Optimal Body Integration Strength System (OBISS)
Introduction to OBISS
“People think core training is abdominal training” says San Diego–based trainer Paul Chek who’s worked with surfer Laird Hamilton snowboarder Shaun White and volleyball legend Gabrielle Reece. “In reality the core is the functional link between the arms and legs. If you don’t have the capacity to transfer force from your legs to your arms your performance in almost every sport fails.”
This publication documents the results of my studies in applied bio-mechanics. In it you will find a conceptual discussion of the bio-mechanics of the functional strength training that I have incorporated into my martial arts teaching, based on my researches, adapted from exercises in Balintawak Eskrima, and inspired by my examination of internal martial arts. This system, Optimized Body Integration Strength System (OBISS), may be used as a training aid for any martial art, or in truth, any physical activity.
Optimized Body Integration Strength System is a set of practices for developing certain motor skills to give a more deeply integrated connection from ground to hand. It uses the concepts of:
1 – deep core connection
2 – optimized load and tension distribution
3 – core strength
Practices include certain specialized exercises adapted from the Philippine art of Balintawak Eskrima and inspired by some foundational training available in the Chinese internal arts.
Body Integration Strength is a great asset for martial artists, but any person can develop these bio-mechanical patterns of movement for any type of physical work or play.
Optimal Body Integration Strength Drills
OBIS drills are done to develop form and good whole body integration using dynamic structural integrity, elasticity, connection, and other ideas. They may be done as part of limbering up and can be done with or without a weapon. They are mostly solo drills, but some can use a partner. Some of them are modifications of the silk reeling exercises of Grandmaster Feng’s Chen Taijiquan, and the positive and negative circles of Grandmaster Hong’s Taijiquan. All have been modified somewhat to work for Balintawak Eskrima.
Genesis of this approach
In the mid 1990s, I read an ad for classes in “silk reeling”. These were exercises described as the best way to increase your “internal strength”. Now, it was clear that this had something to do with the martial arts, and probably with Taijiquan (T’ai Chi Ch’uan) but the term “internal strength” didn’t ring a bell at the time. I’m sure that I had encountered it before, in my several decades of martial arts training, but it had not stuck. Still, I was looking for something along the lines of a Taijiquan class, and had already learned a little bit (incorrectly as later became apparent). I decided to investigate the “silk reeling” classes, to see what they had to offer. I thought that some cross-training might complement my skills in the Philippine art of Eskrima, which I was teaching.
The visit to the “silk reeling” classes started me on a journey of exploration on methods of training the body that have led me to understand human movement in a totally different way. This has led me to re-study works on physics, bio-mechanics, Tensegrity, myofascial trigger points, anatomy, functional strength, Pilates, yoga, bodywork, stretching, Tajiquan, Hsing Yi, and other topics. In the end it has brought me to a deeper understanding of what my Eskrima instructor had been doing extremely well, but intuitively, for the many years that I have trained with him.
Essentials of OBISS
In Optimized Body Integration Strength training, I have developed some body connection/integration drills inspired by my studies of various disciplines, including:
- an observation of what Dom Lopez does in Balintawak Eskrima but had never been able to explain, including his uncanny control techniques and his ‘swimming’ exercises;
- Chen Taijiquan static and dynamic foundational exercise – since I am not qualified to teach these, they only serve as my inspiration for what is possible;
- Hsing Yi exercises – again, since I am not qualified to teach these, they only serve as my inspiration;
- bio-mechanics, most specifically the bio-mechanics of pitching and batting; and,
- physics in general, using the explanatory framework of basic Newtonian mechanics.
With my approach, I have a bio-mechanical model that I believe to be both correct and testable. I have exercises that help develop OBIS.
- Extreme relaxation is a necessary component.
- Another is correct form, including a good base, and proper alignment of the shoulder girdle, spine and hips – a modified Balintawak “slump”.
- Another is good old fashioned resistance training.
- Another is lots and lots of practice with specific exercises, to retrain the body. Unless you are willing to put in the time with the exercises, you won’t progress very far.
- A training form, that I call Kawayan (bamboo)
- Work with a light short stick
- The last necessary component is probably the practice of trying to make your everyday body motions conform to the OBIS discipline, to really make it your natural way of moving.
Optimal Body Integration strength is a great asset for martial artists, but any person can develop these bio-mechanical patterns of movement for any type of physical work or play.
On The Varieties of Form
In this section, I discuss two perspectives on form, and the implications of this for training using my Optimal Body Integration Strength approach, and how it relates to my personal art, Kawayan .
I want to consider form from two perspectives:
1 – The effect on the target
2 – The bio-mechanics used to generate the force.
The effect on the target
This is view of the interface, the effect of the technique. From this perspective, the tactical, we are concerned only with the size, direction and placement of the forces, over time.
Assuming that there is some workable technique that can be described in the language of physics, there are three levels that I want to consider:
1 – basic form: you can apply the appropriate physical forces at the right time and the right places and directions, when the attacker is predictable and uses a stereotypical motion
2 – ability to accommodate some variation: you can still make the technique work when the attacker varies some of the parameters such as the timing or the direction of the attack.
3 – ability to adapt to counters: you can either make the technique work or switch to a more appropriate one, on the fly, when the attacker attempts to counter your original defence.
Note that from this perspective, it is irrelevant how the forces are generated. As long as the placement, magnitude, and direction are correct, at all times throughout the motion, the technique is fine. The forces could come from someone with great bio-mechanics, or someone with a powerful body and less refined coordination. The forces could just as easily be delivered by an octopus or an android, and this analysis would still hold.
The bio-mechanics used to generate the force
This is a view of the body in motion, what we usually mean by form. It supports the first, the tactical, perspective, but there are many possible ways of moving that all support the first perspective for any particular technique. Some bio-mechanical approaches may work better than others.
Assuming that you have stabilized on a good form, there are three levels that I want to consider:
1 – Basic motion: you move more or less in the correct fashion, with the correct motion of the limbs and torso. There are no gross flaws.
2 – Refined alignment: the joint angles are all correct, in subtle ways, for instance, the shoulder blades are flattened, the hips are turned to generate power, and so on.
3 – Optimized muscle tension: at each point in time, the usage of muscle tension is optimized. Each muscle is tensed and relaxed to the appropriate degree at each moment in time. There is no excess use of energy, and no inappropriate tension. All muscles that should be used, are used. Any muscle that should not be used, is not used. This is the most refined level of skill.
The goal of OBIS training is to provide a meta-level of skill for helping to develop this sort of optimized motion. Certain exercises teach the body to move in a generalized well-integrated fashion. Then further exercises on the tactical forms must be done to specialize the motions. After the basic motions are sound, you must make sure that the joint alignments are correct at all times, and work on refining away unnecessary muscle tension. At some point in the training, you must apply the form to a partner who presents increasingly more difficult situations. For the most refined form, you must be able to accommodate an actively countering partner (or an opponent), while keeping as close as possible to optimized body integration. Getting to the highest levels in this enterprise is a multi-year study, but getting to a good level of skill should take much less time, given proper instruction, and dedicated practice.
The OBIS system develops power through the following approaches:
- Static held postures, using correct alignment and tension balancing throughout the body. The static postures are derived from fundamental Balintawak Eskrima forms. They were inspired by the “held postures” of Taijiquan.
- Dynamic abstract repetitive exercises for stick and empty hand, emphasizing smooth power delivery at all phases of the motion, correct alignment, and correctly balanced tension. The repetitive exercises are designed to develop both ballistic, high kinetic energy motions, and external load bearing motions.
- Resistance training, using cables, poles, weights, and other sources of resistance
- Practice of my personal form, the Kawayan form, with attention to proper OBIS motion.
- Everyday integration practice, so that well integrated motions are used at all times, e.g., opening doors, lifting objects, pushing shopping carts, working on manual jobs of all sorts.
The methods of the OBIS system are combined with the tactical aspects of Dom Lopez’s Balintawak Eskrima system, to create my personal system, Kawayan .
Two Models of Motion
I have found it useful to divide motion into two types, ballistic and external load supporting. The characteristic of the former is typically that you are throwing something, normally something reasonably light, and looking for high velocity. The characteristic of the latter is that you are trying to exert force, a push or a pull, on a resistant object. There are somewhat different bio-mechanics required to deal with the differing situations.
In order to pick up velocity, you need to have a relaxed body. The recruitment of the body must allow for an increase in speed at each stage of the motion. One of the key factors in this is the ability to tune the body’s elasticity, so that the body can flex and extend with the right stiffness at each joint. There must be a small time lag across the phases of the motion to allow for elasticity to come into play. The goal is to maximize speed in a particular direction, and also maximize kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is proportional to the square of the velocity, so anything you can do to up that speed pays nice dividends.
Load Bearing Motion
If you are in contact with a large and resistant mass, you need to exert force. This is true regardless of whether you arrived there at high velocity or not. The force requires good body dynamics, but also the requirement for elasticity changes. In this situation, you need to take advantage of the cumulative power of the body, and accentuate it with the ground reaction force and with the force of gravity.
Structural integrity allows us to seem to be stronger than we might otherwise be, based on our muscular development. It consists of at least these components.
1 – Exploitation of the ground reaction force.
2 – Optimal alignment of the joints and leverage
3 – Optimal and balanced use of the muscles
4 – Relaxation
5 – Extension and stretch
6 – Full-body spiral motion
7 – Appropriate base and the ground reaction force
Ground Reaction Force
To say that we exploit the ground reaction force is to say that we push against the ground, and use our structural integrity to bear loads from the ground up, in a very optimized fashion. The ground reaction force is only a specific case of on of Newton’s laws of motion. We use structural integrity to make it seem to our opponent’s that we are stronger than we really are. The force comes from a push against the ground.
When shifting a load, e.g., your opponent, it is important to properly exploit leverage. Essentials of this include:
- positioning yourself, your base, in the correct position with respect to the load.
- correct choice of a fulcrum (pivot point)
- correct choice of lever arm
- correct choice of position of load on the lever arm
- stabilization of the fulcrum, so that it does not give
Each situation is different, but some of the methods of doing this in OBIS are counter-intuitive at first. Once you have done the motion until it is internalized, you see that correct leverage is much more effective for delivery of power.
This really needs to be shown personally, on a technique by technique basis. After a while, you will be able to see the commonalities. Most of my deeper understanding on this comes from Chen Style Practical Method Taijiquan, which has turned it into a science. I have only scratched the surface in terms of understanding, but it still has increased my martial ability considerably.
Optimal Alignment and Function of the Joints
Each joint has its own role to play in facilitating the motion. A joint rotates, but the angle of rotation determines not only where you can move to, but also the degree of mechanical advantage you have when bearing a load or delivering force. A brief discussion of the major joints and collections of associated joints follows here.
Cervical Spine and Head
The cervical spine, the neck, is brought above the thoracic spine, and the chin is very lightly tucked down.
The shoulders are dropped low, relaxed, and very slightly rounded forwards.
The elbow hinge joints are free to move as the motions requires. There is another joint at the elbow which allows the forearm to twist, and this is involved in nearly all motions.
The wrists are generally kept strait during the exercises, but there are certain motions where they make flex or even hyper-extend.
The fingers are usually kept stretched out, and slightly splayed during the exercises.
Thoracic Spine and Sternum
The thoracic spine (upper back) and the sternum (breastbone) are held upright somewhat, in good posture.
Lumbar Spine Alignment and Lordosis
The lumbar spine or the lower back is flattened somewhat by the bending of the knees and the neutral tilt of the pelvis.
Sacral Spine (Tailbone)
The sacral spine, the sacrum or the tailbone is essentially locked to the hips, so its alignment is that of the hips.
The hips or pelvis are in a neutral pelvic tilt from front to back, but tilt laterally to the side of the leg bearing the greatest weight.
The knees move with ankles and hip joints. If you go low in your stance, take a long stance to protect the knees. The knees are designed to move in one direction, so use good alignment to minimize lateral forces and help prevent knee damage. Do not put a lot of weight on the knees while they are at a sharp angle.
The ankles move with the knee and hip joints.
In these exercises, do not use the raised heel. Most of the exercises have both feet flat on the floor. The weight distribution will change.
Flattening the Shoulder for Stabilization
There is a way of getting a better bio-mechanical linkage between arm and torso that involves changing the alignment of the shoulder blade, and changing the tensioning of the shoulder girdle. Although in this piece, I will concentrate on the shoulder girdle, keep in mind that the body should be an integrated unit, and under the principle of tensegrity, forces in one area can have quite remote effects, and tensions in one area can also have quite remote effects.
In order to get my Eskrima students to flatten the shoulder blades, I have tried various approaches to explanation One of these is to have them stand in a relaxed, slightly slumped posture, feet somewhat widely separated, and tell them to imagine that they are picking up a barrel, that is about as high as they are. In order to do this, they must embrace it around the middle, about the height of their elbows. I ask them to hold this, keeping the body fairly upright, but the knees flexed forwards. As they hold this posture, I tell them to relax to their utmost. This gets them started on the proper alignment. It is not enough, and I use a number of different approaches to try make my students understand my points.
Extension and Stretch
Stretching, a commonplace activity, seems a little mysterious when you look at it. It is like you are pushing out, but yet not moving. What this indicates to me is that you are pairing the contraction of the extensor muscle, those that make us push out, with the flexor muscles, those than make us pull in (to oversimplify a lot). In any case, pretty well every knows how to do it. Animals do it. It seems very basic. We can exploit it. By putting the body into a stretch, we can improve the structural integrity.
This use of the stretch to bear a load and transmit forces is found in various arts. Aikido calls it “extending the ki” for instance. In our school, we do it, but have not inherited terminology for it. It was not originally recognized. It’s absence was noticed with “It doesn’t feel right, it is spongy, try it again.”. I sometimes refer to it now as stretch, sometimes as extension, sometimes as structural integrity. Whatever it is called, being able to move with this structural integrity makes many, if not all, techniques work more effectively.
The OBIS system emphasises spiral motion extending through the whole length of the body. This type of motion is a natural outgrowth of a weapons art, since swinging back and forth with a blade or stick requires a twisting from a palm-up to a palm-down motion, and lateral motions require a twisting of the hips. Note that many human motions, from swinging on the monkey bars to throwing a ball involve a spiral component, and we seem to be physically architected to allow that type of motion to be done well. The spiral has a slight time lag, as the twist at the legs and hips may proceed the final blow from the hand or weapon. The whole process allows transmission of rotational momentum up the body.
Optimization and Relaxation
Optimization of motions is governed by the nervous system. Not only must the form be correct, the angles of the joints correct at all times, but the usage of the muscles must be optimal. This means that there needs to be the appropriate degree of tension. In fact, there will always be tension, if you don’t want to collapse in a heap, but it needs to be minimized. The use of the muscles is optimized, and to do this, you need to train the brain, the nervous system. There is actually growth in the brain after a period of time, as neuronal connections are grown, and unneeded connections are pruned away.
Gravity: Potential and Kinetic Energy
When we lift our body up higher, we add potential energy to it. When we drop our body, we convert that potential energy to kinetic energy. Almost all of our moves are powered by this body drop. The OBISS exercise all exploit this principle of physics.
The Human Motors
When discussing how we generate power, I like to simplify the discussion and talk about three motors of the body. This of course is anatomically incorrect, but works for purposes of explanation. These motor areas are: the legs and the hips, the lower torso, the upper torso, arms and neck.
The Legs and Hips
All lateral motions are driven by the hips. The lateral motion at the shoulder joint is minimized, and contributes little to the result. Not only is the hip motion lateral, but there is a lateral tilt of the hips accompanying all of the hip twisting, so that the leg bearing the primary load, and the primary ground reaction force has a tighter coupling of leg to hip. This lateral hip motion can be done by twisting the feet. However, for more advanced practice, we keep the feet in place, and use the joints of ankle, knee and hips to develop the twist and the hip tilt. The knees go up and down, the ankles flex and extend, and the hip joints rotate in various directions. The twist never takes the upper torso past the base formed by the feet, and the hips are always kept under the load imposed by the torso, head and arms.
The Lower Torso
The primary motions of the lower torso is spinal flexion and spinal extension. This is supported by the core musculature. The body compresses and the spine flexes, and the body expands as the spine extends. This is supported by breathing as well. The core ties in the shoulder girdle to the hips, so that power may be transmitted efficiently from the legs.
The Upper Torso
The upper torso and the arms are the third motor. They certainly do add to the output, but do not have the potential for power that the legs and core have. Good stand-up fighting coaches all know that power comes from strong legs. It should be noted that the positioning of the head and neck can fine tune this as well. Think about how many muscles and tendons in the region of the shoulders extended up to the neck. Fascia from the back of the body come up from the back of the head and extend to the eyebrow region.
Developing the Body
There is no question that you need a strong body, and that means resistance training plays a role. The muscle tissue, the fascial tissue, and the circulatory tissue all need to be improved. The OBIS system includes a number of exercises that do build muscle, but in general, a routine of resistance training, perhaps with free weights, will really help. There is a vast amount of information on this aspect of physical training. Although much of it is contradictory, all mainstream approaches will bring benefits. You should keep in mind that a certain degree of strength is developed because of changes in the nervous system. The strength increase in resistance training is not all due to growth of the muscle tissue. In fact, there are some studies showing that visualization of exercise alone will result in strength improvement.