There are a lot of different martial arts out there with a lot of different styles of hand positions that are used as their main fighting stances. The hand positions that are adopted are generally developed around the goals of the art. So in determining how you should hold your hands, you should keep this in mind.
Guard Hand Position in Martial Arts Sport
Sport-oriented martial arts are naturally influenced by the rules of their sport. In Olympic WTF rules Taekwondo, you’ll often see that the hands are held quite low in sparring competitions. Punches to the head are not allowed and kicks to the body are going to come in faster than kicks to the head simply due to distance so it can make sense to hold the arms in a lower position, as you can see in the video of Olympic Taekwondo sparring below. And because the vast majority of kicks used are to the body, often to the ribs, it makes sense to keep the arms lower and wider. Clinching and grabbing are also not allowed, so keeping the hands low and wide are not a disadvantage. When kicks do come into the head area, the idea is to use speed and evasive manoeuvring to avoid impact. (*Please note that this description specifically applies to WTF Taekwondo competition sparring. ITF Taekwondo is different, allowing punches to the head, and while a lower guard may be used more often in WTF competitions, there are other guards that are taught for self-defense applications.)
In Kyokushin Karate, sparring is full contact, continuous and point-based, with no padded gloves or foot pads worn for protection. No hand/arm strikes are allowed to the head, but they are allowed to use elbows and knees to the body. Kicks to the head are allowed, but aren’t used as often as the punches to the body. Foot sweeps and knockdowns from strikes are allowed, but grabbing or clinching are permitted. This seems to result in a lower hand position that is held more central to the torso (though not as low as in Taekwondo) to protect against the barrage of body strikes that occur with the arms held closer to the body to minimize the body’s target area. It can also be handy for blocking body blows and movements that could serve to knock a person down. You can get a good idea for the overall hand position in this video below.
Of course, the above thoughts are based on my personal experience with these styles and what I have seen of them. Every school and instructor has a different approach, which can lead to variances in hand positions. The point of writing these thoughts is more to explore how different rules/equipment in competitions might affect where people hold their hands.
Hand Position in Self-Defense Oriented Martial Arts
A non-competitive martial art like Wing Chun, however, is not concerned about points, and but has fairly unique operating principles. The “centreline” of the body, from the top of the head down to the groin, is considered to comprise of all the main striking targets, including the eyes, throat, solar plexus, groin). Wing Chun strikes primarily emphasize attacking straight to this centreline, using direct lines of attack at close range. As a result, most of the strikes are straight punches rather than arcing strikes. As a single punch, Wing Chun style punches don’t utilize the whole body as seen in arts such as Karate and Western Boxing. The art relies on chain punching instead, blasting one punch after the next, moving forward with ones feet, throwing more of their body weight with each step as they close. For these reasons they use a more front-facing stance. They keep their limbs closer to the body, protecting their centreline, also allowing for both arms to perform straight punches with equal effectiveness, as you can see in the photo below in which Ip Man (right) is in a traditional Wing Chun stance.
You might think from this position that the head would be fairly vulnerable, but Wing Chun has a greater variety of defensive/intercepting hand positions that allow them to block and strike at the same time, using various parts of the arm in many different types of positions to block whatever is necessary. You can see some examples in this article about Wing Chun hand positions.
The stance we use in Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu, on the other hand, is based on the boxing/kickboxing stance. While its origins are from a sport-oriented martial art, the reason why it was chosen was because the goals and principles behind it are in line with the ones from our style. It was chosen for its simplicity and ease of use, while simultaneously being effective for self-defense. You need only learn a few simple blocks and strikes, which can be adapted with different hand/arm positions for different targets, making it versatile and adaptive.
We usually hold our main stance, which we call the “defensive stance” with our hands open. Open hands are a universal sign of non-aggression. They are also effective for striking targets on the head, while still allowing you to block and deflect blows. This also takes into consideration the fact that we wouldn’t be wearing gloves to protect our hands in a self-defense situation. The hands are held in front of the face with the fingertips above the chin and below the eyes. The under arms should be about one fist-width away from the body. The arms should be relaxed but not completely loose which would make it easy for someone to simply punch through your guard. The higher hand position is preferrable for self-defense because the vast majority of punches that are thrown in street situations are to the head. From this position, you can more easily absorb and deflect straight punches to the face, while a simple lift of the forearm can block hooking punches, and a drop of the rear palm can be used to deflect uppercuts. With the strong arm in the rear position, you make the most of the leg and hip torque in your power arm, while using your lead hand primarily to measure distance and set up power strikes, usually with straight jabs.
You don’t want to hold your arms too far from your body as it minimizes your power, while giving away your reach. It also makes it easier for your attacker to grab your arm to control you. Holding your hands too close is no good either as there is not enough space for you to absorb/deflect blows and make effective counter attacks.
We’re not the only ones who use this type of stance/hand position though. It is often taught within law enforcement and military organizations, as well as other reality-based self-defense styles such as Krav Maga.
Ultimately, every hand position has its advantages and disadvantages, which vary from style to style. It is interesting to analyze the differences. What hand position do you use in your standard guard and why? I would be most interested to hear some of the varying schools of thought on hand position.