Muscle – Marc MacYoung


Ninety five percent of all martial arts training is based on the assumption that the person doing it has normal physical abilities. With defensive tactics you are closer to 100%. While this is not in itself a bad thing, what has happened is that a philosophy of “muscle” has evolved.

That is to say, if a technique doesn’t work properly, it can be “patched” by using muscle. In the Mixed Martial Arts and “extreme” sports fighting, size, strength and physical conditioning has eclipsed good — and far more reliable — technique. Unfortunately, since most defensive tactics are based in the martial arts, this idea was carried over in the translation.

In other words, there is an attitude of “when all else fails, we can always use brawn” among many who use defensive tactics. A technique not working? You can make it work by powering through it.” When that fails — which it often does — the fall back philosophy is “Those defensive tactics don’t work, so we’ll just dogpile the perp and wrestle him down.”  The fact is this works enough of the time that most officers don’t bother to look beyond it. There is an attitude that maybe muscle doesn’t work so well, but it is a proven fall back from something that is even more unreliable. It’s  a lot of work, but it gets the job done.

And people used to think the world was flat, too.

Let’s give you three examples where this approach works.
1) When you are bigger and stronger than the perp.
2) When you have back up and
3) When the suspect is intent on escaping … not attacking you.

As long as you only engage in physical conflict under these circumstances, you’ll win. If you’re smaller, alone and facing an aggressive perp, you might have problems though.

Self-fulfilling Prophecy
Unfortunately, using muscle to patch a takedown that is not working is one of the main reasons that takedowns fail in the first place. By expecting to have to use muscle to make a it work, we unconsciously position ourselves in ways where we actually LOSE power rather than gain it. By expecting to use muscle during a takedown, most officers not only create a self-fulfilling prophecy, but piss away power that they could be using to control a perp.

With the way most officers do defensive tactics — a conservative estimation is– they lose about 70 percent of the force they are generating. While it isn’t exactly running down their legs, they are pissing it away. Many lose more than that. By this we mean their energy is going everywhere except into controlling the perp. With kind of power loss is it any wonder DT techniques fail?

In assuming that you will need to use muscle, you guarantee that you will. This is because you will unconsciously position yourself in a way to generate power from your muscles. And in doing so you will destroy your ability to generate force in any other way. The terms for this behavior is “movement strategies” or “movement patterns.” For example, as human beings we unconsciously come up with movement strategies to compensate for injuries and imbalances; often to our own detriment. Correcting these unconscious strategies and returning you to normal movement is a major portion of a physical therapist’s job. (There is an entire field of study called kinesiology devoted to the study of human movement that’s where these terms come from). These strategies are often unconscious and automatic. Think about it, can you explain in detail every move you did to stay upright last time you stumbled? That was a coping strategy in action. It is important to know about these strategies  because they happen so quickly and unconsciously that unless you are looking for them you won’t see them. But once you know about them you can spot them.

And one of the strategies you can see manifesting is we have learned to take certain poses when we think we are going to need muscle. An untrained — or poorly trained — fighter, will automatically drop into these poses. Poses that are in direct conflict with the needs of the technique. What you will usually see is a variation of this pose, where the individual crouches down in a wide legged stance. It is a stable pose that allows the person to receive incoming force without being knocked over or pushed back. In addition, from that pose you have everything you need in order to generate force from your muscles. You have a stable base (spread feet) and your body is aligned to push back against the incoming force.

Unfortunately, this pose creates more problems than it cures. To begin with, while it is great for muscle, you cannot effectively generate any other kind of force from this posture. Why is this a problem? How about you cannot generate the force — or the control — to do effective takedowns through muscle. And this goes double for when you are under stressful conditions. Under those circumstances, with adrenaline pumping, it is too easy to apply too much force and not realize it. Adrenaline has a very distorting effect on our numerological feedback. If during a scuffle, you have ever been hit and not realized it until later, you have an idea of what I am talking about. When you are excited there is no reliable way to gauge the amount of pressure you are applying through muscle.

Second, muscle has a limited range. Again dipping into kinesiology we discover that there is an optimum range of motion where we best apply muscle. If we were to divide the entire range of motion we can do with your arms into thirds (the first third would be your hand near your body, the last third your arm extended all the way out) the middle 1/3 would be the range that you could generate the most force through muscle. In either end of the spectrum you would be in what is known as a “mechanically disadvantaged position.” You can try all you want, but you just will not be generating that much force from these  positions.

This brings us back to strategies. In less stressful circumstances we fail to notice this drop in the power curve because we unconsciously include other strategies, such as walking forward (think of pushing a car). Unfortunately when we are in a clinch with a resisting suspect, these compensating strategies are often dropped or seriously limited. As such we have enough force to push the suspect out of the range of our power and don’t move enough to keep a constant stream of pressure on him. This allows him to “get his legs back under him” and proceed to resist more effectively. If you watch videos of officers trying to control a suspect, you will usually a limited number of steps. In fact, you will commonly see the officer only stepping enough to keep this whole flawed process going. He sets down into this pose, he steps, he sets down in the pose again, he steps… this continues until either the perp falls or they both fall over. This brings us to the next problem of this pose.

If you were to draw a line connecting the feet of the person in this stance you would have his “Line of Stance Integrity.” Stance integrity means the position that a person’s feet are in. We are able to resist incoming force along this line without falling over. When our stance is lined up with the incoming force, our bodies (skeleton, joints and ligaments) line up and create a structure capable of resisting, ergo “stance integrity.”  Obviously when encountering too strong of a force this structure will fail and we will bowled over. However, this is our best chance of resisting and incoming force — from a specific direction.

However, stance integrity is a line! It only works against force that is coming in along a similar line. You are extremely vulnerable to force coming in from the perpendiculars (90 degrees) As strong as is against force along the same line, a slight push from these new angles (front or back) and you will fall over. In fact, we often demonstrate this by — after failing to move someone with our entire bodyweight along the line of stance integrity — pushing someone over with just two fingers from the 90. This is why knowing about stance is so important

And once again, we return to coping strategies. Ever since we were first learning to walk we have learned an important lesson: Falling hurts. So we learn early on when we are falling to re-establish stance integrity — and we do it in the direction of the force. Whether that be against a fall or against a push, we regain structure to keep from falling. It is so ingrained that it is almost an instinctive reaction; and  these automatic/instinctive/reflexive reactions/strategies occur without conscious thought.

Reread that last sentence again, although it is grammatically clumsy, it isvery important. These unconscious, reflexive strategies arise from a very primal part of the brain. As such they happen faster than conscious thought. You may think “I’m falling!” but counter-strategies are already in action. After a lifetime of walking your body knows where it has to be to keep from falling. The question is can you execute the movement fast enough?

Stance integrity and counter-strategies are very important concepts. What’s more they are the major sources of control tactic failure. However, that is an issue beyond the scope of this page. Where it does relate to the topic at hand is that in preparing to use muscle, we root down into a stance that makes us extremely vulnerable to forces coming in from the side. This is why so often when struggling with a resisting perp you will fall down with him! You’re in a pose that you can’t get your foot out fast enough to establish a line of stance integrity from the force created by his resisting. All it takes to generate this kind of force is a twist of his hips and you’re down there with him!

The foundation of strength
Let’s look at the underpinnings of strength. In understanding its foundation, we’ll begin to see some of its limits too. The key point to understand about muscle power is that it requires a stable base. Think about how many exercises you do in the gym that utilize a stabilizing board, bench or even your own hips. You need a grounded base from which to push or pull.

Without this grounded base, there is no strength.

You can take the strongest man in the world and put him in space and he will be helpless because there is nothing for him to push or pull against. We unconsciously know this even if we’ve never thought about it. So when we find ourselves in a situation where we expect to have to use muscle, we drop into such a stance. It is one of those unconscious/reflexive movement strategies.

Where this element becomes important is in the stance officers take under potentially violent circumstances (see training conflict). They “dig in” in preparation for the hard work they know is coming. The problem with being dug in and ready to use muscle is that you only have an effective range of about 20 inches (if you are really big, about 24 inches). After that point, you begin to lose power at an incredible rate. You can’t effectively control anything through muscle beyond that distance until you get up and reposition your base. And putting it bluntly, if you are close enough to effectively use muscle, gun retention can become a serious problem.

Shock absorbers
Another major problem is elbow and shoulder position. If you position your elbow so you can push (or pull) using muscle, you have, in fact, created a massive shock absorber. This shock absorber will not only absorb incredible amounts of energy, but also guarantees that your takedown will end up in a wrestling match. An added bonus is it will highly increase the chances of the perp being injured.

Our shoulders are designed as ball-and-socket joints. In order for them to move the way they do, we have to sacrifice a certain degree of stability and the ability to resist force coming up from our wrists. This is the source of the biggest shock absorbers that complicate takedowns. With improper elbow position your shoulder can act like a shock absorber for up to six inches before it locks down. By that time, you will have lost incredible amounts of power and given the perp a chance to resist or counter. Yet most people unconsciously put their elbows up and/or out when preparing to use muscle.

The following experiment will show you exactly how much force you lose through positioning to use muscle. Stand up and walk over to a wall. Put your elbow up at shoulder height. Holding your hand horizontal in front of you, place your palm against the wall. Looking at your upper bicep, push against the wall with all of your body weight. Notice how much your shoulder and elbow collapse as you do this. It isn’t until all of the slack is taken out that you begin to deliver your full body weight. You can experiment with this by holding your hand and elbow in different positions and pushing. What you will see, however, is that most positions “give” before they lock up and allow you to push. This is a shock absorber! But think about it — aren’t these the very positions we unconsciously assume when we attempt to apply “muscle?”

Okay so there are the problems with using muscle during control tactics. Are you interested in learning more effective ways on generating and delivering force into a resisting perp?  Go to the Generating Power post.

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