Letters: Internal plyometrics

22 August 2005

A recent question from Alan Hesketh , a former student and friend of the late Gary Spiers, started out as a discussion of plyometrics, and Steve made the following remark: ‘A lot of people forget that plyometrics is about reactive power: setting spindle thresholds so they’re sensitive to the slightest stretch of muscle, or no stretch at all. That’s the concept of it. And the way that’s normally enhanced is through rapidly changing direction. As the Chinese call it, ‘Pu, Tim, Tun, Tao’ or ‘Float, Sink, Swallow, Spit’ or more specifically, up, down, back, forward–and that’s what the Sanchin is all about with tactical application. Unfortunately, the manner in which Sanchin is performed today doesn’t address that.’

Alan wrote back and asked Steve to elaborate on this, so here it is.

Everything I’m about to say is purely academic, because I don’t believe in the kata, and Sanchin in particular I have serious reservations about (there’s a piece about this in the website archive section) because of the Val Salva maneuvre. People come to me because they believe I had the definitive Sanchin when I was doing karate, but they don’t listen to my real advice, which is: don’t do it.

In fact, kata in general is pointless. You only do shadowboxing if you’re already fighting, and you’re using the shadowboxing to reinforce your skills in the fight. And that’s all that kata is. With the kata, people tend to accept it as having within it combative experiences, and they then look to find what those experiences might be. And that seems to be their lifelong journey: to discover what’s within the kata. In fact, many people use the kata to replace combative experience.

But the simple truth is, we already know what that combative experience is. We can see it all around us, particularly today with the aid of video that shows us MMA, boxing, Muay Thai, submission fighting, etc. Kata is supposed to be representative of the fight. Rather than looking for the kata to tell us what we already know, if you bother to use a kata at all (and you don’t need an official ‘kata’) then any shadowboxing you do should reflect that knowledge of combat.

You know that in a fight there are essentially three phases: standup open position, standup closed, and ground. Now, as karate doesn’t address the ground the way Fujian Dog boxing does, there are only two phases you have to cover: standup open, and standup closed. If you wanted to become more effective in these two phases, you should be actually fighting and analyzing your fights, and referencing fight archives. That will tell you more than the kata. And the truth is, you know the fight’s very likely going to go to the ground, which means you also have to include the third phase. And that’s one reason why, even in the most generous interpretation, the karate system is fundamentally incomplete.

Historically, fighting has always fed the form and not the other way around. You don’t make up a form and then try to make it work in a fight; but that’s not far off what people do when they try to apply a kata that’s been handed down, and probably misinterpreted, without knowledge of what really happens in the fight. A kata is a bit like an archaeological artifact that people have discovered and they try to figure out what it was used for. And they treat it as is if it’s special because it’s been dug up, when all it was ever meant to represent, at best, were the fundamentals of fighting. Some big master will come along with his big grade and tell you what it means, but he’s never had a fight in his life in the real sense of the term, so how can he know the fundamentals of fighting in their practical sense? He just knows what’s been passed down to him: stand like this, breathe like that. And lots of times, that information is contradictory to the actual fight, both in interpretation and in the way it’s performed or applied in the kata. It’s not real.

At best, a kata will contain the fundamentals of fighting and/or some practices that will enhance the neuromusculoskeletal structure specific to fighting, but at worst it’s a load of bollocks. And even in its best interpretation, the kata is only meant as a supplement to fighting. Not a replacement. And if you do the kata, you always have to have an enemy in your mind’s eye, and your strategic objective. The kata is just running a simulation of the fight. But if you don’t understand what an enemy is, who’s able to strike, grapple, take you down–how can you run the simulation? You must fight.

The Sanchin that I was given was bollocks. I worked on it a lot, adding to it my personal experiences and the insights that people like Joseph Cheng and Yap Leong gave me, and by the time I was done with it, I’d made it into something that for me was a representation of combat. But it wasn’t ever going to keep up with my evolution as a fighter. It didn’t have all the answers. I couldn’t put a sprawl in Sanchin. I couldn’t do a knee. It was too limited. It was pointless. And I don’t prescribe the Sanchin. It’s not a magic pill. And that’s really the truth of it. And if I went back now, I could put even more into the Sanchin, but I’d be squeezing stuff into a container that wasn’t meant to take it. And what’s the purpose? To glorify Sanchin? I’m my own man. I’ve got my own shadowboxing ideas. I don’t want to practice somebody else’s, and I definitely don’t want to practice it with two hundred other guys in unison.

There’s also a saying that Sanchin isn’t Sanchin unless it’s tested. You’re being tested for your root; the floating and sinking, swallowing and spitting action; the tension of your interconnectivity; ability to close up vital points to strikes and grips; your fighting spirit; ability to take pain and remain focused, etc. But the greatest test of all those abilities is the fight.

With regard to pu, tim, tun, tao, those are fundamental principles within Sanchin. They are more tactically explored in other katas, but in the Sanchin you practice them in their most fundamental form. I saw Yap Leong (who practices 5 Ancestor/Emperor Fist Boxing, which were influential upon Goju-ryu) test Harry Cook in his Sanchin. Cook couldn’t move. He had nowhere to go with his hands: up, down, forward, or back. Yap had him locked up, tied in. Part of the implication within the kata is this hand-fighting for positional control that affords the opportunity to off-balance your opponent and strike. And every time Cook tried to escape Yap’s control, he made himself vulnerable. Cook didn’t understand how to hand-fight for positional control. He didn’t understand the Sanchin that he was practicing, and he didn’t understand the fundamental principle of pu, tim, tun, tao. The principle wasn’t emphasized in the kata he was practicing; the appearance of the hand motions was there, but the energy of tactical application was absent.

Basically the pu/tim/tun/tao means that movement, offensive, defensive, or counteroffensive takes place in those four planes: up, down, forward, back. And I’m using those rapid changes in direction to load, unload and reload my body. That’s the gathering and releasing of energy. That’s the plyometrics in a combative context. My hands logically can be inside, outside, under or over his, in various combinations. And I’m using my hands to climb up the branches to the top of his tree, which is his head, and at the same time, inserting a leg outside or inside his. And in the process, I could fit in strikes if I know how to syncopate. Now, because I’ve got control of the top and bottom of him, I can twist him and break his root. If you try to pull a weed, you’ll find if you twist it you’ll get the whole root. That torquing power is not only great for striking, but also for taking people down to the ground. But it’s got to be very tight, and you’ve got to cross a head, an arm, or a leg, so the upper body is being turned one way and the lower body is being turned the other with your inserted leg. He goes down like—bang! Very quick. And in that moment of off-balance, I’m going to fit in a critical strike, because that’s going to keep him down. It’s more a surprise tactic than one you would utilize against a fighter, say in MMA. Once he’s down you can then finish him in various ways; Sanchin doesn’t address that, but Silat, Kali, and the Southern Fujian systems do.

One thing about the Sanchin is that the body is C-shaped, or concave, which allows the bridges or strikes to reach out further; in Goju they perform the sanchin upright. The hips should be slightly back, so that you’re safer from takedowns. And that concave shape is effectively similar to the shape of a reflex bow, by which you are able to load the body and get much more power than you would if you were uprught. The reason the stance is square is not only to address three directions and three levels, but because you need more stability when you’re in close. And you’re always seeking to be slightly oblique; it’s better to be off slightly to one side and deal with him on an angle. The tying him up and the angulation limit his possibility of reply as well as add to your surprise factor. Even the punch has to sometimes be angulated to get the target. There’s no square target on the body; there’s no real target that resembles a makiwara. The punch isn’t really just a straight, square punch as you see in Sanchin.

Things aren’t what they seem! That’s why you need the combative knowledge to make it work.

The tension in the kata is reflective of rattan, particularly within the Southern Systems: hard/soft, twangy. Not only so you can take shots, but so that the gathering and releasing of energy is immediate. That’s where the plyometrics come in. And why, within the Southern systems, they use rings on the arms to produce the shaking energy. I used to teach all this stuff when I was trying to convert karate, but they weren’t interested. It was as if you handed them a key to the real secret door, but they preferred to wait ten years to see what the Master had to say. Most of them are now drawing on MMA for their inspiration on how to break down the kata. But it’s right there under their fucking noses. Goju is a Southeast Asian fighting art, geographically they’re connected to Silat and to the Southern systems of India, which were also influential on Indonesia.

In fact you sometimes think there were two separate developments going on in the Chinese martial arts. One that entered Southern China by the Southern route, going down from Southern India through Indonesia and up, and another that went from Northern India around the other route, coming in from the North, and taking in all the regions in between as well as those indigenous systems within China itself, and picking up all the magico-religious practices on the way. That’s how it gets to what it is, and that’s why it’s so hard to break it down. After a while, decoding the practices becomes an academic exercise. It’s interesting, but it’s only speculation, and it’s nothing to do with fighting.

I’ve made those moves work for me, but nobody was interested and I never got them down on film in any definitive way. There are glimpses of it in some of my earlier films, but I don’t sell those anymore. In a way it’s a pity, because it could have given more meaning to karate, particularly Goju-ryu and Uechi, and I can make more sense of the Chinese stuff including Pa-ku, Tai Chi, Hsing-I. But the truth is, you don’t need any of those practices to become a good fighter. You don’t need a kata to tell you the fundamental ways the body moves. All movement, no matter what it is, is the modification and adaptation of fundamental movement patterns that we have inherited. That’s inescapable. Keeping your modifications and adaptations as close to the natural template as possible is the key. Getting the modification and adaptation out of the situation, using natural, unconscious process, is the most important thing, because the last thing you want is a motor-oriented response. And that’s what practicing kata tends to do: it’s taught in a motor-oriented way, about how you do the movement. When it should be, what have you got to do to solve a combative problem within a situation? The other thing that is inescapable is the necessity of how those movements are applied tactically and strategically, and that’s entry, breakdown/takedown, finish.

The only thing that’s up for grabs is how do you go about enhancing the neuromusculoskeletal structure and improving the combative application of the fundamental patterns of movement. And the kata really doesn’t fit into that, not in its present format for sure. I’ve researched everything. Every fucking thing that’s out there that I thought might be relevant to enhancing the structure and making the patterns instinctive, I’ve done it. That’s been my life. And I’m still doing it. And kata just isn’t part of that equation. Nor are the other traditional practices. Throw them out. Move on.

What you really need are the fundamental movement patterns and the ways to enhance them for fighting. And that understanding, although very simple, is very hard to come by in the martial arts. Because everybody’s approached it arse-about-face. Doing their kata.

The fight will give you it. Just use your fucking eyes, and your brain.