Engage with any high level martial artist from almost any style and one quality you often encounter is the ability to seem heavier than they should. Certainly, if you have ever interacted with high level grapplers you will have felt this attribute, and boxers will often talk about a fighter ‘heavy hands’. More often than not this quality is said to be a 'natural talent', however quality of ‘weight’ is a skill that can be trained and developed.
In this article, we will explore some of the ways in which martial arts practitioners can create what I call the ‘Heavy Body’ attribute and how this translates into martial practices and health.
Obviously, we weigh what we weigh, and bar eating a lot or changing the quantity of tissue in the body, that weight will not change. However, when we talk about heavy body skills we are talking about the efficient use of your weight, such that we actually feel heavier than we should. This is what I call 'Apparent Weight' or the our partner or opponent perceives.
The ability to efficiently use our body weight is closely related to our ability to relax. An easy example that highlights the relationship can be seen when trying to lift someone who is asleep or unconscious, vs someone who is conscious. The total relaxation makes the unconscious person feel extremely heavy. Similarly, when we train the heavy body concepts, we are looking create an ability to turn on this relaxed state at will.
Img - One of the heaviest strikers in MMA history, Fedor Emelianenko - Note the level of relaxation in the limb as he strikes.
The health implications for this trained ability to release or relax are clear after some practice. Most aches and pains in the body, or recurrent ‘niggles’, are the result of skeletal muscle tension. Everything from headaches to joint pains can often be laid at the feet of tension, so our ability to recognise and release this tension will have a profound impact on our overall feeling of well being.
Contraction vs Relaxation
Physical training is often focused on the ability to contract, in fact most modern strength and conditioning program places the ability to ‘contract’ at their core. Be it contraction within the context of explosive motion, or contraction within the context of strength, however very few systems will have a targeting form of training to ‘release’ or relax’. Unsurprisingly, it is the same neurology and the same 'signaling' structures responsible for both, why only train them in one direction?
This ability to relax is the focus of the heavy body training methods, it is the key aspect of being able to use our weight in a targeted and conscious way.
Relaxation training permeates a certain martial arts and the longer someone trains (and the older they get) the more the efficiency from relaxation comes into play. This is perhaps why the adepts of arts like Tai Chi are so famous for being strong into old age. It is not that they are strong in a contractile sense, but that through relaxation they are able to use their mass more efficiently.
To achieve relaxation and release, the practitioner must identify and remove muscular tensions that remain even when not in use. Identifying these tensions is the one of the foundations of the martial body system. The practitioner will spend their time scanning the body then adopting the appropriate method in order to 'let go' of the tension they find, be that through body methods, massage methods or other techniques like rolling. Once individual knots are resolved the practitioner can begin the long process of transforming the neuro-muscular connections.
The ability to ‘fire’ our muscles is discussed within the context of contraction in many scholarly articles. This ability is related to the ‘motor units’ which are the Motor Neurons and the muscle fibres connected to that motor unit. These motor units are the tissues that are responsible for the action of the muscle and are normally discussed in association with Muscle Contraction.
A much less discussed topic is the ability for the muscle fibres to completely relax when conditioned to do so. Normally, once contracted, a muscle will utilize chemical processes (Atp convertion) to remain contracted. But in many people when the signal to contract is turned off the muscle will still maintain a certain level of contraction when it should in fact be ‘relaxed’. This is due to several factors, from our inability to turn off the signal fully to the elasticity/habitual tension in the tissues. Often when we have not conditioned or re-enforced the 'relax' response, the signal to certain muscles is never really fully 'on and never fully 'off', the signal strength is simply turned up or down. It takes time, awareness and training to develop this switch.
Muscle ‘elasticity’ is another cause of tension and is linked to the connective tissues in the muscle spindles and the packets in which the muscles reside, but also to the muscle tissue itself. If these tissues have a low elasticity, as seen in older people, then the ability to relax that area of the body is impaired. This lack of elasticity is one of the reasons that methods like Yoga are so successful at aiding with relaxation. The techniques increase elasticity while simultaneously elongating the muscles in such a way as to create a new body state where the ‘relaxed’ position of the muscles holds a lower level of basal elastic tension.
Over time the ability to release becomes consciously controllable as the connection to the motor units become more refined. The exponent who has achieved the high level of connection to their tissues, feels extremely heavy when they chose to turn off the contraction responses.
Connection with gravity
Our weight is obviously a constant. We do not add or remove mass from ourselves during an encounter or training method, so it is fair to say that how heavy or light we feel is directly related to how we use our available mass. Firstly, as we have already discussed it is the ability to efficiently use out mass via relaxation, but the other important point is our ability to connect with the gravity acting upon us. Again, gravity is a constant, but we where we place our weight in relation to the partner is changeable and our apparent weight is adjusted as a result.
Judo 10th Dan Kyuzo Mifune defending throws from a larger opponent using angle, root and clever use of his mass.
Our ability to release with the force of gravity, when combined with alignment and angle, can produce startling effects. To help visualise the potential of utilizing all of your body mass, simply imagine laying on your back and someone dropping a stone, the weight of a person, onto you … it would be uncomfortable to say the least! The stone does not hold itself up against gravity, with a network of bones and elastic tissues, it simply falls, with all its mass coming to bare on whatever it happens to hit. Once the adept finds how to use their mass in a similar, un-obstructed, way their apparent weight increases. This can be seen in the drop step punches we see some Boxers use, study them carefully and you will often see the fighters whole body dropping as the strike lands. They are not just striking with the weight of the hand accelerating into the opponent, but the weight of the whole body falling with gravity.
The ability to identify and connect with the most efficient lines to release along is a core component of the heavy body. Again, there are a myriad of training methods in the Martial arts that are entirely focused on this cause, but in the MartialBody system we have targeted and developed the exact process.
The ability to connect with and use the body weight is not one that is simply born into, as some would have you believe. It is absolutely a trainable skill.