Posted by: B Gourley | August 10, 2012

Budō Legs: or, the Curse of the Chair

For budō, one’s legs must be at once strong and flexible. The legs must be coiled springs capable of generating power instantaneously. The legs present a difficult optimization problem, big legs (such as mine) can be leaden and have trouble landing kicks, but small legs may lack the explosive power needed, as well as the capacity to absorb strikes. One needs to optimize between strength, flexibility, and vigor.

The legs are a perpetual source of trouble for Western practitioners of Asian martial arts. Most American budōka seem to end up with knee problems. I’m one of the few who have managed to remain free of knee issues (perhaps, because I’ve paid my dues by having the ankles of an octagenarian skydiver and the lower back of a professional crash-test dummy.)

It seems to me that the problem of Western martial artists is that they tend to get concentrated doses of the most challenging maneuvers the leg joints can experience without all the routine day-to-day activities that strengthen these joints. In the days these techniques were being developed, people sat on the floor, or on low pads, regularly. This meant they were, from childhood onward, constantly getting up and down in a manner that strengthens the joints. Even today, throughout much of Asia, one will see people in a squat position with their feet flat on the ground and their knees deeply bent as such:

To be comfortable, squatting requires flexibility; to be able to get up, it requires strength.

There are a number of exercises practiced in Japan, by elementary school children let alone martial artists, that help condition the knees for a chairless existence. I believe Manaka-sensei taught a number of these at the start of one of the US seminars, and I have subsequently seen run-of-the-mill Japanese individuals practicing these activities on those long trans-Pacific flights.

The first of these exercises involves alternatively straightening and bending the knees with one’s knees and feet together. The squatted position is sort of like a duck-walk. On one flight I saw a mother and child walking around the cabin practicing this drill. They didn’t duck walk their way around, but would rather take a few steps, then squat, and then straighten their legs. Then they walked a few more steps and repeated, until they circumnavigated the cabin.

Legs straight (from the front)

Knees bent (note: hands lend stability)

Straightening (from the side); Don’t hyperextend the joint, but stretch it.

Squatted (side view) move slow as to maintain your balance

A similar exercise that was part of the warm-ups when I was learning tai chi, adds a lateral element to the mix. This lateral stretching and strengthening is crucial. Western medicine tends to say “the knee is a hinge joint, thus it folds only one way, and, therefore, it should be worked out only in that dimension.” At least, this is what I was told when I found out I had arthritis in my ankles, “Don’t do stretches that roll or pronate the ankle, only stretch and strengthen along that one dimension.” I agree that you should use the joint as God intended, so to speak, but I think you need to condition it in other dimensions so that it doesn’t fail easily if a force is put on it in the direction that it wasn’t intended to flex. In this exercise, we put the knees and feet together and then roll them clockwise a few times and counterclockwise a few times. In this case, don’t let the joint go straight in the rearmost arc of the movement. As before, the hands add stability and keep the knees together. One wants to move in a slow and controlled manner.

Starting position: knees bent, hands supporting, and on balance

Rolling counterclockwise (to my left)

Continuing around to the front (starting position)

Many people don’t like to stretch, probably because they find it time-consuming, dull, and lacking instant gratification. There’s no hope for people who don’t stretch. However, there is a danger even for those who do. Many people do stretches that activate the top of the thigh muscle, the back of the hamstring, and the back of the calf, but they neglect the inner and outer thigh. That may be fine for runners, but for martial arts one must stretch all the muscle groups. One problem that causes more than its share of knee damage is the inability to keep the knee and foot aligned as one rocks the knee over the toes. If one doesn’t do stretches like straddle or butterfly stretches, the knee may pull inward in some motions in a way that puts torque on the joint.

If you can’t point your toes outward and rock side-to-side keeping the knee aligned with the foot (while ones’ back is straight and not hunched), you need to do more stretching of the inner thighs.

Knees in line with toes, back straight, side-to-side

Not that long ago, I wrote a post about the value of yoroi kumi uchi (armored grappling) in an era in which that type of armor is long since obsolete. It’s common for martial artists to let their suwari gata (seated techniques) get rusty because they aren’t necessarily practical for 21st century western living. If you do so, when you dust them off, you may cripple yourself. However, great benefit can come by practicing things as rudimentary as sitting, such as in fudōza, see below:

Fudō-za gamae

Alternatively, one can practice some of one’s toe or heel kicks from a starting point in a za gamae.

Press up and kick, remember to fold toes under on support foot.

Side view


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