One of my training brothers shared this article and made some comments about it. I went over to the site and after reading the article, I could only agree with his statements. I’ll get to that at the end here, but first, go read the article. It’s not that long.
There are a couple of minor issues I see here and a fundamental problem. Let’s start with the issues.
- Slow practice is no secret. In fact, it’s a fundamental training methodology, both inside and outside of martial arts. In pretty much every sport or activity, you learn a new skill or technique slowly to get basic competence in it. Once you have that, you add speed, power and other aspects. Typically, when you want to correct errors, you slow it down again to figure out what’s wrong. Once you do, you go faster again. Granted, only a limited amount of martial arts make it a big part of their training, but this has been known for a long time. I really don’t see the secret here.
- Slow isn’t always possible. I’m going to take an extreme example to make this point: take a look at this kick. How exactly can you practice this slowly? I don’t see how you can pull that off. I’m no karate expert, but I’ve seen more than one jumping technique in their forms. I’ve also seen them do many less extreme movements that require some form of dynamic balance, which makes it impossible to do them (correctly) at anything other than speed. For instance, try to do this type of footwork at a slow pace and still bounce.
- There’s also “too slow”. In the article, the author suggests taking 2 minutes to perform one front kick. In my experience, that’s way too slow to train the kick correctly. At that pace, you’re mainly working the stabilizer muscles, which has a lot of value. But there are better ways to train those for 2 minutes than to insist on performing that front kick at the same time. More about that in a bit.
- Not all TCMAs are the same. This is a minor quibble, but it needs to be addressed because it is factually incorrect. The author writes: “Slowness is vital in TCMA (Traditional Chinese Martial Arts), the historical progenitor of Karate.” I’m not going to touch the “progenitor” part, but as for TCMAs, that’s simply not true. There are hundreds of different styles and only in a handful (those that are considered “internal”) is slow practice a vital part of the training.
All in all, these points aren’t all that important to the main issue. Primarily because we can argue about them and there are all sorts of conditions that apply. So I’m not going to belabor the point. I am going to address the fundamental problem with the assumption that slow training is going to “Improve Your Karate Like Crazy.”
So what is the main problem?
Not all body mechanics are the same.
There are fundamental differences between the body mechanics of one style as opposed to the other. These differences tend to increase when a system adds certain elements that are not present in the other style. The more elements of these there are, the bigger the effects on the body mechanics involved. This goes on until the point of no return. Meaning, at a certain point, systems become incompatible with other systems.
I know some people don’t agree with this. I know some think “a punch is just a punch”. Personally, I think that’s nonsense only those with limited training and understanding believe. As always, the differences are just as important as the similarities.
There is an entire field of science called analytical dynamics that studies the key to understanding this problem: how bodies in motion behave and the forces that act upon them. If you start looking into the physics involved, it gets incredibly complicated very fast. I’m not going to bore you with the details, but the point is that a small change, like reducing speed of motion, can have a huge effect on all the other parameters with enormous consequences as a result. Remember that bouncing footwork I mentioned? You can’t do it slowly and still bounce. You can try to mimic all the components when you go slow but the body mechanics involved are fundamentally different: there will no longer be a pre-loading of certain leg muscles, using their elastic properties for the concentric contraction. Simply because there is no longer enough speed to create the forces that generate that effect. As a result of that, there is not such a large degree of dynamic balance needed to perform the footwork correctly.
In short, the footwork is radically different from a body mechanics point of view than when you do it at normal speed. This applies to all other movements as well. E.g.: some karate footwork and techniques require you to keep your spine vertical. This cannot be done slowly without shoving off one leg or by leaning forward to shift weight. If you do that slowly, you either fundamentally mess up the internal mechanics or incline the spine away from that vertical position. As a result, you change the body dynamics and what you do slowly does not correspond to what you do fast.
One of the big giveaways regarding this is in the original article:
“When you slow down, you’ll notice other things too – like excessive force/tension.”
Given the body’s tendency to counterweight/counterbalance itself when you move slowly, the tension patterns are inherently different from when you move fast. So it’s no surprise that you’ll feel excessive tension in certain areas: you’re requiring muscles to work in a way they don’t need to when you do it fast. Here’s an example of that:
At 1min34, I show a lead leg skipping side kick. There is no way to do this kick (as I show it here) slowly.
It doesn’t exist.
The position of my upper body combined with the skip step creates forward momentum. The degree of lean in my spine (as little as possible) creates a long lever with my extended leg and pulls me off balance if I do this slowly. The only way to compensate is to lean away from the kick with your upper body, as I demonstrate in the “barrel roll”. Nothing wrong with that if you want to train the stabilizer muscles, but that’s not how you do the kick.
The way to practice that kick involves my joints and muscles acting as different classes of levers (primarily, 3rd instead of 1st) than if you do it slowly and use counterweight. And all this simply because you slow the kick down…
It isn’t just with kicks either, similar things happen with footwork, punches, blocks, etc.
Adding vital components from other styles (practicing slowly) without having enough training in that style to understand the reasons why that component is there to begin with can lead to big problems. Without having the knowledge and understanding to judge how adding that component will change your system, you just might end up breaking it. That’s me saying this after more than 17 years of practicing and teaching Tai Chi Chuan (one of those styles in which slow training is critical) while still training in “external” arts and combat sports. I think I’m entitled to my opinion…
Instead of simply adding the slowness to my art, I would ask the question: why did the founder or previous teachers not put that component in there?
There just might be a good reason for that…
My whole point is this:
Training slowly isn’t per definition a bad thing. But neither should you assume that it is automatically a positive addition to your training because it is vital in other arts.
Everything depends on the system you practice. It might overlap with those other systems, it might not. Certain elements might be compatible, others not so much. I’ve had tons of practitioners of Japanese arts come to my Tai Chi Chuan class and they almost without exception have an incredibly hard time adjusting to the body mechanics. It’s come to the point that I consider most practitioners of those arts ruined for the Tai Chi Chuan I practice. So when I read this in the original article, I think it’s only normal that the students can’t do it:
“for instance when I tell students to perform a kata slower (if only 50% slower). Their mind panics and their whole body starts screaming to go faster! Generally, they can do it for a few minutes but then it becomes “torture”.”
Perhaps that form was never meant to be performed slowly.
Perhaps it would be more interesting to first study an art that makes slow practice a vital part of its training.
Here’s some additional information about some of the topics I touched upon in this article.
- Power/Control. My video about conditioning and body mechanics.
- Introduction to Analytical Dynamics. A very dry book on this topic.
- Gold Medal Physics: The Science of Sports. An easy read on the physics involved in several sports.