What is symmetry in the human body and how does it work?
There are three basic types of symmetry at work in the human body, “symmetry of movement” as well as “symmetry of postures” and ” symmetry of features” in this blog I want to explore movement. All human movement originates from our proprioception senses, Neuro-Muscular Programming (NMP) along with Fixed Action Patterns and startle reflex, all play their part and will be discussed in later blogs.
In most cases symmetry comes naturally without having to consciously think about it. It’s when we take it out of our subconscious thought process and apply it to conscious thought, that we are able to make extraordinary improvements in the way we move. It has a direct effect on speed, power, alignment principles and many more areas within the arts that we all practice.
An important aspect about adapting new or existing pathways of muscle movement, is to know why the human body moves in a particular manner. Understanding this movement is the first step towards more efficient and effective movement, once you have taken new improvements on board and adaptation has occurred, your Neuro-Musclar pathways will start to embed the specific movements. Working towards being able to assign them back to the domain from where they came from, your sub conscious. Here you will access them without conscious thought and your speed and power will increase substantially. For this process to work at it’s best we need to be able to really understand what is happening, why we do certain movements and what work’s and what does not.
For example the term “the body seeks symmetry”. Take an Olympic sprinter as an example and ignoring the mechanics that are needed to launch the body into the sprint from a standing start, lets look at the action of the sprint itself. Mentally picture the last time that you observed an athlete in full flight, what does their body mechanics teach us? Well the first thing that should strike you is how their upper body is helping to drive the legs. How when the right leg is powering forward the left arm is doing the same movement, it’s a reverse of what’s happening on the ground, when the left leg is finishing its stride behind them, the right arm is doing the same. Everything thing is working symmetrically and in harmony to power the body forward. All these mechanics are coming together sub consciously, if they were to have to think about each action they would soon lose their co-ordination, speed and power. Imagine if you were to tie the right arm of race winner to his side and then repeat the race, he would not be able to work at his optimum, his body would be out of sync, it would not be working symmetrically and it would soon become apparent that he is not capable of obtaining the same high level of performance, his movement would be un-natural. This type of symmetry is called “bilateral symmentry”.
Now lets take a martial application of a movement that is taught and see how an understanding of symmetry can improve your strikes or blocks. One action that we teach in Kenpo is a snapping Backfist along with something that we call the Slap check. The slap check has several applications but all I want to do here is cover its relationship to symmetry, speed and power as we execute a snapping Backfist.
Lets set up an experiment, remember that the process needs to be repeated accurately each time to get the full understanding and the feelings of what we are trying to achieve. Raise your right arm up to a horizontal plain, no higher than your shoulder, imagine a symmetrical box, which is formed from left shoulder to your right shoulder, out in front of your right shoulder across in front of you then back to your left shoulder, with your arm raised ensuring that you fist does not change its position from its natural alignment. Have the fist slightly out in front of the box, so that your arm has formed an obtuse angle. Have your left hand open and positioned facing forward at the same height as your left shoulder. Now with your right hand execute a back fist strike, as fast as you can striking a target that is in line with your right shoulder at the end of your reach with your arm, do not over extend or lean. Execute this with your left hand still, now once this has been done attempt to execute the same strike, but this time move your left hand to your right shoulder slowly. This movement is what we call a slap check; when the left hand touches the shoulder, ensure that the hand is high enough so that the fingers slightly overlap the shoulder. What you should find here is that it is almost impossible for you to carry out the prescribed movement in this way; you simply cannot move one fast and the other slow! Of course there is always the possibility that you could learn this type of behaviour over time, it’s not natural though. Now the last part of this experiment, execute both movements as fast as you can, in fact what can help here is not to think about the right hand think about the left moving as fast as it can from its starting position to your left shoulder and back to its original position, do the same thing with your right hand, moving it from its point of origin out to its target and back again to the original starting position. Thinking one move in front of another is called perception speed; you think your moves fast! Now you should have discovered that this type of Bilateral Symmetry has increased the speed of your technique significantly. If you are looking to execute a speed strike, it should be just that “Fast” it does not have to have any power principles to back it up, its effectiveness relies on speed, the quicker it moves the more velocity is generated and therefore more damage will be caused. The greater the Velocity the greater the damage!
The lesson here is that, without the body moving symmetrically you will not be able to move at the highest velocity you are capable of and in your most effective manner, especially when speed is your desired outcome.
When you are launching a weapon away from its platform at high-speed, the action that is required to stop your fist mentally is hard, damage can occur at this point, by applying the breaks to the move prematurely, that‘s why it needs a target to hit and dissipate its energy into, the hit is the trigger telling the brain to stop the strike and begin its returning motion. When you move both hands at the same speed the slap check hitting the shoulder is the corresponding trigger to stop the left hand, everything works symmetrically. One of the easiest movements to see symmetry in application, is the traditional reverse punch, as one hand is hitting the other is returning. If power is required the returning arm has to return with power that matches the power of the punching hand.
The key to understanding bilateral Symmetry, is to know how and what you are trying to achieve. It has to be practiced, by accurate repetition, so that eventually you can put back into your subconscious, when this happens it will become even faster, as you no longer have to rely on conscious thought, which in itself is slower than your sub conscious thought process.
You should also spend time to analyze other movements where symmetry may be present, you may well find that you discover movements that you originally thought were just isolated moves on one side of the body, remember that the same will also apply to kicks. The human body is a fascinating machine capable of highly efficient movement, we just forget how to harness this ability when teaching or moving in the Martial arts. Of course the opposite is also true, we have the ability as humans to learn to move in ways that are not always as efficient as they could be, let’s have a look at one of these learned behaviours.
Foot manoeuvres that allow us to cover ground either forwards or backwards, are often taught in a manner that requires us to keep one or both feet in contact with the ground, a dragging effect occurs. What I am focusing on here is the drag element of the manoeuvre. What the drag does is cause friction in some form, this friction is like an anchor being dropped while a boat is still moving, it has the effect of slowing the boat down. With the human body the drag not only slows us down it causes a misalignment of our leg and hip, we lose stability, this may seem an insignificant move but it is not natural, it is a learned move. If you had damaged the leg and were unable to lift it, you would have to drag it and this would be the only time that you would move it in such a manner. So why do we learn bad movement? The easy answer, is we are taught it and the people teaching it do not understand the detail that they are teaching.
The only way that we have a chance of moving at a high-speed is to ensure that we are moving as efficiently and naturally as possible, if our movement is anything else, then we run the risk of being too slow. Speed is not always the desired outcome, there may well be times when speed is redundant to power, this will ultimately depend upon the circumstances.