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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The 3 Ways to Strike Effectively

Everyone wants their strikes to be effective, by which people usually mean "hitting hard."  But it's possible to have a "hard" strike that is ineffective, because what happens when a punch or kick lands is more nuanced than just how much muscle and effort is behind it.  To fully understand this, it's helpful to think about exactly what happens during an impact.

When something runs into something else, one of three things will happen:
1.  Something is going to break.
2.  Something is going to bend.
3.  Something is going to move.

When you strike water, will it break, bend or move?  It depends.

Actually you're very likely to get some combination of those things, but usually whatever happens will be primarily in only one category.  Which one you get (like almost everything in the martial arts) is just a matter of physics.

To paraphrase Dr. Dick Solomon from 3rd Rock from the Sun, "Kicks don't hurt people!  Physics hurts people!"

I was going to get mathy about this, and then I found this article by Dan Djurdjevic.   That article is objectively better than what I was going to write in every way, except that mine would have definitely included cat pictures.

I pass a million physics classes to get my degree, and yet my competitive edge as a martial arts blogger is still cat pictures. 

Striking vs. Pushing

If I throw a kick (or any striking technique, for that matter), I might be striking and I might be pushing.  It is impossible to tell just by looking at the technique thrown in the air.  It depends not only on how the technique is thrown, but also what is being hit.

Let's say you're doing a front kick to a large practice pad.  If you are striking, even if your strike is excellent, it probably won't impress many onlookers.  Take that same technique to a human body, and you'll break bones (Category 1: Something breaks).  But against a pad, the foam inside deforms a bit, and very little comes of the impact (Category 2: Something bends).  The pad is doing its job--protecting the pad holder from injury--at the expense of making the kick appear ineffective.  Oh look, Dan Djurdjevic did an article about this, too!  He even used front kick as an example!  I DON'T EVEN NEED TO BE HERE!

Where was I?  Right.  It looks ineffective.  It actually IS ineffective, against the pad at least.  The kicker was throwing a technique intended to break something, but the pad only bends.  Nobody went to the hospital, so it didn't work!  That's the price of safety.  Everything has to be modified so that it doesn't work.  That doesn't mean it's bad training or bad technique, only that you need to be aware of how and why it didn't work.  In this case, it didn't work because a pad was used for safety.  The kinetic energy has to go somewhere, and somebody thought it would be better for that kinetic energy to go into bending a pad than into breaking a person.  (I know, crazy, right?)

Now let's say you're throwing a very similar kick against the same large practice pad.  This time, you throw your kick and the pad holder staggers back several steps.  This looks impressive to onlookers, and they applaud you for your excellent technique, all except for the guy who immediately calls his agent to jump-start your career as the next Chuck Norris.  Impressive, sure, but this is not a strike.  It is a push.  (In fact, in our style, we call this a push kick instead of a front kick, and maybe in yours as well.)  Without the pad, this same kick would deliver very little damage to the pad holder, but still move them roughly the same distance (perhaps a little farther, because none of the kinetic energy being transferred would have gone into deforming the foam in the pad).

So, which is better?  That depends entirely on what you are trying to do.  If you are trying to do damage, you need to strike.  If you're trying to create space, you need to push.  It's important to train both.

Training strikes and pushes

Heavy bags and practice pads are great for training pushes, because you get a lot of feedback as to your effectiveness.  If your pad holder takes two steps back instead of one from your roundhouse kick, you know you are delivering more kinetic energy into your push.

Strikes can be trained on pads, but you get more performance feedback from board breaking.  If you can break a one-inch pine board with your technique, great!  If you can break it while it is only held securely on one side, even better!  If you are pushing instead of striking, that board is just going to move (Category 3) instead of break (Category 1).  Breaking a board that is completely unsecured (being dropped and punched out of the air, for example) is even more challenging.  But if you can do it, you know you have a good strike that is not pushing at all.  Again, though, if you take that same technique to a heavy bag, the onlookers will yawn, except for that one guy who calls his agent to say never mind, that he was wrong about you being the next Chuck Norris.

Plus when you put your foot through perfectly good lumber, you tend to feel pretty good about yourself.

Striking and Pushing vs. Deforming

So, Category 1 (breaking) and Category 3 (moving) both have their uses, but what about Category 2 (bending)?  Bending is more complicated.  Bending can be as simple as squishing a pad, or as nuanced as changing an enemy's structure.

If my kick to the knee twists his leg such that it is no longer supporting his weight and he falls over, he has neither been pushed back (Category 3) nor taken substantial damage (Category 1).  I've changed his structure (Category 2) to create an advantage for myself.  The same is true if I strike the groin and he doubles over, putting his head at an ideal height for a knee.  (Technically he's probably driving that motion rather than being moved into that position by my kick, if you want to split hairs, but the bending happened all the same.)  If I strike to the face and he leans backwards with his groin unprotected, that is also beneficial bending.

Strikes involved in joint locks and escapes from joint locks will be mostly bending impacts.

The other side of the coin

Having an understanding of how a strike can break, bend or move is helpful for optimizing your techniques, but it's also helpful for keeping yourself from getting injured.  You can use the same idea to defend yourself.  This comes in two flavors:

- If someone is trying to strike you, and you know what their goal is (break, bend, or move) you can manipulate your own structure and movement to try to make their strike fall into a different category.

- If you're the one initiating the strike, some of that kinetic energy can still go into you.  You generally don't want to be the thing that is doing the bending, moving, or especially breaking.

Here are some specific examples of how managing these three types of strikes can keep you from getting hurt.

1.  Protective equipment of any kind is meant to turn breaking (Category 1) into bending (Category 2).  Heavy bags, handheld targets, sparring protectors, floor mats, foam padding on weapons, etc., all exist entirely for that purpose.  (Well, and to appease insurance companies, but that's another topic entirely.)  When the impact happens, the majority of that kinetic energy goes into deforming the pad instead of deforming the person, making everyone a lot happier at the end of training.  This is also why car hoods are designed to crumple in an accident, why you would rather slip and fall on a carpeted floor than a marble one, drummers don't like to hit concrete with their sticks (crediting Casey Grillo with this observation--never tried it myself!), why gym shoes have rubber soles, and why buildings in earthquake-prone areas are designed to sway.  Bending is just plain healthier than breaking.

Protective gear takes your percussive kinetic energy and uses it to squish the pad instead of injure your partner or yourself.

2.  If you've been trained to exhale when holding a bag for a strong kick, that is another example of making something bend instead of break or move.  In this case, the thing that's bending is your lungs and your stomach, and it hurts a whole lot less than getting the wind knocked out of you.  (Actually, there's a lot more to it than just converting kinetic energy into Category 2 here, but that's definitely part of it.)  Learning to time your breathing can absolutely help protect you from the bad kind of impact.

3.  Once when I was training in Korea, I was sparring against a guy with the stereotypical taekwondo build--tall, skinny, long legs that can hit you from clear across the room.  It was full contact rules, so I didn't hold back when I knew I had him lined up for my side kick.  That would have been fine, but I didn't anticipate him moving forward into my kick at just that moment.  For a moment I thought I was going to snap him in half like a twig.  But in an impressive feat of athleticism, he completely reversed his momentum and went with my kick.  He tumbled a comical distance across the mat, halfway across the fairly large training floor.  But he stood up completely uninjured, having converted my striking impact (Category 1) into a displacement impact (Category 3).  Being able to "go with it" can prevent a whole lot of damage to your body.

Because the other option is just trusting your pads.

4.  Grandmaster Park cautioned me about teaching punching too early because of how difficult it is to punch well.  Ideally, when you punch, you're delivering your kinetic energy into your target.  But if your technique is off by even a little bit, that kinetic energy can go into you instead.  The most common examples I've seen of this are when the thumb is not positioned correctly or if the wrist is not straight.  If your thumb is protruding out in front of your knuckles so that it hits first, that kinetic energy is very likely to just break your thumb instead of breaking the other guy.  The same goes if you have your thumb tucked inside your hand.  If your wrist isn't straight and your arm isn't aligned properly behind your fist, your Category 1 breaking impact can get turned into Category 2 bending impact, which can be really awful for the tendons in your wrist.  There are lots of reasons to make sure your technique is correct.  Just because something seems like an inconsequential aesthetic detail doesn't mean that it actually is.


I hope this has been helpful for understanding the different ways that striking techniques can be effective.  If you are properly categorizing your movements as breaking, bending or moving techniques, you're already a step ahead of those martial artists who see no difference.