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Thursday, April 1, 2021

Why Are Left-Handed Fighters Called Southpaws?

Spoiler:  It's not baseball.

There's a popular story--and it IS just a story--that the term "southpaw" originated in baseball.  According to the story, old baseball diamonds were built with home plate to the west, so that a pitcher's right hand was on the north side and the left hand faced the south.  So any left-handed pitcher used his southern "paw" to throw the ball.  

This idea has been thoroughly debunked, but if you ever heard it and believed it, don't feel bad.  This myth has been around since at least 1908 when baseball writer Tim Murnane had to explain that he used the term "southpaw" because players were left-handed, not because their left hands sometimes faced the south.  To say nothing of the fact that baseball diamonds didn't all face the same direction in the first place!  Moreover, in the mid 1800's when the term started to appear in baseball, it was used to refer to any left-handed player, not just the pitchers.

There are slightly older accounts of the term being used in boxing than in baseball, and that may very well be where the term "southpaw" began to be used to refer to a person. But before that, the term was more widely used to refer to a person's left hand, with the first recorded usage being in 1813.

No one is really sure why a person's left hand became known as a south paw.  The best guess out there is that it's because south and left were associated with the devil and/or general badness.  Traces of this remain today when we might describe a person's uncharacteristic poor decision as having their judgment go south, or refer to the devil on our left shoulder when we're not proud of our motivations in a particular decision.  

The stockiest of stock images.

For us as martial artists, the difference between left-handed and right-handed students tends to be small.  A right-handed student may have an advantage when it comes to forms, because most of them were created by and for right-handed practitioners.  In a similar vein, there is this disturbing suggestion that being left-handed significantly increases your chances of dying in combat, because the tools that can save your life are made for right-handed users.

On the other hand (no pun intended but I'll go with it), a left-handed student may have an advantage in sparring other martial artists because both lefties and righties tend to get more practice against right-handed sparring partners.  Left-handed people only make up about 10% of the population, so statistically speaking, 90% of the partners and 90% of the practice will be against right-handed opponents.  Which explains why left-handed fighters are so dramatically over-represented at the professional levels in combat sports.  17% of professional boxers and almost 19% of professional MMA fighters are left-handed--they're almost twice as common as they are in the general public.

So being left-handed can make a fighter just a little bit more dangerous than their right-handed counterparts.  For combat sports like boxing where the term may have originated, more dramatic language can translate into ticket sales.  All those devilish connotations could have been to a fighter's advantage.  It's not hard to imagine a clever wordsmith playing up a left-handed fighter's devastating and maybe even diabolical "southpaw" power shot.

But imagination aside, we know that calling an athlete a "southpaw" didn't come from baseball but rather from a term for an actual left hand.  And if you thought otherwise, well, that myth has been duping people for over a century, so I guess we're in good company.  But let's not propagate it!

Monday, March 1, 2021

Should You Train Both Sides Equally?

"1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10!  Switch feet!  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10!"
    - Every instructor ever

The most common way to train basics is to practice a technique for some number of reps on one side, then switch feet and do the same number of reps on the other side.  But there are a couple other schools of thought out there.  And which one is best depends largely on what your goals are.

Approach #1:  Train Your Side

One school of thought is that you should prioritize the side that you are most likely to use.  You see this a lot in sports.  If you're an elite sparring competitor, you've probably come across this idea quite a bit.  Almost everyone has a "strong side," which is especially easy to see in, say, boxing.  Fighters are known for being orthodox or southpaw.  If you're not likely to switch your stance, you'll get more benefit for your training time if you practice from the stance that you're going to use.  

And while that is a great idea for winning, it's not such a great idea for overall health.  When you train asymmetrically, you condition your body asymmetrically, which can lead to muscle imbalance, posture problems and injuries.  This phenomenon is especially obvious in fencing, which is an extremely asymmetrical sport.  Fencers typically hold a weapon in one hand without ever switching.  They also spend a lot of time in what is basically a back stance.  If you think about where you're sore after some intense stance work, you can imagine why elite fencers tend to have larger calf muscles on one side.  But often they'll also have more developed muscles on their entire back leg and on their weapon arm, and even on one side of the torso.  Muscle imbalance, besides looking kind of freaky, can give you some pretty significant joint pain and even interfere with your movement.

Which is why a lot of martial artists, including myself, prefer...

Approach #2:  Train Both Sides

If your conditioning is symmetrical, your body will develop symmetrically.  (This is kind of a lie.  There are other things that can cause muscle imbalance, and in fact most people have some minor asymmetry, but for the most part this is pretty safe to say.)  

So if you throw the same number of punches on both sides, you'll stress the muscles on both sides of your body equally and strengthen them equally.  Same deal for kicks and throws and stance work and anything else we do.  

But there's one downside to this, which is why some people prefer...

Approach #3:  Train Your Weak Side

Very few people are truly ambidextrous.  You probably have one side that's more coordinated than the other.  If that bothers you, the natural solution is to give that side a little more practice.

And there are some good reasons to do that!  But here I would caution people to be careful and think about what exactly you NEED your weak side to do.  If it's just a dislike of the idea that one side is more skilled than the other, maybe consider that it's not that big a deal.  No matter how much you train, you're unlikely to ever have exactly equal skill on both sides of your body.  And if you try, you could end up training your weak side disproportionately enough that you develop some of those muscle imbalance problems.

One way to get around this is to work your technique in an easy, relaxed way.  You can fix very many technical details without physically working all that hard.  And since you're not pushing the limits of your strength/speed/flexibility/etc., you're not forcing your muscles to adapt.  Don't get me wrong, you need to stress those muscles some.  But doing some very light finesse work and then blasting a target 10 times on each side will cause a lot less muscle imbalance than blasting a target 500 times on one side and 10 times on the other.


Good luck with whichever approach is right for you!

Monday, February 1, 2021

Knife Hand Blocks and the Carotid Sinus

 Among many things that martial artists have named badly is the knife hand block. 

If you try to block something with that front hand, well, good luck with that.  There is a block involved, but the larger, more obvious motion of the front hand really only works as a strike.

There are a lot of style differences in knife hand blocks, so depending on what exactly you study, the specifics are going to be a little different.  But in general, the BACK hand is the block (or trap or grab) and the front hand is a strike.  And while there is a lot to explore in that back hand, this article is about the striking hand.

There are a few interesting points to notice.

1.  Your weight is on the back leg.

Knife hand blocks are almost always done in a back stance, with the weight predominantly on the back leg.  This is to facilitate what is going on with the back hand.  Many applications involve pulling the enemy forward into the strike , so that back-foot weight distribution helps.  But the downside is that the strike has to be effective without putting a lot of weight into it.  One way to reliably do that is striking a vulnerable area like the neck.

You have a lot of important things in your neck, and hitting any one of them hard enough can ruin your day if not your life.  A committed strike anywhere on the neck is serious business.  

Bringing that oh-so-famous Martial Journeys wisdom.

2.  The carotid sinus is a prime target for the strike part of this technique.

Your carotid arteries are the main way that blood gets into your brain.  At the base of each carotid artery you have a squishy spot called the carotid sinus.  They have a lot of baroreceptors, which have the job of monitoring blood pressure in the artery so your brain can make sure it's getting the right amount of blood.  Too much blood pressure in your brain or too little is very bad, but fortunately your body is pretty good at getting it just right.

image credit

While it's certainly not the only potential target for damage in the neck, the carotid sinus is certainly an interesting one.  I should digress for a moment to point out that it may or may not be a viable target, depending on what exactly the back hand is doing and even just the chaos of combat, the enemy's neck could be rotated any number of ways.  You might not have a good angle on the carotid sinus.  Maybe you'll  hit the wind pipe or vertebrae.  That is not any less serious, but again, that's beyond the scope of this article.

I'm focusing on the carotid sinus for this article because there seems to be a perception (which I'm sorry to say I may have contributed to) that short of a blood choke technique, an attack to this area will be painful but have limited effect otherwise.  Actually it can be much worse.

3.  This technique can end a fight.

The idea of striking a pressure point and having the person just keel over sounds like some weapons-grade bull.  And when something sounds like bull, it's usually bull.  Lean into your black belt level eye roll technique and then go hit something to try to blot said bull out of your brain.  But it turns out that some interesting and awful things can happen from a strike to the carotid sinus.

I know my audience, and you are not fans of bull.
image credit

If you really want to understand it, I recommend this article by Brian Sagi, which explains how a strike to the carotid sinus can cause the brain to freak out about changes in blood pressure (I mean, you did squish it pretty good with that strike, and that will definitely affect the pressure, so your baroreceptors are kind of right?) and respond by rapidly decreasing blood pressure in the brain until the person falls unconscious.  Lights out, from a strike to the neck.

I would hope this would go without saying, but THIS IS NOT SAFE TO PRACTICE.  Although getting hit with this is usually not lethal.  Usually.

If you really, really want to practice disrupting a friend's brain function and evacuating blood out of their brain, I have the following recommendations.

1.  Don't.

2.  Watch this video before trying it out.

3.  Seriously, don't play games with this stuff.  

You can safely practice a knife hand block by striking air, or by your partner keeping a hand up in front of the neck.  Hit the hand or arm instead.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020, Martial Arts, and Personal Responsibility

Unpopular opinion time.

Yes, 2020 was a uniquely awful year.  A global pandemic, social isolation, livelihood challenges, a distinct lack of slow news days...  hopefully 2020 will be an anomaly that we can all look back on as a weird time that we all got through.

I have gone all-in with the meme that 2020 has been a malicious abomination that is actively out to get us.  It has amused me during a time when amusement is a much-needed salve.  And I'm not going to stop.


Real talk time.

We made 2020 what it was.

Think about the things that went wrong this year, all the lowest of the low points, and you'd be hard pressed to think of one that wasn't a direct result of--or exacerbated by--decisions made by humans.  

Pandemics are governed by science, but humans chose to make it political, to listen to the experts or not, to make one less trip to the grocery or give in and buy the comfort food, to sacrifice one holiday season to save lives or not, to spread misinformation or fact-check diligently, and so forth.  

Photo credit.

With various parts of the world in government-mandated lockdowns, and other parts of the world leaving it in the hands of the people to make the best decisions to balance necessity against the spread of the disease, a lot of martial arts schools are closed.  Very many of us have found ourselves without our classes, instructors, training partners, and sometimes livelihoods.  Which, besides being painful, it has also been a test of our ability to adapt, to persevere, and to do what is right even when it is hard.

Isolation has been its own awfulness, and without our classes and training partners, we martial artists have lost a major avenue for social connection, which is no better or worse than the garden variety isolation blues that non-martial artists are facing.  It's just easier to go unrecognized, since most of us don't show up to class because we're eager to chit chat.  We go to train, and the social component is a less-visible side benefit.  2020 gave us an opportunity to recognize our dojang friendships, casual though they may be, and either do right by those friends or not.  After all, those friends have also lost their martial arts classes and social connections.

Photo credit.

Looking back on 2020, I can think of many decisions I can be proud of, and just as many things I could have done better.  And the problems of 2020 aren't going to magically dissipate on January 1st.  It's going to take a lot more than a turn of a calendar page to meaningfully improve humanity's biggest problems.

But, we're up to it, right?  We, as martial artists, who proudly say we are physically and mentally strong, that we value character and character growth, that we want to be leaders in our communities (or at least positive influences on those communities), and that we are good people who strongly believe in the power of martial arts to make the world better?

Let's walk the walk.  2021 will be exactly what we humans choose to make it.

Let's do it right.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Karate Lotion!

Like much of the world, I have been doing a lot more hand washing lately than I used to.  Which in turn has caused me to go through a lot more hand lotion.  And this leaves me with a bit of a problem, which is that I really dislike most hand lotions. 

The main thing is the smell. 

  • I don't want to smell like food.
  • I don't want to smell like a delicate flower.
  • I don't want to smell like a hospital.

And there's surprisingly little left over when you eliminate all of that.

But today I conjured up some vague recollection of a friend of a friend making their own lotions.  Maybe I can do that!  Maybe I could launch a whole line of Face Punch Lotions and name them things like Roundhouse Kick and Legendary Warrior.  I bet I could sell like two jars.

But most importantly, I could have hand lotion that smells however I want!  What does Roundhouse Kick lotion smell like?  What does Legendary Warrior lotion smell like?  Actually most martial arts things just smell like sweat, but I don't need any help smelling like that.  And I do need hand lotion.

So, then, with my perfect lotions, I don't have to smell like a food, a flower or a hospital.  But what DO I want to smell like?
  • I want to smell like a mighty death punch walking the earth in human form, confidently striding amongst mere mortals.
  • I want to smell like ten thousand cuts of a samurai sword.
  • I want to smell like the goddess Athena, so clearly in a mood after being momentarily inconvenienced by destroying an opposing army, that it only takes a sidelong glance to silence the next mortal who tries to explain warfare to her.
  • I want to smell like a flying side kick so powerful and precise that it can rend an entire forest into perfectly cut makiwara materials in a single blow.

Yes!  I will finally have hand lotion that I love!

I tracked down directions for how to make hand lotion, and scoured the internet for ingredients.  And that is when reality came crushing down on me.

It turns out, making lotion is hard and expensive.  It would cost me hundreds of dollars to even give it a try.  Well.  I can repurpose that old bottle of body cream under the sink for free.

I know you're crushed, but Face Punch Lotions was just not meant to be.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Form Name or Metal Song?

Recently Iain Abernethy pointed out that some kata names sound like death metal bands.  For most martial artists this would elicit a smile and a nod, but this blog is weird and you're weird for reading it.  So for all my favorite weirdos, here is a fun little quiz.  I'll present two phrases.  One is a translation of a form name, and the other is a metal song.  Guess which one is which, and see how many you get right!

(Quick side note:  Some of these translations are disputed.  Don't shoot the messenger, just have fun.)

Which is a form name, and which is a metal song?  Click your answer to find out if you were right!

Round 1:

Attack and Destroy or Seek and Destroy

Round 2:

For the Greater Good of God or Might for Right

Round 3:

Your Body is a Battleground or Internal Divided Conflict

Round 4:

Emperor's Crown or King's Eyes

Round 5:

Rest Calm or Tranquil Force

Round 6:

Power of One or Ancestors

Round 7:

Rise and Fall or Gazing Heavenward

Round 8:

Fighter to the East or South of Heaven

Round 9:

Center of the Universe or Heaven and Earth

Round 10:

Temple Sound or Spirit

Bonus Cheating Round:

13 or 13

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Solo Training Resource List

In the face of a global pandemic, martial arts instructors all over the world are looking for ways to help their students train at home while classes aren't being held.  My own tiny school is doing this as well.  But that does little for the instructors who are also stuck training at home.  During these trying times, we have an opportunity to come together and support each other.

In that spirit, I'm offering up the lessons that I created for my students for anyone who wants to try them.  Those who read this blog tend to be more advanced than the students these were created for, but you may enjoy them nonetheless.

If you have created exercises or workouts for your students to do at home and want to share them with a wider audience, please leave a comment on this post with the link.  I will add them to the official list as quickly as I'm able.


The List:

Martial Journeys of Madison At-Home Training
Leigh Simms Progressive Karate
Clubb Chimera Martial Arts Shadow Sparring Workout
Karate Nerd 10-Minute Karate Workout
IMOK Karate Class Video
Iain Abernethy's Applied Karate Kata Bunkai App
Taekwon-Do Senior Instructors Class
Solo Training Dos and Don'ts
Happy Life Martial Arts Home Workouts
Northampton Martial Arts Online Classes


Fine print for those contributing links:
1.  Please, only one link per school.  If you want to offer multiple workouts, please use a link to a tag or a playlist or some other format that will allow for a concise single link.
2.  Please only submit your own content.  That way I know I'll only post links with the permission of the person who created it.