Check out the latest info and research from Coach Chris' explorations in the Subject of Internal Power.
One defining attribute of almost all high level martial artists is their ability to feel ‘Heavy’. 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’. But far from being a natural gift, this quality of ‘weight’ is a skill that can be trained and has implications for both the practitioners health as well as their combative potential.
In this article, we will explore some of the ways in which Internal Arts practitioners can create what I call the ‘Heavy Body’ attribute and how this translates into martial practices and health.
The ability to efficiently use our body weight is closely related to our ability to relax. An easy example that highlights the relationship between tension and ‘apparent’ weight is 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 recognize inefficiencies and turn on this relaxed state at will, sometimes only within certain areas of the body.
The health implications for this trained ability to release or relax are clear. Most aches and pains in the body or recurrent ‘niggles’ are the result of skeletal muscle tension. Everything from headaches to frozen shoulders can be laid at the feet of tension so our ability to recognize and release this tension will have a profound impact on our overall feeling of wellbeing.
Physical training is often primarily focused on the ability to contract, in fact almost every modern strength and conditioning program places the ability to ‘contract’ at its core. Be it contraction within the context of explosive motion, or contraction within the context of strength. But very few systems will have a targeting form of training to ‘release’ or relax’ the tissues of the body. This is the focus of the heavy body training methods and the key aspect of being able to use our weight in a targeted and conscious way.
Relaxation training permeates the internal arts like Tai Chi, and this is perhaps why the adepts are so famous for being able to root against pushing or incoming forces. Much like the unconscious person above, the adept will be able to ‘sink’ into the earth bringing all their weight into play alongside their alignment and motion.
To achieve relaxation and release, the practitioner must identify and remove muscular tensions that remain even when not in use. Identifying these tensions is often the whole point of the basic training of the Internal Artist. They will spend their time scanning the body then adopting the appropriate method to let go or work out the knots that they find, be that through body methods like Chi Gung, massage methods or other techniques like Foam 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 Neuron. These Motor units are normally discussed in association with Muscle Contraction.
A much less discussed topic is the ability for the muscle fibres completely relax when conditioned to do so. Normally, once contracted a muscle will utilize chemical processes to remain contracted. But in most people when the signal to contract is turned off the muscle will still maintain a proportion 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 in the tissues related to the muscle. Muscle ‘elasticity’ 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 hold a lower level of basal 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, feel extremely heavy once they have trained their ability to consciously control the release.
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.
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.
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 internal arts that are entirely focused on this cause. From the basic way of setting up the frame so that the weight sinks cleanly through the leg bones, to traditional movements like slapping water or dropping 3 hot coals the practitioner will often spend much of their ‘heavy’ training finding and connecting with the force of gravity in an unambiguous way.
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.
To learn more about some of the heavy body skills you can now access the 'Relax' Course with a simply 'donation'. You decide how much you would like to pay/how much you can afford and then you get access to the Relax Course.
It is a great way to support the site. Thank you for whatever you can afford.
We can’t really look at movement skills without talking about how movement complexity and capacity is handled by the brain and nervous system. It is our brains that give rise to our ability to move in complex ways and also our brains that allow us to retain good movement habits once they are learned.
Indeed, some people theorize that movement diversity is the reason for humans developing such large and complex brains.
Methods which utilize extension permeate the internal arts. The idea of extension is different to idea of ‘stretching’ however the two are often confused. When extension is used we actually lead entire chains of tissue out from the body in order to create an elastic like tautness, in stretching we are more focused on elongating a specific muscle or limited muscle group.
Extension plays several roles in internal work. Firstly it is a great way to identify what are often called, blockages or bindings in the body. We may extend our arms out to the side and notice an ache in the elbow or the upper back and this is indicative of the tissue in these areas 'resisting' the extension.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome for the beginner of internal training is their ability to relax. Often they will be unable to even lift their arm without building isolation tension in the shoulder, and no matter how hard they ‘try’ they simply don’t have the control to relax specific muscles or areas of tension. In these cases a coach or teacher will often instruct the pupil to use their exhalation as a tool to guide the relaxation of the body.
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