Martial Arts – A lifelong pursuit

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Are Martial Artists born or raised?

Relatively speaking, there is still relatively few who choose to dedicate their lives to studying martial arts and self defence. In terms of sports, many choose more mainstream past times such as football, rugby or cricket as supposed to Judo, Aikido or MMA and so what makes some people choose to study the martial arts? On top of this, do some people naturally have the killer instinct, technique, athleticism and timing needed to succeed in martial arts, or is this again something that can be taught over time? Can someone who has studied martial arts all of their life be superseded by someone naturally inclined to the martial arts in a relatively short period of time?

Many people fall into the martial arts by accident, seeing an advertisement for a class regardless of style in a local hall and deciding to either give it a go for themselves, or being made to go by their parents.  I began Karate at aged 6 after my parents saw it advertised at a local hall. After a few years I moved on to Aikido and now continue to do this, having also studied MMA, Judo, Jiu-Jitsu and KFM for varying degrees of time. I feel that martial arts are a massive part of my life now and want to learn as much as possible from everyone that I can. I wonder however, what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to that first Karate class? Would I still be writing this and be as heavily involved in the martial arts as I am? Was I naturally more inclined to the martial arts than to sports such as football which I have very little interest in?

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Me aged 9

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Me aged 23

Martial arts – a lifelong pursuit

I believe that the traits of martial artists such as patience, courage and humility are natural and made better through the right instructors. Martial arts are a lifelong pursuit and one that is never perfected, and for many this is a difficult thing to comprehend. To play football, rugby or other such sports certainly takes skill and athleticism, yet a lifelong pursuit it is not. Many martial artists stop when they reach black belt, thinking that the goal has been reached, the illustrious black belt has been attained, yet for those committed to the martial arts, this is simply one step up a very long flight of stairs, one that you are unlikely to reach the top of.

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Natural athleticism and timing certainly play a part in the martial arts as well. Those more naturally athletic will be able to copy and reproduce moves far quicker than those that are less fit or supple. As with everything in life, some people have to put very little work into something to be very good at it, while others have to work very hard to achieve half that skill level. This can be said of the martial arts in some respects and to learn martial arts is a personal journey, one that the instructor can only guide you on. An instructor can teach you the movements, forms or techniques used, but the individual has to take this teaching a step further, investigating movements for themselves, seeing what works for them and what doesn’t to make the martial art personal and effective for them. For many, this is too difficult a task and once the moves have been spoon fed in, no further study is thought to be needed, leading to one dimensional techniques that lack power, control or intelligence.

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The martial arts are unique in the fact that they are a lifelong pursuit that you can constantly improve upon. Numerous 7th, 8th and 9th degree black belts I have spoken to over the years still say how they are learning and that every lesson they teach shows them something new. They admit they will never achieve perfection in the martial arts, and for some this makes the martial arts difficult to study. To others however, we see this as a challenge and wish to learn as much as we can, from everyone we can in order to be the best well rounded martial artist we can be, even though we know perfection will never be achieved. Some people are more driven into the martial arts due to their personality traits such as patience and humility, as well as natural ability, but these traits and abilities can also be developed and harnessed through the training of martial arts. Martial arts are a lifelong pursuit and one in which we never stop learning, and this for me is the best thing about training in the martial arts.

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The need to breakfall

Throw3 The need to breakfall

Ukemi (Breakfalling)

Ukemi or breakfalling is arguably one of the most important skills to master in Aikido and the martial arts in general. From the very first time we enter an Aikido school and our very first class, we are working with a partner and so need to breakfall. This is different to some other martial arts where the first few classes are spent practising form or certain strikes. Aikido, day one you work with a partner and so the need to breakfall correctly is of paramount importance.

The back fall

Aikido at first looks at the back fall breakfall used in techniques such as shihonage where you are taken down in a certain way so as to end up on your back. Protecting the head and back is of critical importance here, and ukemi is built up slowly so that we can take progressively harder and harder falls without hurting ourselves. The neck is tucked in to prevent the head hitting and bouncing off the mat, and the knees are bent to ensure you land butt first, not back first which will just knock the wind out of you.

When we are comfortable with this breakfall, we step it up a notch and progress to the high backfall, mostly used during dynamic jiyu waza techniques such as irimi tsuki and irimi nage. Here the legs are kicked up to head level to take the high breakfall, and the impact is dissipated in the shoulders and arm you use to break the fall with. The key component in the high breakfall is controlling the legs. If the legs are controlled and together at the time of doing the fall, the rest of the body can be controlled, and so the impact is minimal. Conversely, if the legs are separated, it can be difficult to control the rest of the body and the impact may be taken on the back or even worse the neck. Below is a demonstration of high back falling at around 1 minute 40.

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The forward roll

In terms of forward rolling, Aikido employs a kind of sideways forward breakfall whereby we roll up the arm to the shoulder, and from the shoulder to the opposite hip in a diagonal line down the back, avoiding the spine. This is different to traditional gymnastics rolls where the roll is taken over the head and down the spine. Due to the nature of Aikido it is possible to throw people very hard using the hips, and so taking ukemi over the spine is not recommended for impact. Progressing on from this we look at the flipfall, again used in jiyu waza or techniques such as kotegaeshi. The flipfall is in many ways an aerial forward roll with the impact being taken on the arm we use to break the fall.

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The clip below illustrates the power in the throws and the need to be able to fall correctly, as well as demonstrating the backfall, high backfall and flipfall breakfall as used in Aikido techniques.

Protect the body, build the body

Break falling correctly can help us protect the body, but can also help us to build the body. While recently teaching Aikido at a secondary school I was amazed to find how many of the students of only 13 or 14 years old couldn’t complete a simple forward roll due to lack of strength and coordination. Rolling and break falling helps to build core muscles that protect the spine, as well as developing coordination, fitness and agility. Simple break falling practice can build the body in a number of ways as well as protecting it and so is crucial to the development of children in my opinion.

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Falling correctly and making this second nature can help in everyday life. How often do we hear of people falling down the stairs and breaking and arm or leg? Could this have been prevented if someone had an idea of how to fall properly without injuring themselves? Also in terms of self defence, many fights end up on the ground and so if taken down we need to be able to protect the head, shoulders and limbs. In sport martial arts such as MMA or Judo, take downs are  key component and so before being taught to take down and throw, practitioners are taught how to breakfall. This allows us to increase in confidence with our ability to fall properly. In everyday life, a flipfall or high back fall may not be useful, but the principles it teaches, and the way it allows us to comfortably take a breakfall, protecting the major areas may one day save us from serious injury. Due to this, I believe ukemi or breakfalling is key to any martial arts training, as well as just training in everyday life. Breakfalling must focus on a strong core and form to begin with, then gradually built up, introducing new falls from different angles, or faster falls that you perhaps weren’t expecting. When we can comfortably fall from a technique or throw where we don’t know where we are going, this is surely a good sign that our training has allowed us to process and absorb the form, and so if we ever need to break a fall in real life, our training may instinctively kick in.

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Speed, Distance and Timing. The essence of Martial Arts

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Speed, Distance and Timing – The Essence of Martial Arts

Timing

An interesting article was published by the Daily Mail last year, looking at the Bruce Lee’s one inch punch and how it was possible for him to catapult grown men across the room from only an inch away. At first, people believed it was Lee’s superhuman fitness and conditioning, as well as correct technique that allowed him to produce such power in so short a distance, but new studies reveal it may actually have be his brain structure that accounts for it.

The study found black belts are able to punch incredibly hard, but this is not necessarily due to muscular strength, but more timing of the muscle movements produced by the brain. Effective punching came from the synchronization of the wrists and shoulders more than muscular strength alone, and this was determined by the brain structure. As Dr Ed Roberts, who ran the study states:

“We think that ability might be related to fine-tuning of neural connections in the cerebellum, allowing them to synchronise their arm and trunk movements very accurately.”

Martial arts novices were not able to synchronise their punching power through the whole body, with punches being based on muscular arm strength. As a result, the punches were not as quick, hard or effective, arguably showing that timing and coordination is essential to any martial artists training. Without correct timing, strikes or blocks will not be half as effective, relying simply on muscular strength. The full article can be found here.

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Distance

In addition to timing, I would argue that distance is a major factor in relation to effective martial arts training. Traditional martial arts use the concept of ma-ai (distance) in all their techniques to effectively employ technique, whether this is striking such as in Karate, or locks and throws as in Judo or Aikido. In MMA, distance is judged through sparring and being able to judge whether to strike from standing or on the ground, or go for the takedown, closing the gap to allow the match to be taken to the ground. In terms of self defence, Geoff Thompson’s idea of The Fence shows the effective manipulation of distance before an altercation occurs, as well as Tony Davis and Matt Frost from the Combat Resource Centre explaining how going toe to toe with someone in terms of distance is not always a great idea, especially when dealing with multiple attackers. Links to their Home Study Self Defence course can be found on my homepage, as well as on my post on the Combat Resource Centre here

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Tony Davis from the Combat Resource Centre

Speed

Speed is obviously essential to effective martial arts training, whether this be traditional martial arts, MMA or self defence. The opponent who is slower, sometimes regardless of technique, is always at a disadvantage as movements can be read and predicted, allowing the faster martial artist to effectively control distance. They can then close the gap when needed to deliver strikes or a takedown, or move out of range to avoid attacks. This concept is best shown by the Ghost method of fighting, developed by Phil Norman which emphasises being elusive through speed, and controlling distance through constant movement, delivering fast, effective striking and avoiding being hit.

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Ghost Fighting with Phil Norman

Speed, distance and timing and essential skills for the martial artist to learn, whether aims are self defence, fitness, traditional martial arts or sport fighting such as MMA. They all interlink as well, with speed allowing you to control the distance and timing of your opponent, shown in Ghost training. The correct distance allows you to be fast, moving in and out of the pocket, delivering strikes or takedowns with good timing for effectiveness, and the correct timing allows speed, power and control of distance.


Martial Arts Fitness and Agility

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Fitness and Agility for the Martial Artist

What is needed to be a good martial artist? Is it the ability to deliver a one punch knockout? A thorough knowledge of all techniques in your chosen art? How about a bad-ass Bruce Lee yell to strike fear into the hearts of any would be attackers? These may all be important factors, yet in my opinion, fitness, and in particular flexibility, agility and coordination, are the bench marks for a solid martial artist.

Martial artists need to be fit for purpose. Bodybuilders lift the heaviest weights possible so that they can tear the muscles in order for them to be built up bigger and stronger. While I admire this dedication to training, it has its limits for the martial artist, due to the fact that if they were to become massively stacked and ripped with muscles, their agility would suffer and they would no longer be fit for purpose. A certain amount of muscle mass is needed for the martial arts without a doubt, but this should be lean muscle so as to still be quick, nimble and agile.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bodybuilder. No doubt dedicated and an excellent example, but limited if he were a martial artist

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Bruce Lee’s physique was functionally fit for his discipline

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a result of this, time spent at the gym lifting heavy weights in order to build muscle has its limits in terms of martial arts. Other methods of training are preferable in my opinion. Kettlebell training delivers a full range of motion in its movements, building lean muscle and increasing cardiovascular endurance, while also stripping away body fat. Gymnastics also offer great training, again building lean muscle and reducing fat, while also building general fitness, flexibility, agility and coordination. This can be shown in the training of welterweight UFC champion Georges St Pierre, who regularly uses gymnastics as an addition to his mixed martial arts training.

Flexibility, as well as being useful in certain martial arts such as Taekwondo for kicking skill, can also help reduce the chances of injury for any athlete due to the muscles and surrounding tissue being more pliable. This allows greater movement in the body, reducing the chances of torn muscles and other such injuries. Yoga and pilates can be excellent for this, improving flexibility, as well as developing the core muscle groups needed for martial arts in addition to regulating the breathing.

Agility and coordination are perhaps the most important attributes for the martial artist in my opinion. If you are not agile, you are slow, making it easier to be attacked both in terms of practical self defence, and also traditional training. If you are not coordinated, you will find it difficult to employ power in your punches or kicks, due to the fact your body isn’t working as one unit. The punch will always come from the arm, not the hip and so power will be restricted. As already said, gymnastics are great for both agility and coordination as well as building functional muscle. Other exercises such as ladder runs can improve speed and agility, as well as cardiovascular fitness

Fitness is a personal thing. Some people wish to develop their muscles, getting them as big as possible such as in the case of bodybuilders. Others wish to focus more on cardiovascular training, paying little thought to weight training such as marathon runners. Martial artists should, in my opinion, focus on both. The well rounded martial artist should be agile and flexible with lean muscle in order to produce power when needed. As such, training in a multitude of arts can be useful. To supplement regular martial arts training, gymnastics could be done to focus on coordination and lean muscle gains or ladder run drills could be performed to focus on agility and cardiovascular endurance. This kind of training will lead to the more developed and well rounded martial artist.