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Pete Starr, Author Interview #2

June 9, 2007

Martial Mechanics by Phillip Starr, working cover

1. Tell us about your upcoming book, Martial Mechanics. What is it about?

Martial Mechanics examines the basic mechanics of martial arts technique and movement, how certain laws of physics and principles of kinesiology affect our movements, and how martial arts practitioners can use these laws and principles to maximize the effectiveness of their techniques.

It’s written in a humorous style, which is something new in the world of martial arts texts. I think it will be well received once the martial arts public gets over the shock of reading an instructional book that actually makes them chuckle while they learn some very important material.

2. Who will benefit from reading it?

Any practitioner of a percussive martial art will benefit from the material discussed and illustrated in this book. It goes without saying that beginning martial arts students will derive considerable benefit from it, but I believe that many advanced martial arts enthusiasts will also learn a great deal. I’ve presented numerous seminars on this very same material and it’s not at all unusual for instructors who have been involved in the martial arts for many years to come up and tell me that they learned more in the first two hours of the seminar than they’ve learned in the last ten years of practice.

3. What are some of the differences between internal and external martial arts?

First, I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what constitutes an internal or an external martial art. The truth is that if they’re practiced correctly, they should both become the same thing.

The problem is that they’re rarely practiced correctly nowadays. This is one of the issues that’s addressed in Martial Mechanics; both the internal and external systems should be based upon the same physical principles. That is, we’re all human beings and we’re all built the same. Everyone’s skeletal structure, musculature, and nervous systems are identical. Our bodies, no matter who we are or what form of martial art we practice, work the same… and we all must adhere to the laws of physics.The biggest differences between internal and external systems lie in their approach to training and how they apply their methods. For instance, the internal systems often begin by focusing on the development of proper posture and movement while the external systems concentrate on the acquisition of strength and speed.

External martial arts often tend to rely heavily on the isolated power of the arms or legs while the internal forms train to integrate and utilize the strength of the entire body. For instance, an external stylist will tend to punch with the isolated strength of his arm, shoulder, and chest. An internal stylist will execute the same technique but he will strike with the power of his whole body.

While the external stylists strive to build up the larger, more obvious muscles, internal stylists learn to make use of smaller, internal tissues that can lend support to the larger muscles and make their techniques that much more powerful. The internal systems generally do not oppose force directly; they prefer to evade the opponent’s attack or blend with it and use his force against him. Some external methods do the same thing but many of them also meet the opponent’s force head-on, using force against force.

Of course, there’s also the argument about emitting qi (internal energy)… some people think of it as if it’s some sort of magical thing, like something out of Star Trek and that’s led to a lot of misunderstanding about the subject. Qi exists but we can express it only through our physical bodies; incorrect posture or movement will prevent us from using it in any practical way.

Think of the body as a hose and qi as the water that flows through it. If you kink up the hose, the flow of water is reduced to a trickle; you can’t do much with it. Improper movement has this same effect on our bodies; it kinks up the hose and we are unable to emit qi effectively.

Some internal stylists seem to think that they needn’t train to strengthen their bodies, that resistance exercises and that sort of thing are counter-productive to the development of real skill. I say that’s hogwash. One of the finest internal martial art instructors I ever met was a dear friend of mine, Sherman Harrill (deceased), who was a practitioner of Isshin-ryu karate!

4. What are the percussive martial arts?

Percussive martial arts are those that are centered around the practice of striking techniques. Karate, taekwondo, and kung-fu would be the best-known forms of percussive martial arts. There are several others, including the art of atemi (striking vital points), which is practiced in jiu-jitsu and used to be a very important facet of aikido.

5. Can peace activists or pacifists practice martial arts and still stay true to their peaceful principles?

Certainly, peace activists can practice martial arts and remain true to their beliefs. Peace activists, although they may oppose certain military conflicts, will do what they must to defend themselves and their loved ones if the need should ever arise.

Pacifists are another story. As I understand it, they won’t fight under any conditions. To me, that kind of thinking borders on the absurd.

If someone broke into my home and threatened to kill my daughter and rape my wife, I would be morally obligated to do whatever I could to stop him. To do anything less would be morally reprehensible.

But I digress. As to the question about pacifists practicing martial arts and remaining true to their beliefs, I would have to say no.

6. Does sitting meditation benefit the body in a mechanical sense?

Absolutely! If you’re sitting correctly. And many practitioners of zazen (seated meditation) don’t. The principles of correct posture, the unification of upper and lower body, the integration of the posture (body) with the breath and how this affects the mind…these are all things that apply equally to meditation and martial arts.

The legendary founder of the Chan (Zen) sect of Buddhism, Da-Mo, said that boxing (martial arts) and Chan (meditation) are inseparable. To correctly practice one, you must also practice the other. That’s because their principles, both physical (mechanical) and mental, are the same.

7. What are the essential differences between a boxer’s punch and a karate or kung-fu punch? In your opinion, which one hits harder and why?

Contemporary boxers punch in a circular manner and rely heavily on the strength of the upper body although they try to torque their hips into the strike as best they can. It should be borne in mind that the boxer’s punch is centered around the use of the boxing glove. Were it not for the use of the gloves, I think they’d probably punch much differently.

The karate/kung-fu thrust follows a straight line. The hips are snapped around into the blow and the power of the entire body, from the soles of the feet to the shoulders and neck, is transmitted into the blow. Moreover, the karate, or kung-fu punch has several special features which make it a very devastating technique.

Let me cite three examples here. Some months ago the Chief Instructor for a well-known Kung-Fu association was trying to teach a small group of senior students to “think outside the box.” And they just weren’t getting it. To demonstrate one idea, he asked one of the seniors, a large fellow in his late 20’s who stands 6′ 4″ and weighs just over 200 lbs., to attack him in any way he liked. The student obliged and drove in a quick thrust. The instructor easily side-stepped it and fired a punch across the student’s chest. His fist didn’t strike the student but when his arm snapped out, his bicep slapped the young man in the ribs. It completely knocked the wind out of him and he collapsed in a heap. I told the hapless student that he probably shouldn’t tell his friends that his instructor knocked him down with his bicep!

On another occasion, a Yiliquan student went to Florida to visit a friend of his who was a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. Standing at the counter in a local bar, the subject of martial arts came up and the football player confessed that he thought such fancy fighting arts were just so much tomfoolery.

My student said he’d learned how to execute a thrust that would cause the ball player to lose his lunch almost instantly. The jock laughed and asked for a demonstration. The Yiliquan practitioner began with his fist only a few inches away from his friend’s belly. He shot the punch in with a screwing action and the athlete immediately bent over and wretched. It didn’t do much to impress the bartender but it made a believer out of the linebacker.

The last story involves my most senior student, who teaches in Puyallup, Washington. He was demonstrating how energy could be driven through a target if the technique was performed correctly. His assistant allowed him to punch him in the chest from only a few inches away. The initial shock was considerable and almost knocked the assistant down but what was more surprising was that a bruised appeared on the receiver’s back several minutes later. That kind of skill is becoming very rare nowadays.

The principles of correct punching are laid out very clearly in my new book. If readers will study that information and practice rigorously, they can develop that same kind of skill.

8. Your book speaks of a relationship between physical balance and breathing. Can you elaborate on that?

Sure! Whenever someone begins to lose his or her balance; when you start to stumble or slip, you almost always gasp for air, right? The breath is shallow, quick, and is drawn into the upper chest. This actually cuts your root and makes you less stable, so the odds of falling are actually increased. Your qi (internal energy) rises up high in the chest and you become top heavy.

Additionally, the muscle connections that run between your upper and lower body go slack so that your upper and lower body become separated. This is a very weak, unstable condition.If you will practice expanding your lower abdomen outward when you exhale, you will become strongly rooted. It should feel as though you’re expanding around your flanks and even your lower back.Your vital force sinks through the soles of your feet (via the yangquan points) and into the ground, the muscle connections between your upper and lower body are made strong and you become very, very stable.

This kind of breathing is actually an old form of breathing, which was practiced by the Daoists, and still is today. Known as reverse breathing, it’s central to the development of a strong root and powerful technique.

9. Your book also mentions that breathing can impact “balance.” What do you mean by that?

When we speak of balance we’re actually referring to two forms of stability. The most obvious is physical balance but there’s another form of balance that’s related to physical balance; one that we usually don’t consider… mental balance. And the two are interrelated. That is, loss of one is almost always accompanied by loss of the other.

Consider – when you start to slip and fall you also become fearful, don’t you? That’s a loss of physical balance causing a loss of mental equilibrium. On the other hand, a sudden sharp noise or an unexpected and frightening event can cause your legs to turn to rubber. That’s a loss of mental balance causing a loss of physical balance.

So the two forms of balance are interrelated – and they’re both governed by the breath!

In both cases – loss of physical balance and loss of mental balance – we tend to inhale high in the chest, with a little gasp, and that only makes the situation worse because it decreases mental and physical stability. A strong reverse breath will “root” the body and mind, making them both very stable.

An interesting feature about how breathing affects the mind involves a study made by a group of psychologists many years ago. They found that a certain chemical which is released in the brain during times of stress can produce what we know as hysteria. However, this chemical cannot be released when a person performs abdominal breathing.

So, when a human performs deep abdominal breathing it is not physiologically possible for him/her to become hysterical or panicked. Pretty nifty, huh? It really works. Many of my students have used it over the years in times of terrible stress such as combat situations in Vietnam and Bosnia.Try it next time the boss calls you into the office!

10. How is it possible for a small person to generate greater striking power than a large person?

It’s just basic physics. Force (actually, momentum) equals mass multiplied by velocity. So, if a person who weighs 110 lbs. can deliver a punch at 20 mph (which doesn’t take too long)… Well, do the math. Actually most of his/her force will be lost due to certain variables, but it’s still a bunch of force! And if the bigger person, who weighs 200 lbs. doesn’t know how to execute proper technique, she’ll just use the force of her arm and shoulder… say, 15 lbs. traveling at a whopping 8 mph… It’s not much of a contest.

The trick (for the smaller person) is to learn how to execute his or her technique as perfectly as possible in order to minimize power loss. And that means lots of practice and lots of sweat. It’s not magic. It’s perspiration. And it’d be a good idea if they’d also read my book to learn how utilize certain physical laws and kinesiological principles to make their techniques more effective.

11. Nowadays, martial arts competitors wear thick pads on their hands and feet to avoid injuring their opponents. You say that this is a tragedy. Why?

The truth is that most of them wear those pads to avoid injuring themselves! If you watch, you’ll see that they often kick with the top of the instep. This kind of kick gives them greater reach but if they ever whack someone’s bent elbow, they’ll see their foot swell up like an extra-large burrito. And the pain is exquisite.

Many moons ago I warned many martial arts teachers that using these pads would cause them and their students to alter their traditional techniques.

This is what happened to western boxing. The old-timers who fought bare-knuckle bouts used straight thrusts but when the padded glove was made mandatory they discovered that the surface of the fist (per se), was altered and straight thrusts no longer worked very well. However, they discovered that by using hooking punches they could utilize centrifugal force to generate plenty of power along the outer corner of the mitt… and modern boxing was born.
They aren’t even vaguely interested in keeping their opponents from harm. They still want to punch as hard as possible. That’s why they wrap their hands before every bout.But a circular bare-knuckle punch often results in what is known in the medical profession as a “boxer’s break.” The knuckles of the last two metacarpals break when they impact the opponent’s jaw (for instance). Boxing is a sport and was never intended to be used in combat.

Nowadays, our modern martial arts competitors have done the same thing that the boxers did; they’ve altered their traditional techniques to accommodate the wearing of pads. Real technique has been tossed out the window.

12. Do you believe that the current generation of martial arts competitors are as good as, or perhaps even better than, their martial arts forefathers?

Certainly, there are some modern practitioners who train very hard and they may become as skilled as their forefathers were. But most contemporary martial arts practitioners and competitors aren’t even close. They’re a whole lot prettier; they have uniforms with all kinds of fancy designs on them, colorful padded mittens, camouflage belts, and chrome-plated weapons which have all the weight and density of a pencil. But their technique just isn’t there.

Many of the modern practitioners are more concerned with how they look as opposed to what they can do.

They don’t want to train like their martial arts forefathers did. That kind of training is very demanding and sometimes quite painful. For instance, an old karate master once told me that a dojo that didn’t have a proper striking post was nothing more than a dance hall. Now, I’ve been in literally hundreds of martial arts schools but very few utilize this old-fashioned device. Why? Because until you learn to use it properly and develop proper technique, it’s painful… and they don’t want students to drop out because the training is too demanding.

Do I have one? You bet. And I punch it 800 times every day with each hand.

I think we need to get back to our martial arts roots and train as our forefathers did. We need to go back to traditional technique. And that’s what my book is about.

13. How do you judge the skill of a martial artist?

I judge him or her by they way he/she stands and walks, and by the quality of his/her shengxin (in Japanese: zanshin). I pay no attention to dress, trophies, how many forms he/she knows, or any of that.

14. Are there any advancements being made in the fields of teaching and judging martial artists?

I’m seeing the beginning of a return to the old, traditional ways. This is a very positive sign but all too often, instructors just don’t know how to get back to traditional technique. That’s why I wrote Martial Mechanics .

15. Are the various forms of martial arts currently being practiced, mostly dominated by men?

Yes. It’s always been that way and it’s probably because many women view martial arts and learning how to fight as unfeminine. And that’s unfortunate. Women can benefit from martial arts training just as much as men. Size, strength, and sex have nothing to do with being able to learn martial arts. Personally, I’d like to see more women get involved – if not for reasons of health maintenance, then for self-defense. Also, martial arts practice develops balance, grace, and poise, which are qualities that most women desire.

16. How can women and girls become more involved in the martial arts?

Look into the martial arts schools in your area. Talk to the instructor and see what kind of person he or she is. Watch how the teacher interrelates with the students. Could you learn from this teacher?

And watch the students. They’re the best examples of what and how the instructor teaches. By their fruits ye shall know them…

Once you settle on a school, dig into the training and don’t give up, no matter what! Resolve yourself to the fact that it’s going to hurt from time to time but keep going. One of my favorite sayings seems to be appropriate here: A gem is not polished without rubbing; nor a person perfected without trials.

17. You mention that the internal styles of kung-fu utilize small, unseen muscles and tissues to enhance their striking power. Could you elaborate on that?

Yes, practitioners of the internal systems learn to strengthen and then utilize small, internal tissues, which assist and lend additional support and strength to the larger muscles. This increases the mass involved in the execution of the technique and because the larger muscles have this additional support their movements are that much stronger.

However, before a student can practice to strengthen and use these smaller, subtle tissues it’s necessary to condition the larger muscles and that’s where many modern internal stylists fail. They don’t think they need to strengthen or otherwise condition the larger muscles and because of this, they can’t really control the smaller, internal tissues.

18. How can these tissues be trained?

Training methods vary from one art or style to another. In Yiliquan we practice the so-called Six Coiling Exercises to acquire control over and strengthen these tissues. This is a slow process that requires at least a couple of years. Then we also practice a special form, Six Coiling Fists to learn how to integrate the movements of these small tissues with those of the larger muscles and utilize them in the execution of our techniques.

19. Could you explain how some of the principles mentioned in your book can be applied in daily life (rather than solely within the context of martial arts)?

Understanding the real definition of balance. The relationship between physical and mental balance is, I think, very important in daily life. The training for reverse breathing and how it impacts balance (see questions 8 & 9) is a very important principle that can readily be applied to daily life. Remember, loss of mental equilibrium doesn’t always involve something that is terribly frightening; it can also come about as the result of stress and reverse breathing is an excellent way to center yourself and reduce the effects of both mental and physical stress.

Reverse breathing can also be employed whenever you need a sudden increase in physical strength because it doubles your physical strength almost from the first time you try it. If you need to push, pull, or lift something heavy; if you need more physical power, all you have to do is perform a proper reverse breath! Or if you’ve really exerted yourself and you want to stabilize your breathing, 3 or 4 reverse breaths will do it. The principles of correct posture will make a considerable difference in how you move, feel, and even think. I know it doesn’t sound like it could possibly make such a big difference, but it will!

And learning how to Move From One-Point is also an extremely important principle. By utilizing this principle, you’ll be able to walk (or run) longer distances with less physical effort than ever before, and your movements will be more stable and very powerful.

20. How can artists and writers benefit from martial mechanics?

Learning how to stand and move correctly is extremely important for artists. For instance, there is really a close relationship between shodo (the art of calligraphy) and martial arts. Just as you punch with your entire body, so you brush the proper strokes with your entire body. You must be centered, and the body and mind must be unified. This is not possible if the posture is bad or if the breathing is wrong.

Writers need to center themselves from time to time. I know that from firsthand experience. Writing can take a lot out of you. You have to remember that there is a very real connection between body and mind. They affect each other. To be at your creative best, you have to unify both body and mind. Some very effective methods for doing that are presented in Martial Mechanics.

The words of Da-Mo (founder of Chan Buddhism and Shao-lin kung-fu) make a fine parting statement:

Body and mind are inseparably united.
Right now you are so overcome with the demands of your bodies that you are unable to understand the concept of mind-body unity.
I am, therefore, going to teach you a method.
Train your bodies and minds with it
and you shall attain higher perception.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2007 7:35 pm

    Try going here, Log in. Then, go to the add a story section. Follow the instructions on Digg.

    Thanks for asking.


  1. Albert G

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