Martial Arts Technique and Strength

Technique involves the skill that one applies in a movement; strength refers to the inherent ability of the muscles to deliver sustained force. No matter what technique you are doing, a minimum amount of strength is needed. For example, in a sword technique one requires grip strength and the ability to hold the sword away from the body using the strength of the arms and shoulders. Skill is applied in the thrusts and strokes, in the ability to place the sword accurately, and in the footwork that allows you to deliver techniques or move evasively.

Sometimes, though, we try to substitute strength to make a technique work when the real key is a finely honed skill. I’ve made this mistake lots of times, especially on movements that involve leverage to take an opponent off-balance or in striking. In everyday activities, you’ve probably used a hammer to nail something together. If you think about it, you don’t “push” the nail in with your strength. Instead, using your skill to swing the hammer to create momentum, it’s the force of the moving hammerhead that moves the nail, not the direct application of your strength.

Similarly, by combining all of the pieces of a technique, the impact of that technique will be much more than the product of direct strength, or effort. GM Joe Manley describes this progression of skill as having three steps:

  • Maximum effort for maximum results
  • Minimum effort for maximum results
  • Below minimum effort for above maximum results

Our objective is the third step. The small pieces we are working on: breath, locks/releases, push-pull-turn, body angles, etc, are all aimed at achieving above maximum results with below minimum strength. How can a straw pierce a tree, like the picture to the right? Wind strength alone may just fling a straw against a tree trunk, but with the proper angles, acceleration, and alignment, you can end up with something that looks impossible.

One of my all-time favorite representation of this idea of skill happens in one of the fight scenes of the movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (directed by Ang Lee). In this scene, the master Li Mu Bai fights the younger Jen Yu. Her skills with the sword are no match for him, though, and he forgoes using his own sword (he’s holding it behind his back) and instead deflects and avoids her attacks with a simple stick, even to the point of making a “pretend” fatal blow with his stick, as pictured below.

From Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

As we age, we begin to recognize that we can’t always count on maximum strength, or effort, to make a technique work. The good news is that our techniques can be very powerful with the application of skill. It does require dedicated practice and refinement though. Every piece we work on contributes to your own ability to deliver above maximum results for below minimal effort.