Internal power is one of the most mystical aspects of the martial arts. Masters of the principle can demonstrate feats that seem impossible to most. O-Sensei’s ability to stand his ground when being pushed by numerous larger opponents or Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch have captivated the imagination of martial artists for decades.
Matsuoka Sensei has placed tremendous focus in this area over the last decade and has collaborated and shared his body structure and movement principles with some of the world’s living legends in the martial arts world.
Although the topic is far too deep to cover in a single blog post, we hope you’ll enjoy this short primer highlighting our perspective on internal power.
There is no magic. At least we’ve not discovered any at our level of understanding. Matsuoka Sensei believes that there’s nothing necessary outside of one’s mind and body to generate exceptional power. We seek to understand and teach internal power through the lens of biomechanics, physics, and neuroscience. We always seek answers based on an understanding of the physical world. This approach has yet to fail us. We continue to improve our movement quality and have developed effective and understandable instructional techniques that we use to transmit these concepts to students successfully and consistently.
Power Projection: Over the last few years, Matsuoka Sensei’s techniques, atemi, and deflections have become incredibly powerful. At times they seem unstoppable. He does this by leveraging his skeleton to best align behind his movement and by recruiting an entire network of muscles (not just a localized muscle) to generate force. He’ll also engage his muscles in a specific state so he can directly apply his entire body weight to a point of contact. Development of this kind of power projection allows for devastating strikes and throws and makes kuzushi (balance breaking) something that can be done with increased ease and subtlety.
Moving through Resistance: Those with an internalized ability to command their body structure at a high level can move through resistance with ease. In addition to being able to project overwhelming power into a point of resistance, one can move in way that makes resistance / movement countering through physical strength irrelevant.
I’ve primarily experienced this when a master moves without sending a “signal.” Our bodies can react to visual stimuli in about 250 milliseconds and tactile stimuli in about 170 ms. A skilled movement master can keep constant pressure through a point of contact and initiate movement via a non-localized muscle group. For example, if I grab Matsuoka Sensei by the arm, he can make no changes to the point of contact, and instead initiate movement from his hips or legs. By the time I detect the movement and attempt to resist, he’s already one step ahead and making continuous adjustments as I try to catch up. My responses are only delayed by a fraction of a second, but as long as he stays ahead of me by that 170ms, it renders my resistance completely useless.
Injury Reduction: Building the body awareness and control necessary to generate internal power allows one to move in a way that minimizes injury risk. Moving outside of your range of motion or falling in a way that creates instability or unnecessary impact to the body happens with less frequency.
Universal Application: One of the great benefits of internal power generation is its near universal applicability. I once attended a seminar in Japan led by Yoshinori Kono Sensei, a movement master and martial arts researcher. Matsuoka Sensei and I were the only aikidoka at the event. Attendees included professional baseball and soccer players, swordsmen, a dancer, a mime, and a nurse seeking techniques to move heavy elderly patients. Everyone in attendance learned a way to apply power generation techniques to their craft.
There’s no secret formula for developing internal power, but here are a few key elements we believe are required to build competency.
Body Awareness: One must understand their body at a very deep level. The ability to engage / disengage muscle groups and segments of the body selectively are critical skills. Understanding your body’s precise position in space and skeletal alignment are also essential. Having the tactile sense to measure contact pressure is another necessary component.
Much of this can be built through independent practice. Matsuoka Sensei’s warm-ups are designed to cultivate these attributes. Slow, mindful, and purposeful movements with empty hands or a training tool (like a sword) aid development. Cross-training in a discipline like yoga is also incredibly beneficial.
Personal Mentorship: There are many elements of internal power generation that can be transmitted through verbal instruction, visual observation, and cognitive understanding of biomechanical and physics-based concepts. However, there are elements that we’ve not yet been able to transmit through any of these methods. Some facets of internal power generation transcend language and visual observation and must be felt and experienced. From our vantage point, one-on-one training with a mentor skilled in this area is essential for development.
Testing through Paired Training: Building body awareness and control in isolation and having mentor-guided development provides one with a foundation of movement principles. With those in place, one must test and apply internal power movement principles with as many training partners as possible. Trial and error with different body types is a frustrating but rewarding way to increase the consistency and flexibility of these powerful movement principles.
Internal power is built through movement quality and awareness. It’s an invaluable attribute for any martial artist or movement specialist. Though invaluable, its development, at least in the art of aikido, can also be a disruption to one’s growth in the early stages of learning.
At Ikazuchi Dojo, we found that beginning students who place too much emphasis on body structure and internal power generation had stunted development. With some exceptions, a new martial artist simply has not yet build the body awareness to embody the principles (even if conceptually understood) and even if they somehow can develop some level of internal power, they don’t know how, when, or where to apply it, because they’ve neglected the technical foundations of the art in pursuit of a high-level movement attribute.
We recommend beginning students gain exposure to these concepts and start building quality movement from the beginning. However, we also recommend they weight their training to focus primarily on learning techniques and understanding form, timing, and distance concepts. As students gain technical knowledge, we encourage them to weight more of their practice gradually towards a focus on movement quality.
At the highest levels, with techniques and movement skills internalized, some practitioners may choose to devote the majority of their practice to internal power principles. Matsuoka Sensei explores these concepts and shares his experience with legendary masters such as Kenji Yamaki Sensei (former kyokushin karate world champion) and Guro Dan Inosanto. At their levels, having already mastered their core library of movements and techniques, they’re able to use internal power principles to transcend limits and obstacles that could not be overcome through technique repetition or strength building.
There are many martial artists and movement specialists in other areas doing extensive research and training in this area. We’d love to hear others’ thoughts and experiences related to development and understanding of internal power.