I don’t normally write this sort of random article but I learned so much from a private lesson yesterday that I had to share it with my readers. This is the sort of thinking that changes the way you look at things and changes the way you fight forever.
I was so amazed by what I learned, I had to write about it.
I only wish all of you could have been there with me that day.
A little background
As some of you may or may not know, I have a few hobbies outside of boxing, one of them being tango. My brother is a 2-time USA tango champion and 3rd place in the world in 2011. He recommended for me to take a private lesson from one of his teachers and so I did.
This is a guy who had been dancing for 40 years. And also done martial arts for nearly just as long. He looks about 55, white hair with a calm, relaxed smile. He stands completely relaxed but walks as smooth as a cat. And when he turns, it’s as swift as a snake. You get the feeling you’ve met a real life ninja.
Unfortunately, I will not tell you his name.
The Private Lesson
Being relaxed to MAXIMIZE CONTACT WITH THE GROUND
He asked me, “So what are your problems? What do you want to fix?”
I told him, “I’ve been dancing for a year and a half and also boxing for nearly 10 years. I want to become heavier, I want more balance, more power, more grounding.”
And then he asked me, “And how are you trying to balance yourself?”
I replied, “Through proper body positioning, alignment of the spine, and then core strength to maintain the tension and contact with the ground through the legs.”
He smiled and said “come over here”. He knelt down to the ground and placed his hand flat on the ground. And explained “See how when my hand is relaxed, it lays flat on the ground? Completely spread out and has as much contact with the ground as possible If i try to grab the ground or create tension through my fingers, part of my hand lifts off the ground, lifts my body weight, lifts my center of gravity, and decreases my connection to the ground.”
I nodded in agreement as he continued.
“…you cannot create balance with tension. Because all tension goes up. I nodded my head again but he still didn’t believe that I fully understood.”
“Have you ever tried to carry a sleeping person?”
- I had to think about the last time I did this.
“Have you ever tried to carry a drunk person?”
- I nodded my head laughing.
A sleeping or drunk person is SO heavy because they are completely relaxed. You have to be relaxed like a sleeping person. Just like when you go to sleep and lay on your bed, you let go of everything. You have to let go of all tension to be completely connected to the ground. Gravity is natural. Balance is natural. Tension is not natural. Once you learn how to be relaxed, you will never go back to using tension.
The best dancers are the most relaxed,
not the most tensed.
Being relaxed for FREEDOM
“Let me show you 3 positions.”
“This is tense.”
- He stood straight up and puffed his chest out. Arms and knees totally locked.
“This is relaxed.”
- Still standing striaght but his arms relaxed and his knees softened although he still appeared straight.
“This is collapsed.”
- He let his shoulders sag as his chest caved inwards and his head hunched over a bit.
“The reason why we want to be relaxed is because it gives us FREEDOM. We have the most balance, the most power, and also the most freedom to move in whatever way we want.” He swung his arms around back and forth while his body stayed glued to the ground.
“If you are tense and try to hold a frame, you limit your freedom. Maybe you hold a certain frame or position for more balance or for more power. But then you cannot move from this frame because then you will lose your balance. This is not freedom. You are stuck and trapped. and the tension you carry makes it easy for your opponent to push you over.”
“On the other hand, if you are collapsed and sagging you also limit your freedom. You cannot move freely if your body is bent over in an angle and can’t move because you’re off-balanced to one side or have extra pressure on your joints. Moving from a collapsed position is difficult because you need to create tension to move.”
He went on to show me how to “relax” my back and how to “relax” my legs. It was funny being taught precisely how to bend my knees but boy was it effective!
“There are basically 3 versions of all positions: tense, relaxed, and collapsed. You have to find the RELAXED POSITION. This will give you the most freedom to move.”
There are always 3 positions: tensed, relaxed, collapsed.
The RELAXED position gives you the most freedom.
Staying balanced in movement
“Show me how you walk balanced.”
- I started walking across the floor smoothly but cautiously with my arms out like wings. Immediately he yelled out at me.
“Put your arms down. Why do you lift your arms like that? That’s tension. Tension in your back, in your shoulders, in your arms. One arm easily puts a few pounds of tension to one side. And then now you have to balance the other side. And then your focus goes to your arms and you forget about the core. And once the core is weak, you will fall over anyway even if your arms are balanced.”
“Let go of the tension. Put the arms down. You cannot fall to the side if you don’t have any tension pulling you to the side. Keep your arms inside and the only way you can fall is down!”
When your body is relaxed, it will fall down. If you fall to the side (OFF BALANCE), it’s because something or some tension somewhere did not let it fall down. When tension blocks your body from falling down, it then falls to the side.
Let go and let your body fall down. Your body has to release to fall down, maybe it has to twist somewhere, or release a certain area of tension. You have to become more aware of tension in your body in order to release it.
The reason why you fall to the side is because
tension prevents your body from falling down.
Presence as balance
BECOME relaxed with awareness, NOT tense in focus
“You have to be strong in presence. And presence means to be aware and to be focused, not to be tensed. To be present somewhere, you have to relax there, not become more tense there. Many people have a problem where the more they focus on something, the more tense they become there. You have to do the opposite. Become more aware and more focused so that you can relax in that area and become more present, not more tense.”
Presence starts in the core
“You have to be present in the chest. Everything, 100% attention goes to the chest. Not the legs, not the arms, not the shoulders, or the back. Relax and be present in the chest so that the chest can connect to the ground. If the top of the body is not connected to the ground, you are not balanced and you’re only working against gravity, not with it.”
He made me walk across the floor again. This time he followed along and commented every time he saw tension.
“RELAX THE ARMS!”
“RELAX YOUR LEFT SHOULDER!”
“YOUR LOWER RIGHT BACK!”
Every time he noticed an area, he would touch it with his finger and because I could feel his touch and become aware, I was able to immediately relax that area. It was amazing how accurate he was simply by looking at me. I’m sure he’d fetch a great pay as a masseuse.
Trusting the ground
“Here, feel how I walk”. He had me place my hands on his chest as he walked into me. And sure enough, he felt much MUCH heavier than he looked. It felt like I was being pushed by a car on neutral.
All of the sudden, he surprised me by leaning to one side and I immediately tensed up to regain my balance. I smiled already knowing what he was going to say.
“Many people become more tense when they lose their balance. This makes it easier for them to fall. If you are losing balance, you need to relax more to connect with the ground, not become more tense and throw yourself off the ground.”
I nodded my head in agreement but he didn’t believe I fully understood the concept.
- “Come here, sit down in the chair.” We both sat down as he looked over and asked, “How do you feel?”
- I feel relaxed.
- And why do you feel relaxed?
- Because I’m sitting down and don’t have to hold myself up.
- But you can still choose to have tension in your body even when you’re sitting down, right?
- Yes but I don’t need to have tension because I know the chair is going to hold me.
His eyes lit up as a big smile flashed across his face. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I had said the right thing.
“It’s because you trust the chair!”
“That’s the problem with many people. They don’t trust the ground to hold them. They become more tense when they lose their balance because they don’t trust the ground. If you can relax the same way on the ground like you do with the chair, the ground will hold you.”
You have to trust the ground to hold you.
The ground is your friend
“The ground is your friend. If you know how to connect with the ground, you will have an extra friend in your fight. The ground will hold you up, give you power, and give you freedom to move. If you do not let the ground hold you, you will have to hold yourself. And if you’re too busy holding yourself, you won’t be free to move. and you have no balance. Don’t fight the ground, let the ground hold you.
The ground gives you balance, power, and freedom.
Many athletes trust tension, not relaxation
“The problem with many athletes is that they have so much muscle and have learned how to use tension over the years. They trust the tension in their muscle because they’ve been doing it that way for so long. When you know that your muscles are stronger than the other guy’s, you tend to trust your muscle. Now you have to learn how to trust your relaxation. And learn how to relax to connect with the ground.”
“I promise once you learn how to relax and connect to the ground, you will never go back. Because this is the easier way. This is the natural way.”
Believe in relaxation, not tension.
It’s not that muscle strength is useless, it’s that you want to apply tension at the BEST time. And the best time is when you are at your heaviest and most connected to the ground. Once you are fully relaxed & grounded, all it takes is a little tension to send a lot of force. On the other hand, if you’re not fully relaxed & grounded, you can use a lot of tension and very little of it will transfer.
*** I imagine this is similar to how boxers are taught to relax the punch outwards and tighten their whole body and fist only at the very last moment.
Always relax first, and then tension. Too many people use tension first. Right away, the fastest thing they do is tension and it never works. You always become a block, and fall over. Have to relax first and connect with the ground…and THEN, if you need, TENSION.
The end of the lesson
He showed me some simple but very effective balance drills and just like that, our time was up. I wish I could tell you more about what he did and how he did it but some feelings cannot be understood with words. You have to be there and feel it and see it for yourself to really understand. He was more than just relaxed, he was calculated, he was precise, accurate, so present and so aware of everything that was going on. He knew how to adjust his body immediately to any situation.
I felt so relieved for having met him at this point in my life. It took 10 years of boxing to come across knowledge of this level laid out in that manner. But I also felt proud for myself. If that’s the only thing I learned this year, I would say that I learned a lot this year.
As eye-opening as this session was, I’ve also had private lessons with amazing dance teachers who told me the exact opposite. They believed in maintaining balance through tension and that to hold a perfect position required tremendous amounts of muscle and a constant effort. The article you have just read represents one side of the puzzle. In time, I will share the other lessons.
Awesome. This is some serious old-school grasshopper type stuff here :-). I worked on balance a lot in Tae Kwon Do and found the same thing – it’s a lot easier to balance when you are relaxed. If nothing else, it allows your body to make all the necessary micro-adjustments.
I’ve learned through my years of martial arts it’s best to keep a relaxed body then one stiff. It’s easier to move and you can react quickly to a situation. When you build tension your muscles get stiff and of course you can take hits better, but what else could you do? Well thank you for this article I enjoy all of the articles that you write. 🙂
Amazing article. expertboxing has definitely been one of the most important resources to help not only my fighting game, but our responsibility as humans to use and improve our mind/bodies.
my question: what implications does the analogy of the hand relaxed on the ground have on how fighters ground their feet? Nearly every fighter tries to stay on the front-inner part of their feet, but if you parallel this to the analogy of the hand being completely grounded when relaxed, wouldn’t this translate to grounding flatfoot style? I myself try to stay on the balls of my feet when I train or spar. One of the few fighters I have heard advocating staying flat-footed is Bas Rutten(former UFC fighter, but anyways) He says something to the effect that pivoting opens you up and slows you down too much, and that there is enough power derived from the rotation of the upper body. He advocates a square stance with both feet flat. Any ideas?
bas rutten is an mma fighter and they prefer a more balanced stance immune to takedowns and fighting nearly bare knuckle. that makes standing the boxer stance a bad idea when your legs get hit, like a narrow base chair is less likely to fall than a wide base. i dont think he calls for a square stance though but im not sure. if so, i have no idea why except maybe jiu jitsu or something like that. flat feet means more grounding and less ability to move swiftly. u cannot be as fast when your heels are on the ground in any sport or manner but in street fights you dont have much space to run.
i dont know how you cant generate enough power totally square. maybe enough to knock out a person in a bar fight without gloves, cuz ive seen that, but not when gloves and gauze dampen our power. my 2 cents.
sorry, narrow based chairs are more likely to fall 🙂
It’s not necessarily true that a narrow stance is less likely to fall. With the right technique, a narrow stance can be more grounded and much heavier than a wide stance. You’re also more mobile in a narrow stance and can take longer steps instead of having to jump around everywhere.
You also have much more natural movement in a narrow stance because you can lift one leg and pivot around or walk around, whereas in a wide stance you can’t be on one leg because you’ll fall immediately. This is why many Muay Thai guys have to use a narrow stance because they’re constantly on one leg. Likewise, my of the slickest fights like Pernell whitaker can also be found with a narrower stance because it gives them more mobility to slip, duck, and pivot around in the pocket.
the point isn’t that a narrow stance will give poor balance, with right technique a narrower than shoulder width stance can give a fighter all the stability he needs as a boxer.
unless one is trying to get your hips or the legs off the ground. when someone’s trying to take you down or sweeping, a wider base with the same skill level is better at avoiding going down. its about leverage and making it harder for someone to get both legs with one blow. no matter how grounded one is, if someone grabs your legs he’s going to take you down. muay thai fighters do have a change up style with more square legs wider. and to keep balance when pushed on, the narrow the stance the more one has to bend forward to keep balance. if ur still not convinced, watch forwards in basketball getting wide and low to push their way into the post. great charles barkley used his shorter frame and weight so effectively on taller players with similiar strength and weight, they had to add a new rule to stop him doing it all the time! it doesnt have much to do with boxing or muay thai, even most forms of kung fu dont use ground tactics. but bas rutten’s MMA/close combat/street fight style does and i see MMA ground fighters like couture with wider stances than boxers like belfort. my 2 cents.
I don’t know about MMA and basketball, but in boxing…a lot of guys use the narrow stance for more balance and mobility. A wide stance might be better if you’re trying to stay in one position. But if you’re in a moving fight, a narrow stance will allow you to take bigger steps, pivot, and move around much better. But all that takes skill to take advantage of. If you don’t have as much skill, you can rely on muscles to sit in a wide trench and hope nobody out-moves or out-jumps you.
It’s also a matter of amateur vs pro boxing. In the amateurs, it’s only 3 rounds so it’s possible to stand wide and hop around all day. But in the pros, the rounds are longer and you will have to walk around and keep your legs narrower at times so they don’t wear out.
100% with you on the boxing front. the poster asked about bas rutten, i told him abt bas rutten. wider stsances certainly do not provide many benefits in the boxing ring. some are very tall and narrow, some are a little less than shoulder width but no one is wide as we’d call an MMA or jiu jitsu practitioner. isn’\t it hard to fight the amateur point system with a wide stance coach ? i think the most successful fighters stand taller in amateurs so they can bounce around. i think wider stances are more suited to pros than amateurs (swarming guys like dempsey, rocky marciano, graziano, fulmer, la motta. frazier, tyson) who come in bobbing and weaving to throw hard. i may be wrong though, i dont follow the amateurs as i should only the guys i think will become prospects.
btw the idea of relaxing into the ground for weight, less expending of energy is also used in kung fu, karate
You’ll typically find all stances in the amateurs and often find many guys with wide stances, especially in the Olympics. The wide stance makes their body stretch out so they can really prod with a long jab and hop back and forth like a fencer.
Your observations are correct. And this is why amateurs and pros are different. In the amateurs, it’s point system and so everybody is on their toes and running a lot. They still have a lot of power but power is not their pure focus. Pros on the other hand do sit down on their punches at times and ground for more power.
Excellent article blending both worlds of boxing and dancing. It’s true what you say about tension and dance is the perfect example. I’m really excited for the new guide.. I’d like to see how those dance moves can help me in boxing. 😀 Keep up the great work!
Terrific article. People tend to think of relaxation as a subset of weakness or submission when that is not the case at all! And this easily transfers into striking when the force of a blow is largely dependent on your ability to move explosively from relaxation to tension in the muscles and then back again. Thus, being aware of your muscle contractions is, I believe, an important part in mastering your technique. Thanks Johnny. With this article I am now far more aware of the role relaxation plays in the overall “body feel” when fighting/training. I had an excellent moment in training earlier as I applied this newfound balance to my footwork in the midst of a combination, rotating out, shuffling back, and coming back in. Much more powerful. Thanks.
Good article Johnny. I think the most dangerous situation for any self-described student is limit your sources of information to the most obvious places. Looking at other disciplines, even when they don’t seem to relate to what you do on the surface, is a great way to expand your knowledge on a given subject. You provide us here with a great example, looking at tango to improve your boxing skills. Always a better way of learning in my opinion.
Great post! I always see dancers with these ripped, lean bodies, so I always assumed that they just realized on copious amounts of muscle and strength to push through. This post was a real eye opener, and being a somewhat nervous and jumpy person in my day to day life as well as in the boxing gym, I will definetely use these relaxation tips wherever I go.
Funny reading this post because at our mma gym we have a master of martial arts that shows us the same concepts as in this post and his way of teaching is literally the same! Really cool seeing it elsewhere on the web. The simpleist things really do make a difference.
Great piece Johnny. I love your tango-boxing perspective. Trying it out in the gym I’ve discovered that most boxers are not tough enough to survive tango. Opening up our minds is often one of life’s most difficult tasks. Good luck in Virginia’s technique classes. We would be there, but I have a commitment to beat up some guys in the gym that weekend and I cannot convince Jennifer to travel to LA without this bully. Wishing you success in and out of the ring — keep those hips relaxed as you become friends with the floor.
Good hearing from you, Charles. See you soon, I hope. 😉
Thanks for another great article, this site has helped me no end in improving my boxing skills.
I’m starting to appreciate how being more relaxed grounds better and allows greater transfer of power and movement than a tense body. Some of the drills I have learned from you and others i’ve been trying to improve with but have only really been focused on improving my balancing muscles and general balance by using tension until now. I have felt massive improvement with tension but I now feel more powerful when relaxed. Would it be better advised to just relax and let go as much as possible and try to use minimal upper body tension when doing balance drills/training or am I taking the relaxation idea too literally?
It takes time to figure out what is too much and too little. Keep training and adjusting things little by little. You’re headed in the right direction.
nice article man. It helped changed the way I think
If you watch the YouTube Tommy Carruthers – Bruce Lee Speed Comparison you will see that Carruthers is using a lot of tension… and the video called it evenly matched -.-‘
Everything new that I learn, it seems Bruce had already done.
Bruce Lee was so much faster. His whole body is more upright and properly relaxed. Tommy had all sorts of tension in his back and neck, arms, etc.
Very interesting article. keep up the good work. I started boxing 7 months ago and your articles have helped me a lot. Everytime I’m sparring although I begin relaxed I end up quickly exhausted cause I don’t have good control of my breathing. the good thing is that I have long arms and I try to keep my opponents at distance… Sure thing is that at least in my gym I’ve noticed that the brawlers most times get their ass kicked by the more experienced and relaxed fighters. Tension usually leads to making more mistakes.
So, what were the drills? Care to share with us?
I have a new premium guide coming out that shares a hundred of these drills and exercises. Be on the lookout. 🙂
Any more news on when the premium footwork guide is coming?
Currently still being put together. Cover being designed. This is going to be a great one!
Such an amazing read! It taught me so much. Your brother is pretty awesome!
even though im young(early teen, almost to high school), i feel like your friend was like god give you a lesson. of course he wasnt morgan freeman or anyone of that sort. I’m really interested in boxing now thanks to you. but i dont have any knowledge nor equipment needed to become a boxer, other than my weights and my, as you call it, crappy pvc jump rope (lol). i am considering to start boxing in high school, even though i know its probably going to harder than any other sport ive been in a.k.a. football and track
Hey Johnny, Great thing you got going here..! …Awesome article … Im a martial – artist – turned – boxer , been doing Aikido for 9 years now … This article really interested me , the idea of staying relaxed so you’re not wasting energy being tense all the time, leading to an increased overall efficiency and the idea of being relaxed leaves you grounded and have better balance are ideas that are intrinsic to almost all martial arts, including boxing. Some martial arts stress it more than others.I would tell my students that a young stem would not break but simply bend , but leave that same branch to dry up then it would break with minimum force, implying that when you are tense you become preoccupied and vulnerable ,when relaxed you can focus outward on your opponent and pay attention to even the smallest details. I would recommend you check out some videos relating to relaxed posture in aikido.If u like i can post some videos.
Just thought Id share what had helped me advance in martial arts…
Share some videos, Nour. I’m sure some people here might be interested.
You’re doing a great job, Johnny. Your articles have helped me a lot. They made me start to look the game in a different angle
Hey from Aus! I’ve been boxing for a bit now & I just started salsa. I was wondering if you could share some of the ‘simple balance drills’ he went through with you as mentioned in the end of the lesson section. I’ve been working on my balance using rock climbing drills but I feel I’ve hit a wall…. Cheers Johnny!
Hey Johnny, is there a rough release date you could give us on the premium guide to balance drills?
Hugh, everything is almost done. I would say it’s set to release later this week or next week. *** Keeping my fingers crossed! ***
classic .. Was shadowing tonight.. After a few beers.. Body relaxed starts moving in natural ways.. Especially hip movement.. Not trying so hard had better flow and balance..
hajime no ippo
I think you’ve met Syrio Forel somehow 🙂
Hi Johnny, I just read this article because I was losing balance easy and even though I could not understand exactly what you felt I understanded some tips and I noticed that my balance is improving. Thanks a lot!
Wow…this is beyond remarkable! Thank you !! I will proceed to the article abt the other lessons!