It’s important to realize the essence of any art is contained in the basics.  For example, very accomplished musicians will continue to practice scales, even after years of performing at the highest level.  In karate, we use our bodies to express power through various techniques.  The most fundamental thing is being “stacked” at all times, which is a continuous process of refinement and maintenance.  A highly developed awareness of that feeling, or kinesthetic sense, is what separates the masters from everyone else.  My previous article discussed the following principles of body use:

  1. Align with Gravity – bilateral symmetry, integrity of spine and lower leg
  2. Avoid Excess Muscular Tension – using the right muscles for the job

For the purpose of future articles, I will assume familiarity with the feeling of being stacked.  But, it’s easy to become distracted from what really matters by trying to learn too many different things.  Progress in martial arts should be measured on a personal level.  No matter what technique you learn, it’s still just YOU moving your arms around…or legs, or whatever.  And, correct alignment is always the first priority.

All martial arts techniques are examples of using momentum to disrupt the function of an opponent’s body.  Momentum is the force generated by the tendency of your body to remain in motion, because its mass is moving in a certain direction at a certain speed.  In general, there are three ways for a properly stacked body to generate momentum:

  1. Compression
  2. Rotation
  3. Body Shifting

There is always compression in a properly aligned body, due to gravity.  The inherent elasticity of our muscles and connective tissue produces a sort of “springiness” in the body.  So, incoming force resulting from contact with an opponent should move through our frame effortlessly into the ground and rebound, creating a ripple effect.  We’ve all experienced this, at some point in our lives.  When pushing a car, for example, we intuitively lock our arms, bend from the hip, and push with our legs.  There is a slight delay, between compressing our weight into the ground and feeling the force of our hands pushing on the car.  Correctly timing our techniques to coincide with that “wave of momentum” is the key to whole-body power.  The concept of kinetic chain, or correct body segment activation, is the same in principle.

Using the right muscles for the job means having the stabilizing muscles, or synergists, conditioned to maintain proper alignment.  Then, only activating the prime movers required for the specific movement.  Additional muscular tension only inhibits the flow of momentum, decreasing the amount of force transferred through our body.  Like a wave trying to pass through frozen water, it just doesn’t work.

In application, compression will usually be combined with rotation and shifting the body weight.  Rotation primarily involves “swinging” the limbs and torso around the joints.   Because of our body’s inherent springiness, the joints have the natural tendency to always return to a neutral position.  If we stretch the muscles and connective tissue by moving a joint toward the limit of its range of motion, we can then use the momentum generated as it “snaps back.”  For example, when practicing our beloved gyaku-zuki, or reverse punch, we begin by turning our hip as far as it will go in one direction.  Then, we compress our weight into that leg, causing the torso to rapidly turn, as our hip joint moves back toward a neutral position and swings the arm forward to “throw” the punch.

The same sort of thing happens, when we walk.  There is a natural swinging of the legs and arms as we alternately compress our weight into one leg or the other.  If you pay attention to proper alignment and relaxation, you will be practicing martial arts with every step you take…just like Funakoshi, back in the day!

My next article will continue to explore the principles of body use, by discussing the basic methods of shifting our body weight to generate additional momentum.