Balance, power, speed, stability, flow. All of these stem from the foundation of a good structure in martial arts. But, is a good structure a form of body mechanics or is it more than that?
In this article, we will discuss exactly what structure in martial arts is and how to achieve it. A person who embraces these principles will improve their speed, power, balance and flow. This happens not only in fighting or protecting one’s self from an attack, but in all things as martial principles translate easily to all aspects of life if the individual allows them to.
The Foundation of Physical Structure
Look at a building. It is a LOT larger than a human being and weighs substantially more; meaning that gravity has a much greater effect on it because of more mass. This is basic physics. Still, it stands the greater pull and remains standing despite wind or weather conditions, shifts in the soil underneath it and vibrations or weight shifts inside it. It has no muscle to hold it up, but it still stands. Why?
The answer is very easy; the frame. What is the frame of a human being? Again, it’s an easy answer; the skeleton. Does the body require muscles to remain upright? No more than a building does. It requires muscles to move.
So why do people experience muscle fatigue or joint pain while simply standing? The answer is bad structure. It’s the same thing that allows a building to fall when hit by strong winds or is shaken by an earthquake. So what is good structure?
Good structure is the positioning of the skeleton in such a way that it can withstand the pressure of impact or the weight of gravity without over-taxing or using muscle to do so.
The Foundation of Mental Structure
Have you ever been “In the zone” where nothing exists except what you are doing? You find that you are faster, more accurate and accomplish wonderful things with little effort and you are not exhausted – maybe even refreshed – afterward? This is the result of a good mental structure.
There is a Chinese saying, “The past is history. The future is a mystery. Right now is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” – Taoist Proverb. This means that we can live only a moment at a time. If we focus on what is happening right now, there is no worry, no plans, no concerns, no emotional overload and no regrets; just action. It is the purest form of thought.
This does not mean that we have no care for the future. This simply means that we understand the results of our actions and use them wisely to achieve the results we desire. Does this always happen? No. But after an action completes, we are in a new moment and have to deal with the aspects of that moment.
To regret an action is to live in the past. To plan is to try to predict the future. We might get close, but there are often things we don’t consider. The mentally structured way is to know what results our actions will have and choose the action that will be closest to our desired outcome. If it matches, GREAT!! If it doesn’t, we make another action to fill the gap or repair any negative results. In effect, we work to be part of the solution, not the problem.
By operating in this manner, we reduce the strain on our brains – able to make clearer decisions – and our bodies – not being stressed and tensed by excessive emotions. We accept that what is, is. If we don’t like our current situation or result, we take action to change it; no blame, no worries.
How to Achieve Good Physical Structure
Let’s start at the foundation – the bottom – and work our way up. Whether moving or just standing, the principles of structure work the same.
Feet: The distance between the feet need to remain slightly more than the width of the shoulders. No, this doesn’t mean that a person should walk like they have been on a horse all their lives. If you take a normal walking step, you will notice that your feet automatically take this distance. The same should be for standing. A bit of practice will show you what I mean. The toes should have a very slight inward angle and the body’s weight should be centered on both feet – evenly weighted between the toes and the heel; the left and the right side. Done properly and you won’t be able to tell where the weight is except “on the foot”.
Knees: The knees should remain relaxed; neither bent drastically or locked. Again, take a normal walking step. Make not how the knee is relaxed and the foot is allowed to swing like a pendulum; set in the perfect position upon landing on the ground. The knee should be in a direct line between the hip and the foot. There are some exceptions for those who have a physical limitation where the body naturally torques a body part, but most people can achieve this position with relative ease. When moving, the heel of the propelling foot lifts so greater purchase on the ground is made through friction on a singular point; the ball of the foot. Stopping is also done on the ball of the foot. A person’s weight should never be primarily on the heel unless a “rolling” step is required for stealth.
Hips: Muscle tension in the hips restricts movement. The ball and socket joint in the waist require that the hips remain relaxed and loose to achieve a full range of motion. The hips should be slightly angled forward as if you are about to sit down, but haven’t yet started the movement. This will position the waist in complement to the natural curvature at the base of the spine. Movement should start at the hips. The tilt and angle of the hips governs all movement and spatial relationships between the body and external objects. The waist – not the feet – is the foundation of good physical structure in stationary and mobile positioning.
Spine: There are two natural curves in the spine – not counting medical issues – located in the upper quarter and lower quarter of the spine; both arching in opposite directions and forming a gentle “S” shape. The upper curvature should remain directly over the base tip (coccyx) of the spine. This allows the back muscles to remain relaxed and prepared for movement and the maintenance of structure.
Head: Find the position where your head can be kept upright while completely relaxing the neck. Neither the forehead nor back of the head have precedence. The head is not weighted to the left or right. This way there is no undue stress on the neck, back or abdominal muscles.
Shoulders: Shoulders have a ball and socket joint similar to the hips. They are meant to pivot, not push or pull. The muscles between the neck and the shoulder over the clavicle (or collar bone) need to be at their most relaxed; meaning that the shoulders are at their lowest resting point and able to move freely.
Elbows: Just like the knees, the elbow works best when positioned in a straight line between the shoulder and the wrist. This does not mean the arm needs to be straight. It means if you took a string and tied it between the shoulder and the wrist, the elbow would lie along that line. Any angle off that line and the arms lose stability and the ability to withstand pressure.
Wrists and Hands: When tense, the wrists and hands cannot move. Open your hand all the way and tense it. Now, without relaxing, close your hand. You will find that it is impossible. When the forearm is tense, the wrist cannot swivel in its six directions; forward, backward, left, right and pivot left and right. When the hand is tense, the fingers cannot open or close freely and takes tremendous effort to make them do so.
Muscles: There are three types of muscles; flexion/extension, stabilizer and strength/power – not scientific terms, of course, but the terms define their purpose. The power muscles are the biggest. The stabilizer muscles are slightly smaller and the flexion muscles are the smallest; located near the tendons.
All muscles have one function; to tense. One might argue that they relax as well, but that is simply the muscle no longer fulfilling its function. This could be because its opposite is trying to tense and the relaxation of the muscle makes it possible or it is preparing for another movement.
Example: Try flexing your biceps as much as you can. Now straighten your arm without relaxing your biceps. You will find that it is impossible. Before you flexed, however, your bicep was at rest. That is what made flexing possible. If you flexed to the maximum and then tried to flex, you would not be able to because the stress on your muscles was already there.
Training to use just the flexion/extension muscles in the body for movement – stepping, reaching, punching, defending, etc. – will give the feeling of effortless movement and will help maintain structure. The stabilizer muscles help with aim and direction. The larger power muscles are good to handle what makes them large and strong in the first place; resistance. A martial artist – depending on the requirements of the system – develops only the muscles needed for that system. The option to develop the others is there, but it is not necessary and may hinder the function of the other muscles if the person does not know how to isolate the groups for the functions he/she performs.
How to Achieve Good Mental Structure
The mind controls emotions. Emotions control the heart rate. The heart rate controls the spread of chemicals like endorphins and adrenaline throughout the body. Tension in muscles is controlled by the spreading of these chemicals. Nerve communication, blood flow and respiratory functions (breathing) is effected by muscle tension. This means that EVERYTHING is controlled by the state of the mind. Just like the muscles, the mind works best when relaxed. So, how do we relax our minds?
Acceptance: We accept things as they are; whether we like them or not. We do not get upset because things are not the way we would like them to be. We also do not get over excited when they go perfectly. That doesn’t mean we do or don’t act to change them or keep them the way they are. It means that the situation exists and we have to accept that before we can act to alter or maintain the state of reality. Once the state changes – either by our actions or from an outside influence – a new reality exists and we must accept the new reality. Acknowledging that something exists is the first step to influencing it.
Acknowledge Your Own Power: Every breath, action and thought effects everything else around you. Understanding and respecting that power – knowing the ripples you can make – allows you to make the decisions that will have the maximum effect with the least amount of effort. You will start to work to make your environment easier to work in. Your thoughts will be clearer and your decisions faster. The clutter in your mind will disappear. This is not an instant thing and requires time and concentration to train and become natural; just like anything else.
Example: Picture a lake. That is life. The average person is like a rock thrown into the lake; either skipping across or plunging into the water. They make ripples, but the lake returns to its natural state once the movement of the rock stops. Sure, the lake underneath is forever changed, but the rock can do nothing more to influence the lake as a whole.
Be more like the current of the water underneath. The surface may not be effected, but the current controls the size, depth and position of the lake. It can also flow throughout the lake freely as the need arises without resistance. Once you can do that, you realize that you ARE the lake. You become part of life. You can influence it and change it. You flow with it and it flows with you. That’s power.
Focus: Our focus defines our perception. Our perception defines our reality. Developing laser focus on the task at hand enables us to complete that task without interruption. Multitasking is a myth. The mind can only fully concentrate on one thought at a time.
Once you can fully focus on one thing, you can learn to switch focus rapidly to give the impression of multitasking. The more relaxed and uncluttered your mind is, the easier it is to switch from one thought to another without sacrificing the integrity of the previous thought.
Your decisions become faster and more accurate. You no longer concern yourself with things that do not effect the needs of the moment. You start making the right movements at the right time and be exactly where you need to be at the time you need to be there; all with very little effort or conscious thought. It becomes effortless.
Relaxation is the Key
Relax your body and relax your mind. Let go of worry or tensions. Understand that events of the past no longer have any power over right now. Sure, they might have been the cause of the reality that is now, but they can no longer influence what “now” is.
Understand that by influencing the “now”, you have control over the future. You can make it go any way you feel appropriate. You can make it easier or harder for yourself and others with a thought. That thought becomes action. The action becomes a result. The result is reality. Accepting reality allows you to relax your body and make appropriate actions at the correct times. When your mind flows, your body can flow.
What type of thoughts will you have? What will your reality be? Remember that what effects others effects you too. We are all part of the same “lake”. Make your choices wisely and trust that – if you make a mistake or didn’t consider something – you have the power to make other changes to either fill the gaps or correct the mistakes. It really IS that simple; not easy, simple.