Strength is everything. It’s the key to real mobility. It’s the key to a balanced and happy body. Real flexibility comes from strength, as does speed. Athletic ability in general can be seen as nothing more than a quest for idealized strength.

To me, the difference between a fat person and an overweight person is mobility. I talked about that in my last post. Mobility is key to being healthy. And just like fat people, skinny people suffer from lack of mobility, too. I might refer to “overweight” as being the bad side of fat, but underweight doesn’t quite have the same meaning for skinny people. The more accurate term is “understrong.”

It’s a sort of running joke that people who do historical re-enaction are overweight. I suppose this applies to geeks in general. Those of us who fall outside of the normal spectrum of interests are supposed to fall outside of the normal spectrum of body weight, as well. The sterotypical computer hacker is supposed to be super-skinny to balance that out. Reality is somewhat different of course. But there is a bit of truth that the so-called “normal” people don’t do things like martial arts.

The overweight person has a hard time moving because they’ve got too much weigh to move around. The understrong person has a hard time moving around because they don’t have the strength to move the weigh they have around. I’ve been blessed with out of proportion strength all my life, so I don’t know what that’s like. I can tell you what the slow creep to being overweight feels like, but I can’t tell you how it feels to not have enough strength. As a teacher I can tell you what I see in understrong students.

They walk in looking fragile. They act fragile. They hesitate before doing anything. Anything involving partner work makes them shy away because they know they will always be shoved around. Tumbling? Forget it. They know they will break and they act accordingly. Sprinting? Any fast motion at all? Like the overweight person, they shy away because they know the effort will be fatiguing. And just like overweight people, there is a gradual steady limit applied to everything. It’s perhaps not as limiting as it is with overweight people, but I don’t know. I haven’t experienced it.

Our muscles hold our body upright and in it’s correct shape. Strength gets a bad rep when people see it as equal to the size of biceps, and more strength as being only bigger biceps. This is not true. Or at least, not accurate. The strength I’m talking about, and what most fitness pros talk about, is a quality rating of muscle. Muscle has a speed of contraction. It can be fully or partially involved in that contraction. It has a certain amount of residual tension that it maintains when at rest. These are the important factors in strength, and muscle size only changes how much muscle there is, not how “good” the muscle is.

To be strong, a muscle has to contract as fast as possible. This is what gives our actions speed. It also has to contract with as near to all of it’s fibers as possible. This is what gives us power. And it should have the right amount of tension when resting, to give us a balance. Too little tension, and we flop around with bad posture. Too much tension and we contort our bodies and suffer pain and loss of motion.

The understrong person has a hard road ahead of them. Like the overweight person, they have to look to their diet to free themselves from lack of mobility. Like the overweight person, they have to build strength so they can move more naturally. Mobility is always the goal. Attaining a body ideal, or a single athletic goal, these are at best temporary milestones in life. Win a world championship, you still have to climb out the tub without cracking your head the next day. And you still want to be able to do it as easily forty years later, when you’re just that cranky customer at the corner store who sometimes claims he was once somebody.

Good mobility requires a balanced body which requires a strong body which requires steady practice which requires good nutrition which requires good thinking which requires practice. Practice is something best done while moving.

And that’s my martial art in a nutshell.

Our class does boxing drills, wrestling drills, and fencing drills. We work hard at being better at every discipline, and some of us will take those skills and test them at competitions. Some of us will be champions. But that’s not the lesson. It’s not the practice. The lesson is that a good life is a life of freedom. Freedom is something we can only give ourselves. You can’t be given real freedom, you can only attain it. You need strength to move through life, and mobility is our goal. Being strong means being able to move freely and easily, with all the grace we wish, in any way we can…no matter the obstacles life puts in front of us.