It sucks to suck. We all want to be better at the arts we practice. Hopefully even the long term practitioners still feel this way after 20 years of practice.
There comes a point in time, when you feel flat or like you have not leveled up your skill in a long time, you may have increased your knowledge, but you don’t feel that you have actually improved. I see it a lot in our community, friends that have a passion for Ninjutsu, but have not improved in years. They have a good teacher, they attend class regularly, practice on their own a lot, but don’t actually get any better… Perhaps you have experienced this yourself?
For me the answer lies in your ability to copy your teacher, exactly as shown. Most cannot because they lack Mobility. When they cannot articulate their joints to copy the movement their teacher shows, they make compensations…. These compensations lead to frustration, injuries and my favourite excuse that I see everywhere, doing your own thing because you are incapable of copying what is shown because you cannot control your body. You possess the flexibility of a house brick!
Lack of Mobility is the number 1 reason why people get injured, fail at the technique they are learning or go do their own thing. Your ability to copy your teacher depends on your physical ability to copy his movements, if you cannot control your movements, how can you expect to be able to copy your teacher? Now for many, they want to be able to be free to do as they wish, after all it is their body and their expression of it. But how can you claim to be part of a tradition, and to be following a tradition, if you are always doing your own thing? In Japanese this is called自己流 Jiko Ryu (Your own way) and it’s not a complement. Many will react defensively to this statement, saying they have moved beyond the basics, but I think that is BS, they moved on, not because they attained some sort of mastery, but because they didn’t understand the fundamental movements, and cannot do them. If they claim they still can, prove it!
What is Flexibility and how is it different to Mobility?
Flexibility: The ability of a muscle or muscle groups and associated connective tissue to lengthen passively through a range of motion. More simply, in a relaxed, gentle or passive manner, how far can you lengthen a muscle in a Range of Motion (ROM). For example, how far you can go into a stretch or pose.
Mobility: The ability of a joint to Actively move through its intended range of motion. More simply, using strength to move into and out of your intended ROM, under control and choosing the speed at which you perform it.
Essentially, Mobility is your ability to move under control, under load and still be able to produce force in your end range of motion. Essential attributes for a martial artist. Flexibility is just good for Instagram. Flexibility is a by-product of good mobility training.
So why is this important? As martial artist we move! And we need to be able to move well, under stress. Having the ability to articulate our joints at our end range of motion and still being able to produce force is of vital importance to us. Our ability to hold a 30 second hamstring stretch on the other hand is not.
Having strength in our end range of motion (End Range Strength) helps mitigate injuries, allows us to move in and out of our end range under load while producing force. This is important, we don’t practice standing still, we move in a dynamic way, so we must prepare our bodies for movement. Its makes no sense to practice passively/statically.
When you attain good mobility, your capacity to copy and move like your teacher becomes easier, your performance capacity will increase, you will level up your skill, mitigate your chance of injury and your physical understanding of techniques will improve.
Good Mobility training is strength training. We need to be strong in our end ranges of motion. We need to be able to drop low into kamae, shift weight, lift, throw and kick and punch from awkward positions, if you lack mobility you wont be able to do it. Then you will either get injured, or change/ modify what you are trying to learn. This sucks!
The best thing you can do right now to improve your Martial Arts practice is to increase your End Range Strength.
Remember some light stretching and rubbing a ball into a trigger point for a few minutes every other day isn’t going to help you accomplish anything. Stretching isn’t helping you become a better martial artist. Think of all the time you have wasted stretching over the last 5, 10, 20 years….Has it got you to where you want to be? Are you able to take low Kamae without knee pain? Move from a low position or seated position? Do you have hip or knee or shoulder pain but don’t know why? Can you go low and keep moving low without raising up?
Once your joints are strong in their end ranges, you will find you can move with flow and grace, control your movements and protects your joints, get rid of old injuries and niggles, kick how you please and generally be free to move without fear of injury or having to compensate your movements.
To build your capacity you have to eliminate your dysfunctions. If you attempt to build better movement capacity, but on a broken foundation, all you are doing is building compensation, which will lead to poor movements and increase your chances of serious injury in the future. High quality mobility practice resets your foundations and prepares your joints, so you can build good movement capacity on a strong and healthy body. Make sure in your practice that you are building good capacity, not accentuating dysfunction by compensating.
For any particular skill, there are prerequisites that need to be met. For us as martial artists we see these prerequisites like this if follow a Japanese martial art.
A simple interpretation for non Japanese martial artists (this is not literal/verbatim). Foundational Preparation exercises > Fundamental techniques > Flow of Fundamental Techniques.
The problem I have encountered myself time and time again, is everyone skips these steps, everyone wants to be free to do as they please. Therefore, most find that the kata doesn't work, because they skipped the prerequisites required to do them in the first place. They don’t understand the kihon, they don’t know the kiso. They don’t understand the “why” of what they are trying to accomplish.
You see this a lot on the internet when people are talking about practice in Japan with certain Japanese Shihan, people saying that they are still practicing like its 1980’s and they have not evolved their practice. Perhaps, instead of thinking like this, you should question why they are still doing it? Is it perhaps because they were trying to teach the fundamentals 30yrs ago, and when people go back to them, they still cannot do them, so instead of letting you do your own thing, they want to teach you from the fundamental level the right way to move! Its the whole idea of walking before you run, which is why they don't teach advanced techniques in most of their classes, even after many years, because you dont meet the requirements to do them, so why would they waste their time showing you something you cannot do, even after 5, 10. 20 years...(Seems smart to me).
Remember the Kiso/kihon are not basic/s they are fundamentals! As in required, essential, integral, necessary. They are the fundamental/foundation skills you need to perform more advanced movements in the future (Or should that read Simplex skills in the future).
They are not ideas for you to throw aside, they are vital components of our art. If you toss them aside you are not free, you are living in anarchy under the illusion that you are free.
Injuries and niggles
So you must ask yourself why do certain positions or movements (Kamae, techniques etc) hurt you? Why do you think that is? Why does kicking, taking ichimonji, moving from seiza to half kneel etc hurt? Why do your shoulders hurt all the time? Staying low during a bo kata hurt your knees? Do you think the movements are inherently unhealthy? Or you just perhaps you lack the physical preparation requirements needed to perform the movements in a controlled and healthy fashion…???
Lets look at just taking Ichimonji and its variations, no movement, just a simple posture and have a look at the common mistakes people make when doing it. These not only leave you in a position to get banged out cold, but are also the reason why people always have injuries and niggles are practicing for a few years. Remembering that on a case by case basis there are exceptions to these concepts.
The above is an example of good Kamae, Head is straight, back upright, rear and front leg externally rotated, centre of mass over the rear heel for instant support in case Hicho etc is needed without having to shift or raise up to take it. Standing on one line, shoulders on one line, no bending, leaning or buckling in the back, legs or head. Centre line/medial line is protected.
Now lets look at some common mistakes, do your own search of Facebook or google images for kamae, and you will see what I am talking about is everywhere!
Centre of Mass (COM) should be supported over the rear leg. This allows one to take Hicho without having to raise up or shift back. Allowing you to attack, defend or move position without you having to make a superfluous/redundant movement ( Shifting back, shuffling, raising up, or bending over). Which will only get you on the receiving end of a solid strike or throw. Below COM is way out of correct alignment.
Head should be in profile, preventing you from bending over at the waist. Your head is heavy, so when it is off the line it forces you to bend from the waist or have gaijin butt to compensate. Your weight is stacked in an upright position, not on a diagonal/bent position, when your head (Neck) twists/folds/bends over, your butt sticks out for what people like to call “Gaijin Butt” (excessive anterior pelvic tilt), this is a compromised position, you have to unlock your hips to actually kick or move now, its too slow. If you head is twisted or slightly turned, and you are punched, you will get banged out (I’ll make a video on this shortly). Head Stays straight and your torso upright. If you back is bent or head turned, you are easy to take down/throw/trip.
Rear leg, your knee should be aligned with toes and or knee over toes, rear leg is externally rotated. If it isn’t, you will get some bad juju happening to your knee. If your leg is buckled in here, you will have to unlock it just to move backwards from this position, or you will have to shift weight onto the front leg to move… If you don’t and shift back through this position you are grinding your knee in a bad position, it’s not very efficient and super dangerous for your knee. The correct position allows you to take Hicho immediately, protects your knee and hip, allows for free movement and to produce force without injury.
Front leg is bent, never straight or locked out. leg is also externally rotated here, foot straight (for the most part, there are some variations/exceptions on this in the 9 ryu). Allowing one to take hicho or kick, without having to move in a circular fashion which is too slow. Taking ichimonji with a straight leg is obviously not a good idea (someone with a good tsuki will break it before you even know they have attacked just by understanding hicho properly, or someone with a good pisao, oblique kick or good Muay Thai will ruin your day too). Internally rotating from here locks off your front hip joint, if you try and transition into another movement, say hicho, shifting back into another kamae etc, you first have to unlock this joint, then you have to move. This is way to slow, you will get cleaned up. Its also much easier to apply a screw leverage to the internally rotated leg, than a straight one. So any trips or thigh kicks will have a multiplied effect on you.
Don’t even get me started on looking down!
The ability to be under load (take low kamae for example), while still being upright (Body weight stacked vertically), on your rear leg (externally rotated for safety and efficiency), while having your front leg unlocked and free to move in an instant (also externally rotated, straight line from thigh to foot), with no head twist or bending from the waist (preventing gaijin butt) is paramount to your success in Taijutsu. The consequences of not taking Ichimonji No Kamae correctly are numerous… injured or painful knees, ankles & hips, loss of balance, feeling stuck in place, not being able to generate kicking power etc. Easy to knock down, trip, pull down, knock out. And we have not even started on the arms yet.
These are just observations from the first basic position most learn, we have not even started moving yet, so you can see from the above, just how many compensations we make for a simple posture, imagine the compensations people make when you add a simple movement forward, sideways or backwards from here. So its important that you can practice the first movement right! Develop the mobility to take good Kamae, then build good movement capacity on top of that!
Correct alignment is vital to your success. Its also vital if you want to copy your teacher correctly. You need to be able to move into the correct position first time, every time! You need to be able to control the movements/articulations of each joint, work them together to create a dynamic movement, and do it at speed and under load. If you cannot you will hurt yourself! And your Taijutsu will continue to suck. The examples above are easily fixed if you practice Mobility. You need to know why they are bad, how to correct them (get strong) and how to get strong (Coaching).
The point being, if you cannot control and articulate your joints, how can you move from this position without making compensations to cover for the errors? Do you think your compensations plus the movement you want to do will be faster or more efficient than your opponents? If you cannot control your Internal and external hip/thigh movement, If you have bad dorsi-flexion (The ability to flex your foot towards you) its no wonder your knees take a beating at practice. You combine all of these small problems, they get a synergistic effect and become multiple huge problems for you. Each small compensation, for example a small shuffle or step just before you do your main movement is going to get you smashed by your opponent. These small compensations, look at them like hesitations and fidgeting unnecessarily. If you think they don’t matter, do them against a sportsman who is fast and who is not your friend (Boxing, Kendo, Judo, Bjj, MMA).
So I ask again, if you have pain when taking kamae, or just feel like they don’t work, or you get stuck, are you sure understand how to move correctly, efficiently and safely from them, without causing harm?
Displays of flexibility do look cool, don’t get me wrong, I was a kid once too, images of JCVD doing the splits on chairs (Or between semi trailer trucks) are still inspiring to me (great now that Enya song is in my head). Pancakes, butterfly's and Gymnastic Bridges are cool as hell. But training for them in a passive and static manner, even if you achieve the positions wont help your martial arts practice if you lack the strength to produce force from there. Remember that flexibility should be a by product of mobility practice. You should be able to display these flexibility exercises without having to practice them in a static and confined manner, and the method you follow should carry over into your martial arts practice as a positive influence and should be quantifiable (measurable). Having the flexibility to take low kamae doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the control and strength to move from there. If you lack those skills you will make compensations. Compensations are bad! If your opponent moves once, but you have to move twice to get out of the way, who do you think will be successful?
Your muscles are already long enough to do anything you need them to do, you are just weak in your end range of motion. Normally your stretch reflex kicks in to prevent you from moving into positions you cannot control, that is the tightness you feel when doing deep stretches or taking low kamae for example. Essentially, your tightness is there to protect you from injury because you are weak in your end range of motion. Physiotherapists call this "tight weakness".
When you learn to become strong in your end range of motion, you teach your body how to control its movement under load and still be able to produce force at the end range of motion, when you can do this, your stretch reflex wont kick in, and you will be able to move freely and with control!
You must ask yourself are you free to move when you practice, like you think you are? Or are you stuck in a dysfunctional body, and try to move freely (Do your own thing) because you cannot copy what is shown because of your mobility limitations?
So what is the fastest way to fix this? End Range Strength (ERS). Essentially its time tested and proven resistance training at your end range of motion. For example, Isometric Stretching is the fastest way to improve your ROM, there are many different kinds and methods for it. From PNF contract relax, relax and hold, CRAC, ACAR etc… We use MOIL’s (Maximum Overcoming Isometrics Lifts), PAP Post Activation Potentiation, coupled with ERS Lifts while under load, then fast movement (Ballistics) practice which is essential for the martial artist.
Remembering that Strength is Specific, especially Joint angle specific, we need to practice end range strength in a fashion that has direct carry over to Martial Arts practice. If it takes you months to see a result of your stretching and mobility methods, you should question your methods then!
When you strengthen and stimulate a muscle/movement group. You should be able to see an immediate change in the pattern, even if it is only small, this effect should be compounded in each subsequent session. You should be able to see an improvement when you take Kamae better, shift, move and kick. Correct muscle pattern activation is the key, trying to stretch your muscles to make them longer is not!
The practicality of fitness equipment 20-30 years ago made it expensive and inaccessible to most, hence why writers like Pavel Tsatouline (Beyond Stretching Seminars, Relax into Stretch Book, founder of the Modern Kettlebell movement) and Thomas Kurz (Stretching Scientifically, Science of Sports Training) recommended body weight style isometric strength training coupled with traditional weight lifting programs, although Kurz does recommend Iron boots and in some publications cables, for the most part back then it was too cumbersome, and they were limited by their forms of media to express their ideas effectively to the masses. Today because of the fitness revolution, we have access to gyms 24/7 and have the gear at home at an affordable price. The science behind the strength they preached was bang on, the methods they taught were brutally hard, rather simplistic and generic as to ensure a wider audience reach. They do work, but there is a better way!
Today, we have therabands, powerbands and yoga blocks and kettlebells in every sports store and discount store around. We can hit the joint angles we need to strengthen at the End Range from our homes. We are able to use the internet to hold a vast library of video content, and give each client access to coaching and feedback when its needed. Modern technology has enabled us to not only reach more people, but to help them more effectively than before.
We know today that static stretching isn’t beneficial for long term changes in mobility (actually for 40 years), that it leads to decrease in performance before activity. Can increase fatigue and chance of injury. If you must do a static stretch before you undertake an activity, then you are not prepared to do that activity to begin with. If you do static stretch, you also then have to do a separate strength training session to compensate for the static stretch workout, who has time for this? Real mobility practice hits two birds with one stone, it increases your movement potential and makes you stronger at your end range, and its by product is flexibility, but with a bonus… its flexibility you can actively control.
Does the method of Mobility or flexibility training you follow, respect fundamental strength training principles? Strength is specific, and gains are specific (Specific Adaption to Imposed Demands) Do you understand how to use Post Activation Potentiation to your benefit? That flexibility without strength to back it up is not only stupid but dangerous. Do you understand reciprocal inhibition and autogenic inhibition reflexes? If you or your teacher don’t, then you should rethink your mobility and flexibility practice.
If you would like help with your Mobility, so that you can improve your Taijutsu, you should join our online coaching below and get started on your way to developing better Taijutsu by learning how to improve your mobility and get stronger in your end range of motion.
Do you want to be able to sit or move from Seiza better? Kick while staying low? Take Low kamae and be able to move correctly from there? Stop shoulder pain when you do Uke or being locked? All while mitigating your chance of injury, and increasing your active flexibility? Do you want to move under full control and with grace? If you do, then subscribe to my intensive online mobility coaching today.
Results are guaranteed, made for Taijutsu by a long term practitioner, to help you mitigate injuries, remove compensations and get better Taijutsu by increasing your end range strength, therefore allowing you articulate your joints from a strong position and finally be able to move freely!
If you have any questions please message me via Facebook, Instagram or email.
Remember always question your own practice! Understand the why! Accept no excuses! Cheers Gray
Note this is not a course to download, its an intensive period of online coaching, its fully customized and requires you to undergo assessments, upload videos and be reviewed constantly. Its 100% fully supported online coaching. We diagnose your movements and pin point your weaknesses then strengthen and eliminate them!
As used by practitioners from
The programs are 5 days per week, 1 hour per day, with the goal of reducing your mobility days down to 2-3 days once you develop the required end range strength.
Note: You will need access to some basic equipment, or you will need a gym. The red items are essential 2 Yoga Blocks 2 Kettlebells/Dumbells (12kg or 16kg for men (25-35 pounds), 8kg or 12 kg (18-25 pounds) for woman is recommended) Pair of heavy ankle weights (2-2.5kg/5pounds) 1 Theraband light to medium 1 medium resistance band/power band. (you will need two eventually)
Access to the following is also necessary, but you could make do with home made heavy objects. weight Plates: (You wont need a bar) 1x20kg (~44lbs) 1x10kg (~22lbs) 1x5kg (~11lbs) 1x2,5kg (~5,5lbs)
Cheap brands are ok, you wont be using any of the items listed in a traditional manner. Further along in your program you will require 2 extra bands, and something to slide on... a furniture slider, push up slider or a piece of cardboard or a towel depending on your floor surface where you practice. Having a box/table/railing/chair would also be great.