Thursday, June 23, 2016

False Paths and Blind Alleys

I wrote an earlier blog post on advice for beginning or prospective martial arts students. Most of us that have trained for a while could bore people for days on the subject, but I did feel I left something out. It got too big for an edit on that earlier article.

That is – martial arts are not magic. No amount of training can allow the practitioner to alter the laws of physics, kinesiology, or biology.

Let's look at a few of the more spectacular claims that are made all too often. Some of which are even “backed up” by YouTube videos:

Pressure Point Fighting

Also known as Dim Mak, the “death touch”.

The skilled practitioner subdues or controls his opponent, perhaps via unconsciousness or death, using precise strikes to specific points on the body, usually with little apparent effort. As seen in countless Kung Fu movies, plus Star Trek – Mr Spock's “Vulcan Nerve Pinch”.

It is true the body has weak points - eyes, throat, groin, solar plexus, liver. A heel hook or side kick to the knee can certainly incapacitate and permanently injure a person. A good kick to the groin can mess up your day, and if bad luck with blood clots, internal bleeding and similar also ensue, may have serious, permanent, even terminal, medical consequences.

There are also other points on the body that can cause significant transient pain when struck or fingers are driven into them with a grab. My first martial arts teacher, David Crook, was extremely adept at digging his fingers into points on your limbs that would cause you to cry out in pain, wince, flinch, and reflexively pull away. But the purpose of these techniques in fighting was usually to cause momentary muscular spasms or relaxation that would facilitate the application of a joint lock, or as a momentary distraction that would disrupt their technique or concentration so you could hit them, take them down, etc.

That David and his students can make this work effectively is demonstrable and undeniable. But this is achieved via the impingement of what David called “nerve points” which caused transient pain and fleeting impairment of motor function.

From left: myself, Stephen Fekete (Karate under Shihan Patrick McCarthy), Neal Hardy (Fire Dragon Kung Fu), David Crook (Bac Fu Do Kung Fu). Rest are unknown. At a weekend camp outside Canberra c. 2000. The tall guy in the middle was quite friendly, had a great chat over lunch with him, wish I could remember his name

Where it gets squirrelly is when claims are made by some practitioners, usually involved in Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (TCMA), that some, or every one, of the acupuncture points can be struck or manipulated for adverse effect on the target individual.

This is Dim Mak. Or rather, what some claim Dim Mak to be. Jet Li's “Kiss of the Dragon” is one fictional manifestation of the concept.

The efficacy and validity of acupuncture is contested by science. It is undeniable that some excellent results have been achieved, mainly in areas of pain relief. However, some of the results in trials have been duplicated by “sham acupuncture” where needling points are chosen at random rather than according to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), or by other unrelated treatments. One has to wonder how large a role the placebo effect plays. Peer reviewed studies are a bit thin on the ground and the jury is still out.

For what it's worth, I did a six month course on acupressure (more or less, acupuncture using manual pressure rather than needles) and Chinese massage. My wife seemed to enjoy the massages I gave her and I have been able to assist her with muscular relaxation and pain relief. Friends of mine have studied and treated patients with such modalities and often helped people feel better. But this discussion is concerned more with the points' potential use for disruption, defence, incapacitation, and possible killing.

From what material I have seen on this (Erle Montaigue's Dim Mak Encyclopedia, mainly), for the disruptive affect to be achieved, the strikes have to connect with pinpoint accuracy and often at precise angles.

But … you aren't going to be able to do that unless you can stop the bad guy from punching you in the nose or kicking you in the groin, and you are already able to hit him with the same “cruder” attacks. In other words, you would need to be competent at a basic, less esoteric level of technique, and then get even more skillful and accurate to hit tiny targets at difficult angles.

So … you need to master the basics anyway. IF this stuff DOES work, it certainly isn't a shortcut, it's the icing on the cake.

Many (not all) Dim Mak systems claim that intensive hand and finger conditioning is required to deliver the requisite strikes with sufficient power, without your hand becoming the weakest link. Usually to the level where you can do one arm pushups on a single index finger and thumb, or pushups on the index finger second knuckles with the fists held in phoenix eye shape. I discuss this further in the Breaking section.

Phoenix Eye Fist. Develop a callus and do pushups on the end of that index finger knuckle.

You want to use this stuff in a fight? Then you've probably got ten to fifteen years of more conventional training ahead of you before you should even think of starting out.

The most reliable knockout targets remain the point and side of the jaw. There are acupuncture points there, sure, but people get knocked out from being hit here in and out of the ring all the time by people who know nothing about acupuncture.

Delayed Dim Mak / Death Touch

An evil and allegedly more skillful extension of Dim Mak, where adept manipulation of an enemy's acupuncture points results in their dying, usually slowly and painfully over a period of days, perhaps preceded by a short period of no apparent ill effect.

You are threatened by some huge brute wanting to knock your head off. You plead for him to spare you, grabbing his wrist while pleading not to be hurt … surreptitiously manipulating key acupuncture points. Others come along and break it up. You walk away, chuckling to yourself, secure in the knowledge that he will gradually become ill and die a slow and painful death, starting tomorrow.
Great, huh?

Uh … not really. If I'm defending myself, I want my attacker on the floor and incapacitated NOW. Not tomorrow, not in thirty seconds. NOW. After which I'm making like Usain Bolt.

Suppose your enemy finds out what you have done to him (presumably after diagnosis by your neighbourhood rival Dim Mak master). He comes after you with a Kalashnikov and grenades. If he's doomed to die in a matter of days or weeks, he has nothing to lose by taking lethal revenge on you in the meantime. He'll be dead well before it gets to court. As will you.

Revenge aside, and sticking with this fantasy, your actions would not go over well at your murder or manslaughter trial after your guy dies. Judges and juries tend not to sympathize with an accused who subjected someone to a slow and painful death over an argument over a parking space. This is conjecture, of course, because this scenario almost certainly HAS NEVER HAPPENED.

Breaking tiles, boards, etc.

(Disclaimer: I intentionally avoided all hand hardening / board etc. breaking in my Kung Fu career. Opinions vary, but I feel I have achieved way more than I ever though possible in that particular art, despite, and perhaps partially because, of that).

David Crook. This is the real deal

Karateka and others who do tameshiwari (board, brick, ice, baseball bat, etc. breaking) will spend time conditioning/hardening their hands. In TCMA, the practice is known as “iron palm” training, consisting of long periods striking sandbags with various parts of the hands repetitively, then soaking the hands in a hot mixture of wine and Chinese herbs.

This sort of training CAN produce the desired results. The hand bones become harder, certainly, but also more brittle. Rick Spain did a ton of Iron Palm while training for the international Kung fu tournament he won in 1982, but broke his hand in the match before the final. He fought the final match and won in spite of this. 

Also on the downside of the ledger is the old Chinese saying, “Iron Palm drives you mad”. I can't say I noticed any significant problems with my training buds that did it for a few cycles, but it is hard to believe a saying with such a downside would have zero basis in fact. Repetition, drudgery, pain ...

Being able to break stacks of boards, roof tiles, etc. is impressive and requires a level of technique, precision, determination and self-control. I have admiration and respect for people that can do this. I have not done it. 

Some systems require facility with breaking up to a certain level to allow you to progress.

As with other aspects of martial arts, it relies as much on technical precision (where you strike the object and at what angle) as it does on raw power.

Will it help you in fighting? Opinions vary. How hard do you need to hit a person to knock them out? Many factors are involved in being able to strike a person effectively. Boxers usually don't do breaking but knock people out regularly. 

Fighting has many aspects, and requires a generalist rather than a specialist approach. Even so-called specialists who succeed in MMA almost always have a solid foundation in the fundamentals of the component arts, usually, boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu.

All types of training incur what BJJ black belt and world renowned fitness trainer Steve Maxwell calls “the price of adaptation”. Such hand conditioning is no different. Most of the most well-known breaking specialists have broken their hands and/or feet many times over the years. Some to the point where walking and any fine movements with the hands become difficult and/or painful.

Such training is probably best avoided if you want to become a microsurgeon, tailor, guitar or piano player, calligrapher, or do anything else requiring significant dexterity in the hands. If you do any type of jacketed grappling, bag work, or weapons drilling or sparring, your hands are probably suffering enough already.

If you find breaking intriguing, by all means pursue it. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls and the price you may have to pay to become really good at it. 

No touch knockdowns / knockouts

A potential assailant closes on you, runs at you, tries to grab you with evil intent. You wave your hand or put it out like a stop sign, they mysteriously fall over, flop about, bounce up and down or are affected in a myriad of other ways without being able to complete their attack.

Epic Fail

Others employ a shout or particular look or posture to cause the attack to be foiled and the opponent to collapse.

Some “adepts” can do this do this against a group of opponents surrounding them, or lined up one behind the other.

Darth Vader is no slouch at this stuff.

Others, perhaps on some sort of second tier, require an actual light touch on their opponents to cause their (literal) downfall. This has crossover with the Dim Mak / pressure point fighting section of this article.

At best, these people can make their stuff work on their own students. They are less successful (usually totally unsuccessful) against skeptical journalists, sport fighters, or students from the Jiu Jitsu school down the street.

Obesity is no obstacle. Jiu Jitsu is immune!

You train with these people, you too may become susceptible to your instructor's “no touch” techniques, you may even be able to do them on your fellow students at that academy. The populace at large, however, remain resistant.

You gave this person your time and money to become vulnerable to techniques that don't work against untrained people. Was that a sensible investment?

This stuff is about as believable and operates on the same mental/spiritual level as faith healing. If prayer heals, why does God hate amputees?

Leaps, Acrobatics, “Light Body” Kung Fu, etc.

Kung Fu movies abound with guys kicking each other while flying four meters above ground, performing spectacular flips, levitating etc. etc.

Kung Fu movies make extensive use of trampolines and wires, props, trick photography, CGI, etc.

This is not to say Jackie Chan, Jet Li and their peers are not fabulously skillful and undeserving of praise, even awe. But their own amazing skills are turbocharged by film technology.

If you are defending yourself in real life, you probably want to avoid spectacular acrobatics and feats requiring prodigious bursts of energy. If you flub the flip or gas out too fast, you're toast.

Martial arts “Skills” that are more like Illusion or Sleight of Hand

A master holds one or more concrete blocks on his head, or lies down on a bed of nails with the concrete slabs on his stomach. An assistant breaks them in two with a sledgehammer with no ill effects suffered by the person underneath. Or ...

Don't try this at home, kids

A master lies down on a bench, bed of nails, or supported on two workbenches under his head and thighs, etc. A watermelon is placed on his stomach. An assistant with a katana (Japanese long sword) slices the watermelon cleanly in two, the two halves fall off the master's stomach, which is uncut.

A bunch of assistants carefully arrange a few packets of raw eggs close together, suspended on their ends with a platform on top. The master gingerly steps onto the platform and stays there for thirty seconds or so to tumultuous applause. Perhaps breaks a board or brick up there The eggs remain unbroken.

Combo egg stand and brick break. Impressive.

Followers of Transcendental Meditation claim to be able to fly and levitate.

With the sledgehammer and the sword, most of he skill is required by the person wielding the implement, rather than the person supposedly taking the impact. The nails on the bed of nails are close together, not far apart. The power drill? I dunno, but it could be running in reverse.

Good luck trying the egg trick with all the eggs on their sides.

The TM guys are basically hopping around in the lotus position on their knees on soft surfaces. I can't do it, but I'll bet Eddie Bravo can. James Randi was easily able to produce photos of a friend of his bouncing in lotus on a trampoline that looked indistinguishable from those produced by the TM organisation, supposedly proving their ability to levitate. Randi has debunked a number of other martial arts related claims of supernatural abilities, and for a while had a standing offer of $100,000 to anyone who could demonstrate chi-related superpowers under controlled conditions.

Many faith healers, psychic surgeons, clairvoyants, cult leaders, Sai Baba, Yuri Geller, etc. use the same tricks and techniques that magicians and illusionists do. Some of the shenanigans in some martial arts demonstrations are no different.

Often, these demonstrations requires considerable skill, undoubtedly. But not necessarily martial skill.

There are legitimate skills involved in taking a punch or other strike so that the related trauma is nullified or reduced. But these do not extend to cuts from swords or sledgehammer blows.


For me, martial arts is about learning techniques to overcome a resisting opponent, using intelligence, leverage, and superior technical skill to overcome those stronger and more physically gifted. This can be a fascinating pursuit that touches on all sorts of related, equally fascinating, topics. The cultural milieu from which these arts originate can be enthralling.

However, it can be a difficult and often frustrating pursuit.

It is easy to become tempted or distracted by paths that appear similar, and perhaps even to be shortcuts, but that will take you further away from that goal if you pursue them.

Do not allow others to take you down paths that are not your own ... unless you are sure they are better than the one you are currently on, of course. Often interests and opinions and goals change with experience. As they should.

Here's Uncle Darth again:

Good luck with your training!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Advice for new martial art students

Which martial art should I do? Which school should I go to?

There is no supreme martial art. Different martial arts suit different people. Find one that suits you and your goals. Look at a few different arts and a few places before signing up.

Often, the instructor's character, teaching style, knowledge of their art and how well you relate to them, will be more important than the actual art you study.

The closest place might not suit you the best. The same goes for the place with the flashiest gym, best advertising and biggest student base. But maybe the close, big, flashy place will suit you perfectly. Check them out.

Word of mouth is the most reliable form of advertising.

There are four main focuses for martial arts instruction (depending on how you slice them):
  • Self defence
  • Sport fighting
  • Physical training, art, and tradition
  • Self development, self discovery and self actualization
All of these are noble and worthwhile pursuits. None is necessarily better than another. Problems arise if a student thinks he is being taught one but is actually getting something different.

Very few practitioners master more than one focus. Those who master more than two are rarer than hen's teeth. Make sure you understand which focuses you are being offered, and whether it/they is what you are looking for. (Marc MacYoung)

Most people start up to learn self defence. If that is you, make sure you are going to get some of that, preferably right at the beginning. Basic self defence should be easy to learn and execute, to be effective under duress.

A good instructor enjoys having students that can think for themselves. Each challenges and extends the other. If an instructor's students one day surpass their ability and make martial discoveries of their own, the good instructor will be happy. Loyalty, both ways, is earned, not demanded.

You are joining a club of people pursuing similar goals in a specific area. That is a worthwhile enterprise. But your other pursuits, beliefs and relationships are not the business of the club or instructor.

Some places, regrettably, try to blur the lines. You are hopefully not looking for dependence on a cult leader, or for a quasi-religious order into which to withdraw from the world. Nor should you enlist in a feud with the rival martial arts school across town, or perhaps several thereof, of which you had never heard before you signed up.

If it feels weird, something is wrong and I would urge you to get out of there.

The school owner is providing the facility and taking the financial risks. Respect that, pay your fees on time and observe the rules of the school. Appreciate that the instructor is human, has a family life of their own, and may have the occasional sick day or urgent personal issue or may not be 100% focused every time. That said, if his name is on the school advertising he should be teaching classes himself regularly.

Self Defence

Self defence is about more than fighting. You need to defend yourself against ill health, theft, exploitation, poverty, verbal and psychological abuse, etc.

You are several thousand times more likely to die from lifestyle-related heart disease or cancer than as the victim of a violent assault. The goals of your training and related lifestyle should therefore consider such priorities and be tailored accordingly.

Fighting skill is one of the less important aspects of self defence. Awareness, common sense, and a realistic understanding of human nature are far more important. Avoidance of a fight is the best outcome. Even if you win a fight, there could be potentially serious legal implications if you injure your attacker.

If you find you need to use your fighting skills in the street, it's probably … “bro, you f***ed up a long time ago”. (Kurt Osiander)

No martial art in the world can realistically allow an unarmed person to defend, with any guarantee of success, against:
  • multiple skilled unarmed attackers
  • a skilled user of a knife or gun
Your best defence in these cases is running away as fast as you possibly can. If you can't run, and have to stay and fight, use everything you have, but you should expect to be injured, perhaps seriously and permanently.

These caveats relate to realistic expectations. They do not make martial arts training a waste of time by any stretch.

I'm too old, I don't have time

Helvecio Penna

You have time. I started Wing Chun at thirty-five, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at forty-four. 

I did other martial arts before that, but had a five year break in the mid 1980's which took me back to square one. Well, perhaps not all the way back.

I worked full time in IT all my working life. I have taken care of myself and been fortunate with injuries and the like, but I had some physical challenges at the beginning, and was certainly not physically gifted.

I got much, much further in both arts, in terms of grades, competence, understanding and satisfaction, than I could ever have imagined. I overcame a number of physical limitations and drastically changed my self image for the better. I achieved things that I regarded as inconceivable at the beginning, even in my wildest dreams.

At time of writing I am sixty-one, still training about four times a week, and loving it. I'm planning for at least another fifteen years.

How it's going to be

Getting really good will take a long time. 

Sometimes you feel like you are getting nowhere. Just keep turning up, that will change. I've sometimes felt like giving training a miss, but never regretted turning up and doing it.

Some will progress faster than you, others slower. Don't compare yourself. The important thing is to be better today than you were the day before.

You will have interruptions due to injuries, other priorities, and problems along the way. No one is judging or keeping score. Just train as best you can when you can. After a decade or so, the four or six week breaks you took for holidays or issues with the family, injuries, and work hassles will just appear as insignificant blips in your progress.

Your family, close friends, health, and a good career are more important than martial arts. Priorities.

If you aren't training with friends and aren't having fun, you probably aren't going to last. It is a long, challenging road, but it doesn't have to be all hard graft and gloom. Try to make your training enjoyable, and your training partners into friends. Treat it seriously, but don't miss opportunities to make it fun. Sometimes a smile or a friendly word is all it takes to lift a spirit.

“Environment trumps will.” (Chris Haueter).

Do your best to help your fellow trainees. If you are in a class of twenty, and everyone is there for themselves, everyone has one person trying to help them improve. If each of you have the goal of helping the others, each of you has nineteen other people trying to help you improve. Do the math. (John Will)

If you are just starting out, or are an experienced martial artist trying something new, start slowly. The temptation to go all in, six days a week, and then burn out, never to return, is omnipresent and happens to too many. 

Start twice a week maximum, leave yourself wanting more. If you find you want to ramp it up, do so gradually, change your routine slowly and methodically. Listen to your body. Don't overtrain or go too hard and injure yourself. When you have developed the skills, some full contact sparring is necessary, but not all the time and not even frequently. Even professional fighters do not go all out all the time.

Training in martial arts can make you a better person, but this is not a given. There are too many highly qualified martial artists with huge egos and bad attitudes. Martial arts training alone is not enough. You have to develop yourself in other areas as well. With power comes responsibility. A decent martial art practised diligently with competent partners and instructors will keep you humble, not make you arrogant. 

You learn the most by losing to more skilled training partners, not by continually vanquishing your technical inferiors. If you can beat everyone in your academy, you need to find a harder academy.

Feeling the black belt around your waist for the first time is a pivotal moment in most people's lives. (Note: for some styles, the pivotal belt or sash may be another colour. Some martial arts do not use belts or grades).

However, becoming a black belt will not bring adulation, riches, or make you irresistible to romantic partners. Though for some it becomes a highly enjoyable and satisfying, and more rarely, lucrative career, it is not an easy way to make a buck. The black belt does not magically bring better answers to the rich and varied challenges of life.

Enjoy the journey rather than the destination –  for there is no destination, only milestones on an endless highway.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Dealing with the unconscious athlete in Jiu Jitsu

As a BJJ referee, I regularly see competitors rendered unconscious by well applied chokes in competition. I've seen this every now and then in training also. The effects were always temporary. I've been on a competition mat where the same person was choked out twice (in different matches, of course). In all cases, everyone was ready to wrestle again within minutes. Chokes or strangles are usually pretty safe. They've been happening at the Kodokan in Japan for over a century with no fatalities. Often people say they went to a happy place after being choked out (only temporarily!).

I have always managed to tap in time ... though I have been knocked out while training standup (see below).

The prevailing wisdom from many, at least in BJJ circles, seems to be to lift the unconscious person's legs, and perhaps shake them gently. I've even witnessed, as referee, a competitor get choked out, moved towards them myself to render assistance, and been elbowed out of the way by the other competitor, the choker, rushing in, intent on lifting the guy's legs up until he regains consciousness. This is called the Trendelenberg position.

This had always mystified me, as my first aid courses, etc. always advocated that an unconscious person be placed in the recovery position (sometimes called the coma position) after first checking their heartbeat and breathing, and that their airway was clear.

However, I wondered of there were some special Jiu Jitsu knowledge, something like the Gracie Diet, that I was not privy to, where lifting the legs was more appropriate in the specialised world of Jiu Jitsu chokes and strangles.

According to this article, that is not the case. It's written by Doctor Warren Wang, longtime BJJ practitioner, gym owner, and ONE Vice President of Medical Services.

The legs up position is an outmoded and less safe response. We should go recovery position all the way. If he remains unconscious and unresponsive for more than a few seconds, call the medical staff over. Many people make snoring or similar noises, which means they are still breathing and probably OK.

IMPORTANT - a knockout, caused by head trauma rather than strangulation, is an entirely different situation. A concussion or worse will be involved. The person should not be allowed to compete or train further and should be monitored. Make sure they stay awake. A visit to a hospital or medical centre to be checked out would be sensible.

The father of one of my martial arts instructors died as a result of an untreated knockout. He was jumped and beaten unconscious outside a hotel where he was staying, He regained consciousness, got up unaided, went back into the hotel and up to his room, went to bed, and never woke up. This just illustrates the danger of head trauma. No matter how tough your body is, your brain is roughly the consistency of jelly and cannot be toughened. Be safe, get yourself checked out.