Two Ways To Win

Movie fights and drunken brawls seem to go on and on.  For self-defense your preferred tactic will be ikken hissatsu. It’s simple. A devastating full-commitment strike that ends the threat. It echoes the famous advice of Carl von Clausewitz, the 19thcentury Prussian general, now studied in military academies throughout the world, who advised using massed force concentrated against a single vulnerable point in the enemy’s position. Like Napoleon at Austerlitz. David against Goliath. Mike Tyson’s uppercut. The end of the Pacific War in Japan. You against your mugger.

But as we all know, you may not have an opportunity to do that. The Scythians couldn’t strike the Persians with enough force to win. They feigned retreat and exhausted the invaders in the endless barren land to the east that they knew well. The Americans could not square off against the British Army at Trenton. They moved in under cover, shot first, and vanished like thieves in the night. 

Nations and empires are at war with insurgencies all over the world, right now. Asymmetrical warfare, fifth generation warfare, guerilla warfare – is not about deploying massed force at the weak point in the enemy’s line. It is something entirely different. It is harass, skirmish, deplete, demoralize, weaken, bleed, exhaust, deter, delay or kill by a thousand cuts. 

The principle applies to single combat: there are conditions that advantage a single full power strike and conditions that demand something else.  To respond to unpredictable conditions we need both capabilities: maximum power strike and the ability to endure, persist and prevail over an opponent who has greater power, speed or resources.

Explosive power and endurance do not rely on the same physical abilities. You cannot train for both the same way. They use different physiology and different mind-sets.  And if your training in these two approaches is out of balance – if intentionally or by oversight one is emphasized at the expense of the other – you may be underprepared – and not realize it until it is too late.

When Shoshin Nagamine said “Karate is a lifetime marathon” he was pointing out an error that some beginners make: that training is like a sprint – you’re all-in for a few years until you are ready to go for the glory. 

Nagamine was saying that it takes time and persistence to build real skills. That the results of training continue to deepen over the course of a lifetime. He was saying don’t rush, there is no finish line out there. He did not mean pace yourself, take it easy, or just “go the distance.”

We are not preparing for a well-defined athletic event. We are preparing for anything. 

The human body has three distinct energy systems, with three different purposes. 

Ikken hissatsu, one strike prevails*, requires total-commitment; a focused projection of all your power into the target. It uses the “phosphogen” system – burning fuel present in your muscles, for instant, intense power. It yields explosive energy. It lasts for seconds. Then it is gone. 

This is an essential combative tool but using it carries risk. If you really use “full” power it is like firing a single shot rifle or like throwing a grenade. All the energy available is expended. Nothing is held back. But what if that shot does not stop the threat? The chamber is empty. It takes time to reload. It takes time to recover. It may take only a millisecond. You may not have it. 

We find this kind of power generation in every zenkutsu-dachi gyaku-zuki. Our kata teach how to quickly recover from this expenditure of power and to continue the battle.

We can use kata to deepen the phosphogen system: move explosively, then recover in between moves. Or train in increasingly rapid sequences of multiple moves, close to peak explosive power. This is difficult to sustain. Most practitioners will not do this for more than a few seconds at a time. It is possible to repeat this peak-output explosive emphasis, alternating with recovery periods of lower output, many times during a class. The only way to build fast-twitch muscle tissue is to move fast. To sustain this takes a high level of urgency in training. 

Most training uses a second energy system. The anaerobic system – drawing energy from glucose in the blood, and glycogen in the muscles and liver. It produces high power output for a short while – a one-minute kata demo, a 3-minute kumite, an intense section of a workout, or a running battle.

You tap into a third energy source for a long, sustained workout, for “shugyo” or severe training, anytime you are digging deep into your reserves. Then your body will start to burn fat for energy. This is less accessible – fat has to be mixed with oxygen to be burned. That is how aerobic energy works. It yields a lower intensity output, but it can last for a long time. 

These systems overlap, and are used without consciously selecting them. But they can be consciously selected and developed by task-focused training in class. For our purposes, as trainers and practitioners, we need to focus on toggling between building explosive power and endurance. Good kata training will do that.

Most people go on autopilot as they get tired. Their focus softens, technique turns from fighting moves that project power to moving from posture to posture without projecting power. People space out. Often without realizing it. 

We can sharpen our focus, deepen our reserves of cellular energy, increase our fast-twitch explosive power, and shorten our recovery time but we cannot sustain true full power for a whole class. A skillful instructor, a skillful practitioner, will cycle: maximum demand followed by recovery time.  We can do that with kata, with kumite and partner practice and makiwara training. We can test it with breaking.  

We can use the recovery time to build other skills – posture, technique, focus, analysis and application, all the other dimensions of our art. Muscle recovery time is not down time. 

Pulling back from explosive power is not pulling back from training hard. We train endurance by keeping the pressure on, keeping an ascending curve of challenge – over the course of a workout, and of a lifetime. This is unusual. But it can be done.  And it is “traditional.” 

If we only do burst-training we shortchange endurance. If we over-emphasize endurance-training we do not develop our maximum shock-power. If we balance both we will follow in the footsteps of our ancestors. They had a real job to do. We do too. We need to make the most of our training to do it. 

That is the lifetime marathon. 

NOTE: *The phrase “ikken hussatsu,” familiar in Japanese martial arts, translates “one strike kills.” In combatives our objective is not to kill the opponent, but to stop the threat. In civilian and law enforcement applications of martial arts we do not teach killing. We teach stopping the threat. The physiology and mind-set of full-commitment power are consistent with this. 

Post by Jeff Brooks

Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate, LLC

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