We have all seen martial arts demonstrations. A master squares off against his taller and heavier opponent, extending his arm until his fist stops a mere inch from the other man’s chest. Suddenly, the master’s fist slams forward with explosive force, throwing the opponent into the air. The foe lands in a pile 8 feet from where he stood.
Nearby, another expert lets loose a full-throated kiai as he leaps up, kicks and shatters a board held high over his head. A third master smashes downward with a hammerfist, pulverizing a stack of concrete blocks.
What secrets do these experts share? What endows mere mortals with such seemingly superhuman abilities? Consciously or subconsciously, these people have mastered the martial sciences. The more you understand them, the more you will come to appreciate the martial arts.
Black Belt Hall of Famer and Shaolin monk Wang Bo (left), photo by Robert Reiff
The martial arts are enormously popular, but what about the sciences? It may sound funny, but when you study the lives of masters of the past — people like shotokan karate’s Gichin Funakoshi, shito-ryu karate’s Kenwa Mabuni, wado-ryu karate’s Hironori Otsuka and goju-ryu karate’s Chojun Miyagi — you will discover they all were highly qualified martial scientists.
Their disciplines covered sports medicine, biology, geometry, kinetics and physics. Knowledge of these disciplines enabled them to develop maximum effectiveness in their techniques.
That is not to say the term “martial arts” is incorrect, for the men mentioned above were indeed world-class masters of the martial arts. But the words “art” and “science” are not mutually exclusive.
The techniques of karate and taekwondo constitute arts because, when properly executed, they move us to see beauty in their form. Yet they are effective because they develop tremendous power as a result of sound scientific principles.
What Is Power?
On an immediate physical level, the offensive goal of a karate strike is to transfer as much destructive power as possible from the karateka to the opponent. The question is, What constitutes the power that is being transferred?
From the standpoint of physics, a dictionary definition of power is “energy transferred per unit of time.” The last word gives the first clue to the nature of karate power: Time is a critical factor.
Think about placing your fist near someone’s chest and pushing him as hard as you can. Now perform the same movement but shorten the time it takes to place your hand onto his chest. As the time decreases, the push becomes a strike. The body mechanics are the same; the only difference between a push and a strike is the time involved.
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The time required to execute a technique translates into speed. If we return to the dictionary, we find that speed equals distance divided by time and that momentum, which we can think of as force, equals mass multiplied by velocity.
For instance, if you want to deliver a force of 4,000 units, you might have a 200-pound man move at 20 mph (mass x velocity, or 200 x 20 = 4,000). This example indicates that a great mass traveling at a relatively low velocity can result in the desired amount of force.
Put more simply, a big man, although not nearly as fast as a small man, can still deliver a great impact. On the other hand, a smaller but quicker man can produce the same impact: A 100-pound man moving at 40 mph will yield 4,000 units of force (100 x 40 = 4,000).
This suggests that a smaller mass traveling at a greater velocity can produce just as much force as a larger but slower mass. An extreme example of this is a bullet — although it has a very light weight, or low mass, its great velocity gives it tremendous impact.
Developing Power and Speed
As you can see, velocity and mass are important when you're talking about power. Let’s examine these concepts to understand their applications for real fighting techniques.
The goal is to produce as much power as possible, so we’ll look at ways to increase speed and effective mass. The greater the speed of your strike, the more power it has. Speed can be increased through good muscle conditioning.
Many karate and taekwondo stylists use weight training and isometric exercises to enhance muscle tone. Explosive push-ups, or push-ups executed as hard and fast as possible, are also good for increasing speed.
Another ideal exercise involves anchoring a heavy rubber exercise band (similar to a bicycle inner tube) to a doorknob, then grasping the band in your fist and practicing punches against the resistance of the stretched band.
Black Belt Hall of Famer Hee-Il Cho (right), photo by Rick Hustead
To develop speed, good technique is also essential. It allows you to properly tense the correct muscles in the proper order. Likewise, it allows you to relax those muscles not used to punch; if you don’t, those muscles will pull your arm in the opposite direction of the punch.
Beginners without good technique often tense some of the wrong muscles unconsciously, thereby decreasing the speed and power of a strike. Constant practice at slow, then moderate and later fast speeds is the best way to develop good technique.
Another consideration is that hand speed is not constant throughout a punch. Research by the Japan Karate Association and other organizations indicates that during a karate punch, the greatest speed is attained just before the arm reaches maximum extension. This is the point at which contact with the opponent should be made.
The remaining motion of the punch should be follow-through. Not coincidentally, making contact just before maximum extension is the proper way to practice punching on the makiwara. It is also the way a good boxer punches — he aims for the back of the head and just lets the opponent’s chin get in the way.
The speed of the attack, however, is only half the picture. The speed and direction of the target are just as important. The faster and more directly the opponent is coming at you, the greater your destructive force is when your punch meets the opponent. And the closer the strike is to a head-on collision between your fist and the opponent, the better.
Using freeway physics to illustrate, if you drive your car into a parked car, a certain amount of damage results. But if you drive your car into an oncoming car, greater damage results. Conversely, if you drive 55 mph into the rear of a car moving at 50 mph in the same direction, the damage is only slight because the actual impact speed, or the difference between the two cars’ speeds, is 5 mph.
While practicing the martial sciences, a common way to take advantage of your opponent’s speed is to dodge, soft-block or slip his punch as you counter with your own punch, thus lessening the impact speed. Punching an opponent who is withdrawing or falling away from you transfers the least amount of power, which explains why boxers on the defensive like to roll with an incoming punch.
Theory to Application
To thwart opponents who roll or withdraw, some martial arts teach lunge punches for extreme depth. Some karateka and street fighters advocate stepping on an opponent’s foot to pin him in place so he can’t withdraw from a punch. Grabbing an opponent and pulling him into your punch increases impact speed.
Similar techniques include teaching a prone practitioner to punch an opponent as he falls or lunges toward you, and to punch or kick upward at an opponent as he comes down after a jumping technique.
Black Belt Hall of Famer Leon Wright (left), photo by Robert Reiff
The other main variable to consider is mass or weight. Of course, you can increase the weight of a striking limb by adding muscle mass to it, but that is not always easy to do.
A more practical way to increase your effective mass already exits in karate. The human body is a series of components — trunk, arms, head, hands, legs and feet — and each component has its own mass.
When punching, you can increase your effective mass using kime (focus), or tightening muscles, especially the trunk, armpits, buttocks and legs, at the exact moment your punch makes contact. Kime fuses your body into a single unit for a split second, making it a solid bar, as opposed to a series of linked units like a chain.
By relaxing the moment before impact, you get speed. By focusing the strike at the exact moment of impact, you gain effective mass. Together, speed and effective mass add up to power.
How do these ideas apply to the masters mentioned earlier? When force is applied to stationary boards or bricks, they will flex to the limit of their physical makeup; beyond that point, they will break. There are many other factors to consider, such as size and condition of the striking point, but the power produced by speed and effective mass is of prime importance in breaking stunts.
In self-defense, the one-inch punch is just as scientific but more subtle. The arm extends an inch into the opponent’s chest, and the hips twist, automatically rotating the shoulder into the punch with great speed and with the full body mass behind it. The force produced, when directed toward the opponent’s weakest point or angle, can be enough to break bones or send him flying. Such is the effect that an understanding of the martial sciences can have on your practice.
Learning how to detect attacks that come in from different angles and then respond with an effective counter will feel unnatural at first, but the more you condition your mind and body, the easier and more fluid your movements will become. The main goal is to expand your awareness in all the compass directions and learn which techniques are best for addressing attacks that come from those directions.
Photo by Robert Reiff
For example, consider the front kick. It works great against an opponent who’s standing to the north and OK if he’s to the northeast or northwest. To use it against someone who’s to your east or west, it’ll require a 90-degree pivot. In contrast, a right-leg side kick requires a pivot to attack an adversary to the north but no telegraphing movement to hit one to the east. With slight modification, it can target an opponent to the south. Such are the lessons you learn in live training.