|Posted by englishshenyi on August 11, 2011 at 9:50 AM|
written by Johan Duquet
IS STRENGTH TRAINING COUNTERPRODUCTIVE?
I would like to discuss a lesser known aspect of the so called “internal” martial arts as Taiji, Bagua, Xingyi and others. These can be trained to be used as an effective method of self defense yet, to demonstrate the credibility of these arts as combat systems storytelling about formidable fighters from previous generations is usually resorted to.
The typical story goes more or less like this: “An elder and often very skinny practitioner of the superior internal art called X was minding his own business when some younger muscular and famous practitioner of the inferior external art called Y came along to challenge him. The old man declines but is assaulted anyway. The angry young man feels as lightning has struck him and finds himself face down in the dirt with the old master standing over him. This is repeated several times until the strongman realizes that the old man doesn't even “use any force” on him. So the young man begs to become a student of the old man and finally learns how to be soft and eventually becomes an incredible internal fighter himself.”
The storyteller will then stress the importance of how soft and gentle the internal master was and will explain how muscles and being strong is just plain wrong while imitating a clumsy bodybuilder's physique. “Power training? No way!! Ridiculous and blasphemous!!”
Ironically very often the story is told by someone who isn't able to use his martial art if his life depended on it. When practicing techniques with the storyteller advice such as “don't use force”, “relax” and “you use too much force” are thrown around randomly. After that he will proceed to showing you how it's done and you will be told to go along, as resisting obviously would result in unrepairable damage either to your joints, internal organs or, even worse, your Qi.
Once in a while our storyteller has a very frustrating encounter with somebody who does not act as a limp noodle but actually chooses to “just stand there” instead of “being thrown”. All kinds of excuses are formulated as to why the disrespectful partner is not left bleeding on the floor and after a while he'll prefer to pair up with somebody who does understand how to crumble under his techniques.
THE FOUNDERS OF “SOFT” ARTS
Looking at documented facts about some of these internal masters of soft styles that are supposed to utterly dismiss the use of muscle power might help to put things into perspective.
Let's start with what is known as the softest of the soft arts where muscles are most frowned upon: the Yang style of Taiji quan. Yang style is named after Yang Luchan (杨露禅 who lived from 1799 until 1872. Whilst teaching at the Imperial Court he won so many challenges using his soft techniques that he was called Yang Wu Di (楊無敵 or “Yang the invincible”. Pretty impressive for a soft internalist who according to most “did not use any force at all”.
Strangely a piece of “primitive weight training equipment” can be seen in the garden where Yang Luchan is said to have learned from Chen Changxin, a stone blockweighing about 80kg.
As it is highly unlikely that mister Yang was able to move the stone block around using nothing but his qi and powerful mind this indicates that the founder of the softest of arts actually lifted and carried around some pretty heavy objects as part of his training.
Next I will include two quotes from an article on Morihei Ueshiba, known as “O Sensei”, founder ofAikido, another martial arts that is heavy on the softness. You will most likely know him from the portrait of a frail old man that is found at any Aikido dojo. Yet after becoming seriously ill at the age of 18 he decided to build a strong body through exercise and hardwork, and often performed strongman feats.
“.... He was only 157 cm tall(5'2") but he had a tank-like structure and weighed more than 81kilogram (180 lbs). He played second to no one in his troop when it came to heavy gymnastics, running and carrying. ..… the Founder used to march at the head of the troops carrying two or three persons' heavy equipment.... ….For the budo he studied at that time he had to pay the teacher three hundred to five hundred yen for each technique. In addition to that, the Founder had to work hard cutting wood and carrying water for his teacher before receiving the lesson.”
So we can see O Sensei wasn't just a little bit into lifting weights, to some he was obsessed with his “primitive” power training. I suspect Ueshiba was able to do a lot of the things he did at an advanced age thanks to this previous power training.
Another example of a soft so called internal style is Bagua zhang, with Dong Haichuan (董海川 credited as its creator. Unfortunately there are no pictures of him but we do have portraits of him that do at least give an idea of his impressive physique. In these you will see Dong is shown as a broad shouldered guy with plenty of muscle.
He taught Bagua to several people, all with training in other styles of martial arts, and plenty of them were of the “external” type with lots of power training.
There are loads of people that could be included here but presenting specifically the founders of the 3 martial arts that are best known for being the softest is a good starting point for exploring the No Power training myth in these “soft “ martial arts.
One thing to keep in mind is that up until now the mentioned strength training targeted whole muscle groups or the whole body.
A LITTLE BIT OF PERSPECTIVE
Let's now return to Taiji and to Chenjiagou, the village of the Chen Family where Chen style Taiji was created roughly 350 years ago and ask ourselves what the lifestyle was there when Taiji was better known for its martial than therapeutic use?
Written documents state that villagers practiced Taiji when they weren't occupied by farming. In our modern times food comes in plastic boxes and some of us can hardly tell if what they eat grows on trees or in the ground. So not everyone remembers that farming is pretty hard work and it was even more so when there where no motor driven machines around.
A lot of farming activities involve using heavy tools such as axes, scythes, spades, shovels,... and often heavy objects are to be pulled, pushed, lifted, carried... .It is safe to say that your average farmer was in pretty good shape and had more than considerable muscular strength and endurance. This in contrast to our modern day “inner city urban taiji warrior” who is most likely to have an office job that turns muscle atrophy into a full time activity, or better yet, a non-activity. Later we will return to these farmer “exercises”. But we keep in mind that these farmers/Taiji fighters had strong bodies to back up their “soft” techniques and didn't really have a need for extra weightlifting exercises.
STRUCTURE, RELAXATION AND GROUNDPATH IN THE HUMAN MACHINE
In the internal martial arts we speak of structure, relaxation and establishing a ground path. These things are sometimes difficult to understand/apply but the basic mechanics behind it are pretty simple.
Just look at the human body as a machine that can be used for several purposes. In Taiji the purpose sometimes is withstanding (not resisting) an incoming force with the least amount of work.
Gravity is such an incoming force and it is constantly trying to pull us down. So we strive to organize the machine in a way that it can stay upright without any help.
Many people would say this is done by stacking the bones of the skeleton one right on top of the other as if it were a multistory skyscraper. So how come enormous dinosaur bones have to be screwed together when exposed at a museum? Weren't they relaxed enough? Or is it because they weren't bipedal? Well it wouldn't be very easy to make a stable tower with the vertebrae of our S-shaped spine either.
Bones are held together by tendons and ligaments and held in place by muscle contraction. Without our muscles we would be a skinbag of bones lying on the floor. Our bones are constantly being readjusted and pulled into alignment by fine interactions between several muscles.
Think of a sailboat where wooden poles (bones) and ropes (muscles) are used to raise the sail (skin) that has to withstand incoming forces of the wind and keep it from falling down. The ropes are constantly being lengthened or shortened to create the right amount of tension to keep the sail in place. If we tense one line too much (or too little) it'll change the tension in the other lines which displaces some of the wooden poles so the sail can't be controlled anymore and the sailors end up in the water. In the body if one muscle pulls one of the bones out of its place the machine would come crashing down if other muscles wouldn't start compensating (which they obviously do).
So, surprisingly muscles and muscle contraction is a key element in constructing the structure which we speak of so much in “internal” martial arts. Relaxation is the trick of engaging only the minimum pull and push and only in the muscles that are responsible for holding the bones in place to withstand the pulling force of gravity. This means we would only use the specific muscles that are designed to stabilize the structure and not the ones that are intended to move the structure.
Once we know how to use the correct muscles and the right amount of tension to align our bones to withstand the vertical force of gravity then we can do the same things for forces coming in at other angles. Ideally the body still responds to gravity but it simply is pulling under a different angle.
According to the angle we will recruit certain muscles to put our machine in the optimal structure to withstand the incoming force along this direction. This is what is sometimes called “establishing the ground” path as typically you will be able to more or less draw a line from the point of contact along the body to where one or both feet are touching the ground.
When teachers tell you to “relax” they really are just telling you that one or more muscles are pulling too hard (or not enough) which doesn't let you stay in the alignment that requires minimum work to maintain it. In the sailboat metaphor the captain is yelling instructions at the sailors to adjust the lines but one of them had too much rum and is taking a nap, the next one has a hearing problem and is staring at the waves looking for mermaids. Another one is new on the ship and still doesn't know how to measure the right amount of tension/release. Still another one thinks that the best thing to do is to tighten the rope he is responsible for regardless of the situation.
To keep the boat on course the good sailors need to adapt and compensate for the lazy, unexperienced and stubborn sailors. In the end the good sailors get fed up and some of them complain (muscle aches), want to leave and subordinate (muscles shut down) or even go into “Mutiny on the Bounty”-mode (spasms, cramps).
The job of the captain then is to wake up and whip the drunk, give the hard hearing a hearing horn, finetune the newbie and reeducate the stubborn. This is what is done in standing meditation, called zhan zhuang, whichs teaches overactive, tight muscles to relax (fansong) and improve coordination to make minor adjustments in all of the muscles to adapt our structure to the smallest changes caused by for example the opening and closing of the chest while breathing. This can be done while doing Zhan zhuang, chan si gong, walking the circle, standing in Santi,...etc.
These type of exercises are a very important tool for correcting muscle imbalances and so helping to rediscover good posture which will not only make our martial art better but can help you get rid of for examples back pains.
EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED
As you all know we usually manage to stay on our feet even if we are not using perfect posture and get very easily used to it. Most people nowadays, due to a sedentary lifestyle, have very weak glutes (your butt muscles for those not familiar with Anatomy) and lower abdominals.
If these muscles are not strong enough to (unconsciously) keep the pelvis in place it can tilt (anterior pelvic tilt). Other muscles, not designed for this task, will try to do what the glutes and abs refuse to do, causing them to work overtime and become tight. As a result the knees may collapse inwards (knock knees) and the feet point outwards and so the hips, knees and ankles all start to suffer.
In the upper body lordosis and scoliosis may develop, the head will move forwards and cause neck and shoulder pains. It is hard to believe that all this is caused by something as stupid as not tightening your butt once in a while.
To keep things entertaining we will call the diagram of the above explained posture, “Skeletor”. These problems occur in all parts of the body while doing nothing more than simply resisting gravity. Now try to imagine what poorly structured Skeletor will do in a fight with HeMan, punching, kicking and grappling.
“Skeletor” will not be able to establish any groundpath, he will easily lose balance and his muscles will work so hard to keep him from crashing down that they cannot handle any other tasks eficiently. Skeletor is so busy compensating weaknesses that he ends up with a lot of unnecessary tension that distracts and tires him and might even injure himself.The heroic HeMan with good body mechanics takes advantage of Skeletors flaws and crushes him once again.
Doesn't this remind you of the usual story at the beginning of this blog entry? Yet this time HeMan replaced the old master and Skeletor the reckless young brute that didn't know what hit him.
A POSSIBLE SOLUTION TO BAD POSTURE
As said before through relaxation and standing meditation we can reprogram quality of movement, improve coordination and help recruit the right muscle for the right job.
But what happens if the right muscle is like our drunken sailor who does nothing at all and/or is just too weak for the job? For all the captain screams at the sailor if he is in an alcohol induced coma the man will not respond.
To leave the metaphor behind: relaxation will directly affect tense muscles and have secondary effects on muscles related to them. But relaxing a muscle that is already so relaxed that it doesn't do anything is not going to help as the example of the weak glutes in Skeletor (Okay maybe a little bit of metaphor then) has shown already even if Skeletor probably wasn't a heavy zhan zhuang fan anyway.
So what can possible solutions for this be then? We will have to activate the glutes by not giving them anyother option. For example some yoga postures if performed correctly activate and fire the glutes. But how do you know if you need to activate them and if you are doing the yoga posture correctly?
You might try squats while keeping your weight on your heels. If you find bodyweight squats easy, then try them adding a little weight on your shoulder. Still easy? Add some more and soon you will find out what moving with proper structure means because you will feel where the chain of power is broken. To avoid hurting your back you will be forced to tighten the glutes and recruit the whole posterior chain running from the soles of your feet to the top of your head.
Do enough repetitions of these, spread over a period of time, and your glutes will not only wake up, start to fire when they are supposed to but eventually become strong enough to help maintain good posture. Your other muscles will return to their own tasks and will be able to relax, no more knock knees, feet will point forward again and the never ending battle against gravity will not be lost all the time.
This blog entry focuses on the glutes because it's a good and clear example but any number of muscles could be treated in a similar way.
HOW TO CONNECT THIS TO “INTERNAL” MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING
Now you can return to your standing meditation, circle walking, form practice and with the glutes doing what they should you'll feel how easy it has become to relax more. Also get some pushhands practice and feel how your frame can maintain itself under pressure freeing up your mind to work on other aspects of your practice.
If a posture in a martial arts form is to withstand pressure applied by another human being then it is a good idea to test the structure of this posture. Someone can push a little into you to see if you can maintain structure, establish the groundpath and stay relaxed. The more pressure the easier to feel where the line of force is broken and work out how to fix it.
But if the posture is meant to deal with the weight of an attacker instead of a gentle push then Yang Luchan must have thought “why don't I carry around this 80kg stoneblock and see if I can stay balanced and relaxed. After that throwing a live person surely must be a lot easier.”. And quite right he was.
In essence Yang Luchan was doing something like those weighted squats in a modern gym as both exercises work whole chains of muscles. If he would have had weak glutes trying to lift his stone block he would have injured his back, knees and ankles for sure. But someone should go back in time and tell Mr Yang that most modern practitioners of the style named after him would frown upon his power training methods.
After this lengthy explanation somethings about Power training for “internal” martial arts are becoming clearer.
1 It is okay to do strength training as all of the greatest of the arts did it.
3 Recruit muscles groups instead of isolating a single muscle.
4 Use good posture and body structure.
5 Relax to prevent tightness
6 and oh yeah...Relax
EXAMPLES OF POWER TRAINING IN “INTERNAL” MARTIAL ARTS
When I tell people I'm spending the summer in China practicing taiji (at Fu Neng Bin's school www.masterfu.net) questions about meditating in a monastery on a mystic mountain arise.They would be shocked to see me running across the training grounds with my training partners in my arms.
Yet maybe the easiest way of functional power training is carrying around heavy things. It is a great test for your body structure and posture. Heavy bags, rocks, buckets, your training partners... etc will all make your legs, arms, and core stronger while at the same time giving you feedback on where a postural weakness is. Just remember to use a size and weight you can handle, maintain postures that requires the least amount of exertion and keep your feet, knees and hips aligned. You get some cardio at the same time.
Chinese martial arts are famous fort heir weapon routines and even if some weapons are very outdated as a means of self defense they provide great workouts combining powertraining, coordination, cardio and body awareness.
Most styles include heavy weapons as Halberds and heavy Spears. The Da dao form of Chen Style Taiji is an example of this type of dynamic heavy lifting. I remember one day when some new students were asking my teacher Fu NengBin about taiji and weigthlifting he gave a lenghty answer on how they do not combine at all. I was obviously intrigued as I was running and jumping around with a 10kg weighing Dadao in my hands, as I had been doing for over an hour already. Someone pointed out this inconsistency and asked “... and why is he using that heavy weapon then?”. A short “He knows how to relax.” was the end to that discussion.
You don't have to perform the whole form but can take a short sequence or single movements from it and repeat this over and over again. Even if you don't have access to a heavy Da dao you can still find ways to practice. Before owning a proper DaDao I used an iron pipe filled with sand and later bought a weightlifting bar of 10 or 11kg to brandish to work grip power, arms, shoulder, waist, core muscles and legs all while having to maintain balanced with good posture. For most people 10 kg provides a big enough challenge but there are some people known to practice with Dadaos weighing up to 30kg.
There is one particular move where you first kneel down to then jump up and overturn in the air to hack down with the blade of the dadao while landing. Modern sport science would possibly qualify this as “plyometrics” which according to wikipedia
“produce fast, powerful movements, and improve the functions of the nervous system, generally for the purpose of improving performance in sports. Plyometric movements, in which a muscle is loaded and then contracted in rapid sequence, use the strength, elasticity and innervation of muscle and surrounding tissues to jump higher, run faster, throw farther, or hit harder,depending on the desired training goal. Plyometrics is used to increase the speed or force of muscular contractions, providing explosiveness for a variety of sport-specific activities. Plyometrics has been shown across the literature to be beneficial to a variety of athletes. Benefits range from injury prevention, power developmentand sprint performance amongst others”.
Nobody in Chen Taiji seems to bother with scienctific explications on plyometrics but for centuries used a pragmatic and fun approach for doing them nonetheless. We might as well keep doing it.
Chen Taiji and Xingyi are famous for their practice with the “Big spear” of 3 to 4 meters. In the so called “Pole shaking” exercises the goal is to make the pole oscillate using your core muscles (or “dantian” to initiate the movement. This improves coordination, strength, endurance and especially explosiveness (Fajin).
Onlookers might not find it very impressive but those who give it a try change their mind quickly because it is hard to get the pole shaking while maintaining balanced and relaxed. Chen Taiji has 13 pole shaking exercises and they are not supposed to be performed as a pretty form but rather as single grueling exercises where -again- you should stay relaxed. As they are not very pretty and hard work not many practice them regularly even if they bring great benefits.
CHEAP POWER TRAINING EQUIPMENT
Of course you are limited by the training material you can get your hands on and I'll admit that it is not easy to find a heavy Dadao, heavy spear, 80kg stone block or 4meter long flexible pole or have people around who don't mind being carried around in circles for a while.
As weightlifting equipment can be fairly expensive I want to offer some cheap ways to produce powertraining equipment.
First of all: Bodyweight exercises.Plenty of challenging exercises for all levels of condition and fitness at zero cost.
Second: Remember the farmers. One of the things they did was chopping wood with axes. An ax can be pretty heavy and so bringing it above your head requires all types of muscles to collaborate. Your balance is challenged so the legs and the stabilizing core muscles are worked as well. Hitting the chopping block gives you the opportunity of feeling shock power without having to get punched or thrown to the floor. And after a few swings you learn how to lift and drop the ax with the least amount of effort helping you to understand efficiency of movement.
Modern professional MMA fighters who condition themselves by slamming heavy hammers into car tyres probably aren't aware of the fact that farming taiji people and Morihei Ueshiba did the same thing while providing wood for the fire. Anyway, a decent sledgehammer is easy to get by and is not that expensive.
Next are some picture of Wang Ziping(王子平 who was known for his mastery of among other styles Taiji. One shows him as the older, bearded man that is usually associated with the image of a Taiji master while in the other he is swinging a stonelock. Stone locks are a traditional strength training method that has been used for centuries in Chinese martial arts. Nowadays very few people keep up this practice.
Shuaijiao (Chinese wrestling) people usually still do lots of it and a google/youtube search on “stonelocks shuaijiao” will give you an idea of how they are used.
Recently the russian kettlebells have found their way to our modern gyms. The difference between Russian kettlebells and Chinese stonelocks is basically that one is round and the other is rectangular. Which is more important is that both have the center of mass outside of the handle which makes stabilizing muscles having to workout while you lift or swing them. An added bonus of swinging stone locks or kettlebells is that in some exercises they bang against your forearms/chest/or shoulder giving you some nice “iron body conditioning”.
They are arguably the best tool around for a martial artists to complement his other training but on the pricey end. A 16 kg kettlebell will set you back around 50 or 60 euros plus shipping costs. If you want two that could already be a100- 200 euros.
But you could also find 2 cheap basketballs, some concrete mix, a pvc pipe and build your own for one tenth of that price. Mines ended up weighing 14kg each and let me do everything you do with commercially sold ones.
Another pricey fitness hype is the TRX suspension training system. It's a pity it is so expensive because it has lots of interesting possibilities to make your core stronger. Or you could save yourself 200 dollars by buying some car straps and learning how to make a knot.
If you are a bit creative you will find many more ways to do some very interesting functional strength training that will help you to move effortless and improve your martial arts.
And even if you never need your martial art to save your life, you will have had a lot of fun doing it and improved your posture and gained all the health benefits that come along with it.
Just remember to Relax.