One day as I was playing chi sau and trying to use techniques I knew from my forms, I began to wonder why we are so precisely instructed on the hand and foot movements. I mean the self defense aspects of Kung Fu are simply to deal with the attacker quickly. Why so much attention on exactly how far the punch must go or the angle of the fist from the elbow? If I was attacked it seems the scuffle would be awkward and sloppy, certainly not precise and crisp like our forms….right? I can’t make the attacker move into the right area for my attacks…can I?
I’m sure most normal people don’t get so tortured by their own brain, but I was stuck thinking about this for quite a while, trying to decide my stance on the issues. It wasn’t until teaching my anatomy and physiology students about optimal muscle length that I put the answer together in my head. Like so many things in Kung Fu there are many reasons for the precision and meticulousness of our forms. If I have learned anything from Sifu Jones it’s that Kung Fu is mutable, that is, it can adapt to any situation. The list of reasons for our forms training is long but here is at least one explanation that I found interesting.
Our muscles are organized into contractible units called sarcomeres. The units contain two proteins, actin and myosin, that are sort of like the cables that pull our muscles when contracting or moving. Think of a winch that pulls a cable, with each pump of the handle the cable is draw towards you and whatever is at the end of the cable is pulled closer to you. That’s basically what we are talking about with muscles, the “whatever” at the end of the cable would be your hand, or foot while the cable would be those proteins in your muscles. If the cable is not inserted into the winch enough, there is not enough to get a good grip and really pull the cable, consequently if most of the cable is shoved into the winch it also wouldn’t pull as there would be no room. Same thing with your muscles, the most effective and useful way to use our muscles is at the optimal length so that the proteins overlap just the right amount for maximum work.
The placement of our hands during forms takes advantage of this. For example, the gwa choy must be made to stop before the fist is extended too far from the body, which would weaken the punch and keep you from putting your full weight or “center” behind it. The elbow strike must be on the same horizontal plane as the shoulder so you can twist your waist and not loose your balance. If there is an optimal length for muscles that means there is an optimal length for punches and kicks. Remember this when practicing your forms, under or overextension is incorrect, you must maintain your balance and power through proper body mechanics…..correct form!