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A fight’s a fight, isn’t it?

Yes. No. Maybe? Different people think about fighting in different ways, with different assumptions, and often those different ways don’t mesh with the realities of a situation when fighting skills are needed most. The term “fight” has become many things to many people. One person views a common fight as a barfight. Another thinks of a MMA fight in a ring. Another still imagines a mugging gone bad and now involving a life-or-death struggle. Someone else might think of being jumped by Bad Guys™ out to kill them for some perceived slight. Yet another thinks of resisting a bully. In a way, they are all right, and that’s a problem when trying to think about how martial arts training can best mesh with a fight outside the training hall.

In order to really enable a useful discussion of how martial arts or other training relates to fights, it helps to be very specific. Outside of war and other professional physical violence, there are three main types of physical conflict, by which I mean adversarial, non-compliant altercations. These are: contest, dominance, and predatory, and they are categorized based upon their defining goals. Note that there can certainly be cases in which the lines between them can blur, depending upon the individuals and any contributing context.


These types of fights are characterized by a desire to test the participants against each other. There are mutual rules, both explicit and implicit, that cover a wide range of possibilities. Contact can be light (or even no-contact) to full power and full speed. Contests can be paused at each contact, or the exchanges can be non-stop, using rounds or not. There might be armor or protective padding, and weapons are usually padded or otherwise made less deadly. There might be limitations to the choice of targets or the techniques allowed. Since we don’t live in gladiatorial times, death and similar mayhem is not normally on the table. There is an agreed-to honor code among the participants that forms the basis for the rules of the contest. Usually permanent damage is also off the table, though some incidental damage is to be expected, including accidents.

Contests certainly include all sorts of combat sports events, such as boxing, MMA bouts, tournament matches, sparring in class, fencing matches, stickfighting tournaments (ranging from live-stick-no-pads to padded-sticks-and-armor), etc. But they can also include certain adversarially-oriented contact drills, such as reaction drills or root-disrupting drills (push hands, chi sao, etc).

Each person in a contest type of fight is a willing participant, the goals are the same, and the rules are the same, so these types of fights are unique in that they are “fair” and that the end conditions match for all parties. Contest type fights are generally quite commonplace in martial arts and are fairly benign, but tempers can heat up and things can escalate to the next type of fights.


These types of fights are characterized by a desire to establish or maintain a sense of dominance for the purposes of impressing others, or for preserving a sense of honor or “face,” or to enforce the rule of law. (Note that I’m specifically leaving aside law enforcement, war, and other professional violence considerations for now – those could be a whole series of articles itself!) For dominance type fights, there are usually some implicit rules, but they are more than likely not mutual, meaning that the one committed to more extreme measures will be less inhibited and more likely have the upper hand – they will have escalation options not open to the more inhibited combatant. Like contests, death and permanent damage are not the primary goals and are usually off the table, but tempers can flare (sometimes due to the differences in the assumed rules).

Dominance related fights span the breadth of non-contact and contact, ranging from intimidating looks or words to bullying, to full-on brawls or subduing a Bad Guy™ (detain/arrest). These are the second most likely types of fights for those not in law enforcement.

In dominance type fights, it is not necessarily true that all participants are willing, nor need they have the same end conditions, though that can certainly happen if pecking-order is the primary goal. Many times, the instigator has the goal of domination while the victim has the goal to avoid, escape, or nullify the predator’s attempts. If the predator’s goal is dominance or honor, once the desired effect has been obtained, the fight is over. However, in a dynamic situation involving both revenge and/or “face,” eventual retribution could still be a factor later, and it can also be a bridge to the next type of fights. If the goal is to subdue, the fight might be over when that is achieved, but the struggle will remain a possibility while the subdued person looks to escape or re-engage, perhaps at the next type of fight.


These types of fights are characterized by the instigator’s desire to victimize or take something from their target, whether it be possessions (valuables or people), control (rape), or even safety (health or life). Victimization itself is the goal, with a secondary goal of not getting caught. Once the interaction becomes physical, it is almost guaranteed that there are not any implicit rules whatsoever – but it really depends on the nature and commitment of the predator to either obtain their goal and to avoid being caught. Certainly, if the goal is more than valuables, then serious damage or even death are most likely on the table.

These are the least likely types of fights, the most unique in terms of commitment and unpredictability, and they are probably for what most people think they train but hope they never have to use.

The predator is almost always the only willing participant, and they are the ones that get to set the initial level of escalation – often directly to the level of their goal. The victim’s main goal is to not be victimized, whether by avoidance, escape, nullification, countering, or disabling the predator. Once the predator attacks, it is possible that the victim must overcome a natural resistance to escalate appropriately, and the predator depends upon this. The predatory fight is only over when the predator reaches their goal (which could be long-term) or the predator can no longer continue the attack (i.e. the would-be victim avoided, escaped, nullified, countered, or disabled the predator).

The following article will use the framework I’ve outlined above to discuss what works in fights, why, and how to get there in your own training.

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I had the pleasure of doing a guest blog article on forms and what they may or may not be good for originally hosted at my friend Jackie Bradbury’s blog, at the, but that old site is defunct now, so here is the article:

Some people laugh at forms (sayaw, chuan, kata, hyung, anyos, djurus, poomse, etc), call them a useless dance, and say they’re no good for combat or self-defense training at all.

And they could be right!

Then again, maybe there is more to consider…

If forms are practiced only because they must be learned (i.e. going through the motions) just for show at tournaments, because they look cool, or in any other manner that doesn’t place things like intent, applications, power generation, visualization, timing, distance, and combat movement as top priorities, then yes, the form detractors are more right than they are wrong.

Forms practice without those things can be a waste of time at best, and at worst it can provide a false sense of ability or train in movements that the student cannot apply. You don’t just get magical fighting prowess by learning to perform a form – it just doesn’t happen. The bottom line is that doing the motions in the form by rote, even as a catalog of moves, is just the tip of the iceberg of what forms have to offer a studious practitioner.

Like much of martial arts training, forms are about attribute development. If you let them, they can be a handy solo way of practicing through a variety of movement transitions and timing combinations. The series of moves runs you through a series of shadow-boxing style moves that can exercise your balance, stability, movement, focus, power generation, relaxation, visualization, and more. A lot of this will depend upon how you practice using various attitudes while moving (relaxation, grounding/balance, exactness, character/flavor, visualization, intent/focus, and awareness/perception). Like most aspects of practice, you get out of it what you put into it.
Forms practice also benefits greatly from studying applications for bite-sized chunks of movements from the forms (striking, parrying, positioning, unbalancing, seizing, releasing, etc), with interlaced half-techniques sometimes being the most surprising. The individual moves and combinations must be deconstructed, tested, and seriously examined – there is no magic there. If done correctly, forms can help you realize new ways to use the movements, including basics like power generation, maneuvering, and unbalancing, or even new tactics altogether.

Lastly, I would point out that martial arts without recognized forms/kata/hyung/etc actually do work on material in ways that is very similar to forms work. They will work set combinations and explore them like I recommend you do your forms. They will work transition flows as essentially 2-man forms, whether they be standup lock flows, ground-work pins and escapes and reversals, or Filipino weapons drills. They relax into their combinations or drills, learning to feel the flow and power, learning to limit/reduce weaknesses, and making the moves their own – just as should be done with forms work for those styles that train them.

Personally, I don’t care if a style or teacher does or does not use “forms” per se. Do they have a method to train and pass on their material in a way that allows a student to develop into them and the moves to develop into the student? Can the material be practiced in a variety of ways to allow the student to gain their own insights? Does the material have repeatable and demonstrable principles and concepts? And on and on…

The study and practice of martial arts involves the deconstruction and exploration of many things that can be part of the skills necessary for survival of physical conflicts, and forms work can be one of those many things if you are willing and able.

And keep on training, with intent.

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Continued from Stances Part I

Moving from stance to stance uses some of the biggest and strongest muscle complexes in your body – legs, hips, core, and lower back. It also usually involves either linear motion or rotation of your body’s center of mass. Both of these aspects come together with our ability to use the ground when understanding martial arts power generation. Think of your dantian (丹田) as your center of mass (tanden or hara for the Japanese stylists). Your ability to move your center comes most effectively from the muscle complexes around it and between it and what you’re bracing against – the Earth. You push your leg against the ground, and your body moves. You twist your waist/hips against the ground through your legs and your body turns. You expand your back and contract your center, and your body sinks. If you try to use muscle complexes above your center, you don’t move as efficiently, you’re likely to lose much of the power you’re trying to generate and apply, you can end up overextended, and/or you’re just using local arm power and not taking advantage of your structure and larger muscles.

Find the transition power generation in your own movements

If you are doing a traditional martial art and you do forms (chuan, kata, poomse, hyung, djuru, etc), an easy way to suss out how your movements give power to your applications (i.e. power generation) is by doing your forms without the arm motions. The intricacies and timing of your arm motions can distract you from feeling what is going on with your power generation. By stepping through your forms without those arm movements, you are forced to look at what you are doing with each transition, the how and the why. You effectively put a microscope on what is happening as you transition through the movements. Stepping, twisting, turning, rising, sinking – all of these have profound consequences for the arm movements you would otherwise be doing at the same time. Do this enough to get a good feel for what is going on with your stepping and shifting from posture to posture. Then, when you go back and do the form properly, you will have new insight into how those things should factor into your arm motions and especially their applications.

Examples of stance-shifting power

Here’s a simple exercise to show this type of power generation for twisting: stand in a comfortable right front forward stance with your right leg in front, slightly bent, and your left leg to the rear, mostly straight. Relax your hips and center, relax your upper body, and rock your hips under a bit (no clenching). Now, keeping your arms at your side, raise your hands and forearms only, making sure that your elbows (which should still be by your hips) and upper body are matched to your hips and will only move with their movement. From here, you can now experiment with Old Ox power by simply pivoting on your feet (I prefer heels or center), straightening your right leg, slightly bending your left leg, and turning your hips to change directions. Your torso and arms should have “ridden” on top of your hips and now face the new direction naturally as well. If you try this with a partner, you can put your hands on their upper arms or elbows and move them simply as part of your turn, with very little effort even if they’re in a stance as well. This is one example of shifting from stance to stance to generate power.

Similarly, when you grab someone and step and/or twist to accomplish a throw, you’re also using the stepping and shifting I’m talking about. You should not be depending upon your relatively weak arms to work the throw. You should have braced against the ground to position yourself relative to the opponent’s structure and leveraged against that with a step and a twist, and voilà, they will go tumbling against the biggest thing you can hit them with!

There are innumerable ways like this to use stepping or shifting to generate power for a throw, a lock, a strike, a sweep, a release, an escape, or whatever. And no doubt you already do some of these.

You should examine in detail all the movements in your style and ask yourself how is this being powered? For striking, you should also look at how a twist can add penetration, or a low stance can add gravity’s help, or how a step can power the hip that powers the strike, etc. For locking, you should look at how a shift can direct their center to the lock as opposed to using their arms, or how a hip twist can direct the lock through the opponent’s center, or how a step can drive the lock deeper instead of using arms, etc. For defense versus standup grappling, you should look at how that twist can dissolve a lock, or that step leverages a grab release, or sinking nullifies a throw, etc. And so on, for throwing, for kicking, for avoidance or quick unexpected motion, and more.


Once you know how your moves and applications are being powered, you can use that knowledge to work backwardsi.e. this motion teaches me to generate power thusly, so given my positioning how can I apply that power in combat or self defense? You should be pleasantly surprised with some of the new applications you find, and working to understand these things in depth should make your power generation more effortless, more natural, and more effective.

These are just some of the basics behind deconstructing the power generation behind your transitions from stance to stance. There are countless ways that shifting from stance to stance can inherently develop or add power to a technique. There are also more advanced options for using the up-down and in-out axes that we will explore more specifically in a later article.

So, for clarity’s sake and to foster more complete martial development, please think and teach “step,” shift,” or “transition” instead of “stance.” Or at least explain in detail and with examples what stances are for, even beyond what I’ve discussed here. I’ve only briefly touched upon the cornucopia of uses for moving between stances; as always, you must explore on your own to get the most out of your training.

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In traditional Chinese and other martial arts, we do a lot of training on stance work. What is usually not so clear is “why?” Most students (and some teachers) believe it is simply to strengthen the legs and train your fighting positions. Because of this, some practitioners think stances are “useless,” and were that all there was to stances, I would pretty much agree. However, I put it to you that stances are actually one of the most effective aspects of your every move. The surface interpretation is just the tip of the nose of the dragon.

“Stances” – an unfortunate translation

The Chinese character commonly translated as “stance”, 步 , is more properly translated as any of: “step; pace; walk; march; stages in a process.” While the use of “stance” might have been simple and easy, it served to obscure the real utility and focus for consideration of 步 . To me, one of the most important purposes and benefits of stance application in martial arts is completely lost if you take the unfortunate translation at face value – the use of motion!

In common English, stances are static, starting or ending points, bases from which to fight or move. Steps, on the other hand, are dynamic, with no beginning or end when taken together – stages in a process. In a combat situation, you shouldn’t “fight out of” a stance, rather you should be in a dynamic position, ready to move, to generate and apply power. And that should change freely based upon the circumstances of the moment. Instead of a base from which to fight or move, steps a large part of how you fight or move, in and of themselves. Moving from stance to stance, i.e. stepping (or shifting), gets you out of the way, controls of the relative distance and angle between you and your opponent, helps you manage your balance, generates power for striking, throwing, locking, etc. A fight is a dynamic thing, not posturing and posing – unless maybe you’re an extra in a bad movie!

Think “steps” or “shifts” instead

While static stance training can be a great way to strengthen muscles and tendons, feel the optimized structure of a particular position, work on qigong, or even develop a ground path (e.g., zhan zhuan, 站桩), it is the transition to, from, or even within stances that provides most of the leverage for your martial applications. How that leverage is applied is up to you and the details of the situation.

Looking at it straightforwardly, stepping or shifting from one stance to another is a way to control distance without sacrificing balance. It can bring you to your target or move you away from an incoming attack. In these cases, angling is paramount so that you can do both at the same time and not only manage distance but also optimize relative positioning. Don’t forget the up and down directions in addition to the left-right and near-far. For example, you can also position for a low attack while avoiding a head shot. Knowing your transitions from stance to stance and having them optimized for your use will allow you to move quickly, effectively, and for optimal positioning.

You can also directly apply your stepping or shifting to combat effects in and of themselves. Offensively, use that step as a sweep, a throw, a kick, etc. Conversely, your shifting from stance to stance can itself be used to avoid a sweep, dissolve or reverse a throw, jam a kick or advance, etc. These direct applications of stepping or shifting from stance to stance for positioning and combat use for stepping or shifting from stance to stance are just the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, to do these concepts justice using what you already know could (and should!) provide you countless hours for exploration before we even begin to look at how to use stepping/shifting more inherently, for all of your martial applications.

Bracing, or tipping the center of mass advantage

Before we move on, just for a second, shift your perspective and imagine that the ground is a wall, and it is the only thing you have to brace against if you don’t want Newton’s third law of motion to steal half your power for every direct application you do. If this is the case (and it essentially is), then your connection to what you are bracing yourself against is extremely important to accomplishing your goals. If you brace yourself well then any action you do and any power you generate is transferred specifically to your intended target and not to slipping against the ground, being absorbed by your structure, or otherwise having an equal and opposite reaction affect on you as much as it does your target. Effectively, a good connection with the ground lets you be as one with what you are bracing against (the Earth) such that any force you generate or move you do against an opponent goes completely into them because the ground certainly isn’t going to move! In physics terms, the center of mass is comparatively infinite (the Earth vs. 2 people), so any force you generate against it can only affect your target – or you, if you desire. Correctly executed, you can use your stances and especially your motion through them to make you a mountain of a (hu)man.

(Continued next article, Stances Part II: Power Generation)

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The Texas Penal Code covers the state law on Use Of Force in Chapter 9 and Weapons in Chapter 46. This should be covered with all students and instructors. Each state will have similar statutes.

Federal case law defines Deadly Force as:
• A Weapon – a physical tool (dedicated or improvised) or the individual’s body to inflict harm or damage
• Intent – verbal and non-verbal desire to inflict harm and damage
• Delivery System – physical ability to inflict harm and damage
• Motor Action – movement towards the goal of inflicting harm and damage

Air or tracheal chokes – pressure is applied to the trachea (windpipe). Due to the structure of the windpipe, pressure to the front of the neck can cause it to collapse, creating irreversible damage to the structure itself, and causing blood flow into the lungs. If one thinks of the cartilage of the trachea as a Styrofoam cup, then poke a pencil or a finger through the material and see how it leaks and is not repairable. Air chokes are not instantly apparent. How long can one hold their breath? Since there is oxygen still in the blood, the action of an air choke still takes a minute or so for the person to pass out or suffocate. This type of action is considered Deadly Force.

Blood or carotid / jugular / neck restraints – pressure is applied to the side of the neck. Due to the structure of the neck, pressure to the sides of the neck can cause a reduction of blood flow to the brain and a localized pressure increase. The cause of unconsciousness is from either decreased or stopped blood flow to the brain and immediate oxygen deprivation, increased localized blood pressure, or a stimulation of the Vagus nerve (sometimes called a Carotid massage in medical literature) which depresses the heart rate and blood pressure and subsequent loss of consciousness. Generally, but not always, the immediate release of neck pressure restores blood flow and normalized pressure, and the person wakes back up. This action happens quickly, within a few seconds.

Consensual fighting is illegal, but one always retains the right to Self Defense. From a legal standpoint, a choke is a deadly force encounter and a neck restraint is below that. Please use the term Neck Restraint, just as a joint lock is a limb restraint as compared to an “arm destruction” (words matter and their context). From the standpoint of Self Defense, once the Attacker has stopped attacking, the Defender has to stop their actions too. If the Defender continues to inflict punishment on the Attacker after the Attacker has had the Weapon removed or disabled, has removed the Intent, has prevented the Delivery System or Motor Action, then the Defender is now the “Bad Guy”.

If a Defender applies a Vascular Neck Restraint, the Defender must stop their action as soon as the Attacker has succumbed. Since the action is to prevent blood flow to the brain, damage occurs quickly if blood flow is not restored. Thus, one cannot “keep cranking” on the Attacker until help arrives. One can sit on top of the person in a position of control until help arrives, or leave. As necessary, call 911 to report the assault as soon as you are safe.

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