Wing Chun Elbow Force In-Depth
By Maksem Manler
Anyone who has studied Wing Chun in the Ip Man lineage has probably heard of elbow force. There are many interpretations of elbow force depending on the practitioners understanding of what is meant by the term. My understanding of elbow force comes from Chu Shong Tin's interpretation of elbow force as his ability in Wing Chun was by far the most powerful and efficient in the Ip Man lineage.
It is difficult to find content on the internet explaining elbow force and its unique properties. As you explore elbow force, you will find that there is a relationship between how well you can generate elbow force and how open your spine is. We will look at this connection in this blog.
What is Elbow Force?
Let's start with the term elbow force - just what is it referring to? A force in the elbow, right? Roughly speaking, yes, we could call it force, but in reality, it is the full body weight stabilizing the elbow joint that creates the force. Force is perhaps the wrong word too, because it implies that the elbow is generating power on its own. However, the elbow can't generate massive power by itself because it is simply a hinge joint, with a small amount of its own weight, and with rotational ability afforded by the radius bone. Elbow force is quite simply, body mass leveraged via the shoulder.
Elbow force is very demonstrable too. If you understand it, elbow force is fairly straight forward to generate. The hard part is understanding why it works and troubleshooting when it does not work. The elbow can leverage the body mass via the shoulder joint when it moves, because the arm is attached to the torso at the shoulder joint. If the muscles do not engage and lock the elbow joint in a fixed position, then theoretically, the weight of the entire body can be transmitted to the elbow joint and essentially fill up the arms with the body weight. This means that an opponent resisting your arm movement has to bear the full weight of the body mass imbuing the arm. Elbow force essentially changes the weight of your arm as it moves, hence why it is impossible to stop unless the person resisting can use elbow force to resist. Even so, if someone is resisting you with elbow force but not moving, you should still be able to execute the force as the movement of the body weight in the elbow will always make the force greater than the static resistance.
It is also worth noting that with the body mass inside the elbow joint, when your forearm or fist makes contact, the impact force will reach only to your elbow and bounce back into the opponent via the contact point, effectively bouncing the person away. The same logic also applies to the knee joints and sending the body mass into the knee joints.
Elbow Force in Siu Nim Tao
The first section of Siu Nim Tao (after the opening) is the Tan Sau (dispersing hand) followed by three Fook Sau's (tame-force hand) and three Wu Sau's (guarding hand). The repetition of these moves signifies that they are important. Why are they important? Because these shapes provide the easiest way for you to develop the ability to send your full body weight to your elbow joints as your arm moves. It trains you to develop correct elbow force and to get used to hanging the muscles of the arm whilst you are moving.
Elbow Force is in every Wing Chun movement
Elbow force is not limited to just the first section of Siu Nim Tao. Every single move in Wing Chun must have elbow force, otherwise you arms will not have any stability and weight. If you do not have elbow force, you might be able to make the Wing Chun shapes externally but the shapes will not have the body mass filling them and stabilizing them.
To build elbow force, you must use intent to send the full body mass into the elbows whilst releasing all the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. But you still need control of the joint too. If the muscles engage, the body mass will not travel to the elbow. Siu Nim Tao training is very important as it teaches you to recognize the feeling of elbow force and to reprogram your muscles and nervous system to feel comfortable with not engaging or contracting to create movement.
As CST points out in his book of Wing Chun Vol.1, elbow force is created by movement of the shoulder. This should be obvious by now as the elbow structure itself can only be moved by the shoulder.
I have found students tend to have tremendous difficulty in being able to perform Wing Chun moves correctly against resistance. I notice that most people when they encounter resistance will lift and lock their elbows first. There is a habitual response in their elbows that makes them lock and push the forearm into the contact point. In my opinion, the difficulty comes from not fully comprehending the importance of elbow force and its function, therefore not actively practicing it. Once a student grasps the fact that they must produce elbow force for every single movement in Wing Chun, then they start unlocking the ways to perform all the Wing Chun movements correctly.
In the clip below, it is interesting to note the position of my entire elbow unit in space before and after Sigung's adjustment. CST's adjustment allowed my body mass to stabilize my knees and elbows meaning it became easy to move Sam and unbalance him. When I tried the movement by myself first, Sam felt heavy and hard to move, and after the adjustment, he felt like he weighed about as much as a tennis ball. Not much actually happened in my spine during the adjustment, most of the adjustment was focused on correcting my elbow force.
Without comprehending elbow force, it is next to impossible to perform Chum Kiu correctly as the pivoting is based on the same logic of elbow force but applied to the knee joints. The full mass of the body in the knee joints has the same effect but much greater than the elbows. When the trunk rotates, the body mass inside the knees and elbows (a minimum requirement) completely stabilizes the stance and allows any contact made with the body have to bear a direct connection to the full body weight at the contact point or points. Because the contact points are moving and they have the full body mass, the resistance has to be able to stand against the force created by the mass moving, which it cannot do statically.
As your elbow force improves, you will find that it forces your spine to open. The need to put more mass into the elbows and knees provides a solid reason as to why you would even want to open your spine. The logic is simple, the more mass you release from your spine, the more mass is available to stabilize the knees and elbows. Later on, we will discuss the body mass travelling out to the contact point, the finger tips and then into objects i.e. the wooden dummy, the butterfly swords and the pole.
By Maksem Manler