The long read: Generating power from the hips in Jujutsu

I wanted to write a follow on piece from the last "Long Read" on kendo, and keeping the fire in the belly. This article is focussed on jujutsu, but again can be equally applied to other disciplines. It comes from something I have been saying in class as a help in preparing for gradings at the end of the month.

It is probably a truism to say that one of the most consistent pieces of advice provided by senior martial arts practitioners to their students, regardless of discipline, is to "generate power from the hips". And conversely, it seems to be one of the most difficult things for novice and intermediate students to develop.

In part, this is probably because of a failure to understand what this actually might mean in relation to how your body has to move in order to make this happen, and in part a failure to properly communicate the broken down steps of how to create the desired outcome— remembering that many martial arts instructors are not trained teachers, often they are physically talented individuals, and in most cases their own experience as a struggling beginner is now many years or even decades in the past.

So what might it actually mean to move "from the hips"? And why/how should you develop it?

What I have taken from my own personal struggles with generating the "correct" movement is that in order to take the first steps you need to develop and understanding of what seems at first like a paradox. This is that in order to create power you need to have muscular tension to maintain posture and generate force, while in order to achieve maximum velocity, you need to relax and "let fly". However, if you miss the sweet spot between structure and relaxation, you end up looking like a giraffe on roller skates.

Driving this is an unvirtuous cycle:

  • failure to engage the core means that you reduce the efficiency of movement
  • throwing your torso first, rather than your belly, leads to stumbling into a technique rather than performing it correctly
  • missing your timing and distancing reduces the chance of successfully completing the technique
  • trying to play "catch up" with your poor positioning and timing starts with your arms and legs without engaging your core ...
  • this is then repeated till you either "muscle" a solution, or are successfully countered by your partner.

So what needs to happen?

First, is to build your posture from your feet upwards. Make sure that you start any motion from a neutral position, with your feet correctly aligned. Avoid being "flat footed" or leaning back on your heels as your will find it very difficult to initiate movement.

Second, your pelvis needs to be correctly aligned. In jujutsu this often requires them to not be square with the shoulders. Why? Well, in order to generate power you need to be able to pivot the rear hip forwards so that you are able to drive the initial acceleration of the leg to either:

  1. initiate forward movement
  2. transfer acceleration to the upper body, or
  3. continue the acceleration of the leg in order to change position or kick with it.

In our warm ups, we do a hip-torque exercise that is supposed to develop the neural response required to do this effectively. However, there are a number of common errors that I often see from my end of the mat. These include: initially throwing the movement from the shoulder; placing too much emphasis on the return to the start position; insufficient power (read explosive force) in the forward motion; rigidity in the hip; floppiness in the torso; and lack of committing to the motion.

I know — it is quite a list. But given that this motion forms a foundations for much of what we do in jujutsu, it is critical to try and get this as good as you can, especially with grading at the end of the month. Some things you can try to think about:

Stabilise the torso: Remain engaged but pliable as you move through the action. Think of your torso touching lightly against a bar at chest height — movement should happen at the waist. Correct posture starts with drawing your shoulder blades back and down, opening up your chest, and having your torso both perpendicular to the ground and square to the front.

Let your pelvis find its natural place: You do not need to "place" yourself into the reset position. If you start with good posture, you will fall back to where you started without having to place — simply relax the driving muscles (mainly your buttock). And certainly don't "throw" yourself backwards!

Contract the driving muscle hard and fast: It does not matter if we are doing a slower or quicker count. Each hip torque should be the same speed. The variation is to develop timing and reaction speed rather than the quickness of the contraction.

"Float" the rear foot: make sure that you are off your heel so that you get the sense of pivoting on the ball of the foot and whipping the leg forward without lifting it off the ground. This will help to relax around the socket of the hip and to generate even more power. This becomes particularly useful when launching a kick or a knee strike, allowing you to switch-step and use plyometrics to launch even more quickly.

Make each movement count: We all have times when we feel like simply going through the motions. However it can develop into a very poor habit that can lead to reducing your ability to actualise the above pointers. An important part of what we do is wrapped in the Zen practice of mindful and deliberate action. So see each repetition as a chance to refine and perfect the fundamentals. Don't sweat it if it isn't quite tight, and don't dwell on the success you have. Just try to get each action correct every time you do it!

So with the above in mind, I wish every one the best in their preparations over this month leading up to the gradings. As always, I'm very happy to receive questions regarding what it is that I expect for each grade level and how you might be able to demonstrate that on the day.