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Understand Strength versus Skill

by Lawrence A. Kane, Kris Wilder, November 12, 2012

“Beware of the young doctor and the old barber.”– Benjamin Franklin

One of the most misunderstood and controversial subjects concerning the development of real martial arts skill has to do with the development of strength, as opposed to the cultivation of technique. It is important that contemporary martial arts enthusiasts understand that an increase in muscular size and strength does not necessary imply an equal elevation of martial arts skill. One can be very powerful physically, but possess no martial skills whatsoever. On the other hand, one who possesses real expertise in an Oriental martial discipline is also very strong. It is interesting to note that the Chinese character for strength, li, is actually a pictograph of a tendon. It is not a pictograph of a muscle. Think about that.

Although it would seem that increasing muscle mass would enhance one’s martial arts prowess, the truth is that it can seriously inhibit the development of real technique. Professional athletes know that they should not regularly engage in exercise routines that are not directly related to their particular athletic disciplines. For instance, cross-country runners do not train to develop great upper-body strength and mass; they know that their time is better spent engaging in exercises that will directly affect their ability to run long distances.

The martial arts devotee who focuses heavily on the development of large muscles often has a tendency to overpower his or her techniques due to an over-reliance on excessive muscular force. This results in misalignment of the body, loss of speed, and a subsequent reduction of efficiency.

It is well to remember that the Oriental martial arts instructors of just one generation ago were usually rather small in stature but capable of generating uncanny power. This is because their training emphasizes precision of technique and the exercises in which they engage are always “technique specific.” Every movement, every exercise, is directed towards improvement of technique rather than the development of an eye-appealing physique. As a well-known karate instructor once told his students, “If you want a stronger punch, practice punching!”—Introduction by Phillip Starr, author, martial artist, named to Kung Fu Hall of Fame, Chairman of the Yiliquan Martial Arts Association

Strength and Skill

Understanding your place in life is always a good thing. However, in the world of martial arts some times it can be hard to know. In the real world, the employer and employee are clearly defined; parent, child is another example. However, the martial arts are based on skills. A young person with more time on the floor can outrank and older person, in some cases even their own parent.

Ranking in the martial arts is not generally based on age or your position in the business world; your rank is based on a combination of strength and skill. These two worlds of strength and skill must blend within the practitioner giving them an ability to use either of these aspects of their training, or most likely a combination.

The adage goes, “old age and craftiness will always overcome youth and skill.” While that may not be entirely true in every instance, it is accurate enough in the dojo. Experienced practitioners can use their superior skill to overcome younger, stronger individuals. An over-reliance on strength comes at the detriment of skill, leading to plateaus in development and a degradation of prowess as the practitioner ages. Both strength and skill are needed in martial arts, yet knowing how/when to apply them is important in helping you advance more quickly in your training.

To begin, let us go over some fundamental concepts about strength and skill. The following is a rule of thumb concerning strength and skill: Narrow strength always trumps narrow skill; Broad skill always trumps broad strength. Below are a few historical and classic examples of this rule of thumb:

Broad strength defeats narrow strength

Late in 1864, as the Civil War raged in the United States, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman began his infamous, “March to the Sea.” The march carried with it a “Scorched Earth” policy that left everything utterly destroyed in the wake of his army. The minor resistance his troops faced stood no chance against a battle-hardened army that burned crops it did not consume, killed livestock it did not eat or appropriate, and destroyed military and civilian infrastructure alike. This march to the sea was a case of sheer military power moving at full throttle against opponents that had the home terrain advantage, intimately knowing their own battlefields. Their broad strength overwhelmed all resistance.

Broad skill defeats narrow strength

The famous battle of Thermopylae might be considered a skillful victory by 300 Spartan warriors, at least until you take into account the fact that they all died in the process. In 480 BC, King Leonidas and 300 Spartan hoplites (foot soldiers) held back the entire Persian army of roughly 250,000 men, defending a narrow pass for several days. The Persians eventually crushed this small force, defeated the Greek army, and sacked Athens, yet the valor of those heroic soldiers is recounted to this day. An epitaph at the battle site reads, “Friend, tell the Spartans that on this hill we lie obedient to them still.”

The three hundred Spartans who went to Thermopylae were handpicked from thousands of volunteers by the king as a “sire-only” force, those who had already produced male children to carry on their family name (and honor). These warriors never expected to return from the battle. These brave Spartans where successful in holding their ground for seven days, keeping the vast Persian army at bay until a secret mountain pass was revealed to the Persians. With superior numbers, the Persians mounted a second front behind the Spartan lines using the pass and cut down the Spartans to a man.

Man to man, the Spartans were better trained than their Persian foe. By carefully selecting the battleground, the Spartans were able to utilize that superior fighting skill effectively, holding off forces that outnumbered them over 800 to one. Simply put, overwhelming force when held in check was losing to skill, until the battlefield was changed.

Broad skill trumps broad strength

In 216 BC, a Carthaginian named Hannibal Barca won The Battle of Canne using skill to overcome a superior numbered Roman army. In the simplest terms, the center of the battle line of Hannibal’s army allowed themselves to be driven back, bowing in the middle as the Roman army pressed forward. As the battle progressed, the Carthaginian army formed a crescent and then sealed the crescent into a circle. The Romans in the center of the circle were unable to wield their weapons at the Carthaginian army; only the outer edges of the now encircled Roman army could fight.

Before the day was over 60,000 to 70,000 Romans were killed or captured in a slaughter that still ranks as one of bloodiest and costliest hand-to-hand battles in terms of human life in the history of Man. The skill of the Carthaginians’ superior strategy overwhelmed the massive strength of Rome’s legions.

Narrow skill trumps broad strength

The Lighting War, or Blitzkrieg, employed by the German military during the beginning of World War II used bombardment followed by fast-moving armaments to surprise and prevent an enemy from putting together a sound defense. The German military used this form of battle against Poland, France, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union with initial success.

The projection of the Germans’ force was based on a narrow thrust moving as quickly as possible to penetrate as deeply as possible into the opponent’s home territory. Because they could focus their energy on small portions of the opponent’s forces, they were able to avoid becoming mired in a force-on-force battle that they would ultimately lose.

Broad skill trumps narrow skill

The Romans had lost an entire squadron of ships to the naval skills of the Carthaginian navy in 260 BC. A few short months later, however, the Romans were back. At the Battle of Mylae, they handily defeated their Carthaginian foes. What changed between battles? During the interim, the Romans completely reengineered their naval fleet tactics.

The strength of the Romans had historically been in hand-to-hand small group combat, not in naval battle. Consequently, beefing up their naval tactics alone was not enough. They also had their engineers fit the bow of each one of their ships with a corvus, a simple gangplank. The Romans then went to battle with intent to redefine the battlefield to favor their strength. The retrofitted corvus allowed the powerful Roman military to fight hand-to-hand, boarding the Carthaginian ships where they slaughtered the opposing sailors.

The Romans defeated a superior navy by playing to their strength, turning a naval battle into what effectively became a land battle. A small amount of naval skill plus enormous infantry expertise overcame naval prowess alone.

Broad skill trumps narrow strength

Royce Gracie demonstrated in the early Ultimate Fighting Championships that although lighter than his opponents, he was able to win using skill over raw strength. By using position and wisdom, he was able to take the fights to the ground, his preferred place to fight. He then worked his opponents into a vulnerable position, allowing him to choke or arm lock them into submission. Between 1993 and 1994, he won 11 matches by submission becoming tournament title holder of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 1, UFC 2, and UFC 4. He fought to a draw with Ken Shamrock at UFC 5. Other fighters were so impressed with his skills that many moved toward grappling, cross training, and Mixed Martial Arts for UFC, PRIDE Fighting Championship, and similar competitions.

(Listen to the end of Chapter 4, “Understand Strength versus Skill,” by downloading audio by Kris Wilder from The Way To Black Belt—A Comprehensive Guide to Rapid, Rock-Solid Results)

Lawrence A. Kane is the author of Surviving Armed Assaults, Martial Arts Instruction, and Blinded by the Night, and co-author of The Way of Kata, The Way to Black Belt, and The Little Black Book of Violence (USA Book News--2009 Best Books Award Finalist; ForeWord Magazine--2010 Book of the Year Award Finalist). A paid book reviewer for ForeWord magazine and Clarion Reviews, he consults with other authors from time to time to help assure realism in their novels, particularly in fight scenes. Lawrence lives in Seattle, WA.

Kris Wilder began his martial arts training in 1976 in the art of Tae Kwon Do, he has earned black belt-level ranks in three arts: Tae Kwon Do (2nd Degree), Kodokan Judo (1st Degree) and Goju-Ryu Karate (5th Degree), which he teaches at the West Seattle Karate Academy. He is a regular columnist for Traditional Karate Magazine.


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