A Brief Discussion on the Relativity of Skills

Ed. Note: while the examples used in the piece below relate to punching and recreational/athletic MA training, the concepts can easily be applied to all other fighting skills and situations in which they might be used.

How many ways are there to skin a cat? Or in this case, throw a punch? Among both novice and experts (and “experts”), it can seem as if there is a “right” way to perform a fighting skill, yet variations are to be found from style to style,  from individual to individual, and even from moment to moment within the same encounter. The Q & A below came out of a discussion with martial artist and CSCS Daniel Ramos (fellow ATSU Human Movement Science alum).

Q: How can practitioners of different fighting arts or combat sports move in such different ways if the end goal is the same? For example, why are there differences in how a cross is performed in different martial arts?

A: In general fighting activities are bound by certain limitations, including physiology and physics. A punch has to be within certain parameters to still be effective as a punch; there are things that it has to do and things that it simply can’t do. However, the specific actions used to perform the skill can vary widely (Magill, 2011). I frequently remind students in our group that the demands for performing a skill in a specific context may be opposite those of other moments within the same encounter, and that one of the goals of training for self protection is being able to perform according to the conditions one finds herself in.

The differences between various “good” versions of the skill (in this case, the cross) are a product of a few groups of factors. The first is individual idiosyncrasies. Two fighters with the same relative body proportions and physiological attributes may end up with two different delivery systems for the cross. This might be due to idiosyncratic dysfunctions and strengths, from different coordinative processes, or from the sum of their different experiences and relative skill and ability levels.

Second are differences in morphology and physiology. A taller fighter typically has a longer reach and higher center of gravity, whereas a shorter fighter has shorter limb segments and a lower COG. The percentage and distribution of type I and type II muscle fibers between them might be very different, joint angles might be different, etc. The preferences and strengths that either may have will be a reflection of these factors, and of their experiences with exploiting their attributes against other sets of attributes. The taller fighter may feel awkward using the shorter fighter’s preferred method and vice versa. Both are throwing a cross, which has the same outcome and goals regardless of the different action patterns used to achieve it.

Finally, technique is heavily influenced by the goals of the art/sport, and the cultural beliefs concerning violence, anatomy & physiology. Those two factors together heavily influence what training methods will be used to achieve a goal. For example, a southern Chinese boxing system (not necessarily similar to Western pugilism) may base its fundamental posture on the idea that force production and rate of production are best when the spine is segmentally extended and flexed during a punch. Conversely, someone like Muhammad Ali fought with a very upright posture and relied on rapid ankle dorsiflexion and plantar flexion to facilitate hip flexion and extension to support trunk rotation. Neither is “right” per se, but is dependent on the fighter’s particular body, attributes, skills, and the situation in question. Practitioners of either method may produce significant amounts of power. That being said, there are still optimal general action patterns for each skill, which are the preferred actions when conditions are ideal. Learning to adapt them to non-optimal conditions is one of the most important tasks of training, and that requires experimentation, intrinsic feedback, the opportunity to make mistakes, and repeated problem solving to achieve a goal under different parameters- not simple repetition of the optimal version.

Q: How would you go about training someone to recognize these differences, and make the best use of them?

A: For the purposes of punching/upper body striking in specific, I would make a priority of developing awareness of their head and shoulder positions relative to their feet. Transitions between postures is most efficient when movement is initiated by the head (although this is not necessarily an absolute), since the body will go where the head goes. Knowing where a neutral posture, a “set point” is, is just as important as knowing how to produce power in a preferred method.  This can develop “in the moment” awareness of how movement needs to be altered to take advantage of affordances (in this case, available targets, and incoming threats to exposed areas) as they develop and exploit them. At times an upright, “stacked” posture is an efficient way to generate a cross, maybe when the fighter is on control of the fight and the opponent’s weapons aren’t as much of a threat. The same fighter may adopt a more kyphotic, chin-down posture to fight his way into closer range, or to ward off a more aggressive fighter. One posture will be more advantageous when striking on the move, and the other when attempting to generate maximum force and power. In both cases, the kinematics required differ to perform the same skill: in an upright exchange, the feet, knees, hips and head may be vertically aligned; in a crouched position the head may displace transversely from the hips, with the spine anteriorly flexed or laterally flexed. Whether or not it’s the “right” variation depends on how well it achieves the fighter’s goal under a given set of conditions.

Q: Do you think that research could show a connection between different striking styles and specific mechanisms of injury?

A: A study assessing posture in relationship to injuries among martial artists and combat athletes would be extremely worthwhile. Regularly assessing fighters for posture and functional ranges of motion over a few years, as well as volume and type of training, and competitive schedules could establish a profile. I would be willing to bet that various posture types can be directly correlated to general and individual styles, and those to predictable injury rates. If we want to talk about it in terms of a particular general style, predictable patterns would be evident among groups: boxers might tend towards upper crossed syndrome, rigid karate styles (Shotokan in particular) tend towards lower crossed syndrome, Wing Chun and Uechi tend towards swaybacked postures. The same predictability would extend to assessments of an individual’s personal style and it’s action patterns.  Of course all crossed syndromes are associated with particular patterns of muscular imbalance and associated injury, which can be used to program corrective and preventive conditioning.


Magill, R.A. (2011). Motor Learning and Control (9th ed., international version). New York: McGraw-Hill.


3 responses to “A Brief Discussion on the Relativity of Skills

  1. Pingback: A Brief Discussion on the Relativity of Skills | Glasgow Shotokan Karate – Zanshin Kai

  2. I would be willing to bet that various posture types can be directly correlated to general and individual styles, and those to predictable injury rates.

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