For those interested in discovering Aikido.

Ukemi and Kokyu Ryoku, simply explained -Part 6 Understanding how we make and store force

Understanding how humans make and store force.

Don’t use muscle…er, sort of.

If you’ve ever taken an Aikido class, or even seen a stereo typical martial arts teacher in a move, you’ve probably heard a teacher say “Don’t use muscle!” While there is some important truth to this martial arts cliché, it’s often more confusing than helpful. Human’s make force by using muscle. If you didn’t have any muscles you couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, you couldn’t breath, or swallow, or move at all. When you hear a martial arts teacher say “don’t use muscle” it can be very confusing and your mind might start drifting to magical answer as to how not to use muscle. In the introduction to this series I talked about how efficiency was the key to understanding how small martial artists can seem so much stronger than larger attackers. If you understand that efficient muscle use is a key, then you can start to see that it’s not additional muscle you are seeking to gain in Aikido training, but instead refinement of the use of the muscle you already have. This doesn’t mean that more muscle won’t make you stronger, because it will. The more muscle you have, the more strength potential you will have. However gaining more muscle is not the goal of Aikido training, more efficient use of that muscle is.

Hearing a teacher say “don’t use muscle” can be confusing. It might seem like the idea is to literally not use muscle at all, but this is impossible. We must learn to use muscle in the most advantageous way. Using the wrong muscle groups or using muscle at the wrong time will zap power from our movements. Avoiding this improper muscle use is what is meant by “don’t use muscle”. Efficient movement comes from rhythmic muscular tension and relaxation. When making force we try to create force in the legs and core where larger muscle groups are. We then add to that force as it moves to it’s terminus (into something or someone else). Muscular relaxation is just as important as muscular tension in this process. To make the most powerful movements possible we must understand and use both.

Humans make force through muscular contraction. This is the only way we make external physical force. We use muscles to move our bodies, and it’s the only way we can create physical action. While this might seem simple, you should take a few moments to really think about that. If you didn’t have muscles there is no way you could move. There are many ways that we can use our muscles, and store energy made by our muscles, but the only way for us to move and make force is through use of the muscles.

Another important thing to remember is that muscles only make force by contracting. Muscles don’t “push” they only “pull” by contracting. Our muscles are arranged in ways that can make “pulling” or “pushing” actions, but the muscles themselves only “pull”. As complicated as the muscular system is, the muscles themselves only do two things, contract and relax. Keeping this in mind is important when you are trying to wrap your head around how we make force. It’s very easy to overly complicate these things and confuse yourself.

Storing force

The only way the body makes force is through muscular contraction. But it is also possible to store the force made by these muscular contractions. There are two common ways we will store force in the body, we do this through the use of gravity and tissue elasticity. Once understood gravity and tissue elasticity can be used to great effect and significantly improve the amount of force you can make. It’s important to remember though that this “stored force” is secondary to muscular force.

How can force be stored? This is a very good question. As I said, there are two main ways that we store force in the human body, one is gravitational, and the other is tissue elasticity. Gravitational force is stored simply by standing up. Every time you get up, you are carrying your weight with you everywhere you go, this weight is stored force and can be accessed anytime you need to use it. By simply “falling” you will access that force. With understanding and training you can direct that force on the vertical or horizontal plane. If you use proper muscular force in addition to this stored gravitational force the results can be quite shocking. Stored force from gravity can instantly add lot’s more power (potentially hundreds of pounds) to all of your movements (punches, kicks, pushes etc.). This force is available to you as soon as you stand up and can be reset in an instant.

Another way to store force is through tissue elasticity. Tissue elasticity is the natural rebound effect that is found in the body. This stored force works like pulling back a tree branch. If you pull back the limb of a tree and let it go, the limb will naturally spring back to it’s original position. Your body also has these same spring-like qualities. If you want to test this out for yourself, there is a simple experiment you can do. Stand up and let your arms hang naturally by your side. Notice how your hands naturally hang with your palms facing towards your body. If you turn your palms another direction, like turn them so they are facing forward, then relax your arm, you will notice that your hands naturally spring back to their original starting position, with no muscular force used on your part. Your arm has a specific natural positioning, when you change that position, you are storing force in that part of your body (via tissue elasticity). The second you relax that stored force will make the arm snap back to it’s original position. With training, this tissue elastic force can also be used to improve our power output.

I can’t express enough that your main(and really only) source of power comes from muscular contraction. So to say “don’t use muscle” is a bit of a misnomer. Very often when martial artists start exploring gravity and tissue elasticity they will start believing these forces are greater than muscular force; this is simply not true. You will get the most force from muscular contraction, you will get the second most from gravitational force, and least from tissue elasticity. When you use all three together is when we see amazing results. If you get a 40% power increase from gravity and a 10% increase from tissue elasticity, you’re gaining around a 50% increase in power. This means that you will have 50% more power than someone the same size as you, or you will be able to make as much force as someone 50% stronger than you are (if those people are not using the advantages of gravitational force and tissue elasticity). That increase in force is VERY impressive!

Realizing that we have the potential to store force in these ways can be quite exciting. I remember when I first started to get these concepts. I envisioned all kinds of cool powers these might give me. While this stored force is quite useful, you also need to understand its limitations. For example, the nature of our universe dictates that you will never get back as much force as you put in. This means that the original muscular force used to store the force will be greater than the force we get back out. You can’t get more out then you put in. Also, it’s easy to start thinking that these forces don’t require muscular force. But remember muscular force was used to set them initially (getting up or twisting the body), so saying that they don’t require any muscular force is a bit of a trick. Both of these stored forces required muscle to set them originally.

After this last paragraph some of the excitement from the idea of stored force might have been zapped. It might not seem nearly as magical as it did before. But stored force really is quite useful. If you think of something like a bow and arrow, we might see why. A bow and arrow follows the same rules outlined above. You get out less force than you put in, and it requires muscular force to initially set (if it’s a human drawing the bow). In fact a regular bow probably only gets back around 60% of the energy you stored in it (if it took 100lbs of force to draw, you only get 60lbs of force going into the arrow). When you hear this it might sound like using a bow is a bad idea. If you only get back 60% of the force required to use the bow, wouldn’t it be a better idea to not use a bow and have 40% more force?? But I cannot throw an arrow faster, further or harder than a bow can shoot it. The reason for this is because of the way the bow stores and applies that force. The same is true for martial arts technique. When you understand how to apply direct muscular force with the aid of stored forces the results can be quite amazing.

So if muscular force really is the greatest force, why do we hear so many teachers saying “don’t use muscle”? It’s simple, until you understand how to use your body correctly you will most likely use muscle inappropriately. At an early stage of training you do not yet understand the proper timing of muscular contraction. This will get in the way of your stored forces and zap energy by using unnecessary muscular contractions and groups of muscles not directly used for the task at hand. It is just as important to know when and how to relax as it is to use muscle. And as a general rule most people will have no problem using more muscular force, but have a hard time relaxing. This is why you hear teachers saying “don’t use muscle”. They are not saying “never use muscle”, they are simply pointing out that there are times you shouldn’t use muscle- that it’s also important to relax. If we go back to our earlier experiment, where we saw tissue elasticity by turning our hand, relaxing and watching it move back to it’s start position, we can see an example of what I’m outlining here. If you turn your palm out, you can simply use muscle to control turning the hand back in. You can replicate what the tissue elasticity exercise looked like by using muscular force. If you were in my class and I saw you doing this, I would say, “no, don’t use muscle”. I would say this because when you are using muscle, you will not see and feel the tissue elasticity. I’m not saying “don’t’ use muscle” meaning to never use it, only don’t use it in that particular instance, because the muscular force is keeping you from feeling everything that is going on in your body.

Now that we’ve got an outline of how we make and store force, and why muscular tension can often be detrimental to our practice. Now let’s start to identify some ways we can increase and use our force. In our next article we will talk about the importance “wave force”. In my opinion “wave force” is one of the most powerful principles in a Kokyu Ryoku practice. Look for that article next week!!

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