Friday, August 28, 2009

Rocking the Relaxation

"Relax!"  It's a phrase you're bound to hear if you study an internal martial art, especially any of the tai chi variants.  But what exactly does it mean to relax?  According to the dictionary definitions,
relax (verb) is
  1. to make less tense, rigid, or firm; make lax
  2. to diminish the force of
  3. to slacken or abate, as effort, attention, etc.
  4. to reduce or stop work, effort, application, etc., especially for the sake of rest and recreation.
None of those definitions sound congruent with studying a martial art.  A key to effectiveness in any martial art is generating power.  The ability to generate force is highly desirable from a martial perspective.  So then what gives with all the emphasis on relaxing and diminishing force?

Not the type of relaxation we're discussing.

To answer this question, we can examine the first exercise from the I-Liq Chuan (ILC) 15 basic exercises: rocking.  The rocking exercise illustrates the first three points of the six physical points in ILC:

6 Physical Points

  1. Relaxation
  2. Center of gravity
  3. Alignment
  4. Center of mass
  5. Spheres of offense and defense
  6. Spinning force of coordination
As the balance is rocked forwards and backwards between the toes and heel of the feet, the tension felt on the body changes.  Gravity pulls the body differently as we rock back and forth, causing the muscles to activate differently as the balance shifts to the different parts of the foot.  As the weight shifts towards the toes and the balls of the feet, tension rises up from the front of the ankles to the shins, quads, abdomen, and chest.  Likewise, when the weight shifts back towards the heel, tension is experienced on the body starting from the back of the ankles and rising up the calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and upper back.  The further off balance you go, the more the muscles must fire to compensate and the higher the felt tension rises in the body.

As the weight shifts towards the center of the feet--i.e. the center of gravity--the tension felt by the body reaches a minimum.  At this balance/center point, the body's weight is being pulled straight down to the feet through the structure of the body.  The structure of the body is stacked up such that the bones, ligaments, and tendons bear the brunt of the gravitational force pulling the body.  When the structure of the body stacks into alignment at the center of the feet, the body is minimally tensed and maximally relaxed.

It is important to note that this state of relaxation is achieved by understanding the center of gravity and the alignment of the body's structure to drop the weight to the center of the feet.  This simple rocking exercise contains and illustrates the first three principles of the six physical points.  Without alignment (stacking of the body structure), you cannot achieve the center of gravity; gravity will pull the misaligned body structure such that the weight does not fall on the balance point in the center of the feet and some joints will bear disproportionately more weight.  Without the center of gravity (body structure stacked over the center of the feet), gravity will pull in the body in the off-balanced direction.  To keep the body standing upright, muscles will need to activate more (i.e. the body becomes tensed) to compensate for the off-centered balance.

Returning to the original question, what's so important about understanding relaxation?  What is meant by relaxation is indeed the lack of tension or the lessening of force and effort.  But the lessening of tension is relative to the muscular effort needed to maintain and move the body structure.  If the center of gravity is achieved, the muscles can relax more as the body structure bears more of the weight.  The relaxed muscles result in more potential force being available to move the body.  With an off-balanced structure, the muscles are already engaged in compensating for the balance; the amount of potential muscular force available for body movement is diminished by the muscular effort necessary just to keep the body upright.  The more off-balance you go, the more tensed the muscles become and the more pronounced your reduction in movement power will be.

Relaxation from the training perspective is the ability to use as little muscular effort as necessary to maintain the body, such that maximum muscular force is available for use.  When dealing with either just gravitational force or the force of an opponent, misalignment of the body results in tenser muscles and less usable muscular force.  Proper alignment allows the relaxation of the muscles.  With relaxed muscles, it is far easier to move the body and generate power.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Training Gear Update: ladder, rope, belt, hammer, oh my

It's been a while since I've made any notes about my training gear. In fact, the last time I've discussed training gear was my post on my cheesy pull up bar solution. So, here is my long overdue training gear post.

Buddy Lee Aero Speed jump rope

It's been nearly two years since I bought my Aero Speed rope. I really liked the rope when I first bought it, and I still really like it. I've read some people complain about the cord snapping or the rings on the swivel bearings breaking. I haven't experienced that sort of equipment failure, but I've only used my rope indoors on either rubber mats or sprung wood floors. I'd be pretty annoyed if my $40 jump rope broke on me under those conditions.

That being said, the rope cord has thinned in the middle. I thought I'd never wear out the cord, but apparently two people (my wife and I) doing numerous speed skipping sessions has taken its inevitable toll on the rope cord. Replacement cords are reasonbly priced ($4-5ish + shipping), but I'm cheap. I decided there's got to be a hardware store solution to this. After wandering into the plumbing aisle, I found it: 1/4" polyethylene tubing.

At $0.11 per foot, it's a very affordable way to put a sleeve over the rope cord and extend it's useful life. Just cut lengthwise down the middle of the tube, and wrap it around the rope.

Another issue I had with the rope was that you're not supposed to kink the rope if you want to turn it quickly. That rules out hanging the rope on a hook or just cramming the rope into my gym bag. Again, my years of experience as a poor engineering grad student came to my aid. My solution: a cardboard cutout holder. Just cut four notches into an ~8" square piece of cardboard, wrap the rope around it, and toss into gym bag. Easy, cheap, and functional.

Homemade Agility Ladder

For a period of time, I was recovering from one of my bouts of wrist tendonitis. Jumping rope wasn't exactly speeding up my wrist recovery, so I had to do an alternate exercise for my plyo/interval training cardio. So, thus began my adventures with the agility ladder. This is one case where I probably would have been better off just buying a commercial ladder, but I decided to save the cash and spend too much time building and debugging the homemade version. With some 1/2" PVC pipe and some nylon rope, I concocted my very own agility ladder:

I was proud of myself, and I was pretty sure nobody was going to steal it because of its pink rope and ghetto PVC rungs. I quickly discovered one major problem with my ladder though. Stuffing it in a backpack to transport to and from my workout locations ran the serious risk of creating a holy tangled mess. By the third untangling session, I decided to copy something from the commercial versions. A threaded rod rammed through drilled holes in the middle of each rung would keep the whole mess together without becoming tangled. A wing nut at the bottom keep the rungs from sliding off.

Now, I can look totally cool as I saunter into the gym with my pink corded agility ladder and makeshift carrying handle.

Ironmind Dip Belt

Gen gave me a dip belt last Christmas, and I've loved the belt. I'd be using it more often if doing weighted dips and pulls didn't flare up my wrists. It's rated for some absurd amount of weight (1000 lbs?), which I'm not even close to doing. I only got up to 65-70lbs.

Undoing the webbing from the buckle to change weights works ok. I prefer the carabiner and loading pin solution myself since it's more convenient. But I didn't want to buy the loading pin, so I just searched the internet until I found someone's suggestion of two carabiners and a chain. Works for me.


The sledgehammer is my latest toy (is it bad that I consider workout equipment "toys"?). I didn't think 8lbs could be so tough. I can't yet do the sledgehammer walking finger strength drills, and I'm definitely not going to attempt any sledge levering exercises which bring the sledge anywhere near my face (at least not for a while). I could swing the bad boy at a tire, and that was hella fun. If I had any stress aggression before my workout, it was gone by the time I finished my sledge swing workout.

I've heard talk from one of my buddies about a 20 lb sledge. I don't think I'm ready to jump much beyond a 10-12 lb sledge (and then only for swings, forget levering). It seems like such a puny jump going from 8 lbs to 10-12 lbs. But then again, a weight on the end of a stick makes things a lot more interesting, and 2-4 lbs more weight is still a 25-50% increase. I think I'll be sticking with my 8 pounder for a while.