Esoteric Fight Science

In this illustration, a Muay Thai knee knocks a soul right out of its body

In the new martial arts documentary Fight Science, computerized sensors are used to objectively measure the speed, power and balance of various martial artists. 

Among the findings:

  • The boxer punches with 1000 pounds of force;
  • The wushu practitioner moves faster than a snake;
  • Damage from a Muay Thai knee is comparable to a 35MPH car crash.

These data points illustrate that martial arts practice results in a stronger, faster body.  However in my opinion, they capture neither the most significant benefits of practice, nor the most interesting esoteric skills.

Disciplined martial arts study enables conscious regulation of the body’s respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems.  Such regulation, which includes controlling respiration and heart rate, mitigates the negative effects of constant environmental stress. 

Few of us are called upon to defend our lives in barehanded combat, but we all face environmental stress, and our health is influenced by our ability to respond appropriately to it.  For the average person, this may be the most important benefit of practice.

Heart and lung activity are easy to measure, but boring to watch, so I’m not surprised that they were left out of this show.  Besides, these skills have already been measured and documented many times before.

More exotic skills include:

  • Manipulation of Qi and blood flow;
  • Light emission; and
  • Adjustment of electromagnetic fields in and outside the body.

In the absence of direct personal experience, most people doubt the existence of these skills.  But in fact, reputable researchers (such as Dr. Shin Lin of the UC Irvine’s Mind Body Lab) using the latest biomedical monitoring equipment have validated their existence. 

I predict this research will add a bizarre twist to debates over the ultimate martial art style.  Who is better, the master who can do a spinning back kick, or the master who can glow in the dark? 🙂

How do you measure the results of your practice?

Fight Science Video


  1. You’re right, the show mainly focused on so-called “external” martial arts, and the equipment has yet to be used to examine the internal martial arts and body-hardening qigong. Nonetheless, I thought it was a good effort to make the results of martial arts training more accessible to an audience thoroughly grounded in the physical world.
    Having had experience in both eastern martial arts and western metaphysical studies, I would have liked to see some degree of demystification of the feats we see or hear about among esoteric qigong practitioners: the ability to withstand being punctured or cut by various bladed weapons, the ability to strike a stack of bricks *without spacers* and have the break start 5 bricks down, the ability to disable an opponent without physical contact using the chi and/or the voice, and even the ability to walk on eggs or rice paper without breaking them (in essence, antigravity!).

  2. I am both a scientist and a martial art practitioner, and so I was amazingly excited to see this show. Unfortunately I couldn’t watch the first airing, so I had to wait to see it on a rerun. I must confess that I wish they had done some things differently to satisfy my scientific sense of rigor. 🙂 I really enjoyed the show, though.

    I liked the show, but some confounding factors come into play–the fighters aren’t the same weights! If you’re going to measure pound for pound effectiveness, then you have to have consistent baselines, including experience (ie-all comparable fight experience, training time, etc), weight (a heavier mass moving at the same speed as a lighter one hits harder), and other factors.

    Seems they did alright on the first part, experience, although they could have done maybe a bit better, but they failed on the second. They need to make all the people from the same weight class to have meaningful numbers.

    One last thing I wish they had done would be to have registered all the same kicks and punches (ie–everyone does a side kick, everyone does a knee, etc), instead of allowing different kinds of strikes. Besides which, and this is maybe more important, is to take the best of 3 tries, not just 1. In exercise physiology, sports performance, kinesiology, etc, all anatomical, strength and explosiveness, and muscle balance/range of motion tests are done in a “best of” trial (excluding weighted motions like squat/bench). Jump tests, bounding, flexibility, all these body tests are a best of 3-5 trials. It allows a neural warm-up and true measurement of ability.

    So all-in-all, I think this show has taken a good first step into direct scientific measurement of all these myths, but there are a lot of confounding factors that make it hard for me to believe all their conclusions. They need better controls, and I really hope that they keep going with more shows.

  3. Ah yes, before I forget, there are a bunch of problems with their analysis of the swords used in the show. First and foremost, the chinese jin, or straight-sword, is NOT as fragile as they make it out to be. A real jin is nowhere near as flexible or fragile (or even as light in weight) as the wushu tournament or taiji tournament “sword”. The tournament blades are not chosen for durability but to showcase the whiplike motion of the competitor by flexing. A real combat jin is heavier, though still light in general, and thicker. It will not splinter or break from a normal stab. Although flexible, it is not insubstantial. It holds more in common with a rapier, being primarily a thrusting weapon, although in general it will be wider and slightly thicker to better accomodate slashes.

    The samurai sword is remarkable and probably my favorite sword design, but it is not predominantly a stabbing weapon. Yes, it may be used to thrust and stab quite effectively, but its best use is in draw cuts and slashes. This is because of its geometry–curved design and most importantly its single edge and asymmetric blade design/cross section.

    The most confusing thing to me though was that they chose the tae kwon do practitioner for the samurai sword (as well as so many other weapons). I disagree with this. I would much rather have the cutting specialist use the weapon. Just my opinion.

  4. My comment got cut off, I think there’s a web-wide monitor set for “chenquestion” to make me keep it short. Anyway I just agreed with your take on battling environmental stress and its harmful effects on us who’re stuck in stressful modern environments. Time and life beat us up worse than fights do, too often. Thanks for an interesting post.

  5. Stanford researchers record Tai Chi master

    Jessica Rose, an orthopedic surgery professor at Stanford, could not believe her eyes.

    Tai Chi master Chen Xiang, sensor balls taped to key body joints, was demonstrating palm, elbow and fist strikes so fast – and with such force – that the sensors kept flying off his body.

    Chen’s demonstration, conducted at the Motion and Gait Analysis Laboratory at Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital, will serve as another example of a human performing at its peak and it will be used by Rose and her colleagues to paint a more detailed picture about how the body moves, and why.

Add a Comment