Fitness, and especially martial arts, is replete with sayings and training koans. Many of these sayings are rather suspect, sounding good on the surface but not standing up to scrutiny. Others are so counter intuitive, they foster resistance to them to this day. One of these sayings is “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. This phrase is deposited on to many a novice in many an art. The basic idea is to take your time and not rush things, but there is another more controversial aspect. That training slow will lead to being able to move fast.
First thing first
The saying in question, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast” is a direction that is often given out to beginners of a martial art or movement system. (I was also taught it in figure drawing). The idea is to make the student slow down and carefully perform the movements as to learn them. The addition of trying to move fast prematurely will have detrimental effects on the learning process, as will be discussed later. The saying is specific and pertains to one type or component of training. What is often left out is that one must eventually move the speed they are wishing to move in order to be able to perform the action. And here is the basic crux of the matter. This direction to move slow to improve speed is most often reserved for the learning of new skills or movements. Not necessarily for over all training and practice.
What this simply means, is that if you want to move fast, at some point you must move fast. This is not debatable. What is debatable is to what extent one should put on increases in speed while moving at speed. In laymen’s parlance, training speed by tying to go as fast as one can. This pushing up against the wall method is the common and intuitive approach. If I want to go faster I must try to go faster.
Not so fast
This approach of directly training speed for speed is limiting in several ways. First of all, there are hundreds of reasons that a person cannot move faster or is seeing limitations in speed gains while training. Speed is not a single thing in the body and, just like strength, is a skill that must be learned. Speed is not something we are naturally imbued with. While some people may have a higher or lower aptitude as far as speed goes, it is the way we train that will help us increase things like speed.
Moving too fast causes its own host of problems. Moving fast is sometimes our bodies way of cheating a movement. Less time under tension increases success. However, one cannot sense the details of the movement when one is moving fast. In a punching or throwing motion for example, there are only two points of serious neural activation. The beginning of the motion to set it off, and the end of the motion when the limb is decelerated and stopped, then retracted. Our body’s system thinks of only the two points, shoulder and target. And a good thing too, if we want to hit anything. But we have very little kinesthetic sense of the motion between those two points. So there is a sort of neural blank spot there. If one is injured and they begin to loose their speed in a punch or throw, moving at speed will not do anything but exacerbate the injury. Moving slowly, however, may identify what is wrong.
So what are the governing factors in speed, especially how it relates to martial arts and weapons? There are actually many types of things that we collectively call “speed”. Reaction time, explosive power, agility, etc. Reaction time is a much different animal than explosive power and the training for each is different. If we are looking to get faster at our over head parries, training for the 100 meter dash would yield limited, if any, benefit.
So what is the type of speed we are talking about in the martial arts and similar activities?
Speed, Quickness, and Agility
There are 3 basic components of speed defined in the athletic realm: speed, quickness, and agility. “Speed” is the rate at which an individual limb or the body can be moved in a straight line and lends its self to more simple actions. “Agility” is the control aspect. Your ability to move is directly related to how well you can stop. Deceleration and eccentric training is often used here. “Quickness” is what most of us in the martial arts want to cultivate. This is the body’s ability to change its entire position and maintain correct alignment and force. This speaks to compound actions which are what most athletic technique, regardless of sport, boils down to. Much of this can be looked at in terms of simple and compound actions as well.
Speed, agility and quickness work best when trained together. The speed that is developed in the limbs is coordinated into the quickness we need to pull off our techniques and react appropriately in action. Agility is of primary concern for our skill set as we need to be able to abort actions and change positions quickly to adapt to the changing conditions in a fight. But how would moving slowly aid this training?
The differences between moving slow and moving fast
When we move quickly, our bodies do specific things related to producing the speed of action. When we moved slowly, our bodies react to an entirely different set of variables. Many people will site these differences as the reason why the adage under scrutiny is wrong. Moving slowly cannot replicate moving fast therefore, training slowly will not increase your speed. However, the variables in question are actually the very ones that will allow ones speed to increase.
Limiting factors for moving fast
For our purposes, we will speak about technical and more complicated compound movements involving many joints since this is the performance expectation for Martial arts. Some main problems when developing speed of technique are, coordination, body mechanics, and neuromuscular patterning. There are thousands more if one takes a clinical look at the topic, but we shall keep it simple with these common issues. They are also core to much of successful speed training. Each one of these is directly enriched by slow, deliberate movement.
One of the most important factors in speed its neuromuscular patterning. This is often called “muscle memory’ by lay persons but is much more than stored information. Patterning happens in our bodies when movements or actions are repeated for a significant amount of time or number of times. This stimulates the creation of neural pathways that help recruit the right muscles and tissues to carry out the action. These pathways are physical, being relationships of the various strengths of nerve endings and synapses in motor units. These structures in the body physically move position to create these pathways. The more a pathway is used, the stronger it becomes. The stronger it becomes, the less you need to concentrate on it. This is how we develop habits, good and bad. In relation to speed, the less effort you must put into the movement to move that much faster. This is also called “Hebbian Learning”. The ability for our bodies to change these pathways is called “Neuroplasticity”.
By moving slowly when learning new movements or trying to correct bad movements, you create an environment that will help neuromuscular patterning for the correct movements. By moving slowly you change the dynamics and forces placed on the limbs and body. You must hold up your arm, you must balance on one leg, you must go through a motion that is easy while going at speed, but it becomes choppy and difficult when you move slowly. With all these differences, does slow training even have an effect on speed? While counterintuitive, the answer is yes.
Take for example, the punch we spoke of earlier. In practice, there are only two moments of maximal force production in the muscles of the arm and shoulder. The first is to begin the movement, launching it off the shoulder. The second is the deceleration and retraction of the arm. Everything in between is left up to autonomic and unguided forces. The arm is generally rather inactive while it is moving in a punching or throwing motion. But when moving slowly, the motor units involved with guiding, correcting, and stopping the limb are all active. This allows the body to become aware of the intermediary motions and positions the your arm moves through. This in turn, patterns some of the stabilization and guiding actions that take place in very small, autonomic actions to keep the limb safe and healthy in the movement.
Moving slowly brings this to the forefront. The stronger the patten, the easier it is for the body to do the action. The easier it is, the faster it can be done. And patterning its the key concept when you move to another factor that is much more well known.
Coordination or lack thereof can be a huge drain or barrier to achieving the speed you desire. When coordination is off, the body cannot efficiently move as a single unit. When there is a lack of coordination between the limbs and body, or with structures in a limb like muscles fibers, the body will drown grade how much speed can be produced. This is to protect us from injury if one joint moves out of turn and incurs too much force. This can injure the tissues like tendons and muscles. But, when the body is protecting it’s self, it is often not performing at peak efficiency.
When talking about martial arts movements, we are speaking about complicated compound movements involving the entire kinetic chain. When several limbs are trying to perform a single moment very quickly, each part of the body must be coordinated with the others. The more limbs or ranges of motion required for a technique, the more difficult it tends to be to do it well. Dance and martial art have lots in common in this respect. The movements of both recruit multiple motor units and joints to create the technique in question. One piece of this chain being out of place, will slow the entire chain down. Just as the adage goes, you are only as strong (or fast) as your weakest link.
The advantage to moving slowly while practicing has on coordination should be obvious. The slower you move, the easier it is to keep track of all the coordinations of the movement. Neuromuscular patterning is key to coordinating the body, so the advantage you get from slow movement is that the entire movement is patterned much stronger than if you moved at the fastest speed you could. The slow movement creates a very strong pattern as it creates a very rich environment for stimulus. The effort and concentration required to move at a speed that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable tends to dial in the awareness of those moments and the parts of the body they are occurring in.
Which brings us to…
As we are performing the actions of our sport for activity in the moment we cannot be aware of all the factors that are affecting our performance all the time. Over time we develop injuries and compensations to those injuries. Our bodies will alter their mechanics to protect or avoid the injured area or movement. These small changes and alterations to our over all mechanics can have a detrimental effect on our performance. These chances can be as large as an altered global movement (a large visible movement with the limits or body) or as imperceptible changes in the way our muscles contract during stress. As you can imagine, these can provide barriers to us moving as fast as we can. Especially with the complicated full body movements of martial arts.
Taking slow, deliberate approaches to complicated techniques is a very good way of trouble shooting your own movement. By moving through the complicated moments and coordinations slowly, you are able to see deficiencies and alterations in movement that would be invisible at speed. The lack of momentum and the differences in feel and recruitment in the limbs can highlight something that is off. Or provide a template for the body to better heal its self and return to normal operation. Many of these discoveries cannot be done at speed as one cannot be aware of them when they are moving too fast.
For instance, if downward swings with a two handed sword are hurting one’s shoulder. Moving through the technique very slowly and paying attention to strict alignment of their art as they were taught it, will give you a more detail picture of the movement. The actions that are autonomic at speed, like a sword swing or a punch, can be examined and altered when moving slowly. This is especially true of compound movements that we are concerned with. The single quick actions into a pose or position require attention that cannot be given during performance. Training under slow conditions until the movement is more solid and/or produces no pain can speed recovery and protect one from re-injuring the area.
The proper application of slow training
So, basically stated, the phrase about smoothness is true in a specific sense. What people mean by ‘smoothness’ is probably related to the graceful appearance and sensation of relaxation and no resistance we get when we move well. As one gets faster, the effort to move that fast tends to decrease, making moving fast for these actions efficient and quick rather than sensation of pushing through a barrier. It is very likely that what we collectively mean when we say “smooth” can be encompassed in the above criteria: Body mechanics, coordination and neuromuscular patterning. These all coming together will give a very strong appearance of smooth, unbroken movement in the practitioner.
Lets take a look at the opening to Ma Family Cui Ba Fan Fanzi Quan as an example of building speed in a complicated compound technique. The opening consists of a number of rapid fire punches alternated between low and high. The sequence is supposed to be performed as fast as one is able and some practitioners have developed astounding speed in their hands with this art. But when starting out, so many techniques performed in such a short span of time can be daunting. One must approach this sequence from a slow point of origin. The movement is involved enough that one has a hard time even seeing the technique when performed at speed.
But if one take the slow is smooth approach, and trains the sequence slowly and deliberately it can be accomplished fairly simply. When moving slowly one can improve on the above qualities to train the speed they desire. When first trining the sequence, one focuses on coordinating the strikes, the body, and the targets. The body mechanics are kept in check as the movement is built upon in the kinetic chain. As one move through this sequence more the patterns start to become stronger. This allows one to go a little faster. As the patterns strengthen and coordination become unconscious, the ability to move faster with less effort is cultivated. If one keeps this up, they will be able to achieve the Fanzi machine-gun punching in a matter of a few weeks.
What is happening when we do this is a complicated set of responses to the stimulus of moving slow. Obviously, our brain and memory are taking in the information to remember and be able to perform the sequence without pauses. While brain activity does not account for an enormous caloric tax, there is some energy required. As we remember movements better we can more easily practice them and make changes that are needed. While we are working on the overall performance of the sequence, our motor cortex in our brain is cataloging the sensations and stimulus it is receiving from the slow moving limbs or muscles. Creating connections in our brains to better access these commands. It is also taking in information for the peripheral systems involved with the movements. Stability of joints. Integrity of the kinetic chain. The added force of gravity pulling down our body. These things and hundreds more are acquired during the slow movement. Many of them can’t be experienced any other way. This affects the individual motor units in the body to provide the proper support and alignment for the movement sequence. Slow movement allows the nervous system and neuromuscular components to adapt before adding more speed. As the movement is reversed slowly, the breaks in the movement pattern start to shrink. The uncertainty and indecision start to vanish and the movement becomes physically easier. It will feel smoother, less choppy. Speed starts to creep in on its own. Once our bodies discover the more efficient way of movement, it tends to adapt to it quickly. The more one tries to attain this feeling by going slow and paying attention, they will naturally begin moving faster. Then once these patterns are set, one can freely move as fast as they can. Building speed from here is a different matter and not relevant to this axiom.
When training with a weapon we get another benefit from moving slowly while trying to perfect our techniques. If we look at a sword, it has it’s own weight and balance that we must adapt to in oder to use the tool. As we move slowly, we do not have the benefit of momentum so, the weight of the weapon is providing more resistance than it would if moving at speed. This is generally a downward pull of gravity, but it acts on the sword and weapon to produce the weapon’s “balance”. Even though the body will be doing different things during the performance of the technique at speed and when training slow, it will impart a feel of this balance and provide feedback and data for the body to use to be able to move the weapon with greater speed and power. Also, the act of decelerating the weapon while doing the movement will also help control, coordination, and declaration of the weapon when at speed. It is the act of the body having to hold up the weapon that is analogous to the declaration of the weapon when swung.
The break down
Now we have a little more background into the phrase “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. The idea of this statement is not to claim that one does not have to work on speed in the conventional manner, only that when beginning or when in unfamiliar territory like recovering form an injury, slowing things down has enormous benefit to the overall practice of movement. When wanting to increase one’s speed or quickness, at some point you must demand of your body why you want it to do. Moving fast is not exception. But, when we find it difficult to get up to the speed we want, either by being new at it or reaching a plateau in training, it often its a good idea to slow down so that you can examine what is happening. Then use that slow speed to smooth out the action, strengthen those neural connections, really become familiar with the movement down to the very cells. If you find any movement flaws or problem areas, you can focus on those for a time, then move slowly back to reintegrate hit into the chain. Once that is done and things start flowing better, you can add speed to your hearts content.
A athletic version of the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady win the long run. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Take it to heart. Practice some discipline and restraint. These arts are cultivated the most fully from that place.
Patience, practice, perseverance. Happy Sabering!