Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Physics of Staff/Spear Fighting

Practitioners of Chinese martial arts, Choy Lay Fut in particular are exposed to a vast arsenal of traditional weapons during the course their martial arts education. In today’s society the practical use of such weapons has diminished somewhat. In the September/October 2007 issue of Kung Fu Taichi magazine I wrote an article titled “Choy Lay Fut’s Moi Fah Dao, Modern Function for an Ancient Weapon”. In this article I present the concepts of sword usage and how these ideas can be applied to various implements that are more common in modern life. It’s a fairly lengthy article and I feel it covers that topic in detail. What I would like to cover in this blog entry is the specific mechanics of weapons, the staff in particular, and how to make proper use of the characteristics of that weapon.

Your Weapon is a Tool

Strength training is often one of the benefits attributed to modern weapons training. To some extent weapons training can serve as a way to add resistance to the types of movement you will also use in empty hand fighting. I have a problem with this however. My Sifu always said in the old days the people who were best with weapons were usually the farmers. It is often believed that since farmers use tools daily for long periods of time that they develop massive strength that they use to wield the weapons with deadly purpose. I feel I can add some insight into why farmers and manual laborers are seen to be “strong” with weapons.
I’ve done hard manual labor most of my life. Since the time I could walk my father taught me how to dig with shovels, use sledge hammers and picks and for the last five years I have worked full time as a landscaper. There is little difference between the use of a shovel or sledge hammer and a staff and through constant daily use of these implements my weapons techniques and staff in particular have become more powerful. While the full time use of these implements can increase physical strength in those who haven’t done any type of resistance training, the real key to getting power into the implement lies in basic science.

Scientific Principles for Powerful Staff Techniques


The reason we use tools and simple machines is to make our work easier. If the goal of using a tool or weapon was to increase strength by adding to our workload they would have been discarded long ago. When teaching weapons techniques to my students often I tell them to use less effort, as my father told me when I was young, let your tool do the work. The reason that manual laborers were seen to have strong weapons techniques was because they had countless hours of practice allowing the tool to do the work for them. If it was raw physical strength that made the tool or weapon work then there would be no way that an individual could get through an entire work day using the implement. The same scientific principle behind the proper use of tools for manual labor is what makes a weapon a more effective fighting implement than a bare hand.


"Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the Earth with it" –Archimedes


The fundamental principle behind all Staff/spear techniques is the lever.  A lever is a machine consisting of a beam or rigid rod pivoted at a fixed hinge, or fulcrum. A lever amplifies an input force to provide a greater output force, which is said to provide leverage. The ratio of the output force to the input force is the ideal mechanical advantage of the lever.
A lever is a beam connected to ground by a hinge, or pivot, called a fulcrum. The ideal lever does not dissipate or store energy, which means there is no friction in the hinge or bending in the beam. In this case, the power into the lever equals the power out, and the ratio of output to input force is given by the ratio of the distances from the fulcrum to the points of application of these forces. This is known as the law of the lever.
Levers are classified by the relative positions of the fulcrum and the input and output forces. It is common to call the input force the effort and the output force the load or the resistance. This allows the identification of three classes of levers by the relative locations of the fulcrum, the resistance and the effort.

Class 1: Fulcrum in the middle: the effort is applied on one side of the fulcrum and the resistance on the other side. Most techniques of staff/spear fighting use this principle. Often the lead hand, or as I call it pivot hand, acts as the fulcrum the rear hand applies the effort and the striking end offers the resistance. In swinging techniques with the staff/spear the body acts as the fulcrum.
Class 2: Resistance in the middle: the effort is applied on one side of the resistance and the fulcrum is located on the other side. This principle is applied in pressing or jamming techniques as well as many blocking techniques using the middle of the shaft.
Class 3: Effort in the middle: the resistance is on one side of the effort and the fulcrum is located on the other side. This principle is applied in downward swinging motions and thrusting motions

Applied Science

When I teach weapons techniques even the smallest details are of importance. The reason I usually give my students is simple and colorful. I usually tell them that when fighting with weapons the person who makes the even the smallest mistake can end up dead. This is a truth of fighting with weapons and serves to inspire them to pay attention to the details. However, another important reason to pay attention to the structural details of weapons techniques is to gain the mechanical advantages of the lever principles. In order to get the maximum effect you should know where the resistance is, where the fulcrum is and where to apply the effort. Below is a video of me demonstrating staff/spear techniques, in each technique you can see the principles of one of the three classes of levers applied.


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