Shaking, extraneous movement and inefficient technique


Introduction

I was going to call to call this article “For goodness sake, don’t do the hippy hippy shake”. But then I realised that this would prompt readers to think that I was referring to my old pet peeve, pre-loading the hip (or the “double hip”).1 This article is not about that subject (which is only obliquely relevant). Instead, this article is about the kind of shaking that results from extraneous and uncontrolled movement (rather than deliberate, if contextually inappropriate, hip loading).

Punching with “hara”

It was in 1988 that I first trained with Graham Ravey, founder of the TOGKA and former deshi of Higaonna Morio. At that training a certain local goju kai teacher (who shall go nameless, but who introduced himself as “Shihan […]”) pulled me aside and said: “You have good technique – but you have no ‘hara’. “Hara,” he told me, “means ‘heart’. Your techniques have no heart.”

Of course, “hara” is a Japanese term that is used in the martial arts to refer to the dantien or tanden (your centre of gravity located at a point just below your navel). It is not a reference to the heart. But I got his message anyway, particularly when he started to mimic my punches with soft, insipid movements. Then he demonstrated his “hara” version. This involved “powerful” punches: punches that caused “Shihan’s” body to shake almost as if he were convulsing.

Having “corrected” my “insipid” technique, he dismissed me with a wave of his hand and continued speaking with another black belt.

“Phantom impacts”

I knew then, as I do now, that looking powerful and being powerful are 2 different things.2

The same applies to techniques that feel powerful vs. those that are actually powerful. I already knew back then that if you can feel the “power” of your own "air techniques", then something is definitely wrong.

Bear in mind that you are not striking a target, so there is no impact to transfer force back into your body. You should not be feeling any “power” as such. So where does the feeling of “power” come from? Most of the time the answer lies in this: you feel your own “power” because you are reabsorbing it. At least some of your force that was being directed outward is being pulled back into you.

I discuss this in the video below.


I discuss the issue of shaking in basic techniques

Imagine for a minute a bullet flying through the air: it doesn’t gyrate or have sparks flying off it. It just flies. Ditto with a katana (Japanese sword). When a good kendoka (sword practitioner) does an “air cut”, you might hear the “swish” of his blade through the air (caused by the speed of the movement) – but that’s it. It is only when the bullet or the katana strike a target that they experience the force of the impact.

So the kendoka doesn’t gyrate because of the “power” of his air cut. He simply cuts. In fact, the kendoka works very hard to eliminate any extraneous movement or shaking, endeavouring to bring the sword to sudden stop without any “shake”. This is because the kendoka is practising “kime” or focus.3

A karateka also strives to develop kime, and accordingly brings his or her punches to a “dead stop”.4 But if you take the “stop” out of the equation, the karateka’s punches are no different to a boxer’s, especially in this respect: in neither case should the practitioner “feel the power” of a blow that doesn’t land. Both understand intuitively whether an “air punch” is going to be effective, that much is true. They discern this from the momentum generated in the punch, and their experience in gauging the likely consequence of a punch with that momentum. But neither the boxer nor karateka should experience some sort of “phantom impact” that causes “shaking”.

Shaking as a function of inefficiency

So what is the consequence of shaking and gyrating from a “phantom impact”? Clearly, some of the force you are generating is being applied to your own body. And this component of your force is accordingly no longer available to be applied to a target.5 To apply the same force to a target as someone punching efficiently (without reabsorbing force), you have to generate far more force overall.

Looking at it from another perspective, if you shake with each punch, some of your energy is being used to shake. That energy is not being applied to your task (punching an opponent). In order to land a punch with the same force as someone who is not shaking, you have to use more energy than he or she does. In other words, you are not using your energy efficiently.

It is no compensation to say that you are “more powerful”. Yes, you are being “more powerful” – in that you’ve worked harder in the same time (P = W/T). However you’ve worked harder to get the same, or a lesser, result. The power you’re feeling is, in a sense, a Clayton’s power.6

Shaking and hip use are not the same

I’ve already had some emails on this topic from various martial artists around the world. Some have said: “Well, I’m not “shaking” – I’m just using my hips. I need to do this movement that you call “shaking” because I’m training my hips to deliver powerful techniques.”

If that were the case, then I query why, in the "shaking" way of performing basics, the hip is more often than not being pulled back just before impact. Furthermore, why does this movement cause the whole body to vibrate with the strike? It might not comprise the exaggerated shaking that I perform in my video at the start of this article: it might be a mere "rattle". But it is there nonetheless.

Nor does "returning the hip to position" account for this rattle. If it did, you would see 2 clear movements - not an uncontrolled vibration.

It seems to me that there is more happening here than just necessary hip use.

For that matter, in my video I demonstrate my own hip-assisted punching. I do the same in the videos below. I don’t shake, yet I’m fairly sure you’ll agree that my hip use isn’t all that bad. And I didn’t develop this hip use through “shaking”. I developed it in tandem with the ability to control extraneous movement.


I demonstrate a drill where lateral hip use generates more force. Note that there are 3 hip movements – one for each of 3 punches.


I demonstrate the use of the “rising hip” to generate more force

So hip use does not necessitate “hip shaking”. Consider also the first part of the video below of Minoru Higa (doing the double punches): Yes, there is hip movement, but that movement is confined to the task of the particular punches. The only reason it looks like a “shake” is because there are 2 hip movements – one for each punch. And you’ll notice that the hip movement does not persist after the punch has landed (ie. there is no lingering “rattle”).


Minoru Higa, 10th Dan demonstrating hip use: note in particular the double punches at the start, which are in contrast to the later naihanchin performance.

The double hip isn’t the problem – at least not always!

I’ve mentioned previously that when I refer to “shaking” I’m not talking about the double hip. I don’t think the double hip is the reason so many karateka “shake” when air punching. I believe most shake because they simply haven’t developed the control to move without shaking. The justification/explanation of “hip use” arrives after the fact.

However I did say that the double hip is obliquely relevant to this article, and here’s why:

In some schools virtually every basic and kata technique is performed with a hip pre-load. And when you pre-load I think it goes without saying that it is almost impossible to avoid shaking. So if you spend all your time doing the double hip, and if you never practise isolating your punch (without hip movement), you never learn to move without shaking.

In other words, focussing undue attention on developing the double hip might lead to more than contextually inappropriate hip use: it might inhibit the development of a very important ability. The ability to control one’s body.

It’s all about having control of your own body

The problem I have with “movers and shakers” is that I feel their shaking is a often a cop-out. They aren’t aware of (or won’t admit) the importance of learning to control their bodies so as to eliminate extraneous movement. Instead, they focus on the “power” they feel (and others see). They ignore their own lack of attention to detail and invoke the “bigger picture” of “effectiveness/practicality”, while deriding controlled punches as “quaint”, “overly formal/stylised” or as “show karate”. As the aforementioned “Shihan” said to me: “it might not be pretty, but it works.”

Quite evidently there are many “untidy” karateka out there who are formidable fighters (“Shihan” wasn’t one of them, by the way). As in boxing, or any other combat discipline, there are those who are technicians and those who are brawlers. And brawlers can be viciously effective.

But this doesn’t lessen the importance of striving for efficient movement. Such efficiency is what gives the smaller, weaker and less aggressive person the chance to hold his/her own. Efficient technique is, self-evidently, desirable, particularly to the thinking person. And extraneous movement in the form of shaking is the opposite of efficiency.

“Shaking” isn’t practical in any event

But quite apart from the above, I’m fairly certain that “shaking” doesn’t make sense – even to the brawler.

I’ve noticed that “movers and shakers” will air punch one way, and punch a makiwara/bag/shield in another.

Once again, consider the first video in this article. In it, you will note that I demonstrate how punching a target does not necessitate “shaking”. If there is any “shake”, it comes entirely from the force transmitted from your target into your body when you impact. The more resistant the target, the more you will experience this force. But if the object is not particularly resistant (eg. a phone book or a person’s face!) you shouldn’t experience much impact force at all. And when you are punching air, there should be none.

I haven't been able to find any "archetypal" examples of shaking on the net. It seems that pretty much the only karateka to post videos of basic techniques are the shotokan practitioners, who are generally very good at basics.

With that in mind, consider the punching in the following video: It isn't the most obvious case of "shaking". And it looks powerful, I'm sure you'll agree. It looks so powerful that some readers might start to wonder whether I've lost my marbles with this argument. After all, isn't his power self evident?


An example of punching with some shaking (not the most obvious example, but there are few on the web). The practitioner looks very powerful indeed. And he probably is. But I think it is self-evident that he is reabsorbing an unnecessary component of his (substantial) force.

But why does his punching look so powerful? I think it is because the practitioner is absorbing a significant component of his own (substantial) force (causing him to "shake" at the point of impact). Otherwise, why would it look "powerful"? He isn't hitting anything! Again, the bullet and sword analogies spring to mind.

An effective punch needs just 2 things: mass and velocity. Accordingly, an air punch shouldn't look "powerful": it should just look fast.

A well focused karate punch should have the added feature of stopping suddenly. But such a stop doesn't require shaking, gyrating or other "visible power".

The above karateka is a very hard hitter; of that I'm certain. But in my opinion this video is not illustrative of the way he would punch a target. Like many karateka, I'm sure he has developed 2 ways of punching: one for "air" and one against targets.

I don't have a video of the gentleman above punching makiwara, but if I did, I bet it would look something like the video below. You'll notice that the shaking is entirely absent - except for the shock from the actual impact.


Yahara Mikio demonstrating makiwara. Note the lack of shaking, except that caused by impact.

“Shaking” is bad for you

I have tried virtually everything in my martial arts career. I’ve even tried “shaking”. But there is a major reason, apart from inefficiency, that leads me further and further away from it: It hurts.

Shaking the body means you’re absorbing a lot of your own force. This force has to do some damage – particularly if you’re punching very “hard”. Over the years I’ve found that this kind of “hara” punching causes my tendons to inflame, particularly after a long session.

The major problem areas are the shoulders and the elbows. The elbows are particularly problematic if you lock them when you punch. Other parts of the body can also feel the effects: I’ve hurt my back (particularly my lower back) and even my neck.

For a brief period, I thought that “shaking” might be good for you: I thought it might “toughen you up”. I was wrong. If you’re interested in conditioning your body, there are far more effective and scientific ways of doing it. Uncontrolled, explosive actions that lead to extraneous movement are a recipe for disaster – especially to an aging body.

Distinguishing Chinese “shaking” arts

Some schools of Chinese martial art teach a kind of “shaking” in conjunction with other types of movement. I’m thinking in particular of “shaking crane” and the “fajin” of the internal arts.7 I don’t intend to dwell on this subject for too long, but I will make the following observations:

The role shaking plays in these arts is, in my opinion, very different to the “shaking” one so often sees in karate basics. For a start, the shaking does not occur with each technique. It is an occasional thing. A taiji practitioner for example learns to move without any shaking at all and spends the vast majority of his or her time perfecting such “non-shaking” movement. Occasionally he or she will demonstrate “fajin” – an explosive release of energy. But this has little in common with absorbing your own force over thousands of standing basic punches.

Second, the type of shake is very deliberate. It is not uncontrolled. It is not a by-product of your power – it is the goal. I’ve often heard it said that the action approximates that of a dog shaking itself dry. This is a far cry from a shake produced by a “phantom impact”.

Rattle and hum: you too?

Almost every karateka I know (including yours truly) has a little "rattle" with his or her standing punches. This "rattle" is hardest to avoid in standing basics.

I reject completely the notion that "tremendous power" in punching necessitates shaking, just as I reject the notion that the shake is deliberate hip use. In most cases the extraneous movement simply comes down to this: the student has insufficient control over his or her own body to move without it. I believe we should all be striving continually to achieve the greatest possible level of this control so as to achieve the greatest possible efficiency in movement.

So how does one learn to eliminate extraneous movement?

The first step is to acknowledge that it is there.

Most karateka I know are unaware that they are shaking. Consider the video below: the practitioner is clearly quite skilled, but he would probably reject out of hand that he is "shaking" (at least, to any significant extent). True, it is nothing like the shaking I've seen elsewhere. But it is still not like makiwara punching: the body still "rattles" as each punch lands. Compare this gentleman's slow punches with his fast punches, noting in particular how much his belt moves when he punches fast (where it doesn't move at all when he punches slowly):


The shaking in this video is typical of examples on the web. It is very mild. However it is a kind of shaking nonetheless. Note the "rattle" with each fast punch (watch the belt move). Contrast this with the makiwara punching above or with my controlled punching in the first video.

I'm sure you'll agree from my opening video that I have gone some way at least to minimising such extraneous movement. And I believe that I have done so without losing power. I make this observation merely in order to evidence that it isn't "impossible" as many seem to think. The "rattle" is not an inevitable side effect of standing basic punching.

The second step to eliminating extraneous movement is to use traditional stances. As I demonstrate in my opening video, shiko dachi (sumo stance) is excellent for this: If you hold a stable shiko dachi, you simply cannot "shake, rattle or roll". You are forced to move without extraneous movement. This is, in my view, one of the most important reasons for basics performed in stances.

Consider, by way of contrast, the level of extraneous movement in following video:


Extraneous movement doesn't often manifest with slow punching; when it does, it doesn't bode well for the efficiency of fast punches.

The karateka bobs up and down with each punch despite the fact that he is punching quite slowly. I strongly suspect he would move a lot more if he were punching hard and fast (given that this is when one loses control). Here is one student who would benefit from practising basics in deep, stationary stances.

"Does it matter," I hear you ask, "if you don't have 'perfect' technique?" To the extent that we should all be striving to improve our skills, I think it does. If you can't control extraneous movement, you don't have much control over your own body. As a result, you can't be efficient and you can't avoid telegraphing (think of the wind up of the "power" karateka featured earlier, or the "bob" of the chap in the above video).

Whether you think this "perfection" is important or not depends on whether you see yourself as a "brawler" or technician". I incline very much to the technician. I think you have to fight smart (or as smart as you can).

As an exercise, do some basic punches in heiko dachi (parallel stance) and try not to shake at all. If you can't, ask yourself why. Drop into a shiko dachi and try it there, then go back to heiko dachi. It is my view that this is what standing basics are primarily for - not for "double hip" practice. I'd wager that those who scoff at my suggestions simply don't have the control to avoid shaking - or have never even tried to avoid it.


A summary video in which I demonstrate some techniques with minimized shaking or other extraneous movement

Conclusion

If you perform your basics with a “shake” in each movement, ask yourself whether this is deliberate and controlled - or the opposite.

The fact that shaking is quite common (we all have it to some extent) doesn't lessen the importance of minimising your extraneous movement through controlling your body. I wrote this article to alert karateka to this issue, not to denigrate anyone.

I get the feeling that for most karateka, any “shake” that accompanies their basic punches is an unconscious by-product of trying to be “powerful”. In reality, force is determined not by how “hard” you punch but by the simple variables of your mass and your velocity. “Hard” punching translates to punches that you “feel”. You feel them because you’re reabsorbing some of your own force. And force that is reabsorbed is force that isn’t being used productively.

So for goodness sake – don’t do the hippy hippy shake.

Footnotes

1. See my articles:
    Whole lotta shakin’: pre-loading the hips”.
    Whole lotta shakin’: an addendum”.
    Whole lotta shakin’: contextual hip use”.
    The importance of flow”.
    Flow: why it is an essential component of kata”.
2. See my article: “Visible force vs. applied force”.
3. See my article: “Kime: soul of the karate punch”.
4. See my article: “Karate punches vs. boxing punches”.
5. See my article: “Hitting harder: physics made easy”.
6. For a discussion about what “Clayton’s” means, see my article: “More about the Clayton’s gap”.
7. See my article: “Understanding the internal arts”.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic