Before I get into this discussion, let me define several words (and principles) that I will be trying to expound on.
Strength: Physical power. (Muscle derived power)
Power: Might or force. The Capability of doing or accomplishing something.
Energy: The capacity for vigorous activity or to create power.
These definitions were taken from the Webster’s Universal College Dictionary and were chosen selectively to illustrate this subject.
In this essay, I am focusing on strength and power as it applies to the martial arts. I will use personal observations and experiences to illustrate the subject.
In my earliest teaching career I taught mostly young men. My first school was utilitarian and rustic. At that time, the martial arts weren’t especially popular. Very few women were attracted to the study of the arts and few older individuals.
Teaching young men seemed easy at the time. Most of the students were vigorous and athletic. All of them had the strength common to young men and were adrenalin and testosterone driven. They rode the wave of youth and much of what I taught came relatively easy to them. I have come to learn through years of experience that their ease of practice had more to do with my inexperience and incomplete understanding of the under workings of the arts that I taught than their own natural abilities.
My personal epiphany in the martial arts came when I was asked to teach a woman’s self defense class. I found that many of the techniques that the young men did as a matter of course were difficult or impossible for my new female students to accomplish. I had to step back and take a closer look at what I was teaching and how I was teaching it. I had to gain an understanding of the underlying principles of the karate and jujitsu that I was teaching. I came to understand that my male students were able to do what I demanded of them through sheer muscular strength. The female students didn’t have the physical power or upper body strength to power through the techniques when they weren’t done properly. This discovery became a turning point in my teaching career.
I began studying judo and jiu jitsu, and later karate, from Japanese instructors. Their teaching techniques didn’t sit well with my Western sensitivities and after several years of study without any major advancement in rank, I affiliated myself with a fledgling American martial arts association and the system that they taught. The training was hard and brutal and the classes were long and hard. I equated that with better training. Also, rank came faster.
The karate system that I studied was an eclectic blend of shorei and goju karate. Theoretically it blended the hard shuri te (shorei) system with the softer goju system. I say theoretically because the training focused primarily on the harder aspects of karate. We learned to use the sanchin dachi (hour glass stance) and neko ashi dachi (cat stance) stances but most of our fighting was done from the zen kutsu dachi (front leaning stance) or the kiba dachi (horse stance). We learned the mawashi uke (circle block) and the tensho (cranes wing) blocks, which were soft techniques, but emphasis was on the harder power blocks. Linier techniques were preferred to circular. Parrying, side stepping, evading or retreating was unheard of. All of this added up to a power oriented, strength based system. It was brutal and aggressive but it often fell apart when used against a bigger or stronger opponent with equal and sometimes even lesser skill.
The goju system of karate is based on hard and soft techniques. It embraces the law of the yin and yang. In theory, a hard weapon is generally used against a soft target and a soft weapon against a hard target. For instance, a seiken zuki (fore knuckle punch) wouldn’t be used to strike the point of the chin. A palm heel strike would possibly do more damage with less trauma to the hand. Unfortunately the ju (soft techniques) of goju, which require more skill and training, weren’t emphasized or weren’t taught at all. Rather the go (hard techniques), which are easier to teach and more easily grasped, were generally taught in the United States.
I’m not trying to criticize the art itself or even the people who taught it. I’m just saying that they were teaching only half of the art. There is a reason for this. Most of the teachers in those days were soldiers who had learned their arts during limited stays at duty stations where these skills were available to them. They learned their arts in a relatively limited time and in the short time allowed to their training were taught the external skills of the arts that they studied. On the other side of the coin, many of the old instructors of these arts, seeing the less than acceptable Western attitudes of these students, limited what was taught them. These young instructors came back to the States with a partial understanding of their arts and with a hard core military approach to teaching them.
As time passed and these instructors sought more advanced training and studied the kata, waza, and the application of these techniques the deeper meanings of their arts began to reveal themselves. Unfortunately, many occidentals, being larger in size, still substitute strength for the true power of the martial arts.
I am an advocate of strength training. I have indulged in weight training, power lifting and body building since my mid teens. Today, even in my sixties, I still indulge in weight training, though due to injuries and the resulting surgeries, I am leaning more and more to strength training with less radical resistance systems. Many of my fellow martial artists criticized me for my infatuation with size and strength but I learned not to depend on either to power my martial arts techniques. I still practiced the proper kinesiology and physics in my techniques in spite of strength.
At 5′-9″ and around 230 pounds, I’m not a small person but there are people out there a lot bigger and a lot stronger than me. If we depend on physical strength we’ll eventually come across someone bigger. If we depend on physical strength alone, we will be helpless before a larger or stronger opponent. By the way, there is a reason why fighters are divided by weight class. Size does matter, especially when faced with an equally skilled opponent. Still, size is not the only determining factor in a physical confrontation. There are more effective ways of generating power than with raw strength.
Strength is determined by physical endowments. Size, musculature, slow twitch muscle tissue, skeletal structure and connective tissue all contribute to physical strength. There are also the less physical side of the coin; the berserker type strength that we find in the psychotic individual. I worked in the field of mental health for a large part of my working life. I’ve witnessed first hand how strong a 120 pound woman can be when fueled by psychosis. Adrenalin also plays a large part in the strength equation.
Power, on the other hand is affected by things that can be controlled to a greater or lesser degree. In karate we use the kiai or spirit yell to focus our effort. Aside from giving our efforts an infusion of adrenalin, it tightens the diaphragm and forces oxygen into the blood for maximum effort. We also use kime, which simply means focus. Focus has both physical and mental aspects. The mental part is simply total commitment to a technique. A half serious technique will be ineffective. The physical part of focus in the power equation requires proper body physics, bone and muscle alignment, muscle contraction and relaxation and breath control. Power flows from the heel, through the leg, into the hips, through the torso and is transmitted to the limb and striking surface. Impact is focused several inches into the target and all the joints are locked and the muscles tensed for the moment of impact. The body is relaxed after impact and the weapon instantly withdrawn creating a whip like focus of strength and energy. This results in focused power as opposed to brute strength.
The classic reverse punch in karate is a study in physics. Let’s examine it and get an idea how power is generated in karate. In the front leaning stance, seventy percent of the weight is on the front foot. Thirty percent is on the rear foot. If a karate fighter is standing in a natural position when attacked he will step back on one leg to allow him time and room to absorb the power of the attack while blocking or parrying the blow. For illustration purposes, we’re going to say that the karateka stepped back with the right foot with the weight evenly distributed on both legs or slightly more weight on the rear (right) foot. He blocks the attack with his left hand or arm putting his body in a half facing position to the attacker. To counter attack he shifts his weight forward while turning counter clock wise at the waist. And pushing off of his right leg which is locked and planted behind him. As he is full facing the attacker his chambered right hand punches with the turning of the waist turning 180 degrees in a torquing motion while the left hand moves in a counter motion coming to a chambered position. Contact is made with the knuckles of the index and middle fingers focused about three inches into the target. If he has managed to catch the attacker’s attacking limb or his clothing, the karateka can augment the damage by pulling him sharply into the counter attack. Upon contact every muscle is tensed as the punch penetrates the target. The striking arms immediately relaxes after the strike is delivered and is drawn back as fast as it was delivered creating a whipping type force. and keeping the energy of the strike from rebounding into his own limb. Now let’s look at the physics of this technique.
First of all there is the forward linier momentum of the push off the ground with the planted right foot. Secondly, there is the centrifugal force generated by the snapping turn of the waist and hips. The opposite action reaction principle is used by quickly retracting the left arm to add additional power to the punch. Upon contact the punch focuses into the strike to penetrate the opponant’s targeted area. The strike is delivered with the knuckles of the index and middle finger directing more force in a smaller area. The torquing motion of the striking limb adds centrifugal force to the strike. If the opponent can be pulled to the karateka or if the forward momentum of the attack is redirected by the defender’s block, the opponant’s strength and forward momentum can be used against him. The result is a tremendous amount of power generated with a minimum amount of effort. Lastly everything is brought together with a loud kiai focusing every ounce of effort into the nerve center or pressure point that received the punch. It isn’t difficult to see and understand the physics of this attack. The result can be devastating. The reverse punch is an excellent example of using physics to produce force and power as opposed to strength. Power is generated by using physics as opposed to raw strength.
Some years ago I was practicing in the gym prior to the start of my class at one of the YMCAs in Chicago. There were other martial arts classes offered in the YMCA’s curriculum. A student from another karate class came in and watched me as I punched and kicked the bag. He eventually approached me and offered to show me the power in his technique. He punched the bag and sent it swinging toward the ceiling. He equated the distance of the swing with the power of the technique. I corrected him and showed him a power punch (gyaku zuki, reverse punch) into the bag. Rather than powering away from the punch the bag folded around the striking surface of the punch and actually jumped lifted several inches. The young man was puzzled by the bag’s reaction to the punch. I explained to him that rather than penetrating the target with his punch he was pushing it away from his power. Karate is a striking art, not a pushing art. An untrained person will hit a man and knock him down. A trained martial artist can hit him and he’ll collapse or fall towards the striking hand. That’s because the power of the punch was fully absorbed by the target. Little or none of the force was converted into a pushing motion.
It takes time to learn to generate power in your techniques. The process doesn’t happen over night. Some of it can be taught but much of it is acquired through constant practice and through personal trial and error. An instructor can show you how to perform a technique but implementing that technique still requires practice. Seeing it is one thing. Doing it consistently is another. That’s why it takes so much time to learn a martial art. Learning karate isn’t that difficult. Perfecting it is. It’s a long and arduous but rewarding process. It isn’t accomplished over night. On the surface karate looks rather simple but as you begin to become an in depth student you’ll realize how complex it really is. The difference between an effective technique and one that doesn’t work is sometimes small and subtle, but it’s these subtle differences that separate the practitioner from the master.
In spite of most of a life time dedicated to the perfection of the arts, I am a long way from being a master teacher or practitioner. I find that no matter how much I know there is still much to learn. With age and injury, I am no longer able to do what I once could. I’m limited in my performance but I am not limited in my studies. My body is somewhat hampered but my mind still functions (though my wife might contest that). More time is available for contemplating the spiritual and the deeper physical aspects of the martial arts. I’m more involved in the administrative ends of the martial arts but my own quest for perfection continues.
Before letting you get back to your practice, let me speak a brief moment on ki or chi. These words, the Japanese and Chinese versions, are used to express the concept of intrinsic energy. In many of the internal martial arts such as Tai Chi Chaun, Pua Kua, Hsing I and aikido, much time and effort is spent in trying to develop this elusive energy and the ability to use it. It has taken on an almost magical and esoteric mystique. I have had an opportunity to study several internal arts. I don’t claim to be an expert at any of them but from my own observations I perceive ki or chi as being a result of proper breathing and focus coupled with the proper physics. There is nothing magical about it. That isn’t to say that it is easy to acquire or perfect. Demonstrations of ki can be impressive but internal or soft martial arts don’t have a monopoly on this type of energy. We use the same energy when we kiai and use kime. I don’t advise becoming preoccupied with studying chi kung or the other methods for perfecting ki. Instead I advise students to continue to perfect the techniques of their own chosen martial art and the intrinsic energy will eventually become apparent in their techniques.
Though the development of power is more important than the development of raw strength I still recommend strength and endurance training to any martial arts student. I’ve seen too many instances of boxers taking out trained black belts in martial arts contests. If karate is the powerful fighting system that we say it is this shouldn’t be. The problem isn’t so much with the martial art system as it is in the lack of conditioning of the fighter. Most week end warriors, which is what most karateka qualify as, aren’t in the kind of physical condition to contest with a trained and conditioned boxer. Both strength and endurance are required along with those devastating techniques that you’ve trained so hard to learn. Other wise, you won’t have the ability to use them. Having knowledge but an inability to implement it is futile. Considering that we study a combative discipline it doesn’t make sense for a martial artist to be unable to defend himself. We have do develop a level of physical conditioning.
Kumite is a way of developing fighting skills. Kumite should be a part of any training curriculum. Some skills can only be honed by contesting against other fighters. Since we don’t advocate street fighting, sparring is a good way of practicing your acquired skill. I’m not a big proponent of karate tournaments. I’m more focused on the combative and self defense application of the martial arts. I had occasion recently to watch a recorded karate tournament. I didn’t believe what I was seeing. What I was watching resembled anything but karate. The fighters (can I call them that) bounced around in a poor imitation of a boxer. Because they had no base to fire their techniques from, they had no power. The result looked more like a game of tag than a fighting art. With power, as with everything else, we perform like we practice. You can’t and won’t develop power while acting like a jumping bean. That isn’t what I mean by kumite. If I wanted to liken my fighting approach to something, I would rather resemble a pit bull than a bunny rabbit. If you want to be affective in your art, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Karate is a power system. The stances and techniques were created to develop the maximum power, effectiveness and efficiency. The power is inherent in the system. You don’t have to reinvent it to make it work. If it doesn’t work for you it’s because of you, not the system. Kumite and waza will help you come to the skill level that is required to implement your skill.
Lastly, I would like to encourage every student and practitioner to continue to practice and strive to perfect his technique. If there is any secret to developing what the Chinese martial arts call Qing or complete power and focus of energy in your technique it is in the basics. Master Funakoshi said that taikiyoka is the kata for the beginner. Then again he turned around said that taikiyoka is the kata for the master. After all the years of working to perfect the complex and intricate techniques of his particular martial art the master eventually comes around full circle and arrives again at the beginning. The gyaku zuki(reverse punch) is one of the first strikes that a young karateka learns. It’s part of his kiohan or basics. The reverse punch is basic but it is the signature technique of most karate systems. A karate black belt will knock you out with a kick but he’ll kill you with a reverse punch. It’s the technique of the beginner. It’s also the technique of the master. The secret of karate power is in the basics.
In this study, I didn’t reveal the secret that some of you may have been looking for. If there “is” a secret it is that there is no secret. Power comes with time and practice. That’s the secret of all skill, effectiveness and power in any martial art. That’s the only secret.
That about winds up this study.. Continue to train hard. It’s up to each of us to perfect his own ability. This is a journey of self discovery and you are the greatest opponent you will ever face. Go with God, my brethren.