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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.