Types of movement - The science behind the art

Science behind martial arts movements
This article brings a brief look at the different ways we are able to move in relation to martial arts.

A conversation recently got me to thinking about the different categories of movement and how we should understand them all. At least it got me to thinking that if I was going to expand on how to make it easier for people to learn martial arts we should start by understanding the different categories of movement. The rest will follow on from there.

Basically there are three types of movement. Movements that we choose to make, movements that happen regardless of our choice, and movements that fall somewhere in between the two. We’ll look at them one at a time and hopefully I’ll manage to explain why it is that understanding them makes us better at what we do.

Category 1 – Conscious Movement

This is the one we are all familiar with.  We decide what we want to happen and we (to quote Captain Jean-Luc Picard) make it so.  Opening a door, switching on a light, the list is endless.  These movements have a tendency to be relatively simple as keeping conscious track of complex movements is not easy. If you have ever watched a baby grow up and learn to move you could argue that even these simple actions are combinations of other internalised actions.  Moving our hand to pick up a cup uses more muscles than I can bear to count.

Category 2 – Unconscious Movement

This is where things start to get interesting.  Humans, like many other animals, have a fascinating and complex neural structure.  Our sensory nerves do not pass directly to our brain, but synapse at the Spinal Cord.  This leads to a very clever phenomenon; the Reflex Arc.  Basically what happens is thus.  A sensory nerve picks up a signal, this signal travels the length of the nerve and then hits the spinal cord where it is transmitted to the brain, we then experience the sensation.  However this is not all that happens.  When the nerve impulse hits the spinal cord it also triggers a motor nerve impulse.

We move before we know we need to move.

In evolutionary terms this gives us a massive advantage.  We automatically pull away from potentially harmful events without having to make a conscious decision that yes the event is potentially harmful and yes we should probably pull away.  As martial artists we should understand this phenomenon and how to manipulate it in others.

Tapping the tendon underneath your kneecap and watching your leg jerk upwards is a fine example of reflex action.

Category 3 – The Internalised Movement

If we repeat a movement enough our body remembers it.  At least that is how it seems.  In actual fact our cerebellum remembers it for us so the bit of our brain we live in doesn’t have to.  This allows us to perform increasingly complex movements.  Our body carries out the simple action automatically and we can then add a new layer of complexity to it.  Hopefully we then internalise that and so on…   We call these internalised actions Motor Pathways (though there are many other fine terms, muscle memory, physical intelligence are just two I have come across) and for convenience we divide them into Fine and Gross.  Fine Motor Pathways involve the small muscles of the hand (there are also graphomotor pathways but as these are all about writing we can safely ignore them) and enable us to play the piano, the violin, to type at a computer keyboard, to roll a cigarette whilst driving (That is a bad thing on so many levels I probably shouldn’t have written it).  Gross Motor Pathways enable us to do bigger tasks using our limbs and body.

Category three movements fall in between the first two categories because we can choose to initiate them, but the fine detail of the movement is automatic.  This is why I spent three months standing in a dojo punching the air whilst my Instructor corrected me.  I didn’t enjoy it, and now I wonder if it was worthwhile, but it gave me the ability to perform a near perfect Shotokan punch without any conscious thought and at the time that was my biggest goal in life.  However it should be stressed that these movements are not reflexes.  They are simply internalised actions.  We need to learn them so our cerebellum can remember them.  It is much like writing on stone with your finger.  Do it once and you won’t see anything.  Do it a million times in the same way and you wear a channel in the stone. The more you practice the simple actions the less you’ll have to think about them when you want to use them.  This is why every class I run has a brief spell of simply stepping forwards and backwards changing through different guards.  It is why every effective self protection system is based on a foundation of default actions.  It is worth bearing in mind that your brain is capable of internalising anything and everything you want, if you do it enough.  The limit is your body, and your motivation.

My next article will look at how we can utilise some of this knowledge in our Martial Arts training.

Do you like this article?


ashley's picture

Fantastic write up Martin. It's something that is drilled into us as martial artists time and time again, that if we continue to practice something enough times, it becomes second nature. In a real situation we do not have time to stop and think and consider what is the best way to defend a very sudden attack, I guess this is where 'category 3' really helps us in times when we need it.
clouddragon's picture

So true it is best to forget any kind of plan of action or strategy and simply allow a natural reaction to occur. You can surprise yourself with how much you have learned.
Martin Austwick's picture

Thanks for the kind comments, but more than that, thanks for the pictures! They make a massive difference. M
clouddragon's picture

Very interesting shall look forward with anticipation to the next article.
rlb27's picture

Thanks for such a great article! It is nice knowing the know how on things (the physiology & kinetics) instead of always just going through the movements and not understanding why!!
Chaleira's picture

Thank you for this excellent article! I enjoyed the read and look forward to the next~
SimonB's picture

Yes, this is one hell of an article, hope there is more to come of these Martin Austwick
Daniel's picture

Yes I agree I hope more to come Martin x
444four444's picture

Great article!
Varekai22's picture

great article! I enjoyed reading it.
Snowy's picture

Thanks. This is a nice post. To tell the truth now I'll understand why I need to do sometimes silly movements hundreds of times. I get motivated with the help of different movies and videos. I liked this article a lot. When I watch how the masters do everything I have a strong desire to be like them.
melyndapoppe's picture

I ve seen this as a documentary on Discovery.It's really awesome. It tell us about various sensitive body parts of our body & How a human can damage other human's body parts & which part of our body is lethal & how much force is been applied by a human to damage other human's body.
corneliuswheldon's picture

Martial art is very important for the defense. i think that schools should be take initiative to provide the training to the students because of that student can aware about that art in the school time.we have to aware many people to learn this art that keep us fit and fine and we can be able to make self defense.
pudsey79's picture

This has really helped me with my current post grad study, thanks alot for breaking it down and making it far more digestible!
Karate Kitty's picture

Great Article, very informative. Await future articles.
cris donovan's picture

thanks for getting right to the sinews of the matter, very informative