Saturday, September 24, 2011

A False History of the Shaolin Animal Forms, or The Importance of Visualization

The old master ran calloused fingers through his long, wispy white beard and tried to hide his frustration with the young man who was, sadly, his top student.

"Like this, master?"  The boy, who had been sent to the monastery by his family more because he was a bit dim-witted than out of any real religious inclination, didn't try to hide the pride in his voice as he demonstrated the hand techniques he'd been taught.

The old master shook his head.  The boy's movements were pitiful.  "No, no, that's not it at all."

"Then how, master?"  The boy's voice betrayed the emotional wound he was suffering.

The old master, who had once been the most feared fighter in the province, winced at the old pain that flared through his hip as he walked over to his student.  For a mad moment he held up a fist as if to demonstrate the technique himself, but the toll taken on his body by dozens of injuries and one longstanding and regretful case of syphilis prevented him from doing more than pointing and talking.

 "You must move faster, more... suddenly.  Aah, if only we had a way to view moving pictures taken by people from far away and distributed over some worldwide information carrying system!"

"Master?"  The boy, whose imagination was as limited as his intellect, did not understand.

"No, wait a minute.  How about this...  move like a snake.  You've seen a rattlesnake strike at a rabbit, haven't you?"

The boy swallowed, remembering a time when he'd witnessed just such an event.  He recalled the instant where the snake had exploded from perfect stillness to blinding speed.

"Strike... like the snake?"

"Yes!"  The master almost shouted the answer, and had to stop while his fit of coughing subsided.  "Strike like the snake.  Now, do it again!"

All my personal martial arts experience has been in Japanese systems, so I always find it a little goofy to watch a movie or video where someone is training in an animal system (I'm not saying those arts aren't actually good or effective, just that they look odd).  Why on earth would a human want to move like a praying mantis, or a jackrabbit, or whatever other kind of animal shaolin monks were supposedly imitating?

However (and there's usually a "however" in there when I get an idea) there is something to be said for using some kind of visual model of movement in your training.

Think back to the first time you observed anyone doing martial arts - this is assuming you didn't grow up around martial artists.  Maybe it was a movie you watched, a street demonstration, something like that.  If you were old enough to really think about it, what came into your mind?  I remember what I thought - I was thinking "I had no idea people could move like that."  The moves I saw (in kung fu movies, in my case) were outside what I had thought people could do.  I had never even imagined that someone could throw a sidekick head high, or whip their legs around at those speeds, or have so much calm and command in a fight.

This had two distinct results.  First, it inspired me to train (in my case to sign up for karate lessons at my school), which has led to a lifelong love affair with martial arts, one that I've discussed before.  But there was a distinct and separate thing going on - when I trained, I had an idea of how I wanted to move that guided my training.

In this context it's easy to imagine martial artists being inspired or guided by animal models.  When a snake bites someone the movement is so sudden and explosive.  Now keep that image in your head and throw a punch (move away from your computer screen first).  Work to get your hand to move the way that the snake head moves.  It's easy, I think, to imagine someone actually studying animals and trying to replicate those movement qualities while training.

Now I grew up in Brooklyn, and I've seen a lot more movies than I have seen wild animals.  If I want to visualize quality movement I'm not going to try to think of a snake or a bear, and the kind of martial arts you'd get from mimicking houseflies or cockroaches have never appealed to me.  Instead, I try to visualize Bruce Lee throwing a kick, or Tony Jaa doing a flying knee, or BJ Penn sidestepping an attack (the lightweight BJ Penn, not the fat one), or GSP jabbing (I'm like the only guy who was thoroughly impressed by his fight against Koscheck).

You think your footwork is good?  Watch Dominick Cruz in a fight.  Think you hit hard?  Catch a re-run of a Shane Carwin match.  Think your kata are sharp?  Watch Black Belt (Kura Obi - the movie) or a good kata competition (be careful with that!)

Then, when you train, keep that image in mind.  Try to punch like Dan Henderson.  Close and withdraw like Frankie Edgar.  Pick whatever image/ model works for you. If you care about being effective in actual combat you're going to need to pick an image - an archetype - that fits your body.  If you're 5'2" and 100 lbs. soaking wet and you want to fight like Andre the Giant you're not going to do well.  If you're 6'2" and 280 lbs. and you want aerial skills like Tony Jaa start saving up for your knee replacements.

There is a two movement combination that appears in a number of kata in my system - turn 90 degree, do an inside middle block with the lead hand, then a reverse punch.  I gave this movement almost no thought, and I thought I was doing it just fine.  Then, a couple of months ago, I saw a particularly talented junior do a kata which contained that move, and his speed was astonishing.

Since then I've been working to do this combination more explosively, and while my performance still isn't great, it's much better than it was before.  It's as if I was limited by my own imagination - I didn't even realize the move could be done better.  Now that I know it can, I can work to improve and close the gap between my technique and really good stuff.

When you train, visualize how you want your feet to work, how you want your hands to work.  Push your body until it comes closer to those models, whether they are human, animal, or CGI!


Friday, September 2, 2011

Strength Vs. Speed?

There is a persistent myth among many people, perhaps especially among martial artists, that strength is somehow the converse of speed; that getting stronger makes one slower, and that gains in strength are necessarily accompanied by losses of speed.  There is a similar myth among some strength coaches that strength gains are necessary and sufficient for gains in speed - that the best way to get faster is to become stronger.  Both positions contain nuggets of truth and nuggets of falsehood, and if we want to maximize our capacity for speed we have to understand the ins and outs of the relationship between strength training and the acquisition of speed.

Both myths are based on some observations that are truthful,commonplace, and prima facie contradictory:
  • The strongest people alive are not the fastest people.  Elite level powerlifters are not particularly quick.
  • Untrained people who take up powerlifting or strength training often get much quicker very quickly.
  • The most visibly strong people - the most muscular people - are often not fast at all.  The stereotype of the lumbering bodybuilder is often based in truth.
  • When training a team the members who gain the most strength usually gain the most speed.
  • Very quick people are often not successful when they try to lift heavy weights.
  • It's simple physics - the stronger you are, the more force you can exert, which means you can have greater acceleration.  Hence you're faster!
How can we make sense of all this?  Does strength training make people "musclebound" and slow them down?

The answers are, "yes," and "no."  In no particular order.

We see two different kinds of errors made, depending on which myth the person works on.  Sometimes we see a karateka grinding out heavy strength workouts three times a week, for an hour or more each time, over many years, constantly pursuing another twenty pounds on his squat, deadlift, or bench.  He might practice routines found in muscle magazines - sets of 8-10 reps, done to exhaustion, with lots of isolation movements to target specific muscles.  He slows down as time goes on, but attributes that to the aging process, not his own training.  He probably thickens over time, not fighting the slight spread around the midsection because he tells himself that the numbers growing on the scale are, after all, mostly muscle.

The aging lifter's counterpart is thin and undermuscled, often female, a karateka whose most intense movement is a pushup, which she'll do in large numbers.  She does a lot of core work, and if she lifts at all, she uses small dumbells and lots of unstable surfaces - balancing on a swiss ball or hanging from straps or doing something else to make exercises harder without actually doing anything that really requires maximal force production.

Neither of these methods will maximize your martial arts potential.  To be as good a karateka as you can be you want to be strong yet supple; capable of generating large forces in very quick bursts, with an iron core that can withstand very high forces over relatively short periods of time.  You don't want to be able to run a marathon - or at least, you don't want to train for that, because doing so will sacrifice your power.  You want to be solidly built but not too bulky, because at a certain point extra muscle just means extra inertia and you'll lose the ability to move quickly.

So... how do we train for that?  How do we make our bodies generate more force without getting bulky or slowing down?

  1. Once you've learned how to do a movement (when you first learn a movement you have to learn how to do it with good form - that should only take a handful of sessions, and during that time you can afford to do plenty of repetitions) aim to keep most sets in the power range: an intensity where you would fail within 5-7 reps.  That doesn't mean you always train to failure - it just means you mostly do movements where you would fail if you did 6 or 7 reps.  You can do sets of 3 with that same weight, just don't start doing regular pushups and think you're strength training when you can do 25 pushups without stopping.
  2. Train mostly compound, multijoint movements and only do a few movements per workout.  Try to cover your whole body with just 5 or 6 exercises (one arm pushups, chinup, bodyweight row, kettlebell swing, and one legged squat will work your entire body, for example - there are lots of other combinations).
  3. Strength train twice a week, no more.
  4. Always alternate speed training with your strength training.  Don't bench press on Monday, then bench again on Thursday unless you've practiced moving as fast as you can on either Tuesday or Wednesday (or both).  You need to transfer that extra force into faster punches.
  5. Lift fast at least some of the time.  Bench pressing, or one arm pushups, are fine exercises, but most people don't do them explosively.  Alternate exercises like those with clapping pushups or medicine ball throws - something hard (requiring a lot of force) but which results in your limbs moving at a high speed.  A maximum effort bench press may produce a lot of force but your hands aren't going to be moving very quickly.  Throwing an 8 lb. medicine ball as far as you can requires both force and handspeed and needs to be a bigger part of your training routine.
Strength training will not slow you down:  Incorrect strength training will.  You will meet people who trained poorly and got slow because of it - don't let that experience sour you to the benefits of proper training.

There is something you learn - a neurological ability - that you can only learn by exerting maximum force.  Nothing will add snap to your punches as much as 6 or 8 weeks of weight training for someone who has never lifted before - that newfound ability to muster force at the beginning of a punch can be remarkable.  But building up to a 400 lb. bench press won't make you continually faster - at some point the grinding strength increases become counterproductive.

Exactly where does continued strength training become useless or, worse, counterproductive?  I wish I knew the exact answer to that.  Someone with a 100 lb. deadlift will be faster and more explosive if they can get up to a 200 lb. deadlift.  You won't get the same benefit going from a 300 lb. deadlift to a 400 lb. deadlift.  Nobody knows exactly where that cutoff is.

I suspect that stabilizing at one dedicated grinding strength workout - doing movements like the deadlift, bench press, or their equivalents - every week or three workouts every two weeks will give you the most bang for your buck.  For your first year or two of strength training do it twice a week, then taper off the volume.  If you start losing strength, add in some cycles (6 or 8 weeks) of twice a week training again, until you find a comfortable threshold of volume for yourself.  And the entire time you must continually work on speed.

Remember, one of the fastest human beings we've ever seen, in terms of fighting speed, Bruce Lee, was not coincidentally one of the earlier advocates of serious strength training for martial artists.

So get out of the dojo once in a while and swing a kettlebell around.  Or, perhaps better, load up a barbell and really tax yourself.  Your karate will thank you for it!