Where does the power come from

Where does the power come from?

I recall when I first started Aikido there were a number of concepts that I struggled to grasp. These included:

  • Breath power (Ki and Kokyu)
  • Hara (centre)
  • Grounding
  • Back
  • Effortless power

As my Aikido slowly improved I thought especially about the concept of “effortless power”.  I carefully watched the movements of my Senseis to gain an understanding.  I also started thinking about other activities that demonstrate this.  One sport that came quickly to mind was golf.  This is a sport in which I have a keen interest and, indeed, played competitively when I was younger.  The way that top players can hit the ball large distances while making it all look so easy has always been a fascination to me.  Surely this is a clear example of “effortless power” in action?

I went back to a book I read many years ago, “The Search for the Perfect Swing”.  This contains an in-depth analysis of the golf swing, conducted by a group of scientists.  One thing that has always stuck in my mind is the book’s investigation of the power source of the swing.  From their measurements of club head speed the authors calculate that the top male players generate over 3 horsepower during their downswing.  They know that human muscles, at best, produce about an eighth of a horsepower per pound of muscle.  They calculate that the arms, due to their size and muscle configuration can generate at most 1.25 horsepower.  From this they conclude that the main supply of power must come from the player’s biggest muscles, his legs, which are capable of producing about 2.5 horsepower.

This explains how the top players make it look so easy.  The originating movement in their legs – although powerful – is relatively small, as it is the rotational force at the centre of the circle.  This makes it hard for us to see.  The power from the legs then transfers through the player’s core, culminating in a freewheeling release in their arms, hands and, finally, the club head at the outside of the circle.  It is this motion that our eyes pick up.  Of course, thousands of hours of practice make the whole process extremely efficient and add to the illusion of effortlessness.

I took a big step forward when I realised that these movements relate directly to Aikido.  We use the strength of our legs and hips to generate power.  We transfer this through a firm core and release it via relatively relaxed shoulders, arms and hands.  With enough practice this starts to look effortless.

Like golf, we move our legs in several different ways.  We flex and extend them, we twist them and we use them to step or slide.  Looking just at the twisting movement, we see this comes into play in many techniques, usually generating a small circle at the centre with the hips, which then radiates outwards into the technique.  The most visible application of this movement is in the Taisabaki technique of Mawashi.  This twisting action is important in other sports, especially so in skiing.  In fact, ski instructors have a French name for it, “Braquage”.  It is extremely important when making tight turns on steep slopes.  Investigating Braquage further gives us one clue why it is useful to bend our legs in Aikido.  Try sitting on a chair with one leg straight out in front of you.  Ask a friend to try and stop you twisting your foot.  They probably can.  Now, bend your leg and try again.  You will find your twisting action has become much stronger.

When I came to understand the role of the legs in generating power the other concepts I was struggling with started to fall into place.  What is “feeling the ground”? To me, it is simply a case of engaging my legs.  To generate the power from our legs we need to push them against something: the ground.  When I am able to feel the ground I know that my legs are working.

Aikido defines Ki and Kokyu as the use of energy rather than muscular strength.  When we practise these we exhale as we perform the power section of our techniques.  From above I contend that we use our core to transfer the power from our lower to our upper body.  However, our core only transfers power efficiently when it is tense.  Exhaling tenses the core, which is one of the reasons boxers exhale as they punch: they using a tight core to transform the power from their legs into hand speed.  For me harnessing the energy in Ki and Kokyu is about using the exhalation to tense my core, thereby allowing an efficient power transfer to a relaxed upper body.

Likewise, when I concentrate on my Hara, I find I automatically work my core.  So, once again I see this idea as a means of creating the same efficient connection between lower and upper body.

Finally, when we talk about getting some “Back” into our techniques I believe this is primarily a method for fully utilising the strength and ground connection of our back leg.  Often we concentrate on “Back” when pushing against our uke, for example when catching a Shomen Uchi attack early.  While we might talk about the strength coming from our back, my feeling is that it is coming from the ground, up through our back leg, and then into our back.  When I watch Shihan Nadeau I see a great example of this.  The amount of power he generates is impressive, and I see it coming up through his back leg.

The concept of generating power in the legs, transferring it through a firm core and then releasing it via the hands and arms provides an important building block in my understanding of Aikido.  Although I do not provide a scientific proof specific to Akido I find the similarity to power generation in sport gives my propositions enough validity to me make me comfortable.  While my ideas may or may not resonate with others they certainly help me make sense of concepts that, at first, I found nebulous.  In the meantime when my Sensei says to me “feel the ground” I will keep saying to myself inside my head “switch on your legs.”


Mark Sleeman

Roban for shodan, December 2017