Steve Klausmeier has an eclectic martial arts background spanning more than 20 years. We are glad to have him as a new contributor to TKRIBlog. Watch for more of his posts.
Learning to Stand Up Straight
To a beginner, the variety of martial arts styles and techniques can seem a bit overwhelming. But, they are all nothing more than examples of how to use one human body to disrupt the function of another. So, our first task is to understand what constitutes the proper functioning of a human body in the first place. Then, we can apply these principles to our own body and experience how it feels. The objective of martial arts is to maintain this feeling at all times. During solo practice, we develop a kinesthetic sense of our own body and ingrain the correct principles of movement. Through sparring practice, we learn how to keep this feeling under the pressure of an opponent trying to break us down. So, what are the principles of a properly functioning body? In general, there are only two:
Align with Gravity
Avoid Excess Muscular Tension
We live our entire lives within a gravitational field. Our bodies are designed to withstand the constant downward pressure of that force. So, it’s no big deal. In fact, astronauts who spend an extended period of time in space begin to experience negative effects from weightlessness. Gravity is our friend. When our skeletal frame is aligned properly, the force of gravity passes through our joints directly into the ground. Bob refers to this condition as being “stacked,” but you will hear others refer to the same idea using many different terms. It’s common to hear people say that someone is “rooted.” Tim Cartmell calls it true balance. In Taiji, they talk about ward-off energy. It’s all the same thing. And, when you are able to maintain the feeling of it, the additional force of striking an opponent will pass through your frame just as easily as gravity does. In fact, your body’s connective tissues have a certain amount of elasticity and force will actually rebound. We all possess this intrinsic strength. But, people who don’t understand the mechanics of it can sometimes be fooled into thinking it involves some sort of mysterious power.
So, how do we get stacked? The first thing to consider is bilateral symmetry. When standing naturally, the left and right sides of the body should be should be mirror images of each other. If one foot is turned out more, or one shoulder is higher, that indicates some type of dysfunction. Other than rare birth defects, that’s not “just the way you are.” Injuries, or bad habits, often create imbalances in our posture. The traditional practice of holding fighting stances for extended periods of time was an attempt to develop the stabilizing muscles needed to maintain proper alignment of the joints. Bob incorporates modern exercises into his classes designed to address common problems associated with karate training. Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard exercise program that can be taught to ensure proper function. Corrective exercises have to be assigned based on each person’s specific needs.
Next, integrity of the spine. Hips and shoulders must always remain in line to avoid any twisting of the spine. Lifting the crown of the head will naturally pull the chin in, preventing excessive cervical curvature. And, lifting the chest inhibits a “hunchback” effect. Sometimes, using mental images can help develop the feeling of being stacked. Imagine balancing a phone book on top of your head or having a fishhook caught underneath the sternum. In general, there should be an overall feeling of lengthening the body. To maintain the natural lumbar curve, always lean forward by bending at the hip joint, not the waist. And, when squatting, the torso should be parallel to the shins.
Finally, maintain the integrity of the lower leg. The knee must always point in the same direction as the toes and never extend beyond them. Any twisting can damage the knee, and too much forward bend prevents force from being transferred properly through the heel into the ground. Imagining a tack underneath the arch of your foot can help align the ankle properly.
The process of becoming stacked usually involves learning to release compensating muscles and rediscover the body’s design. A state of constant tension naturally exists, between flexion and extension. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to move. However, correctly aligning the body minimizes this tension. With the bones properly balanced on top of one another, or stacked, less muscular effort is required to maintain an erect posture. But, when injuries or bad habits create a postural imbalance, some muscles will be forced to compensate with extra effort, while others become weak from lack of use. Making sure we are always using the right muscles for the job is one of the most important considerations of our training.
All martial arts techniques involve the expression of momentum. That’s how we disrupt the proper function of the opponent’s body. Any unnecessary muscular tension can inhibit the transfer of momentum into your opponent. My next article will discuss the primary methods a properly stacked body will use to generate momentum.