You can’t tell freakishly strong people by looking at them. Some athletes “look like Tarzan but play like Jane,” but I’m fascinated by the opposite, people who are deceptively strong. People who look like a piñata but hit like a wrecking ball.
(That’s not just paddycake. That girl jabs like a tire iron.)
An octagenarian taijiquan teacher once had me bang forearms with him, and his felt like jelly rolls with rebar in the middle. This summer a female instructor of maybe 120 lbs. demonstrated a slap block on my left arm that felt like it came out my right kidney. Last week I took stinging jabs from a 12-year old jeet kune do prodigy, and she whipped out these lazy leads that could smack my eye like a rolled-up beach towel.
As cool people who read this blog know, strength is a surprisingly “stealthy” quality. It’s almost as hard to pick out strong people by looking at them as it is to guess who’s a good piano or chess player. Much of “real-world strength” comes down to the very unsexy, un-visual traits of grip and rotation/counter-rotation, and hence as a great man once wrote, “strong hands + strong abs = strong person.” (And as we began to explore last week, the formula really should read “strong feet + strong hands + strong abs.”) There are some other factors too, like connective tissue and neurological efficiency, but you can’t see those with the naked eye either, short of dissecting someone.
Granted, there exist some useful heuristics, but they’re not eye-catching or (to a modern eye) intuitive. Dan John has remarked that, if looking for strong football players, you should view them from the back, where you can scope out their glutes and hams and lats, because those muscle groups count for more than chests and shoulders. And if I had to wager on a strongman contest, I’d put my money on someone with big, tendonous hands and forearms. My great uncle Frank, who repaired elevators for 40 years, has hands that grew thick in every dimension and freaky tendons like gnarled tree roots on Yoda’s home planet. Last time I visited, he spent the day putting in split-rail fence posts by hand at age 85.
As we’ve discussed here before, you can tell more about physical attributes by seeing people in motion. Loose-limbed people with corrugated abs or whippy waists? Those are your natural lumberjack types. Definitely pick them for your volleyball team. At one softball game in grad school, this skinny guy from the school of education tried out a bat by making a couple loose, sleepy arcs from the shoulders, and instantly you knew this guy could knock satellites out of orbit. Twenty more like him with ponies and croquet mallets could have Genghis Khan’ed the whole Metro Boston area.
A few months ago I began again with my boyhood obsession, martial arts. I started making pilgrimages to the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts, home to three interlocking programs in boxing, JKD, and my boyhood favorite, wing chun.
After 20 years as a (mediocre) strength athlete, I can’t help relating everything they teach to strength sports and thinking of fight training as a sort of “applied strength” sport.
No, fighters don’t lift barbells or kettlebells for a score, but they score by exerting force on something heavy. Oly lifters loft barbells, shot putters throw iron balls, pugilists throw shots, and wrestlers throw bodies. QED: fight training is an applied strength sport.
And a body accustomed to strength sports finds tons of familiarity in the new skills of fight training: the feet and knees feel like club swinging; the elbows feel like a certain kind of bench pressing; the “short power” (短劲) feels like board presses and lockouts; technique training benefits from “greasing the groove;” things about the wooden dummy feel like girevoy sport.
So it feels like an ever-new mystery when I get overpowered in fight training by short, thin, or otherwise gracile people who, it seems to me, can’t possibly have as much power. Not just outmaneuvered and outskilled, but manhandled or just plain pounded. I’m talking bony teenagers, featherweight women, even a girl who’s too young for PG-13 and weighs less than my checked luggage. What gives?
The answers still come down to elementary school physics, just as with barbell squats and bicycles, but the applications are zanier, more complicated, and more interesting than plain old flat-footed strength sports and cyclic endurance sports. That makes “martial strength” like chess to powerlifting’s checkers.
How Come Girl Scouts, Flyweights, Elves, and Stick Figures Can Hit Hard?
Here’s what this humbled, has-been strength athlete has figured out so far.
1. Fast and Loose
“Hitting hard is about mass times acceleration,” said the coach one night. “You can’t get bigger during a fight, so you have to get faster.” And it turns out that speed is teachable, too. A lot of it seems to involve being loose—tense is never faster that loose. So if the light, willowy person can relax better than the stiff, heavy person, she becomes a better puncher.
This is an area where I have TONS of room to improve. Just as “the man with a hammer treats everything like a nail,” I approach every problem with tension. Now that I’m waking up to what “usefully loose” really feels like, I’m discovering excess tension all over my body: in my quads, my hip flexors, my waist, shoulders, arms, and even my traps. I would hear coaches telling me, “Relax, be loose!” but it took weeks before I experienced what it was like to punch with a relaxed waist. (For what it’s worth, my “aha!” moment was a low-speed mitt warmup, hitting crosswise for a completely unrushed 1-2-3-4-5. It felt like hitting a slow, fat softball when you’re not rushing to meet the ball and, with no effort or tension, you bang it right on the sweet spot when it’s exactly out in front of you.)
Height and long limbs look like they help a lot. I wouldn’t know, since I’m a short fireplug, but long limbs must make great levers. They sure do when tall people are flinging them at me. Those punches come in fast and hard, sometimes quicker than I can even see them.
But long arms and legs are only one type of leverage. There are others too that are part of any person’s punching mechanics. At the Greenville Academy, there’s lots of talk about Jack Dempsey, and I bet that nobody would think it was too weird if I showed up with quotations from the Manassa Mauler’s book Championship Fighting tattooed on my arms. In fact, if Greenville weren’t so Protestant, you’d probably see icons of Jack lit by votive candles. (As it is, I’m pretty sure one family at the school named a child after him.) So anybody who’s paying attention in Sifu Jason Korol’s classes should know by heart Dempsey’s four sources of power for straight punches—the “falling step,” “springing step,” “shoulder whirl,” and “upward surge”—plus a couple others that aren’t legal in boxing, like holding and hitting. Mostly these are simple applications of leverage. For example, once your fist is in motion, you can put more speed on it by springing off your back foot (a class 2 lever) like a fencer, and/or rotating your shoulder girdle (a lever arm) around your vertical axis. Skilled people can sequence those so that they add up like two waves that are “in phase” and then the fist/palm/foot cracks the mitt like a bullwhip, reliably.
3. Structural Strength
Maybe leverage suffices to explain the 12-year-old JKD girl who zings long-range smart bombs from somewhere around the height of my armpits. But wing chun spends a lot of time on what amounts to clinching, stand-up grappling, or dirty boxing. To my mind, that calls to mind wrestlers struggling for neck and arm control, grip-fighting judo players, Thai clinches, and grapplers pummeling for underhooks and overhooks. That should be Muscletown USA, right?
That’s where I expected some consolation for my ego. “Well, you martial artists. I may not be able to punch a Tickle-Me Elmo doll off a toy store shelf, but if I can just get in a shoving match with you…”
But that doesn’t work either! A gaunt teenager grabs my elbow and pushes me around like a shopping cart! On paper, I feel, I should be much too strong to let him steer me around. Or at least too heavy and short! So how can he do that?
The guy’s got incredibly good structure. Young, ectomorphic, and still filling in, nevertheless he keeps every bone lined up against me so that, if I push, I’m pushing against a big tripod. If I press further, to bull my way through, the tripod falls aside a couple of inches and then I’m (a) stumbling past with a fist in my face, (b) slingshotted by my elbows, (c) clutched by my throat, or (d) all of the above.
Consider those cool science fairs where kids build weight-bearing bridges out of toothpicks. At a recent one, the winning toothpick bridge supported over eleven hundred times its own weight. Relative to that, my young partner has it easy: he could be nothing but bones in a track suit and I still couldn’t bull in on his structure. With that and footwork, he can walk me all over the dance floor like Fred and Ginger. You have to experience it to really believe it.
All the good wing chun and JKD people there are like that. They may only weigh a buck twenty, but if you try to muscle them, you’re pushing at smoke; as soon as give them your center, rotate away from them, lift an elbow, cross your hands or feet, or commit one of many other positional sins, they’re on you with their entire weight. The whole 120 pounds falls on you all together, in one dense package, like Tarzan swinging on a rope and drop-kicking you.
The cool thing about structure is that it gives more strength without even needing more tension. It’s not magic, of course—physics is still physics. But if you’ve ever been a so-so powerlifter and then gotten good coaching, you know how your bench press goes up in literally minutes when the coach fixes your untutored hand, elbow, and back position. No, you can’t stop a charging elephant or knock out a gorilla just with good structure. But it turns out you can handle most humans that way, which continues to blow my mind whenever people do it to me.
* * * *
Structure is a (wonderfully) complicated subject. Not mysterious—no chakras, no kundalini energy—but still complicated in the sense that there are so many moving parts (feet, ankles, knees, hips, etc.), degrees of freedom, axes of movement, fulcrums and centers of rotation, and so on. As Sifu Aaron Bouchillon says of wing chun, “Some assembly is required.”
But there are other, simpler, “plug and play” techniques for hitting power that give quick gratification. Some sound recondite but aren’t (“borrowed energy,” “short power”), others sound as plain and unexotic as they really are, like holding-and-hitting.
We’ll return to those another day. In the meantime, as they like to say in Greenville, in the words of Jim Driscoll, another nearly canonic figure:
Hit first. Hit straight. Hit hard. Hit often.
Amazing article, thank you!
I have been wondering about the same thing since I started Systema classes in September.
Some people seem to hit very hard without looking like they’re moving, it’s very disturbing.