With thanks and apologies to Sifu Mark, who taught me all this stuff.
When I was training Wan Yi Chuan kung fu, Sifu taught that power generation has five components:
- Mass towards target
- Wave-like motion
- Crack the whip
- Towards, through, past
- Drive your intent
Understand that this is one perspective on power generation – every art effectively uses all of these components, but different arts think about them in different ways. The purpose of this post is to lay out my understanding of these components, how they interact, and how they contribute to particular movements.
To be clear, every movement incorporates all of these sources of power to a greater or lesser extent. You might do them badly, even so badly that the net effect is negative (such as striking forward while moving backwards), but they’re always there. The power in your movement is the combination of the contributions from each component, and the amount of each will vary depending on the movement and the circumstances.
Sifu, if you ever see this, feel free to tell me all the ways in which I’m wrong in the comments.
Mass towards target
This one is simple: kinetic energy equals mass times velocity squared. If you want to hit something hard, throw as much mass at it as you can, as fast as possible. When you throw a punch, ideally you should step into the punch so that your entire body mass is moving at the moment of impact.
The internal arts teach that all human motion is reciprocal. In order to go down you must go up, in order to go forward you must go back. Many of those motions end up being internal, but they’re no less real for it. When you step forward, there’s a rising-then-falling component to the movement even if your center of mass doesn’t physically change its distance from the ground. That falling component incorporates the force of gravity, so you can use it to increase the power of your movement.
This is true for all movements that exert force, but it’s most obvious if you look at a downward strike such as the pi quan strike in Xing Yi. As you “fall” onto your front foot, the structure of your torso and arm translate that momentum into your strike. With proper timing, you can add this power to all the other sources discussed here.
Crack the whip
This is a concept I’ve seen called “staged activation”. The idea is that each joint is attached to muscles that can create power in that joint. If you want to maximize your power the best thing you can do is to activate each of those sets of muscles in sequence so that each can add their power to the movement. The longer the distance over which you can do this, the more joints are involved and the more power you can generate.
Let’s look at a movement like a full-arm slap. I’m specifically not using a punch here because it’s a bit more complicated – in particular, I disagree with the idea of moving your hand last when you’re punching, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. In order to execute a slap with maximum power, you would start at the foot pushing away from the ground, turn the knee, then the hip, then the shoulder, then the arm (without letting the arm move outside of the zone of structure, of course).
By staging the activation of your body in this way, the power builds as it moves from joint to joint. If you time it correctly, it reaches a maximum at the moment of impact and is added to the power from each of the other sources.
Towards, through, past
This is standard advice in every boxing class: “punch through your target”. All the stuff above talks about focusing your power to a specific instant in time, which is also a specific point in space. The idea with this principle is that you don’t want that point to be on the surface of your target, or you’ll expend your energy there and not be able to penetrate – you want to focus your energy within your target so that the energy will be fully transferred.
How deep within the target is a matter of some debate, and it depends on what kind of strike you’re talking about. A short snappy strike like a jab certainly wants to be pretty close to the surface, while a committed strike like a cross should be farther inside. For something like a stomp kick (also called “heel kick”), you might even want it to be beyond the target. Go too far beyond, however, and you lose the focus of your strike; it’ll turn into a push, with no real sharp impact.
Sidebar: there is a concept in Chinese internal arts called fa jin. This has to do with focusing the power of a strike into an extremely small area and then releasing it into a target. This style of striking deliberately focuses a strike close to the surface of a target and relies on the shock wave generated within that target to carry the energy beyond the point where the strike actually ends. This is the secret to the so-called “one-inch punch” – by using all of these principles, it’s possible to generate a lot of power in an extremely small space and to deliver that power beyond the reach of your actual fist.
Drive your intent
To this point, everything has been about the shape and timing of the movement. This one is about your mental state, but of course it has to translate into the physical in order to result in a change in power. The idea here is that you have to intend to hit and to hit hard. If your intent is to strike to the target, that’s what you’ll do. You have to put your mind on the other side of the strike, both in space and in time (that is, both “past” and “after” the point of the strike), in order for the strike to arrive correctly.
I said this has to translate to the physical, so what form does that take? Primarily, driving your intent results in relaxation and lack of hesitation. If you’re striking to a target (and this is much more common than you might think, especially among people who are used to point-sparring), you’ll unconsciously start to tense the opposing muscle groups before you reach the target. For example, if you’re throwing a jab you need to keep your bicep relaxed until (just barely) after the moment of contact, and the way to ensure that happens is to drive your intent through the target.
Related to relaxation but separate, if you’re not sure about striking you may hesitate. Committing mentally to the strike removes this hurdle. You can commit to a strike without actually executing the strike – some arts refer to this as “loading”. Crane-style kung fu uses this principle and describes it (or at least it was described to me) as “leaning on a glass wall” – the idea is that you have decided to attack and you’re being held back by an invisible force. The instant the force is removed, the attack will go off and you don’t have to make a conscious decision to do it.
In kenjutsu, we practice this using an exercise called “sensitivity drills”: you lock swords with your partner, look for an opening, and try to hit it. Each person is trying to maintain a constant committed offense at every moment, so that if the obstruction of their partner’s sword is removed, their strike will occur automatically and without hesitation. If there’s a suki (gap) in your intent, your partner may be able to strike you without being struck in return, because you’ll have to make a conscious decision to move before your attack will occur.