What is Rooting in the Martial Arts?

Rooting in the martial arts is roughly defined as transmitting force from outside the body to the ground. Paired with drop steps, these two methods are the most common ways of generating power in a punch or a strike. Drop steps are timed with the moment of impact to increase the amount of mass being transmitted into the opponent. Rooting allows one to push the opponent. That rooted push can either move them backwards, or if they collapse their structure, penetrate into their body.  

Rooting can also be done to stop or deflect the opponent’s momentum before (or while) returning force, which will usually follow a different line of connection to the ground. 

The eight basic powers in Tai Chi use rooting. (The basic powers all called jin in Tai Chi, for instructions on developing the first four, see here.)

Rooting has a strategic value in diminishing the potency of an opponent’s pushes. To effectively generate power using a root, there should be a 45 degree angle between ones foot and the point of contact with the opponent. An angle greater than 45 degrees dramatically diminishes ones power (at 90 degrees to the ground, straight up, it is a drop step and can be used for effective lifts, but between 45 and 90 degrees it is essentially a lift at a bad angle).

The most effective way to use rooting strategies is to root into a wall or a tree behind you by using an extended arm or leg, or at close range, ones hip, flank, thigh, or back in contact with the wall. That’s why Northern Shaolin uses big stances, often punching in two directions. It makes it easy to get that 45 degree angle to the ground, or to reach for a wall behind you with and arm or a leg.

If you want to practice rooting through your arms, the quickest way to get good at it is do it with a wall behind you for support. If you want to practice rooting through your legs, the quickest way is to have a partner push on your head while you round forward and push them backwards like a goat. By these two methods, most people can get good at rooting in a day or so.

Advanced rooting uses your structure along efficient pathways so that the opponent feels the ground when they push you, rather than a pathway through your body. And you will know your root is correct because you won’t feel any stress or compression, it is as if the force of your opponent’s push enters “hyper-space” and suddenly appears on the ground. 

All of this is basic and essential martial arts skill.  But there is a problem with rooting. Rooting is one of the primary ways social or herd animals assert and establish dominance hierarchies. Goats, cattle and deer all use head butting and rooting for this purpose. It is most obvious in those animals, but versions of it can be found in most animals, because most animals have dominance hierarchies. Rats wrestle! In chickens it is called the pecking order. Predators do it too, to develop physical power and integration, but they never do it when they are hunting.  It is probably a necessary part of human development, and it is easily triggered unconsciously. Watch a group of young teenage boys walking down the street and there is a good chance you will see them jostling and knocking each other playfully. If you are fighting for psychological dominance, superior rooting skills will likely trigger a submissive response in your opponent. The chest bump or shove is the most common way to start a monkey dance. 

That’s all social violence. But asocial violence is more like predators hunting. And as martial artists, outside of matched competitions, we don’t want to get stuck in a competition for dominance. We usually want to neutralize the threat or escape. We want to fight to a goal. And we want to do it quickly because in a fight, the longer you do it, the more damage you sustain. So it is of the utmost importance to practice fighting skills without triggering our own dominance and submission patterns. 

The quickest way to trigger your own psychological dominance and submission patterns is to practice rooting. 

Thinking about it in terms of weapons tends to clarify this for people. Slashing and smashing weapons don’t use rooting. Hooking and poking weapons do. Spears are the best example because it is so easy to get that threshold of 45 degree between your foot and the tip of the spear. And you don’t even need to root that well to effectively poke a hole in someone. Stopping a horse on the other hand is nearly impossible. For stopping a horse they invented pike-men, who use long spears with one end lodged in the ground. Shields are primarily designed to deflect force, but rooting can improve their function. You can increase the total momentum of a hammer a little bit by using a drop step, but rooting won’t help at all. 

One of the basic ideas of internal martial arts is that we always want to hit with whole body integration so that the opponent has to deal with all of our mass. Rooting attacks reduce whole body integration because force is moving in two opposite direction. Losing whole body integration is a great trade off if you can get the 45 degree angle (or a wall), or if you can get a lot of momentum for a shoot or a tackle. But if you can’t get that angle or momentum. Drop steps are a faster and better method. 

Unfortunately it is hard to convince experienced martial artists of this because they often combine drop steps (or hidden drop steps) with rooting and structure. It works, so they don’t want to change. But, by separating out the rooting we can fight more continuously. Rooting creates an on-off switch, where as whole body integration allows us to keep going, constantly adding more momentum to the fight. That’s another reason why I like teaching the Waltz, it makes people comfortable with continuous momentum. 

Rooting inhibits what we call in internal martial arts, the complete integration of the yin and yang parts of the body. The habit of rooting also makes it impossible to learn counter-balancing. I’ll discuss those two subjects in separate posts in the coming days. 

As I stated above, all the basic ways of generating power in Tai Chi use rooting. But none of the advanced methods use rooting. In Tai Chi its important to develop all those types of power so that you can recognize them in an opponent and easily defeat them, while never using them yourself. That is what is meant by the famous Tai Chi Classics quotes, “I know my opponent better than he knows himself,”  “I know him, he doesn’t know me.” 

The amazing martial skills of Tai Chi, as I explain in my book Possible Origins, developed out of theater and religion. As a theatrical art Tai Chi was closely associated with acrobatics, which is the likely origin of counter-balancing skills. As a religious art, it is associated with becoming an enlightened predator and the concept of wuwei; which means not doing, or non-aggressive action, or fighting without fighting. 

If you are curious how I've evolved on this subject I have over 1000 posts on this blog. It is a mind boggling amount of material. Here are three related posts asking the question "What is a Root? from 2007.  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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