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What is Chi Control? Advanced Techniques From Martial Arts for Bodybuilding and Athletics
Even within martial arts, chi is something of a controversial topic. Practitioners can’t even decide on how it’s spelled: is it ‘chi’, ‘qi’ or ‘ki’? All we really know is that the spelling ‘qi’ comes in super handy when you’re playing Scrabble…
Moreover, there is a lot of debate as to what chi actually is. Some more modern martial artists would like to downplay the nature of chi in order to j#justify its existence. They will say things like: ‘chi is simply energy’ or ‘chi is just concentration’… ‘There’s no mystery to it, it just means [insert your own interpretation here]!’
However appealing this view may be though, it doesn’t tell the full story. No one is claiming that you can use qi to shoot fireballs like a Dragon Ball Z character (well, almost no one), but in ‘internal styles’ of martial arts, like qi gong and tai chi, there is no getting around the fact that qi is described as being a ‘life force’ that you can use to do some pretty mystical shit with (including heal other people remotely). So, there’s definitely some esoteric insinuation here.
And that interpretation of qi is obviously on scientifically shaky ground. There is just no way that you can heal a broken bone by holding your hands over it. Sorry. And without meaning to upset anyone, there is no scientific evidence for acupuncture either, which is based on the very same principles.
But with all that said, I believe I do have a fairly useful interpretation of what qi might be and I think it could potentially be useful for bodybuilders and athletes too when applied correctly. And either way, I’m going to show you how some concepts relating to martial arts and chi manipulation hold merit.
After all, it’s clear that those Shaolin Monks are certainly on to something when you watch some of the insane shit that they can do…
Spirit Shouts for Weight Lifting
Have you ever wondered why martial artists yell when throwing punches and kicks? The technical term for this shouting is ‘kiai’ and it is often translated as ‘spirit shout’, even though this isn’t quite accurate.
Like chi itself (or ki in this case, seeing as kiaia is Japanese), there is some debate as to the nature of the kiai but generally it is considered to:
- Cultivate ‘fighting spirit’
- Removes inhibition
- Shock the opponent
- Aid with correct breathing
- Create an adrenaline surge
While there is clear, practical use for all of these things, the two points I’m most interested in are the ‘fighting spirit’ and the ‘adrenaline surge’. And I would go as far as to argue that these are effectively the same thing.
Shouting helps make us stronger and it becomes almost hard not to yell when we exert maximum force. This is something that nearly every weight lifter will know from experience: when you’re pushing 150kg of your chest, you yell.
Likewise, when you’re scared you yell. And even when you’re moving furniture, you grunt. Why is that?
In this study, it was found that yelling can actually increase average strength by up to 31% via a release of adrenaline.
We know that this is due to the effect that adrenaline has on muscle fiber recruitment and it is greatly suspected that this is the mechanism behind the awesome ‘hysterical strength’ (also known as crisis strength) – our ability to tap into superhuman strength during the most desperate times.
It is through crisis strength than Mothers are able to lift cars off of their children trapped underneath. Normally, our muscle fiber recruitment is capped at around 30-50%, meaning that we can’t call upon our full strength. Add enough adrenaline into the mix though and we seem to be able to overcome that.
(How? Possibly through an interaction between adrenaline and acetylcholine, which is the messenger used to cross the ‘neuromuscular junction’. But I’m just spit balling here, after all adrenaline actually inhibits acetylcholine. Adrenaline may actually have a direct effect on muscle contraction…)
The take-home message here for lifters? Yelling might be annoying for others, but it can genuinely help you increase your 1RM.
Contrary to this though, martial arts do not generally teach you to contract and become tense when you’re under pressure. Instead, most styles will encourage you to become loose and relaxed – especially for practicing pushing hands and the like.
Why? Because being lose allows you to become more sensitive to the movements of your opponent and it makes you quicker. Tension slows us down and reduces flexibility, which is why increasing flexibility can actually make you stronger (study).
Right now, you’re probably carrying small amounts of tension throughout your body. If you were to make yourself consciously aware of your body, then you would find you could actively relax that tension in your neck, shoulders, legs etc. That tension in your biceps is actually going to slow down your punches, because it will be pulling your arm back while you punch. Tension also wastes energy and if you are holding tension, you will tire out faster.
Old time strong-man ‘Maxick’ claimed that the secret to his incredible strength was to completely relax all the muscles not involved in a specific lift.
Likewise, martial artists are always told to relax their shoulders – and this is something a lot of us can benefit from as a way to start being more aware of the tension we’re carrying. And in many styles, such as Shotokan karate, they are told to contract only at the point at impact – which is also the moment when you use your kiai, as it happens. Staying loose allows you to react faster and punch quicker, or to use chi-related terminology; it lets your energy flow more freely and unimpeded. Bruce Lee was super-fast because he would stay calm and lose and then snap like a whip to focus all of his muscle power into one point. When delivering a punch in martial arts of course, that energy starts in the feet as you push off of the ground and travels through the hips and to the fist, which clenches right at the devastating moment of contact.
When lifting weights or using calisthenics, it is important to think about this ‘energy flow’. Keeping your abs more rigid will help you to perform more push ups and pull ups for example by avoiding ‘energy leaks’. At the same time though, you should try to relax your biceps which are working counter to the movement. It’s a lot to keep mindful of but by visualizing the energy as chi, moving through the body, we can manage it more easily.
Muscle control is not just about tension but also about relaxation. And a big part of that is keeping a calm mind…
Keeping our body loose will help us to move more quickly but it is just as important to keep a loose mind. A martial artist must not have their mind on other things but instead must be completely attuned to their senses and their body, ready to recoil or strike as the situation demands.
In Aikido, this mental state is called ‘mushin’ – which is often described as ‘no mind’. In modern science, it is effectively the same in concept as a flow state. This is the point where you are physiologically aroused but not scared. Your mind is empty of thoughts and you allow the repetitive training – the thousands of kicks and blocks you rehearsed – to do their thing without needing conscious instruction from you.
A flow state is linked to increased adrenaline, norepinephrine, dopamine and anandamide. So once again, it should make you stronger in the gym by improving muscle fiber recruitment but this time without forcing your whole body to become rigid and tense. Entering flow is not easy, but one tip is to ensure that the challenge is engaging enough to hold your attention – difficult without being so impossible as to lead to stress or surrender.
Interest, variety and excitement all further help to encourage flow – and these are things I feel are missing from many weightlifting techniques. It’s one reason that I find hand-balancing such a rewarding way to train. When you are truly in the moment, you can engage more muscle control, even block out pain.
And to truly respond correctly in the moment, we need to reinforce the neural pathways that allow us to respond instinctively. We do this in the gym the same way we do it in martial arts – by ‘greasing the groove’ AKA repeating the same movement over and over again, ad nauseam.
And by practicing muscle control to more effectively gain conscious control of our strength.
Focusing on Your Dantian
According to many ‘internal’ styles of martial art (like Tai Chi and Kung Fu), the source of our chi energy comes from our ‘Dantian’, which is sometimes loosely translated as ‘elixir of qi’. It can also be referred to as the Hara in Japanese styles and my old Tai Chi instructor once told me that if you punch someone in that spot in just the right way, they die… Obviously, I have never tested this theory.
Your Dantian is located about 10 centimetres below the navel, right where your center of gravity is. This is not a coincidence.
It is often recommended that martial arts practitioners ‘move from their centre’, by which it is meant that they should focus on their Dantian at all times as they move. A popular exercise in kung fu classes is to focus your attention on your head while someone tries to throw you over. After they succeed, you then let them try again, this time focussing your attention on your Dantian. By doing this, you are ‘bringing your chi’ to your center and thus creating a more stable base. Simply switching your attention to your center of gravity makes you harder to fell.
What’s really going on? Simple: you are bringing your attention lower and unconsciously this causes you to lower your stance and engage your core. You are calling upon your mind-muscle connection to will your center of gravity lower.
Try this the next time you perform a deadlift – weightlifters with lower centers of gravity have an advantage over others.
For similar reasons, many martial arts also recommend breathing from your center – using diaphragmatic breathing as a way to stay calmer and more relaxed. This is far healthier than the shallow chest breathing most of us have learned and will increase the oxygenation of your blood while simultaneously bringing the parasympathetic nervous system into gear to relax the entire body.
So, with all this in mind, I believe that a useful way to think of chi is as a visualization technique to enhance the ‘mind muscle connection’. By imagining chi flowing through the body, we can become more mindful of the way we are generating power and directing it through our skeletal muscle.
This reminds us to stay lose and to stay fast, to generate power through our feet and to stay centered. It helps us to concentrate our energy to one point and to stay ‘in the zone’ and fully focussed on our movements.
Arnold Schwarzenegger always talks about the way he will focus on his biceps during curls and visualize them becoming as big as the room. Having your mind elsewhere – on work or on your smartphone – simply doesn’t let you engage fully with a workout and you won’t even be able to recruit the entirety of your muscle strength as a result.
The mind muscle connection is a real phenomenon. If you want proof, then ask yourself why some people can wiggle their ears and others can’t. This can be learned and in doing so, you are simply increasing your control over those tiny muscles.
My theory is that martial arts masters have been practicing muscle control and developing their mind-muscle connection through the use of visualization – with chi simply being the visual metaphor they used to do this. It is ‘energy’ but more than that, it is the conscious will that allows them to direct that energy. And eventually, this allows them to do incredible things like 2 finger push ups or smashing bricks on their stomachs. We could all benefit from being more mindful of our own bodies and muscles.
Practicing chi manipulation then would really mean practicing muscle control. And that begins with mental discipline. Which might be why discipline is such an important
This also allows us to still interpret chi as ‘will’ or as ‘vitality’. Which means a phrase like ‘Genki desu ka’ (meaning ‘is your energy rooted?’) can broadly be used to ask ‘how are you?’.
When your chi is strong, your will is strong, you are full of vitality and you are in complete control of your mind and body.
Sadly, there’s still no fireballs though…