Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Illusions of Speed, Illusions of Power

At some point some of you have met someone who was fast and looked slow. Someone who always seemed to be at the right place, at the right time; someone who never gave you a chance to respond, and yet the person looked relaxed, almost lackadaisical.

I was watching someone a few weeks ago who looked fast. The young gentleman was fast enough that most of his training partners froze. But there was nothing smooth about his actions. It was fast, staccato, choppy. Then it hit me. Choppy looks fast.

Strobe lights tend to freeze people because each visual snapshot shows a discrete amount of motion without the "in between" and our brain fills in that the motion is unbelievably fast. But it isn't. No one moves faster under a strobe light. Everyone looks faster. You can simulate that by using jerky, choppy motions. If you do, not only are the motions not faster than being smooth, they aren't as powerful, either. The quick stops apply brakes to the technique.

Check me on this, but my impression (never really looked for it specifically) is that the jerky 'fast hands' stuff tends to be far more prevalent in non-contact stuff. Largely because non-contact is scored by what looked like impact. Real impact is different.

It does have some advantages. Discrete motions act as discrete observations in the OODA loop and you probably more easily get the OO bounce type of freeze. On that level, the appearance of speed may be better for fighting minds than actual speed. But it isn't nearly as good for fighting bodies. The other thing, maybe the big thing, is that it is okay if you are fighting other people's minds, but if you buy into the illusions, you may be fighting the threat's mind but on some level defeating your own. Coming to believe what in the end is only a trick. A useful trick, but...

Similar stuff with power. What we are conditioned to believe feels strong doesn't necessarily deliver power. From the time we were little kids and dad said, "Show me your muscles" and we flexed our bicep we have the idea drummed into us that strength is about size (big muscles) and rigidity (hard muscles) and static.

It gets compounded with the dynamics of social violence. Most of the conflict we have seen is social and almost all of the violence-- Monkey Dances. And Monkey Dances are about communication and messages. The message is 'look how big and strong I am' and so the person tends to square up (wrong base for power generation, all targets exposed) and turn red (turning pale is the survival response) and go up on the toes to look bigger (sacrificing from the base both balance and power) and to flex and tense all the muscles, looking bigger (and making actions slower and weaker).

We all know, and have been taught and trained that power comes from motion, that loose is quicker and hits harder than stiff, that structure doesn't require muscular rigidity... blah, blah, blah. We know this. But our conditioning says something else.

So we all have a tendency, when afraid or feeling challenged, to tense up. To look big. To concentrate on the illusions of strength instead of what we know about power. If the illusion over-rides reality, you will get generations of people trained to rigidity. You will even get people who can mouth the words (often in a fake Chinese accent) "Life is supple, the only rigidity is in death." Who then turn around and not only move rigidly but fail to think in their rigidity.

And they are completely blown away the first time they see someone demonstrate a ballistic strike. Or a body slam. Or even a good jab.

There is a saying that slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Sort of. But smooth can look slow, even when it is too fast to react to...and jerky will always look fast even if it is not. Relax. Smooth your motions down. If all you need are illusions, it doesn't matter. If you need the real thing, it may not look like you are conditioned to believe.


Maija said...

Works with swords too. Jerky when you want them to see it, sudden change in tempo tends to cause reaction, and maybe freezing - good when you need a change. Smooth when you don't want them to see anything at all.

Nick Lo said...

Reminds me of something I thought about the Wing Chun chain punch. Our class would stand chain punching 10 sets of 1 all the way up to 10 sets of 10 and then down again until our arms were burning, but, as soon as we tried doing any amount on a heavy bag, the limitations became evident as each successive punch becomes less powerful.

Now if chain punching were only used as a conditioning aid that'd be fine, but one search on YouTube will show it being demonstrated against someone in, as you mention, a non-contact way. I've even watched demos with the teacher bent over at the hips chain punching someone they've just taken to the ground and wondered what the value is in doing that?

If you combine the single plane of motion (ie down the centreline) with the successive loss of power you realise that at least at a beginner level it's very much an illusion of speed technique. Your point about this illusion of speed being self defeating was highlighted one time when a trained boxer was invited to spar who had speed AND power from multiple angles. You could literally see the "I thought I was fast but..." look of defeat in people's faces.

In contrast to this I found a good judo throw to have an amazing illusion of speed for uke compared to the relative slowness of the movement by tori. Things seem to happen most quickly and disturbingly when your head is moving out of its comfort zone.

Andy said...


So the chain punch can't be delivered with speed and power? Why not?

Nick Lo said...

@Andy Hrm, I presume you're pulling me up on where I said "who had speed AND power" which I should've more clearly connected to "at least at a beginner level" in that same paragraph?

To your question, Why not? I'd say that when you're striking an object, rather than the air, there's a declining value in focussing on the speed of a chain punch over, e.g. angle, accuracy, power, adjusting body positioning, because the object is then, usually, moving. Rory's article therefore had me wondering how fast arm movement really needs to be and if chain punching is an example of an illusion of speed.

Ernie said...

Every martial art (and military organization)I can immediately remember states "slow is smooth, and smooth is fast", but some of the worst offenders of that very statement (that I've seen) have been point-system martial artists and anyone in the military.

Tae Kwon Do rewards the fast guy, but conditions that same guy to move swiftly to the point zone, not necessarily through. This builds a jerky (but fast looking) person who doesn't actually do much when they strike. Like you said, though, the fast appearance of the strike is freeze inducing, which only further rewards the practitioner that continues it's use. An individual I know will move in on you with his profile exposed, sending his hands out from your face to your groin as fast as he possibly can without a moment's thought to defense. It's definitely enough to make you freeze, but nothing that would actually hurt (aside from those groin shots. Ouch.)

The military preaches smooth motion from the start. I'd first heard the statement in boot camp. That being said, God help you if you're actually getting things done quickly without -looking- fast.

I've noticed that a few of the martial artists I know with this sort of conditioning have trouble returning their hand to defend after delivering a hard strike on a heavy bag. Maybe it's related, or maybe it's something completely different.

Anonymous said...


The chain punch (as opposed to straight blasting) does something slightly different to achieve its power. The fist is angled and comes down in an arc, producing a hammer like effect. Straight blasting (or punching as fast as I can at someone's face) would have to rely on arm strength plus whatever meager rotation came from each strike. I'd say your illusion is in the latter, personally.

Nick Lo said...

@Urzu It feels a bit like we're taking over Rory's comments here with discussion about chain punching though considering speed is one of Wing Chun's selling points...


...I'm sure he's not surprised!

Anyway, I'll try and address your point on power:
If you were to punch me in the face my head is going to move in the opposite direction from your punch, so if a second punch comes in at the same angle it's going to hit my head as it's already moving backwards. The power absorbed by my head is therefore going to be less in the second strike than the first. On a suspended punch bag the faster you chain punch along one plane the more obvious this affect becomes, whereas if you slow a little and/or alter your angle/body position you can catch the bag as it returns and/or in relation to its changed path of motion. That's where my question, how fast is fast enough, applies.

Applied to the punch bag, fast enough (to apply maximum power) would depend on the return speed and motion of the bag, faster would not necessarily be better. Applied to my head, fast enough (to apply maximum power) is dependant on how I react rather than how fast you spin your hands. That is where I saw the illusion of speed and power.

Anonymous said...

Is that video a full contact hand massage?

I'm not sure the heavy bag is the most accurate test of the chain punch, though; While it -is- supposed to be fast, and it's power is drawn from that circular hammer-like motion, the technique is also taught with a creeping style of footwork that moves directly into the opponent (not that this is the only way, obviously). Doing that with a heavy bag wouldn't really get you anywhere--but against a man who's been hit and is moving backward?
The effect might be a bit different.

On how fast is fast enough: Different speeds for different strikes and different purposes, right? When we have the right timing, the right posture, or the right feeling in our gut, we'll strike hard. Trying to do this all the time will tire us out. If we're feeling out what the opponent will do, or trying to induce that momentary freeze, we strike fast. Not necessarily intending to do intense damage, just trying to draw a reaction or put him on his heels.

Not to further derail the topic, but have you played around with any Xieng Yi? Hope I didn't butcher that, but the linear nature of the techniques taught in that particular art remind me of the chain punch with it's footwork included.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

Sorry to jump on the hijacking but from my understanding of Wing Tsun, punches aren't the end point which are open hand, hammer and hand edge strikes. The chain punching like the chi sao are training methods.... of course the validity what they train is something else.

On speed people do indeed go for being fast, over looking the fact that when it feels "fast" to you then it's probably too fast and that the better you are doing something... it should "feel" slower

Vincent said...


Thank you very much for your work (books and blog), I find them very helpful.

Speaking about Body conditionning, relaxation, structure, speed and power, do you know the work of Akuzawa Minoru ?
You can see it here



Anonymous said...

an related article from vasiliev:


Rory said...

Don't know enough about Wing Chin to comment, so you guys will have to run with that.

Vincent- Thanks. I think I've seen some of this before.
Anon- I hate it when people write better than me and it's not even their native language. Thanks for the article.

Anonymous said...

check out Michael Jai white and kimbo slice extended version part 2
on U Tube, some great advice there

Steve Perry said...

Seems to me that there is always a trade-off, speed for power. Harder you hit, the slower it is. Both can do the job -- a rifle bullet and a slow-moving Mack truck kill somebody just as dead either way.

I have a crossover sidekick going back to Okinawa-te. Very powerful, you can knock down trees with it; unfortunately, you can also grow trees waiting for it to get there ...

Stonewall Jackson's Dictum is to get there firstest with the mostest, and it would seem that both would be better than either alone ...

Randy said...

This neatly captures a lot of problems:

"You will even get people who can mouth the words (often in a fake Chinese accent) "Life is supple, the only rigidity is in death." Who then turn around and not only move rigidly but fail to think in their rigidity.

And they are completely blown away the first time they see someone demonstrate a ballistic strike. Or a body slam. Or even a good jab."

...or a good quick knee in the nuts.

PPagan said...

AS to power:
a memorable experience for me was training with Peter Ralston 15 yrs ago. His punches had an amazing weight to them--didn't look like any effort at all, but felt like a gorilla. His refrain was, "relax, relax, relax!" We were practicing "folding"; punching forward, partner cross-blocks, your relaxed arm folds around the block and continues forward, back of hand slaps against partners chest. At a certain point my partner commented that I was really starting to get it, my punches were getting that weird "heavy" quality. I was very surprised, as to me it felt like nothing at all, like there was not much power there. Shows the necessity of personal training for getting some of these skills.

Anonymous said...

Lots of thoughts on understanding power generation and delivery come to mind. But it requires a study of making contact with things with your body. Doesn't matter if its a punch, an elbow or just putting hands on someone for control. You just have to spend time on it because its mostly about timing.

"Relax' just means don't over constrict skeletal muscles, (which is how we stabilizing bone sructure), at the same time you are you are trying to accelerate those same bones into another object. Strengthening your skeleton while you are trying to move it will act as a brake. Structure needs to be there upon impact, sure. But when and for how long is critical to the level of power you pass on to the target. Strikes need to "land" into the material of the target ...heavy hands. Not allowing the time for that means abandoning the power delivery in favor of the next strike. The trade off Steve points out.

A second strike that can still approach maximum power will begin in the recovery of the preceding one. When you see this in concert, it creates that fluidity and slowness with explosive power. Strikes and movements should come from the center and move through the center to achieve this. If you don't recover a strike its like a bullet that left its chamber. You get a one ...two ...three delivery of power. Firearms have a ready supply of charges to fire consecutive bullets, so its very effective. Also, two sequential bullets are not connected. The human body as a mechanical assembly applies the same principals of energy transfer differently. Recovery is a major player in our equation. The moment of impact will create some form of recoil effect. It may be negligible or you may be able to capture it. The point is, that is the instant power generation can begin for the next motion. No earlier without redirecting some amount of energy.

How much it matters is a question of how much efficiency matters. I think a lot if you only have a few shots in a bad situtaion. The longer it lasts the longer your at risk, right? You can make a real good case that fast flurry of strikes is going to distract and drive someone out of good structure. Its true and useful. But, it is only upper body power generation when you can see it in someone's choppy movement. It is worth keeping in mind there are people out there that, for whatever reason won't step backwards. Those guys that don't blink can take a flurry of punches like so many raindrops on their cheek. Sometimes less really is more.

-Billy G.

Scott said...

It's counter-intuitive because it is an illusion of the mind. Also known as imagination, although it is a form of imagination that develops in early childhood so we are universally convinced it's real. What am I talking about? The ability to see motion!
That's right! the ability to see motion is learned. When children are born blind and then, do to a surgical operation, gain eye sight for the first time after age 3, THEY DO NOT SEE MOTION. Period. What they do see is something like stop motion--the object is distant, then it is closer, then closer still, then it arrives, etc...
It fits in the same box as tunnel vision. We only see focused images in a tunnel, but under normal circumstances we imagine the rest of our field of vision is in focus too. Pure illusion!

Ymar Sakar said...

Two key things about chain punching.

Had to respond to what Nick Lo wrote.

Chain punching is just a normal hand switch, with one hand blocking or grasping the opponent's arm, and using this opening to strike through. Then instead of pulling back that hand and striking again, you switch and simply put the hand going back unto the arm you are controlling, then use the other hand and release it to make it attack.

Wing Chun cannot generate must external power using muscles, so that's why there will be a decrease on bags. If you use internal power, step in and use the body weight and sink the shoulders and align the hips, you can hit hard and keep hitting hard regardless of muscle fatigue.

People who want to see the internal side of wing chun should look up china boxer on youtube. He's a student of Hawkings Cheung. Not william Cheung, different guy.

Nick Lo said...

Hi Ymar - Thanks for the video suggestion. I've watched some of china boxer's videos before but unfortunately cannot right now due to a slow connection.

I'm not clear on what you mean by "Wing Chun cannot generate must external power using muscles, so that's why there will be a decrease on bags.". My first thought is, if there is a decrease on a bag, why wouldn't there be a decrease on a human body?

My second thought is that all punches use a combination of muscle, tendon, bone, weight transfer, etc to some degree. Wing Chun punches include the same use of the hip in the punch as most others. However, when it comes to fast chain punches I would argue that it IS just a muscle type punch as you cannot match the speed of your hand movements with a simultaneous transfer of body positioning. This is even more the case for examples like I mentioned where someone is bent forward at the hips chain punching a grounded opponent.

Ernie said "I'm not sure the heavy bag is the most accurate test of the chain punch" and I think that's probably true which is perhaps what I'm getting at when I say I don't understand the way it's demonstrated e.g. on a grounded opponent. A chain punch in my opinion is a fast flurry of punches that may not be particularly powerful but would be somewhat disorientating while e.g. closing distance, changing position, etc, it's surely not a "finishing" type punch. Perhaps, referring back to Rory's article, the chain punch has the speed with the illusion of power?