Being Grounded in Martial Arts
Or: Training Rotation Helps Increase Force But Not Without Being Grounded First!
Years ago I outlined a professional development course on the importance of rotation training, both in general physical conditioning and in the martial arts. This was before we had what I’ll call a Functional Movement Education Industry (FMEI). We have one of those now. It’s very cute. Oh. And important. And maybe sometimes a waste of money. But not always.
I never delivered the course; I’d certainly do it if an audience for it popped up one day.
Isn’t that a strange thought? An audience just popping up in front of you. Kind of like a flash mob, only instead of mysteriously walking out from behind the pylons and commuters in the train station unsuspiciously carrying a whole orchestra of instruments, they literally pop up from the ground in front of you. Not only would it be cool to see, it would be great to hear. I mean, let’s face it, who even knows what a popping audience sounds like? “I’m sorry, dear, did you bring the popcorn maker with you?”
Even though I never delivered the course, its content sank into all the physical work I do. That meant personal training, rehabilitation and exercise physiology, Pilates and martial arts. I did write and deliver a course on the progressions of core training (does that make me part of the FMEI? Yeah. It does). That course had at its core (see what I did there?) rotation and anti-rotation as the primary tenets of training said core. Let’s unpack how important that is for martial arts training. This first article will deal with the importance of being grounded. The follow up article will articulate that into how being grounded is transferred into strikes using the body’s natural stiffness-looseness continuum. Maybe you’ll see some other areas it’s also important for!
In my first semester of Biophysics at uni, we had this insanely brilliant Physicist teaching us. I know he was brilliant because I didn’t understand a thing he said. He just seemed to mumble something profound in his thick Russian accent and then derive a whole bunch of formulas on the board. We assumed we were suppose to write them out as well, so we filled our pages with numbers and letters that had no meaning to us. You have to understand that this was a Human Biology degree and I’d enrolled with the belief I’d never have to do maths again. I know. Naive. I’m now married to a Maths teacher and she’s shown me how profoundly beautiful and pervasive it really is.
But back then? Well, a few of us (although not introverted, 18 year old me-from-the-country) approached the Powers-That-Be, complaining that we were Human Biologists and not Physicists. Come second semester and some strange guy straight out of the ’70s sat at the front of the lecture room, on the table. He had shoulder length, full and slightly crazy hair, the obligatory window-washing moustache and not a hint of formality. Denim all the way, peoples!
There he sat, casually swinging his legs back and forth, his too-blue jeans in opposition to every lecturer we’d ever known. He sat there, waited for us to still ourselves and then he spoke the most beautiful, profound and encouraging words a Maths-petrified teenager could hope to hear:
“Physics is about concepts,” he said. “Understand the concepts first and the rest will all make sense. Put the numbers in later …” And he taught it as if he believed it. Maybe that’s because he did. Who knows? Regardless, that began my love affair with the importance of Physics for understanding human biology and movement.
You start with very basic kinematics. Motion, the movement of things through space. As it turns out, my whole industry is obsessed with movement, so it comes in kind of handy. Without understanding kinematics and physics, we can’t truly begun to grasp the function of anatomy, or the movement of particles through the blood, or of gases across the lungs. Looking back, I see that pretty much every anatomy or physiology subject in that degree used physics (and chemistry) concepts. If I’d understood that then, I probably would’ve done better the first time around! But learning is lifelong, and I’ve had plenty of time to synthesise this information since. I still have such a very long way to go, which is encouraging, really, because there’ so much more I’m yet to discover.
I think it’s important to encourage you a bit: You don’t have to know the names of things. You don’t need to understand the equations (it can be helpful, very helpful). You can grasp these concepts and have your own name for them and that’s okay. But in order to be great, to make a consistently positive difference and avoid unintentionally harming people, you need to understand these things regardless of their names.
I’m certainly here to talk about rotation, but in order to get to it, we have to cover some other ground first. It makes for a longer article. That’s okay. You’ve got a web browser that lets you bookmark a page and come back to it later (Safari even lets you save it to a Reading List!). So if it gets long, bookmark it and get back to it later. Digest the words. Mull over them. Percolate a bit. I’m really not into fast learning; that’s so 2001. I invite you to put down the social media and rediscover the beauty of thinking, really mulling over something, and taking your time to learn. Move it out, see how it all works in your body. There’s no hurry here and no exam at the end of it all. Just a glorious opportunity to understand.
Makin’ a Move
In order for something to move on Earth, we need to transfer some kind of energy. Let’s keep it really simple. If I push that unlocked door over there, it will probably move and open. When I pushed against it, I gave it some of my movement energy. But if I try to push that truck parked over there — yes, that purple one with the orange banana on top — then I’ll rediscover something that I already knew. I can’t generate enough force — I can’t channel what energy I do have well enough to make the truck move.
The heavier an object, the harder it is to move it. Pretty simple. The physicists among us might say that really, it’s mass that counts. The more mass something has, the more mass it takes to move it. A feather can’t move a foot. But a feather might move a flower petal. And of course, if an object moves faster, or accelerates more, then it will hit with greater force. You’ll have more energy transferred in an instant.
So if we summarise this, a more massive object (for our purposes, heavier) will transfer more force than a lighter one. Similarly, the more that object accelerates, the harder it will hit. If that there yellow banana’d truck (very) slowly rolled into me, I may not get hurt. But if it accelerated into me above 30kph, I probably wouldn’t be taking you out for dinner later tonight. I know, I know! I said I’d pay. Next time. I promise.
The more famous way to write this part of physics is:
F = ma
It’s known as Newton’s Second Law of Motion. In martial arts talk, if it’s heavier it’ll hit harder. And if you strike, do it faster to be more effective. To break it down:
F means ‘force’
m means ‘mass’
a means ‘acceleration’
So the force we generate is a product of multiplying the mass of an object by the rate at which it is changing speed. It makes sense, then, that if we increase the mass or the acceleration of an object, it will exert greater force at any given moment in time.
The big question we need to understand, though, is where does the force come from? Sounds simplistic. But really, honestly, how do I get my hand to move toward my opponent? And how do I make it optimal when it makes contact? Because if my hand is stopped where it is, it’s not going to do a thing. But if it moves, fast enough, maybe it can form a punch or make that weapon hit with greater effectiveness. Precisely how is the energy transferred and where is it transferred from?
Energy Transfer aka The Locker Slam!
When I was at high school, my friends and I developed a pushing game. The idea was to push each other in to the lockers. We’d engage by grasping each other’s shirt with two hands, on top of the chest, and then we’d push. I was a short runt then, skinny, but active in the martial arts and rode my bike home up a really big hill most days, so my legs were strong. Plus, I’m a natural sprinter when it comes to running and use to run the 100m sprint in, like, 2.5 seconds or something (the rosy glasses of time, huh?).
My friends had leverage advantage with longer limbs and torsos (I told you I was short). Sometimes I won, sometimes they won. The one thing I loved doing more than anything was generating enough acceleration and pushing up from below so that they were lifted slightly from the ground. I would sprint toward them as fast as I could, and when it worked, they would stumble backwards. Once their back impacted the lockers behind them, I’d extend my arms, drive my rear foot into the ground, and lift them clean off the concrete floor. Well, that’s how I remember it. Probably all that happened was their shoulders retracted back and their shirt slid up their chest a little. But allow a guy a fantasy, please! It’s not every day I get to be a hero.
In those moments of success, my rearmost legs would be straight, pressing back into the ground and my arms would be extending forward — moving from a bent into a straight-elbow position. My torso would be neutral (I learnt that one from an early age thanks to a great karate Sensei). It would be powerful and it would be fun (for those of you who’ve seen my favourite closing move to grapple an opponent in a sword fight, you can see where I adapted it from!).
The How Of It All
In this great game, I was always transferring my energy from the ground through my torso and out my upper limbs. Every time. Except for when I push back against a locker with my foot, in which case I was transferring energy from the locker, which was transferring it from the ground and the wall behind it, which in turn was transferring it from the ground. Every time.
Where does movement begin? We have to remember that movement is the transfer of energy; and in order for one object to cause another to move, said object must be heavier and/or accelerating more than us. There are other concerns, but we will address them later, when we look at strikes.
So the energy is transferred from somewhere. In this scenario, it is transferred from the ground. In fact, I would argue, that on Earth, movement always starts from the ground. It can get technical, and there are fine movements we can do, such as twitching our fingers or wriggling our nose, that show me wrong. However, in a pure sense, you can only move one part without moving others only because you have stiffness that is stopping the movement. Something, somewhere is stabilised, which must be attached to something else that is stabilised more than the bit being moved.
Isaac Newton worked out that when Something presses against Another Something, the Something being pressed presses back against the Other with equal force. Or more simply, if I press against something it will push back against me with the same force. It’s commonly stated as, “for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction”. It’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion. It’s written like this:
Force A is equal to Force B, but in the opposite direction.
So when I push into the ground, the ground pushes back up into me. The thing is, that when I move my fingers into a fist, the muscles that do that must pull on something. They pull on the bones. The bones want to move in response, so they have other muscles which pull on other bones. These bones want to move in reaction — to exert the same opposite force — and so they counter it by pulling other bones. This goes on and on, drawing from different forces. The place it all starts is the ground (or if you’re in a wheelchair, from the seat of the chair which gets it from the frame, which gets it from the wheels, which get it from the ground).
If a force is exerted to generate movement, then another equal force is exerted to result in that movement, but the object exerting the reactionary force would have to be heavier or moving much faster than the one being moved. The body is a bunch of moveable structures — bones moving around each other — and to allow movement, each moveable bit (joint) must be stabilised; this must allow other joints to be stabilised. The whole thing is about segmental mobility-stability. Each segment must be made stable at just the right time and then released of its stability at just the right time, to allow the movement to occur. It’s the science of human movement. Understanding this principle opens the door to so many rehabilitation and performance issues. Not every door, mind you; but it’s a super important step.
The Where Of It All
We’ve already looked at this but I want to drive the point home, at the risk of sounding repetitive and preachy. Ready for the driving?
For all intents and purposes, movement begins with the ground.
Conceivably, if you move your fingers, then the bones of the arm are heavy enough to not be moved. However, in a martial context, when you move your fingers, it is while they hold another weapon, or before they impact the target, or as you choke a blow. In which case, they are attached to moving parts, which are all getting energy from somewhere — and the stiffness you exert in your fingers, will create a stiffness further down the movement chain. So practically, for all intents and purposes in a martial context, movement begins from the ground. In biomechanics terms, this is called the ground reaction force (GRF).
And here’s the thing: if our feet are not grounded, we will never receive enough force from that ground.
“One-two, three! One-two, three!” My Arakan teacher was beginning my journey learning the linear footwork of this great Burmese art. I’m a novice at Arakan, a mere infant. It’s an efficient, brutal martial art that is possibly the most physiologically and anatomically efficient art I’ve ever seen, in its way. It’s also beautiful to watch and seems to breed a strength of character and body that is formidable and enviable.
In this particular drill, I was to get my footwork just right and then strike the focus pad. One-two, three. Foot-foot, strike. Foot-foot, strike. I wasn’t to strike until I was properly grounded. Foot-foot, strike. When I was not properly grounded — foot, strike-foot — I knew it instantly. My arm would chamber the strike, the elbow extend, hand form into a fist immediately before impact, and then kind of slop against the pad like a wet rag.
When I got the rhythm right, however, and both of my feet were firmly grounded — foot-foot, strike — the back of my fist would snap into the pad with a crack and then snap back to its rightful place in front of my chest. Foot-foot, strike!
When grounded, the strike is strong, it is powerful. I don’t have to make it powerful. I don’t have to force my arm to be strong. I just do the technique precisely and it impacts just right. But when I am not grounded — when I am not properly in contact with the earth, when one foot is slightly raised from the ground in the wrong sequence, then I’m weakened. There’s an energy leak of some sort, and I lose force.
Tram tracks. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Melbourne city in the rain and driven along tram tracks, but if you have, then you know it can be scary. It’s worse when riding a motorbike and you get caught in the groove of one. Or even worse, a bicycle caught in the groove of one. It just keeps you going in one direction and it’s oh, so easy to fall over and crash.
When teaching people to fence with longswords (a two handed European weapon of exquisite beauty in its simplicity), we make sure the feet don’t ‘tram track’. By that we simply mean you don’t end up with the rear foot directly behind the leading one. When you tram track, following the same straight line, you end up compromising your balance and the force you can generate.
Rather, we encourage the making of two different tracks with each foot. The typical stance looks a bit like having the lead foot forward in a shallow lunge and the rear foot between hip and shoulder width apart, with the toes pointing out somewhere up to 45 degrees from the attacking line (line of defense). This creates a much more stable, mobile stance, and ensures you have ample capacity to generate force. If you stand ungrounded, and someone binds their blade against your own, you risk losing force in your bind and being overcome by your opponent — not only can you lose balance, you can no longer generate enough force with your arms to counter their strength. In other words, if you’re not grounded, you can’t generate enough force to actually wield the weapon well — there’s an energy leak.
So the first step in any martial art is discovering your stance and becoming grounded, so that you have forces to transfer.
The End of All Things
So we come to the end of this article. This heading, in talking about the end of all things, is a reference to Tolkien’s tale of the Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Sam, having seen to the destruction of the One Ring, are alone, famished, exhausted, depleted from the fearsome battles they’ve been through together. Frodo’s words to his faithful friend, after all the tribulations, were simple:
“I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.”
I think at the end of the day, we all wish to be grounded. At the end of all things, we want to stand and say that we knew where we stood, how we stood, on what it was that we stood. At the end of all things, we wish simply to know that we were grounded.
And so it is with our fighting. The one friend we want to have with us, at the end of it all, is our grounding. Then we can know, truly know, that who we are, how we fight, and the potency of our strikes is only as good as the grounding we have. When we ground ourselves on something far greater than us, when we find the earth on which we stand and connect with it, really connect with it, then it will push back against us in ways that really matter.
In the next article on, I’ll unpack how this ground reaction force travels through the body, and after that explore the importance of rotation in it all.
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