The Stupid Non-Argument of Technique vs. Strength

An illustration from Championship Fighting by Jack Dempsey

One day, while scrolling through Facebook again because it was just one of those days, I came across a post on a boxing training group that brought about an age-old argument. Someone posted a YouTube video on how muscles are not important in boxing at all. Context may be skipped over in my description of it, but the whole discussion does just that anyway. I’ve written about the dichotomy of technique and conditioning on this blog, but let’s look more closely at the arguments against it.

It only gets to the surface level of the argument, which experienced boxers and martial artists are very well familiar with at this point. Having to keep debating about it is like arguing whether 1 plus 1 is really 2, whether gravity is real or imaginary, and if water is actually wet. Those who actually make the argument that lifting weights has no place in fight training are the sort who would make you think that pigs do fly.

I wouldn’t categorize them all the way down to flat earth and moon hoax territory — that’s for the “grappling doesn’t work” crowd. There is some truth to what they’re saying about how strength is less of a priority in fighting, but that’s basic information. That’s what beginners learn during their first few weeks. But as they progress in their training journey, they should then learn the importance of strength and conditioning.

Technique without strength is like food without seasoning, never as good as it can be. Strength without technique is like water without a container, just a puddle on the floor.

Let’s take a look at why buildings can’t stand tall on a strong foundation alone, but also need good concrete and steel. (I think it’s no coincidence that both kung fu and buildings in China are both collapsing under their own weight.)

EDIT(20JAN2022@11PM): I think I fucked up with the first iteration of this blog post by using the word ‘power’ when I meant physical strength. After much deliberation, I chose to edit this blog post by replacing every instance of the word ‘power’ with ‘strength’ whenever I meant physical strength.

Semantic Difference Between Power and Strength

The title used to be “The Stupid Non-Argument of Technique vs. Power,” which I’ve since corrected due to the following explanation, which necessitated this amendment. It was pointed out to me by a friend whose instructor informed him of ‘power’ being a misnomer for physical strength. After a bit of thought, I realized that he may have been right.

Goddamn it, Virgil. You always used those terms interchangeably. Does that actually motivate you?!

This goes back to basic physics. Power is work divided by time and measured by the unit of watts, which is joules of work per second. You also have force equals mass times acceleration, measured by newtons, which is kilograms times meters per second square. Your capacity to do work is your physical strength, which can be measured by units like horsepower.

The synthesis of technique and strength is power, optimized and maximized. Good technique plus physical strength equals power. In everything you do in combat, as long as you intend to either harm someone and/or defend yourself, you must do work in order to resist and return.

I chose ‘power’ because I wanted a word that was easier to understand. However, I then realized that I could just add this section to explain the semantic difference between the words ‘power’ and ‘strength’ in the context of martial arts.

I hate dealing with semantics, but the problem is it tends to be important at times. This is one of those cases, and I had to put in more effort to make corrections and add an explanation. Now that it has been clarified, let’s get back to the subject at hand.

Where Did This Argument Come From?

It’s an old-school belief that having extra muscle slows you down and makes your punches weaker. Even now, every now and then, you’ll meet someone who believes in this myth wholeheartedly. And yes, it’s a myth, like an old wives’ tale. Despite science, it still gets spread around due to disregard for facts and context.

Okay, it’s not completely a myth. It does have a foundation of truth, and every experienced martial artist knows this. Being too bulky without having trained in technique does make learning technique a lot harder. Being too bulky even if you have good technique can slow you down. Being too bulky does hamper your cardiovascular endurance as your heart needs to work harder to bring more blood to your bigger muscles.

Water is wet, grass is green, the sky is blue, the sun shines, and birds fly. You know the drill.

The part where it becomes a myth is when people say that gaining more muscle makes you worse at fighting. You’ll hear about this every now and then in the gym, in the bar whenever a UFC event is on, or even from your drunk uncle who used to take up taekwondo in his youth. It’s something that both wannabes and experienced professionals spout all the time.

But it’s not a clear cut fact. With proper training progression, you can build muscle and get stronger while also becoming a better fighter as a whole. Lifting weights doesn’t automatically make your punches slower and your endurance reduced. The human body isn’t limited like that; it adapts to what it’s made to face, and you can both lift weights and train martial arts and adapt to those stimuli easily enough.

Why is Strength So Demonized?

It’s because physical prowess can help overcome bad technique. You can muscle it and somehow pull it off, even if your technique isn’t optimal. Of course, if you’re practicing a martial art, you’re trying to become proficient with the technique, and good technique with half strength can typically overcome full strength with half technique. But with overwhelming strength, even half-assed technique can be overcome.

This really is a case of “Why not both?” If you must have a clear cut guideline — learn technique first, then work on strength later on as you progress. Of course, people who know what they’re talking about already know that. But martial arts has to be sold to casual hobbyists in order to keep it alive with cash flow, so nuance has to be somewhat pushed into the background in order to have beginners digest information better. Unfortunately, that’s an inconvenient truth when it comes to the business of martial arts.

As a martial artist or just someone who needs to learn a thing or two about self-defense, if you’re not training in both, you’re doing it wrong. Of course, meatheads who only focus on strength don’t really get anywhere in any martial art. However, there are those “reverse meatheads” who drank the kool aid way too much and end up believing that using even an ounce of strength is “muscling it.”

Here’s a comment on this r/BJJ Reddit thread that sums it up nicely:

“I think that, fundamentally, a lot of BJJ guys have an issue with strong people because it wipes away the Helio ‘beat anyone with technique regardless of size’ delusions that they have. Or challenges them at least.

Some blue belt who plays lapel guards and turtles when passed isn’t going to be pleased when someone with perhaps less technical ability deadlifts out of their guard and gut wrenches them out of turtle. It just shellshocks a lot of practitioners because they are faced with the reality that, at least in this attribute, there are people who can overpower them and they can’t do anything about it. They’ll then try and frame it as the opponent doing something wrong or whatever.

It can also be people using strength earlier on in their training to compensate for a lack of technique, but in my experience these people don’t last long anyway.”

Doing Things “Wrong”

I’m going to go on a tangent in order to explain why there are way too many people in martial arts who think they’re “right.”

This reminds me of a story from an acquaintance about learning kung fu from one of the local wushu teachers. They were touch sparring and he threw an uppercut, which hits the teacher, who proceeded to “correct” him for throwing a “wrong punch.” Many kung fu styles don’t have an uppercut like it exists in western boxing. We know well enough that uppercuts work in boxing. But when it’s in kung fu, they’re wrong all of a sudden?

Perhaps you can say that in the context of kung fu, you can say that the uppercut isn’t “correct” and he should’ve just followed whatever the teacher was teaching. However, once any form of sparring is involved, that goes out the window. If it hits and it hurts, you can’t refute it because it works. If the teacher was trying to make him do exactly what he wants, then that’s just mannequin training and no longer sparring.

The concept of doing things “wrong” is an obsession in martial arts, and for good reason. As inconsequential as it truly is to be “good” at martial arts, many people see value in it. Therefore, there’s a lot invested in “being right,” so people go through great lengths to be the authority in what’s right and what’s wrong in the realm of systematic physical violence. The truth is that there’s always more than one way to skin a cat, and everyone’s case is unique.

But that doesn’t matter for a lot of people, even for the most knowledgeable and most experienced in this field. There are still plenty of coaches and teachers who are inflexible and stubborn when it comes to what’s right in fighting. That’s because most of them have given up on nuance due to the frustration of being misunderstood. Also, a lot of those people tend to have their own insecurities, thus they fall for the trap of feeling infallible once they gain a position of authority.

I remember going to a boxing gym in Binondo for a session. The coach there looks down on traditional martial arts. Never mind that my base in Jeet Kune Do is anything but traditional, but it still has an exotic-sounding name. That guy took every opportunity to insult me for my background while he put me through the ringer, and it didn’t help that I was out of shape at that time. He still got my ₱250 that day, but it’s safe to say that the reason why that gym is no longer there is easy enough to discern.

Yes, I didn’t go back to that gym. Yes, part of it was due to the douchebag coach. Yes, I don’t regret not going back, even if going back would’ve proven that I wasn’t chicken.

You’ll find instructors like that all over the place. In a field where one’s competence is easy enough to prove with a hard sparring session, yet not enough people are willing to challenge that due to the risk of physical harm, the authority of senseis and sifus who talk out of their asses will rarely be challenged. It takes an even greater authority with no tolerance for bullshit to make that challenge, and most of those people tend to be too busy to do so.

You Need Both Technique and Strength, No Questions Asked

I’m now convinced that whenever this argument is brought up, that person is just looking for an excuse to be lazy. Both physically and intellectually lazy. They want a simplistic line on the sand. It’s a non-issue that rattles the brains of troglodytes. Then again, meatheads do tend to spend precious brainpower on a lot of dumb issues, as we’ve seen recently.

After all, once you master technique, there’s no more need to train, right? What a dumb conclusion.

I’ve since come up with the expression “cutting with dull scissors” to describe this phenomenon. Scissors are a finely designed tool for doing precise work. It lets even children cut out shapes and figures out of paper, tailors to cut complex designs out of cloth, and housewives to cut up chicken without needing the skill and experience of a butcher.

And yet, if the blades are dull, they’re not cutting anything.

The scissors are technique, and its blades are your conditioning. You focus on learning the technique first like assembling your scissors — your precision instrument. Then, you sharpen your blades, which is your strength and conditioning. With regular use, your blades get dull, which means you have to keep sharpening them.

I don’t get how this is a controversial take on this subject. It’s like saying if you do even one push-up, you’re betraying your martial art. That may seem like an exaggeration, but there are some people out there who actually think like that. They’re like parodies of humanity, with closed minds and obsessed with the smell of their own farts.

Just like that guy in the video. He takes things out of context, so I don’t care if I take him out of context as well.

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