What if someone pulled you aside one day and told you that it’s not your muscles that determine how quickly and powerfully you can hit, but the quality of your nervous system? What if that same person also told you that it’s what your nervous system is not doing that is the key?
Research has shown that the first sign of a rapid movement may actually be a decrease in muscle activity rather than an increase. This little-known phenomenon is called the “pre-movement silent period,” and it can enable you to strike faster and stronger.
One of the qualities of expert martial artists is the ability to throw a punch or kick without warning. From a ready position, they explode into motion. The attack is so sudden and smooth that it seems to materialize out of thin air.
When novices attack, it’s a different story. Their motion can be seen a mile away — mainly because they perform a large counter-movement, or windup, before the technique. The purpose of this counter-movement is to allow the primary muscles to start activating well before the attack actually begins. When the forward motion is initiated, the muscles are already in a high state of excitation, producing a powerful attack.
The counter-movement is a natural mechanism designed to produce a quick and forceful action. However, that’s a disadvantage in the martial arts because it telegraphs the movement. It takes a fair amount of practice to be able to launch an attack with only forward motion, and it’s even harder to make the same attack a powerful one.
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Fortunately, the human body is a remarkable machine that’s capable of adapting to virtually any conditions that are imposed on it. When you attack without the benefit of a counter-movement, you can compensate by using the pre-movement silent period.
So there you are with your hands up and ready to attack or defend at a moment’s notice. As you begin, you notice that your opponent has inadvertently let his guard drop. Never one to miss an opportunity, you decide that you’ll punch as hard and as fast as you can. Your brain sends the signal down your spinal cord, through your motor neurons and finally to your individual muscle fibers. However, what happens next may not be what you’d expect.
During the switch from posture to rapid motion, your muscles can actually turn off or stop contracting. The “silence” lasts for only about a tenth of a second, but it causes your muscle fibers to contract all at once, rather than in a graduated fashion. This synchronization is important because it produces a large initial muscle twitch, which facilitates the rapid production of force. The end effect is your fist being catapulted toward the target with great force — and without having been telegraphed.
According to research, the pre-movement silent period doesn’t occur each and every time. Generally, it occurs only during movements that are maximal efforts and that don’t involve very heavy loads. In addition, it has been found to occur more often in athletes who are highly skilled.
There’s evidence that the pre-movement silent period is a learned skill, as people who had been trained to produce it were able to increase its rate of occurrence. More important, it’s been shown that people who are the most successful in learning to produce the pre-movement silent period tend to demonstrate the greatest gains in limb speed.
Currently, the physiological mechanisms behind the appearance of a pre-movement silent period are unclear, and their specific effects on performance are still being investigated. Nevertheless, the next time you practice in the dojo, take a moment — a moment of silence, if you will — and think about what your muscles may or may not be doing.
(Photos by Rick Hustead)
Christopher Hasson is a martial artist and a biomechanics researcher in the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.