Scientific Aspects of Stance Training

December 5, 2020

Here is a rundown of the physiological adaptations that are likely to occur during stance training used in various martial arts styles.  In summary, they are (1) blood pressure reductions and oxygen efficiency due to restricted blood flow, (2) increased stability due to comparatively lower stretch reflex responses and increased muscle endurance, and (3) increased power generation due to joint angle specific increases in muscle strength and changes in muscle fiber recruitment.  These points are elaborated on below.

1. Blood Pressure Reductions 

Holding a stance involves isometric muscle contractions where the muscle fibers stay the same length throughout the exercise.  This type of contraction applies consistent pressure to the arteries, limiting blood flow to the areas where the contractions occur.  This causes a build-up of metabolites which normally dilate the blood vessels and increase blood flow.  Immediately following the exercise, the muscles stop contracting and the blood, along with the metabolites, can flow to the rest of the body. The causes blood pressure levels to be reduced during the post exercise period, sometimes with the effect lasting for a day.  If this practice is done regularly, say a few times a week for 2-minute bouts at a time, blood pressure can be reduced for several weeks after the training is halted.  This is likely due to the blood vessels becoming more responsive to changes in heart rate and exercise demands, allowing blood pressure levels to remain at healthy levels during regular daily activities.

It should be noted that practitioners of stance training often claim increased “qi flow” during the exercise and that this is responsible for its health benefits.  The concept of qi is difficult to define and a different interpretation could be the source of the misunderstanding; however, the idea that there is increased flow during an isometric exercise like stance training is not supported in terms of the blood.  Arterial blood flow is restricted by the contracting muscles while holding the stance causing the metabolite build up already mentioned, but this process also restricts oxygen and nutrients from getting to the active muscles.   Over time, the muscles are forced to adapt to the restriction by functioning more efficiently and increasing stored oxygen within the muscles.  A similar process occurs during blood flow restriction BFR training, where weightlifting exercises are done with a belt tied around the active limb, directly limiting blood flow to the working muscles.  It has been demonstrated that the adaptations to BFR are comparable to those without the restriction but using heavier weights.  In other words, more gain with less work.

2. Stability

Generally, stances provide stability due to do the lowering of center of mass and then wider base of support of the feet.  It will require more force to move an object under those conditions as the person in a stance will have a mechanical advantage compared to someone who is not.  However, the way stances are trained can also improve stability or it might make it worse.  The stretch reflex can have a direct impact on your ability to maintain stance when being attacked.  If you have ever been bounced out of your stance of your stance by someone pushing on you, you might wonder why you seem to have momentarily lost control of your body.  The same mechanism that the doctor uses to check your reflexes with a small hammer is at play in stances as well.  In the lab or doctor’s office, it’s been noted that holding a small muscle contraction while the stretch reflex is being tested, can increase the reflex response.  This means that if we hold a stance tightly, it will be easier for people pushing on us to activate this reflex for us, and momentarily take control of our bodies.   One experiment demonstrated that the stretch reflex was greater when subjects attempted to hold fixed joint angles than when they merely needed to support an equivalent amount of weight in a specific direction. For a stance then, what is important is that you support your body weight, and not be overly focused on leg position. Staying as relaxed as possible while supporting the body weight at the desired stance height is therefore preferable to emphasizing leg position within the stance. 

Regardless of how they are held, practicing stances as an endurance exercise can induce physiological changes that can improve one’s ability to be more relaxed and help to avoid unwanted stretch reflex activation.   Additionally, stance training, like other forms of endurance exercise, will cause changes in the muscle fiber type.  When you first begin holding stances, and you are not able to do so for very long, you may notice that your legs muscles are particularly tense.   This tension is due to lots of muscle fibers being recruited to support the body’s weight.  As you improve, your muscles will adapt by increasing their endurance capacity; fast twitch muscle fibers used for short bursts of energy will begin to change into slow twitch fibers that will not fatigue so quickly.  This adaptation means that over time, less fibers will be needed to do the work of holding the stance, freeing up other fibers to relax and be ready for any changes in movement.  Not only does this increase one’s ability to move and make adjustments to the stance, but the greater relaxation will also mitigate the effects of the stretch reflex if you are pushed or perturbed abruptly.

3. Power 

Having a strong base of support and connection to the ground can help deliver stronger attacks with the upper body.  Additionally, holding a posture will develop the leg muscles in a focused way that will contribute to explosive strikes.   Unlike lifting weights which strengthens the entire range of motion the joint moves through, isometric exercise tends to predominantly strengthen the muscles at and around the specific angle the joint is held.  Thus, holding a stance at a height you will likely be fighting in and generating power from will strengthen the muscles in that range of motion.

Some martial artists practice very low stances because they are more intense and believe this will make them stronger overall.  If your martial art requires lower stances and to be stronger at increased ranges of motion, that would provide some justification for the practice.  However, if one is mainly interested in generating power from a specific range of motion, then this practice is not optimal

As mentioned above, muscles will increase their endurance over time, requiring fewer fibers to be contracted to hold the stance.  The relaxed muscles not needed to support the body’s weight are now free to wind up or lengthen in preparation for explosive movements. Therefore, stance training increases the endurance required for fighting and well as indirectly aids in the ability to perform techniques requiring speed and power.

Left Ward Off

July 12, 2017

First stepping move of Tai Chi, Left Ward Off.

 

Warm Ups for Ward Off

July 12, 2017

Here are some basic warm up exercises that are designed get ones movement attention down to the center by focusing on the kua (hip joint).  I plan on uploading more of these instructional videos, so please leave comments, questions, and suggestions below.

“Static Hands” Push Hands for Beginners

August 6, 2016

Here are three types of push hands exercises that are designed to get people to use their hip joints and encourage free play.  They are all forms of what I now call “static hands” drills in that the hands/arms maintain the same contact point with the other person.  Keeping these fixed hands positions intentionally limits any sort of parrying motions of the arms, and is a good indicator of/way to develop functional structure and root.

The first is a form of single hand push hands minus any major intent to push the other person back.  The focus should be to roll around the person’s incoming force and get into a better position while staying grounded.   Basically, we’re just practicing ward off/peng energy here.

The second is a static hands drill designed to teach people how to push someone out of their stance in response to pushes they received.  For this drill to work it is important not to be too light with the hands or disconnect them at any time.  We’re not practicing parrying here but learning to move the body while staying structured and rooted.   This drill in particular seems to give people a good foundation for free play rather quickly.  In fact, I’ve shown this drill to people who have had years of competitive push hands experience, and it was clear they could use this drill to improve as they had trouble with other less experiences than they were.  There is little room for error.  You can’t save yourself by using some flailing arm motion.  You either have structure or you get pushed back.

The third static hands drill is an expansion of the second, using the starting hand position used in competition matches.  Because the shoulder joint is freed up a little bit more, a couple more techniques can be used, e.g. rollback and elbow.

These drills are simple enough, I hope, for people who don’t have access to a teacher to try on their own.  They can get the idea of what it’s like to play in Taijiquan, and build some foundation skills that would allow them to hold their own against people in many push hands meetup groups.  They’re also nice to use when people from different schools used to different rules sets of free play want to find an easy way to practice together and not have to argue about rule sets.  No teacher?  No excuse.  No Taoist philosophy?  No problem.  Grab a buddy and play!

 

 

Naturalistic Tai Chi

July 26, 2016

A naturalist error is one in which we fail to make a distinction between something that is factual or concrete knowledge and something which is a prescription for action or what ought to be done; also known as the is/ought fallacy. Ex. Just because drinking alcohol *is* helpful in preventing some medical problems, doesn’t mean we all *ought* to be drinking.   If it feels good, should we always do it?   Not necessarily.  Through scientific study, we learn about the world and much about our bodies function and structure.  But how we are to use that knowledge in our Tai Chi is quite a separate matter.

This problem is represented by two separate fields of exercise science: biomechanics and motor control.   In biomechanics, we learn about muscle anatomy and equations for determining the velocity, force, torque, etc of bodily movement.  Much of this research is done by video analysis, or things we can see externally.  Motor control, on the other hand, is concerned with what we think about, focus on, or are told to do in order to produce movement.  It focuses more on the internal world.  Or to sum up:  Biomechanics describes what movement is while motor control is concerned with how movement is produced by humans.

Things get more interesting when we start talking about the mind, or the cognitive neuroscience of movement. When we “think” about movement the part of the brain most utilized is the thinking part of the brain or the cortex, more specifically, the motor cortex and some nearby regions. As movements become more skilled and require less conscious control, sub-cortical regions of the brain like the cerebellum take over.  This unconscious control center, which is responsible for refined movement, contains half the neurons in the entire brain, demonstrating how the brain’s structure prioritizes the importance of movements which are not consciously controlled.

Specifically thinking about a movement, according to the brain’s structure, means that we are engaging in a movement which is less skilled or not even a skill at all.  Thus in Tai Chi practice, if we are thinking about which muscles to use when or about the various angles of our joints while moving, we have not yet refined those movements enough so that they can be taken over by the cerebellum, i.e. unconsciously controlled  This is perfectly normal in the beginning when learning a new skill, but as we advance we must practice letting go of excessive “biomechanical” thoughts, so that we can develop smoother more efficient movements.

Learning biomechanics or anatomy is not necessary for learning or even teaching Tai Chi.  Thinking about movement is different from the physics of the movement that occurs.   It actually may do more harm than good. In motor learning research studies, it’s been shown that when students are told to focus their minds externally, that is focus on the effects their correct movement is supposed to have rather than focusing internally or on the feeling of certain muscles being used, joint angles etc, those focusing externally have the advantage in learning the new movement.  Teachers often make the mistake of telling students that a movement should “feel” a certain way or that this muscle should be used, but this is not how people learn new movements efficiently.  Thinking externally by being told things like “punch toward his gut” initiates a lot of automatic control processes in the brain that naturally coordinate many of the desired muscle actions.  Once that basic movement has been ingrained in the mind then the student can gradually devote more cognitive resources to refining certain aspects of the movement and improve how it feels.

In the internal martial arts, many instructors have experience with traditional Chinese medical terms like Qi and have little anatomical knowledge.  Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, yet if taught right away, it could cause students some learning difficulties due to the inefficiency of internal visualization.  Saying things like “train your Qi” also has very limited benefits for teaching people how to develop practice methods that are specific to them.  “Qi” is a representation of how we feel performing certain movements.  How anyone feels during movement is very subjective, and telling people that they should feel a certain way may not help them move any better at all.  This is where some might start talking about biomechanics instead, thinking that the more accurate depictions of movement will help people move better.   However, attempting this would mean bumping into the classic degrees of freedom problem in motor learning studies, namely that there are so many possible configurations of the various joint angles of the entire body that we must somehow choose from a mathematically infinite number of movement possibilities — far too much for our conscience minds to handle at the speed needed for athletic activities.

So what are some good visualization techniques?  As noted above, the best ones are those that have some depiction of the motion that is outside the body.  For example, when working on the stability of various fixed postures, try imagining being able to support pressure from several different directions.  The imagery can be aided by having someone push on you from different angles. Imagining outside forces prevents the mind from focusing too much on particular aspect of the movement or specific muscle groups and naturally unifies the body.

Thinking of the martial art applications is often a useful way to get people to learn new movements quickly.  Some Tai Chi practitioners are resistant to this idea because they feel that thinking of direct applications with lose sight of Tai Chi’s emphasis on relaxation.   In the beginning this will be true; however, no movements can be very relaxed when they are first being learned.  I argue that it is better to first teach the move in the most efficient way possible so that greater relaxation can begin to occur even sooner than if we focused on relaxation right from the beginning.

Some martial art applications are too complicated for the beginner to usefully visualize in the early stages of learning; this is especially true of the internal styles of Kung Fu.  For those I would suggest other less complex imagery to aid in learning such as drawing lines in the air with the hands/feet or moving imaginary objects around.  These visualizations are simply a means to an end, and can be discarded once the basic movement becomes more automatic.

To sum up,  what we actually think about to produce movement in the martial arts doesn’t matter in the least, as long as it helps us move the way we want to, whether it be qi energy flowing from your dantian or equally imaginary arcs, angles, and line segments in the air. After all, the goal for martial artists should be to not have to think about their own movements at all, but to devote those precious cognitive resources to discerning the movements of the opponent.

Taijiquan and the Role of Government

October 20, 2015

Someone recently asked me about my political views, and indicated to me they were often hard to pin down. That’s probably because I believe in working toward a society which uses violence or the threat of force as little as possible to allow people to live together in harmony. In other words, I think government should do as little as possible. Most people, however, are much more accustomed to the idea of the government doing things that they want, even if other people in the same society don’t agree with that decision.

Taijiquan has a similar problem. We call it a martial art, yet we want to defend ourselves using as little aggression and injurious techniques as possible. Whereas most people think practicing martial arts, means learning to defeat other people precisely by learning techniques that can cause great injury and require an aggressive mindset, Taijiquan seeks a calm mind so as to learn to read and respond to the aggressive intent of others.

People that believe in having more freedom in society, don’t necessarily want chaos, as that could lead to less overall freedom. Likewise in Taijiquan, we are not advocating pacifism, as that would not be a martial art and could allow others to bully you. In both cases we want to use only the precise amount of power necessary to get the job done. Neither idea represents dogmatic extremism, merely thoughtful, sober efficiency.

CMC Full Form Video

September 12, 2014

Senior Center Classes (Please register ASAP)

May 30, 2013

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Classes begin next week on Tuesday & Thursday 6-7pm. Go here to register:
http://community-services.cityofdavis.org/online-registration

Spring 2013 Experimental College Classes

April 7, 2013

Lots of great, new classes are being offered this quarter!

Here is the schedule:

Chen Style Taijiquan: Tuesday 9:00-10:15am & Saturday 8:45-10:00am

Beginning Taijiqan: Sunday 9:00-10:00am

Xingyi Level 1: Friday 7:30-8:30pm

Xingyi Level 2: Saturday 5-6pm

Baguazhang Level 1: Friday 8:30-9:30pm

Baguazhang Level 2: Saturday 6-7pm

Kung Fu Basics:  Wednesday 5:30-6:45pm (Free to students of all other classes)

For those that like spreadsheets:

Day/Time Mon. Tues. Wed. Thurs. Fri. Sat. Sun.
9:00 AM    Chen   Tai Chi  Chen   Tai Chi Tai Chi  beg.
10:00 AM
5:00 PM   Kung Fu Basics 5:30- 6:45pm Xingyi 2
6:00 PM Bagua 2
7:30 PM Xingyi 1
8:30 PM Bagua 2

For more registration information and course descriptions please see the experimental college website: http://ecollege.ucdavis.edu/courses/catalog?term=__None&group=130&instructor=100306&number=&name=

Please note that the online registration process is not always functional.  Please come to a class first if you are unable to register and we can help you.

For any questions you may contact Daniel Pfister at 530 574-3684 or e-mail daniel_pfister@msn.com

Instructor Shot

Traditional Yang Style practice with UCD Tai Chi Club

February 12, 2013

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