Movement training from the old masters that is incredibly insightful

Movement training has become trendy. A lot of modern martial artists, particularly MMA fighters and some boxers have recently begun to appreciate the subtle qualities that make someone move well. This has led to the appointment of some ‘movement gurus’ to the unexpected role of coach in certain MMA gyms. General movement training is a good thing and has a positive impact on health and wellbeing across the board. But a lot of what i see as movement training done today, will probably detract from fighting skill rather than enhance it. The traditional Chinese martial arts, had high level martial movement training down to a very fine art. This encompasses not only your ability to control and maintain biomechanically optimal postures, but to move from posture to posture without defect or loss of balance.  What must be remembered is that classical martial arts were originally concerned only with absolute combat performance. They developed exercises and conditioning systems whose only concern was to continually refine your movement skill and coordination, whilst ensuring that your power and stability is maximised. – there is a difference between moving beautifully in a performing arts kind of way, and moving in a way that is optimised for combat efficiency – which means respecting the stability, mobility potential and balance requirements of combat ready positions. 

In this post we will look at some of the movement training wisdom of classical martial arts training manuals. All highlighted text comes from classical Internal Chinese Martial Arts classics.

With the Yin and Yang paradigm in mind, the former masters advised us to not only know the opponent, but also to ‘know ourselves’. 

Movement training for martial arts
Movement training for martial arts

This means that to achieve the highest levels of development in the art we strive to continually develop conscious awareness and the improvement over our body and mind. Being able to master our own bodies’s and to become physically capable of doing exactly what we wish, extremely precisely and accurately obviously has tremendous carry over to martial ability. Not only will you become a better ‘fighter’ or martial artist, you will also improve your overall health by improving the control you have over your body and ‘ceaselessly refining’ your coordination.  Conscious movement training in Tai Chi Chuan is involved in every single aspect of the art. In the west conscious awareness and control of our body is termed proprioception.  Your objective as you train is to become ever increasingly aware of your body positions and alignments and to seek gradual improvements as your understanding of the optimal position or movement improves. this is a continual process of awareness increase and then implementation during physical practice.


Movement training qualities that we are after as a martial artist

All movements are motivated by I [mind-intention],  not external form.

Visualisation should become a key component of training as you begin to perfectly perceive in your minds eye how a movement is best done. You must learn to perceive with extreme clarity the qualities you want your body to develop.

In motion the whole body should be light and agile,  with all parts of the body linked  as if threaded together.

This is pretty self explanatory, and will lead to you moving very beautifully indeed if you practice everything taking heed of this advice. You will conserve energy, be better balanced, be able to produce more physical force and achieve better positioning.

The postures should be without defect, without hollows or projections from the proper alignment;  in motion the Form should be continuous, without stops and starts.

Again this piece of movement training advice reinforce the previous concepts with the added concept of geometry added in. All of your postures and movements should be designed to be of the strongest shape possible, and transitions between movements also should be mechanically as sound as we can make them. Of course this relies on our perception of what the perfect move or posture should look like, which will be influenced by experience, practice with partners and our ever expanding insight. The emphasis on continuous movement adds to the fluid movement quality we are trying to develop. Mechanically sound postures help you achieve balanced positioning as well as the improved ability to apply force, either in a striking or grappling context.

The chin [intrinsic strength] should be rooted in the feet, generated from the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested through the fingers.

The core principle of martial arts power generation is summed up in this passage. By using the largest muscle groups of the body in a rational and combine way we will generate the most power. The legs, glutes and hips have the most power generating potential. The waist is a complex area that can flex, extend, and rotate, given amplification to the leg generated power and also direction. The arms are mainly the simple transmitters of the forces. By learning to do this with all movements you can very significantly amplify all your efforts and ‘punch above your weight’. The feet should also be carefully considered as they provide a crucial role in not only structure of the lower body as a whole but also balance and movement potential. So in training analyse your movements from the ground up, including your feet, which in my experience are often not well considered.

If correct timing and position are not achieved, the body will become disordered and will not move as an integrated whole; the correction for this defect must be sought in the legs and waist.

So here we are being told to look out for incorrect timing of in particular, the lower body movements and the interaction between our main power sources, the legs and waist in all our movement training. The forms and internal strength practice should be done vey carefully to slowly make changes needed to perfect these timings. As you go you can also become aware of it in all the other more dynamic training methods.

Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and  move like a turning wheel.

Again this piece of advice is fairly self explanatory, which to me means training in a mindful way both during solo exercises and partner drills so that you are completely aware of your balance point at all times, and stay completely balanced at all times. A wheel has a centre point, around which the wheel moves. The body also has a centre balance point around which your limbs and trunk move. The centre point must remain that and be under your control.

Store up the trained force like drawing a bow.

This is an interesting bit of advice that is telling us to pay attention to storing potential in our postures and movement training drills. The comparison to a bow is great, because in a given movement like a punch, the power must be drawn back by prestretching the muscles and connective tissues that will power the strike. So you need to become aware in each of the solo posture training methods which parts are responsible for powering the issue of force and train yourself to ‘draw’ those parts and pre-stretch them. This should be done in forms, pushing hands, internal strength, applications etc. Become expert at ‘storing potential’. Modern rehabilitation experts as well as strength and conditioning researchers have become very interested in recent years in the role that the elastic connective tissue which surround our bodies’ plays in power potential. In Tai Chi Chuan its seems that most of the movements and postures are designed to bring together the springy potential of this connective tissue, so the ‘jin’ or trained force desired is produced to a large extent by the feel and use of this fascinating parts of our anatomy. In training you should really explore the effects of the well designed stretched shapes and their ability to help store and release potent elastic energy.

Be still as a mountain,  move like a great river.

The stillness here could be referencing a state of mind, calm and tranquil, unchanging even. Also when training certain aspects of the art such as internal strength, the postures should be held in such a manner that we don’t move around too much. The human body is composed primarily of water and as such its possible to take on such a quality when we move. This leads to a very flowing quality that can be easily observed in an expert. By moving in such a way, we develop precise control over our body and our coordination. We also will be moving the body as a complete unit. This means when issuing strikes or throws etc all muscles groups and connective tissue matrixes will be working ‘as a team’ to their greatest potential. Your force generating potential will therefore be much greater.

The upright body must be stable and comfortable  to be able to sustain an attack from any of the eight directions.

Wherever possible you should be perfectly balanced during all movement training. Training with your focus on your balance point should be done regularly. Whatever training aspect you are working on, achieving perfect balance should not be far from your mind. By being perfectly balanced you can attack, move and defend in all directions at all times.

Walk like a cat.

Watch modern day combat maestros such as Lomachenko and you will notice incredibly controlled stepping and footwork. By developing perfect control over your legs and stepping patterns you’ll be able to control distance, angles and timing to a much greater degree.

Remember, when moving, there is no place that does not move.  When still, there is no place that is not still.

In training it’s important to be able to recruit the whole body as an entire unit of power. This is especially true for smaller people. Not only does it improve power potential, but moving as a unit will enhance all aspects of your overall athleticism and movement skill. From the feet through to the top of the head, everything moves perfectly together. In classical martial arts stance holding is used to develop strength, improve posture alignment and to develop high levels of muscular efficiency. When doing these static holds it is best to be as close to perfectly still as possible.

The appearance  is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit

From recent research we now know that having a ‘game face’ on during sporting events or fighting situations helps us to activate our nervous system in a more powerful way, leading to greater speed, strength and power. The concentrated gaze of a falcon on the hunt alludes to this.

Be mindful of the interchange between insubstantial and substantial; 

Understanding these changes in ourselves and an opponent can lead to increased awareness of opportunities and threats. This can refer to mindset, attitude, balance points as well as manifestations of overtly attacking or defensive techniques.

Pay attention to the waist at all times; The source of the postures is in the waist. Completely relax the abdomen

The waist or midsection is largely responsible for the expression of physical force, as well as balanced movement. People who learn how to use this in it’s fullest capacity, not just in two dimensions but as a spherical area of power amplification develop far more power potential. The concept of the waist incorporates the hips and also the spine.

During training its a good thing to keep the whole body relaxed, including the abdomen, which is often a source of tension. Relaxing the abdomen helps the diaphragm expend downwards more fully, leading to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps yo to keep calmer and to make better decisions, as well as to move more quickly due to muscle tension inhibition.

Extension and contraction, opening and closing, should be natural.

As you train in different movement drills you should become aware of opening and closing movements. Muscles can extend of contract, and we want to help this to happen in a way that coordinates different groups together in the most natural and harmonious way. This will lead to perfect movement as well as higher levels of power. A lot of people start to get an idea of opening and closing but then try to overly control it, leading to less natural movement patterns.

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