Many years ago, I was at a bar and witnessed an interesting altercation. A very large, tall man was harassing a much smaller man, saying the standard “Hey, whatchoo looking’ at?” dialogue. The big guy was about a foot taller and was least 100 pounds heavier than his would-be victim. The small guy kept his hands up in a placating but slyly defensive position while trying to extricate himself from the situation. The big guy seemed to be backing down, but suddenly pulled back his right arm as if to throw a haymaker. The small guy responded with an incredibly fast jab-cross-hook combination that knocked the big guy out cold. He then promptly left the premises.
A key lesson from this little story is the importance of hand speed. It’s a lesson I’ve seen time and time again in sparring. I have encountered quite a few strong, muscular guys with really slow hands. It’s actually rather amusing when they spar with seemingly out-of-shape partners who happen to have really good hand speed. Guess who tends to get more strikes in?
In a self-defense situation, hand speed could mean the difference between life or death, especially if a weapon is involved. Fortunately, there are ways to improve hand speed. These five have worked for me…
Shadowboxing and/or Bagwork: Obviously this can make a big difference. A key thing is to keep your body relaxed until the point of impact. The aforementioned strong, muscular guys with really slow hands tended to “push” their punches, as if they were doing a bench press. You want more of a whip effect. Also, using light hand weights when shadowboxing can be useful. Just don’t use weights heavier than two or maybe three pounds at most.
Wing Chun Trapping Drills: Trapping has become a dirty word in some circles. Whether or not you will ever be able to pull off complex, compound traps in a fight is open for debate. That being said, classic trapping drills with a partner can help you to develop hand speed and overall coordination. So can…
Kali Knife and Stick Drills: Sticks move quite a bit faster than fists. Doing sinawali flows such as Heaven 6 will help you learn to move your hands in a more fluid, quick way. The same can be said for sumbrada with either sticks or training knives.
Hindu Push-Ups aka Dands: I can't actually think of a logical, biomechanical reason why Hindu push-ups help with hand speed, but they certain make a difference for me. Perhaps it has to do with the fluidity and relaxation component?
Kettlebell High-Pulls: Credit Joey Alvarado for this one. While many ballistic kettlbell moves—snatches, long cycle, etc.—are good for developing hand speed and punching power, Alvarado makes a really compelling case for the high-pull. Check out his article here.
These are just a few examples of techniques that I have personal experience with. There are plenty of others. Juggling, for example, probably helps hand speed. However, I can’t juggle so I don’t really know.
A great thing about developing hand speed (besides the fact it might save your life one day) is that it doesn’t really rely on brute strength. I have trained with plenty of older people who have very fast hands despite not being especially strong or athletic.