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Whenever I go into a fighting stance or do techniques I have a tendency to carry a lot of excess tension in my shoulders. Even when I consciously relax my shoulders, it'll be noted that I am "too tense." This has been an ongoing thing for over ten years and doesn't seem likely to reduce anytime soon. Things such as massage, yoga, chiropractic have helped, but are not a panacea and do not seem to be addressing the root issue as yet (though I have only started the yoga relatively recently).

This has a few consequences, one of which is that it makes proper flow for the techniques significantly more difficult and it raises the temptation to use more muscle than is needed. It also means more accidental projection of what I am going to do to my opponent.

So the question is: Are there any things I can do–particularly while doing the techniques, but just in general–that will help me to relax my shoulders and reduce my overall tension?

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To me this is most likely a mental problem not a physical one, so chiro and massage won't help (although they'll gladly accept your money for as long as you throw it at them). This also sounds like a teaching flaw - you've been told what the problem is but not how to fix it.

I have a couple of suggestions:

  • snap technique drills. Some karate techniques like reiken uchi* (backfist) require a very relaxed delivery with a snap at the end. You can practice this in thin air or on a light bag, and another very good way to practice it is to swat flies during summer (just keep you hand open while doing this). If you manage to start hitting flies then you are either improving or the flies are docile :)

  • cross train in Aikido (if that isn't already your style). When leading the chi (redirecting your attacker's energy), it is imperative that the technique is executed in a relaxed manner, if you stiffen up and use muscle then this change is transmitted back to the attacker who can then resist what you are doing. A simple throw like kotegaeshi (good video) is very easy to learn but your technique has to be perfect to really make it work.



*To be pedantically correct, with most karate techniques the delivery limb should be quite relaxed until moment of impact, but some techniques are even more so. IOW with most of the techniques they will still work if you are not relaxed, but with techniques like reiken uchi you have to be relaxed.

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  • My current art has a lot of structural similarity to aikido in this respect, and uses some of the same concepts of energy. Certainly something I can focus on more. – David H. Clements Feb 6 '12 at 5:25
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I wish you had specified your martial art of choice in the question.

Stiffness and even more perceived (by others) stiffness can have many causes and it's difficult to help without more detail.

On a general note, stiffness is usually the result of a bad body alignment, which is often (but not always) caused by a lack of strength. Strength training may help over some months.

I personally don't value much the mental relaxation value in lessening the shoulder tension (that's not usually the case), but if you think that may be the cause it's easy to check for it: while doing technique check you're breathing. If you're not breathing normally (holding your breath, breathing too much) then you're mentally over tensed.

Another cause for stiffness is bad technique or attitude, but it's difficult to give you suggestions without knowing which kind of techniques. Here are a few examples of what you could do:

  • too tensed in boxing guard ? Make sure your elbows touch your body,your rear hand touches your head. That will offload the shoulders a bit.
  • too tensed when punching: as noted by others practicing a relaxed backfist works wonders. Think of it as a slap more than a strike.
  • too tensed while applying armlocks: strengthening your grip will offload your shoulders (may in turn make your partner think you're stiff, though)

As a last thing: there's no such thing as a relaxed shoulder when you're holding your arms up. The shoulder is the main muscle helping you holding the arms lifted. When somebody speaks about relaxed shoulders what you really want is having mobile shoulders, that is: shoulder than can move. Move them, use them, don't try to use them less.

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I have had similar issues, although perhaps not as bad.
What I generally do when I realize I am tensing up is slow down, focus on my breathing, and close my eyes. Generally I have to go through the motions on my own, as doing a technique on a partner without looking is difficult.
Essentially just calm yourself down and focus on doing it in a relaxed manner, and work on getting it correct after you can get the basic motions down.

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  • Very good suggestions, will be trying these. – David H. Clements Feb 6 '12 at 5:23
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Posture matters

If you have poor posture such as hunched shoulders, you will have more tension and worse range of motion. This is most obvious among the elderly.

Fixing your posture requires relearning how to use your body, which is slow. It's not something you can fix by trying to relax in a particular moment or during short office visits; it requires sustained attention over months to the way you sit, stand, and move.

Weigtlifting strength is not enough

I dispute this statement:

there's no such thing as a relaxed shoulder when you're holding your arms up.

Holding your arm up requires contraction of a muscle, but it is quite easy to hold your arm up using more tension than required. For example, if you lift your shoulder towards your ear while holding your arm up, it is more difficult than if your shoulder remains down. This kind of tension is visibly apparent. Less obviously, you can practice holding your arm up until you can comfortably sustain holding it up, for say, 10 minutes. This training makes you stronger in some sense, but not in the weightlifting sense where you can lift a heavier weight. Once you can hold your arm up for a long time, you are more relaxed with your arm up than before.

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  • I definitely agree about raising the shoulder towards your ear - took me ages to break that habit! – Mike P Aug 13 '18 at 10:39
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Do you change the way you stand when you go into a stance? I'm guessing your foot position changes. Do you change the angle of your back? Does your spine curve or straighten too much close to your neck? Do you bring your head forward, or keep it too far back? All these things contribute to potential shoulder tension.

One thing you can do is use a speed bag (from boxing - that bag that hangs down). Just hold your hands up and punch it for a few minutes. Your shoulders will get real tired. Do this for a while and it will eventually strengthen the right muscles and fix your posture for you (Because, of course, you WILL be lazy and your body will eventually fix problems with your posture like you standing too close or too far away, etc).

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