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Flying; Defying Gravity; Super Speed

There have been a few somewhat popular martial arts movies in recent times where the characters seem to have the ability to float on air. They jump a zillion feet up, run over thin tree limbs that a canary wouldn't be able to sit on, all the while fighting their adversary. I have a hard time with that, even though movies are by definition fantastic. They are supposed to take us to other places and do the impossible, but for some reason I can't suspend disbelief when I see someone hanging from a wire, pretending to jump. Er, whoops, we're not supposed to know the wire is there.

Martial artists are capable of some pretty amazing things. Before I started, I would never have guessed what the human body is capable of. 600 pushups in an hour is not a big deal to anyone in reasonably good shape, but how many people actually try it? It isn't something that the average person will even think they are capable of. If you can easily do ten pushups, you can probably do significantly higher if you pace yourself properly. The ability to acquire any skill, whether it is a pushup or a punch, requires a certain amount of practice. Just about anyone can throw a punch, but very few people can throw a good one. If you put someone from the street who knows nothing about fighting and ask them to hit a punching bag, and then compare it to martial artist who does it five times a week for hours on end for years, which one would you expect to have better form on the bag? What about in a fight? (Obviously, there are many factors that go into a fight. However, you have to concede that someone who trains for fighting all the time certainly has an intrinsic advantage over someone who doesn't, assuming all other things are equal.)

What makes martial artists good at what they do is the realization that with practice, improvement is possible. No one starts out being able to do a jump wheel kick. If someone tries such a kick and succeeds without ever having seen it before, it is because they have practiced other skills that lend themselves to the jump spinning wheel kick. You had to learn how to walk when you were little. No one is born just knowing anything more complex than an instinct. Some people require more work for some skills, and less for others. Though I can do a jump spinning wheel kick, I don't think of it as an easy thing to do (imagine jumping up, turning 360 degrees, and putting your heel at about head level about a meter in front of where your head was when you started the technique, all while turning in mid air.) But I practiced it, and eventually was able to get it.

The harder and longer you practice, the better you can get. This is one of the most amazing things about our bodies, and though it seems obvious, it isn't. There is a subset of people out there that try something once or twice, only to find that they aren't "capable" of doing it, and so abandon it. The reality is more like they are unwilling to put the effort required to do it. Anyone that sticks with the martial arts, through all the exercise and pain, knows the value of work. You just need to be willing to do it! When people doing martial arts apply themselves diligently, they invariably surprise themselves with what they accomplish. The skill set that the martial arts can provide is huge, and the benefits are often far less tangible than a high kick. Discipline, self-respect, and physical fitness are prime results of any proper training.

Defying Gravity
For some, 9.8 m/s2 is not much of an obstacle.

Given the bounty of things that people can do when the try, lets get back to these myths. There is a saying that goes some like "anything is possible if..." While inspirational, these kinds of statements aren't always true. No matter how hard someone tries, the laws of physics will always be there to set limits. Lets assume that our martial arts master can jump 10 meters (roughly 10 yards, or 30 feet) into the air. Certainly, movies don't have any problem with such a height.

Without going into the details, to go 10 meters high, a man would have to jump with an initial speed of 14 m/s in order to reach a height of 10 meters. How fast is that? Well, if something is traveling 14 meters in one second (that's 14 m/s x 60s = 840 m/min, or 840 m/min x 60 min = 50400 m/hour) this translates to 50.4 kilometers per hour, or 31 miles per hour. This is the speed our martial artist would have to be traveling when his feet left the ground in order to come to a stop 10 meters above the ground. If this doesn't seem high to you, consider that if the martial artist didn't catch the ledge, rooftop, or branch and fell down, when he reached the ground again he would be traveling the same 50.4 kph (31 mph). This is very fast for a human to be hitting something. Next time you're driving along in your car at this supposedly pokey speed, just watch how fast things are moving directly to either side of you. It's the same as a 10m (30 ft) fall (because it is one). It can definitely kill you.

The human body is not capable of generating power on this magnitude. The world record for the highest jump is currently held by Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, who in 1993 jumped a height of 2.45m (8 ft). This is a pretty amazing height, I think. Image yourself jumping this high, and unless you're Javier, there is a great chance that you probably can't reach this height. Records like these are made by people who train extensively. They do this for years. It is reasonable to assume that these people practice jumping more that anyone, and if they level out at 2.45m (8 ft), it is also reasonable to assume that a martial artist is bound by the same physical limitations that these world-class athletes are, especially considering the martial artist has other things to practice.

Some people may make the argument that the Olympic-class athletes are bound by "normal" lays of physics, but that the martial arts masters have intimate knowledge that lets them transcend those pesky laws. If you're still thinking about this, reread the first section. I find it difficult to grasp that somehow ancient people discovered ways of getting around the natural laws of physics, but somehow couldn't figure out how to make a light-bulb, discover penicillin, or use this knowledge in any noticeable way. As far as historians can tell, no one used this knowledge to benefit civilization. Surely, if it were possible to learn how to defy gravity, then some master somewhere would have used it, even if it was just to lighten his load on a long trek. That something so profound wouldn't have made its way into the general spectrum of human knowledge is somewhat hard to comprehend. If others could be taught this skill, then a warlord would have used it to take over the world centuries ago.

What about the others ones, like super speed? How fast can a human move? Here is where I tend to temper things with a little contradiction. Someone who has practiced the martial arts for a while, with special emphasis on speed, is fast. I'm not saying fast in ground speed as in running, like some of the movies imply (you can assume just under 10 seconds to go 100 meters is about as fast as humans are currently capable of), but in general movement. Most people would be surprised to know that quite a few martial arts movies make their actors slow down in order to film them. At their native speed, the better martial artists (and I don't mean run of the mill Hollywood actors who take just enough classes to go through the moves, but real martial artists, like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li) would turn out to be little more than a blur. This is made more pronounced by the movie industry's adherence to the anemic 24 frames per second film speed. Any action in a movie tends to require a good deal of motion blur to make it feel realistic to audiences. If a fast martial artist were to throw a backfist, it is likely that the entire technique would only fill a few frames. The audience wouldn't even know what happened.

All this means is that martial artists can be even faster than the movies tend to portray them. On top of that, it is highly unlikely that a real fighter would choose to spend twenty minutes fighting an adversary. The real action should be over in seconds, not minutes. (I have to concede, though, that if the martial artist ended the fight within a second or two, and the techniques were so fast that I couldn't see them, I'd probably be a bit disappointed - at least until I figured out what he or she did!)

You may not be thinking about the equation of momentum when you break a board, but without question your fist is dutifully obeying the principles of that equation every step of the way. If you think of your body as a weapon, then it basically comes down to a series of points with mass. A good one would be your hand. How fast can you move your hand? In order to do so, you need to accelerate your hand with your muscles, and that weight-power ratio determines your speed. Larger people have larger hands, so they have more mass to accelerate (and obviously it's more than the hand that has to move). To illustrate this, let's take three people and conceptualize them into motor vehicles. We'll say one person is a large body builder, so think of him like a semi-truck. Another is a smaller, lighter person, so think of him like a racing motorcycle. Finally, picture a medium sized person conceptualized as a sports car. The damage that each one of these vehicles can cause is determined by their mass and velocity. Power is determined by the combination of these two properties.

Let's say that all three of these vehicles are lined up and told to run a quarter mile head to head as fast as they can. There is probably not much question which one will come out on top; the racing motorcycle. The lighter something is, the easier it is to accelerate. The semi-truck has a lot more horsepower, but it's power to weight ratio, the measurement of how much power it can generate versus how heavy it is, is smaller. If the motorcycle had the same power to weight ration as the semi-truck, they would accelerate at the same speed.

We accelerate our bodies based on the same principle. Smaller people definitely have a speed advantage. (If you're into watching martial arts competitions, compare the speed of the heavyweights vs. the lightweights.) You might be thinking that I'm cheating here, because maybe the sports car was a really good one, and the motorcycle was just an average one. Yes, you would have a very valid point. If a vehicle wants to go faster, than the best way to do it is to put a more powerful engine into it. You can't just put in a heavier one, though, because then you are canceling out some of the advantage of the higher horsepower. You want lightweight and powerful, and then your car, or marital artist, will have a higher top speed or faster punch.

Most people assume that exercising the muscles makes them bigger, but this is not necessarily true. When the body reacts to heavy exercise, it responds by either making the muscles larger (more muscle fibers), or by making them denser (better use of current ones, more tightly packed). How you exercise determines what the muscles do. If you push for maximum stress to the muscles like a body builder, it will make the muscles bigger. If you use repetition and static tension, the body makes the muscles denser. The later will make you faster without increasing your mass, while the bulk will. A martial artist wants a bit of both, because density is good for speed, but mass is good for raw power.

How fast someone can go depends on the level of repetition and the size of the individual. People that practice something a lot can get really fast, but if a large person and a smaller person were to practice a skill the same amount, the smaller person would be faster. For more gory details on exactly how this all works out, see the last chapter, the physics! However, you can assume that the fastest strikers on the planet can punch very quickly, perhaps on the order of a few tenths of a second.

In order to answer the question, we'll select a fairly good limit. As far as arm strength is concerned, the bench press is reasonably like a punch. We'll use this to determine the maximum power possible to accelerate our hand. The world record is somewhere around 450 kg (1000 lbs) for a bench press. Obviously, this means that 225 kg is being rocketed skyward by each arm. I'm not assuming that this weight went up all that fast, so it would be fair to say that the force being exerted by the muscles was only slightly more than the force exerted by gravity. Since f=ma (force equals mass times acceleration), and the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s2, this is 450kg x 9.8m/s2, which is 4445 N (N = Newton, a measure of force). If it were possible to generate this much force for a punch, and we were accelerating a 2 kg arm, we would have an acceleration of 4445N/2kg, which is 2222m/s2. This is very fast. If your arm was 1 meter long, and it started from your body, it would be traveling at 66 m/s, or 239 kph (149 mph) at full extension. If you were paying attention, you noticed that I used a fairly light weight for the fist. Most body builders, and especially the kind that lift 450 kg, have much heavier arms. They will be traveling a lot slower. If their fists weighed twice as much, then they will only be going 169 kph (105 mph). However, I am being as generous as possible in this calculation. In an actual punch, it is unlikely that a fighter will always be able to generate a maximum force for each punch. No smaller person, which is inherently faster, will be able to generate anywhere near this level of power. Speed is hindered by mass, or it is hindered by power. By maximizing both, though, we can see that we wouldn't expect anyone to go any faster than 239 kph. I would be quite comfortable saying that no martial artist is this fast. There are other factors that slow us down even further. We can't generate all of our power instantly, so as we accelerate our arms, we don't start out with full force. The anatomy of our arms also slow us down, because they have to work like hinges, not weights in a vacuum like I assumed in our calculation. Martial artists can be fast, but now we have a good limit on how fast they can be.

Hollywood has a tendency to artificially speed people up on occasion in order to "pump up" their skill. If I see this, I immediately assume that the actors are simply not that good. How can you tell, though? A lot of times you can't, but most people can usually tell when something doesn't seem right if they're paying attention. What clues in a movie give it away? Because you, like any good, reality-based human, have had to obey the laws of physics, and you're accustomed to seeing things fall at 9.8 m/s2, objects accelerate according to their mass, and other stuff like that. The movies' favorite special effect for martial artists, besides fake blood, of course, is wire work. Whenever objects (including fighting monks, cops, evil doers, or heroes) are attached to wires or other similar rigs, they no longer obey the laws of physics. This is particularly detectable when they fall. Nothing has ever been discovered to overcome the earth's gravitational attraction over an object, and certainly a wizened old master must still fall like the rest of us. Next time you watch a martial arts movie, pay attention to the physics. Sure, it's only a movie, but as a martial artist I much prefer to see real skill rather than fantasy. Why else watch a martial arts movie? (In case you didn't know, the story is usually secondary in most action movies. Sorry, I'm sure that's a shock.)

For most people, these small oddities are insignificant, but I would rather see someone jump 2.45 m for real rather than 10 meters from a wire. The myth about super-speed isn't completely wrong, at least as far as something like hand and foot speed. Real speed takes years to master, and the truly skilled practitioners are probably faster than most people realize. Still, they, like everyone, must obey the laws of physics.




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