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It’s all about that Base!

Nicola Smith

Olivia working on base. Photo courtesy of Nicola Smith.
“It’s all about the Base!” I say this all the time in my Kid’s Judo class because it’s funny. So few of my pop references are relevant to 10 year olds today, so I enjoy making them laugh with that one. But it’s not just about laughs it is all about that base!

I used to refer to it as balance, but after cross training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) I now use their term, Base. It’s when you sink your weight down a little bit so you are balanced through your feet, you “base out”. Other arts may refer to it as being rooted, or rooting down. There are a number of different terms but we’ll go with base for now, so you can sing that song in your head when you think about it.

What is base?

When you first start learning BJJ, one of the first things you hear about is base. Standing up in base, having "base", adjusting your base, dropping into base, basing out, etc. Sometimes it is said as a compliment – “You have great base!” Base refers to your base of support. A base of support is made up of whatever points of support you have with an object. If you are standing, your two feet are your points of support and your base of support would be the straight line drawn between your two feet. If you place one hand on the ground (and shift some weight onto it) you have three points of support on the ground and your base becomes a triangle shape, or a three point base.

In people, generally the center of gravity (COG) is somewhere in the stomach, slightly behind the belly button and this will change slightly depending on weight and build. In some arts this is referred to as the Hara or Dantien. It means that if you let your COG get too close to any edge of your base, or your COG gets too high within your base, you are vulnerable to falling over, or being pulled over. The lesson is keep your COG low and relatively centered within your base of support. It gets difficult when you are moving and grappling with a live opponent. It becomes easy to lose track of where your COG is and sometimes there is this illusion of stability when in fact you are vulnerable. It’s why I’m always yelling at people to stand up or keep their butt down! If you bend over when moving you feel secure, but actually bending your knees and keeping your torso upright is often more secure or balanced than bending over and sticking your tush out.

The point of thinking about this stuff is to make something that you do intuitively into something that is a conscious skill. Sometimes just moving your COG an inch or two to the left or right can make the difference between feeling stable or feeling off balance. The art in grappling arts is learning how to maintain your own base while disturbing your opponent’s base, or as with Judo & Aikido, using your opponents attack on your base to throw them.

In Judo we spend a lot of time trying to disturb someone else’s balance, we call it Kuzushi, or breaking balancing. If I can move my opponent in such a way that their COG shifts and makes them either unstable or have to move to reestablish their base while I am fully balanced, then I can throw them with more ease in the direction I choose. It’s more efficient to throw someone when they are off balance than when they are “based out” or well balanced. I don’t need to use as much strength & speed to throw a person if they are already off balance, plus I have less chance of being thrown.

Practicing techniques of an art that specifically requires a good base, such as Judo or BJJ, can improve your balance and an awareness of your base and your opponent’s base and thus how to disturb it. Some arts however do not have the same contact and instant physical feedback that grappling may provide. Plus some people are more out of contact with their bodies or not as good at responding to touch or physical instruction. So they have to work at improving their balance.

Photo courtesy of Nicola Smith.

In biomechanics, balance is an ability to maintain the line of gravity (vertical line from center of mass) of a body within the base of support. Maintaining balance requires coordination of input from multiple sensory systems including the vestibular, somatosensory, and visual systems. So your brain, muscles, joints and eyes all help you with balance & with maintaining base. To maintain balance when in motion requires you to utilize proprioception.

Proprioception is the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement. In other words, it’s the ability to know where all your limbs are in relation to your body at any given time. Some people are born with a heightened ability and others develop the ability through training and practice.

During the learning of any new skill, sport, or art, it is usually necessary to become familiar with some proprioceptive tasks specific to that activity. Proprioceptive sense can be sharpened through study of many disciplines. Examples are the Feldenkrais method and the Alexander Technique. Standing on a wobble board or balance board is often used to retrain or increase proprioception abilities, particularly as physical therapy for ankle or knee injuries. Standing on one leg (stork standing) and various other body-position challenges are also used in such disciplines as Yoga, Wing Chun and T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Several studies have shown that the efficacy of these types of training is increased by closing the eyes, because the eyes give invaluable feedback to establishing the moment-to-moment information of balance. There are even specific devices designed for proprioception training, such as the exercise ball, which works on balancing the abdominal and back muscles. Without adequate proprioception a martial artist would have to watch each limb as they moved rather than being able to feel where their body is in space & in relation to their opponent. You need good proprioception in order to have good base & grapplers need good base! Cos it’s all about that base!

Base is important to grapplers because we want to throw one another or move on the ground, but it’s also important to strikers. Without a good base you are less able to throw a punch or kick with power and accuracy. The stance is different depending on the art, but each art talks about stance. Stance is about standing in base. The base is smaller for Judoka because we have to be able to move in any direction & respond to being pushed or pulled. Strikers use a similar position to increase the power in a strike by utilizing energy created by the legs, hips and back translating to the arm and fist. If you watch Bruce Lee perform the famous one inch punch you’ll see that he takes up a strong stance so that he can use his whole body to create power through the punch. For a small guy he had great base!

Base can be used as a defense not just as an offense. In Aikido, for example, the practitioner uses their own maintenance of balance while moving to disrupt an attacker’s base. They allow an attacker to off balance himself so they may throw him.

An awareness of base and balance may help a non-martial artist respond to an attack. I teach the importance of base in self-defense classes for a variety of reasons, but mainly because maintaining your balance when you are attacked will allow you to fight or to flight. If an attacker is able to grab someone and pick them up they can take them to a second location or put them into a vehicle, neither have good outcomes. If an attacker can knock you to the ground they can maintain control there. If you fall to the ground when attacked you lose the ability to escape as easily as if you stay upright.

I teach people to “base-out” when they are in a dangerous situation. Standing with feet slightly apart with one slightly forward of the other, similar to a boxer’s stance. With the knees soft & the weight shifted to the center gives you the opportunity to react in any direction no matter whether an assailant pulls, pushes, or tries to strike. From this balanced position a person can choose to defend themselves, run from the situation or mount an attack. It is part of the “ready position”; the other part is to have your hands up around chest height. This helps with balance but also if you need to put them up to defend a strike or to push an assailant away.

The other thing about the “ready position” is that being physically balanced can help with self- confidence and can allow you to speak up when nervous. Professional speakers are taught to stand in a balanced position so they can be comfortable and not pace about on stage.

I encourage my students to practice being balanced at all times and to work on improving their base whenever possible. I do it myself, when on a cruise recently the seas were a bit rough so when people kept shifting awkwardly across the dance floor, not me! I kept basing out to the beat. Because it’s all about that base, ‘bout that base, no treble!
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