I find it very strange how the human mind can be so critical and analytical in one area and then completely suspend those functions in another. Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist, once commented that it amazed him how a man could practice sound science all week and then go home on the weekends and promote completely illogical and conflicting religious beliefs. How is it we can be intelligent and critical in one area and not at all in the other? You see this all the time in life from religion to politics; it's okay if my candidate/priest/lawyer does it but not if the other person's does the same thing. We somehow turn off critical thought when it is applied to our practice and beliefs. This is so common in the martial arts and very troubling to me because it creates all kinds of problems. What we apply to sports and other aspects of everyday life we do not apply to our martial practices. We are told something by our teachers that in the rest of the world we would never just accept at face value. Once again: If you were told you could learn to swim without going in the water would you believe it? Similar things are believed all the time in the martial arts. I will cite several examples here of some of the silly and ill conceived practices martial artists do.
Magic over time:
Imagine a boxer saying, “ after ten years if I keep throwing this hook it will work”. Martial artists will do an exercise and say that, “ It doesn’t work now but it takes ten years before this blossoms”. It’s silly. It might take years to master it but if you can’t use it in a few months you’re doing something wrong. Guys will do some qi breathing and hand movement with the belief that at some magical moment they will coalesce into some all powerful technique. I've seen guys try to use 'special hands' to block a hook and when it doesn't work say, "well I just have to keep doing it or use the right breathing with it". The fact often is that the technique they are doing is just not effective no matter how well they do it. The martial artist will often say, "Well I can't do it but my Master can".
I was with a group of kung fu masters decades ago and they were talking about how they handle different fighters. One of the guys with me studied martial arts but was also a golden gloves boxer. One of the fellows there commented that he could stop his combinations. The boxer threw a few punches and within seconds tagged the guy. The next master stepped up and said, "You're doing the technique wrong, I'll stop him". So the boxer comes in again, same result, tags him. The technique was just not going to work. So the third guy steps in and challenges the boxer and the boxer can't hit him. I am stunned and the master walks away happy. I said to the boxer, "How did you not hit him?" and he replied, "That's my Sifu. I could have easily tagged him but if I hit him and he loses face he will never teach me again. I let him win". So the mythology of the technique lives on due to cultural concerns.
In what other sport or athletic endeavor do they think that a technique will only be effective after a certain time? What tennis, soccer, football or other sport has a parallel to this? If you could put qi into your bat swing don't you think the players would be doing it? They do anything to improve their games so why not that?
Next: Stomping the feet to generate power.
Just in terms of physics how does stamping downward produce power forward? It makes no sense at all. If there were truth to this wouldn’t other sports do this? Wouldn’t boxing have developed this technique? How about a batter swinging, wouldn’t he learn to stomp to move his power forward? They will step into a swing and not stomp. Some martial arts will stomp on the ground to produce a ‘wave of power’ upward and out from the hands, or so it is believed. This makes no sense. How can stomping downward produce forward power? If you're pushing a car does stomping help you move it? If you're doing a bench press and you could stomp against the wall would it increase your power?
Personally I think that this is a misinterpretation of what someone was originally doing. If you are moving forward and projecting your power forward you might, while stepping, accentuate that motion by stomping to show your forward commitment. I think it’s just to show the weight shift forward, momentum directed into the hands from forward motion, and is accented by the foot noise. I think over the years a mythology has built around the stomping itself that was never intended. There is a parallel of nonsensical technique in baseball; sliding into first base. Countless times I’ve heard ex-players criticize this practice as both dangerous and illogical. Sliding into first base cannot be faster than just running over it. If diving to the plate were faster then runners would dive over the finish line. They do not. Sliding into the other bases is to get under a tag and not pass the base I understand but you can over run first without a problem.
I am going to show my great internal strength by shaking like I am palsied or need a drink. Why does this show power? We are not human batteries that build up a charge and then release it on contact although I know that is what is taught. Once again I think this is a distortion of the teaching of fa ging, explosive power. It is often described as ‘scared power’ or ‘startled power’. I think the significance of this is that originally they were trying to describe the release of energy when it happens spontaneously from the autonomic nervous system, in other words, the pure movement that happens when we are startled or scared. This is a total body response when this happens and not just a reaction of the limbs. We say we jump when we are scared, "That cat startled me and made me jump when it suddenly appeared". A great example of this is when the body is shocked by electricity. There are anecdotal stories of people being struck by lightning and jumping 10 feet away. In fact what happens is that the electricity bypasses the body’s normal pathways and fires all of the muscles at once thus producing a tremendous reaction and propelling the body. I had the reverse of this happened when I was 16. I was trying to hook up an FM radio antennae but I was given the ground wire instead. I reached for a water pipe and the second I touched it voltage ran through me and made my hand grip the pipe. I could not let go and was swinging by one hand, getting electrocuted, till someone kicked me off. I normally did not have the strength to do that. I think the ancients noticed how intensely someone reacted when startled and tried to develop this as a learned skill. I think that over the years it lost its original meaning and became an imitation of being scared or startled and not what the overall effect of those intrinsic reactions. So now we have people doing forms with extended arms and shaking violently and declaring how powerful it is but in reality, it’s not. Given the choice of being hit by that or any skilled boxer’s strike I will take the shaky hit. And now someone is saying, "Oh he does not understand the effect this has inside the body, it explodes organs". Well, prove it. Go buy a piece of liver, wrap it under ballistic gel like they do in car crash studies and hit it and make it explode. I know all the anecdotal stories about this and how somebody's master can do this but somehow they are never around to show it.
I do think there is another misunderstanding here regarding vibrating striking and normal striking. Once again let’s go to the physics vs the practice. Believe it or not earthquake science comes into play here. When scientists are trying to figure out the effects of an earthquake on structures they build models, quake tables, that they vibrate violently. If you take a given weight and put it on a beam planted on the ground you will find how much weight it can sustain in a static environment. After this is ascertained the scientists then vibrated the ground to simulate an earthquake. What they found was dramatic and amazing; the beam sank into the ground almost immediately. The vibration caused it to actually penetrate the ground that it stood on solidly moments ago. This applies to martial arts in a rather interesting way. While arts that teach vibration tend to do this away from the opponent, that is, somehow store the shakiness and then attempt to release it, I think this is wrong application. If you step into an opponent and place an phoenix eye fist on his sternum and push hard they may or may not have a reaction. However, if you vibrate the knuckle while on the bone you will see an entirely different reaction because now it penetrates into the bone. It’s hard surface to hard surface. Try it and see. Hold a small quarter inch dow or a class ring on someone’s sternum and then vibrate it. You will see the effect it has. If you are in a clinch and need to impose a violent reaction from your strike this can do this. On a similar note there’s a fellow that is considered one of the strongest men in the world who bends steel and tears phone books apart. When studied by scientists it was discovered that he pulses or vibrates his muscles when he does this thus causing him to be able to achieve such great feats. It’s the pulsing that increases the power as opposed to some shaking in the air. There is a molding tool that cuts wood the same way; it vibrates and cuts the wood cleanly (as seen on TV) but does not cut your skin. So there is actually a way to do this with your body but its applications are severely limited.
Grabbing a fist in mid air.
This is not only stupid but dangerous. I know a skilled boxer who would love for someone to do this to him as he is confident he will break the bones of their hands. I agree with him on that. Grabbing someone’s fist in mid air is near impossible unless it’s an adult vs a four year old. This is movie nonsense clear and simple. There’s a reason baseball players wear gloves to protect their hands. Somehow when someone teaches this the student does not say, “Are you crazy, why would I do that” but rather goes, “cool technique I must master it”.
Don't Use a Punching Bag to Practice
I confess I was told this for years. If you use a bag you will become intent on moving the bag and not hitting into it. There is some truth to this as hitting a bag for a guy becomes an ego thing where he must move it to look effective. This often results in 'push hitting' where a person pushes the bag after contact. I've seen this often but never in a boxing gym because they know better. How can you know the structure of your body without hitting a heavy bag? I was once on a show and observed this fellow getting really angry. The walls were carpeted and I saw him look at the wall and make a fist. I yelled 'Don't do it" but he did and hit the wall. I had noticed his wrist was bent when he was about to throw. He broke his wrist. When you hit a heavy bag everything that you are doing wrong is immediately apparent. First of all most people notice that they are only 'arm punching' and have no body behind it. Secondly you notice how weak their wrists are and how then tend to collapse when you are just a little out of alignment. You don't learn swimming techniques on dry land and then think that when you jump into the pool you can use them so why do you think you can hit someone and know how it feels? There is nothing like hitting someone and having your fist collapse, your wrist torque or your finger break to realize you don't really know what you are doing. It takes a while to feel your entire body propelling your fist in a coordinated, controlled and effective manner. You can't do this in the air. Learning how to torque the hips, drive from the knees and pivot the wrist into very effective fighting takes bag training. I use a two hundred and fifty pound base on my 'bob' bag. When I first hit it, if it could laugh, it would have. Now and then I do think it is snickering at me but I keep training!
Overall there is often a suspension of critical thinking when learning martial arts and we tend to believe rather than to question. Somehow the Far East is freed from the laws of physics and has some esoteric knowledge that evades the rest of civilization. There may be a smidgeon of reality to this but in general there is not. There is no magic, no alternative physics. If you really look at the physics of your practice and then draw upon that to perfect your techniques you will really accomplish something. If you practice something with the belief that it will just ‘appear’ later, well , then you are doomed to great disappointment and perhaps injury. Practice with intelligence and you will bear fruit.
Ideas, articles, lessons, and retrospective moments.