Letters: Interconnectivity and how not to get it

Interconnectivity and how not to get it

22 May 2008

You talk a little bit about the whole body, internal connection needed to transfer your body mass into strikes. Do you have specific excercises for this type of connection, or does that kind of conditioning occur as a by-product of the explosive training you do? For instance, I notice in one of your Youtube videos you talk about using your head to guide your spine and and limbs for striking. My limited experience has been that without a preexisting level of conditioning that ties the body together into a tighter unit, using one part of the body to lead the rest is usually only partly effective. I’m thinking more in terms of aikido and taiji, since that has been what I’ve seen, where people are always saying “move from the center”, but if you don’t have the connections built up from your center, or spine, or wherever, out to your hands and feet, it all just ends up a disjointed mess. I’m assuming something similar is true in your striking method.

I ask because I’m doing various types of exercises to get that connection, but with the exception of shaking a rattan pole (influenced by Chen taiji excercises), they are mostly static or slow-moving excercises, which you don’t seem to do much of. I was wondering if you have found specific types of training to be the most effective for that?

— Josh Lerner

I can’t give you specific directions as to how to ‘get’ interconnectivity, but I can tell you how not to. I’ve been known to shake the rattan pole in my training in the past, but I’ve never done the static or slow-moving stuff and I don’t recommend it. With regard to the shaking drill, it will give you a certain understanding of shaking energy, which you can then apply to your striking. However, it’s just one small tool and as a fighter you need to be able to do a lot more.

I have fight-specific drills for speed, timing, reactive power, agility, hand/eye/foot coordination, dynamic balance and strength (dynamic and static) that certainly require interconnectivity in their execution, but this ‘interconnectivity’ is not a fixed thing. The way that we interconnect our bodies is dependent upon the physical (in this case, combative) problem that we have to solve. Down in Horsham I always used to tell my students that sometimes you have to interconnect like wet spaghetti, sometimes like an iron bar, and sometimes like a kid’s superball that bounces all over the place. Different situations require different responses, different levels of tonus, recruitment, and joint angular changes in alignment, sequence, rate and timing. There’s no such thing as one standard interconnectivity.

Just look at different sports. Each requires a different interconnectivity. A gymnast is not strung together in the same way as a 100m runner. And even within an individual discipline, not all gymasts are interconnected in the same way, nor are all runners. In fighting it gets even more complicated because you have a multiplicity of problems that you have to solve. You may find yourself in open or closed (clinch) positions on the feet, and on the ground there are so many possible combinations of positioning that the way your body organizes its connections has to be extremely versatile and spontaneous. You never know where you’re going to be aligned in relation to your opponent or how you’re going to have to hit him, or with what. So your ability to interconnect has got to be extremely versatile and reactive. You can’t fix it with one stereotypical approach, as much as you might want to be able to. Even at the most fundamental level, there’s no one-size-fits-all way. We all have a different signature.

Take the idea of core stability. Everybody sees the linkage between the legs, pelvis, and spine as being crucial to the transfer of power from the lower limbs to the upper or vice versa. But core stability is pointless when it is performed for its own sake, to achieve some ideal of body symmetry or connectivity that is divorced from specific performance. It’s the problem that you have to solve that’s important, and any training methods need to be derived from that.

People in tai chi, aikido, and many other traditional martial arts place great emphasis on this idea of connectivity, but they often do so in a very abstract way. The creation of this concept of connectivity becomes more important than the function that the connectivity is meant to support; i.e., punching, kicking, grappling, etc. within a live, non-compliant exchange. So you end up with this abstract, theoretical connectivity performed in air or against compliant partners or in controlled situations, and it doesn’t help you to achieve the type of connectivity you need to fight with. In fact, this ‘ivory tower connectivity’ is often contrary to the explosive, dynamic, ever-changing responses required of a fight.

Sure, it would be tempting to conclude that there is such a thing as one interconnectivity, and that it can be honed and perfected within a safe environment against compliant training partners as we see in Tai Chi and aikido demonstrations. But such connectivity has been built specifically for that controlled environment with its limited problems, and it does not translate to the chaos of a fight. If it did, the fight would look more like Tai Chi.

There’s a temptation to abstract from the fight different aspects (e.g., ‘rooting’) and then seek to train them in isolation, but you have to take it back to the fight. Most people in the martial arts spend many years perfecting these abstracted components of the fight out of context. They never test those practices to see if they work in a real fight or something close to it. They have no reality check. The practice as it was designed may have originally contained something of value, something which was meant to enhance the way we interact with the ground, gravity, surrounding environment, and within our own body; but whatever that was has become overexaggerated and idealized, often into a parody of itself. The RAS really starts to step in here and people go off into fantasies about the validity and meaning of their practice. That’s human nature. That’s why we need reality checks.

So how do you achieve a connectivity that’s going to work for you? First of all, get rid of all the ‘move from your centre’ mumbo jumbo shit. Don’t get caught up in the how, get caught up in what you’re trying to do. The tips that I give–for example, about the head–they are only tips. I would be horrified if people took them and built a system around them in the way that systems have been built around various Chinese concepts and practices.

A lot of people look for miracle cures. They look for short cuts. But the tip is just a coaching tip, it shouldn’t be the focus of your training. Let’s say I tell a guy at Primal to throw a cricket ball-sized medicine ball at the wall as hard as he can. He does that. He gets a result. Everybody in the room can see what he’s done. I then tell him, ‘instead of throwing the ball, this time have the sense that you’re throwing your whole body’. And you know what? The transference of momentum into the lighter limb (and subsequently the ball he’s holding) increases its velocity. Now he’s thrown the ball a lot harder, and it’s obvious to everybody in the room, including him. Now I pump him up a little bit to keep him enthused, and then I say to him, ‘Now, throw your head at the wall.’ And whoa! We get an exponential improvement on the throwing of that ball. Because the head is the initiator and the finisher of the move.

It’s the doing that’s important. The connectivity at that moment was taking place at an unconscious level, and now that the guy has experienced it, he can begin to work on achieving it again and enhancing it. The guys who I get to do this, with just a few minutes of my coaching, could probably throw the ball at the wall harder than some traditionalist who has been working actively on developing interconnectivity for striking for twenty years or more.

Why is this? Because the interconnectivity required of striking (for example) is in fact innate within the inherent reflex and behavioural patterns. It’s a refinement of a throwing pattern. The wisdom of the body dictates the organization of these reflex and behavioural patterns into an engram which, by repetition, becomes a skill. You already know how to throw. All you have to do now is refine that innate pattern. Don’t impose some motor-oriented pattern from a tradition, because the inherent pattern is superior.

But here’s the important thing. When our man at Primal was throwing the ball at the wall, he had a clear objective: to hit the wall with the thrown ball with as much impact as possible. The success or failure could be easily measured visually and by the sound of impact. He also had a clear directive in terms of my tip: my instructions were very simple. He didn’t have to think beyond the image of himself throwing his body, his head, etc. and the impression of the effect he wanted to achieve. So even a rank beginner can get a big result. But down the line, something else emerges. You begin to form a repesentation of the generation of these internal forces needed to produce the effect. The more kinesthetically aware that you become, the more you begin to perceive the different processes involved within the action. In other words, you’re becoming conscious of the unconscious in action. So your awareness is not motor oriented, it’s a deeper level of awareness. And through your kinesthetic sense, you become aware of what I call ‘passengers’, or body parts that are not contributing to the action or that may even be interfering with the action. When you get to that level, you can start to consciously intervene in the unconscious activity of the body to correct mistakes or to otherwise maximize your performance. This subject is really deep. It’s an area that I’ve explored in great depth and with utter fascination for many years, and I know what I’m talking about on this one. Many in the martial arts allude to this kind of thing, but from my observation of them, not too many have actually been there. Even an elite athlete sometimes doesn’t arrive at this place, relying on natural ability alone. But it’s this topic that, to me, the practice of the martial arts is all about. This is what internal martial arts should be, but usually it’s just a load of mumbo jumbo.

So I would say, rather than looking for a particular exercise that’s going to connect up your body, the answer is that it’s your kinesthetic perception of the body in action which needs to be built. And Josh, I’ve discussed this topic before with guys and I’ve prescribed walking, for example, as a way of beginning to get a handle on kinesthetic perception. But the truth is that kinesthetic perception is best gained through the practice of what you’re going to do. So if you’re a martial artist, you’ve got to fight or at least engage in fight training that is close to the fight in its level of chaos and punishment. The fight is the environment you need to work in, so start with the fight. This will give you enough sensibility about how to move specific to what you need to do, that you’ll progress naturally.

If I saw you personally, I could help you to get a handle on this thing, but I’d have to see you move and I’d have to be able to interact with you. There’s no one size fits all approach and there’s no definitive way.

Now here’s a caveat about kinesthetic perception, and it’s a problem that’s rife throughout the martial arts: those who engage in this ‘watching of the body in action’ often get caught up in the gratification of the movement. It’s almost like masturbation. You get people comparing sensations, and this posing and posturing and comparing notes about the flow of the chi, it can become quite obscene!

The kinesthetic sense is there like any other sense, to help you survive and perform better. Not to be enjoyed as a sensation. So look to build it in its context.

One more thing…like animals, we often develop our sense of movement by watching others and picking up intuitively the way they move. Within the martial arts, it’s all too easy to emulate the wrong representation of movement. I wouldn’t advise you to use a Tai Chi or aikido or any other ‘master’ as your role model. But rather, choose somebody who is fighting in an arena at a high level, and choose somebody who is as close to your body type as is reasonable. Choose somebody who you might aspire to become if you could. Aim high.

Go to the fight. Whatever mythos the martial arts might promulgate, the fact is that a fight is a fight. Look for the best fighters in real fights, and not the masters in idealized conditions or settings. Pick a guy and try to pick up holistically on his performance. How he interconnects in different ways will be one of the things that you will notice. And if you watch different fighters move, you’ll begin to see that the equation is not simple. There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat, and in a fight none of them are going to be perfect.

Bottom line: if you want to go swimming, you’ve got to get wet. Sooner or later, you’ve got to start fighting at some level. It can’t remain academic if you ultimately want to honestly call yourself a martial artist.