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How To Be Strong

By Jeff Brooks

Be strong. In some martial arts there is a rejection of strength. An implication that somehow being strong is too crude to be deep. This is a prejudice and an error. It is better to be strong then weak.

In some other martial arts there can be an excessive reliance on strength – as if how many push ups you can do our how many pounds you can press will determine the outcome of your fight.

As we mature as martial artists our understanding of what it means to be strong will change. At first we make the simple equation between muscle power and strength. Muscle power is a useful thing. We should cultivate and appreciate it if we are really interested in protecting our selves and others.

However as we mature we can appreciate that in order to make the most of the power we have we need the ability to convey that power effectively to a target, and also to maneuver our own body quickly.

Because of this we begin to appreciate the skill it takes to eliminate resistance within our own body to the flow of energy we are producing. Eliminating resistance in our own body has two elements: first the opposing muscles need to be relaxed when executing a technique. Second, the whole body needs to be incorporated in producing the technique.

So, when throwing a punch for example, the extensor muscles of the arms should be contracted rapidly in order to snap the punch out. At the same time the flexors, the opposing muscles of the arm in this case, must be relaxed so residual tension in them does not resist the power of the punch.

For the second element, there should be no disconnect between the arms, shoulders, abdomen, back, hips, legs, feet, etc., during the production of the punch, so that all these elements of the body work together to produce the punch.

The connection between them exists and is a natural thing. However as we train we learn to conceive of the body as a collection of parts. As we train we isolate these parts and develop them separately. For example we strengthen the arms with curls and presses, the legs with squats and running, etc. We then utilize the body as a set of linked parts instead of as an integrated whole. This results in sub optimum performance.

As we mature as martial artists we begin to appreciate the fact that our strength comes from the ability to produce large amounts of energy from our muscles; and from the ability to not impede the free flow of power from our body out into the target.

But we have to start at the beginning working from crude to refined, in order to achieve this maturity. If you start out without respect for physical power but only are interested in the “advanced” idea of free flow of energy, then we never get strong in the first place.

This is evident in some martial arts. Especially if the martial artists in these schools subscribe to a belief that their art is unique because it uses the power of the opponent against the opponent. All martial arts do this. How else would a smaller opponent win against a bigger one? You don’t need martial arts training to win against someone smaller and weaker than you are. Anyone can do that.

Other than creating a passive aggressive mindset, and attempting to evade personal responsibility for one’s own self-defense actions, that description not only fails to distinguish any particular art, it reduces the ability of the practitioners of that art to understand what they are attempting to achieve, and reduces the likelihood that they will make the effort required to develop the strength they will need to be effective in self-defense.

Building on a foundation of physical health and strength we can incrementally integrate the parts of the body. We will learn to control at will the action of the opposing muscles, throughout the body, in every technique.

This process has a correlate in the mind training of a martial artist.

People who do well in martial arts are not necessarily the ones with the most talent, strength, speed, aggression, experience or even will power. They are the ones with the greatest faith in the efficacy of their own actions.

That quality is the fundamental determinant of success in any endeavor. Dojo circumstances may go a long way to encourage this quality but no one can do long term practice or study or work with sincere and ongoing effort unless they believe that their actions can pay off in the long run.

There is no guarantee at the beginning that they will pay off. There is only the conviction that they will. The same would be true in going to college, professional school, climbing a mountain or learning to fly.

Like our other qualities, that faith varies. From day to day from year to year, it can fluctuate depending on the conditions in which we find ourselves.

Along the path of training there will be mental resistances to overcome. These rigidities and disturbances of the mind can be as genuine an obstacle to high performance in the short term and to mastery in the long term as physical ones.

Negative self talk, distractions, forgetting the aspirations and ideals that motivated you initially can stand in the way of your success. As we mature we need to recognize these obstacles for what they are and overcome them.

We overcome physical resistance in the opposing muscles by relentless practice. Our body will move explosively, gracefully and efficiently if we persevere. The same is true of mental resistance. The chief means to overcoming it is by persevering in practice. Like water flowing over rocks, in time, this relentless effort polishes and perfect whatever it encounters.

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About The Author:

Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton, Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993. He is a police officer and police instructor, and the author of “Rhinoceros Zen – Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.” His column Zen Mirror and other articles appear on

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

strength in martial arts,power,martial power

Read more articles by Jeff Brooks

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