Get More Out of Your Chishi With Efficient Kinematics

Back in the days when I identified myself as a karate practitioner, I enthusiastically pursued all forms of supplemental conditioning that I could find throughout the branches of the folk art. I spent a considerable amount of time researching, constructing and using various makiwara, kakiya, and weights according to the notes left by early authors such as Motobu, Funakoshi, Mabuni & Miyagi. Among these, the chishi soon became a favorite in my training regimens. The chishi is an example of a class of asymmetrical lever weights that can be found in physical culture around the world. “Indian Clubs” are another example of the concept, and Chinese martial arts may also include them in their conditioning methods (Kennedy & Guo, 2005). The early Okinawan karate culture discovered its utility as a training device, and several branches of karate adopted them as part of their “hojo undo”, or supplemental training.

Despite my enthusiasm for the chishi, my concurrent study of kinesiology eventually began to make me question the effects some of the traditional methods of usage, and my formal education in this field has only confirmed that some common practices are dangerous to the shoulder joint system.

The chishi and its relatives are useful tools for conditioning because they approximate some of the kinetic and kinematic demands of fighting and training. What exactly are these demands? If we look at the demands of self-protection (defensive and fighting skills), it becomes obvious that the kinetic and kinematic demands are anything but regular. A few standouts are:

  • asymmetrical loading while off balance/changing balance
  •  production and management of force in all three planes
  • isometric fixation of a joint followed by explosive concentric movement to eccentric resistance or isometric fixation in a second or less. Click here for more on these terms.

Used properly, the chishi can provide resistance exercises that mimic these challenges. However, the chishi is also capable of causing and encouraging poor movement and control of the shoulder joints (particularly the glenohumeral and acromioclavicular articulations) and scapulae. Several of the standard chishi training exercises involve two movements that are especially problematic for these structures:

  • movement of the weight over head and behind one’s back, a la a back scratcher or a triceps kick back
  • internal rotation, or moving the end of the weight towards the body’s center with an extended arm

To discuss the problems that these exercises might reinforce or cause, two terms are helpful:

  • kinetics: movement described by the forces (weight, friction, impact, torque, , etc.) involved in an action (Hall, 2007).
  • kinematics: descriptions of movement quality (speed & velocity, direction & displacement, acceleration, angles, rotation) described without regards to force. “Form” or technique are often used synonymously  (Hall, 2007).

These movement and control problems related to the chishi can be referred to as a result of poor kinematics. Good kinematics promote a distribution of force that works with the soft tissue and bony structure of a joint; poor kinematics promote distribution of force that work against the soft tissue and bony structures of a joint. With regards to chishi use, this is most evident by looking at two areas of the upper body: the position of the upper arm relative to the body, and the position of the scapulae relative to each other and to the spine. If the scapula protrudes out and away from the back (“winged”), the position of the humerus in the glenoid fossa (the shoulder “socket”) will be altered, and all movements involving this joint system will also be altered (Anderson, Hall & Parr, 2008) . Two major groups of muscles that act on the shoulder joint system are involved here:

Click on the links for interactive illustrations that are useful for understanding muscular actions, insertions & lines of pull:

  • the anterior (frontal) subsystem, consisting of the lats, pec major (and minor), subscapularis and serratus anterior, are kept overactive, short and tight, pulling the humerus past the lateral line and rolling it inward (“forward shoulder roll”), and pulling the lateral (outer) edge of the scapula forward
  • the posterior (rear) subsystem, consisting of the rhomboids, middle trapezius, teres minor and infraspinatus are chronically stretched and inhibited, allowing the medial border of the scapula to be pulled out and away from the spine, and the humerus to be pulled forward by the dominant anterior subsystems. Click here for more on the posterior kinetic chain.

The images below illustrate the concepts mentioned so far:

Poor position: Both scapula are “winged”, both humerus are rolled forward and inward, and the line between the top and bottom of the scapulae is significalty uneven to compensate

Poor position: The right scapula is retracted, but the left is not; note the disproportionate angles

Poor position: The scapulae are retracted, but the right humerus is forward and inward. Here, the upper trapezius compensates for the lack of range of motion

The same compensation viewed from the side. Red line indicates how far the scapula is protruding from the back.

Correct position: Both scapula are retracted and both humerus are stabilized

Poor position: Dominant anterior subsystem pulls the humerus inwards and forwards. The red line indicates scapular displacement from the back, black line indicates approximate orientation of the humeral head, blue line indicates distance from midline.

Correct position: posterior subsystem is stabilizing humerus in a neutral position. Black line indicates approximate orientation of humeral head, blue line indicates distance from midline

The problems caused by these resulting upper arm and scapular positions fall into a few categories:

  • Reduced kinetic and kinematic efficiency of the shoulder region due to excessive anterior muscular tension  (short and tight lats, pecs, subscapularis and serratus anterior), with the posterior muscles (rhomboids and middle trapezius) being chronically stretched and inhibited
  • Damage to cartilage & bone of the GH joint due to improper kinematics
  • Impingement (trapping) of the rotator cuff tendons between the humerus and acromial process, leading to fraying an`d likelihood of eventual failure
  • The posterior ligaments of the shoulder joints become loose (which is more or less permanent once it happens) while the anterior ones become frayed

Kinetic forces of movement and load bearing will be distributed unevenly and compromise the soft tissue structures involved, reducing movement quality & performance and increasing the chances of chronic injury. The longer a muscular imbalance like this persists, and the more it is encouraged with more of the same poor kinematics that created it to start with, the more performance in that area will be decreased, and the more likely a major injury will eventually occur as a result. This can be seen on a very simple level with the forward pelvic tilt and protruded chin of people who sit at a desk for long periods of time, or the shoulder hunch of gym rats who bench press every session without ever thinking of their backs.

Similarly, long term use of the chishi with poor kinematics will reinforce existing scapular/shoulder problems and creates new ones. In fact, several anecdotal sources from “old timers” in the Okinawan karate world make mention that long-time, middle aged practitioners of Goju Ryu “lose strength as they age” or have trouble raising their arms above their heads (Bishop, 1999; Cook, 2009). If we look at this observation objectively for a moment and consider it from a kinematic perspective, it does not take much creativity to see that such individuals were negatively affected by some of their conditioning practices.

Corrective Strategies

It’s safe to assume that the average practitioner of a fighting art or sport spends considerable time on activities that focus on the anterior subsystem, such as push ups, bag work, presses, and open chain (air) striking.  For a student who exhibits the kinematics discussed so far, the posterior subsystem needs to be retrained. This is not intended to be an exhaustive approach to the problem, so for our purposes the muscles that retract the scapula (pull to the spine and flatten against the ribcage) will be focused on. These are the rhomboids and middle trapezius. The teres minor and infraspinatus are the two external rotators of the humerus that will be focused on (refer to the links above as needed).

The first task is to gain a proprioceptive awareness of where the humerus and scapule are in relation to the body, and relative to movement forces. If you feel the front of your arm slightly above the anterior deltoid, there is a palpable depression. This is where the tendons of the anterior subsystem converge and work to pull the humerus forward and inward. Imagine that there is a laser pointer embedded here, pointing straight up. When the scapula is retracted, the laser will point more or less at the ceiling. When the scapula is allowed to “wing”, the laser will now point something closer to 45 degrees and slightly across your body. The goal is to encourage the laser to point upwards.

All puns aside, the thumbs can also be very handy visual references for the position of your humerus. With your arm extended straight in front of you, point your thumb straight at the ceiling. If the humerus is pulled forward and inward, you may feel some discomfort in the shoulder region as you try to point the thumb up.

A partner can be useful in feeling where your scapulae may be, since trying to look at them in a mirror can change their position. Ask your partner to place her finger tips on either side of your spine, right between the shoulder blades, and push in slightly. Attempt to roll your humerus back (laser and thumbs up) and “pinch” her finger tips against your spine with your shoulder blades. When you correctly retract your scapulae, hold the position for 10-15 seconds to allow the nervous system to strengthen the muscular recruitment patterns involved.

Once these positions can be correctly achieved, an extremely helpful exercise involves retracting the scapulae against a portion of the bodyweight. A strap (or a karate belt: who knew they were actually good for something!) placed around a post provides a way to leverage body weight against the scapulae:

  • Grasp the strap firmly, and lean back a few degrees. The more severe the “winging”, the less the angle should be for the first few weeks
  • Ask a partner to watch your scapulae, and attempt to retract them. This should pull you into a slightly more acute angle than you started at. If one or both begin to wing out, ask your partner to point it out to you. If they start to slip, take a short rest and try again
  • Hold this position for 15-30 seconds; work up to longer holds if you find yourself starting to falter after 10-15. Repeat this 3-5 times before training and conditioning, especially if a chishi is to be involved
  • After achieving stabilization, perform the scapular retraction as above, then with your upper arms horizontal (elbows out), and your neck, back and hips neutral, pull against the strap so that you raise towards the pillar at a 3 second tempo. Maintain scapular retraction. Hold the top position for 3-5 seconds, then lower to a 3 count, maintaining  scapular retraction at the bottom. Repeat. As above, ask a partner to indicate if your scapulae begin to protrude. Repeat 10 reps across 2-3 sets.
  • Consider avoiding any chishi work for a few weeks while you work on posterior subsystem activation and stretching for the anterior subsystem. “Training hard” and “quality training” are not always the same thing

Poor position: Slightly winged scapulae. The red lines indicate protrusion of the medial borders.

Correct starting position: both scapulae are retracted and both humerus are stabilized

Correct bottom position: scapulae are retracted, both humerus are stabilized Correct top position: both scapulae are retracted

Correct top position: both scapulae are still retracted, humerus are stabilized

It’s important to note that tightening the lats will not help to retract the scapula. Due to the lats’ insertion on the upper anterior humerus, contracting this muscle will simply pull the upper arm down and inward, but not back. The lat also contributes to the excessive inward rotation that we are trying to avoid, as it pulls the anterior midline of the humerus inward towards the body. Mistaking lat contraction for shoulder stabilization is a common issue, particularly in groups that do a lot of open chain (air) striking and activities which encourage forward shoulder translation (exaggerated karate’s Sanchin kata, fighting out of a high guard)

Once the scapulae and humerus are moving with proper kinematics, and you can reliably identify when they are in kinematically efficient positions, usage of the chishi may be reintroduced. Recall that the two problematic movements with a chishi involve moving it overhead and behind the back, and holding it straight in front while inward rotating it. Below are suggestions for getting the same benefits as the standard exercises, without the problems encouraged by poor kinematics :

Overhead:

  • Activate the posterior system with the strap retraction exercises above
  • Use a light (1-2 kg) chishi
  • Choke up on the handle as needed to reduce the angles and forces involved
  • Use your other arm to brace against your upper arm, so that it cannot slip behind you out of control. The upper arm should be restricted to 45 degrees.
  • Bend the arm at the elbow, making sure that the “laser” is pointing straight along your upper arm up as opposed to across your body. Move the chishi towards your back and then extend the arm at the elbow to return
  • Maintain a pace of 3 seconds per movement phase

Correct overhead starting position: scapulae are retracted, humerus is stabilized. Blue line indicates approximate orientation of humeral head.

Correct bottom position:scapulae are still retracted and humerus is still stabilized. Blue line indicates approximate orientation of humeral head.

Correct return to top: scapulae are still retracted, humerus is still stabilized. Blue line indicates approximate orientation of humeral head.

Inward rotation:

  • Activate the posterior system with the strap retraction exercises above
  • Use a light (1-2 kg) chishi
  • Choke up on the handle to the middle or higher, extend the straight in front
  • Start with the thumb pointing at the ceiling, then rotate the chishi towards your midline, no farther than 90 degrees.
  • Reverse and return the thumb to pointing at the ceiling
  • At the bottom of the movement, keep the “laser” pointing no farther than 45 degrees arcoss your body. Any farther and you are impinging (trapping & grinding) your rotator cuff tendons between the acromial process and the humerus
  • Maintain a pace of 3 seconds per movement phase

Incorrect bottom position: blue line indicates that thumb  humeral head are past 90 and 45 degrees respectively

Finally, if you’ve had shoulder injuries or a long history of instability and a weak posterior/tight anterior subsystem, consider leaving the chishi out of your training until you rehab the muscle groups, or maybe permanently. There are other ways to condition that place less stress on this joint system. In the end, the question with many of these practices is: are they necessary without any alteration because of a “tradition”, or are they reflections of the demands of the activity, which can be trained with other, safer methods as needed?

Proper kinematics go a long way in enhancing your balance, stability, force production and controllable range of motion, even in challenging environments

References:

Anderson, M.K., Parr, G.P., & Hall, S.J. (2008). Foundations of athletic training, prevention, assessment and management (4th ed.).Baltimore, MD:  Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.

Bishop, M. (1999). Okinawan karate (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing.

Cook, H. (2009). Shotokan karate a precise history (2nd ed.). England: Page Bros.

Hall, S.J. (2007). Basic biomechanics (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kennedy, B., & Guo, E. (2005). Chinese martial arts training manuals: A historical survey. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.