The Role of Your Center of Mass in Parkour and Martial Arts

By on July 21, 2015

Here’s an idea that almost everyone obsessed with their physical performance has at some point: why not wear ankle weights all the time? Then, when you take them off, you’ll be super fast and agile right?

piccolo-weighted-armor

Well, apart from the fact that most ankle weights are pretty uncomfortable and not actually that heavy… the other problem is that you would actually be making yourself less agile. How? By altering your center of gravity – or lowering it more specifically – and thus altering the way you approached jumps and other movements.

What is Your Center of Mass?

Your center of mass, AKA the center of gravity, is an important concept if you’re interested in parkour, athletics or hand balancing. This is the point at which an object can be balanced – or in other words, the point where there is equal weight on either side. Confusingly, your center of mass is not the middle of your torso though, because your head is heavier than your foot for instance. Actually, humans have quite a high center of gravity.

If you hope to be able to balance on one hand then, or vault over something with ease, you need to be able to find your own center of mass.

center of mass

Manipulating Your Center of Gravity

What’s interesting is that you can also manipulate your center of gravity and this will then allow you to pull off some quite impressive feats. For instance, this is why pumping your legs helps you to get higher on a swing – you change your center of gravity which speeds up your acceleration.

This is also what makes the Fosbury Flop such an effective technique for crossing over a high jump bar. Here the athlete approaches the bar with a curved trajectory so that they can lean to one side and thereby lower the center of gravity allowing for a longer period of thrust. Ultimately, the jumper ends up going over the bar backwards, arching themselves over the bar. What this effectively does is to allow the athlete to get over the bar, despite their center of mass actually being just below it. If you were to try and jump over it feet first on the other hand, you would have to launch your center of gravity considerably higher to clear the same height.

Once you leave the floor, you interestingly can’t change the motion of your center of mass but what you can do is to alter the position of the center of mass relative to the rest of your body. To do a back tuck, you want to compress your body as much as possible, which brings the center of gravity higher and allows you to rotate while hanging in the air.

Benefits of a High or Low Center of Gravity

Of course you also have a ‘natural’ center of gravity which makes certain movements harder or easier. According to some research, having a higher center of gravity may actually help us to sprint faster. This is one reason that many of the top sprinters are black – on average blacks have a 3% higher center of gravity (more here)! Why is this higher center of mass an advantage? Because when we run we are essentially ‘falling’ forward (if you’re doing it correctly). Having a higher center of gravity means greater altitude and more momentum. They have farther to fall and a larger wave to ride (not to mention they have longer legs…).

So in theory then, could wearing a slightly heavy helmet help you to sprint faster? And could building your shoulders and pecs up larger than your legs also help? Interesting to think as well how your shoes might affect this.

On the other hand though, if you want to be a strongman or a Judo champion, having a lower center of gravity will help you to stay more ‘grounded’ and make you more difficult to knock over. In this case then, does that mean building massive calves could help anchor you to the ground? For all round performance, you really would want your center of gravity to be as near the center as possible, which in turn means building your body evenly (boring!). For most people, the center of gravity should be about 10 centimeters below the navel, in martial arts this is coincidentally where the ‘Dan Tien’ is located (a made up thing that’s apparently full of energy).

Being Aware of Your Center of Gravity

So what use is all this practically?

Not tons to be honest – it’s just interesting.

But that said, being aware of your center of gravity is just generally useful and being mindful of it can help you with your balance, your stability and your athletic ability. Try pushing someone over lightly. Now tell them to focus on their center of gravity just below their navel and try pushing them over again – see how much more stable they are simply as a result of being mindful of that point! Then push them harder so they fall on their arse – you don’t want them getting too smug.

You can also try this yourself: keep mindful of your center of mass when sparring, when performing a tic-tac, cat leap or handstand – even when squatting a weight. This can also help you to keep your posture correct so that your body stays aligned throughout.

center of mass handstand

This is one of the reasons that training your balance is so important. Training balance doesn’t just improve your ability to not fall over – it also helps you to remain steady in martial arts, to more elegantly hurdle and vault obstacles and to run faster. What’s key is that you develop an awareness of your COM so that you can thereby improve your equilibrioception. Over time by being mindful you’ll train your central nervous system. Through lots of practice you should eventually be able to ‘sense’ your center of gravity at any given time and this can then allow you to more effectively ‘find your balance’ in a clinch.

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.