The principles of body mechanics and their significance in grappling arts

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Certain movements come naturally to human beings, for instance, walking, running, sitting and lifting. Yet, a large proportion of the population complains about having various pains in their backs and joints. It is estimated that globally, about 577 million people experience low back pain at a certain point in life (IASP, 2021), resulting from those movements being performed improperly.

The science of effectively wearing the body to avoid fatigue and injuries during everyday activities, such as lifting someone or something heavy, moving around a space, standing, sitting or lying down (Lee, 2002; Karahan and Bayraktar, 2004) called body mechanics. It refers to a coordinated effort from the muscular and neurological systems to maintain posture and balance during the motions of our daily living and chosen sport activities.

Body mechanics in combat sports

Performing these seemingly simple movements with good coordination is especially important in high impact activities like combative arts as they involve direct confrontation and close physical intimacy, commonly a one-on-one conflict with an opponent. They present a huge risk of intense wear and tear on weight-bearing joints, which makes body mechanics a crucial aspect in not only carrying out techniques properly but also reducing the risk of serious, and more often than not, recurring injuries.

Injuries very commonly create muscle asymmetry that results from the prolonged immobility of the injured body part (Brukner, 2012). This asymmetry can create a snowball effect, leading to further injuries years after the recovery, if the muscle balance is not regained with conscious effort.

The need for refined body mechanics is highest for those performing grappling arts and weightlifting, since these activities place high stress on the spinal cord, the hips, and the knees while bearing weight, be it a free weight or an opponent’s body.

Body mechanics are a combination of posture, balance and motion, all of which influence how we coordinate a movement and how much stress we place on the body.

#1. Posture

The angles that various bodily components are held in while seated, standing, walking, lifting, lying down or performing an action is referred to as posture. Posture can help the body’s organs work correctly and build muscle strength, both of which can reduce fatigue during exercise.

Posture is the foundation of effective body mechanics and high performance in sport activities.

Two types of postures can be differentiated, dynamic and static. When the body is virtually immobile, such as when it is standing, lying down and sitting, a static posture occurs. When someone is walking, lifting or performing a movement, they are in a dynamic posture.

Static postures

Standing position

In the neutral standing position, the spine should be in its loose “S” position with no excessive forward or backward curvature. The guidelines to achieve this state are the followings:

  • The head is balanced above the sacrum (end of the spine at the buttock)
  • The feet are shoulder-width apart
  • The centre of gravity passes through the ankle joints equally on both sides so the body weight is distributed evenly between the two feet
  • The joint centres of the pelvis, ankles and knees are also equally spaced from the axis of gravity (Bond, 2007).
  • The heels are printed on the floor, the balls of the feet push into the floor
  • The knees are unlocked, which makes them feel slightly bent
  • The shoulder blades are pushed together, so the shoulders are lowered and the chest muscles are engaged
  • The belly is sucked in so that the transverse muscles (core) hold the torso in place, instead of relaying on the back
Neutral standing position – The principles of body mechanics and their significance in grappling arts

There is less pressure on the joints whenever the body is in a natural standing position, which means the soft tissue of the supporting system are under the least amount of stress (Karimi and Solomonidis, 2011).

Achieving and getting back to this posture regularly during the day is the single most important component of body mechanics for combat sports. This synchronicity between the body parts enables the fighter to maintain stability, launch a strong attack and navigate the fight efficiently. Without this, the fighter is unlikely to achieve the full potential of their body and get as far with their training as they wish to.

Our posture is the product of several years of adaptation to work and life circumstances. In case of incorrect postures, the current state is the result of years of adaptation, for example, collapsed shoulders commonly resulted from intense desktop work. The adaptations come with this posture include shortened chest muscles, tight and stiff back muscles and forward head.

It requires months of targeted stretch to adjust the relevant muscle groups and correct a poor posture. The person won’t be able to stand straight and perform a steady stance without that corrective training. For competitive fighters, it is highly recommended to seek professional advice for a personalised program if their posture is suspected to be misaligned.

Sitting position

In sitting positions, it is also essential to keep our spines neutral and also to minimise the pressure on the hips. In most cases, that requires the working environment to be adjusted to one’s particular body type due to standard furniture sizing being incorrect for most.

Sitting positions gain more significance in combat sports because sitting puts tension on the groin, noticeably shortening them over time and limiting leg movement.

Those fighters whose daily job requires hours of sitting, it is strongly recommended to do regular groin and hip stretch during the day to keep the lower body flexible. Sitting numbs the legs due to the immobility, while the edge of the seat often put pressure on the nerves. Doing regular ankle and knee circles or stretches can also help to keep the legs involved.

The following guidelines can help to keep the sitting position neutral:

  • Keep the knees at 90 degrees to avoid stretching the hip muscles. Considering the one-size-fit all furniture in most modern offices, you may need a leg rest beneath your legs (shorter person) or a pillow under your hips (taller person) to maintain this angle

  • For the upper body, keep the same posture as you would if you were standing, with the belly sucked in so that the transverse muscles take the pressure off the lumbar muscles, with the shoulder blades closed so the shoulders are drawn back and the chest muscles work in collaboration with the back muscles

  • If the chair is too deep and there is space between your back and the back of the chair, it is advised to fill that space with a pillow to avoid C-curve resting and fatigue of the lower back

  • Keep the head in a strait position by aligning your monitor’s height to the horizon. In a lot of cases that would require adding a monitor/laptop stand. The more the head is tilted forward, the bigger pressure it places on the neck. The usual laptop height tilts the head by around 30 degree, which adds an estimated 15-20kg weight on the neck. When we look down at our phones, the degree can reach 60 degrees which adds around 25-30kg pressure on the neck which can lead to acute headaches
Neutral sitting position – The principles of body mechanics and their significance in grappling arts

Sleeping position

Since we spend one third of our time asleep, it’s critical to understand how our bodies are arranged while we sleep. The objective is to keep our spines neutral, just as we do while we are conscious. Here are some guidelines:

  • Avoid of resting on your belly or with your head propped up on a high pillow. These positions arch the back and can strain the spine. For anyone with back or neck pain, lying on your side or back is ideal for preserving a neutral spine.

  • If you are sleeping on your side, place a pillow between your knees to neutralise the position of the pelvis and avoid tension on the hip muscles.

  • If you are sleeping on your back, place a pillow behind your knees to maintain the proper alignment of your spine and lessen any potential stress placed on the lumbar area of the spine (Hirshkowitz et al., 2015).

#2. Balance

A hypothetical place where the weight of the body is uniformly distributed is called the centre of gravity, referring to the fact that gravity pulls our body downwards through this point towards the centre of the earth. The capacity to control one’s steadiness when placing their centre of gravity is known as balance.

All sections of our body can transfer their masses using joint movement, allowing a human body’s centre of gravity to fluctuate based on what is required by any given motion. This is fundamental in the attack and defence strategies of combat sports. The place where the fighter’s mass is placed, is a signal to the opponent whether they are in-balance or off-balance, opening for strategic considerations.

To maintain balance, a response is required whenever the axis of gravity diverts from the base of support (Slocum and James, 1968). Keeping one’s balance is basically dynamically placing the centre of gravity back to the base of support after being moved out of it. This stands for both dynamic and static postures.

Sport activities require us to maintain dynamic balance, the ability to maintain body posture and alignment while the body components are moving (O’Sullivan et al., 2019).In addition, combat sports also require us to maintain that dynamic balance against or while bearing an opponent’s body weight, which involves resistance practice to gain proficiency at.

Dynamic postures

#3. Motion

Motion is a concerted effort of joint movement in a 3D space which creates a cohesive transfer of the whole body. The bones and muscles must operate in certain patterns for optimal performance. The body is said to function via cycles of movements involving the torso, the head, the arms and the legs. When executing a technique, you coordinate all of these components according to the movement framework of your chosen martial art.

Posture during movement is highly dependent on the type of movement being executed, since the body parts move in relation to a position. For instance, in combat sports, the common stance is either a launch or a certain level of squat, where the torso is moderately forward and one foot is placed slightly in front of the other to add more stability. When running, on the other hand, the torso is upright with the head aligned with the horizon.

The ideal posture for executing any given movement efficiently and safely is the first thing a fighter needs to learn during training. Mere observation of coaches is known to be less effective compared to being corrected by a trainer before or during executing the movement. This is partially because the learner can’t see their own posture from outside, and partially because they often need guidance on where they should distribute their weight.

Improving body mechanics requires non-resistance training, when the fighters have the opportunity to consciously follow their own movement in response to their opponent’s moves and observe the changes in their posture and balance. Pressure and speed are ideally added to the training once the mechanics are engrained and performed correctly. It has been proven that training activities that gradually increase pressure get the greatest outcomes.

Lifting weight

When it comes to lifting weights, a proper combination of lifting techniques, muscle coordination, and posture is critical in achieving success without injury. The base stand for lifting usually involves feet spread wide apart while one foot is slightly in front of the other to keep balance. In addition, squatting and using the legs to rise back up rather than using the back to lift an object reduces the risk of injury to the spinal cord and hip joints.

Weightlifting studies between skilled lifters and beginners concluded that the ability to lift a larger mass is associated with a steady torso position and a smaller hip extension motion during the second knee bend transition (Kipp et al., 2012).

Guidance for the squatting position:

  • The knees need to be behind the toes regardless of the depth of the squat, otherwise the joints will bear the weight instead of the muscles

  • The upper body needs to follow the rules of the neutral standing position with the belly sucked in, the shoulder blades closed together and the head aligned with the horizon to stay in the axis of the body

  • The ankles are straight to distribute the body weighs equally between the two feet and the ball of the feet and the heel. Avoid leaning inwards to the arch of the feet, otherwise the knees will collapse, putting pressure on the knee joints and ligaments
Squatting position for weightlifting – The principles of body mechanics and their significance in grappling arts

impact on performance

Studies have reported that successful athletes and those that display a high level of competitiveness in their practice have the best postural performance. High-level performers show excellence when it comes to maintaining balance. Even in dynamic conditions, such athletes tend to act quickly and efficiently to restore their balance and posture (Paillard, 2019).

A person’s ability to move effectively is influenced by their anatomical structure, muscular capabilities, physical limitations and psychological/cognitive capacity. When on the mission to improve one’s performance, the evaluation of the individual body features and postural components comes first, and the mental design follows. Whatever the outcome is, there are several strategies capable of improving human motion efficiency.

The behaviours that define the use of our body are among the most ingrained in a person’s psyche and as a result, altering posture an movement may be as challenging as giving up a bad habit. Even though everyone has been encouraged to “stand up straight” since they were little, children are exposed to bad posture at a young age by being forced to sit cross-legged on the floor and in one-size-fits-all seats at school (Wanless, 2017).

One way of strategizing improvement is by using a targeted postural corrective training program, together with sport-related exercises. For runners, for example, the postural training combined with Fartlek (alternating periods of faster and slower running), ensures that the athlete not only enhances muscle tone but also improves joint mobility and coordination, heightening their performance. (D’Isanto et al., 2019). In combat sports, similar improvement can be reached by combining postural corrective training program with specific drills.

One of the avenues that athletes can explore to improve their body mechanics and consequent performance is to look for sports physiotherapists. These are professionals that are well trained movement experts and primarily work with athletes. One of the advantages of a sports physiotherapist that they can examine the current status of an athlete and identify gaps, tailoring specific body mechanics training to meet the unique needs of an individual.


References

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Kipp, K., Redden, J., Sabick, M. B., & Harris, C. (2012). Weightlifting Performance Is Related to Kinematic and Kinetic Patterns of the Hip and Knee Joints. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(7), 1838–1844. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e318239c1d2

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About the author

J. Amor

A writer who has a strong passion for martial arts and human mind-body-spirit optimization, with a decade-long mixed training history.