Interesting to know that it’s not your muscles that determine how quickly and strong you can hit, but the quality of your nervous system.
Research has shown that the first sign of a rapid movement may actually be a decrease in muscle activity rather than an increase. This little-known phenomenon is called the “pre-movement silent period,” and it can enable you to strike faster and stronger.
One of the qualities of expert martial artists is the ability to throw a punch or kick without warning. From a ready position, they explode into motion. The attack is so sudden and smooth that it seems to materialize out of thin air.
When novices attack, it’s a different story. Their motion can be seen a mile away — mainly because they perform a large counter-movement, or windup, before the technique.
The purpose of this counter-movement is to allow the primary muscles to start activating well before the attack actually begins. When the forward motion is initiated, the muscles are already in a high state of excitation, producing a powerful attack.
The counter-movement is a natural mechanism designed to produce a quick and forceful action. However, that’s a disadvantage in the martial arts because it telegraphs the movement. It takes a fair amount of practice to be able to launch an attack with only forward motion, and it’s even harder to make the same attack a powerful one.
Fortunately, the human body is a remarkable machine that’s capable of adapting to virtually any conditions that are imposed on it. When you attack without the benefit of a counter-movement, you can compensate by using the pre-movement silent period.
To better understand the pre-movement silent period, it’s useful to examine a punch in a typical sparring session and determine what your muscles are doing. When you face your opponent in a ready stance, your muscles are in a state of mild contraction to fight the effects of gravity. A balance is struck: Too much tension will fatigue you and slow you down, and too little tension will allow your arms to drop.
So there you are with your hands up and ready to attack or defend at a moment’s notice. As you begin, you notice that your opponent has inadvertently let his guard drop. Never one to miss an opportunity, you decide that you’ll punch as hard and as fast as you can. Your brain sends the signal down your spinal cord, through your motor neurons and finally to your individual muscle fibers. However, what happens next may not be what you’d expect.
During the switch from posture to rapid motion, your muscles can actually turn off or stop contracting. The “silence” lasts for only about a tenth of a second, but it causes your muscle fibers to contract all at once, rather than in a graduated fashion. This synchronization is important because it produces a large initial muscle twitch, which facilitates the rapid production of force. The end effect is your fist being catapulted toward the target with great force — and without having been telegraphed.
By Christopher Hasson – a martial artist and a biomechanics researcher in the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.