6 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Force It in Martial Arts Training

In Jiu-jitsu, as in many martial arts, the goal is to develop great technique so as to use one’s energy with the greatest level of efficiency for maximum effect. Jiu-jitsu literally translates to mean “the art of pliancy or flexibility.” When students get stuck on a technique though, sometimes they will try to use power to force it to work. This not a good approach if your goal is to become a better martial artist. Water is often used as analogy of how we should train in the martial arts. It finds the path of least resistance and flows around its obstacles. Bruce Lee himself said: “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it.”

There are a variety of practical reasons for not trying to force your way through martial arts techniques. Here are 6 examples from my own experience:

1. It can lead to your partner’s injury. Sometimes a joint lock isn’t working because you don’t have the right position. If you use force to “make it work” and then suddenly you slip into the correct position, then all that force goes into the joint before your unfortunate partner has time to tap out of it.

2. It can lead to your own injury. Sometimes a particular technique may not be appropriate for you. It’s due to your physical conditioning or maybe your size relative to your training partner. If you can’t do a particular kick due to lack of flexibility, for example, and you use force to try and “get it” you could strain your muscles. A better approach is to get your instructor to help you with it. They will likely give you a modified version of the kick to work on while you continue to work on your flexibility. Or say you’re doing a ground sweep or a throw that isn’t working for you because the person is so much bigger. If you try to force it, you could strain a joint or muscle. Ask for instructor feedback. They may be able to help you improve your technique to make it work more effortlessly, or they might give you a different technique that’s more practical for your particular situation.

3. You’ll conserve more energy. When you’re doing a belt test or a competition, energy is at a premium. If you’re use to using power to make things work, you may find yourself running out of steam, unable to give  an ideal performance. If you rid yourself of the habit of using force to make things work, you’ll find yourself able to hold up over longer periods of time.

4. You’ll improve your martial arts skills. There are so many wonderful details expressed in the martial arts that make it seem magical. Balance breaking, body mechanics, distance, timing, targeting, re-direction of energy, etc, all contribute to your effective technique. But when you use force to try and make something work when you’re having trouble, all you do is train muscle strength. You don’t tap into all the subtleties that make the martial arts great.

5. You’ll improve your body awareness. Training in a martial art isn’t just about getting a good workout. When we train, the use of body mechanics is emphasized, which over the long term, gives us a better understanding of how the body moves. The efficiency that we learn through training often transfers over into other realms of life, whether it’s tennis, snowboarding, hockey, or even just random chores around the house. When you use focus more on force than on technique to punch, kick, throw, do joint manipulations, etc, you are missing out on what makes the martial arts so great.

6. You’ll maintain your sanity. There are few things that make you feel more helpless than “giving it your all” with a burst of power on a technique then have it not work. Some students become demoralized and give into self-doubt, thinking “Maybe this martial arts stuff just isn’t for me.” Don’t set yourself up for this fall by using an all-out strength approach to get things to work. Learn the technique that is required to do it properly. This principle is true in personal relationships too. Some things can’t be forced and you just have to find a better way to make things work.

There are lots of good reasons for not using force to make martial arts techniques work when training. That is not to say there isn’t a time and a place for using power though. In a self-defense or a competitive context, you may need to use a burst of power to capitalize on an opportunity that allows you to escape or win the bout. You may also want to train with controlled power combined with good technique so you are comfortable using your strength when needed. In general though, technique should receive greater emphasis than power when training.

Do you have any other reasons for not trying to force things when doing martial arts training? Please feel free to share in the comments. 🙂

Comments (7)

7 thoughts on “6 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Force It in Martial Arts Training

  1. Fantastic article, thanks for the reminder. I felt points 1 & 3 are particularly relevant to my own training experience – both giving and receiving!

    I think a further point could be made on the virtues of informing your training partner when you begin to feel brute force taking over technique. Sometimes it takes a bit of courage to say, hey, that’s starting to hurt now, can we take it down a few notches? I would say it happens most often when you’re mutually exhausted, so taking it down a few notches also doubles as a welcomed opportunity to recover. Ultimately you put yourself and your partner in a good position to benefit most from the session!

    1. Thanks Nao! I’m glad you found it useful. I agree that it’s important to keep overzealous ukes in check. People should not be afraid to take charge of their training like that for their own safety.

  2. Lori, your fourth example is my favourite. I think you describe it really well when you use words like magical and subleties. In some ways it feels like understanding those underlying principles can be elusive as well. Even when you start to get an appreciation you still need to really work at incorporating them into your own art.

  3. I would add that eventually you’ll run across someone big enough that you can’t force it to make it work. I am particularly aware of this because of recent experience with the left-sided hip throw!

  4. Obviously all your points are valid and worth repeating often, especially to beginning students. The main thing I always stress while teaching is safety: if you hit with power (unless training with pads) or put force into your locks or try to muscle your partner to the ground in a throw sooner or later someone’s going to get hurt: this happened to me a few times (one time through my own stubborness) and I’ll be damned if I’ll allow it to happen to a student on my watch.

    Martial arts were created to make the maximum use of one’s body and strength and to substitute brute force with technique so as to be as efficient as possible and to reduce he impact of differences in weight, strength and seize as much as possible. With proper instruction it’s perfectly possible for a small individual to hit harder than an untrained big guy and this is due to practice and fine-tuned technique. This doesn’t mean that technique is everything (strength, endurance and mental training play a part too) but it is the foundation, at least in my view. Once students master a technique they can begin to put it into practice in various ways and situations but if the foundation isn’t there the whole building will collapse. If strength were more important than technique it would be better to do strength training/body-building instead of spending time at the dojo but there’s a definite limit as to how much muscle you can gain and while it’s beneficial for a martial artist to train with weights or with the weight of his own body it’s not what’s going to save you in a fight, especially if the guy you’re fighting is bigger than you.

    About point 3: this is of supreme importance in groundfighting/rolling. Last training session we were to roll for 2x 2 minutes as a warm-up: the guy I rolled with (a white belt) constantly tried to use force to escape or dominate but after one minute he was completely worn out and I’m not even particularly good at groundfighting. In self-defense obviously you’re not going to be rolling around for minutes on end but it’s so easy to lose your strength and stamina if you just go at it like a mad man, without any plan or technique.

    With locking techniques sensitivity is vital and a good lock should be effortless yet produce great pain or a break if desired(in actual application): if you have to use force to make it work you’re not doing it right and it might very well be a danger to your partner since it’s quite easy to slip and once it’s put on properly even a small amount of force can cause a break or dislocation. Martial arts training is serious business and everyone should keep this in mind and be careful and considerate with their partner.

    As to the subject of strength: strength comes from speed and proper technique (making maximum use of one’s body) but this takes practice and patience. When a lower belt watches a higher belt they should realise their power didn’t just come about overnight but is the result of long(er) periods of training. If they put it in the same effort they can achieve the same thing. It’s natural when things don’t just happen for you or you experience trouble with a technique: just ask your teacher to correct you and keep at it: sooner or later you will achieve your goal. Everyone has potential, you just have to work at it.

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