Thursday, February 17, 2005

Snap It!

This is a continuation of what I was thinking when I wrote "Consciousness, movement, learning" yesterday morning, but here I am leaving behind more abstract learning theories and going straight to the heart of a physical attribute.

There are different types of strength, having varying degrees of applicability in martial arts. In weight training, these can be broken down generically as endurance, strength and power. Endurance and power are the bookends, the former about being able to repeat a movement for a very long time (like distance running) and the latter referring to the sheer brute ability to move something. Genuine power is very explosive, because the greater the momentum from the initial impulse, the further the load will travel. Strength is sort of in the middle, but more towards the power end, maybe 80% of maximum potential. It has much of the explosiveness of power but requires greater stamina, and will be more tolerant on the joints and flexibility. For the martial artist, it is probably the most applicable way to utilize weight training.

Martial arts has a somewhat unique range of demands, so unlike the marathoner or power lifter, we have to have some capacity in each area. Perhaps the professional sport closest in requirements is American football, and it is no coincidence that many players also do some martial arts for conditioning and reflexes. If football is a metaphor for war, what better than training in warrior skills?

One difference in training for martial arts versus pure weight training is the idea of tendon strength versus muscle strength. Real power lifters understand this and the smart ones are careful to monitor their limits. In the old days training took years of hard work, allowing tendons and ligaments time to build up. The use of steroids in modern training cuts down recovery time between workouts, allowing greater muscle growth in a shorter period. Muscles have adequate blood supply to allow rapid change. Connective tissue has less blood supplying nutrients and is tougher and slower to adapt. A consequence of rapid growth is that muscles can get so strong they overpower the tendons and ligaments, making ruptures more common.

Old texts on martial arts talk of tendon strength as the key to power in technique. Muscles initiate movement, but also can inhibit it. One has to balance agonistic with antagonistic muscles so that the latter don't inhibit the actions of the former, and the key to this is relaxation. Again, old writers talk about feeling as though your bones are longer than the muscles, so that one is not pushing or emphasizing muscle action alone. Bruce Lee described a punch as a rock on the end of a rope; speed is a force multiplier, converting mass into power. However, to be able to effectively move quickly without using a lot of braking strength from the antagonistic muscles, more stress is placed on those connective tissues, requiring conditioning of those.

This is why long-term training in martial arts is important to achieve certain results. One can learn certain skills quickly, but can the body perform consistently without self-destructing? More modern arts proclaim superiority in that they teach skills more quickly. In the old days, that was done only in times of dire emergency, when fighters were needed sooner rather than later. In more normal times, however, the slow approach allowed a fighter's body to adapt to the rigors of the art, and also allowed the person to mature mentally and emotionally to control the power they were developing.

[Note* - HATE THIS! I wrote a couple of long paragraphs explaining technique, thought I'd be smart and hit "save draft" ... and my modem had been disconnected from the server, losing about 20 minutes of work. I'll have to switch to writing in Word and pasting into here. That's twice in 24 hours I've lost work here ... grrrrr!] [Make that three times! I just rewrote a paragraph, hit draft, and it didn't save ...]

ANYWAY (again!) .... All this is applicable to Escrima. In the words of Small Circle Jujitsu creator Wally Jay, Escrima is perhaps the fastest art to be dangerous because our weapon can be used from Day One of training. I myself have taken pride in how quickly students can be brought to a decent level of skill. Still, to learn technique is one thing; to be able to execute with speed, power and accuracy is something else, and to do it consistently over time takes real skill. The centrifugal force of the stick is a force multiplier that works against the leverage of our joints. Incorrect movement can, either over time or in an instant, create pain in our wrist, elbow or shoulder. Similarly, incorrect stepping or distribution of weight can affect the joints of our legs or our lower back. Often we are unaware of our bad habits until we experience feedback through pain. This is why I try to utilize other body parts to support movement, either by using bigger gears, such as turning my hips instead of just arm punching, or using my free hand to help power a strike and relaxing my weapon hand into more of a simple directing role.

Beginning students usually use muscle to do everything, pushing their sticks, extending their hands. I was fortunate to be able to study video of Angel for many years, and I could always see that he seemed faster than most, if not all, of his students. Often at the end of a strike his stick would simply disappear in a blur, but through further observation I realized that his hand motions did not seem to mirror this movement. I've long said that a stick does two things: it gives leverage and extension. Clearly this is what Angel was utilizing.

A common example of this in the FMA is the witik, a snapping strike similar to how cats often hit with a front paw. To create the snap, the hand is actually retracting while the tip of the weapon is still traveling forward, creating a whip-like strike. Angel used this kind of technique in a variety of strikes, for example, his famous "triple strike" which combined a straight hit to the head combined with a double abanico. While many people throw their abanicos by turning their wrists, Angel used a forward motion with his hand, almost like a strike towards the face, and then retracted his hand allowing the weapon to accelerate into the whipping strike. This accomplished two things at once - it made his blow faster and more powerful, and it got his hand out of range of counterstrikes faster.

This technique relies almost completely on elasticity in the tendons of the wrist to accomplish, and is not something most people can do right away, either conceptually or having the strength. One has to trust the ability of the weapon to snap without rotating the wrist more than a minimal amount for targeting, because the leverage of that stick can quickly amplify that rotation into severe discomfort. It is deceptive, but that is an important part of the art.

Again, there is a lot of technique hidden within the techniques of the art, ways to maximize speed and power while minimizing effort, and saving our strength and our bodies by displacing stress from smaller, weaker areas into larger more durable ones.

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