“Why Brute Force is Self-Defeating,” by Stanley Pranin

“A unified mind-body is capable of complex, cascading
movements that remain concealed from your opponent.”

stan-pranin-closeupIf resorting to brute force produced effective technique, we could all hit the weight room, build powerful bodies, and become aikido masters! How simple it would be! Helas, it doesn’t work that way… but inquiring minds want to know why.

Why is it that we can’t just make up for poor aikido skills by adding a dash of muscle power to our techniques? What are the mechanisms at play that render this approach self-defeating? Put simply, tell me why using physical strength doesn’t work!

I have a theory about this. Let me explain. Imagine you are on the receiving end of a powerful attack. You get off the line of attack, and now it is your turn to seize the initiative. You grab hold of your non-cooperative opponent with the full intention of letting him know who’s in charge! You inhale quickly, and on your out-breath, let him feel your full power… You’re stopped dead in your tracks!

Here’s what I think has happened. For you to apply a technique on someone, you must have a physical connection. If follows that there are a number of points where your body touches your opponent’s. At each of these points of contact, there are body sensors that receive impulses from the brain that control our nerves and muscle structures. But the interesting thing is that your opponent, who is also in contact with your body, can pick up on these same brain signals that precede your action. In other words, your opponent is “intercepting” information about your plan of action before the fact.

He knows instinctively that your inhalation will be followed by an exhalation at which time you’ll make your move. From there, it is a simple matter for him to preempt your burst of muscle power using his foreknowledge, thus neutralizing your technique. Your opponent can stop your technique because he has advance knowledge of the timing, direction and intensity of your counter move.

Now, what if your movement were not limited to the use of your upper torso power? What if you could unify your body structure and move as a single unit? There would be no muscle twitches to specific body parts in contact with your opponent to convey your intentions. Your source of power would be your body center rather than specific muscles under stress. A unified mind-body is capable of complex, cascading movements that remain concealed from your opponent due to a lack of direct connection to your center.

I believe it is important to reflect on your years of training experience, especially where you have encountered problems. You should not fall into a pattern of repeating old mistakes. Learn to identify the specifics of actions that result in unsuccessful techniques. This will open the door to new approaches that don’t rely on the application of force and that produce the desired outcome.


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  1. There is a perfect path to aikido techniques which works even in static basics, kihon waza. That path is narrow, but if you are somewhere close to it a little extra power will move you along. Some people look for a mystical explanation and are welcome to do so. A year or so ago I was introduced to a book called Anatomy Trains, which explains how the skeleto-muscular system works. I used to say, ‘We all know where we’re strong. We avoid where we’re weak and have done since learning to walk.’ The book goes into more detail than I can readily absorb expanding on that. But if I want a practical example, grab my wrist. I doubt I’ve gotten much stronger in the last 40 years, but I have learned a lot about how to find the weaknesses in my partner’s strength. And, yeah, if I mess it up, having some strength in reserve helps get me back on track. Ideally, you don’t even need physical connection to break down the strength and balance of your partner, leading them to areas where both fail. I probably won’t get there this lifetime.

  2. John L Herr, ND says:

    This is the hardest skill to acquire – the ability to relax in the face of Uke’s attack. But what you will find is that once you acquire this you will be able to move with more relaxed speed, slightly faster than Uke’s movement. The result will be Uke falling harder than if you had used strength alone and tried to force the technique! How long does this take to perfect, perhaps ten years. Keep practicing.

  3. Even with the weight room, some of us are destined to remain skinny little blokes. And uke is built like Godzilla.

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