This article originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of Tae Kwon Do Times magazine, and included photos to illustrate many of the various points being made. We have included spaces where these photos appeared in order for you to pause, reflect, or otherwise envision these illustrations. The article appears courtesy of Master Irvin.
Master Paul Y. Irvin 1/24/01
In 1955 a young Korean Chung Do Kwan Black Belt named Han Cha Kyo knocked over a full-grown bull with a flying kick: a remarkable feat for someone weighing only about 130 pounds (See TKD Times, Jan. 1995). The principles he used to develop power are
(photo of Grandmaster Han Cha Kyo)
covered in another article, “The Force to Knock Over a Bull and the Principles Behind It” (See TKD Times, Nov. 2000, Jan. and March 2001). That article discusses how energy is needed to create a force, and how properly directed force can create power. The importance of using the Life Force Principles of control of mass, acceleration, focus, center, counter force, and integrated breathing in this process is explained.
But having energy and knowing how to create force from it does not guarantee that all that force will get used for the intended purpose. In fact, it is quite common for a certain amount of force to be used up in other motions or activities (like heat and friction in engines) thereby reducing the final power achieved. This article will deal with various practices and habits which reduce maximum generation and maximum delivery of force for its intended purpose in Taekwondo, in other martial arts, and in many other activites. At various points throughout this paper experiments will be described which the reader is invited to try in order to feel first-hand some of the principles being described. Practice will be needed to make any new ways automatic, just as practice will be needed to eliminate old wasteful habits, but the rewards are more effectiveness and stamina.
Following, in four overlapping categories, are some physical and mental “power robbers”:
1) Tenseness - full body or localized. This can happen from apprehension of the situation, from fear of being hurt and from trying to regain an upset balance. Also, concentrating on final speed very often causes us to focus on “muscling”, which tends to actually slow movement, since partially tensed muscles then get in the way of the intended movement. Energy is wasted and forward motion slowed when stepping on a car’s accelerator pedal if the other foot is resting on the brake. The same is true for our bodies.
2) Short, choppy motions. Short motions reduce the amount of time available to generate power. Choppy motions are usually short, with the added feature of putting much of the energy created into abrupt changes of direction, which puts peak acceleration/deceleration loads on the joints, and reduces the possibility of flowing the power generated from one movement into the next one. Experiment 1: Performing techniques with extra weights on the ankles or in the hands will quickly make clear the consequences of this choppy motion approach.
(photos of inward reverse knifehand strike, low block, side block, etc., holding onto dumbbells)
Taking a tool to a “chamber” position and then unleashing it often results in a
short, abrupt change of direction which breaks up what should be one motion into two, thereby reducing the maximum power possible and increasing the time it takes to complete the technique. The idea of chamber position is most beneficial when that position is seen as a critical intermediate position/posture within the whole power motion which must be passed through for effective mechanical performance of the technique. It is difficult to imagine that Tiger Woods’ or Monica Seles’ swings would be improved by using a typical chamber position hesitation.
3) Long, choppy motions. Another level of choppiness is the custom of breaking a series of techniques into separated on/off blocks of power. This approach may be useful for a single-task breaking technique, but is not applicable to higher functioning activities such as combination techniques, patterns and sparring. The individual techniques in a pattern are not that difficult to master. What is difficult is learning to flow power from one technique to the next with speed and balance. Mastering these transitions between techniques is what patterns contribute to sparring and to our development of self-control. Experiment 2 A: While holding on to a couple of light dumbbells try performing a series of blocking and attacking techniques from a pattern. First do the series with distinct direction changes between techniques. Then do the series “rounding” the corners slightly so that the ending of one motion is the start of the next one and notice how much more force can be generated and how much less shock your elbows and shoulders feel. B: Try sparring with a partner while both of you hold on to dumbbells. Start with slow motion sparring and speed up as it feels safe. First spar using abrupt direction changes and then try rounding the corners slightly as you did for the pattern version of this above. Notice the acceleration of the dumbbells and how your body feels while moving them.
(photos of dumbbell patterns and dumbbell sparring)
4) Unnecessary motions. These use up energy and may have the tool, or body,
heading in the opposite direction from where it is suddenly needed. This can
easily happen in sparring when a person bounces up and down and moves arms
around from nervous energy or from intentionally trying to distract an opponent. It also often happens in the practice of basics and patterns when arms or legs are
allowed to drop in between performing techniques instead of being returned to center.
(photos of dropping legs in between consecutive kicks, and of dropping arms in between a series of knifehand attacks or guarding blocks , and photos of not doing it)
1) Improper breathing. Not controlling the depth and rate of inhaling and exhaling can result in oxygen deficit, and sometimes even oxygen excess. Aside from the problem of trying to operate well with a brain fuzzy from too little or too much oxygen, once our body gets out of breath it will spend a lot of energy trying to get it back, and that energy will not be available for techniques. Two circular modes of breathing which can occur are: a) tenseness leads to shallow breathing/shallow breathing then leads to more tension; b) fuller breathing leads to a relaxed state/ a relaxed state then permits fuller breathing. The first mode makes for a stiff “whip”, the second one for a supple one.
2) Artificial breathing. It is not necessary to inhale for every technique in a sequence. In fact, to do so will often impede the flow of motion and power in that sequence. However, it is useful to exhale with every technique, but the exhale does not need to be complete, and it can be done as 2, 3 or more parts, which is especially useful for rapid multiple techniques. When not properly done, breathing will tense the body and impede the flow of power to the next technique. When properly integrated with our motions and intentions, breathing assists and augments the activity and does not get in the way of it.
3) Inhaling during a power motion. Try pushing a stuck car while inhaling. Then try it while exhaling with a good grunt or yell. No contest. Exhaling with a shout is the way to generate the most power, as watching any power contest will demonstrate, whether weight lifting, javelin throwing, long jumping, or hitting a tennis ball for maximum speed (Monica Seles again). The longer the proper yelling/exhaling portion of the motion, then the more power can be generated.
(photo of weightlifter squatting in front of large barbell)
Although few of us would probably choose to intentionally inhale for an entire power motion, many people who are taught to “chamber” their techniques, actually end up inhaling during the portion of the motion that gets them to the chamber position, and then exhaling for the motion afterwards. This change of breathing unfortunately reinforces dividing the intended power stroke into two halves. Inhaling during the first half of the power motion reduces the amount of time that can be spent in the force-generating/exhaling phase. Using the entire motion to build power will naturally result in more power than using half the motion.
(photos of chambering a sidekick, knifehand strike, and/or punch)
4) Chest breathing. Nearly everyone sighs and yells using their abdomen to exhale the air. However, humans have two ways of inhaling: either expanding the chest, or by expanding the abdomen. Both methods bring air into the lungs, but there are significant other consequences depending on the method chosen.
When the chest is expanded the shoulders lift and the focus that was in the abdomen during the exhale now lifts about a foot into the chest/shoulder area, only to shift down again during the next exhale.
(photos of chest inhale and exhale)
This shift of focus destabilizes our base of force and movement production (and of impact absorption) and divides our bodies into upper and lower halves. This split makes it very difficult and/or slow to get our center power across the divide into any arm techniques we are trying to do. This shift of focus also leaves our abdomen much more vulnerable to kicks. If a chest inhale has to be stopped partway finished, the abdomen is unpressurized and weak.
However, when the abdomen instead is used to inhale as well as exhale the focus does not shift during breathing. The foundation from which we direct our force and movements remains “in focus”, ready to initiate a block, an attack, or a dodge. If an abdominal inhale has to be stopped partway finished, the abdomen is pressurized and ready for anything, giving or receiving.
(photos of abdominal inhale and exhale)
This way of inhaling may seem strange at first, especially for males and non-singers, but it will help to keep our power smooth and uninterrupted. Slightly more air can be taken in with a final chest expansion, but a maximum inhale is not often needed.
Experiment 3 : An interesting training method to use to learn to pass through the chamber position and gain acceleration on the way, and to integrate breathing effectively with this motion is to perform techniques in “reverse phase”. . . . . .
Two major obstacles to performing fast, powerful multiple techniques are the inability to relax muscles quickly enough when changing directions, and the inappropriate retraction of the tool after the initial technique. The first problem results in the body wasting both energy and time working against contrary motions, and the second problem results in the body not being able to launch the next technique without an extra movement to position itself properly.
While various drills can improve the speed of multiple techniques through the training of the specific muscle groups involved with the motions, more significant improvement will be experienced when the root cause for both of these problems is also addressed: not permitting the center to be the leader of all motion. When there is one agreed-upon leader there is no in-fighting, and the followers are free to spend their energy on what they do best. So, rather than fighting one’s own energy, the main training task is to establish one leader for all motions. Attention to effective breathing can also help greatly in this effort. One approach is:
While in a sitting stance extend one fist as if it had just finished a punch. Rotate the hip a little in that direction. Now release an accelerating exhale and use the hip to snap the fist back as sharply as possible to its hip position. (It may help to focus the effort by imagining that the returning elbow is striking at something coming from behind.) Extend the other fist out and do the same thing. Practice this both alternately, and as a five-times-each-side-before-switching type of exercise. Practice it until it can be felt that the hip is snapping the fist back and that the arm has stopped trying to pull the fist back (this could happen in one session or it might take a few weeks to get a satisfactory feel for it).
(photos of extended fist and rotated hip, and snapped back fist)
When the stage is reached where the arm, neck and shoulders can remain relaxed while the fist is snapped back, try this: again use the hip to snap the fist rearwards, but this time when the fist is almost back to the hip, snap the hip forward into a punch. The whole thing should feel like one slingshot motion just as if you were swinging an ax or a golf club - these aren’t swung up first and then down, but all the way through in one motion, picking up speed all along the way. (The accelerating exhale being used before as part of the return should now continue accelerating to the completion of the punch.) Practice one side several times and then switch. Don’t worry about supplying counter force with the opposite arm, the center will be providing it.
(photos of sequence of extended fist, snapped back, snapped forward fist)
The same type of approach can (and should) be used for all the hand attacks and blocks so that the hip can take over leadership and control of the return motions, but right now let’s switch to the legs:
Extend the leg as if it had just finished a middle side kick - don’t try to make it too high or too much time will be spent in trying to balance and in straining flexibility (a hand can be placed on something for balance if doing so doesn’t distort the posture and motion). With the foot extended, first start the exhale and then pull the hip back so that the foot returns to the other knee in the one-legged stance. Don’t try to do it too hard or too fast initially. In fact, it will probably be very helpful to do a slow center-driven sidekick followed by a return slowly led by the hip doing the exact opposite of what it just finished doing to get the leg out for the kick. The rhythm is what is important, not speed. If the rhythm is wrong the efforts will fight each other and the end result will be less.
When it’s been determined what it is that the hip does to extend the leg, then have it do it in reverse to get the leg to come back. Notice during the extension that the hamstrings (back of the thigh) don’t do anything - this means that they shouldn’t be doing anything to return the leg. Now practice just doing the returns. Eventually increase the speed of the return practice, but not so quickly that the new rhythm and motion is lost as old habits return. If this is practiced much without using the hip to do the work, the hamstring muscle will pull and it will take several months to get back to normal (they’re very slow to heal). That’s not a threat, just more motivation to use oneself well.
(photos of extended leg and returned leg)
When these returns can be done consistently with the leg and the rest of the body remaining relaxed, then move to the next phase as in the punch: when the foot is almost back to the standing knee, snap the hip into a forward sidekick. What will be happening is: a return followed by the kick (just the opposite of the usual kick followed by the return), but all in one motion like the ax/golf club analogy used with the return and punch exercise. As in the punching exercise, the accelerating exhale will now end at the completion of the kick’s final extension.
(photos of extended leg, returned leg, extended kick)
Practicing for multiple techniques in this way takes the emphasis off of the tool, which is usually the problem, and puts it on the center, which is the solution.
Definitely do follow the same procedure for the front kick and roundhouse kick. Note that in the front kick if the foot is extended toward the target and the thigh muscle is completely relaxed, the foot will drop back toward the thigh - it doesn’t need to be pulled back. Note also that when you snap a towel, the tip doesn’t have to do any work to come back - all the work is done in the handle. Likewise, the hips are the handle which snap the legs and arms. (The arms and legs do actually participate, both in the main purpose and in order to prevent hyper-extension, but they take their timing from the hips, not the other way around.)
(photos of extended front kick, extended knee with lower leg hanging underneath)
Try the front kick before moving to the roundhouse kick. Doing it will make it obvious why.
When the “returns” are properly led by the hip, double, triple, quadruple, etc., techniques (as well as all other combination techniques) will be smoother, and the smoothness will allow even faster and more relaxed motion. Feel for the slingshot effect: the whole cycle of return and out is one accelerating motion, and eventually the out, return, and out of repeating techniques, of any variety, will also be felt as a continuing cycle - just as when you swing a child by the arms around yourself , you don’t feel each circle as starting and stopping, but just continuing one into the next.
(photos of sequence of all intermediate stages in punch and sidekick)
The more you practice using your energy in a cyclical manner the more it will become “natural”, and slowly you will be able to circulate the energy internally and use less and less obvious external movement. When you can begin to feel the energy circulating in your body, then the same approach described above for repeating techniques can be applied to more effectively execute sequences of mixed techniques and tools.
(photos of sequence of intermediate photos of punch into knifehand, frontkick into sidekick, etc.)
[The very first exercise mentioned in this Experiment of using the hip to snap the extended fist back to the hip is also very useful when trying to get beginners (and others) to do” balanced” punching, i.e. punching with equal counter force. After they’ve practiced the snap return for a while and then try doing sitting stance punches, there will probably be a noticeable increase in punch power because of the practiced improvement in the snap return motion which also serves as the counter force motion of a front punch.]
1) Anticipation, that something is going to happen or that a certain something is about to occur usually causes tension. And partially tensed muscles cannot contribute a full contraction to the primary motion. What’s more, if something different happens than what you anticipated you are usually worse prepared than if you hadn’t anticipated the action to start with.
(photos of person blocking an expected low front kick and finding a roundhouse at their face)
2) Conscious or subconscious lack of confidence in the tool to take the impact. This can be the knuckles putting the self-preservation brakes on the punch as it nears the boards, or a once-injured knee still being shy of a heavy bag.
(photos of fist approaching five boards)
If tool surfaces and lines of force are properly forged through repetition (an aspect of our training often neglected unfortunately), the body will have the confidence to release all of its energy.
3) Consciously or unconsciously tying the performance of an inappropriate technique to the rhythm of gravity. As we have seen in the article “The Force to Knock Over a Bull”, using gravity’s force by dropping the body with a technique is a useful addition only if it is a downward technique, otherwise it will reduce the technique’s force and/or alter its direction. However, even when it is not appropriate to use gravity this way, gravity’s ever present rhythm sometimes exerts its influence on the performance timing of our techniques. Gravity is certainly powerful and relentless, able to attract any mass to it’s rate of acceleration. But it is not that quick when compared to the acceleration of your hands and feet. A simple experiment can demonstrate this. Experiment 4: balance something like a paperback book on the back of your hand. Position your hand about three feet above a bed, carpeted floor or other padded surface and drop your hand down to that surface as quickly as you can, keeping your eyes on the height of the book. Note the height of the book in its fall when you feel your hand hit down.
(photos of starting position and hand in motion)
The distance your hand dropped compared to the distance the book dropped in the same time is proportionate to your acceleration compared to gravity. Probably about three or four times faster under these conditions (which restrict peak performance).
Using more usual Taekwon-do techniques under more usual conditions, it has been demonstrated in several tests with strobe lights and high speed cameras (“The Physics of Karate”, Michael Feld et. al., Scientific American, April 1979, pp. 150-158) that it is possible to generate peak accelerations 7-10 times faster than the acceleration of gravity. In fact, some kicks have been shown to take approximately 1/10 of a second to complete (Taekwon-do,General Choi Hong Hi 1993, Volume 2, pp. 38-40). In comparison, gravity with an acceleration rate of 32 feet/sec/sec would in the same first 1/10 of a second only move an object four inches (1/100th of 32 feet) - the kick obviously covers a much greater distance and therefore has much greater acceleration than gravity.
The slowness of gravity shows up even more when several techniques are tied together in a sequence which has to wait for gravity to recycle the body down and up before the next technique can be performed. So, if final speed is the most important element, why join up with a slow partner? Our jumps can generate up to 8 G’s of force, and gravity, naturally, only generates 1 G(ravity). In a martial art like Taekwon-do, distinguished by its flying techniques and speed, we must not rely on gravity for power, but on ourselves.
4) Concentrating on speed instead of acceleration. During the majority of time spent performing a technique the final impact speed of the tool is a future event which the present moment cannot directly do anything about. Worrying about the future wastes time and energy through tension. It is more effective to focus directly on acceleration in the present moment, and the future moment will take care of itself. This idea has been covered fairly thoroughly in the previous article “The Force to Knock Over a Bull”, and the reader may wish to refer to that article for a more thorough explanation.
5) Intentionally starting slowly to improve acceleration. Some students, knowing that they should be increasing their speed from the beginning to the end of the technique, think it is necessary to start the hips slowly so they can speed up the technique later. This is a power robbing practice since, even given the same maximum force available, the hips cannot be accelerated as quickly as the hand since more mass is involved, so the hips will naturally be slower (force = mass x acceleration). Similarly, if the student tries to twist the mass of the whole torso together at once it will be slower yet.
(photos of whole-torso punching versus hip punching)
Additionally, the hips do not have as far to travel as the hand or foot, so if we wait too long after the hips begin their twist to start our tool on its way, the hips will finish before the tool arrives, or we will unconsciously slow up the hips movement so that it doesn’t arrive too early. Both of these approaches greatly reduce the amount of possible power. If the hip muscles begin under their maximum acceleration and each quicker “stage” is added in proper sequence at its maximum acceleration, all stages can finish together at impact for maximum effect.
6) Ignoring the third dimension of aim - depth. Most attention when aiming is spent on the up and down, and left to right directions. However, because of the special circumstances of Taekwon-do much of our effectiveness can be wasted if we do not become aware of and train for depth control also. If our tool gets to a target before we have focused all of our force in it we will achieve less than we could have. If our tool gets to the target after our forces have “peaked” we will have wasted energy that never made it to the target. The training methods and equipment necessary to develop this third dimension of aim need more explanation than is suitable here.
7) Not having sight of the target early enough. Self-preservation will cause most of us to hold back a bit when doing a turning back kick into a wall-mounted target, until we are sure our foot is heading safely for the target and not the wall.
(photos of back turning kick and back turning knifehands without being able to see, back kicking a wall-mounted target, and towards a partner, etc.)
Similarly, it would be difficult to make full force punches while walking in the dark through an unfamiliar room. The body knows it can hurt itself and is not going to easily release its full power until it is sure it is not going to be hurt. When the target is a training partner, concern for the partner’s safety from our techniques is going to add further to holding back that force until confidence in the results is sufficiently assured. As a result, continuing to practice in such conditions creates a kick which habitually holds back and cannot release all the speed which is otherwise physically possible. This is an important factor in back-turning techniques. In most circumstances the eyes need to be able to see the target first in order for the body to release all of its energy to the technique. Seeing is not the same thing as looking, however. Looking often leads to “tunnel vision” and tension. Tunnel vision has us so focused on one object that we don’t notice another object coming at us. And tension is created because we are looking for something before it is too late. Seeing without looking is best for reducing tension, increasing speed, and being ready for the next event.
(photos of back turning techniques performed with seeing)
1) A wandering mind. A distractible mind, as well as a focused one, can be made more so through practice. Fortunately for our well-being, if our mind is not “all there”, self-preservation usually does not permit a full effort. Do not put too much faith in an opponent’s self-preservation instinct, however: if a partner’s mind seems to be wandering, increase the distance between you and pay extra attention.
2) A surprised mind. A startled mind often gets caught up in being surprised and “freezes”, even if only for a split second. For that moment it can’t do anything. It loses access to the whole range of possible responses, and gives the opponent, or the situation, the opportunity to gain the upper hand. Through practice we can learn not to dwell on surprise, and learn instead to react to opportunity. This means training so that factors can be constantly and spontaneously changed. Beyond a certain useful point of repetition for assimilation, practicing the same response to a particular situation will make us more vulnerable, by giving us a set of expectations. We think we know what the person is going to do, and we act according to those expectations. A slight change, however, in the person’s actual actions can drastically alter the appropriateness of our automatic response. We need to learn to react to the reality, not to the expectation. Where there are no expectations, there are no surprises. Training, ultimately, should be directed toward developing spontaneous, appropriate responses to unexpected situations, not toward rehearsing pre-arranged scenarios. Occasionally Grandmaster Han would unexpectedly hit one of the students with a pad when they were in the middle of a pattern or while they were sparring with one or two partners, or even while they were wrapped up in a self-defense maneuver.
(photo of someone sneaking up with a raised pad behind someone sparring, and/or in self-defense practice)
Sometimes the student would pretend it didn’t happen and continue with what
they were doing. Sometimes they would stop and be confused. Sometimes they
would block it and lose track of what they were doing. Very rarely, someone
would block it and continue right on with their business.
1) Telling the body what to do. The body can, and always needs to, do several things at the same time. Since the mind can only think one thought at a time, its participation will only slow up the direction of any but the simplest of tasks. This linear processing approach is insufficient to deal with many of the things we do in Taekwon-do, and in life. If we need to consciously think about how to make a kick, that kick will be slowed up by the mind’s deliberate involvement in the process. If we need to consciously control our aim we will experience tension and a slower technique. At one early time in our lives, it took all of our attention to balance upright on two feet; now we do it “automatically”. Eventually, through the same type of repetitive training, our techniques can reach the point where they are done with no more conscious attention than what we now spend on how to walk. Ultimately, the fastest techniques will be possible when the mind is not consciously thinking, evaluating, deciding, or directing. It is just “there” with the body, and the whole being reacts as one - we call this “no-mind”. The mind does contribute, but as a part of the whole, not as a separate component. In an emergency situation time is wasted if the body has to wait for a command from the mind. The quickest response happens when the mind and body reflexively react as one.
Our techniques can be practiced enough so that they become automatic. Similarly, blocks and counter-attacks can be practiced enough so that an appropriate one is used automatically to whichever attack is made. When such a series of attacks and counter-attacks can be sustained, we have “no-mind sparring”. The mind does not determine what to do - the situation dictates the response without a conscious decision having to be made. Being able to do this results in the quickest response time.
Full-force, non-contact sparring without pads is an excellent means of keeping training partners focused. Not only are full effort and quickness required, but also full control.
(photos of sparring sequences)
Without pads there is no safety net permitting carelessness, wandering minds and unawareness of one’s limits. Somebody will get hurt unless both people stay involved. And with good blocking it could just as well be the attacker as the defender.
Many of these “power robbers” contain the element of physical and/or mental tension. This tension not only reduces the effectiveness of our intended action, it is also not good for our personal health, and for relations with the people around us. The solution to this is trained relaxation. To be a productive force, as well as for maintaining a healthy body and outlook, the benefits of relaxation are many:
1) energy is not being consumed for unproductive tightness;
2) additional energy does not have to be used to overcome partially tightened muscle groups;
3) “nervous” energy is not being spent in unnecessary motions;
4) a muscle’s full contraction is available for any technique;
5) it allows deeper breathing which in turn permits greater oxygen intake;
6) blood circulation is less restricted so more oxygen is delivered;
7) a relaxed mind, by not thinking, worrying or anticipating, is free to respond to whatever happens.
For maximum efficiency and health, the whole body (side to side, top to bottom, front to back, and especially inside to outside) along with the mind must respond in balance. This does not mean that all of us is doing something - quite importantly it can mean that parts of us should be doing nothing. Quite often, however, the hardest thing to do is to do nothing. How quickly we can relax determines how quickly, fully and appropriately we can respond to a new situation. If our body and/or mind is still occupied with what we just finished doing, or with what we think is about to happen, we are not prepared for the present - whether in the dojang, at home, at work, behind the wheel, or wherever - and the present moment is the only moment we can actively do anything about.
Unfortunately, we have spent most of our lives learning to get tense whenever we hear, see, read, or otherwise sense a “Get ready” signal. Because of this, Grandmaster Han Cha Kyo developed a variety of passive and active exercises for encouraging the body and mind to relax. Just as we can, and unintentionally do, practice being tense, we can also practice relaxing, both for completeness and for quickness. The ability to relax benefits our martial arts techniques as well as our health and interpersonal relations, and also helps to ensure that we are not robbed of all the power we can produce.
Paul Y. Irvin, copyright 2001