Just another thought I’ve been letting roll in my head: why are joints more important than muscles in terms of generating martial arts power? I’ve been thinking about this again, because I finished reading Aikido Shugyo and Shioda-sensei makes an all-too-familiar comment about not needing big muscles to do aikido. In some versions of the comment, it is said that big muscles make it harder to do techniques properly and the reasons are many–muscles are too big; you’ll become too inflexible; you’ll rely on strength too much. On the other hand, any strength training book will tell you the exact opposite. Stronger muscles are necessarily larger muscles or done correctly, strength training can help with flexibility or stronger muscles are also more efficient muscles. Helping strength training is newer research showing that resistance training is good for your health, and the actual methods of training have become far more advanced in the past few decades. So where is the truth?
To my mind, they are both right. I do resistance training, but mostly I do it for maintenance and health. I also do it because in reality, if I didn’t, I simply would be too weak. Consider the difference between my mother’s father and me. Grandpa was a good three inches shorter, but far more powerful than I was when he was in his 70’s and I was a teenager doing judo. He was a carpenter, and he built the house my mother grew up in and my brother now lives in. He had a large garden and did a lot physical work. By comparison, I have a desk job at a large university, where although I’ve had to carry heavy boxes around from time to time, the division of labor keeps most physical work away from me. My gardening is confined to two small planters outside our apartment. I’m not nearly as active as my grandfather and need ways to keep active. While aikido and tai chi chuan are great exercise, both have limits on how I can practice them (practice times vs. family schedules) and space limitations. And while I do run a tai chi group at work, the gym is right next door and is insanely cheap for me. On the other hand, all those negative about strength are all too real as well. My belief is that it all lies within perspective.
Tai chi chuan, practiced slowly, emphasizes the joints. This leads to better technique, not only in movement skills but also in muscle response skills. My observation is that as important as it is to learn to move correctly and along with it, the proper allocation of strength, the greater challenge is to get other muscles to release which is far greater problem than improper allocation of strength. The unreleased muscles act as a brake upon motion and can be ignored during a fast motion, because of the nature of the release itself. Releasing or “unbraking” the muscles is an active negative action or an active non-response. In other words, we’re programmed to want to do something, but we’re asking some parts of our body to, as in the words of Vanguard founder John Bogle, “Don’t do something! Just stand there!” It is in any field, hard to get out of our own way. By practicing slowly and not putting any extra power into each motion, you can observe the correct muscles in motion–which to power up and which to release. Once this becomes habituated, moving at speed becomes easier and freer, albeit a bit disorienting.
This brings up one of the objections I have in aikido practice. Static resistance, which is something I’m just as guilty of as anyone else. The problem is that basic aikido practice is practicing a metaphor, something that conveys the feeling and energy of something else, and static resistance teaches that resistance occurs both in a different place but also with different energy. Static resistance, which takes different forms if in holds versus strikes, tries to “freeze” the technique into a nanosecond that a real opponent would never stay in. No one grabs your wrists and then just hangs out, and no one punches and then reacts as if he/she wants you to stay in that position. Basic practice screams out for a slowing down (not stoppage) of time. Nage needs to feel what the technique will feel like in free space rather than with a stubborn resistance to the nanosecond of contact. This puts uke in an odd position. Not only does he/she know what’s coming, they must simulate natural reaction in slow-motion. This bothers the “logic” that most of us have built into our heads. The rationalization is that I feel an adjustment on the part of nage so I should make that adjustment, but in reality if this happened in true real time (meaning you didn’t know what was coming) you’d never react the way you do in this set. I know, this is clear as mud, so I’ll leave like this, being an uke is hard. You have to simulate a particular motion and reaction that might seem to be “unnatural” because you already know what’s coming. The other side of this is you learn more if you do complete your attack and take the fall than you would the other way. You learn how the technique correctly applied feels like. This kind of practice is metaphoric combat, not actual combat. If you want the latter, pick a fight with somebody (you can read about that in Aikido Shugyo).
But doing things slowly, moving without anticipation, making “adjustments” (read counterattacks) when there is a legitimate mistake is, I believe, a better way to learn proper form rather than random, out-of-context resistance, which does lead to a ton of bad habits on both side of the technique. Making proper form habitual (as opposed to make a warped form habitual) is key because aikido components are actually pretty complex. And concentrating on my joints (when I’m nage) is particularly satisfying because I find that I feel my own muscular tension quicker and am more apt to release it. After all, I’m not really supposed to be using them anyway.
Plus I’ve had two doctors talking about my migraines saying, “I know you’re ‘not using them’ but really….” Concentrating on my joints also does help the migraines.