What I want to talk about today is how building my core strength through karate has helped me as an amputee.
Core strength is a term you’ll often hear dedicated martial artists talk about, but rarely one used when discussing life as an amputee. While I understood the value of the concept previously, it’s only in relatively recent years that I’ve taken the term on for what I used to think of as solely my abs, but there’s more to it than that. For those interested in a neat little definition, Wikipedia has a nice definition of what the core anatomy is (click here).
My first experience with the medical benefits of core strength built through karate was actually with my lower back – I have a family history of shonky backs, but my position is a little more accute due to the amount of abuse my lower back gets as an above-knee amputee. Where able-bodied people have the foot/ankle/knee to cushion their walking, amputees have to absorb extra pressure from walking into our lower backs. Think of it like jumping down from a few steps above the ground, and when you land on your foot, you have your legs dead straight instead of slightly bent to absorb the force from landing – that’s pretty much what we have to deal with as am amputee. Even more appropriately given the nature of a prosthesis, grab a broom, hold it vertically and slam the bare end (i.e. not the brush end :P) onto the floor – the vibrations you feel in your hand is akin to what we feel run up our stump(s) and back. There are certain variables that can alter the amount of force we receive – below-knees can absorb some extra force since they still have their knees, above-knee amputees will vary depending on the length of their stump, and there are mechanical devices (different prosthetic knees, feet and socket designs) that aim to reduce the amount of energy absorbed vertically through the stump and lower back, but for the most part, the principle remains pretty accurate.
While my prosthesis I currently have has a few technological tricks by way of the design and knee/foot equipped, remember that before I was 18 and these extra tools become available to me I was on a leg that wasn’t able to do much to soften the vertical blow dealt to my body through the simple act of walking.
So, with this in mind, its understandable that your lower back gets stressed as an amputee. Therefore you have two solutions to this – don’t walk/severely minimse your physical activity, or strengthen your body to withstand the extra abuse you deal to your body. I don’t think you can guess which path I decided to take 😉
My first experience of the medicinal benefits karate was having on my body as an amputee was when I went to the physio a number of years ago when my then-girlfriend (and now wife) had started living together – I finally went and saw someone about my back, and while my posture was generally very good, I was told that one way to improve the lower back muscles was to get into the habit of using your abs to support your back. This seemed strange to me at the time, but I was told that the muscles are complementary, and strong abs will help support your back. She encouraged me to get into the habit of tensing my abs so that I always have extra support for my back, so I decided to give it a a go. Admittedly, it didn’t help that I was also a bit vain about it and saw it as an opportunity to make my belly flatter by doing the extra exercises, but I found that it started to have positive effect on the overall strength of my lower back.
This now lends itself to how I’ve learned the importance of core strength in karate. Martial artists often talk of the importance of strengthening your core muscles, and how a strong core will lend itself to better power, technique and control. As time’s gone on, I’m a firm believer in the concept. When you punch, to extract maximum efficiency of your technique, you don’t just move your arm – you transfer the energy from the ground, up into your torso and use your core muscles to whip your shoulder, arm and fist into your target, squeeze the muscles at the last moment to gain that extra bit of dynamic power, and then use the core muscles to bring your arm back and maintain a strong center-line throughout your technique. Same for kicking – use your core to support your body and back, utilise your hips, whip the leg out, bring it back. Grappling and throwing are nothing without a strong core – without it, you’ll ruin your back. All techniques in martial arts benefit from a strong core, and the sooner you learn this, the better you’ll be for it.
So what’s the catch with this as an amputee? Well, I’ve found myself utilising my core muscles all the time to support and strengthen my body. When I get out of bed in the morning, I squeeze my abs and use these muscles and my arms to sit up to avoid placing pressure on my back. When I hop around without my leg on, my abs clench every time I hit the ground the prevent a jolt to my lower back. Every time I lift something, I contract my muscles to absorb the extra strength I need to draw from my back since I can’t use two legs (well, knees :P) to assist in lifting a weighted object. When I twist and turn my body when I’m on crutches, I use my core muscles to control my extension and insulate my back. And of course, in class I use my core extensively to improve my balance, control, power, technique and assist my back at all times, whether it be holding a stance or having take-downs or counters performed on me. In fact, I’ve found that even the motions of good form in practicing your stances does a terrific job of stretching your back, loosening the muscles and then building up their strength in supporting your weight.
So, core strength is obviously a very important part of maintaining and strong and healthy back for all people, but for amputees, there is an incredible amount of good it can do for you. At the very least, good core strength will help protect your lower back from the jarring pain you get from walking, but there is so much broader application for using your core muscles in everyday life, and everything you do physically can benefit from it.
While martial arts isn’t alone in being an activity that can radically strengthen your core, I find that the varied techniques and exercises you learn in a good system can be used to develop your core, and the different ways you learn to increase the mastery of your physical behaviour is a huge benefit not only to amputees in extracting maximum potential from their situation, but to all people.
… and now that I’ve written it and looked over it twise, I hope it made sense and wasn’t too jumbled 😛