Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Power Mistake

Structure versus power    Photo Copyright Deborah Klens-Bigman 2020

We want powerful budo. Powerful budo is effective budo. Powerful budo is good budo. So how do we make our budo powerful? We make it stronger. The stronger someone’s budo is the more powerful it is. How do we make our budo stronger?

Usually we add muscle. We do push-ups and sit-ups. We train with weights to increase our bench press and our squat. Then we throw this additional muscle into our budo so we can hit harder, throw bigger, cut deeper. It makes our budo more effective and more powerful so we can beat the big guys. This is the way to powerful budo. Or is it?

None of the people whose budo I strive to emulate do muscular budo, yet all of their budo is powerful and dynamic. When they cut or strike or throw, the movement is solid and crisp. Nothing is done that isn’t essential to the movement. The cuts look like they could slice through stone. The strikes look, and feel, like getting hit with a truck. Throws hit you with the force of the planet. All of this without being muscular.

My teachers don’t need to be muscular to generate power. They have a combination of structure and technique that creates power and lets them direct it to where it will be most effective. Correct structure allows you to harness all the power of your body, not just a few big muscles. Precise technique puts all that power exactly where you want it for maximum effect.

If your structure isn’t right, even loads of muscle won’t make your budo strong.

There is always someone more muscular. I used to train with a guy who was a good 15 cm (6 inches) taller, 80 pounds heavier, and able to lift me off my feet without using any sort of judo technique. He was powerful and he could throw people around, but he wasn’t doing judo. His raw muscular strength got in the way of him learning good technique. He could jerk people so hard they were off balance from the force of the pull and then he would throw them by manually lifting them into position, but that wasn’t budo.

What frustrated this guy was that even though I was 80 pounds lighter and significantly weaker, he couldn’t throw me but I could throw him, hard. He was strong enough to pick me up off my feet, something I could only do to him with the help of winch, and yet I was the one doing the throwing. I used good structure to hold my partner off without getting tired. If I tried to go muscle to muscle with any of the big guys, I’d be exhausted and beaten in moments. Power doesn’t come from strength, it comes from structure and technique. If I let my structure absorb their power and redirect it into the ground, I can still go many rounds with the big 20-somethings in the dojo.

Just as a building with a flawed structure will quickly collapse under pressure, a person with bad structure is quickly demolished by an adversary. Good structure is not only the key to withstanding pressure, it is fundamental to projecting your power outward. You can only project as much force as your structure can support. Exceed that limit and you will crumble rather than your target. Boxers wrap their hands and wear gloves to improve the structure of their hands so they can deal with the forces they generate when punching. Take off those gloves and all the wrapping and boxers would be breaking the bones in their hands with the power generated by their technique.

If your structure can’t handle the forces you are generating, then your technique will never be able to generate power. Building a good structure is the first step to generating great power. Build a good structure and you build and project power effectively. Good structure also neutralizes other people’s power. That’s how you deal with bigger, stronger and faster. You have a structure that is stable under attack.

Good structure is necessary, but it’s not enough by itself. Technique multiplies your strength using the platform created by your structure. Arm locks, throws, punches, attacks with sticks and other weapons all start with a good foundation. The techniques multiply whatever muscle you have. That’s why a small judoka or aikidoka can manipulate and throw much larger, stronger people.

A 157 cm (5’2” in) person, even if unusually strong, is not going to have the strength to go toe-to-toe with someone twice their size. Yet anyone who spends time around a judo, jujutsu or aikido dojo will see goons like me being tossed to the ground by people half our size. It’s not their raw strength they are using to launch us airborne. It’s technique supported by good structure.

When we are first learning techniques the temptation is to try and force the technique. The more raw strength you have, the more powerful that temptation is. Every time we give in to that temptation we make it harder to learn good technique. Every time we force a technique we reinforce the habit to use strength instead of technique, and we make it harder to learn good technique.

All that technique we practice works to make strength unnecessary. Good technique is as clean and precise as a scalpel. Whether it is uchi mata or ikkyo, good technique will apply your power where your partner is weak. It’s budo, not arm wrestling. We’re going to use every advantage we can find. That means weaving around our opponent’s strength to apply a technique where it can’t be countered, not crashing into their strength. Technique done well feels effortless. When I’m thrown well I don’t feel the thrower’s strength. I don’t feel much of anything as the floor disappears from under my feet and reappears to smack me in the back.

Strength doesn’t do that. Technique does. The technique undermines my ability to stand up and then redirects me at the ground. I know I’ve done a throw well because I’m looking at the person on the ground and wondering why they jumped for me; it feels that easy when the structure and the technique are there. It’s that way for everyone. My jodo students know that they’ve done hikotoshi uchi correctly because their partner’s sword just vanishes without any feeling of having been there.

Strength erodes over time, but time seems to empower technique. As my teachers age they feel more powerful, not less. When he was 80 I watched Sugi Sensei completely dominate a powerful and experienced kendoka 60 years his junior. He didn’t do it with strength and fire, he did it with a structure that was solid, impenetrable, and smooth technique that was everywhere the junior’s strength wasn’t. Sensei’s technique was clean and simple with no wasted energy or motion.

That’s the combination of structure and technique that make budo work. It’s never about raw muscle. Structure gives you access to all the strength you have, and technique multiplies the power of that strength by using it in the most effective way possible.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that muscle equals power. Strength is nice, but powerful budo is supported by structure and propelled by technique.

Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman Ph.D for editing this.


Nathan G said...

I want to disagree a little, correct me if I'm wrong but it reads kind of like you're saying you don't need to do strength training or go to the gym to be an effective fighter. I've never seen or heard of any top level martial artist who doesn't also hit the gym regularly. When you say "We’re going to use every advantage we can find. That means weaving around our opponent’s strength to apply a technique where it can’t be countered, not crashing into their strength."
I'd argue strength training is one of the most important advantages you can get over an opponent, particularly because it's something you can do away from the dojo.
I think the problem is when people go to the gym and train like Arnie who was training to show people his pretty muscles, when they should be training for stamina and structural strength exercises like the deadlift and the squat, and any exercise that will improve their mass to power ratio (pull ups, plyometrics, sprinting).
I agree strength will never replace technical knowledge, but I think it's a mistake to brush it off as a simple nice to have when it is something that can mean the difference between winning and losing, or even between life and death.

The Budo Bum said...

Thank you. I didn't mean to belittle strength training. I do it myself. What I am trying to point out is that many practitioners make the mistake of thinking that strength is the most important aspect. Raw strength will only get you part of the way. To be effective, and to effectively apply whatever strength you have, you have to have structure and technique. That's why I can got to judo practice and handle guys who are much larger and stronger than I am. I've got structure and technique with amplify what strength I have. There's also the mistake of practicing to make every technique work by applying strength. You'll never get good technique if your practice is built around muscle. Strength is good, but it's enough to make one a good martial artist. I'd rather start with a weak student who wants to learn to do things right, than a strong student who is more interested in being strong than learning good technique. A weak student can develop strength. A strong student who won't practice good technique will never improve.

David B said...

The issue with the thesis that big muscles don't help is in the lack of vocabulary to describe how the muscles, the tendons and the bones support each other. Christopher Li mentioned tensegrity in one of his blogs. Here's another example. The point is that the structural strength in the tensegrity model is similar for the human structure. Great force can be directed through the structure, but it is the strings or rubber bands between the bones that make it possible.

If one is to strength train, the exercises should enhance this structural concept and its ability to adapt. Doing weapons work is good for this. Many small muscles along the spine, and the fascia in general benefit with exercises that strengthen the structure and its ability to move and absorb force.

Another concept is that big muscles won't help someone do strong technique. This isn't exactly true. Someone with a great deal of strength and a strong understanding of dynamic structure in both themselves and others, is going to have greater cohesion in their tensegrity structure.

The main problem with weight training is increasing the weight to a point where the technique for lifting the weight disrupts the tensegrity concept of the body.

Joe Tomei said...

Nice to see you back! As you may remember, my 'boom' as we say here in Japan, is flexibility, and I'm still obsessed with trying to make myself more flexible. I think it is worthwhile to note that strength without flexibility limits how much you can apply that strength, and usually, developing strength usually doesn't mean developing strength across the range of motion, but narrowing down the range so you can apply more strength.

Another half remembered anecdote that is possibly related, I remember reading that Ueshiba said that women were better at aikido than men cause they don't have the need to power thru techniques.

Anyway, great to see you back.

The Budo Bum said...

David B., the thesis isn't that big muscles don't help. It is that big muscles without good structure don't help. My biggest problem with strength training is that people have a habit of relying on strength to make techniques work instead of learning how to do the technique properly. The better your structure and technique, the more effect your strength will have when you apply it.

The Budo Bum said...

Hi Joe,
It's nice to be back. Thanks. I had a long dry spell.
I agree with you on strength without flexibility. It limits your range of motion and your range of options. Strength training needs to be through the entire range of motion.

Internal applications for iaido said...

"Structure" is the kind of kindergarden level of martial arts that many people don't even get because of the focus on muscles. The more interesting stuff is having jin, which doesn't require the precise postural alignment that makes structure work, yet only in certain directions.

Though the first video here shows basics that anyone who is training correctly should be able to reproduce beyond structure:

As an aside, Ellis Amdur's talk here is somewhat informative, though I don't think you would say Akuzawa uses a "rigid" structure, though he does keep a certain alignment:

Anonymous said...

For me the issue is actually when you realise that your technique is not good enough you resort to upping your workload instead of concentrating on that which would actually help you improve (self-study, slow practice, advice from seniors...)