I'm stacked, now what?!?

It’s important to realize the essence of any art is contained in the basics.  For example, very accomplished musicians will continue to practice scales, even after years of performing at the highest level.  In karate, we use our bodies to express power through various techniques.  The most fundamental thing is being “stacked” at all times, which is a continuous process of refinement and maintenance.  A highly developed awareness of that feeling, or kinesthetic sense, is what separates the masters from everyone else.  My previous article discussed the following principles of body use:

  1. Align with Gravity – bilateral symmetry, integrity of spine and lower leg
  2. Avoid Excess Muscular Tension – using the right muscles for the job

For the purpose of future articles, I will assume familiarity with the feeling of being stacked.  But, it’s easy to become distracted from what really matters by trying to learn too many different things.  Progress in martial arts should be measured on a personal level.  No matter what technique you learn, it’s still just YOU moving your arms around…or legs, or whatever.  And, correct alignment is always the first priority.

All martial arts techniques are examples of using momentum to disrupt the function of an opponent’s body.  Momentum is the force generated by the tendency of your body to remain in motion, because its mass is moving in a certain direction at a certain speed.  In general, there are three ways for a properly stacked body to generate momentum:

  1. Compression
  2. Rotation
  3. Body Shifting

There is always compression in a properly aligned body, due to gravity.  The inherent elasticity of our muscles and connective tissue produces a sort of “springiness” in the body.  So, incoming force resulting from contact with an opponent should move through our frame effortlessly into the ground and rebound, creating a ripple effect.  We’ve all experienced this, at some point in our lives.  When pushing a car, for example, we intuitively lock our arms, bend from the hip, and push with our legs.  There is a slight delay, between compressing our weight into the ground and feeling the force of our hands pushing on the car.  Correctly timing our techniques to coincide with that “wave of momentum” is the key to whole-body power.  The concept of kinetic chain, or correct body segment activation, is the same in principle.

Using the right muscles for the job means having the stabilizing muscles, or synergists, conditioned to maintain proper alignment.  Then, only activating the prime movers required for the specific movement.  Additional muscular tension only inhibits the flow of momentum, decreasing the amount of force transferred through our body.  Like a wave trying to pass through frozen water, it just doesn’t work.

In application, compression will usually be combined with rotation and shifting the body weight.  Rotation primarily involves “swinging” the limbs and torso around the joints.   Because of our body’s inherent springiness, the joints have the natural tendency to always return to a neutral position.  If we stretch the muscles and connective tissue by moving a joint toward the limit of its range of motion, we can then use the momentum generated as it “snaps back.”  For example, when practicing our beloved gyaku-zuki, or reverse punch, we begin by turning our hip as far as it will go in one direction.  Then, we compress our weight into that leg, causing the torso to rapidly turn, as our hip joint moves back toward a neutral position and swings the arm forward to “throw” the punch.

The same sort of thing happens, when we walk.  There is a natural swinging of the legs and arms as we alternately compress our weight into one leg or the other.  If you pay attention to proper alignment and relaxation, you will be practicing martial arts with every step you take…just like Funakoshi, back in the day!

My next article will continue to explore the principles of body use, by discussing the basic methods of shifting our body weight to generate additional momentum.


5 responses to “I'm stacked, now what?!?

  1. Excellent analysis Steve. Good to have you joining us here!

  2. Kinda reminds me of what Scott Sonnon talks about in his truckloads of instructional DVDs

    (for those who don’t know, Scott Sonnon is an expert in Russian Sambo and Systema, and a physical training coach- rmax.tv is his url – lots of good stuff that I found useful in his materials that transcends all styles)

  3. Thanks, Randy. I have to “dumb” things down a bit…Bob uses too many big words and stuff, for me:)

    I am not Mr. Karate,
    I hadn’t heard of Scott Sonnon, so I Googled “The Flow Coach.” Interestingly, I read that he was introduced to martial arts by learning Pa Qua Chang (or Ba Gua Zhang) from a retired US Airborne Ranger. I studied Ba Gua with Tim Cartmell, and a lot of my ideas come from him. The most basic concept is using circular movements to conserve momentum. Instead of using extra energy to constantly stop and start, the idea is to apply tecniques in a way that “goes with the flow.” All good fighters do this to some degree, whether they know it or not.

  4. Hello Steve,

    you can call me Adam lol (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ld3XbUBOlTQ -that is where the Mr. Karate came from lol – skip to 1:18)

    I trained Baguazhang also, not for a long time, and I trained karate with Robert Miller, Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, and Russian Systema, among other things. I am not an expert in any of the above disciplines.

    One thing that truly astonishes me is how Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu, Russian Systema, Baguazhang, and Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu use the circular spiral body mechanical principle, but in different ways.

    About Scott Sonnon- he mainly has practiced Russian Systema (Retuinskih’s ROSS style, which is an offshoot of Kadochnikov Systema) and Russian Sambo wrestling.

    Here is a short history of Russian Martial arts which explains what the above are-

    All styles of Russian Systema focus on biomechanics, although they each have different pedagogical training methods and at the end, they all move similarly.

    Kadochnikov, the grandfather of Russian martial arts in the modern age, in his books he greatly elucidates biomechanical principles with diagrams, sometimes his books read like a physics textbook (http://www.kadochnikov.info/about_system/books ).

    Russian Systema is about moving one’s body efficiently, with stability while recruiting only the necessary muscles needed to offbalance one’s opponent (in a spiral way).

    Scott Sonnon covers most of the same material as you do in your articles here in TKRI Blog in his voluminous DVD series.

    The link below links to several reviews of his products. Note, these go into great detail and greatly elaborate on the concepts that he presents in the videos. I have several of his DVDs and it is very, very cerebral stuff.


    Here is another view on the role of biomechanics in Systema-
    from practitioners of the Ryabko/Vasiliev style



    I hope this explains more


  5. Hi Adam,
    Thanks for the information. Like you said, various styles use the same principles of application in different ways. Ultimately, I think each person has to find what works best for them. My goal is to provide beginners with an overview of the general principles involved, so they can look at the different ways a technique is applied and recognize similarities between all styles. There’s only so many ways to throw a person, or lock a joint, etc. Too many times, people get hung up on stylistic differences and “lose sight of the forest for the trees,” so to speak.

    When it comes to body use, however, ALL techniques should conform to the principles of biomechanics. If a martial arts instructors teaches you to perform some technique in a way that violates those principles, they’re just wrong and should be ignored…that’s the bottom line.

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