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Brachial Plexus and Subclavian Artery

Brachial Plexus and Subclavian Artery

Martial artists often train in a posture that I refer to as the “closed chest, inside fighting” position. This involves tightening the abs, flexing the pecs, serratus, teres major, lats, and obliques, while rotating the shoulders forward and pulling them down. This position makes the ribs much less vulnerable to strikes, and although it restricts breathing, it does make it much harder for someone to knock the wind out of you.  In some schools this is the principal posture from which techniques are practiced and executed. While this sort of training can be very useful,  it can cause or contribute to a number of problems including shoulder impingement, neck pain, head aches, carpal tunnel syndrome, and thoracic outlet syndrome. Falling, as when taking ukemi, can have similar consequences. Active measures should be employed to ensure that one can maintain good posture when off of the training floor, and to maintain mobility in the thoracic spine and shoulder girdle.

Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) can cause chronic pain, weakness, or  numbness in the arm and shoulder. Here are a couple TOS related sites that you should take a minute or two to read:

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

From the “Your Orthopaedic Connection” site.

Except:

Thoracic outlet syndrome gets its name from the space (the thoracic outlet) between your collarbone (clavicle) and your first rib. This narrow passageway is crowded with blood vessels, muscles, and nerves. If the shoulder muscles in your chest are not strong enough to hold the collarbone in place, it can slip down and forward, putting pressure on the nerves and blood vessels that lie under it.

Read the rest here.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

From MedicineNet.Com

Excerpt:

What is thoracic outlet syndrome?
Thoracic outlet syndrome is a condition whereby symptoms are produced from compression of nerves or blood vessels, or both, because of an inadequate passageway through an area (thoracic outlet) between the base of the neck and the armpit.

Read the rest here.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
From the VascularWeb.Org site.

Excerpt:

What is thoracic outlet syndrome?
Your thoracic outlet is a small space just behind and below your collarbone. The blood vessels and nerves that serve your arm are located in this space. Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) is the presence of hand and arm symptoms due to pressure against the nerves or blood vessels in the thoracic outlet area.

Read the rest here.

Here are some videos of exercises that I recommend to my students to help them maintain good posture (the first one gets TKRI props for using tape and tennis balls):

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The way our bodies move is the basis of all karate technique.  Our training should include methods to correct postural imbalances, which inevitably inhibit movement.  Too many older martial artists cripple around from years of abusing their bodies and just “pushing through” the pain.  That’s not fighting spirit, it’s just stupid.

Correct alignment, or being “stacked,” is the beginning of efficient body use. We have to learn the feeling of being truly balanced.  I used to think having good balance was a technique, like juggling.  If only I practiced enough, I would get it.  That’s not the case.

Everything about our posture and movement has to do with muscle conditioning.  Without using muscle, we would just be a pile of bones on the floor.  Our bodies are designed to function a certain way.  If muscles are too tight, they can limit our range of motion.  Also, we get in the habit of using the wrong muscles for a particular movement, because the right ones aren’t strong enough.  The more we move that way, the worse the problem gets.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Irregular movement patterns, or “compensations,” are signs of dysfunction.  I’ve been working with Bob to correct the problem of my right foot turning out.  This occurs primarily because I’m using my hip flexors, instead of glutes and hamstrings to stabilize.  So, we begin with SMR (Self-Myofascial Release) using the foam roller and stretching to “turn down” those hip flexors.  Then, we do specific exercises to strengthen the “underactive” glutes and hamstrings, like Romanian deadlifts.

My balance has improved, and I feel less strain in my knees and hips.  Ironically, as my muscles become more conditioned, I experience fewer “feelings” of muscular strength.  When things are working the way they’re supposed to, I’m just moving around fluidly and not really feeling where my power comes from.

Unfortunately, this condition is not permanent.  We must continually maintain proper function and work to correct any irregularities that arise.  Fighting is tough.  If we train realistically at all, our bodies will have to endure a certain amount of punishment.  And, we are likely to develop some new bad habits down the road.  It’s an ongoing process.

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.

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.

A few weeks ago I attended an excellent, weekend long presentation in Chicago on fitness assessment and principles led by Eric Beard of the National Academy of Sports Medicine. It was an excellent class. Mr. Beard is a trainer’s trainer. Almost by accident I came across this video of him teaching kneeling hip flexor stretches.

Why is this relevant to karate? Well most people who practice karate are not full time athletes able to live in the dojo or gym. Many of us have lives and jobs that require us to sit behind a desk for hours a day, and when we get a chance we dash to the dojo where we kick, perform leg lifts, stomp, fall and pick people up. All of this is hard on one’s back. All of the sitting keeps the hip flexors tight and short, and kicking just reinforces this.

Tight hip flexors make it hard to keep your pelvis in a neutral position affecting both the look of your techniques and potentially causing lower back pain. They also make it harder to recruit your gluts to support lifts and other movements which only compounds these problems.

After you watch the video you may want to take a look at Eric Beard’s Blog: Click here to check it out.

Karate involves a lot of powerful thrusting movements that tighten the chest and lats. Over time this can lead to postural problems unless care is taken to both stretch the chest and lats and to condition the muscles that pull the shoulders down and back towards the spine. Over conditioned and tight chest muscles paired with under conditioned shoulder and back muscles can even contribute to shoulder instability and injury.

Here is an exercise that can help “realign” us and hopefully help to keep us injury free and happily punching for a long time to come; it is called the ball cobra:

Notice the slow tempo, try to perform it the same way.


"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin

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