a softer heavy bag, as any imperfections in your angle of impact can injure your wrist. I was taught that the harder sand bag is a better choice if you are training without wraps, as the surface has less “give” than a standard heavy bag and you are less likely to turn a wrist on this.

Consider this: Back in 1987, Mike Tyson, heavyweight champion of the world, got into a street fight with another boxer named Mitch Green. During the fight Tyson punched Green in the head and broke his hand. Now I ask you, if Mike Tyson can break his hand punching someone in the head, why should we, normal humans that we are, think we can do any better if our hands get in a hand vs head collision? 

UPDATE: I have heard good results reported from officers on the use of gloves with strong polycarbonate armor over the knuckle area. There are two dangers these armored gloves help protect against related to punching.
One is that the polycarbonate helps spread the impact over a wider area and therefore helps prevent individual bones from taking all the force of the punch.
The other danger these gloves help protect against is blood to blood transfer.
It is fairly common in street and bar fights to find the right hand of the guy doing the punching really torn up if he has punched the opponent in the mouth.
I've heard several accounts from street cops telling of ER doctors finding the tendons in a fighter's knuckles completely severed after punching someone in the face and having the broken teeth cut the fighter’s hand. This was usually after the broken teeth have pierced the owner's lip and picked up a good amount of blood along the way to the puncher's hand and bloodstream. Severed tendons from impacting on broken teeth was said to be the second most common serious injury to the hand during a street fight. (First place belongs to a broken fifth metacarpal, the so called “boxer’s break.” )

Having began my law enforcement career in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, blood to blood transfer from bad guys to ourselves was something we avoided at all cost.

Remember, for anyone needing to maintain dexterity in their hands during the entirety of a fight  ( such as the military, LEOs or armed citizens, in order to use a weapon; or a MMA fighter transitioning from striking to grappling ), not breaking the bones in your hand is kind of important for your long term survival.

Having said all that, I have met men whose arms seemed well designed for punching. Their bones and tendons were thickly build and their wrists did not taper down as much as usual between hand and forearm. This last attribute was much like a wrestler having a thick neck. It gives better support to the structure above it. Add to this genetic advantage, a training program that builds protective callus on the knuckles and you will have a hand that is better suited than the average man’s for punching and not getting your hand broken ( blood to blood transfer if certain targets are hit is still a danger though. )

Bag training in Pekiti-Tirsia is geared towards self defense in the street, not in the ring, so we practice as close to what you would actually have with you as possible. These days instead of bag gloves I use leather work gloves for my bag work, since I carry these with me on a daily basis. When training power for most punches, use a similar progression as you did in stick work. We would use the heavy bag solely for power development, working on one punch at a time, as combinations were left for focus mitts. (More on this in a bit).

We also used this heavy sand bag to work our elbow strikes (wear a long sleeve shirt or sweat shirt to protect the skin over the elbows from friction burns).

 Remember to follow the same gradual progression as in stick training and give your joints time to warm up during each session and your bones to get used to this type of impact training. Too little bag work is safer than too much when it comes to your long term health. 

We would train kicks on the standard boxing heavy bag. I have also had good results with kicks by making my own bag from an army duffle bag filled with old clothing. Pack the clothes down as densely as you can. We use this resting on the floor and held against the teacher’s leg for the student to practice his round kicks on, (make sure your leg is in a good position to take a kick when you do this, as a strong kick will still penetrate to a degree). Using a bag like this set on the ground and kept against the leg will allow you to target the same low kicks in training as you would use in the street.

If you find that your kicks become so strong that they are getting through to your training partner, make this adjustment. Take the clothes out and cut the leg off a pair of denim jeans and fill this with fine sand. Secure each end of the pant leg so no sand leaks out and put this in the center of the bag, then pack the clothes back in, surrounding the pant leg.  You may still find this bag to be softer than most boxing or Muay Thai heavy bags though. Many macho young men may want to kick as hard a bag as they can find, but smart old men in the arts will know kicking a soft bag will help their knees remain functional and maintain the ability to kick well into their latter years.


While the heavy bag is good for power development for most punches, combinations should be reserved for focus mitts, (especially if you are not wrapping your hands like a pro boxer would). In stick work, our timing drills take the place of focus mitts for this type of skills development.

For our purposes, the lead hand hook is better trained on a focus mitt instead of a heavy bag. Working the lead hook on a heavy bag may injure your shoulder if you are the least bit off in your placement or angle during impact. We also use the focus mitts to train the slap. In both the lead hook and the slap, it helps protect against injury to your shoulder if the target gives way after impact.

When training slap pay attention that you don’t hold your hand beyond a 90 degree angel to your chest. Going beyond 90 degrees when training slap can cause your biceps tendon to ride over the top of the bone in the upper arm (humerus) repeatedly and cause an abrasion to this tendon that will be painful and take a surprising amount of time to recover from.

If you don’t have someone to hold a focus mitt for you, consider trying this. Cut the lower leg off of an old pair of denim jeans. Fill a plastic bag with a softball size amount of fine sand. Put this in the pant leg and tie off each end with an overhand knot (tying a knot in each end is better than sewing for this bag, as you want a cylinder instead of a rectangle when using this). Hang this from a length of rope and it will make a fairly good mini sand bag for lead hand hooks, hammer fists and slap work. Start slow and use the same progression as in the tire stick and heavy bag. 

Here’s an important training tip for bag work: Yes, there is a relationship between effort and results, but it is not linear; there is a point of diminishing returns on the upper end. To go from 10% power to 50% feels like a direct relationship of effort to power because you are well within your comfort zone. However, when going from 90% to 100% power, it will feel like you need a lot more than a 10% increase in effort to gain that 10% increase in impact. Prolonged 100% effort in bag work can be really tough on the joints and lead to injury and a shortening of your training career.

This is important to keep in mind, especially when working with young guys who think they are invincible. You are working with a mortal human body that can only take a limited amount of stress. Keeping the effort at no more than 80% and changing sides when they begin to show signs of fatigue or bad form should help keep the students within safe power levels for their joints and help all the links in the chain develop strength together at the same time.

When I was in my early twenties and training for tournaments, I would do bag work only three alternating days of the week. Bag work is stressful on the joints, especially the shoulders, wrists and elbows (your legs are built to handle working everyday-but don’t over do it).

My regular workout routine was the following:

6 days a week: (Mon through Sat) Running for 30 minutes with a hard 100 yards wind sprint at the end. This was done at night to work both my physical and mental endurance.

3 days a week: (Mon, Weds, Fri). Weight training. Right before largest protein meal of day.*

3 days a week: (Tues, Thurs, Sat). Bag work. Afternoons on an empty stomach.

1 or 2 days a week: Sparring on the evenings of bag days.

I had Pekiti or Penchak classes on Tues, Thurs, and Sat; during which we worked on learning new material or did timing drills.

Sunday: complete rest if possible.

A pro fighter will have a routine much longer and harder than what I did, but then this was a routine that a guy in his 20s could do year round, while seeing good growth and not get injured.

*A note on weight training: All through my 20s I did the standard 3 sets of 10 reps, full range of motion on each rep, whole body, three days a week weight routine that was common back then. I was in great shape as far as endurance goes, but was still really skinny.

At the age of thirty I began a pyramid weight routine that really made a big difference in my size and strength. Here’s the routine I used:

Work each body part only once a week. Your first set of any exercise has relatively high reps and low weight with a full range of motion as a warm up. As you move up in weight, lower the reps and reduced the range of motion until at the last set you are doing 3 or 4 heavy reps moving only within your strongest range of motion (a power rack helps keep you safe for the heavy sets).

In one year of this program I went from having 13” arms to 16”.

Here’s one more exercise for you. It’s a way to concentrate on your core for power development. Take a rattan staff of about your own height and hold it with a two hand grip. Now do two overhead forehand swings, stopping on the opposite shoulder (a circular 1 in Pekiti terminology) . Return with two backhand swings (circular 2).

Start off slow as the faster you go with this the harder it works your core. If there are any weak links in the chain (such as your lower back) you can strain them to injury if you work them too hard too soon. Practice this for reps with the right hand high and the right leg forward, then change your grip and stance combinations to work each side of the body equally.

The principle used here is the same found in kettle bells; take a small weight, hold it out on a long lever and it will feel like a heavier weight. Add centrifugal motion to this and it will function like a much heavier weight.

This principle is what caused me to finally appreciate training with sticks when I was at an age where I only wanted to train with “practical” street weapons such as knives and empty hands. It was the stick training that taught me how to use my hips and hit harder when using the shorter weapons.


Train hard, but train smart,

Tuhon Bill McGrath

 For info on upcoming classes, seminars and camps, visit:

Also read: 

Our hands evolved for punching, not just dexterity

Study finds that heel-down posture in great apes and humans confers a fighting advantage

PS Here is an interview I did a few years back where I discuss this subject.