Effective physical movement.

Robert Barton

           There are effective methods for moving the body and ineffective methods for moving the body. In this essay we are going to explore some of the details of effective movement and take a look at some common mistakes and misconceptions. I will also give some practical pointers on specific body positions that can become problematic. The intention here is to inform martial artists and especially instructors of some of the details of proper movement.

            Unbendable arm, a seated position that cannot be disturbed, linked fingers that cannot be separated. These are often done in demonstrations and we see amazed audiences and dumbfounded volunteers who struggle to figure out what is going on. These work because they are designed to use the body in a very effective manner. Unfortunately they are often presented not as muscles being used properly but as some internal force being applied by a master of an art after years of training. But I have found that any student can be taught to do any one of these ‘tricks’ easily, and I often bring people up from the audience and after a very short instructional they do it as effectively as the ‘master’ who demonstrated it. These are demonstrations of well applied body mechanics and not of an extreme level of internal energy mastery.  I have occasioned to interview quite a few of the martial artists who use this in demonstration and they do generally sincerely believe that their ability is due to an increase in internal energy or skill. And perhaps they have that, none the less I can teach a student to do the same thing in a few minutes.

            These techniques look relaxed and simple for the demonstrator and make the person seem to be very powerful. Frankly they look relaxed because they are relaxed and this is the key feature. A relaxed body is going to move more effectively because it is not resisting itself. I want to first examine the unbendable arm. Yes the arm appears to be relaxed and most of the muscles of the arm are but if you check the triceps area of the person doing the unbendable arm you will find that these muscles are engaged. But only these muscles are engaged so no other muscles are countering them and so their entire strength is focused into keep the arm straight. Rather that demonstrating a spiritual force with this we are demonstrating effective use of arm muscles. It is as simple as holding out the arm and deciding to keep it straight and then just relaxing it into the straight position. The hand will hang limp from the wrist and when a person tries to bend the arm it will seem difficult or impossible simply because only the correct set of muscles in engaged.

            The unbreakable finger ring where the thumb and forefinger are placed in an ‘O’ and people can’t seem to pull them open without a struggle works the same way. If you relax your hand and arm and then press the forefinger and thumb together to form the circle and just decide to keep it closed the correct set of muscles will do the task while opposing muscle groups relax. This again is a great demonstration of skill it is just that it is often being attributed to the wrong skill.

            When the demonstrator sits on the ground and has a person try to push him or her from the front and he or she does not budge is another one of these. It looks like the person should be able to be pushed over backwards very easily at first glance. But if we look at the bodies in position it becomes obvious that the person pushing is not going to be able to do this. The reason is simple ands obvious to those who understand body mechanics. As the person doing the pushing places his or her hands on the shoulders of the demonstrator you will see that the demonstrator puts his or her hands on the elbows of the pusher and gently lifts the person into an alignment in which he or she is actually angled to put most force into a downward push. The harder the person pushes the more firmly planted to the ground the demonstrator becomes. This is more about the ability to redirect the force of an opponent than about being able to project energy to root oneself to the spot via the backside.

            The intention in demystifying these three things is about making sure that people understand what is truly happening here so that they can begin to apply these principles to their own practice. So what we see here is good body alignment blended with effective use of the correct muscles without the other muscles interfering or countering the force. It is as simple as that and should feel as simple as turning a revolving door. *Here is little experiment. Get a bicycle and walk up a hill pushing it; get behind it and really push. Ride it back to the bottom and do it again but this time don’t push just drape a hand on the handle bars and one on the seat and put the bike next to you, forget the bike and just simply walk up the hill. What you feel in this experiment is what I am talking about and you can bring that feeling from the second stage of moving the bike to your martial arts.

            When you come to be able to apply this feeling of relaxed natural movement you will be able to use techniques that are completely efficient. At that stage of movement ability any technique that is applied when fully committed will have maximum speed and maximum strength. These techniques are truly effective because they are not being hindered by poor movement habits. The first step is to understand this feeling.

            Once there is an understanding of this concept and an ability to reach the feeling of unhindered movement one must practice applying this feeling to techniques. A very good exercise to apply this concept and ability is to practice movements in slow motion.  As the motion become relaxed and fluid it can be slowly speeded up in progressive stages. It is important to make sure that the speeding up stays within the feeling of relaxed fully committed movement in order to reach the highest level of application of this skill. As one practices the techniques one should also insure that good form and posture are maintained so that the body is positioned effectively.

            Now I would like to discuss a few details about often made mistakes in form. The first mistake in form has to do with letting the elbow hyperextend. The arm is often misused and punches are allowed to go well past the maximum energy point. This is the point where the body is able to focus and transfer the largest amount of energy through a position. An arm that is too far extended on a reverse or lunge punch cannot effectively convey the energy of the body through itself and into the target. This hyperextension can easily be observed in students while they are punching. The body actually does not the proper position naturally and will default to this position when we push on a heavy object. To teach a student to know this position have him or her push on a wall, tree or automobile with a comfortably extended arm. The arm will fall into the strongest position and the student can observe and memorize this position. This is the position that the arm should reach as or a fraction after the fist meets the target. Start training the punch slowly and gradually increase speed while maintaining the proper arm alignment.

            Another common mistake of form is allowing the knee to extend beyond the foot in various postures. In most postures or stances the foot which is primarily bearing the weight of the body should be over the foot and not extended out beyond the toes. When the knee extends beyond the toes in regular practice it becomes a chronic problem. This is bad for the long term health of the knee and bad for the stability of the student. As a student learns kata and basic techniques he or she should be monitored closely to ensure proper form of the knee in relationship to the foot.

            Staying with the knee we move to our next mistake which causes some martial artist to experience ACL problems. A slight flexion should be maintained in the knee when standing or moving among the various postures and while training and sparring. This slight flexion allows the stronger musculature around the knee to help support the knee from the outside. When the knee is fully extended or hyper extended the entire stability of the joint comes to rest on two ligaments inside of the knee.  A knee which is performing any type of twisting or torqueing motion while fully extended is in danger of being seriously damaged. For this reason it is extremely important that on any turning or spinning technique the knee should remain slightly flexed. In order to understand the proper angle of flexion it is very much similar to the same amount of slight bend that the arm needs ion the exercises above.

            The last mistake that I see all too often and which compromises a student and which can lead to long term problems has to do with the foot. Many people kick or do kata and spend a lot of time raised up onto the ball of the foot. While we may use the ball of the foot to facilitate a turn or twist it is generally healthier to have the foot on the ground and fully supported. A student who rises up onto the ball of the foot in order to gain a little bit of height as slowly doing damage to the supporting soft tissues around the knee and is placing the knee in the same type of alignment as extending the toes while in a posture. This is an ineffective alignment for developing truly strong kicks that utilize the maximum energy available. The student should be reminded to place the foot with full contact on the ground.     

            With these details of form in place and with this approach to movement in place the student will be prepared to move with natural ease and will be able to make best use of his or her physical potential and will experience techniques that can be said to be relatively powerful. I hope that these descriptions and exercises help people understand these things. This is an area where it is certainly best to have a trained and qualified instructor to guide you.    

 *I cannot take credit for this exercise. I learned it from a book by F. J. Lovret, Sensei. The Way and the Power. This book is in two parts the first part being a view of the philosophy of Lovret Sensei and the second part being a treatise of strategy and tactics. I most strongly recommend the second part of the book though I can only agree with some of the observations and philosophies in the first part. I do feel that this book should be on the shelf of any serious martial artist and I myself have worn out 2 copies in 20+ years. 

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