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Friday, July 13, 2012

Might Isn't Right, But Strong Isn't Wrong

I'm going to start this post with two things every aikidoist already knows:

  1. The proper execution of an aikido technique generally does not require a great deal of strength on the part of the performer of the technique (nage).
  2. An aikido technique executed properly can overcome the resistance of a stronger opponent (uke).
These two things lead many aikido instructors to conclude, I think correctly, that a good aikidoist need not be exceptionally strong or muscular. But there are others who go further, asserting that strength training is somehow detrimental to aikido, reducing our flexibility and keeping us from grasping the essence of aikido's physics by allowing us to rely on our strength. This kind of thinking has always seemed a little counter-intuitive to me.

I was inspired to address this subject by a recent Martial Arts Planet thread started by an aikidoist who was considering adding other martial arts and activities to his athletic regimen. He worried that the building up of strength necessary for these other activities would make him "stiff" and make him "force [his] aikido to work". This reminded me of a time at my former club when one of my training partners, an avid weightlifter, was encouraged by an instructor to stop lifting for the sake of his aikido (I should note that this particular instructor did not speak for the entire club--some of the other instructors lift weights themselves).

I'm no expert on physical fitness or aikido, so readers should take what I think with a grain of salt, but this post would be incomplete if I didn't briefly address my own feelings on the subject before moving on. It is my blog, after all. 

I wrote once before that when I visit a club, I like to see at least a few students who I'm pretty sure could beat me up. Strength is definitely an ingredient in that recipe. What's more, I think a practitioner of any art or craft has a responsibility to take care of his tools. An aikidoist's primary tool is his body, so I think he ought to be making some effort to keep himself physically fit. Strength, of course, is an important element of physical fitness.

I can certainly understand the fear of reliance on strength in our technique, but it seems to me that this can be avoided by testing our skills against opponents stronger than ourselves (this is difficult, of course, for the strongest person in the dojo, but that problem would exist anyway--if everyone lifts or if no one does, there will always be a strongest person).

Now onto people who know what they're talking about. During the formative years of the internet, dancer and martial artist Bradford Appleton painstakingly researched and then wrote what was to be a comprehensive online guide to stretching and flexibility. The document is now an internet staple which can be found all over; I found it here on the website for MIT's taekwondo club.

Appleton's stance on the matter of strength versus flexibility is quite clear:
Strength training and flexibility training should go hand in hand. It is a common misconception that there must always be a trade-off between flexibility and strength. Obviously, if you neglect flexibility training altogether in order to train for strength then you are certainly sacrificing flexibility (and vice versa). However, performing exercises for both strength and flexibility need not sacrifice either one. As a matter of fact, flexibility training and strength training can actually enhance one another.
It would appear, then, that strength training, undertaken sensibly and responsibly, is no danger to our flexibility. But what about our fear that added strength will undermine our technique?

In answer to that concern, I direct you to aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba:

O Sensei had some real guns, even in his later years. This is not a picture, I think, of a man who considers strength an irrelevancy, let alone an obstacle to his training.

Based on all the above, I humbly submit that aikidoists who wish to build up their strength should do so with a clear conscience. It is certainly true that aikido is ultimately a search for something greater than strength, but it appears, at least, that strength training will do our skills no harm, and it's certainly good for us.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go do some push-ups.

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