Martial Arts Body Mechanics & Structures Vs Fitness & Strength

Some martial art schools/associations/franchises put a lot of emphasis on fitness and strength training. A good work out gets the endorphins going and people come out feeling good and happy, stress levels reduced and a general feeling of well-being. Being fit always feels good. Sometimes the fitness may consist of doing a lot of circuit type training and/or doing everything fast all the time.

Whilst I am definitely in favour of being fit and strong, I am not in favour of emphasising these aspects over good body mechanics and body structures (which I have seen in some places).

There is a general assumption amongst many people that to defend yourself effectively, you have to be really super fit as fighting is very physically demanding and intense. Whilst there are obviously definite advantages in being really fit, it is far better to be able to hit somebody once and be sure that they’ll go down then gear your self defence training to having to hit them 10 to 20 times before they go down.

Furthermore, there is a big difference between self-protection and fighting; most notably self-protection is legal whereas fighting is not (UK law – you’ll have to check in your own country). The main difference is that fighting is consensual, you both agree to, “sort it out”! Self-protection applies when one party does not agree to a fight and the other person forces an altercation upon them.

In the self-protection scenario, if you honestly and sincerely believe that you are in imminent danger of being hurt/assaulted, you are legally entitled to strike first – though you may have to justify later why you believed you were in imminent danger (UK law). It’s a very common misconception that the best way to learn to defend yourself is to learn to fight. Fighting is what you do when everything else has failed. It’s the last thing you resort to in a good self-protection system.

But not a lot of people realise that. Even Bruce Lee who was probably the most influential person in the Western world for promoting the popularity of martial arts talked more about “fighting” than he did about self-protection, as he himself had been in a number of street fights and accepted a few challenges. No disrespect to Bruce Lee, but you just don’t do that if your main objective is simply self protection. You do it if you have a big ego and a point to prove!

Should you be in a self-protection situation where you decide to strike first, you want to be powerful enough to end the situation with one strike. You don’t want to have to hit them 10 to 20 times. There are other elements too, such as distraction, having some knowledge of vulnerable places to hit and how to position yourself to best advantage for a preemptive strike so that they don’t see it coming; but that’s outside of the remit of this post.

If you decide to commit to that preemptive strike and you want it to work on the first strike, then you really need good body mechanics to transfer as much body weight and acceleration into the target as possible so as to create maximum force on impact. You also want good body structures so that all of that force is transferred into the target rather than losing force because your wrist bends or your elbow/shoulder buckles, etc! It’s called “good technique”! It’s also important if you’re facing more than one opponent as you don’t want to be hitting 2 (or more) people 10 times each. You only want to hit them once each and have a good chance that they’ll both go down.

So to get good body mechanics and structures, part of the training has be slow so as to ensure everything is correct. It’s difficult to correct faults when everything is done full speed all the time. This is why so many traditional styles do things slowly and/or to the count so that the instructor can check everybody is moving correctly. Just firing of 50 full speed reps into a focus mitt doesn’t cut it; that’s ok for somebody with good technique looking to improve stamina, but it’s not so good for somebody learning it. And even advanced martial artists still have to do things slowly sometimes to make sure that bad habits don’t creep in and to include extra refinements.

Tai Chi is a classic example of this. They train slow, but a practitioner who trains it as a martial art can move lighting fast when they need to.

Also, if you learn good body mechanics and good structures first, it’s quite easy to add speed afterwards because everything is moving with optimum efficiency. It is however, quite difficult the other way around. If you focus on speed first, you get into bad habits; then you have break those habits and build new ones to put it right.

One of the influencing factors leading to some schools placing fitness before good technique is the growth of combat sports, especially MMA in recent years. This involves 2 athletes who should be fairly evenly matched and equally well trained, who are both going into the fight will full knowledge and consent, and fighting to a set of rules for safety. It is obviously going to be an endurance event where fitness is a huge part. That said, the best MMA competitors will work technique to a high standard too, but sport can give the impression to the inexperienced observer that it’s all about fitness.

Another influencing factor are films where hero’s and villains battle it out for an excessively long time, both absorbing more punishment then is humanly possible. This also gives the impression that it’s all about fitness.

This approach of over emphasising fitness and strength at the expense of good technique is especially prevalent with the McDojo’s. Unsuspecting students eagerly accept the fitness over good body mechanics/structures from an instructor in a flashy uniform, calling him/herself “master” and with good marketing material. Films and sport make this approach seem logical! But it’s a good way to hide poor technique. The student also finishes the class with endorphins flowing and feeling on a high, so they feel that they’ve had a good workout . . . . so it must be good . . . . right!

The ironic part is, that working with good body mechanics/structure can still be an excellent workout, great for fitness and still be very tiring as any traditional martial artist knows. But if you want to produce a fast growing franchise system and make a lot of money, it’s easier to train/produce “fit” instructors who look the part, then it is to train technically good instructors. That way your franchise grows faster and you have more money coming in from yet another school!

It’s often said that people these days don’t want to work hard for their grades and want to get given them easily, but I think this is unfair. To the uninformed student, a fit instructor with a lean body, who can move really fast; is going to look like the real deal. He/she looks like the fit lean action hero’s and sportsmen. The uninformed student will not be aware of the shortcomings of this persons technique as they don’t know what a good technique looks like. In fairness, many of these franchise instructors don’t know what a good technique looks like either as they’ve never been taught that way. But the uninformed student comes out feeling great from a good workout and has no reason to suspect that something is missing!

How To Create More Impact In Your Martial Arts Technique?

It is often said that generating impact is mainly about applying your body-weight and moving it into the technique. I personally think that this explaination is a bit simplified and that there is a bit more to it than that. So some of what I am going say here goes against conventional wisdom, so please bear with me to end before accusing me of sacrilege!

Ok, so what is the main factor that generate impact in a technique? Continue reading “How To Create More Impact In Your Martial Arts Technique?” »

Correct Elbow Position For Punching

Following on from the last post on spinal alignment, here’s another video on the correct elbow position for punching and how it affects the shoulder alignment and fist position. It’s a small detail that it often overlooked, especially as the elbow is often hidden by the gi/dobok (uniform).

This is something that I’ve written about before back in 2011, but I think sometimes it’s easier with a video.

So enjoy and please leave your comments or questions below.

Technique: Spinal Alignment

In most traditional martial arts the spinal alignment is maintained in a straight upright position. But despite telling students over and over again, many of them still tend to lean forward. In the video below, I hope to provide a demonstration of why keeping the back straight and upright helps techniques to flow more easily, fluidly and efficiently! If you’re an instructor, it could be a good way to teach your own students.

Is Stretching Important For Martial Arts?

There has been some debate over the years about stretching before training in martial arts and also for exercise in general.
I’ve heard some martial artists say that they don’t stretch before training as they’d rather train with the body that they have than the body they’d like to have! Meaning, if you were to get involved in a physical altercation, you won’t have chance to warm up and stretch; so your body will not be in the same state for that altercation as it is when you’re training and you’ve had chance to conveniently warm up and stretch out! They continue that if you want to stretch to improve your flexibility, do it when you get up in the morning, so that your body gets used to being like it all day.

To quote the UK National Health Service website: Continue reading “Is Stretching Important For Martial Arts?” »

The Different Levels Of Traditional Martial Arts Training

Training in traditional martial arts simultaneously trains you on several different levels. Not properly understanding this can lead to confusion and trying to apply a given technique in an inappropriate manner. So first of all, lets look at the different levels at which any technique actually trains you:

Self Defence Application:
Obviously each and every technique was at some point created for a some form of strike, block, deflection, throw/take-down, release, restraint; or (quite commonly) it can used for several purposes. Continue reading “The Different Levels Of Traditional Martial Arts Training” »

Techniques As A “Shorthand” For Learning Principles

Some of the newer and more reality based martial arts which emphasise real self protection (as opposed to sport) such as Krav Maga and Systema argue that the strength of their system is that they emphasise principles of movement rather than techniques. They argue that most of the older Oriental martial arts by contrast put the emphasis the other way round, on techniques more than principles. They argue that this makes their arts better for learning self defence more quickly and effectively. Continue reading “Techniques As A “Shorthand” For Learning Principles” »

Reverse Punch With Sliding Step

I have done a very similar video to this before about maximising the thrust in the reverse punch (gyaka zuki). This time however, I wanted to take it a bit further by adding a sliding step, which is a very useful and powerful technique from both competition and self protection points of views. It moves the body weight forward further and even more rapidly giving a lot of acceleration, impact and covers distance in a very deceptive maner.

In the video, I look at some of the details of the technique to achieve this sliding step more easily and efficiently. It’s nothing new, it just goes a bit more into detail which I personally feel not people explain in much depth. If you find it useful, please “like” it and leave a comment below.


Karate Kime (Focus) & Tension At The End Of The Technique

“Kime” is a Japanese word, roughly translated as “focus”. It is where Karate derives it’s power from at the point of impact of a punching or striking technique. But how well is it understood?

Most people loosely describe achieving Kime as moving with relaxation, then tensing the whole body very rapidly at the completion of the technique with a heavy exhalation. But tension stops movement and do we really want to tense (hence not be moving or hardly moving) even be it for a moment?

Does it really add anything to the technique?

Is there another way?

Master Kousaku Yokota speculates in his book, Shotokan Myths, that as Kata (patterns/forms) competition become popular, the tension at the end of the technique became more and more exaggerated so that competitors could emphasis to the judges that they were actually focusing at the right places.

There is a story (which I’m not able validate) that Gichin Funakoshi’s son visited the Japan Karate Association (for many years the main driving force behind promoting Shotokan throughout the World). Apparently one of his comments was, “where did all this tension come from”?

For many years, Karate (Shotokan in particular) has been criticised by other styles for being tense, stiff and wooden; because of this heavy emphasis on tension at the end of a technique. It is called a “hard” style, despite it’s Okinawan roots being more akin to the “soft” Chinese styles from which Karate evolved!

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the subject. Please let me know what you think and leave your comments below.


Martial Arts Training With Joint Injuries (Part 2)

Following on from (and inter-related with) Part 1, we are now going to look at body alignments, in particular with legs and stance.

Mechanics Of Normal Walking

Normal walking is a continuous fluid motion with one step merging into another step. When we walk normally, our body weight moves directly over our knees and feet. When viewed from the front, our ankle, knee and hip joints all in complete alignment and our feet pass each other no further apart than our hip joints. That is where the femur locates into the pelvis, (not the outer surfaces of the hips).

This is logical as when we walk our weight is supported on just one single structure (one leg) then transferred onto another single structure (our other leg). To support a weight on a single structure, physics dictates that the most efficient way is for the supporting structure to be directly below the main weight (in this case - our body).

Physics also dictates that the weight is most easily supported when the supporting structure is straight (which our leg is as the weight passes over it). To test this, try standing on one leg for a minute. Then try it again with a bent leg. You can do it with a bent leg, but you’ll tire much more quickly.

How The Karate Step Differs From Normal Walking

Taking Forward Stance (Zenkutsu Dachi) as an example, our feet are shoulder width apart when viewed from the front (rather than hip joint distance as in normal walking). This extra width of stance gives much more stability and “root” from which to deliver our technique and to absorb and rebound the reaction forces from the impact of that technique.

As mentioned above, when supporting a weight with a single support then the support should be directly below the weight. However, if you can have multiple supports (using both legs in a stance at completion of a step) then the most stable structure is a pyramid shape (broad base, small on top). We can’t really make our torso smaller, but the broader stance (feet shoulder width apart) does form a shallow pyramid structure, giving us maximum stability for that split second of impact.

Putting Natural Alignments Into Your Stance

In my early days of training we were taught to push the knees outwards. In Forward Stance the front knee would be pushed outward, in Back Stance (Kokutsu Dachi) the back knee would be pushed backwards and in Horse Stance (Keba Dachi) both knees would be pushed outwards. I realise that many teachers and associations have moved on from this practice, but it is still worth mentioning. Pushing the knees outwards puts unnecessary pressure on the outside of the knee joints and will damage them over time. Many senior instructors have had to have knee and hip replacements. Many others have just had to give up their training.

Pushing the knee(s) outward is like bowing the leg and distorts the natural pyramid shape structure, thus weakening it. This not only damages the knee over time, but it creates extra tension as your muscles around the knee tighten slightly in order to try and keep the knee joint in place (so as to prevent the damage). Tension of course just slows us down, so it is bad from a self defence point of view as well as for our health.

When looking at the front of the leg the ankle, knee and hip joints should all be in alignment (as with normal walking above). For this purpose I would like to define the front of the leg as being viewed from the direction that the foot is pointing in, as the legs can rotate at the hip joint (hence in back stance the feet point at about 90 degrees to each other).

It may not be the same for everybody, but I find this alignment is most easily achieved when the weight is balanced on the base of the big toe, rather then spread over the whole foot (as per Part 1).

Again, if you know anybody who suffers from hip/knee problems, please forward this post to them.