Monday, March 30, 2009

Ways to Push and Pull

There are many ways to push and to pull.  Firstly, you need a connection.

Most obviously: If you have a grip -- usually with a hand -- on your partner or your partner has a grip on you (or both have a grip on each other) you can use the connection to pull or push.  Note that if your partner has the grip they may elect to release, which is why in jiu-jitsu when grabbed, we often grab back (so that they can't get away).

In principle it is possible to grip with your toes or your teeth, but I will disregard those possibilities for now.

Use of the hands
When gripping, especially when gripping clothing, it is good practice to grip tightly with smallest two fingers (the ring finger and the pinkie), and quite gently with the thumb and the  remaining fingers.  This prevents over-tensing, increases sensitivity to your partner's movements, and over time strengthens the smaller fingers.  This is also the recommended way to grip a sword.

Usually -- there are exceptions -- the shoulders should be relaxed and lowered to allow power to be transmitted more effectively from the core of the body.  Elbows may be raised or lowered depending on the situation.

Other ways to push
In the absence of a grip one can push with almost any surface of the body.  Fingers, palms, wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, head, chin, chest, stomach, side, hips, buttocks, knees, shins and feet can all be brought into play.

A push can be used to project away or deflect. Of course many a push can be transformed into strikes, but that's another subject.

Other ways to pull
Besides gripping it is possible to pull or draw-in wherever a sufficient angle can be created at a joint.  Hooking and trapping describe many of these kinds of actions.

Pushing and pulling at the same time
By using push and pull together we can generate more complex twisting and turning actions.  These are more difficult for an opponent to interpret and neutralize than just using push or pull alone.

On a large scale these two-way actions are essential to most throws: We make large circles.  On a small scale they contribute to effective joint-locking: We make small circles.  Speaking of small circles, here's a taste of Small Circle Jiu-Jitsu founder, Professor Wally Jay (aged 70 at the time of the video):

In his method Professor Jay emphasizes a wrist action similar to how you would turn off a tap; it combines push and pull.  You can see the students doing exercises to practice this action, and Professor Jay putting it into effect in many and varied techniques.

There are many, many ways to push and pull.  As you can see from the video, push and pull works with sensitivity, timing and flow to produce excellent technique.  This is something that you can reasonably aspire to still be doing at age 70 (and beyond).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Don't drop people on their heads

As a postscript to my theme for March, beautiful breakfalls, I want to point out that although learning to breakfall greatly reduces the chances of injury, it is also up to the thrower (tori) to help perform safe throws, safely.

For instance: Many jiu-jitsu and judo throws have been developed from battlefield techniques that culminate by dropping the opponent on his head or neck.  In the modern times these techniques are modified for safety: We do not drop them on their heads (or necks).  Either we modify the technique so that our partner is not killed or crippled, or -- when demonstrating -- stop before the completion of the technique.

An example: Here is the rice bale throw, executed in a safe, controlled form:

And here is a related -- but incredibly dangerous throw -- that occurred when a Capoeira demonstration degenerated into a disgraceful brawl (throw begins at the 35 second mark):

Fortunately the recipient appears to have evaded spinal injury.  Thanks to Dojo Rat for spotting the Capoeira incident (click the link for his discussion).

It often takes more skill to execute a safe throw than a dangerous one.  Let's save the deadly techniques for the battlefield.

Theme of the month April 2009: Push and Pull

Despite a strong temptation to use April Foolishness as my theme for my class this April -- maybe next year! -- this month's theme is Push and Pull.  We shall see that push and pull has many aspects and in exploring it we will use physics, bio-mechanics, and  psychology to our advantage.  In broad outline:
  • Physics: By pushing and pulling simultaneously we generate turning forces (also known as torques).  
  • Bio-mechanics: We apply these torques to twist, turn, lock and/or throw our partners.
  • Psychology: The majority of people when pushed, push back; when pulled, pull back.  If instead you respond to a push with a pull; or initiate by pushing, get the expected push-back, and switch smoothly to a pull, you can begin to co-opt your partners force and use it against them.  Etcetera.
Some thing to whet your appetite: Physicist Jearl Walker explains the physics of a few judo and aikido techniques.

Next up: Ways to push and pull.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Stay out of trouble ...

Setting aside issues of technique and conditioning, training for self defence should include:
  1. An appreciation for the potential for violence and its consequences
  2. Some clues on how to recognize and avoid trouble
  3. Strategies to increase your chances of survival in dangerous situations
Without this kind of training you may find yourself ill-equipped to deal with an encounter where-in society does not prove as civilized as one might hope.  Witness this first-hand account of a 53-year old man who bumbled into an unfortunate altercation in suburban Melbourne:
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, my wife and I pulled up directly outside the shop she wished to visit and, like the dutiful husband that I am, I waited patiently in the car for her return. As I sat there getting progressively more bored, I noticed two youths, obviously blind drunk, causing some commotion at a nearby shop. Their pockets were filled with stubbies and, as a result, one of the pair's trousers fell down. He continued to walk a few paces before apparently realising his state of undress and nonchalantly hoisting his pants up.

He then made his way into the shop my wife was visiting and I kept a watchful eye on him. The drunken youth soon exited the shop closely followed by my wife. She apologised for the delay, saying that some yobs had caused a commotion in the shop. I nodded towards the youth who had just preceded her. "That's probably him there," I said. Unfortunately for me, said youth noticed me looking, took objection and, cursing, threw a stubbie hard at the car, on which it landed with a solid thump. Taken aback, I leapt from the car to inspect the damage.

In retrospect, this was not the smartest of moves as the drunken yob took this as a signal to attack me. I saw him rushing towards me, face contorted in fury, then a well-thrown left hook smashed into my jaw.

As I said, I'm 53 and awaiting a hip replacement, I smoke far too heavily and the word "exercise" seems to have been removed from my personal dictionary. So, when it comes to what in former times was known as fisticuffs, I'm hardly on the shortlist for the Olympic Bashing Event. Being Scottish and having a deep sense of personal pride, I was reluctant to let a drunken yob get the better of me, so I defended myself and a rather dramatic fight took place. I was thrown repeatedly over the bonnets and boots of cars and on to the ground and, at one point, had the thug straddling my chest as he literally tried to rip my throat out. Eventually, some bystanders came to my aid and dragged the two of us apart.

My wife and I were advised to get back into our car and drive, which we did quite promptly. Then my wife decided to pull over a few metres further on to call the police.

It was a few seconds after this that the drunken youth put his face threw my window and asked if I was all right. I was taken aback and muttered that I was fine. With that he threw another punch to my jaw, I grabbed him to prevent further blows and my wife, showing a lot of common sense, put the pedal to the metal.

The result of this trip to the shops? A broken jaw, which will take eight painful weeks to heal, a bruised windpipe, lacerations, bruises, a dented car door, a ripped jumper and a pair of glasses missing. Worse than this, though, is the fear instilled in me. All of this was as a result of looking at someone. Do I need to spend the rest of my time in Australia avoiding eye contact? Must I be fearful of going shopping in broad daylight? Must my wife suffer nightmares that the man indeed did kill me, as he so obviously wanted to? Should I replace my Jack Russell pup with a half-starved rottweiler?

So what is violence actually like? It's physically painful, not terribly pleasant and downright scary.*
I generally steer away from teaching short-courses on self-defence because it takes time to acquire and internalize the deeper skills, plus regular practice to maintain them.   Then again, people like this unfortunate gentleman could benefit from a quick lesson or two in staying out of trouble in the first place.

*I should stress that I don't think Australia is a particularly dangerous country. For one thing, we have low gun  ownership, leading to a fairly low murder rate.  And while we do have the most venomous snakes in the world, they generally stay away from people.  And the crocodiles only seem to eat tourists. ;-)

The ancient art of Ti Kwan Leap: Boot to the Head!

A very nice re-enactment of the classic "Ti Kwan Leap" sketch -- the original soundtrack is by the Canadian comedy troupe The Frantics -- that I spotted on Wim de Meere's blog:

And if you think that "too much ti kwan leap is barely enough", here's a realization of the catchy follow-up song, "Boot to the Head":

Now, "Let us meditate..."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Efficient use of strength

I am not against the use of strength, rather I want to explore and develop its efficient use.

When technique is refined and application is sensitive it can be surprising how little force is needed to execute a technique successfully.  Conversely, if you find yourself straining to perform a technique, there is usually a failure of technique or sensitivity that you are trying to compensate for with additional "brute" strength.

Here are some inefficient uses of strength:
  1. Opposing a push with a push (as in an arm-wrestle)
  2. Opposing  a pull with a pull (as in a tug of war)
  3. Tensing up (so that our own muscles fight each other)
  4. Relying on isolated muscles groups (local strength)
  5. Mis-using levers (e.g. trying to open a door by pushing/pulling near the hinge)
  6. Unnecessary lifting
Here are some ideas that can help increase efficiency:
  1. Accept a push, and use it to help power a pull or a turn
  2. When pulled, press forward on  a diagonal
  3. Use whole body strength to power movements: The large muscles (legs, buttocks, abdomen) supply most of the power, and the whole body conveys it to the point(s) of application
  4. Push or pull in directions where your opponent can muster the least resistance; e.g. when standing push or pull perpendicular to the line connecting the feet
  5. Get your opponent into a position of serious disadvantage before applying significant force 
  6. Apply a two-way "push-pull" action
  7. Use a weight-drop to add additional power
See whether you can find places where you are using strength inefficiently and see what else you can do instead.  Practice the techniques to increase efficiency individually and in combinations.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Short-term vs long-term thinking

A snippet of advice on randori (free practice) Judo founder Jigoro Kano:
"In order to beat someone now, it is best for those who are strong to use that strength to overcome the other person's strength.  However, with that method, if you encounter an opponent who is much stronger than you are, you will naturally lose.  So, even if you lose for a while, the correct practice of randori is to learn to slip dexterously away from your opponent, adapt to his strength, cause him to lose his balance while stepping back, and then take advantage of that opportunity to perform a waza [technique].  If you do this kind of training for a while you will be twisted by the arm and held down, or pushed down by your opponent.  But if you do not frequently engage in this kind of training you will never learn how to beat a stronger opponent." -- From Mind Over Muscle: Writings from the founder of Judo 
The person who wants to win at all costs (now!) is not going to learn much, if anything at all.  The best that (s)he can hope to do is validate what has been developed previously: Does it work, now?  

Beginners usually do one of two things when they first start randori:
  1. Fight like it's a life or death battle
  2. Only make a half-hearted attempt
To go further requires an attitude that we value learning over winning (at least in the short-term), and to remain positive and not be discouraged by "loss of face" when "defeated".

Achieving this balance is not necessarily natural, obvious or straightforward.  Choosing to treat randori as a game -- serious, but also fun -- can help.  If you can learn to notice what works against you, already you are learning something - and profiting from the experience.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Groundhog day

One of my ideas for a theme of the month was "Groundhog month", a month where we focus almost exclusively on groundwork.  I have decided against it since I think that it is too much -- more on that below -- but tonight instead I tried out "Groundhog day", an occasional session (maybe once a month) with a groundwork focus.

After the warm-ups we skipped throws and did a few restraint-and-control techniques, most including a throwing component.  From there we went into a solid hour of groundwork:
  • Offence: The first four immobilizations
  • More offence: Immobilizations six through eight
  • Theory: How control of the opponent's hips (and to a certain extent the shoulders) establishes dominance in groundwork
  • Basic defence: A mount escape; two guard passes and a counter to a guard pass
  • More defence: One-and-a-half counters to the first immobilization: kesa gatame (the scarf hold)
All of this was interspersed with short sessions of groundwork randori.

It went well.  Everyone had fun, no-one was hurt, much was learned, and the randori at the end of the class was much smoother and more dynamic than at the start.  The more experienced students appreciated the opportunity for concentrated work on one part of jiu-jitsu, and the new students made impressive progress.

So why "Groundhog day" rather than "Groundhog month"?  Long, circuitous answer ...

I think of Jiu-jitsu as having roughly the following breakdown:
  • 30% throws
  • 30% restraint and control
  • 30% groundwork
  • 10% special sauce: reflexive self-defence, striking techniques, weapons, etc.
Because my class is dominated by lower grades, I probably teach closer to 40-50% on throws.  Why?  Because throwing (and falling) teach most of the body movements characteristic of Jiu-jitsu, make for good self-defence, and develop positive physical attributes, all leading to a strong physical and technical foundation.

Now, here's the nub of the issue:  I reckon that it is easier to make faster apparent progress by focussing purely on groundwork than -- say -- purely focussing on throws or on restraint and control, let alone pursuing all three at once.  [Hello Brazilian Jiu-jitsu!]  With groundwork everything can be taught (and learned!) a little more statically than with throws, and there isn't as much fine detail as in the restraint and control.

But just because something is easier, doesn't mean we should let it dominate our approach.  In fact the opposite pertains.  In order to get evenness of development we need to spend coresspondingly more time on the more challenging -- but still valuable -- parts of the art.  Incidentally, that is exactly what judo founder Jigoro Kano recommended: He warned against the practitioner who, encouraged by relatively rapid progress in groundwork, neglects his or her standing techniques.  Instead he encouraged biasing deliberately towards standing techniques at the early stages of learning, and play catch up on groundwork technique later.

So there it is.  While I am intentionally devoting more time to throws in most classes, the occasional short, sharp burst of groundwork will allow us to catch up in that area from time to time.

Also: If you haven't seen the movie Groundhog Day, you should. I thoroughly recommend it.  Not that it has any particular relevance to this post, other than lending its catchy title.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Beautiful breakfalls from beautiful throws

I have discussed breakfalling and related drills and motivations in previous posts this month. This time I turn to breakfalling from actual throws. These tips assume that you have basic competence in breakfalling. As usual, don't try this stuff without expert supervision.

For example, in the image below we see uke being thrown in a hip throw. He is about to land on his side on the ground, and his whole body is curving in preparation, with his left hand and arm shaping to slap the mat to help dissipate the impact. His right hand is holding onto Tina's lapel to pull upwards against gravity, which will help take the edge off the throw; Tina holds his right sleeve with her left hand, which also helps.
The 1st hip throw: Uke goshi
  • These tips are best learned through cooperative throwing practice. The principles behind them apply in other situations, but I think that it is far better to internalize first, analyze later.
  • For visualization purposes the Judo fundamental grip is assumed: Right hand grips at the collar, left hand at the sleeve for both partners.
The Tips
  1. Allow yourself to be thrown: If you prevent your partner from throwing you, you won't get to practice your breakfall. If your partner gets the throw despite resistance it is likely to be less smooth and more sudden, so you won't have as much time to breakfall, and your execution will be compromised.
  2. If you fail to breakfall, or do a weak one, breakfall again before you get up: This reminds your body what it should have done in the first place. It is also more productive than negative self-talk.
  3. Hold on with your non-breakfalling hand: This is possible on most throws where you are not projected away. It lessens the impact of the fall, provides you with a means to help control your descent, and later opens the door to counter-throws. Note: Against a much taller partner you will need to hold on lower down the lapel.
  4. In hip throws, press your breakfalling palm to the back of your partner's left shoulder-blade as (s)he prepares to throw you: This pre-positions your breakfalling arm and stores a bit of energy by spring-loading it, setting you up for a good break-fall.
  5. Watch how the higher grades do their breakfalls: Also feel how a more experienced partner breakfalls when you throw them. Emulate these models.
  6. Look-out for areas that need improvement: Figure out which of the breakfalling drills can help fix the problem, and visualize fixing the problem when you next practice the relevant drill(s).
Finally, when you are throwing your partner, throw beautifully, so that your partner has every opportunity to execute a beautiful breakfall. The resulting totality will be a joy to watch.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


A post by Littlefair: Practice, practice, practice... has a great piece of advice:
When I feel myself drifting off during lessons I like to focus using this idea of always checking form and movement, getting feedback from my body and knowing that I'm staying on the path.
Like many people, once I have achieved basic competence in a skill, and can do it "without thinking", my mind tends to wander off as I go through the motions. I may even feel a little bored ...

But what martial arts has taught me is that this is usually the first plateau in learning. Looking back, I struggled to get to this point, and am relieved to have gotten even this far. Perhaps I am a little drained from the effort, and need time to consolidate.

Looking forward there are many more challenges to come. Littlefair's tip is one way to open up the training and to start exploring sensitivity, details and principles.

Nowadays, with a busy life, going through the same routines that I have followed for years is less frustrating and often somewhat comforting (like slipping on a comfortable old pair of gloves). But it is also exciting, because I no longer take my competence for granted, and know that with a bit of creativity I can exploit my familiarity as a starting point for a fresh climb into further learning and understanding.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Do breakfalls work in real life?

In the dojo we practice our throws -- and breakfalls -- on a 5 cm (2 inch) thick rubberized mat. But do they work in real life?

First, an illustration of what not to do:

Now, can we do better than that?  Will good breakfalling technique help?

Short answer

Long answer
When an untrained person tries to break their fall -- like the unfortunate young skater in the video -- (s)he often tries to extend an arm with the hand bent back.  While this is an effective strategy in low impact situations -- e.g. if you are sitting on the floor and lean too far in any direction -- it is disastrous in any significant fall.  The wrist bends back too far, and -- if you are really unlucky -- the resulting shock wave can travel up your arm and also snap your collar bone (not shown!).

I believe that most of us learn this "propping" reaction as babies first learn to sit, and they soon discover that propping is an effective method to help them keep seated.  It works, but it is not natural, and can be trained out.

Personally, I have used rolling, side, back and forward breakfalling techniques to save me while:
  • inline skating -- many times (both while learning and later on)
  • tripping over fences
  • coming over the handlebars of a bike
  • falling down stairs
  • slipping over while rushing for a train 
Sure, I am accident prone, but the worst that I have suffered from any of these mishaps has been the odd graze.  My training does not make me invincible -- far from it -- but it works much better than the usual disorganized "panic" response (shown above).

Other martial artists that I know have fallen down stairs, off ladders, off motor-bikes and been thrown from cars and survived without breakages.

So, yes, they work.

Breakfalling on concrete
While we usually practice on nice thick mats, I have been asked on occasion to perform a single standing side breakfall on concrete.  My arm stings for about half an hour, but it works.  

I recall reading once about a hapkido group who practiced their breakfalls on concrete all the time, and went on to develop arthritic spines.  True or not, we practice mostly on a padded surface with good reason.  So: Don't try this stunt except under qualified supervision.

Getting hit in the head
Finally, another scenario in which you need to get to the ground safely is when you are hit.  In reading newspaper reports of fatalities and brain-injuries from getting punched in the head, it is often the case that the majority of the damage is incurred when the victim hits his head on the (hard) ground or curb.  This was more-or-less what happened to former Australian cricketer and then Victorian state coach David Hookes.

So, while prevention is better than cure, reliable breakfalling is great insurance!

Friday, March 06, 2009

How to acquire beautiful breakfalls

How do we acquire beautiful breakfalls?

1. System & practice
In our system we are serious about breakfall practice.  Rather than do calisthenics, running, etc. to warm-up, we do breakfalls!  We spend at least 15 minutes practicing at the start of every class.  Following the opening ceremony we almost invariably run through 12 standardized breakfalling exercises: 
  • 6 from a supine position with heads up, knees bent and feet flat on the floor: Slapping the mat; some with kicking; some with rolling side-to-side; some symmetric, some asymmetric
  • 3 from the haunches: Side breakfalls, back breakfalls
  • 3 from standing: Side breakfalls, back breakfalls
These core exercises are often supplemented with a selection of additional exercises: e.g. front breakfalls (from knees, haunches and standing), or a few partner-assisted breakfalling exercises.

Similarly, at the end of each class we go through many different kinds of rolls as a warm-down.

This practice is technically demanding, and develops not only the ability to breakfall, but also develops other attributes that are important to Judo and Jiu-jitsu: 
  • neck, abdominal and leg strength
  • whole body movement and coordination
  • lower body strength and flexibility
  • bilateral symmetry of the musculature
  • ability to withstand impact
Note: For the beginner, just learning to do the exercises properly is enough to keep interest high.  After being a thrown a few times the importance of diligent practice at the start of each class becomes apparent!  However, once you have achieved proficiency there is a danger of becoming blasé -- just going through the motions during the warm-ups -- so the challenge becomes to find new paths of development.

2. Make connections
Having internalized the movements, it is possible to visualize applications of the movements while practicing.  Two good ones:
  1. Sacrifice throws
  2. Movements in groundwork: Escapes, transitions, etc.
3. Awareness
As you do the exercises, what are the different parts of your body doing?  Which muscles are tensing, and which are relaxing as you move?  Where is the power coming from?  How does your breathing play into your movement?  With the asymmetric exercises, what are the differences in your execution of the left- and right-handed versions?

How does varying  angles and patterns of use affect the amount of effort required, the smoothness of execution, and the loudness of your slaps?

In a more indirect vein I occasionally teach a short version of Feldenkrais's pelvic clock lesson, following it with a repetition of two supine breakfalling exercises that involve rolling as well as slapping.  Among more experienced practitioners there is usually an immediate palpable improvement in execution.  Interestingly, Aikido teacher and Feldenkrais trainer Leslie Wilder has made a similar connection.

There's no shortcut: For breakfalls to work they need to become second-nature, and there is no substitute for regular and intensive practice.  By embracing breakfalling as foundational, it is possible to put this training time to additional use, and besides training beautiful and effective breakfalls, to develop many other elements besides.