Saturday, March 10, 2007

commentary: endurance sports and kung fu (part 2) - center of gravity

one of the first things i picked up on when i started kung fu lessons was the attention given to the placement of body weight. it caught my eye, since triathlon (and most sports in general) also dedicate a proportion of time to the location and positioning of body weight.

note that i'm not talking about body weight specifically, as in terms of raw numbers and quantity of muscle or fat. i'm talking about the use of the body weight via manipulation to achieve a certain physical result. this doesn't mean gaining or losing the muffin-top problem that is the love handles draping out over your pants, but rather the placement of the body and its mass in relation to the space around you.

superficially, kung fu and triathlon appear to have radically different notions of how to manipulate body weight--or to be more scientifically accurate, body mass. but underlying these differences are commonalities in concepts and interpretations of body mass, and how its location and position affects the physics of motion.


in some ways, relative to endurance sports, kung fu (and maybe martial arts in general) requires a very different positioning of a person's body mass.

in kung fu, i've noticed a near-obsession with lowering body mass. not just in terms of physically lowering a person's body towards the ground, such as in low stances with spread-out legs that the public may have already seen, but also in terms of mental visualization. kung fu calls for the practitioner to imagine their body mass going down, to an extent that a person can feel their body connecting with the earth. you'll often hear terms used to describe this like "sinking," "becoming heavy," "rooting," or "becoming rooted." this is often used in conjunction with the idea of "chi" (or energy), in phrases like "sink your chi" or "lower your chi."

the purpose behind this is to provide the practitioner with internal cues that signal the body to adopt the proper postures and stances necessary to perform techniques properly. i've been told (and have personally discovered) that kung fu is an art of nuances, with seemingly minute and inconsequential adjustments in joints and limbs producing radically different results in force and speed. while i am not entirely clear on the physics, i can say that apparently subtle changes in body positioning can greatly influence the effectiveness of kung fu techniques. among the prerequisite finer--but very crucial--points of the art is the setting of postures and stances in a way that gives the practitioner 1) a stable platform resistant to the destabilizing efforts of the opponent(s) and 2) helps direct power into the practitioner's techniques.

the visualization of "sinking" the body mass, for whatever reason, seems to help signal the body into minute actions that enable these necessary postures and stances. and the usage of phrases like "sink your chi" helps the practitioner imagine their physical effort (or energy) driving their body mass, in effect giving additional mental cues about energy that make facilitate the mental cues about body mass, thereby serving to further increase the signals to the body to adopt the proper postures and stances.

such detail is in part why instructors (or "sifus") insist that it takes years to learn kung fu, and a great deal of patience and diligence, since it takes a great deal of time for people to gain the physical coordination and the subtleties and nuances necessary for true and effective performance of the art.

in contrast to kung fu, endurance sports seem to have an entirely contrary view of visualization on body mass placement. in endurance sports, the goal is not to imagine the body "sinking" or "becoming heavy," but rather on being higher. if anything, endurance sports--at least for triathlon--calls for athletes to imagine themselves as being weightless, and uses terms to help construct the image of weightlessness, like "light," "feathery," or "floating."

the entire goal is to get athletes to move quicker, and to generate the body alignment necessary to generate a higher rate of turnover in swim stroke, pedal stroke, and running stride. this means that the athlete needs to perceive themselves in swimming as a body skating along the surface of the water, free of drag or encumbrances; in cycling as a whirring machine knifing through the air and flying over the road; and in running as hovering over ground and skimming the earth with the feet.

these kinds of requirements call for mental cues that signal the body to be more mobile and active, and as a result necessitate the visualization of being "light" or "feathery." any idea of "sinking" or "becoming rooted" means giving the body signals to become fixed and planted into the ground, which means less movement--which for endurance sports means death.


for all these differences, i still see that endurance sports and kung fu overlap, in that by conceptualizing their perspectives on body mass location and placement, they fundamentally deal with manipulation of the same thing: a person's center of gravity.

kung fu, by asking practitioners to become "rooted" or to "sink" to facilitate the creation of a stable platform, are essentially nudging them to lower their center of gravity. a higher center of gravity produces greater instability, in that it allows a striking force to generate a greater amount of torque against a defender to knock them over; taking the body as a lever arm, the force comes from the strike to the upper body and the pivot point is the defender's nexus with the ground. a lower center of gravity produces greater stability, calling upon an attacker to produce greater force to generate the same amount of torque against a defender.

kung fu's reference to chi and the "sinking" of chi is part of this. chi is usually described to practitioners as energy, but in the sense that it is all forms of energy, including the energy generated by a body moving or a body holding a static posture. as a result, in kung fu, the assumption of a stance creates a feeling of energy in the legs from the tensing of leg muscles required to maintain the stance. the lower the stance, the greater muscular effort is involved, and hence in kung fu terms the greater the amount of chi (or energy) felt in the legs. so calling for a practitioner to "sink the chi" is essentially asking the practitioner to feel more muscular effort in their legs by lowering their stance, which produces the end result of lowering the center of gravity.

likewise, endurance sports, by having athletes visualize being so weightless as to skate along the surface of water, or knife through air, or float upon the ground, is calling for an adjustment in the center of gravity.

in swimming, optimum body alignment is found by stretching the body horizontally parallel to the surface of the water, since it minimizes the cross-sectional area the swimmer presents to the water in the vector of forward progress, and also reduces the amount of drag produced by the body going through the water. however, for many swimmers, the tendency is for the legs to submerge beneath the water and fall below the level of the torso and shoulders, creating substantial drag. to prevent this, swimmers are advised to imagine "pushing" their chest and head down into the water. this results in the unique result of lifting the legs and restoring a horizontal body alignment. in effect, this is asking swimmers to take their center of gravity in their torso and force it downwards.

in cycling, the best aerodynamic position is to ride head down with the torso leaning forward, so that its weight is supported by the elbows, which are resting on the handlebars with the hands in front. this reduces the cross-sectional area confronted by the wind, reducing the level of energy required from the cyclist to maintain forward motion. in addition, it adjusts the stresses placed on the body, so that it enables less flexion in the back (reducing stress to the spine) and creates more room for extension in the legs (reducing stress on the quads by allowing greater contribution from the hamstrings and gluteus maximus). ordinarily the absence of hands from the handlebars reduces control over the bike, but the lean forward of the torso acts to lower the rider's center of gravity, decreasing instability on the bike and helping the rider maintain control.

in running, the correct running form is to run with shoulders and chest upright, and legs making footstrike with the ground at or slightly in front of a vertical line extending down from the center of gravity. some schools of runners are advised to imagine a string extending outwards from their abdomen forwards to a point at infinite, with the string pulling them along. the result is to cause the runner to lift their center of gravity, so that their weight does not produce a vertical vector driving added force through their feet into the ground, but rather is redirected so as to be directed more towards a forward-pointing horizontal vector. the result is reduced damage to the lower body joints and less energy being wasted into a vertical direction, with freeing more energy to instead be used to assist in motion in the desired horizontal direction.

mutual benefits

regardless of whether they direct the center of gravity up or down, kung fu and endurance sports are the same in their awareness and use of a person's center of gravity to aid in improving physical performance. i have come to believe that doing both as allowed me to get a better feel and greater sensitivity to the placement and manipulation of the center of gravity, as well as a better sense of the differences it makes in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of body movement and output. an apt analogy is playing notes on a piano keyboard: playing only in the higher registers still allows a musician artistic expression and technical skill, but if they also play the lower registers, they are then able to see the different tone and feel between the higher notes and deeper notes, observe the different modes of expression each provides, and thereby learn the value of each in the context of the full register. doing so, a musician gains a deeper understanding of the purpose and capabilities of each note relative to the others and as a whole.

i don't think that this level of awareness is something that i would have been able to understand to the same degree by just doing each activity exclusive of the other. kung fu alone would have helped me familiarize myself with the concept and value of lowering my center of gravity, but not raising it; endurance sports alone would have allowed me to learn the notion and benefits of raising my center of gravity, but not lowering it. together, i can see both.

this is something i am going to continue to observe--and test for its effectiveness--along with the many other common elements characteristic to both endurance sports and kung fu. i think it has value in improving understanding of the nature of the entire relationship between the body's center of gravity and the physics of human motion.

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