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Managing Injury, Improving Fundamental Movement and Building Strength—Through Tai Chi, FMS and the RKC

January 24, 2012 01:00 PM

DrMarkCheng interview1 
Dragon Door:   Dr. Mark Cheng, it's good to talk to you. How did you first discover kettlebells?
Dr. Mark Cheng:   I first discovered kettlebells through one of my patients, a gentleman by the name of Dan Inosanto. He's the senior most student of Bruce Lee. One of his senior students (an RKC) set up a training session for him to train with Pavel. Inosanto asked me, "Doc, would you mind coming to this workout—one of my students arranged a workout with a Russian weightlifting coach, but I'm worried about my back getting hurt, would you mind just coming with me." I came along as support, should anything have gone wrong.
I saw Pavel demonstrating the swing, and at first I thought this will not be good for my patient. But as I heard Pavel teach, and as I watched him cue, and listened to everything he said, it not only sounded anatomically and physiologically correct, it sounded so optimal that I became intrigued.
Fast forward a few weeks, Pavel asked, "Come on, when are you gonna come and train too?" There were three of us: Guru Dan Inosanto, Professor Roy Harris, who's one of the highest-ranking Americans in Brazilian Jujitsu, and myself. I was amazed at how much it changed my body. My interest in kettlebells was mostly from a rehab standpoint, I had tons of injuries from martial arts and from injuring my body with tennis as a kid.
I felt a difference in my lower back (I suffered a lower back injury in college), and a difference in my shoulders (for the majority of my life I had very bad shoulders). I felt the sharp pain in my low back which was very debilitating go from "it hurts to even jog" to suddenly being able to sprint without pain. My shoulders which would always wake me up in the middle of the night suddenly became so I could sleep through the night without pain. That was quite a wakeup call for me. That's what got me to drink the RKC Kool-Aid.
Dragon Door:   When did you first train with Pavel?
Dr. Mark Cheng:   2004, and in April 2006, I went through the RKC myself. I thought this was such great stuff that if I'm enjoying and benefiting so much, that my patients would as well. That led me to the FMS after Pavel introduced me to Gray Cook.
DrMarkCheng interview4
Dragon Door:   You’re using FMS with your RKC knowledge—can you expand on how you use those two together?
Dr. Mark Cheng:   Initially I looked at FMS from the standpoint of screening athletes, people, and to see medicine from a different paradigm. When I met Gray Cook, in '07 with Pavel, I thought "How come this isn't part of every Western medical orthopedic assessment?"
The SFMA has become a cornerstone of my practice. I use it to guide me towards the lynchpin problem in an injury or movement pattern. Once you get someone out of pain, then you FMS them and see what underlying problems are there, like GPS'ing towards prescribing the right corrective exercise.
There are three main tools: the Y balance test, the FMS (Functional Movement Screen) and then the SMFA (selective functional movement assessment). The Selective Functional Movement Assessment is like the FMS, but a medical version. If someone is in pain, you put them through the SMFA. Gray Cook's old joke was to say "if you see someone standing on the corner smoking a joint, do you really need to waste the drug test on them?" The idea behind the FMS is you got someone who's moving without pain and you want to see if there are any hidden landmines in their movement.
Dragon Door:   You said you have some injuries?
Dr. Mark Cheng:   Starting with tennis - I always wanted to hit a really hard serve, a spin-oriented serve. But that ridiculously high force, through tons of reps without adequate strength training or fundamental movement patterning, wasn't the best way of building skill. Sometimes training the body in other directions gives you better durability. I was too focused on the skill of that particular technique, and didn't have an adequate base of fundamental movement throughout the rest of my body.
Dragon Door:   How has the RKC system helped you work through your injuries?
Dr. Mark Cheng:   Pavel's method more than anything else—many people cue or coach you to train harder, and they're great rep counters or motivators, but in terms of actual technique, and reverse engineering to make you stronger, to make you perform better, Pavel is singular.
Even though I did martial arts for a number of years, I took a break and worked as a desk jockey for a number of years before getting back into clinical medicine. I still wasn't using the full range of movement that I had before.
DrMarkCheng interview5
DrMarkCheng interview5  DrMarkCheng interview3
Pavel said "Look, I know you want to get into kettlebells, but I want you to focus on these mobility exercises first." To pattern strength on a platform of preexisting mobility, that's part of his genius. That's why every RKC starts off with mobility drills. I say with unabashed certainty that two things make the RKC so good: One, it's having Pavel at the helm. The second thing is that he's always improving the system, whether it's Gray's FMS, input from Brett Jones, or from Professor McGill in Canada. Pavel's humble enough to improve, and there's enough of a true system that can evolve.
Dragon Door:    You mentioned martial arts—what styles do you practice?
Dr. Mark Cheng:   My true love has always been Shuaijiao, Chinese wrestling. I'm a student at the Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts in Los Angeles. I instruct Sil Lum Fut Ga, which is a Southern Chinese style. I've taught Tai Chi around the world for a number of years. I started training with my father when I was 10. I've co-authored a book on Hwa Rang Do, a Korean martial art, and trained in Brazilian Jujitsu with Professor Roy Harris (HKC).
I'm coming out with a Tai Chi product through Beach Body, the company that produced P90X. It’s basically the first section of Yang style large frame form with a lot of the basic skills and fundamental movements.
A lot of people come to learn Tai Chi obsessed with learning the form. The form is like the flower of the plant. If you want to give someone something that looks good, give them the flower, but the flower soon dies. If you want to give them skill, teach them the root. The root is the ugliest part of the plant, but that's the wellspring from which flowers come from all the time.
Taking the time to develop a strong solid root is what the product is about. Many people just learn forms without that adequate base of fundamental movement. I have people start over with the fundamental movements. There’s also basic strength exercises, and skill at the very last. Unlike a lot of other Tai Chi products which focus a lot on the form, this is like the form is icing; focus on the cake.
Dragon Door:    What's interesting about what you're saying is that it sounds a lot like what we're doing here at the RKC— focusing on fundamental movements, the RKC 6.
Dr. Mark Cheng:   An inch wide and a mile deep. There's a lot of detail in the simplest parts of program minimum, the dead lift, the get-up.
Those two exercises are like well-cut diamonds. No matter how many times you look at them, they never hold light the same way twice. While the ballistics are sexy because they're fast, it’s important to train mobility in the hips, spinal stability, breathing, efficiency where necessary, and maximum tension where there should be strength. Those principles are the cornerstones of good performance, and you can never spend enough time on that.
Dragon Door:    A lot of times I have to convince people it's a journey, we're not going to fix everything today. I'm still working on my swing. I will work on my swing for the rest of my life.
Dr. Mark Cheng:    Brett Jones, one of the first Master RKCs, has people ask him "What are you working on?" He answers, "Swing." And he's not saying that to be facetious.
The Beach Body product is exciting in the sense that I'm dialing people back. One of the first things that we're doing is to start the product with a function test. Some of its FMS derived. This gives people an idea of their baseline movement or what they're lacking. A lot of times, if your daily life doesn't challenge you to do certain movements, you don't know what you can't do.
Changing the paradigm from "how many ugly reps you can do?" to "how much movement do you have" will be a wakeup call. They’ll see performance improvement after they focus on function. That FMS mentality will allow people a bridge into higher, more intense exercise.
My hope is that that the Beach Body Tai Chi product becomes a bridge to the RKC: here’s how you break out of an unhealthy lifestyle, of being sedentary, of being injured. Here's how you regain ranges of movement, how you reactivate your core, how you get back in touch with breathing. All fundamental principles. One of the things I think is so exciting about the RKC is that there's not a single principle that doesn't tie in perfectly with internal martial arts.
A lot of people think Tai Chi is the total opposite from the RKC, that it doesn't have Fa Jing or the quick motion. Speed is irrelevant. You should be able to go slow or fast and still embody those principles. Posture is at the core with the RKC and with Tai Chi, as is breathing. Intelligent application of tension, being relaxed when you need to relax and powerful when you need to be powerful, understanding how to flip that switch back and forth... That's Tai Chi at its essence. That's the RKC at its essence.
DrMarkCheng interview2
Dragon Door:   Was there a particular practice that helped you with your shoulder injury?
Dr. Mark Cheng:   The get-up was my saving grace. Learning how to "screw my shoulders in", to get long with the neck while engaging that line of power. It's been priceless. I still have some injuries in my shoulders that in an ideal situation would need surgery, but even a great surgeon can still do an imperfect job. Gray Cook just got out of a surgery and said, "My wrist isn't any better, it just hurts in different places." At 40, I don't want to go under the knife early if I'm not absolutely certain that I will be better. I will train in such a way that I use movement or muscle to bandage that injury.
My wife who's also a physician (osteopath) looked at my shoulder and said, you can corrective exercise this all you want, but at the root of the problem, you've got some stuff that really does need surgery. I've heard that from other physicians as well, but, I don’t want to gamble. At this stage of life, I don't want to be the Dad who has to say, "Son, I can't do that because my shoulder hurts too much" or "Daddy can't do that anymore because of the surgery." Martial arts-wise, there's some stuff that I can't really do all that well because of the shoulder, but there's plenty of stuff that I can do.

For more on martial arts and kettlebells, check out Dr. Mark Cheng's DVD set the Kettlebell Warrior: Applied Combat Kettlebells for Maximum Martial Power
DVD KettlebellWarrior