How hard does one actually have to hit someone to knock them unconscious? It’s a really common thing in media, but never fully explained. I know it’s not the most crucial detail I’m just curious. P.s. this blogs content is incredible.
The prevalence of the knockout in fiction and visual media like television is actually for narrative convenience. When you have a situation where there’s no easy way to end a scene and you don’t want the character to kill or permanently injury the other guy, then a knockout is a convenient way to end the scene. Fiction uses the knockout as a convenient tool, often to the point where it becomes a crutch, in order to quickly switch from one sequence to another. The end result is often consequence free violence.
A knockout is when the other person falls unconscious from being hit. This is the brain saying, “I don’t want to be here anymore. I give up.” And passing out. Given the brain is the necessary organ which controls your entire body, if it fails in function, you don’t live, it can’t stay shut off for an extended period of time. Knockouts usually only last for a few seconds, and you’ll see this one with boxing and their ten count. If a boxer can get up again after being knockout out in ten seconds, then they can continue. If not, the match is over. If they don’t wake up within the ten seconds, they’re rushed to the hospital. If a human is knocked out for a significant length of time then there’s a chance they’re not waking up… ever.
Now, knockouts are difficult to achieve with just your hands. It’s very difficult to knock a human out in general, but the arm doesn’t generate enough force on its own in a basic strike to successfully knock someone out. You either need repeat actions (which are unlikely to cut it, and you don’t want to punch someone in the face because you’re likely to break the bones in your hand), use a greater method of delivering force to the head like with your feet, or aim for a pressure point like the jaw or the temple. The knockout punch in boxing is a hook punch that aims for the point of separation where your jaw connects with the upper portion of your skull. This is pressure point, a cluster of nerves, which when successfully struck can potentially cause a knock out. (Potentially, this is not a guarantee, and it is a difficult mark to hit even when you’ve created the opening to get there.)
So, the second reason for the prevalence of the knockout punch in fiction is that as a stage punch, the hook, haymaker, or round punch completes the Hollywood trifecta. The hook is easy to learn, easy to whiff, and looks impressive. It is also cost effective, and most of your actors can learn to make it look good without needing to switch them in and out with their stunt doubles. Round houses and wheel kicks are stunts requiring a higher level of technical proficiency, and are more dangerous because they have a greater chance of knocking someone out on connection.
Hand strikes to the head that aim for knockouts are the hook aiming for the point where the jaw meets the upper portion of the skull, the ridgehand strike aiming for your temple where there’s a gap in your skull and soft tissue. We’ve also got strikes like the spinning backhand, which targets the temple and generates greater force than the average hand strike by spinning. Now, when we move onto spinning strikes, jumping strikes, and kicks, we’re discussing the real force delivering blows of martial arts.
We can knock someone out by varying means, as pointed out above, by application through pressure points. The others include cutting off flow of oxygen or blood to the brain by means of a strike, choke, or submission hold. The frontal portion of the skull is a where some of the strongest bones in your body reside, and is well protected against most of the dangers you’ll come across. Punching someone’s face with your bare hand is actually more liable to break you than you are to break them, which is why the advice is to aim for soft targets on the body, or the throat. Or hit someone in the back of the head, where the skull is softer.
Now, you asked specifically about the amount of force necessary to knock someone out. Which is to say, you asked how to give them a concussion.
Force = Momentum
So, the greater your momentum, the greater your chance of dealing a knockout blow.
- Someone who is running at you will hit you much harder than someone standing still.
- Your legs are much more powerful than your arms.
- Spinning and jumping are means of gaining speed, which lends to greater momentum when connection occurs.
Ergo, a technique which combines running, jumping, and spinning with a kick will deal the greatest force all together than just one or two. However, one on its own is enough to knock someone out because all three together can kill you. As can one, just by itself. Go watch some compilation knockout videos for martial arts, specifically from kickboxing, and you’ll see what I mean. This will look very different from what you’re used to seeing on television.
If you’re sitting here, thinking that sounds like a lot of work for a knockout… you’d be correct. Knockouts are actually rare. They’re the intervening place between dazed/stunned and death, where the brain has decided it doesn’t want to function anymore. Concussions aren’t convenient or safe, and can result in long term damage to the individual who experiences one. With fictional knockouts, they’re essentially just deaths that the narrative uses as a convenient method to rid itself of Mook A. This doesn’t cover the damage the victim can do to themselves in the uncontrolled fall, if you don’t catch them on the way down, which could also permanently injure or kill them.
The actual process of subduing someone without permanently injuring or killing them is very involved, much more risky, and takes a long time. Then, there’s the question of what’s to be done with them afterwards. This requires they give up, don’t run off to get their friends, and rally. If you subdue them to the point where you can tie them up and leave them, their buddies might find them and even if they’re no longer in a position to fight they can still provide their friends with actionable intelligence on you, your goals, your fighting style, etc.
So, in real life, you’ve got to make a choice about what you’re going to do. How much time you have to waste. How you’re going to reach your objective because time doesn’t stand still and wait for you to finish. They’re working toward their own objectives, and its a race to see who is going to get there first.
In fiction, the knockout is a convenient crutch which ensures you don’t have to. The fight is over, but you don’t have to ask questions about what happens next to the other character. There’s comfort here, and the presentation of realism without being realistic. Very little of what you see in fictionalized media/television is connected to reality. This starts with the techniques they use, which are big motions clearly designed to send tells which allow you, the audience, to understand what’s going on.
Knockouts in fiction are the same way. They’re a convenient means of moving and removing your pieces through slight of hand that your audience is already conditioned to accept. This feels legitimate, and if you take nothing else away from this learning experience then you should understand that the feeling of legitimacy and internalized logic of the scene sells far more to your audience than any reality because they don’t as a whole know what the reality looks like.
Often, when asking questions about force, the question is wrong. Force in martial arts isn’t generated by physical strength but from momentum the body generate while in motion. The development of your musculature is for control and endurance, which is what allows you to fight longer. A human being is not fragile against natural threats. Most of fighting is not a metric of force v. force, but a combination of strategy, tactics, and opening techniques which lead to more damaging techniques. When we start adding in weapons, then the situation changes. For example, the kind of force I could deliver with my arm and hand alone changes when I use a steel pipe. It would be easier for me to use a lead pipe to bash your head in than it would be for me to kick you in the head with a wheel kick.
TLDR of this post is: knockouts are hard to set up in real life, they’re rare without having someone beat on for an extended period of time, and they’re convenient in fiction because they set up a situation where the audience believes you’ve gotten rid of the other character without having to ask moral questions about killing them