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Kuro1979's picture
Too tense to do martial arts?

 Just watching some of my favourite Abernethy vids there.  You know, he's a man who believes that there is no one style that is best; just that there is a method that best suits a particular context.  That said, it frustrates me that we are trained to do things a certain way then chastised when we are too tense as we strive to get it correct.  Later on we are asked to loosen up and flow more, although inevitably we fail at this; perhaps it is not that we as a nation are too tense, but that we are trained and drilled to be tense from the white belt.  This does not help with kumite and I feel that practical application also requires a certain understanding of the fact that the body may be trained to react in a certain way, but that it moves in a way that is different for and specific to each person. What do you think?

jeffc's picture

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  A search for "Kime" is a root cause for a lot of stiffness in Karate.  For decades instructors shouted "More Kime" without either understanding it themselves, or their students misinterpreting it to mean that they should be more stiff, tense and, I hesitate to say, strong. 

The funny thing is that the translation of "kime" does not remotely mean that a person should be tense.  The Chinese use a term "Fa-jing" to express a similar concept and it translates into an explosive power.  A muscle must be relaxed in order for it to accelerate at its maximum.  The sudden stop at the end is "Kime", and the whole concept could be described as "Fa-jing".  Practioners like Asai were masters of this and you can see the origins of Karate from the White Crane system in their movements. 

Stiffness and tenseness is natural in beginners who are learning movements and is brought on by anxiety and excessive concentration to get things right.  Unfortunately this has been cultivated in some schools/associations/styles/whatever, to become the desired objective of their techniques as it 'feels' powerful, especially when you are only punching and kicking thin air.

Just my thoughts...


shoshinkanuk's picture

Physically tense people training are very common, I am one of them.

It's not so much to do with the body alone, i have learned this. Its to do with breathing and mental focus, we also need to develop the ability to relax the relevant muscles during the 'gaps' of technique execution, i.e to much focus is often given to the end points in basic karate training.

Personally I think many give to much credit to being relaxed, to much of the time. The body is built that muscle tension serves a purpose, and thinking of combat its clearly there for a reason (to protect us as much as anything else), so I feel we need to find the right kind of tension, in the right places, at the right time.

Also reality often 'delivers' tension in our bodies, like it or not. So Training can help us work with this to remain functional.

But at the end of the day, skill in this area is secondry to the ability to apply things. A punch in the mouth is still a punch in the mouth, tense or not..............

I have found, of course with skill the body produces more, or perhaps a different type of force by using acceleration x mass, and incorrect muscle tension has nothing to do with those things. Mobility is also significantly improved by correct tension, as is the ability to change following tactile signals.

JWT's picture

Good question Kuro1979!

I think part of the issue is what we think we mean by the words tension and relaxation and then mistakenly applying them to movement and posture.  As Jim points out above, 'tension' is a necessary part of posture and movement.  I think Jeff also hits the nail on the head vis a vis kime.

You cannot function without muscular contraction and relaxation.  To be able to move effectively when the muscles that create one position are contracted, their counterparts must be relaxed.  When we start introducing words like tension then many students try and contract both sets of muscles at once all the time (particularly in the upper body), useful as a strengthening exercise (albeit not to my knowledge as useful as weights or bodyweight press ups or squats), but unhelpful when we are trying to create fast and adaptable techniques and postures.

I tend to tell students whether they are doing a flexor or extensor movement and explain in those terms why they are having an issue.  One of my early syllabus written exams asks students to give examples of each.

My own view on this is that a little can go a long way.  A tiny bit more explanation in training as to what needs to be contracted, why and when, can get students into the habit of 'bracing' certain parts of the body correctly.

All the best

John Titchen

Holgersen (not verified)
Visitor's picture

I'm new and feel bad that this is my first post responding to someone elses, but it caught my eye on the way to the introduction forum.

I personally like practicing my kata relaxed and slow. Personally when I try and do my kata fast, and I mean fast not rushed, I don't have a chance to notice little things that I don't like that I'm compensating for with muscle power. Practicing my kata slow forces me to address body mechanic issues that I might not notice while doing them fast because my brain is saying FAST.

During my short time in the United States Marine Corps there is a saying I heard tossed around that I like. It is "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast"

Basically the idea is that if you are focused on doing something fast that's what you do, you try and do it fast, you are not focused on doing it correctly. Not so important with somethings but when you're clearing a malfunctioning firearm you want to do it right, you don't want to try it fast and screw up and then have to try again.

Also in the book The Way of Kata, they have a line where they basically say, first comes form then comes speed then comes power. I feel that if I always focus on technique and form that it will become natural and those natural responses will have speed because I'm relaxed.

In a nutshell I think that slowness is for my kata and speed is for my sparring. But I'm usually not thinking speed when I'm sparring, it's usually something like "Oh crap my wife just suckered me into an arm bar and I'm about to eat dirt!"

Black Tiger
Black Tiger's picture

Nice Post/Thread

I'm not too sure with regards to this traditional Kata anymore as I'm Ashihara so even the likes of Bassai, Neiseshi & ChilSung Ee Ro Hyung are done at the same spead as the Ashihara Kata, even the stances are "shortened" to allow fighting stances to be adopted.

I always advise new students that compare how they stand and react with their friends during conversations etc, this is how they should be with karate, Karate should be natural as if it is so natural it will appear natural when you need it most.

The Rigidness comes with trying too hard to perpfect techniques as opposed to just being stiff.

I believe the saying is "Ready Stance for beginners; Natural Stance for Seniors"


Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

I know when I went from Kyokushin (where we tried to hit hard all the time) to Enshin I was impressed by their impact levels despite a real economy of effort.

Kancho Ninomiya hits as hard as anyone I have ever met and his favourite expression is "Make smooth".

The really good ones always make it look easy, don't they?


stevem's picture

Good thread. Again.

It's almost a 'chicken and egg' notion... does relaxation improve technique or does technique improve relaxation? I'm more inclined to look at the latter and nod my head. I'm no master of body mechanics or physiology but personally I've found that the more familiar you become with a technique, the more you gradually relax 'into' that technique, the more natural the action becomes and this all informs the effectiveness of the technique.

So, for me, concentrate on getting the technique technically correct and the relaxation will follow. I know of very few people who relax the first time they're confronted with something new, especially in martial arts given that most new things are new and interesting ways of causing yourself or others pain! Breakfalls would be a good example: the more relaxed you are the better the breakfall is but most folk I know all tensed somewhat at the thought of their first front breakfall as the prospect of your face making a large dent in the floor/mat does tend to be off-putting until you trust yourself enough.

Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

According to Pavel Tsatsouline (of kettlebell renown) most fighters hit the hardest at a 'perceived rate' of around 80%

This allows the correct ratio of effort / relaxation that translates into good yet fluid impact.