Martial Arts Training With Joint Injuries (Part 1)

Having suffered with joint injuries myself, especially to the knee, I know how frustrating it can be and the limiting impact it can have on your training.

I have found some very minor adjustments in training which have helped me to cope with the knee problems that I have suffered with.  I don’t claim that this will work for everybody or that it will be a wonder-cure, I just want to share what has helped me and hope that it will help others too.  Fact is, it is not a cure at all, but a coping mechanism to minimize the pain/discomfort to the joints.

The following is based on a conversation that I had with my podiatrist when I was being examined to have orthotics to cope with fallen arches in my feet.  Although it primarily referring to Karate (as that is the art I practice) it will also apply to many other arts too.

Mechanics Of Normal Walking

Put left foot in front of right.
Put right foot in front of left.
Keep repeating the above.

OK there’s a bit more to it than that.  The way we step in Karate (and many other marital arts) is obviously different to the way that we step when walking normally.  However, the more that we can put our natural method of walking into our Karate step, then the easier and more fluid it becomes.  To do this it helps to have a look at the mechanics of normal walking in a bit more detail.

If you ask most people how the foot works during walking, they’ll often say something like “heel toes, heel toes”.  A slightly more detailed version would be “heel, ball of the foot, toes”.  However, it’s a bit more involved than that.

As we walk the heel obviously comes down first and then roles over to the ball of the foot.  However, the weight comes down primarily onto the base of the big toe (the inside portion of the ball of the foot).  It is important to note that our weight does not come down evenly on the whole ball of the foot.  The big toe lands first, then fractionally afterwards the little toes come down to give us balance.

As we continue the step, we raise our heel and push our weight back onto the base of the big toe.  Again the little toes and the outside portion of the ball of the foot are still on the ground, but are primarily for balance.  Our body weight and the power to push forward are directed through the base of the bit toe (rather than the whole ball of the foot).  If you look at the photograph of the footsteps in the sand, you can see that the indentation in the sand is larger at the base of the big toe then it is at the outside of the ball of the foot as that is the part that is pushed into the sand hardest.

How The Karate Step Differs From Normal Walking

In Karate basics and kata, multiple steps are usually NOT continuous and fluid.  Each individual step should be a very fluid movement, but there is usually a very tiny pause between one step and the next.  This is because on completion of your Karate step, you are looking to very momentarily form a stable platform from which to deliver your technique for maximum effect.  I have written before about how the skeletal structure is very important for the maximum transfer of power into your opponent.  Part of that skeletal structure includes having a good “root” to the ground that will not move or give way when your body is subjected to the reaction forces caused by the impact of your own technique.

Putting Natural Movement Into Your Step

Many people in martial arts do what they think they should be doing (or what they’ve been told to do) rather than necessarily doing what comes naturally.

Most instructors teach that you push off with the ball of the foot.  However, I would respectfully suggest that you should specifically be aiming to push off with the base of the big toe (as in natural walking).

Now many people (possibly most) will be doing this naturally without realising it.  But when you do realise it, then it becomes easier to focus on and develop.  Also, if you are an instructor, it becomes easier to explain and teach the movement to your own students.

Other people however, will be taking the instruction literally and will try to push off from the whole ball of the foot.

Try this little exercise.  Stand upright, with your feet at about shoulder width apart, parallel and pointing forward.  Lift the heel of one foot off the floor and move it directly forward, so that your knee moves forward too.  Now feel where the weight is centred on that foot?  It will be on the base of the big toe.

Now try again, but this time as you raise you heel, make sure that the whole ball of the foot stays on the floor with the weight evenly distributed over the whole ball.  If you’re doing it properly, you’ll notice that your heel and knee go very slightly to the outside.

If you are looking for forward movement, then the transferring weight onto the base of the big toe rather than the whole ball of the foot is obviously advantageous (as well as more natural).

Now picture yourself in a Forward Stance, ready to take that step forward.  Your back foot is pointing slightly outwards (as we can never get it facing completely forward).  If you try to push off from the whole ball of the foot, then as your foot is pointing slightly outward, your whole rear leg will be facing slightly outward as you start your step.  Hence the direction of thrust will be more or less in the outward direction that the foot is pointing.  It will however be quickly adjusted as you begin your step forward.

However, if you start by pushing off from the base of the big toe, then the load is taken away from the little toes (hence taking away unnecessary effort) that fraction earlier.  In turn the leg begins to naturally rotate forward just that fraction more quickly, giving you thrust that is completely facing forward that little fraction earlier.  You get extra leverage to start your movement making the step easier and more fluid for fractionally less effort.

As previously mentioned, many people will be doing this naturally without realising and I do not claim to be proclaiming something new.  However, we are normally told to “push off with the ball of the foot” and there are many people who will take that literally, even if it means overriding the more natural way of doing things.

Putting This Natural Alignment Into Your Stance

When we stand naturally and comfortably (maybe in a social setting), our feet are normally just below us.  Because of differences in the pelvis, women tend to stand with feet quite close together, whilst men tend to stand with feet at about shoulder width apart.

In this comfortable and natural posture, the bottoms of our feet are more or less, squarely on the floor.  However, if we spread our legs further, (as if going towards the splits position), then the further we spread our legs, the more that we tend to come onto the inside edge of our feet.  Eventually at full splits, the flats of our feet come right off the ground and only the side of our feet make contact.

Horse Stance (Keba Dachi) is the stance where we separate the legs sideways the most.  As we do this, the natural tendency is to start putting the weight more onto the inside edge of the feet (heel and base of big toe).

However, many people fight this and struggle to flatten the foot out as much as they can, so that the weight is evenly distributed about the whole of the bottom of the foot.

Why?

What is the benefit of struggling to flatten the bottom of the foot evenly on the ground?  As we have seen above, the power generated through the leg when stepping is released at the base of the big toe which is on the inside of the foot.

Keep the knees in line with the ankle and hips (when viewed from the front) and allow most of the weight to primarily rest on the inner part of the bottom of your foot.  More specifically, focus the weight primarily on the base of the big toe.  The heel and small toes must also be in contact with the floor, but (as with walking) the little toes and the outside portion of the ball of the foot are more there for balance than for supporting the weight.

Try getting into a Horse Stance and alternating between supporting the weight evenly over the whole bottom of the foot and then transferring the weight primarily onto the base of the big toe.  As you move the weight onto the base of the big toe, you should find that your ankles and knees relax just a slight fraction more, because this is a more natural alignment.  The only way to really flatten out the foot evenly is to flex the ankles outward, which takes it out of natural alignment and creates tension.

Have we not always told that relaxation is extremely important?  Why then do so many people try to maintain a stance that creates tension as a by-product?

Note:  Although I’ve used Horse Stance as an example, the same principle applies to other stances too.  It is just easier to highlight in Horse Stance.

Whilst practicing basics and kata, we sometimes have to hold a stance for a moment.  However, for real fighting stances are usually only transitory so we should be able to move in and out of them very quickly so that we can move on to the next technique (or next opponent).  In order to move out of these transitory stances quickly, focusing the weight on the base of the big toe (as in normal walking) makes a great deal of sense on a practical combat level as well as being healthier for our joints.

“Beginners must master low stance and posture; natural body positions are for the advanced”.From Gichin Funakoshi’s Twenty Precepts

Most of us know or train with somebody who suffers from joint problems.  If you have found this useful and think it might help somebody that you know, please forward this post on to them.

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