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Plumbing the Depths
29 November 2019

Plumbing the Depths

One thing that always struck me about some of the old body training methods was how simple they looked. Someone would just move their arms a certain way, take some simple steps or even just stand there with their arms in a static position. It all looked so very simple, so very normal. That was until you came to practice them, really practice them, and like the layers of an onion more and more complexity, challenge and difficulty would be revealed. This is part of the paradox of Body method training, how the extremely simply can be extremely demanding.

This phenomenon is not only reserved for old movement training methods or those found in the MartialBody system, in modern strength training it is entirely possible to be imprecise in your lifting, to simply pick up a barbell and put it down again. But any Olympic lifting coach will immediately be able to pick out, highlight and correct a cascade of ‘problems’ with the way you just did it. You will find that there is MUCH more going on inside the athlete in the form of contractions, tensions, balance points, articulations and directions than is seem by most Lay people observing! The same can be said for most ‘elite’ level endeavours, the mechanics of a professional tennis players backhand, the Professional Boxers Jab, the Olympic Judokas Osoto Gari. All of these movements will have a layer of depth, of complexity that is hidden from view to most people, a layer that makes the movement what it is, elite.

Face Value

Understanding that this is the case and that it is this very depth that makes something out of the ordinary, we can begin to apply a thought and training process to focus on this idea. Some of the old Martial Arts had an almost fanatical obsession with looking inside at even the most simple of movements to plumb its depths, searching for greater and greater mechanical advantage, efficiency and power.

extended-BLRHowever, this search begins with one first simple step, to not take training methods of techniques on face value. Looking at techniques and saying ‘Ah yes I have done that one before’ or ‘That’s really simple I wont bother with that one’ is the first huge error I come across in coaching. We have heard almost every Martial Arts Master in history, every combat sports coach, every sports coach in general talk of fundamentals, talk of ‘solid foundations’ and of mastering the basics. Maybe we should all listen! And yet it is persistent, especially with those whom already have some measure of familiarity with techniques that people will observe and then reject specific methods of face value.

Sometimes this is because the experienced individual has seen something similar, or has something similar in their training program, or has some method or other that they think will result in the exact same outcome. This reaction is entirely understandable, but, more often than not misguided. I have had several people ask ‘Why are you doing it that way? That’s wrong isn’t it?’ to various methods, or ‘That’s not how we do that exercise’. Then after an explanation of the thought process and reasoning them say ‘Oh that’s different I understand now!’. As mention, this is most common with those already training something. They already have a framework for ‘correct’ things or ‘incorrect’ things and this will colour everything they see.

Further, it can be the brand new beginner that takes methods on face value. They see a practice of standing with your arms outstretched and think “well that looks easy or pointless” and walk back over to the barbell. But like those with experience, it is often the case that the beginner misses the point of the method.

footIn the observation of a given method it is best to look at it with the view related to its stated goal. For instance, Stability training may involve something as simple as rocking on the feet. Moving our mass forward and backwards on the foot, side to side or in circles. This seems like an extremely simple exercise, something we could rush through as we move onto the next one and in some respects it is! You really are ‘just’ rocking your weight around on your foot!

But, when we look at what is going on here it is of huge benefit for setting up their base of support for optimum stability training. The muscles, tissues, bones and nerves of the feet and lower legs are working hard and relay feedback to the nervous system and brain, this creates a deeper and deeper conscious connection to this area of the body. In fact, if we were to spend an hour doing this simple thing our feet would ache, our ankles and lower limb muscles would be fatigued and our perceived connection with the earth would be dramatically increased. We would become aware of every millimetre of the sole of the foot, how it perceives the surface of the floor and how our weight is balanced above this, all important, point of contact.  There is a hidden depth to this basic practice of rocking the weight around the foot and that depth is exposed through dedicated practices beyond the techniques face value.

Pealing the onion

In fact, with correct training, even the above is still the surface layer and through dedicated training more and more layers of sensation and connection can be found in the simple exercise. There are seemingly simple solo training techniques that I learnt over 15 years ago that still reveal details that I had not understood previously.

Alex-pi-quanOne of my friends and teachers Alex Kozma  always replies when I ask him how training is “Good! I am starting to learn Pi Quan now”. This technique from the Chinese art of Xing yi looks extremely simple, but for him, almost 30 years on from the first time he learnt the method, it is still a wellspring of exploration.

But why is this the case with solo training work? How can it be that standing with our arms outstretched can be such a fascinating experience for those willing to dedicate the time to it? The answer lays in our ability to focus inwards and our awareness of our body. You can imagine that initially, when we practice we have very little awareness of what our body is doing from one moment to the next. In fact, our days are full of our mind wandering off this way and that, most of the time we are not even aware that we are breathing, let alone what that breath is doing to the rest of our body!

When we stand in a specific posture or repetitively move in a specific way and begin to focus, we initially perceive the very surface of the reality of our body state. We are de-conditioned to acutely understand the position and state of the various body tissues, joints, bones and organs. We simple feel that we are stood there. However, the longer we stand there the more various tissues come into our awareness. This starts with the muscles that are tense or beginning to fatigue, for these scream the loudest to us! But over time, more subtle points arise in our minds, the mild pull of the tissues in association with the breathing cycle, the way the connective tissues hold the joints in place, the weight of the tissues falling around the rising bones of the skeleton. This slow and continual progression of depth into the most simple of practices is the playground of the dedicated practitioner.

Depth means more, for less

But why should we plumb these uncharted depths in our practices? Are there more bangs for our buck? Surely hitting the deadlift more often would be better for us than standing around with our arms outstretched?

Well firstly it is important to realise that many qualities cannot be trained in the gym, so although you may already train lifting or cardio, you will not get access to training other also useful qualities. Improving proprioception, or our ability to use our weight in techniques, improving ground contact speed or reaction times, increasing multi joint movement complexity or flow state … these things require individual and specialised training. And further it is the depth at which we train these things that really will produce the results.

When we begin to dedicate a proportion of our weekly training to some of these, perhaps more obscure, training protocols we will begin to feel their effect permeate the other training methods we undertake. They will wire our bodies in a specific way, and produce habits that remain present as we lift a weight, perform a bodyweight movement, push a partner or perform a technique. This permeation of method only gets deeper and deeper with time and as we peal the layers away until we are working at the core of the attribute in question. So essentially, we are getting more and more benefit reaching into all other aspects of our training and daily life the more we embed specific body habits.

For instance, although we are usually not lifting weight in most of the methods of MartialBody training, many people practicing will report that their training partners claim they are getting ‘stronger’. This phenomena is a reflection of correct practice improving our alignment and efficiency of movement so that when we make an action it is backed by more refined structure and mass.

deadliftThis can be likened to the Olympic lifter, who, through the training of correct and highly precise technique can lift heavier weights without increases in strength. The purity of the movement and efficiency of the technique is manifested in greater apparent power, even if the strength itself has remained the same.

Imagine if that lifter had gone to their coach and thought ‘I have seen a deadlift before, I don’t need to work on that technique!’ Imagine if they didn’t plumb the depths of the mechanics of that lift, if they didn’t refine their technique over many hours of precise investigation. It could be the difference between an Olympic gold medal and not even qualifying for the team.

Similarly, if we take techniques we think we know on ‘face value’, we just breeze through them, without looking into the depth of their merit, without training them with dedication and complete focus … maybe we will miss out on something. Plumbing the depths requires time and focus of will, it is not an easy endeavour, but the merits have been known for generations.

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“It was rarely the techniques that impressed me when I met the Elite Martial Artists of various styles. It wasn't what they did ... it was how they did it! It was they 'felt' ... their highly developed  power, accuracy, subtly. When I realised this, I knew my training had to be focused on those things, not just techniques. "

Coach Chris Davis - MartialBody Founder