Stiffness & Looseness In Martial Arts

Or: Training Rotation Helps Increase Force But Not Without Training Stiffness First!

In my previous article, we looked at the importance of being grounded in your footwork in order to get enough force to make your strikes effective. I said that in the next article I’d look at the importance of the stiffness-looseness continuum for transferring those ground reaction forces up through the body and into the upper limbs. So … it looks like you found that second article. Well done, you! This one’s a big longer than the first, so bookmark the page, put the kettle on, and settle down to enjoy it with a nice cup of tea.

A great many things have been said about ‘the core’. Back in the day when I was first trained in fitness, we were told that you have to try to ‘switch on’ your abdominal muscles all the time, and especially when doing exercise. We hear about crunches being good for you and crunches being bad for you, about the plank as the ultimate core exercise, or is it the farmer’s walk? Then there’s the heavy lifters who say all you need to work your core are some heavy squats and deadlifts and you’ll be right.

But, well, what do we even mean by ‘the core’? About 1/3 of the way down this list of possible uses of the word, Wikipedia says under the heading Biological Sciences, “Core (anatomy), everything except the appendages”. That makes sense to me. Does it make sense to you?

Imagine I offer you an apple. A nice, big, red, juicy apple, so pleasing to the eye. Depending on your take, you might imagine me to be either a serpent in a tree or a haggard old lady with a suspiciously witch-like nose hooking out from under a greying hood. In your magnificent innocence — or naivety — you take the apple. It certainly looks delicious.

And then, as if I could read your mind, my tail (if I’m the serpent) or my crooked hand (if I’m the old hag), magically conjures up a hand held tool of some sort. “Why, deary,” say I, “you wouldn’t want to eat the apple core, now, would you?”

Once finished being cored, the beautiful apple is left with a cylindrical hole down the centre. Imagine that. You remove the core, and it turns out it is a cylinder, a long and rounded piece of apple that was once surrounded by, well, the rest of the apple.

This, I think, is a great analogy for the core of the human body. It’s the centrepiece of the body, the long and flopping head, spine and pelvis that are surrounded by and attached to a bunch of other tissues that keep it mobile and safe. Let’s look at how the core transfers that energy. As always, of course, there’s firstly some groundwork we have to get through to reach the, well, um, core of the matter.

The Dynamic Mess of Stability

This is the important bit about the human body. In your first lectures of your first year of study in the fields of human anatomy and physiology, you are taught one very important word: homeostasis. After your first exam, you proceed to actively forget that word — and every other word you learn along the way — in order to remember all of the proximal and distal insertions of muscles, the course and distribution of nerves and precise cost of wedges in the uni cafeteria — you always need money for wedges and sour cream when you’re a uni student.

Woven throughout your studies is this word. Homeostasis. It pops up here and there and everywhere. You learn its meaning by rote — something like, “The process of bringing balance back to the internal state of the body,” but it doesn’t have any practical meaning. Nothing concrete. At least with a cadaver you can see the muscles attaching to things and imagine how they work. But restoring balance? It’s not as if you’re playing polo on top of a tightrope or anything.

Homeostasis is a word used to describe how the body always tries to return to a certain state. It’s not about a state of constant stability, like cleaning and detailing your car until it looks brand new. Rather, it’s about a general state of stability in the midst of constant change. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio talks about the internal milieu, which is nice. A milieu is the social mix, or environment, a person comes from.

Think about your own social environment. It’s full of comings and goings, of people known and unknown, of things happening and not happening. Some days are so ridiculously busy, you get up at the crack of dawn and go to bed two days later. Other days are quiet, contemplative and relaxed. Whichever day it is, you always end up having some kind of rest. You don’t spend all day every day with everyone. Some people wear you down more than others (“Why didn’t you answer my calls?” Answer: If I did, you’d never ring me back again!). Some energise you more. But always, always you find yourself returning to a state of rest. Things balance out. Get quieter, calmer, before they impose their chaos upon you again.

And that’s homeostasis. The return to an overall balanced state. An overall sense of normal. You’re still doing, living, experiencing interruptions but overall, the grand scheme of things is one of evenness and rhythm, of returning to centre.

When we don’t have that, when we have too many stressors, or too much activity, we become ill. People have nervous breakdowns, or experience chronic fatigue syndrome, or have psychotic episodes, or just plain old headaches, tight shoulders and impatient outbursts (“Put the cat down, Joey!! No, you CAN’T wash the marshmallow, chocolate and Vegemite off her fur in the dishwasher! I said, PUT THE CAT DOWN!”).

The Dynamic Mess

Inside our bodies, it’s much the same. Except maybe a tiny bit busier. It’s one big mess of stuff happening all the time. There’s a party over there in that mitochondria, and over here in the lymph nodes, it’s security central with everyone shootin’ from the hip. And let’s not even think about what the liver’s up to. Talk about a Waste & Recycling Management Centre.

It’s such a dynamic mess of activity. Things communicate, other things respond, other things just keep doing their own thing (Trogdor warning). It reminds me a little bit of the fight. Fists flying, feet fleeing, and finally, faces frowning. It’s a dynamic mess.

Because the mess is so dynamic, so constantly changing, the body has parameters, high and low ranges for everything. If something gets too high or too low, then the body has lost its balance and damage can occur. When things are the right range, everything is just fine. It’s the range within which the parameters are set that allows the body to handle constant change. It slides up and down between the different parameters, to allow for a dynamic illusion of ‘constant’ when the reality is, the only constant is subtle variability.

The pull of the body at all times is to keep things within these dynamic ranges. For example, the goal is to be neither too hot nor too cold — if we’re hot, we sweat and take a layer of clothes off. If we’re cold, we shiver and put a layer of clothes on. Not too hot, not too cold. If we’re tired, we sleep. If we’re well rested, we feel energised. If we’re hungry, we eat. If we’re satisfied, we don’t eat. If we need more oxygen, we breathe more. If we no longer need more oxygen, we slow our breathing down. Never too much, never too little.

When we go past what our brain is use to, it creates a feeling of alarm, discomfort or even pain. When we are right in the range we need to be, it creates a feeling of wellness, joy, or often no feeling at all. I suppose you could call it wellbeing.

These are the parameters of safety. The place the body feels safest in. A great many of these parameters can’t be changed, such as temperature ranges. They’re preset and must stay that way from physical need. Such unchanging parameters are known as hard boundaries.

But some boundaries that we experience, such as range of motion in some joints, have what we call soft boundaries. For now, you have a restriction in place where the body feels uncomfortable moving past its soft boundary, such as rotating the torso left and right. If you were to try, say, sitting upright and turn your torso to the left as far as it will comfortably go and then to the right as far as it will comfortably go, you’ll probably discover something: One direction is easier than the other, and one probably lets you go further than the other. If you revisit it a few times, you’ll discover that you can turn a tiny bit more after a while.

When this happens, you’ve reset your soft boundary. Now there is a hard boundary here, a place where the bones can’t allow further movement and the muscles won’t stretch anymore, but chances are you haven’t reached it yet. Not by a long shot.

Finally, when you’re in the rotation, do you feel how the torso wants to return to centre? It doesn’t want to stay rotated. It’s got a yearning for returning.

A Yearning for Returning. What a great title for a Country Rock song.

“I got a yearnin’ for returnin’/
To me old an’ golden town/
Yeah, a yearnin’ where the burnin’/
Of me Pappy’s crops abound/
‘Cos ma’ pups and sheep and cattle/
Ain’t got no place to go/
So I’m yearnin’ for returning
To the farmin’ life/
I use to know”

I think there’s platinum in them thar’ words.

The Fight

All right. Okay. We’ve laid some groundwork and sung a little ditty and now we’re wondering what this has to do with anything worth thinking about (by which I mean martial arts and physical training, of course). I’ll tell you: A whole, stinking lot.

When you fight, you use a body that wants always to return. It’s got a yearnin’ for returnin’.

I got a yearnin’ for returnin’/
To a shape I use to know/
Yeah, I’m yearnin’ and I’m learnin’/
That to fight is to return/
To positions that are better/
For chambering a strike/
So I’m yearnin’ for returnin’/
To a fighting stance/
I use to know

Yeah, okay, I’m not making a living out of this Country thing. But you’re never going to forget this article now, are you?

The strikes you use when fighting are, basically, a means of transferring force. As we discussed in the first article, the transfer of forces comes from the ground and finishes when you impact your target. But how does the force get from the foot to the fist?

The Middle
There comes a time in every training session when you feel your best for that day. You know how it goes: You start warming the body up, you begin your basic strikes, pad work, footwork, and then your teacher ups the intensity. Just when you thought you couldn’t do anymore, you do and it feels great. Then there’s the bit at the end when you know your strikes are sloppy, your feet stumble over each other and you’re at the end of your capacity. But right there in the middle, it felt great; amazing.

It’s the same with our strikes. If you watch any fighter, you’ll see we get our grounding by pushing into the earth below (it’s often imperceptible). This travels through our hips and into our middle. At the beginning, when being grounded, the strike is slowest and least powerful. At the end, just after impact, the strike has released its energy. But somewhere in the middle, somewhere between beginning and end, there is a time when force is at its maximum and effort is streamlined. In a good strike this builds and carries right up until impact. Whack!

In the human body, it’s all about the middle. The force travels from the lower regions to the upper via the torso. Or in other words, the core. But it’s not enough to have a “strong core”, whatever the heck that means. We need to have a trained core. The torso, the middle, is the means by which force is transferred from the ground to the target, whether that comes through a fist, an elbow or a foot.

And as I sit an’ look at this sunset/
On this backyard porch of mine/
I can’t help but notice all the/
Things I left behind/
And now as I return to where my/
Pappy grew me up/
I’m reminded of my beginnings/
And I sing hey diddle diddle/
And I wonder what my end is like/
But first … I got my middle/

Seriously? You doubt my sanity? Have you even listened to the rubbish they play on the radio nowadays? At least mine has more than two lines. Haha!

Stiff and Loose

We all know that being too stiff is a surefire way to lose a fight. The stiff fighters are awkward, cumbersome, slow and predictable. You’ve got to be loose to fight well.

Except, you don’t.

You’ve got to be stiff to fight well. You have to have the right amount of stiffness otherwise your strikes won’t be effective. You’ve got to be stiff to fight well.

Except, you don’t.

We have created this false belief that it is one or the other. But when you break down what’s happening during the fight, you discover something beautiful. We need both. It’s not about whether we’re loose or stiff, it’s about the timing of our looseness or our stiffness.

The Sword Strike
In my traditional European Martial Arts College, the Glen Lachlann Estate College of Arms (GLECA), we have a list of six basic cuts. We always teach those cuts via the punch-pivot. This is an interpretation of the basic upper limb movement of the medieval Germanic overhead cut, known as the Zornhau, which I started experimenting with alongside my first text-interpreting friend, Alex Hughes. He showed me one day the basic movement of the punch-pivot as a concept no one seemed to be experimenting with. I’d never heard anyone speak of it before (this is somewhere around 2004). So we started teaching it to people.

You start with the blade in your guard position over/in front of your right shoulder. You then push the right hand (closest to the hilt) straight ahead in the line of a punch — of a Chinese straight punch. At about the halfway mark, you pivot your wrist and pull the pommel back toward your armpit slightly, as the elbow straightens. This wrist movement is known as radial deviation. Hopefully, up to this point, your hand has been loose on the grip (within reason!). No tight grasping here, folks. But as you make the final deviation of the wrist, as you bring the edge of your blade close to your target, you snap the fingers around the grip, eliciting a strong impact and a tight transfer of forces through the arm and into the steel.

Now here’s another very important point. The blade doesn’t impact the target until just as the same foot lands on the ground. You have to be grounded. If you land with your foot noticeably before the blade reaches the target area, you lose energy. And if you land the target before being grounded with your foot, you don’t have enough energy to transfer. You also face the problem of having to change directions in too many ways, thus losing energy every time you change direction. One step, one cut, one movement.

We’ll explore why soon enough.

The Backfist
The first time I was taught an Arakan backfist, I had some trouble adapting to the technique. I still have trouble adapting to the technique. On the surface of it, it looked like a standard backfist, and I’d been doing them since I was 11.

I was wrong.

The standard Karate-type backfist, as we all know, relies a lot upon your ability to whack it out there using the muscles of the upper arm. It’s more of a brute force snap-attack. Something these guys might know a thing or two about. I’m not going to go into great detail about it here, as I’ll be offering up an article dedicated to that strike and it’s anatomy in the not-too-distant future. For now, let’s just look at the point of impact.

You’ll remember I said the sword strike uses a snapping of the fingers into the grip of your blade as you land the cut. Well, one of the beautiful intricacies of the Arakan backfist is that the fist is relatively relaxed as it travels toward the target, but immediately before impact, just before you make contact with that poor, unsuspecting cheek bone, you snap your fist closed into a ball and lock it into place.

It has a mighty impact. Not, perhaps, as mighty as the hammer fist (can’t wait to unpack the anatomy and biomechanics of that one!). It’s power is of a different kind. There are two or three primary physical forces at work here, and I want to focus on only one of them for now (you’ll have to wait for the backfist article for the others!).

The Mighty Impact
In both of these strikes, one with a sword from Europe and the other with a fist from Asia, we see the forming of a strong, uncompromising fist just before impact. This action creates what we could call stiffness around the joints. The muscles on all sides of the key joints tighten together just right, balancing each other out, so that the most moveable joints (in this case, let’s just think about the wrist) are unable to change position.

They stay stiff as they impact the target. Why? So that they can most efficiently transfer the movement (kinetic)energy from the body into the fist, and then transfer that energy into the sword or into the face, depending on the weapon of choice. The arm remains relaxed in the build up of the strike, to ensure the majority of energy is transferred upon impact rather than lost by keeping stiffness when it isn’t needed.

If we are too loose upon impact (whether through relaxed and floppy wrists, floppy shoulders, inefficient posture, poor footwork — you gotta be grounded!) then we lose energy and the strike has reduced impact. In the case of a sword strike, you may not make an effective cut into you target, or your opponent will easily displace your weapon. In the case of the fist fight, you may have no lasting impact on your opponent, or you may have to work harder to snap back from the strike, losing precious time and space, and therefore advantage — you get hit.

This process of looseness-stiffness-looseness is the process used throughout the whole body to transfer energy. Remain loose until you need to create stiffness. Then create the right amount of stiffness. Once stiffness has achieved its purpose, return to looseness. The body always wants to return to looseness. To return to the least energy hungry state it can. It’s got a name, this returning, this balance. Homeostasis.

The Core
This looseness-stiffness-looseness process is precisely what the core of the body does every time you move.

I’ve read a few things over the years about the core and its job. Some say it’s designed to protect the spine. Others say it’s suppose to provide movement. Other say it’s job is to rotate. Others say it’s job is to anti-rotate. True!

If you think about it, it’s job is to do all of these things. But really, when you get down to it, it’s job is something much more mundane, much more general than that. It’s job is to transfer forces safely. Each of those things above are the result of the core musculature transferring forces safely. When we don’t transfer forces safely, we fail to use the core well. It’s then that injuries occur (It’s all right, though, because you don’t mind having a whole lot of excruciating pain in your back, do you?).

So, which forces does it transfer? Basically, it transfers the ground reaction forces from the lower limbs through the torso and into the upper limbs. Or around the other way if you’re doing something like rock climbing. It’s really that simple.

If we have too much stiffness in the core (eg, clenching your tummy muscles tight throughout the whole night of training, or during the whole fight), then we’re not transferring forces safely, rather, we’re absorbing all of that forcey goodness into the core muscles. We risk injuring ourselves, or using too much energy and subsequently, well, injuring ourselves (or our opponent), because the body has to work harder to return to the state of least energy use. Homeostasis.

If we are too loose through our core (bending forwards and backwards through our spine without proper control, for example, or twisting without control), then we run the risk of, well, you can probably guess, but I’ll say it anyway … injuring ourselves. We put too much movement through floppy joints when they should be more stiff, and we’ll damage something … tear a muscle, or damage a spinal cord, or dislocate a joint.

This is the process of returning to centre. Always returning.

In the next big article, I plan to bring some of these thoughts together into the movements occurring around the core and out into the limbs during our strikes. Watch this space!


So I passed the lyrics above on to a friend, Steve Roach, who played around with them a bit and put them to music. That’s right, music. There is now a country rock song titled Yearnin’ for Returnin’. Here’s the demo he sent me, for your musical delight.

Oh! And if you think this article is something others would like, feel free to click the Recommend button below to make it easier for them to find. Thanks!