It’s no secret that Bruce Lee threw a lot of punches. And kicks. Some elbows. Nevertheless, there is one in particular that he is remembered for: the aptly named, ‘one inch punch.’ It is just as you’re envisioning, a punch with only an inch or so of travel. That is, instead of winding up like a boxer and bringing the arm all the way back near one’s shoulder, Bruce Lee could pull back just one inch and still deliver a punch that would knock you and I straight to the ground. Don’t believe me? Check this out.
We saw a similar example in Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill. Remember Uma Thurman’s punch through the wood board with only enough travel as her fingers were long? Granted, this was cinema, a Tarantino film no less, but the obvious question is how can this be possible? The physics just don’t seem to work out. How on earth can the shoulder pull the arm back just one inch and yet be able to produce enough force to topple a man?
I reference this example because it is an excellent springboard for a discussion on a topic that is instrumental in not only weight lifting, but daily movement and sports.
For the sake of discussion, let’s pretend that tension may be categorized into two types – passive and active. So, let’s look at passive tension first. Here is an extremely simple little experiment… Take one of your hands and place it on the table, fingers spread flat. Now, pull up on one of your fingers a little bit and let go. What’s going to happen? Clearly, your finger will snap right back down to where it was. We know this to be true without actually doing it, but why didn’t your finger stay up in the air like we are made of playdough? The simple answer is that the soft connective tissue throughout our bodies wants to return to its state of rest. The mechanism that enables this is tension.
So does tension only happen involuntarily? Of course not. Let’s move on to what I’ll call active tension. Forgive the somewhat machismo example and let’s say that someone is about to punch you in the stomach. What will you do? Duck, dive, punch back? Odds are that you’ll tense up your abdomen to protect your vital organs before you do anything else. From an engineer’s perspective, by tensing up you are building rigidity. This is not only beneficial when absorbing something like a punch, but aids in giving your other muscles something from which to push off.
For instance, how about we examine that quintessential exercise we can all identify with: the barbell bench press. When lying on the bench and pressing the barbell, you’ll see some lifters with their knees bent and feet flat on the bench while others plant their feet on the floor. Typically, those with lower back issues will put their feet on the bench to reduce lumbar spine rounding. And then some people will simply find it far more comfortable to keep their feet up, for any number of reasons. However, for those that have the mobility to place the soles of their feet on the ground, they can use that foundation to create tension. This is what people mean when they say that they ‘squat the bar’ up on a bench press. You see, the body may be supine in this exercise and only the arms appear to be moving, whereas in fact the entire body, down to the arches of your feet, can and should be called upon to work as an integrated unit to lift the barbell.
Of course, this makes a lot of sense, right? Just like when you are about to get punched in the stomach, when you lift weights your body tenses up to protect itself. And yet, imagine if you were cognizant of your body in space and actively ‘zipped up’ limbs and muscle groups that had traditionally gotten a free pass in exercises like the bench press. More importantly, you are training your body to act as one coherent unit when you are lying down, or worse yet, seated.
This concept of tension is how Bruce Lee was able to knock a man to the ground by only moving his fist an inch. You see, it wasn’t just his muscles in his arm and shoulder that moved his fist, it was his whole body. He was able to harness the extraordinary strength stored in his fascia, or connective tissue that surrounds muscles, to concentrate force through his fist. This tissue is ‘the bandage or packing substance of the body (1).’ The study of fascia is one that can (and does) comprise several medical textbooks, not to mention reams of medical papers and journals. In the future, I’ll revisit fascia and its application to daily movement and weight lifting, but for now the below picture will give you an idea of the fascial meridian lines that transverse our bodies.
It is this fascial web that is the body’s true tension highway. You may have heard that strength is a skill? It most certainly is, and understanding the body’s fascia will help you to harness the tension you need to set new PRs in the gym.
(1) Schleip, Robert et al. (2012). Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. Endinburgh: Elsevier Limited.
(2) Myers, Thomas W. (2009). Anatomy Trains (2nd ed.). Endinburgh: Elsevier Limited.Bruce Lee's one inch punch by Ryan Wagner