Bio-Mechanics of Martial Arts

Bio-Mechanics of Martial Arts

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Muscle Training Questions

questionBelow I have answered some questions that were sent to me via email about the post I wrote last week, 5 Levels of Internal Muscle Training.   I love getting emails.  For reference the 5 levels are:

  1. Moving and Coordinating

  2. Static Structure

  3. Continuous Structure with Movement

  4. Empty and Full at the Same Time

  5. Whole Body Becomes a Ball

Why do the steps laid out in the "5 steps of muscular training" post seem so rigid and schematic?

You are correct that the "5 Steps" are schematic and rigid.  They are part of a larger project in which I am developing ways to communicate with people who have some physical training background other than martial arts.  Martial artists rarely frame what they do entirely by the muscles;  However, weight-lifters, Pilates, and many athletes do frame their understanding of activity in terms of muscle development.
The whole truth is a much fuzzier type of logic.  I will stand by the notion that muscle training must follow the 5 level progression.  However, there are many other aspects of martial development which transcend and traverse these levels.  I tried to make that clear in the "notes."  Also, it's always possible to go back and fill in gaps in one's development later.
At which point does one start "grounding force?"

At level 2, you practice transferring your opponent's force directly into the ground.  This must be done for the entire surface of the body and with forces going in every direction.  It requires the aid of a teacher or partner.
At which point in the five level progression does a person touching you--give you the feeling that his/her force is directly going to the floor through your body?

Your opponent is not doing that, you are.  If I make my body very stiff and rigid, my opponent's force will move me like it would move a piece of heavy furniture.  If  I make my body very soft and mushy, my opponent's force will plow right through me.  If there are stiff places in a soft body, they will be broken--they will not transfer force to the ground.  The only way your opponent's force will go to the ground is if you direct it there (however, the process may be unconscious).

This is a common problem for students beginning level 3 training.  Level 3 is essentially level 2 in continuous motion.  In Aikido, for instance, this falls under "blending with the opponent."  At level 3 our body has superb structural integrity but we use sensitivity to avoid ever using that structure against any direct force.

If I try to push directly on someone who has good level 3 skills they will blend (or connect) with me, move out of the way of my force, and then "position" their structure so that I have no leverage or momentum for an attack.  If they are fighting they will use that "position" to injure, disarm, or throw me.

In Taijiquan, this is the continuous and spontaneous linking of the four jin: peng, ji, lu, & an.  If there is a break in the execution of jin-- a sensitive opponent and a strong opponent will both be able to "find it" and exploit it.
I'm totally losing my muscular strength, as well as my weight... in your training did you experience weight loss? I'm 12 pounds less than I used to be when I started training taiji one year ago, and this is not necessarily going to stop. Teacher said, oh, you'll replace that with taiji strength, don't worry?

Did I experience weight loss?  Yes, there was a period long ago where I lost some weight but not 12 lbs.  Weight gain or loss can vary a lot from person to person; however, the practice of internal martial arts will make your digestion more efficient and your appetite more sensitive! Ignore this at your own peril.  Many martial artists have gotten fat because they responded to improved digestion by eating more instead of less.

If you are paying attention to your appetite, you will simply want to eat less.  It's also a good idea to experiment with different types of food, and different styles of cooking.  I'll go even farther, if you are under 35 and having this experience, you need to learn how to cook.  It's not necessary to learn how to cook with Chinese herbs, but if you are in a place where that is easy, I do recommend it.  Learning how to cook any tranditional cuisine will include in-depth knowledge about ingredients and cooking methods.  Without this part of the practice all that appetite sensitivity training that the Daoist tradition infused in the martial arts will be wasted.

(Of course, make sure you are not losing weight because of some disease or parasite.)

While it isn't popular to say it, you are actually getting weaker and no, it will not be replaced by strength.  We don't need strength; humans are strong enough as we are.  That being said, if you have a big "appetite" for movement, if you like to practice a lot, you will develop superior integration, denser bones and sinew, more efficient dynamic muscles, new types of power, and the second of Laozi's treasures: Conservation.
Training with my Chinese "uncles" is at times pretty much not funny.  Sometimes I think their biggest goal is not losing face.  Their understanding of cooperative training seems quite different from mine.  I mean, I don't have to use muscular strength, but  this Chinese man in his 60's is stiff as hell, and strong too, so the natural reaction would be to use more strength than him. I see these gentleman (and ladies as well) who have been training for years but still rely on muscular, stiff strength, and I guess they are happy like that.  How should  the transition from muscular strength to a more song, tongtou, strength feel?  How does it work?

That's a tough one.  Your question is more about intimacy than method.  Intimacy and betrayal are kissing cousins.  My advice?  Make yourself more vulnerable.  Forget about trying to learn and just hang out.  The fruition of weakness is sensitivity.  The fruition of stillness is freedom of movement.  The fruition of not controlling the future is spontaneity.  The fruition of  trusting your body's "appetites" is that life no longer feels like a struggle.
My Chinese "uncles" seem to have only "success/fail" exercises.  I'm not getting "learn to feel" or "get more sensitive" exercises.  Am I just too un-sensitive or are they giving me inappropriate exercises for that type of development?

Another tough one.  Being un-sensitive is often just using a yard stick where a micrometer is called for.  Most of us have the "tools," it's just figuring out which one to use.  Chinese culture is big on "Hao, Bu hao," types of learning.  It's easy for someone from a Western culture to get frustrated.  Remember there is no moral content, failure says nothing what-so-ever about your character, you are just doing it wrong.  The more you enjoy your failures, the faster you will learn. Yes, learning methods can always be improved, sometimes you have to teach your teachers how to teach.

Yes, it is possible your "uncles" are teasing you, or patronizing you, or even intentionally screwing you up.  It's possible they themselves are confused and it is also possible that they are jealousy guarding what took them decades to learn.  None of that would be surprising.  But honestly I don't know.

Five Levels of Muscle Training

This is a description of internal martial arts from the point of view of muscles.  These five levels apply to taijiquan, baguazhang, xingyiquan and (applied) qigong:

  1. Moving and Coordinating; running, jumping, rolling, lifting, stretching, etc.

  2. Static Structure; The ability to hold a static shape for a long period of time, and transfer force applied on any part of the body to the feet, the back or another limb.

  3. Continuous Structure with Movement;  All muscles must move in twists and spirals following the flow of the bones and ligaments.  Muscles weaken and become sensitive.  Force can be applied in motion at any angle from any part of the body.  Force can be avoided without losing whole body integration.

  4. Empty and Full at the Same Time;  All muscle tension must be discarded along with all intention to move.   Any solid concept of body structure must be discarded or melted away.  Muscles function like liquid and air.  (Power becomes unstoppable but unfocused and difficult to direct.)

  5. Whole Body Becomes a Ball.  Resistance training for big muscles only.  Small muscles are used mainly for sensitivity and force transfer (ligament support).  Muscles move only by "ten directions breathing," they move in all directions using expansion and condensation, not lengthening and shortening.


The separation of jing and qi, which happens automatically in stillness, needs to be available in motion to enter level 4.

In order to act through a body, that body must be felt as a dream.  Dreaming is not like the conscious mind.  If you think about running, you are likely to stumble.  In order to run, speak, or do any of these types of muscle training, you must first dream it.  In order to reach level 5, levels 1 through 4 must be felt as dream.  In other words, they can be done spontaneously by feeling, without thinking, or willing.



From my experience, this order is essential.  Each level takes a minimum of two years training.  Some internal traditions attempt to start their training at level 4 and then go back and fill in gaps in levels 1 and 2 through diligent forms practice.  The attempt to fill gaps in level 3 through push-hands training.  That seems like a mistake.

The quickest way to get level one skills is through rough play or dance (forms with speed and rhythm).

Level 2 can only be learned through a teacher/partner who tests your structure.

Levels 3 and 4 will be inhibited by strength training.

The key to transitioning from level 3 to level 4 is non-aggression, wuwei.  Aggression is refined to perfection and then discarded.  This transition probably requires working with emotionally mature partners.

Applications do not work at level 4.  Period. But paradoxically, the ability to use weight and momentum improves.

The good news! Yes, it takes at least ten years (two years for each level, and a minimum of three hours everyday), but levels 2 through 5 can be practiced at any age.  Levels 2 through 5 actually get easier with age because muscles become weaker and skin becomes looser!