Fearless Asymmetry

As we move we quickly discover that our bodies are not symmetrical.One side is stronger than the other. This asymmetry is not a weakness. It is a key feature of our body structure. It is a survival advantage.

This understanding was built in to our martial arts as they developed in China, Japan, Okinawa and Korea. One example that pervades our training: To maintain perfect balance as we move a fifty-fifty weight distribution in our stances must be transitory; it is relatively immobile and unstable.

At first glance the body looks like it forms a mirror image in the vertical plane. But there is much less symmetry than meets the eye. We are designed to be upright. Our spine is vertical, with a top and a bottom; the poles are not interchangeable.

Microorganisms have lots of symmetry. Humans do not. Microorganisms are designed to live random lives, drifting along. Humans are not.

Human beings are designed to move forward and to turn, to go a long way, to stand tall and to stay still. We have hands that grasp and let go. Our eyes see the big picture and the details. We are designed to change and to change the world.

Our bodies are designed to convert linear momentum to rotation and to convert rotation into lines of force. We can step, turn and roll; we can wind up and throw; we can move and gesture in decreasing or increasing spirals in every plane – with a subtlety and variety that no other living thing can achieve. Those are functions of asymmetrical design.

For most of our history human beings lived close to the edge of survival. Our ancestors in ages past, the people who gave life to us, faced challenges and solved problems every day that we can barely imagine. We can barely imagine them because what our ancestors did worked so well.

Their world was made of hunger, food, cold, heat, shelter, exposure, animals, plants and trees, and a million strange things they had never seen before and could not understand.

Chimpanzees are twice as strong as people. Chimpanzees can throw a rock at 20mph, but a person can throw at 90mph or more. Who had the survival advantage? To hunt with a rock takes a lot of strength but it takes more than strength alone.

Imagine you are in a place you don’t know well. What do you do? Explore.

This new place may hide lethal threats. It may hold promise. You might find food. You might meet an enemy. There might be a fruit tree. Or a mating opportunity. You might step on a snake or surprise a wildebeest. You are alert. You don’t know.

You do know that you need to find food and shelter or get back to your people before you get too weak to go on.

You can feel in your bones that for the urgent skills you need to keep yourself and your people alive – hunting, attacking, defending – using a stick, rock, javelin, sword, axe, spear or lance – upper body asymmetry is an advantage.

It can be an advantage in digging, climbing, harvesting, rowing, herding, building, and pretty much anything else you had to do, because a division of labor and the formation of habits make for an efficient use of limited resources. Our asymmetry provides the most advantageous use of a given amount of material – your body – to produce the maximum speed and power.

In situations when there is no extra time, when you have one chance to get it done, when victory gives life and failure means death – we humans were designed to win.

Your shoulder is the fastest physical structure in your body. There are fast nerve pathways – reflex arcs – in our bodies. We can step, kick and turn at high speeds. But no joint in the body can move as fast as the shoulder. A well-trained person can generate a shoulder rotation of 180 degrees in 20 milliseconds. That is fast. That is how we punch.

The speed and the power generated by the shoulder cannot be accounted for by energy stored in the muscles. The tendons and ligaments also stretch to store potential energy for release in the throw. The whole complex structure is designed to launch missiles. Your fist is a missile.

There are plenty of good reasons to chamber one fist while throwing the other: unification of the body structure, rear elbow strike applications, drawing an opponent toward you, setting up a subsequent technique – but also to fully utilize the stored potential energy of each punch you are throwing.

Karate does not always rely on ballistic power. When we use leverage to push or throw an opponent – from a standing position or in ground fighting – we are better off not pushing straight ahead with two arms, using a 50/50 right/left distribution of power. We are much better off rolling out, turning the opponent, pushing off-axis, to destabilize the balance of the opponent.

In martial arts we learn to do this in most every throw. This advantage works the same way for fine motor function.

Surgeons, violinists, baseball players, gunfighters and cabinetmakers, performing at the outer limit of their skill, all benefit from an asymmetrical distribution of upper body capability.

Like an army in the field we optimize our power by placing massed force in one location. And not just any location: in Clausewitz’ phrase we place “overwhelming strength at the decisive point.” Power generation and target selection are essential.

It was true for our ancestors exploring and adapting to the natural world. It is true for martial artists right now.

In ancient times victory came from one well-placed technique. A wild boar won’t stand there while you try a second spear. Neither will an enemy.

Ikken hissatsu (“one-strike destroys”) was the winning formula a million years before anyone heard the phrase.

In blading your body to strike or maneuver while reducing target surface, asymmetry is an advantage.

In martial arts we work hard to increase the skill and strength on both sides of our bodies. We use kata, weights and resistance training, contact drills, kumite, and technique applications from every direction.

With a given amount of body mass we get more strength, more speed and a larger range of high-performance options from the inequality of our left-right abilities than we would with perfect bi-lateral symmetry.

This design bias also facilitates efficient rotation in a body structure that is so well adapted to linear forward motion. This principle is well established in karate kata and kumite. If we are aware of it we can make the most of it in training and any encounter.


Drawing: Leonardo Da Vinci

This post is an excerpt from the book  “The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts” by Jeffrey Brooks on Amazon in paperback and Kindle edition

The Good Fight” – chapters on audio

Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate, LLC

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