Considerable research has investigated the effect of two exercise types on local bone mineral density (BMD) and total bone mineral content (BMC). This has been examined in professional and student athletes such as gymnasts, runners and swimmers as well as basketball, volleyball and soccer players. Medical studies have focused on the elderly, prepubescent children and postmenopausal women — the latter in terms of osteopenia and osteoporosis prevention and treatment.
Though no work has evaluated WingChun per se, I will extrapolate some of the published literature to our unique system of physical cultivation.
Most scientists conclude that BMD and BMC can be augmented through specific regimens, in particular, weight resistance and high impact training. Resistance training entails the use of barbell mass, elastic bands or bodyweight to load your bones via muscular contraction. Impact training is usually defined as actions like jumping and running where both feet leave and, upon descent, strike the ground.
Since we always retain one standing leg, the impact we enact in WingChun is primarily arm collision. We train resistance in the lower body by bearing our own and, during interactive training, the weight of our partner. The mobilization of weapons in Escrima adds weight resistance in the upper body. Hence, practicing both armed and unarmed Self-Defense in the IAW gives you a thorough system of skeletal development and maintenance.
Alive Bones Adapt
We can’t see our endoskeleton. Common visual aids are x-ray imaging and anatomical models. These belie the complex dynamic nature of living bone. From the outside in, it consists of hard cortical bone, spongy trabecular bone and bone marrow, which is a mixture of fat, blood and lymph. Moreover, blood vessels interpenetrate all of these layers to transport raw and waste materials.
Stress to bone triggers a physiological response to create it. This mechanism is mediated by two kinds of cells. Osteoblasts buildup and osteoclasts breakdown bone. When your bones undergo a minimal essential strain (MES), new tissue generation initiates. MES is 10% of the force that fractures bone. Most daily activities, and soft slow styles of Self-Defense training, do not exceed this.
In other words, to engender bone growth, you must surpass the MES threshold. When your bone encounters tensile, compressive or torsional force — as in a solid Tan Sao (Spreading Arm) against a punch — osteoblasts mobilize towards its surface (periosteum). Once there, they lay down proteins, especially collagen, to reinforce your bone matrix. Eventually mineralization (into calcium phosphate crystals) occurs, resulting in thicker and denser bone.
Although the process begins during your first few WingChun classes, bones take 3-6 months to adapt. That coincides with the approximate time frame of completing the Basic Levels (or graduating Fourth Student Level).
Optimal bone training is specific, progressive, variable.
Osteogenesis is localized. For example, running will densify the upper leg (femoral) but not the upper arm (humeral). Being low or no impact, swimming is not a functional means to amplify BMD. Pak Sao (Slapping Hand) fortifies the bones of your wrist (carpals), hand (metacarpals) and fingers (phalanges), whereas Gan Sao (Dividing Arm) conditions your forearm (ulna). But receiving a Gan Sao will improve your forearm (radius) as well!
In terms of weight resistance, multiple joint motions are better at elevating BMD than those isolated to one muscle group. For instance, the squat is more effective than seated leg extensions. Almost without exception, WingChun activates at least two joints. Tsong Kuen (Thrusting Punch) not only involves the shoulder and elbow, but the ankle, knee, hip and back as well. Correct execution coordinates the full body into every technique.
MES rises with BMD. To sustain osteogenesis, you must continually add more resistance or impact force. Training intensity needs to increase with bone density. Thus, I feed Basic Level students at 1-3 times MES. Middle and Upper Level students get 4-6 and 7-9 times MES, respectively. These are generalizations since I employ less power and speed when emphasizing technical refinement in any Program. Nonetheless, this dialing up demonstrates the progressive principle.
At ample magnitude and velocity, 30-35 impacts are necessary to adequately load bone. Exercise protocols of 4 hours a week were found to show a significant change in BMD. This means you have to hit with enough power, speed, repetitions and duration to generate an effect. Your radius will not respond to even a hundred weak — that is, sub-MES — Tan Sao (Spreading Arm) collisions nor infrequent training.
Peak bone mass is usually reached in the early thirties. This is the highest balance in your “bone bank” from which you withdraw as you age. That is not to say low bone density in your later years is irreversible. Indeed it is, to an extent, by exercising and eating appropriately. However, ideally you begin investing during youth to maximize bone deposit and then never stop in order to preserve it.
The layout of collagen fibers correlates to force vectors applied. By stimulating your bones in varying patterns, they become stronger overall than when subjected to a simple unidirectional strain. The greater intricacy and range of a gymnast’s routine builds more bone in different places and configurations than a runner’s.
Learning the 18 Programs and 20 Sections of IAW WingChun allows you to encounter a broad diversity of force trajectories. Your skeleton deals with attacks throughout an assortment of arcs and angles. Furthermore, depending on their interplay with the structure of your defenses, various bone positions and facets are affected. Gan Sao (Dividing Arm), Lan Sao (Obstructing Arm) and Pai Tsang (Hacking Elbow) all use the ulna, but more or less along its distal, middle and proximal aspects, respectively.
Here is a summary of the main bones, and an associated technique, we impact in WingChun:
|Radius||Tan Sao||Spreading Arm|
|Ulna||Gan Sao||Dividing Arm|
|Carpus||Tie Sao||Lifting Arm|
|Metacarpus||Pak Sao||Slapping Hand|
|Phalanges||Tsong Kuen||Thrusting Punch|
|Fibula||Yap Gerk||Entering Leg|
|Tibia||Bong Gerk||Winging Leg|
|Calcaneus||Jing Zang Gerk||Frontal Propelling Kick|
This overview is far from an exhaustive catalog. It is merely meant to activate your awareness of which bone is foremost in any given movement. I suggest you extend this strategy to analyze each arm technique in your Forms. Because the upper limbs — including their constituent fists, palms, wrists, forearms and elbows — are fast and flexible, we prioritize their conditioning in Self-Defense to protect our head and torso.
Although contact surface is relatively small in a limb collision, we engage our entire skeletal system to absorb and propagate force across many bones and joints. Consequently, WingChun practice combines regional high impact and global weight resistance. In fact, most of our partner training methodologies, such as Lat Sao (Casting Arms), Puen Sao (Coiling Arms) and Guo Sao (Passing Arms), are simultaneously impact and resistance exercises. This is true of Applications too. Interestingly, Chi Sao (Adhering Arms) from the Fifth Student Level is an excellent whole body resistance exercise for your arms, spine and legs.
In my experience, bones gradually start to regress after three days without impact training. This decline is exaggerated when I am travelling, fatigued or malnourished. Bone metabolism is ongoing so, if you stop, your osteoclasts will reverse the progress. It is best, and of course more fun, to train with another human being but possible to simulate impact training by yourself or on inanimate objects. You can knock your own forearms (ulna onto radius) or punch your palm (phalanges onto metacarpals). Beating wall bags will toughen your fists and wrists.
MES varies person to person, which is why conscientious communication and group classes are essential. With sensitive people, apply the lowest common denominator of force, even if it is beneath your MES. On the other hand, if you’re approaching your limit, there is no shame in requesting your overzealous classmate to ease up. The classroom is not a real Self-Defense situation. Save bone breaking for life or death emergencies!
There is no convenient way to objectively gauge an exact amount of force. But there are four indicators over an intensity spectrum that you can utilize as subjective benchmarks. The first causes tingling which lasts minutes, the second causes soreness which lasts hours, the third causes bruising which lasts days, the fourth causes pain which lasts weeks. The majority of your training registers at level 1 and 2. Level 3 can happen after longer WingChun Seminars, which is one reason why we schedule them just every six weeks. Avoid level 4 to preempt a protracted hiatus for injury recovery.
Hone Your Bones
Keep in mind the factors of specificity, progression and variability. They prescribe proper parameters of training that eventually forge your bones into both trustworthy sword and shield, which you can reliably wield for successful Self-Defense. Until then, be conscious, patient and diligent so as to take care of yourself and mutually benefit your training partners.
I value longevity in the art together. Towards achieving this collective potential, the core concepts of bone health introduced above are crucial to consider. Have your bones evolved after training WingChun? Tell me what you’ve noticed below:
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In light of these scientific facts about the way bone responds to training, do you think we should do more training where we actually hit things with our fists, whether that’s a sand bag, or back-side padded training armor that is stiff or somewhat hard on the outside, or something of that nature?
It is good that we are doing a lot of training that ends up strengthening the bones in our forearms, but I can’t help but think that we’re missing something if we don’t also strengthen the bones in our fists and wrists as used in the capacity of delivering punches, since delivering a good punch is such a huge aspect of WingChun. So far, the only impact that our hands receive is pak-sao, but even that is cushioned by the flesh of the hand. Additionally, hitting a surface in the course of training gives instant feedback about the quality of the punch in ways that we presently don’t get by pulling our punches with our partners or by punching an imagined target in solo practice.
Sure, Austin, it’s fine to strike inanimate objects. I would recommend doing that safely if you have time. In fact, when I exercise on playgrounds, I’ll often impact the poles and bars with my limbs The Mok Yan Jang partially serves that purpose too.
But I prefer working with living, moving, breathing humans. If you train diligently with partners but still feel a deficiency — as you theorize with the carpals, metacarpals and phalanges (specifically their intervening metacarpophalangeal, proximal and distal interphalangeal joints) — by all means complement it with other means. I suggest 50 knuckle push-ups a day.
In my experience, the wrists, fists, palms and fingers are toughened directly with impact or indirectly with vibration. Is that clear?
Yes, I have noticed a definate hardening of my bone structure whilst training Wingchun. I personally think that when in partner training, the harder the opponent punches the stronger the defence has to be. And if a strong punch is met with a solid defence shape e.g. tan sau time after time, then as a practitioner I really beleive in the shape. There have been a number of times when I train, that I feel like the pain is to much but on the other hand I feel it is important to mentally block the pain altogether, and immerse myself in the correctness of each technique.
Many thanks for this,
You’re welcome, Adam. Pain is a tool to be used wisely. It signals us to pay attention to something; in this case, the parameters of an opponent’s attack and the quality of our response.
We should use the strength we have. It seems some people are afraid of power, not just of others but of their own, perhaps because of the responsibility required in wielding it. If we are — in an absolute sense — smaller, weaker or slower, we must maximize our size, power and speed as expressed in optimal technique.
When chasing a departing bus, a slow person should run as fast as she can. When opening a tight jar, a weak person should try as hard as he can. When facing an attack, a smart WingChuner does the best he or she can. Like the former recruiting slogan of the US Army:
Be all that you can be.
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