Thursday, May 24, 2007

Are You Tough Enough?


If you're involved in any kind of free-style fighting or grappling at your school, eventually you're going to get hit, kicked, thrown or choked out. It's all part of the game, and players need to experience this incrementally over a period of time to desensitize themselves to the physical and psychological discomfort of getting busted up. While general exercise gets us in shape to sustain battle, traditional exercises were created to condition the body to take a certain amount of abuse without incurring any serious or permanent damage. Before I delve any further into this, it should be noted that some of these body-hardening techniques are somewhat controversial and have the potential to do far more harm than good. Women may have difficulty accepting these routines and they're not recommended for kids. You've been warned.

The ancient karate form sanchin is a kind of moving isometric muscle builder that emphasizes deep breathing with a sharp hiss. Performing sanchin is akin to moving an imaginary heavy weight. When being tested for this kata the student is expected to withstand sound kicks and punches delivered to the legs and torso. In demonstrations, the expert sanchin performer endures objects being broken over his body with no apparent ill effects. Some practitioners really go overboard and actually end up with high blood pressure and related problems from the forced breathing aspect of this form.

Kotekitai is a forearm muscle conditioner done with a partner. Students pair up and alternate striking the inside and outside of each others forearms similar to a blocking drill. This is an importatnt routine for Isshinryu karateka, where blocking is always done with the muscular side of the forearm. In many styles, the mechanics of the block exposes the bony ridge of the forearm (ulna), which can cause it to break upon impact, especially from a kick.

A makiwara is a striking post, usually padded with straw, rubber or carpet to cushion the impact of the strike. Fist, elbow and shuto (blade-hand) strikes are practiced. Old time practitioners used to develop large calluses on their knuckles from years of training on these devices. In actuality, the object is to develop strength and precision in all areas of striking that can't be duplicated in sparring or forms practice.

In certain Chinese martial arts, qigong (chi gung) is emphasized. This esoteric practice of manipulating one's chi or ki energy is reputed to have the capacity to reinforce areas of the body against blows. These methods are referred to as iron shirt techniques, and date back centuries. The existence of ki/chi remains questionable as modern science has not investigated this area enough to prove anything conclusive.

While I believe that the student has to get a feel for what a real fight is like through sparring and occasionally taking some hard shots, I'm not totally convinced that it's possible to strengthen parts of the body through repeated blows. I do believe there is an emotional component connected to the "shock" of getting hit that needs to be overcome. Is it really possible to turn one's body into protective armor? If you're willing to find out, proceed with caution.

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27 Comments:

Blogger Miss Chris said...

With me, it was the emotional aspect of getting hit. Once I "got used" to that, I was okay. Aside from ones knuckles (or other bones), I'm not sure what other areas could be strengthened by repeated blows.

12:40 PM  
Blogger [Mat] said...

Goos post and photo of Sensei Advincula.

Indeed, proceed with caution.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Becky said...

Great post. We used to do kotekitai in my dojo, but we quit because too many students were trying to break each other's arms. Too bad, because I enjoyed doing it--with a partner who could control himself.

I'm still struggling with sanchin.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I've heard of muay thai fighters doing exercises to numb their shins and develop some calcification on the shin bones. Sounds similar to this stuff.

Can anyone comment on the long term health issues related to this sort of thing? I've heard about some pretty severe consequences of body hardening techniques ranging all the way to paralysis and severe arthritis.

6:45 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Miss Chris:

With me, it was the emotional aspect of getting hit. Once I "got used" to that, I was okay.

That's the way it is with most people. Getting hit at first can be taken quite personally. After that wears off, it's business as usual.
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Thanks Mat.

Good call - that is indeed the one and only Jim Advincula of Isshinryu karate (on the left), one of the few original US marines who studied under Tatsuo Shimabuku on Okinawa in the late 50s.
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Thanks Becky.

We used to do kotekitai in my dojo, but we quit because too many students were trying to break each other's arms. Too bad, because I enjoyed doing it--with a partner who could control himself.

That's a common problem, unfortunately. As you probably know, kotekitai involves a degree of technique - and not just with the arms, but how you rotate your trunk, etc. In other words, it's not just about power.

Good luck with sanchin. Thanks for stopping by.
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Steve:

Muay Thai - I forgot about those guys! Those shin strikes are devastating. Somebody once told me the average Muay Thai fighter lasts about 2 or 3 years in the game - that's it.

I'm not too sure about any reported long term health effects from these practices. Much of that has to do with the fact that this sort of training has gone the wayside through the years. Very few karate people I know - including long time practitioners - have ever trained on a makiwara. The old timers would spear-hand those things until their fingertips were flat. Not exactly a health issue, but you get the idea.

1:04 AM  
Anonymous Bob Patterson said...

I've done "iron palm" training in Wing Chun. Did not like it.

:-)

Our founder had me try Kotekitai and again, I did not like it. I'm already fighting injuries that just come from normal practice. So, I tend to side with caution. (although I'm guilty of over-training) Protective gear has it's place IMO.

You can still de-sensitize your hands and feet while wearing gloves or pads and striking a bag. It can be done safely.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous KFG said...

In Kung Fu schools I have attended, there was a great deal of 'conditioning' training. In fact, the Shaolin Monks have one entire class devoted only to this (it's hell, by the way). It seems to me that a lot of it has to do with building muscle (and bone? - not too clear on how that happens, to be honest) as well as overcoming the psychological aspects of being hit. There were a number of excercises which involved the shins - but usually these were only done after a conditioning oil had been massaged into the legs. Similarly, in Wing Chun, Dit Dat Yeow (forgive my atrocious spelling) is massaged into the knuckles to condition them before any training of this kind is done. Both oils really made a difference - in controlling levels of pain, preventing bruising and the build-up of callouses (on knuckles). I feel this level of conditioning is important, both emotionally and physically, but it should certainly always be conducted with care and certainly with the aid of the correct oils and medicines. (By the way - that's why I don't have a problem with knuckle push-ups - I was told to think of every push up as a punch - but I did find what you said about them on the last post very interesting).

8:40 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Among the things I admire about boxers, is their training in learning to take a punch.

10:41 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Bob:

I'm already fighting injuries that just come from normal practice. So, I tend to side with caution. (although I'm guilty of over-training) Protective gear has it's place IMO.

I can relate to that. And as I said, some of these injuries actually result from these conditioning methods in the first place. While I generally favor protective gear, the only thing is that the user becomes reliant on it, and will quite often load up on strikes much more than in its absence.
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Hello KFG:

It seems to me that a lot of it has to do with building muscle (and bone? - not too clear on how that happens, to be honest)

When muscle is strengthened, other components are enhanced as well, including the skeletal system. Bones will become denser and heavier from a progressive resistance program over time.

...oils really made a difference - in controlling levels of pain, preventing bruising and the build-up of callouses (on knuckles).

That's a new one on me, at least in the martial arts. In boxing, petroleum jelly is applied to the face of fighters between rounds so punches tend to glance off, thereby reducing damage, like cuts.

...I don't have a problem with knuckle push-ups - I was told to think of every push up as a punch - but I did find what you said about them on the last post very interesting.

Thanks. I admit, a lot of people don't mind knuckle-pushups. By all means, do them if they work for you. Good to hear from you again, KFG.
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Rick:

There's no question that boxers are far more conditioned to take punishment in a fight than traditional martial artists. In fact, that could very well be the biggest difference between the two, IMO.

12:50 AM  
Anonymous KFG said...

'That's a new one on me, at least in the martial arts.'

Really surprised by that - do the Japanese arts not have something similar? My Sifu used to mix the 'medicines' himself - in the true tradition of Masters also being Healers. I would not train without it - really amazing for a wide variety of injuries. Bruises disappear in half the time. Also good for cuts. And preventing the calcification of bone from the conditioning of the hands in Wing Chun. Thanks for the info on the bones, by the way. Very interesting. And I did not know that about boxers.

5:26 AM  
Blogger frotoe said...

We do kotekitai in my dojo, too. I like it. We usually start the arm conditioning part of our curriculum around springtime into summer with lots of self defense work too. It makes the arms a nice rainbow of colors. :)

5:42 AM  
Blogger [Mat] said...

"...oils really made a difference - in controlling levels of pain, preventing bruising and the build-up of callouses (on knuckles)."

I'll have to check up on the oil that Blanchette Sensei uses. They are quite smelly, but hitting a makiwara with those produced quite surprizing effects :

1 - little or no pain while hitting
2 - no bruises whatsoever on forearms in kotekitai
3 - no bruises while hitting trees. (yeah, we're a bit weird)
4 - being smelly for an hour. That stuff reeks!

But, I have to say I'm a bit .... skeptic now. I don't know just what the effect of the oil is. The protective nature of it has not been demonstrated. Therefore, I wonder just how much truly effective it is. I often wonder if it's not a... focus point for the mind.

Dunno. Bottomline, it works.

10:50 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

KFG:

...in the true tradition of Masters also being Healers.

I'm not too sure about Japanese or Okinawan arts, but I remember reading somewhere that the Chinese systems emphasize healing, traditional medicine and physiology. It really makes sense to have some knowledge in these areas when you consider the mayhem that's involved in the martial arts. Thanks for the info, KFG.
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Frotoe:

We do kotekitai in my dojo, too. I like it...It makes the arms a nice rainbow of colors.

Nice! Sounds like you're training with spirit. I never get the rainbow effect with my bruises. Maybe I'm doing something wrong.:)
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Mat:

...I have to say I'm a bit .... skeptic now. I don't know just what the effect of the oil is. The protective nature of it has not been demonstrated. Therefore, I wonder just how much truly effective it is. I often wonder if it's not a... focus point for the mind.

Bottom line, it works.


So, you're suggesting that this oil stuff is a placebo. Or perhaps it has legitimate properties. Maybe it's a combination of both. I'm going to do some research into this area. In the meantime, stop hitting trees!

10:11 PM  
Anonymous blackbeltmama said...

One of the kata's I'll have to learn for Nidan (I think) is Sanchin. It's a dreadful kata. I'm not looking forward to it. I've done it a handful of times and I've heard stories about how people come up behind you and just hit your butt or your legs to see if they can break your stance and concentration. I'm not looking forward to it at all.

3:48 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Hello Black Belt Mama:

I've heard stories about how people come up behind you and just hit your butt or your legs to see if they can break your stance and concentration. I'm not looking forward to it at all.

Sneak attacks, eh? Well that's not cool at all. If you're testing for sanchin and somebody tries to blindside you, just haul off and hit 'em back! Of course, you'll probably fail the test, but at least you'll give everyone something to talk about for the next twenty years or so. Isn't karate fun?

12:14 AM  
Blogger PerpetualBeginner said...

Hmm. I use Everything Balm on bruises after the fact. It never occurred to me to try it before whacking the makiwara. I'll have to try that.

We have several makiwaras in our dojo, though only a few of us use them regularly. We have done kotekai a few times, but it's never become a feature. My first dojo never did either of these, but my forearms were usually a mass of bruises anyway, so I expect the effect was there. (I was so bruised so regularly that a client at work slipped me a business card with the Domestic Violence Hotline # on the back.)

11:43 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Perpetual Beginner:

A high ranking instructor from shorin-ryu once told me that for a karate dojo to be really traditional it has to have a makiwara on the premises. I've developed scar tissue on my knuckles from sparring through the years, so I'd be leery of a makiwara at this point, balm or no balm. And like you, my forearms have been in numerous wars. I guess battle wounds acquired from karate practice is a sort of domestic violence if you consider the dojo a home away from home!

12:09 AM  
Blogger Faik Bilalovic said...

I believe that ironing the body with some imaginary thoughts or techniques will be just counter productive. Your body subconciously "learns" to tense before an impact and that makes you slow, which means in a real fight, you get hit.

4:34 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Welcome to my site, Faik.

Your body subconsciously "learns" to tense before an impact and that makes you slow, which means in a real fight, you get hit.

It's imperative to stay relaxed in a real altercation. Remaining calm means we not only think clearly, but also allows us to react quickly if need be. I generally agree with your comment. The thing is, we all get hit, and when we do, the body will tighten up instinctively to bear the onslaught. So like you said, tensing during a fight is detrimental, but if I really do get hit, I'd like to be in a yang state upon impact if at all possible - exhaling, with a certain degree of muscular tightness. I believe some of these body-hardening techniques (especially sanchin practice) are based on this concept. Thanks for visiting.

10:23 AM  
Blogger B said...

I studied Uechi-Ryu for a number of years before switching to Muay Thai. Uechi-ryu also teaches Sanchin and we perfomed the required arm and leg conditioning. Im not sure about isshin-ryu but we performed sanchin with open hands and was meant to be performed with muscular tension and breathing while at the same time with
speed. In otherwords one would strive to be both hard enough to accept a blow and soft enough to perform with speed. The origins of Uechi ryu came from the chinese style of pan-gai-noon which roughly translates to "half-hard half-soft". I dont recall suffering any ill-effects from it, however, once I began competing in Muay thai I suffered a back injury that ended further competition. Most Muay thai fighters end their career by the time they are 25 due to injuries.

11:52 AM  
Blogger supergroup7 said...

I condition my shins, and forearms by striking them for my Kyokushin training. I'll spend a good half hour once every two days smacking away at my shins as I watch t.v. with my family. They've gotten used to the rhythmic "thump thump" noise. At first, my kids reactions was Ewww.. Mom! But now.. it's just another weird thing that mom does.

Does it harden my bones or make it less likely to bruise? I don't know. I can tell you that my shins do not hurt when I'm thumping them during conditioning. They used to complain sharply, and I couldn't hit them more than 5 or 6 times but now.. it just feels nice like scratching an itch, and it feels like I could go on forever.

I can't see this sort of thing contributing to arthritis. Are there studies that show a link?

3:31 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Welcome aboard, B.

I've heard of the open-handed version of sanchin. In Isshinryu, we clench a fist throughout the moves. Actually, in my style there exists different ways to perform sanchin, from very strong and slow to a smoother, more relaxed cadence similar to other kata.

I once trained with a black belt from Uechi-ryu. If I'm not mistaken, some of the original forms from the pan-gai-noon system have been preserved in Uechi-ryu. Thanks for sharing your input.
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Mireille:

If your conditioning regimen produces less pain than it used to, I'd say your doing something right. I think what may happen is that some people (particularly men) perform these routines with such zeal that they end up doing a lot of damage.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Patrick Parker said...

John,

I really enjoy reading your blog, though I rarely comment you sure give me some great things to think about. I am especially amazed at the volume of comments you get from martial artists all over the place that are informed and enlightened by your essays.

I have linked to your blog in my post about the 'Promote Three meme.'
http://mokurendojo.blogspot.com/2007/06/promote-three-meme.html

Keep up the good work!

2:30 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Thanks Patrick. I'm also amazed (and grateful) for the number of comments I receive. Equally, my readers inform and enlighten me.

I appreciate your kind words.

3:39 PM  
Blogger [Mat] said...

"So, you're suggesting that this oil stuff is a placebo."

For sure, I wonder.

Here are some articles :
(blogger will probably truncate the link, you have to open your post via the permalink at the end of the post. right after "Posted by John Vesia at "5/24/2007 11:24:00 AM" - that way, comments will show properly)

part 1
http://www.fightingarts.com/reading/article.php?id=536

part 2
http://www.fightingarts.com/reading/article.php?id=537

http://www.taichiherb.com/

One thing is for sure. Tea, herbs, oils are all over the chinese arts. I do remember one specific oinment that was in a small, tiny cup. It reduced muscle fatigue better than anything I has tried before.

But still, I wonder.

1:16 PM  
Blogger [Mat] said...

By the by,

"Zheng Gu Shui"

Is mentionned on various medical website where its popularity is the only reason why they mentionned it. They being M.D.'s

They do mention that because of the herbal content, no research has been made on it nor will be.

I have a website, but it's in french...

And by the by, I ordered a cream for my knee with similar ingredients (now that I looked) and well, I paid over 40$(37usd) for that cream while that sells for around 5 or 10$ on the web. Maybe I should stop posting this here. :)

Interesting

1:39 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

I looked at those links - thanks for all the info, Mat. Very interesting indeed. I couldn't believe the immense catalog of remedies that exist in Chinese culture. I had no idea. Who knows how old some of these concoctions really are?

11:42 PM  

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