Thursday, August 6, 2015

Efficient technique and injury prevention go hand in hand.

The principles that make karate technique effortlessly powerful, will also keep you injury free. That is one of the beauties of karate!

In karate we are striving for the “beauty of one finishing blow technique”, and also, I believe, that we are striving to train and keep improving till old age.

Those 2 concepts are not at all contradictory, at least not in Shotokan, on the contrary, a good, effective technique should have all the same qualities that will reduce stress from our joints and spine, will keep our spine and joints stable, strong, pliable and healthy.
In fact, the principles of karate technique are in accord with the principles of physical therapy and injury prevention. as well as peak performance.

Don’t forget, exercise is stress, only that we want to have a stress on the body that is constructive and not destructive.

Technique is chain reaction from the ground up, if our technique is initiated from the feet, we will not move the extremities in isolation, the whole body will cooperate, technique will be more powerful, there will not be extraneous or contradictory energy in the technique, yet there will be less stress on the shoulders or hips.
When technique is produced from the arms or legs, the technique is labored, weaker, even when it feels strong and there will be increased stress on specific joints and on the spine.

Optimal posture allows for effortless control of body dynamics, and the full range of muscles contraction/relaxation, and for smooth transmission of forces through joints.
This same optimal posure prevent space from the spine.
For example, research shows that when the lumbar spine is flexed it is 40% weaker in producing force, and more susceptible to injury.
In a head forward posture, the weight of the head create constantly more stress on the lumbar spine, and at the same time, the thoracic extensors are lengthened and weakened, and forces cannot transfer smoothly from the body center (sacrum) to the arms, through the thoracic spine and shoulder joint as should be.
Muscles should act on a joint should be in optimal balance (force couple), When the muscles around the shoulder (or any joint) are imbalanced, the chest and anterior deltoids are short and tight and the scapular adductors and posterior deltoids are over lengthened and weaken, the joint is not in moving in its optimal axis of rotation, force transfer is not efficient and premature wear and tear is inevitable.

Optimal sequence of body segments as well as sequence of muscles firing timing.
In order to achieve maximum force in a technique within a given space, each body segment should be used to the fullest, and than next segment smoothly add force. for example in reverse punch, feet through legs, hip rotation, shoulder extend, than elbow extension than forearm snap at the elbow. In addition, force is transferring at the joints, therefore, each joint should be stable center to allow full transfer of energy from one segment to next.
This same principle of producing force is key in preventing injuries, and stress on particular joint, if one joint is “skipped” or lacking in range of motion, the joint above or below will have to compensate.
Internal muscles firing timing
In karate we want to move from the center out, in order to move from the center out we must have a stable center first.
When we say center we mean 3 fingers below the navel toward the spine, which is the sacrum area.
The center has to be firm while the bigger muscles around the center, which produce the most force, has to be relaxed and activated according to the task.
The smaller muscles around the sacrum and lumbar spine has to be activated before the bigger muscles and also in the right amount, according to the stabilization need. The stabilization needed is different for walking or for sprinting.
Research shows that in healthy individuals the smaller muscles around the sacrum and lumbar spine (transversus abdominus, multifidus, pelvic floor and diaphragm) were firing 30-50 milliseconds before arm movement, and 110-130 milliseconds before leg movement, subconsciously, this is called “feed forward mechanism”.
For people who had delayed or no activation, there was high likelihood of back pain, since the spine was not stabilized and protected against the movement of the arms and legs.
This activation can be learned and this is what we do in karate, activating the center first and connecting the center to the extremities than moving from the center out.

The gluts
Those are of the biggest muscles in our body, and are responsible for stabilizing the back, producing force, and transmitting force from the legs through the sacrum to the upper body.
The gluts tend to be a “lazy” muscle and is dormant for many people. When the gluts are weak there is more likelihood of back pain, and weak technique.
In karate we stress engaging the glutes in every technique, I used to return from Sensei Nishiyama’s class with purple buttocks, and had to sleep on my stomach.

Full range of movement in technique
in Shotokan we train, at least in the basics to the full functional range of each technique for many reasons, such as conditioning the muscles to the full range, easy to learn proper coordination through big action, and if you control the big, you control everything in between, so the transition to smaller action in application is easier.
Most injuries happen in the outer ranges, and by developing control and stability in full range we become more resilient to injuries.

The body center is the engine
Technique is initiated from a firm center using ground reaction, the body center is also important in transmitting forces from the feet to the arms and vice versa. If the center is unstable, forces from ground reaction will dissipate and will not transfer to technique, as well as stresses will be put on the lumbar spine and sacrum. Firm, properly activated stabilizers around the low spine are important in order to alleviate stress from the spine.
When the spine is stable, it also serves as an anchor for the bigger core muscles, and those muscles can function more optimally.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Strong technique - fluid transitions.

Not a contradiction, but rather compliment each other.

In Shotokan karate we strive for the beauty of one finishing blow technique (Todome), one of the unique aspects of our karate is kime (mental and physical focus), or how to to deliver the total energy of the whole body, in the shortest instant, to intended line of energy at impact.

Shotokan karate is known for powerful technique, at the same time when making strong kime it is easy to lose the smooth transition and fluidity. This is dangerous because if we miss or not finish the fight with one technique, than there will be a qio, space for the opponent to catch us, or at the least, we could miss the chance.
The kata stresses the importance of smooth transition after kime, most of the techniques in kata are from kime to next action, and not from kime into freestyle kamae, and this is because of the danger at the moment of kime, since if I am at good distance for my technique so is my opponent.

Strong kime does not have to contradict smoothness, moreover, properly executed kime should be the best condition and starting point for next technique.

There are 2 most important elements at the moment of kime: 1. Pressure to floor. 2. Total body contraction, in shortest time to line of technique.

Both those elements help us with force production and delivery, transfer of total energy in shortest time, shocking power.

But at the same time, pressure to floor is potential energy, and contraction is potential energy as well, since muscles are like springs.
When we make kime and deliver energy, we are recharging at the same time. The more complete the kime the better the preparation.

Using the breath, we control the pressure to floor and contraction, and using the breath, we can control when to release the energy we store within kime to next action.
The breath is the trigger, the muscles follow the breath.

One idea is to sometimes practice, not thinking of pressure and contraction for kime, but rather, think of pressure and contraction as preparation for next technique.
This kind of training will also reduce excess tension from the kime, and will make both the kime and the preparation/transition, more effective.
One of the reasons for loss of fluidity is too much tension at kime in the wrong places. Yes, contraction is an important element in kime, but it has to be the right contraction, complete, yet without excess, from the inside out, and it has to have elasticity within it, it cannot appear “stiff”. (this is a discussion for another day).
When you can make strong kime and smooth, fluid transition, your kata should be without holes, an on looker should not be able to find space to attack you in the kata.
In Tai Chi Chuan they say that at the limit of softness come hardness, and at the limit of hardness come softness, this is a great way to describe the smooth transition from time to movement and vice versa.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mind like Ice, Spirit like Fire

This is one of my favorite Budo quotes, describing the optimal mindset for fighting/self defense. One must keep the mind calm and the spirit strong, however the mind must not be carried away by the spirit and vice versa.

The other day in class, during a timing drill I mentioned the importance of this mental mode in order to apply techniques effectively. Michael asked me after class, “how do we develop this kind of mental mode?” The answer is complex, some people are innately more calm under pressure, and some people naturally have a stronger spirit, but karate gives us tools to develop those attributes. There is no magic, but rather a process that is already built in to our training method.

Hard training makes confidence, confidence allows for stable emotions.

Mind like ice means stable emotions. When we train hard, we develop confidence in our technique's effectiveness, and confidence makes stable emotion.

It is not only hard training but how we train:
Feet make top technique, action from feet, feet are the “boss”. Through kata and basics, we learn to initiate any action from the feet and to allow the feet to “make decisions.” We follow the opponent’s rhythm with the feet, react with the feet, fake with the feet, and seize the moment with the feet.

So rather than our brain making decisions, the feet do, preventing over-information, hesitation and doubt, which in turn allows for stable emotions. Of course the feet cannot actually make decisions, but allowing the feet to react allows us to trust our feeling, intuition, and experience.

The brain is engaged but is not over analyzing and interfering which would block us from seeing information and subtle cues that are hard to see if we get stuck in details.

If a person does not have the skill of making the movement from the ground up, we cannot even begin to talk about reacting from the feet or the feet “making decisions”.
Making action from the feet is a very physical skill that sets the optimal mental mode.
Breath from low abdominals controls the body center and maximizes ground reaction forces by applying pressure and twisting to the ground. Our main power is from the body center by means of body dynamics and internal muscles action, but this power is only effective when ground reaction forces are maximized.

At an advanced level, there is only breath and intention. All the details will happen by themselves, leaving our brain free from those details that keep us busy as beginners.
In addition, the breath from the body center interacts with the feet to maximize use of ground reaction. It is really the breath that initiates the feet and allows the feet to be the “boss.” It is the breath that makes reaction and initiates our techniques.

If the breath rises to the chest, we cannot controls our body center or feet. This happens when we are over excited and lose stable emotions, but in if we can keep the breath in the center it allows us to keep stable emotions and remain mentally as well as physically centered.

It is through basic training and gradual increase of stimuli in kumite that we learn to keep our breath in the center, and our body center as the decision center.

Eyes back, is a postural direction, which has both mental and physical implications. Mentally it allows the eyes to “monitor” and “observe”, so the brain is in a “wide perception” mode rather than “narrow focus” mode. This mode allows the mind to be like “ice”, emotionally stable and calm. It also allows us to give everything to the technique, to have “no mind in the technique”, avoiding the alternative of holding back or hesitating.

Strong spirit has to be distinguished from emotions, it is will-power, determination, and commiting, giving everything in each action.
Being able to give everything in a technique is both a mental and physical attribute.
It takes specific training to teach the nervous system  to recruit maximum motor units in shortest time. In order to achieve that we need some periods of maximal speed and intensity training. We have to teach the muscles to relax in order to achieve maximal contraction, the goal is maximal rate and range of muscles contraction relaxation.

Optimal form, posture, and alignment are crucial to preventing injuries as we develop higher intensity. It is when we give all the breath that we are giving everything mentally and physically.

When we practice basic techniques we teach the whole body to cooperate to one purpose, but at the same time by coordinating the intention and breath with the outer action and muscles action we learn to give our mind away, to not hold back anything in our technique.
Learning to have our full intention, breath and muscles 100 %, is much harder than just coordinating the body.

Sensei Nishiyama used to persist on giving 100% in every technique, if you train one hour or five, six hours. If you train many hours, obviously not all your techniques will be explosive, but even when you go slow, there should be full intention and purpose in every action.

Becoming sloppy will make your spirit weak, while being present will develop a strong spirit.  
I also believe that training hard and never giving up, overcoming whatever obstacles life puts in front of us, is a big part in developing this spirit. I believe in giving everything, in the right moment, regardless of outcome.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Alignment, health, performance

The way you move and align yourself will influence weather or not you will have musculoskeletal pain as you grow older and how severe.
It is also important in how good of an athlete you will be, you cannot put yourself in weird alignments and expect optimal performance.

Dr. Shirley Sahrmann (Washington University Physical Therapy)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Does Repetition Make Perfect?

One of the characteristics of karate training is repetitions of basics, Sensei Nishiyama used to start the class with hundreds of kizami/gyaku zuki followed by hundreds of kicks.
Some researchers believe that it takes about 10,000 repetitions in any art or sport to achieve mastery or expert level of technique.
Repetitive practice makes the difference between a world class athlete and the rest.
With each repetition we are wiring the nervous system, creating connections and patterns, and the more repetition the more myelin, which is an insulation substance, covers those pathways (Axons). Myelin allows for signals to travel faster and more efficiently through the pathways. Much like a broadband internet connection vs dial up.
The faster and more precise those signals travel through pathways, the more ability to accomplish complex tasks.
In a well train person the myelin allows the signals to travel through the pathways up to hundred times faster.
The karate person neural pathways for specific skills are turning into superhighways through repetition training.

The problem is if the repetitions are not quality repetitions, if we repeat the wrong way, we are creating the wrong circuitry, and once our nervous system is wired it will be more difficult to undo and relearn.
If one is to repetitively initiate techniques from the arms rather from feet and body center, if one is getting used to chest breathing rather than abdominal breath, or if one is consistently moving from a faulty posture, it will take a lot more effort and awareness to undo and make good techniques.
I know it from my own experience, since high school I was training 3 hours a day, doing lots of repetition, but without guidence or feedback, just imitating the form. When I came to study with Sensei Nishiyama, after the first lesson he told me to put a white belt on, and for the next 7 months, 6 hours a day, I was just correcting, undoing my bad habits, til he awarded me a black belt again.

You see if you have the best hardware, the best computer, it will function and give only as good results as the software you install in it.
Like wise, no matter how fit and athletic one is, if the quality of the patterns installed in the nervous system is low, one can never use their full potentials.
Our purpose in karate is to make most efficient use of the human body and mind, the whole body should cooperate to one direction in each technique. As sensei Nishiyama used to say: “What is the points of having 8 cylinder car if you can use only 2 cylinders? must use all 8”.

This is why understanding the theory is important, theory is like roadmap, it gives us direction and we must find a way to receive feedback.
Merely imitating the form is not sufficient, form is symbol of principles, it is meant for us to dig in and discover the underlying principles behind karate techniques, and then install those principles into our nervous system through repetitions.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Bypass the brain in karate and in soccer. Study shows Neymar is “bypassing the brain” as we teach in karate.

My good friend from Lithuania, Modestas Tursa, sent me an interesting article about the brain activity of soccer star Neymar during complex movements.
In karate we constantly talk about “bypassing the brain”, using the breath to make decisions (along with past experiences and proper wiring of the nervous system).
We stress that the brain has to be quiet during the many decisions and lot of information that we have to process in very short time.
Judgement, analyzing in intense situations when a lot of factors are involved and decisions has to be made quickly cause doubt, hesitation and conflict in ourselves.
The brain monitors, is aware of all the actions and the information, but once strategy is decided and interaction starts, the choices of action are subconscious, which is the only way to flow and be ahead of the opponent, leading the action, it is as the action is done for us.
“It is done for us” is not magic, it is experience and proper movement patterns acquired through quality training, along with the intuition we “allow” to take over by avoiding brain interference.

This low activity of the brain is beneficial to any sport when many decisions have to be made in a short time. I do not believe that in soccer quiet brain is taught systematically, but in karate the method is passed from generation to generation, we have a system by which anyone can attain this state of mind, I believe.

Brazilian superstar Neymar's brain activity while dancing past opponents is less than 10 percent the level of amateur players, suggesting he plays as if on autopilot, according to Japanese neurologists.

Results of brain scans conducted on Neymar in February this year indicated minimal cerebral function when he rotated his ankle and point to the Barcelona striker's wizardry being uncannily natural.
"From MRI images we discovered Neymar's brain activity to be less than 10 percent of an amateur player," researcher Eiichi Naito told AFP on Friday.
Naito concluded in his paper that the test results "provide valuable evidence that the football brain of Neymar recruits very limited neural resources in the motor-cortical foot regions during foot movements".

Naito told Japan's Mainichi Shimbun newspaper: "Reduced brain activity means less burden which allows (the player) to perform many complex movements at once. We believe this gives him the ability to execute his various shimmies."

Friday, July 4, 2014

Body Mechanics, but First a Little bit of Physics: By David Schames

(David Schames is my student for the last 10 years, since he was 16, very smart and also powerful, we have had  interesting discusiions about karate principles, so I asked him to put his thoughts in writing, and here is part 1)  
Nature often follows predictable paterns.  Here is a formula that describes “The Big One”:  F=ma
The equation “Force equals mass times acceleration” is useful because of a key pattern in nature.
There is no such thing as a force in nature and it cannot be measured directly with any tool.  Force is an extremely useful manmade concept to keep track of what is happening in the natural world we live in. There is a pattern in nature that when two objects interact and one changes velocity the other object changes velocity in a predictable way.  If object 1 interacts with object 2 and experiences a change in velocity, (delta V1), then object 2 will change velocity in an opposite direction proportional to the ratio of the mass of object 1 to the mass of object 2.  The change in velocity is known as acceleration, and the equation is M1 x A1 = -M2 x A2. Because of this pattern in nature, we call mass times acceleration a force to better keep track of what is happening when objects interact with each other.
The human body is designed to function in the natural world and our bodies are designed to move, and change the things around us.  The better a man’s posture is, the more able he is to move efficiently and change the world around him.  In general, our legs interact with the floor and move our body, and our hands grab things we want to move and apply force moving our center as we move the object we are grabbing.  The bigger a man is, the more he can accelerate an object he is grabbing before the object and the body is at a distance not ideal for applying force using muscles.
In karate we position our body position so that when the striking fist decelerates during a striking technique; our hands will decelerate our whole body and therefore resist decelerating itself.  We can apply force from the ground to our center pushing the center in the direction that we intend on striking. When the strike connects with a vital target on the opponent, our fist decelerates relative to the rest of our body and our muscle transfer the forces in a safe way.   
Meanwhile from the opponents perspective, the vital organ that was struck accelerates relative to the rest of the opponents body and the vital organ transfers the forces through to the rest of the body in an unsafe way causing damage.  
If the force pushing the center forward equals the force pushing the center back, the center does not change velocity and the body can stay in an ideal distance to apply force. This position is also the ideal starting position for the next move. This is what we strive for during kime.
The energy needed to stop a moving mass equals  ½ M x V^2 so if the center is moving fast, and is completely decelerated to zero velocity when the fist hits a target, then the energy delivered into the target is proportional to the mass of the center and proportional to the square of the velocity of the center.  The fist hits the target and slows down the body center over the time of the collision.  At this same time, the feet can push the floor and accelerate the body center adding more energy that is delivered into the target.