by Stephen J. Goodson
First published in the Skepitcal Eye, Vol.8 #4, 1995
The need for skeptical thinking is present in every pursuit and area of study. This need is not necessarily due to some inherent desire for man to defraud other men, but due to man's ability to deceive himself. The Buddhists warn of self-delusion, the Taoists speak of polishing the vision, and the skeptics say..."Let me see that again."
As a teenager, I attended a martial arts class in which one of the senior students asked for a volunteer for a special demonstration. I was volunteered. The senior asked me to hold out my arm, make a fist, and use all my strength to keep him from bending my arm. I followed his instructions. Facing me, he slipped his shoulder under my wrist, placed his forearm perpendicular and on top of my arm at the elbow crease, his other hand grabbing his wrist. He reiterated that I was to use all my muscle and strength to keep him from bending my arm. I assured him I was fully committed to the task. He then slowly pushed down on my arm and bent it. My normal recourse would have been to challenge him again at the task, but he had already suggested a change in roles. I obliged and we changed positions. On my attempt, I easily bent his arm. I felt better.
Then he said he would use a special "energy", developed from many years of arduous practice of his martial art, to keep me from bending his arm. He continued, saying that this "energy" was so powerful that he could foil my attempts with his arm completely relaxed.
This time, when I attempted to bend his arm, it was to no avail. His arm—no his entire body—was relaxed and showed no signs of strain! I tried again, as he showed that his biceps were soft and completely relaxed. He was snapping his fingers and waving his hand. (Remember, I was prying down with vigor on the elbow attached to that hand.)
In awe, my questions came. He shushed me and offered me the "secret." He told me that the power he used was "life energy," and that it was developed through years of special mental and physical training (I must have annoyed him because I kept comparing his arm to mine—mine was bigger!). He told me I was short-sighted and that I must "look beyond the obvious." Then he directed me to raise and relax my arm and look in the direction it was pointing, "at a point on the wall and beyond." I was to feel my connection with the earth through my feet and legs, then relax my body and mind and extend my mind and "energy" toward that point on the horizon, reaching for it. As I did this, he slipped his shoulder under my arm and began trying to bend my arm. Exerting himself fully, he could not bend my "energized" arm. My background in sports, he said, had developed my "energy" a little, and my performance was more successful than others because of it.
On my next attempt to do the unbendable arm, I was able to project my "energy" so well that he had a classmate hang from my "energized" arm, swinging with both feet off the ground.* Through this relaxed use of "energy," my strength had quadrupled in a matter of minutes! The senior said his martial art was based on this kind of "energetic" strength, and that only through careful tutelage under a competent "Master" would one be able to manifest this strength through one's entire body and to use that "energy" against an opponent. The student would have to be of high moral character because of the obvious lethality of the art. I left that evening impressed by the demonstrative use of "life energy."
Now there is the conundrum: is this really a physical test that proves the existence of a special "life energy?" The test is quite powerful, and if you have never experienced it, I suggest you grab a partner and give it a whirl before reading the rest of the story.
As the years have passed, I have duplicated this test many times with others. I have also witnessed the test demonstrated by others as examples of Ki / Chi energy, results of positive thinking, the power of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, etc. The demonstrations vary slightly, but the results are always the same-an impressive increase of strength through the use of this technique.
The explanation of the unbendable arm is that it is not a feat of "energetics," but of mere physical strength, albeit proper use of strength. When the demonstrator first introduces unbendable arm, you are asked to "make a fist" and/or "use all of your muscle" to keep your arm from being bent. You do this by tightening the "big-bellied" muscles of the arm—the biceps specifically. When the demonstrator applies pressure to your arm, it bends because the muscles you have engaged are not the muscles needed to resist the pressure on your arm but are, in fact, the exact muscles that move your arm in the same direction as his pressure, i.e. the biceps bend the arm.
Now don't think that hypnosis or suggestibility are at work here, for they are not. What is at work here is your unfamiliarity with the task at hand and the directive to "use all of your muscle." These conditions, which seem reasonable when first presented, set you up to use the wrong muscles. Once engaged, you fail the task due to improper use of your strength.
When you are "told the secret," you are directed to open your hand and relax and to extend your "energy". This is the correct set-up for the proper use of strength because it is in extending your arm that you engage your triceps muscles. Your arm cannot be bent because you are able to use the triceps muscles that extend your arm. This is the proper use of strength for the task.
The method to keep someone from bending your arm in this exercise is correct and is most impressive, but the explanation of "life energy" (or any other explanation besides the use of the triceps) is wrong. Knowing the real secret of the unbendable arm has been very helpful to me in examining the mechanics of other martial art techniques—throws, locks, punches, pushes, etc. It has also helped me to steer clear of the "Masters" who have other tricks that lead students far off the path. In other words, do not discount a method merely because it is incorrectly explained, but beware.