Friday, 14 January 2011

Martial arts - a balancing act

One of my weaknesses when executing martial arts techniques is the inability to maintain consistent balance. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not falling all over the place as if I were drunk. In fact, I can stand on one leg just as well as the next person. I have no real problem with static balance; it is moving balance or dynamic balance where I start to get problems. I sway a little when executing a turn or I have to make small corrective foot movements to regain balance. Sometimes my stance is unstable and I can’t execute a throw correctly or I’m easy to push over.

I decided that to get to the bottom of why I have these problems (and therefore know how to correct them) I needed to understand a little more about what balance actually is and how the body controls it.

Wikipedia describes balance as: “the ability to maintain the centre of gravity of a body within the base of support with minimal postural sway”. The maintenance of balance requires sensory inputs from three physiological systems:

• Eyes: The visual system detects changes in the position of the body in relation to its surroundings.

• Ears: The vestibular system (inner ear) detects movement in different planes. It works in conjunction with the visual system to detect direction and speed of rotation, linear acceleration and helps us determine whether or not we are moving in a straight line.

• Muscles and ligaments: Located near the joints are sensory receptors in muscles and ligaments called proprioceptors which help us to know where our body parts are in relation to each other. Proprioceptors work in conjunction with the visual system to help us understand our orientation and position of limbs in space.

When these balance mechanisms detect that our centre of gravity has moved away from our base of support and we are starting to sway then corrective action is taken to bring us back into balance. Nerve impulses are sent to the muscles where corrective action is needed and they contract and/or relax, continuously tweaking themselves until balance is restored. For tiny losses of balance most of this correction occurs in the ankles (assuming you are standing up). The further your centre of gravity has moved outside your base of support then more and more muscle groups are called into play to correct balance – knees, hips, arms, torso…

So, where is our centre of balance and what constitutes our base of support? To put it in martial arts terms, our centre of gravity is in the centre of the body (about 2 inches below the navel) often referred to as the tanden or dantian region. The base of support is the area of ground beneath our feet that our body is centred over. If you are standing in a wide stance, say a forward stance or back stance then you will have a larger base of support than if you are standing with your feet together or on one foot. The larger the base of support then the further your centre of gravity can move from the centre point before it moves outside your base and you become unbalanced.

Our balance is best when our base of support is wide and our centre of gravity is low and pointing vertically down. This is achieved by using a fairly wide stance, with the knees (or one knee) bent and the back straight and perpendicular to the ground i.e. no leaning.

When moving between stances, particularly if that involves turning, then to maintain balance during the transition one has to remember to keep the base of support wide (move the foot into a good position before turning), keep the back straight and vertical – this requires movement to come from the hips and don’t allow your centre of gravity to move outside of your base. Keep your centre of gravity low during the move (so no bobbing) and keep the head up and looking forward so as not to confuse the visual system. When rotating 360 degrees, keep focused on a point in front of you whipping the head around quickly at the last moment (all ballet dancers know this). This will stop the vestibular system from receiving too may inputs which can result in dizziness.

Some of the techniques or stance transitions we need to do will require us to compromise one of the three stability elements (base of support, low centre of gravity or vertical line of gravity). If this is the case then we need to compensate with the remaining two. For example, if your stance transition requires your feet to be brought close together then you must ensure your back remains straight and vertical so that your centre of gravity doesn’t move outside your (smaller) base of support. If your technique requires you to lean forward then you may need to widen your stance for stability. If you need to have your feet together and lean forward (I’m thinking hip throw here) then you must bend your knees a lot to lower your centre of gravity further.

You know what? The more I’ve thought about this and researched it the more I’ve come to realise that good balance means good basics! How many times has your instructor told you to widen your stance, bend your knee more or straighten your back? It’s not just about aesthetics – it’s about balance too.

I’m now getting a clearer idea about where my balance problems come from. I am a ‘leaner’ – this unbalances me because my line of gravity is not vertical. Also, during some stance transitions, particularly ones involving turns of 180 degrees or more I don’t adopt a wide enough stance first – my feet end up less than a shoulder width apart, so my base of support is too small. Together with my leaning tendency I probably keep moving my centre of balance outside my base of support – causing wobbling and swaying!

Okay, I’ve identified the problem, now I need to fix it. The good news is both the vestibular system and proprioception can be improved with appropriate exercises. This together with improving basic movement techniques in karate should fix my problem.

On my other blog – Countdown to Shodan, I will be discussing some balance exercises that I am incorporating into my training regime….
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Elmer Querubin said...

I do have the same problem, too. My teacher always tells me, "Elmer! You're doing the form too fast...slow down. Emphasize each movement! Hips and hand execution should be together!"

Keep up the hard work!

Sue C said...

Hi Elmer, doing the forms to quickly is definitely a common problem amongst students and means that each technique doesn't get finished properly. Don't worry, you're not alone! Keep working...

Charles James said...

Hi, SueC:

Excellent post. Have you looked at your speed in execution? Have you heard the term "chakugan?"


Sue C said...

Hi Charles. Thanks and no and err... no! How do I look at my speed of execution and what's chakugan?

Charles James said...

Take a moment to slow down to a "Tai chi chuan" type of speed so you can "think and feel" the kata. It is a bit complex and warrants more than my comment but you are addressing it by the comment you provide Elmer.

Chakugan: To set your eyes on the opponent or something close to that. If you are waiting until you are committed to look your committed.

Look first then move. That would seem like you are opening up to get attacked as it appears like a pause before acting but when you have practiced it well you will find that they both work in tandem, i.e. the look and follow up move is so close it seems like one move, etc.

Here again, comments are not enough.

Also, looking by using both the eye movements and the head also provide a physical means of over coming tunnel vision caused by the adrenaline dump, etc.

In the military they teach you when your movement is continuous where dizziness, etc. are there that turning your head as you rotate while deliberately focusing on a distant object helps you maintain focus, etc.

Do a google search on chakugan or on my blog as I believe I have an article/post on it.

Sue C said...

Hi Charles, thanks for introducing me to the concept of chakugan. You clearly find it important as a search on your blog revealed 7 posts in which you discuss or allude to it! Having read them I can see that it is clearly a much deeper concept than merely looking with the eyes (sometimes we look but don't see) but involves 'seeing' with all the senses. It's about using all the senses to assess the situation, including 'gut feelings' or intuition and comparing it with past experiences in order to make good judgements on how to react to a situation. Am I on the write lines here?...

sandman said...

Good post Sue! Very good information here. You mentioned leaning - great that you figured it out! A lot of people overlook the importance of good posture. Like you said - its more than just aethetics!

Sue C said...

Hi Sandman, thanks. Researching this article has actually made me much more aware of my body positoning so hopefully I will start to see some improvements in my balance.

SenseiMattKlein said...

The biggest problem I have observed with balance in my students is this: they don't stagger their feet enough. When you throw a reverse punch, your back foot should not line up directly with your front foot. But it is amazing how many people I see doing this, and usually they are wobbling. My sensei showed me a good way to ensure the feet are staggered properly. When moving use a C step that brings your feet in and then out to the staggered position, the whole time keeping them on the floor. It really helps.

Sue C said...

Hi Matt, I know exactly what you are talking about! Having the feet in a line is a common problem, I'm guilty of it ocassionally, though not as often as I used to. It's generally after I've done a full 180 degree turn that my feet can end up in line - I have to really focus on getting my foot over enough before I turn. Your C step tip sounds good - I have noticed some people in my club using it - perhaps I'll try it.


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