The Internal Power Training Blog

Check out the latest info and research from Coach Chris' explorations in the Subject of Internal Power.

Softness from Extension Bookmark

The internal arts are often referred to as the ‘Soft’ Martial Arts. It is an interesting term because anyone who has been on the receiving end of a high level internal adepts power would certainly not describe it as soft, so what is it about these arts that gained them this distinction?


Many of the mechanics of the internal arts are predicated on our ability to release or address tension. As we have discussed in previous articles on speed, connection, and heaviness, without the correct levels of relaxation, much of what makes these efficient will not be there. The tense practitioner will constantly be ‘breaking’ their expression of power as it travels through sports of tension or tight tissue.

One of the ways in which we address this is through a combination of extension, release, mind, and breath. These methods when compared to some of the ‘hard’ training methods of other arts like weight training or callisthenics would be considered soft and this, in my opinion, is where the definition originates. The techniques are varied but the majority are either very slow or static in nature and the practitioner hardly appears to be doing anything. Inside however, there is often a deep focus paid on progressively releasing and relaxing.


Extension and breath.


Typically, softness as we mean it in the internal arts is focused on the muscle tissue as this is the most common tissue for tension to be present in. However, there is another issue present in the body that can hold larger scale tension, especially spanning larger areas than a single muscle. This is ‘tightness’ in the fascia, the connective tissues that run throughout the body. As mentioned in previous articles there are several types of Fascia, and specifically here we are concerned with the tissues that wrap the muscles, connect tissues to each other and separate layers of tissue from one another. Tightness here can be more problematic than that in muscle tissue, which can often be resolved with methods like massage and targeted stretching. Tension in the fascia can often be noticed in limited range of motion and impaired mobility, but also in how well we move in the morning or the general level of ‘stiffness’ we feel in the body as we age.


The internal arts have a very specific approach to this issue. It is an approach that can be used to heal damaged tissues as much as it can be used to resolve tension. It is the method of extending parts of the body away from a central point without tensing the muscles and then using the ‘out’ phase of breath the deepen the relaxation over many breaths.


As discussed in earlier articles, the process of breathing out is one of the keys we can use to help us relax. We are pre-programmed to relax more deeply when we breath out. However, this is usually accompanied by a releasing of extension as the whole body enters a relaxed state. By maintaining the extension and looking for release within this extension the body will begin to re-format the fascia over time. This type of release and extension is similar to that which is found in some yogic traditions and is distinct from the methods found in more standard strength and conditioning regimens.


Below is an expert from the Fascial Fitness paper by dr R. Schleip, D.G. Muller which highlights how this type of extension differs from weighted work, which will mainly work on fascia in series with muscle fibres.


On the other hand, classic Hatha yoga stretches, in which the extended muscle fibres are relaxed, will show little effect on those fascial tissues, which are arranged in series with the muscle fibres. The reason is that since the relaxed myofibers are much softer than their serially arranged tendinous extensions, they will ‘swallow’ most of the elongation (Jami, 1992). However, such slow and melting stretching promises to provide good stimulation for fascial tissues, which are hardly reached by classic muscle training, such as the extramuscular fasciae and the intramuscular fasciae oriented in parallel to the myofibers.


Linking the breathing cycle with extension can have a remarkable effect if maintained. In a matter of weeks, the practitioner will notice a difference in their general state of relaxation and this process goes ever deeper with more and more practice.


Opening the joints for healing


Our ability to connect the body together correctly, to align our joints in harmony with one another and for us to develop ‘whole body power’ all hinge on the type of softness that this extension training can provide. But outside of the performance benefits these training methods have another very clear and profound utility related to healing. 


When we extend, the limbs using the various methods found in the internal arts and utilise the breathing to soften and release the tissues, we actually begin to create a process called ‘Opening the joints’.


This is the idea that the extension and consequential relaxation of that tissues that wrap and support the joints will relieve habitual tension/pressure placed on them. As pressure is released on the joint the various fluids of the joint can perform their role more effectively and regeneration of joint tissue can begin to happen. I myself cured a badly damaged elbow using extension and breathing as a core component of my regimen.


This idea is supported in clinical research by orthopedic surgeon John M Kirsch. Dr Kirsch utilises another method of opening the joints to release and resolve shoulder pain with amazing success, hanging and brachiation. 


Dr Kirsch has his patients hang from a bar or tree branch, opening the shoulders, and releasing postural and habitual pressures. This process is a little more dramatic than the soft methods of extension found in the internal arts, but the concept is the same. We open and extend the limb, release bound tissues, and allow the joints to open. Then natural healing can begin to occur.


Extension is perhaps one of the main things that I see missing from common ‘Health’ versions of well-known arts like Tai chi. It is well worth exploring for both its health and its combative benefit.

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