Firing a Cannon from a Canoe

Credit: The excellent Bizarro comic by Dan Piraro

“You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.” I originally came across this phrase in a strength training context. While martial arts and strength training sometimes don’t mesh nicely, they are both still physical skills and share some common principles. I found this little pearl of wisdom to apply equally well in both contexts. It provides a good analogy for explaining certain aspects of the body and footwork training.

In terms of strength or athletic training, the general idea is that insufficient core stability or unstable positioning significantly drops your power output. It doesn’t matter if you have massive powerful muscles if you can’t hold yourself stable enough to make use of that power. Applying power from a shaky foundation means that power will leak everywhere and you won’t be able to efficiently direct power in a useful fashion. The figurative cannon firing from the canoe will direct force into tipping the canoe and launch the cannonball with reduced power in an erratic direction.

One of the basic lessons in class is learning to align the bones and balance the structure over the feet. This establishes a connection to the foundation (i.e. ground) and a solid body frame on which power can be efficiently generated. In static positions, it is usually relatively straightforward to explain alignment and balance. Where we start encountering the metaphorical canoe is in motion. Habits override principles of integrated body movement, which in turn breaks structural alignment and balance. Shoulders roll, backs hunch, pecs tense, the chest flies open, shoulders lose position, the lower back tenses, hips lock into extension, knees shoot forward, etc. All of those random habitual movement patterns move the body out of a structurally supported positions and drift the balance away from the center of the feet. In some cases, muscular effort is ramped up even more to compensate for poor alignment and leaky power. Ironically, it’s this type of situation where the counter-intuitive of advice of relaxing actually improves power. Slowing down and relaxing gives the brain a chance to identify and fix structural misalignments and motor pattern faults.

There are many different motor pattern faults that can result in poor structural position and inefficient movement. The most common ones center on incomplete motor control at the hips and shoulders. For illustrative purposes, here are a few examples of common alignment problems arising from suboptimal movement patterns.

Hunched Shoulders

A common motor pattern fault while propelling force forward (i.e. push, throwing a punch, or even thrusting a weapon) is that the shoulders lift. This is often accompanied by unnecessary forward rolling of the shoulder. While this sort of hunched shoulder position can sometimes be compensated for with sufficient upper body and arm strength, there are significant drawbacks to relying on this motor pattern.

The shoulder joint is primarily stabilized by 13 muscles. Four muscles of the rotator cuff and 9 muscles on the front and back of the body account for the major functions of the shoulder joint. Several other muscles (e.g. biceps, triceps, pectoralis major) also cross the shoulder joint and play secondary stabilizing roles. Hunched shoulders are often a sign of over-reliance on the upper trapezius, deltoid, and pectoralis major muscles to generate a forward pushing force. This is overusing a small subset of the muscles around the shoulder joint which are positioned only on the top and front of the joint. The imbalanced muscle usage moves the shoulder out of an aligned stable position. The unstable shoulder position is not conducive to generating effective power. It may feel like a lot of effort is being put into generating force, but most of that effort is stabilizing the shoulder to compensate for poor structural position and not into generating useful power.

With sufficient strength, it is possible to stabilize the shoulder with a limited subset of the shoulder musculature firing hard enough to add rigidity to the shoulder assembly. While this mitigates the instability problem, it creates another in that the shoulder position becomes so rigid that the arms cannot freely adapt. It’s the equivalent of cementing our proverbial cannon in place. The cannon is now on a stabilized platform, but its usefulness is now limited because it cannot be easily aimed anymore.

Non-Neutral Pelvic Tilt

The hip joints are the largest joint in the body and play a central role in integrated movement mechanics. The hips are the base which supports the upper body on the legs and couples the power from the lower body to the upper body. Ideally the pelvis should be in a neutral position so that pelvic sockets sit stably on the femoral heads and provide a solid platform to support an upright spine.

The further the pelvis tilts out of a neutral position, the less support the body gets from the bones of the legs and the weaker the coupling between the lower and upper body. Since the spine is connected to the pelvis via the sacrum, pelvic tilt directly affects spinal alignment and structural support for the upper body. Excessive anterior pelvic tilt points the tailbone back and either forces the lumbar spine into lordotic curvature or pushes the shoulders and balance forward.

Excessive posterior pelvic tilt tucks the tailbone under the body and can curve the lower back into a poorly aligned kyphotic position or shift the shoulders and balance backwards.

Lateral tilts of the pelvis make support from the legs unbalanced and compromise structural stability by skewing the spine left-to-right.

Whichever direction the problematic pelvic tilt, the lumbar vertebrae supporting the upper body are put into poor alignment. Poor spinal alignment will reduce the ability to use power from the lower body and tense up portions of the body to compensate for poor alignments. In the worse case misalignments, significant force will propagate through the spine in non-axial angles and create unsupported shear stress on vertebrae. In such cases, force received or generated by the body will propagate in the weakest structural direction along the spine, thus limiting power output and ramping up the risk of injury.

Excessive Shin Angle

The feet are directly coupled to the ground, and the leg alignments over the feet affect balance and how effectively the ground can be used as a stable foundation. Since we are typically dealing with upright stances on mostly flat ground at around shoulder width foot spacing (or at most a little beyond shoulder width), stability and balance are optimal when the shins are relatively vertical. Keeping the bones relatively upright allows vertical stacking of the body structures in a balanced and supported arrangement over the feet. The vertical shins are especially relevant for the front foot in a split stance. If the shins are angled too far from vertical, the knee position is pushing too far forward. This results in a shift of the balance towards the toes and a knee bend angle prone to hinging shut. The quadriceps have to work harder to compensate for the suboptimal position.

Poor shin position is often coupled to knee motion dominance and insufficient hip control. We can revisit the simple forward push to illustrate this motor pattern fault. An example of a typical untrained push (or punch) is leaning forward and pushing off the ground with the quadriceps. Since knee extension movements tend to straighten the body upward, knee dominant forward power involves angling both the shins and body forward. This structural tilt puts the knee into a less supported position which necessitates firing the quads harder. While power can be generated primarily from knee motion, a significant portion of that of the quadricep muscular effort goes to stabilizing the knee joint and the body’s balance is fully committed in the forward direction. In the worst case scenario, hip extension power from the glutes and hamstrings is lacking in the movement pattern. This means the majority of power generation is coming from muscles pulling on the front of knee, inducing a shear on the joint. With a knee dominant motion driving the forward push, power is only supported over a small angular range in the forward direction. Stability in other directions or the ability to adapt to different directions is sacrificed. If the spacing is too close to get the correct lean angle, the knee drive will tend to propel significant force in a non-useful upward direction rather than the desired forward direction.

Forward lean and excessive shin angle with knee dominant forward driving motion.

An alternative to the knee dominant motor pattern is to drive power using hip extension to “pull” the hips and body forward rather than use just the knees to push the body forward. Deriving power from mostly the hip musculature and posterior leg muscles allows the shins to stay more vertical to maintain better coupling to the ground. With more hip driven motion, horizontal forward power can be generated without having to sacrifice a balanced vertically neutral body position.

More upright posture and better shin angles with hip driven forward motion.