Techniques As A “Shorthand” For Learning Principles

Some of the newer and more reality based martial arts which emphasise real self protection (as opposed to sport) such as Krav Maga and Systema argue that the strength of their system is that they emphasise principles of movement rather than techniques.  They argue that most of the older Oriental martial arts by contrast put the emphasis the other way round, on techniques more than principles.  They argue that this makes their arts better for learning self defence more quickly and effectively. Continue reading “Techniques As A “Shorthand” For Learning Principles”

Striving For Perfection: Combat Effectiveness And Spiritual Development

How often have you heard the phrase “before you can overcome others, you must first overcome yourself”, or “your main opponent is yourself”.  If you’ve never heard these phrases, then take a long look at who’s teaching you!  You should have heard these phrases before as this really is one of the most central core philosophies of doing any traditional martial art.

Whether you are looking for effective self defence, sport or simply aesthetic mastery of the art you practice you must first develop co-ordination, agility, speed, power, poise, balance and grace.  From a combative point of view, the need for speed, power, co-ordination and balance are obvious; but grace?  Do we need to be graceful in a fight?  Many consider the very act of fighting to be very disgraceful. Continue reading “Striving For Perfection: Combat Effectiveness And Spiritual Development”

Differences Between Boxing Punch vs Traditional Martial Arts Punch

This post looks at the differences and relative advantages/disadvantages of the a boxing punch compared with a traditional martial arts (Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu) punch.

Firstly, the disclaimer part   🙂
I want to make it clear that this for informational/interest purposes and is not meant to be an attack or criticism of any fighting system and is just my opinion.  Anybody who can punch well is going to be a tough opponent on the street or in the ring regardless of which system they train in.  Although I would argue that some systems are optimised for certain purposes (ie: sport or self defence, etc), that is not say that they are not capable of being used for other purposes as well. Continue reading “Differences Between Boxing Punch vs Traditional Martial Arts Punch”

Front Kick Variations (Pros & Cons)

Any technique can be developed into a number of variations.  However, when it comes to the front kick, I would say that there are main variations (and many sub-variations).  These are hips side-on (FIG 1: hips facing about 90 degrees to opponent) and hips forward (FIG 2: hips facing toward the opponent).

Both have slightly different advantages which I’d like to explore.  But firstly I want to make it clear, I’m not saying that one kick can ONLY be used ONE WAY and the other version can only be used ANOTHER WAY, as that would be silly.  What I would say however is that each version is optimised for different purposes. Continue reading “Front Kick Variations (Pros & Cons)”

The “Corkscrew” Punch (The Devil In The Detail)

The “corkscrew” punch where we rotate the fist at the end of the punch is unique to Oriental martial arts.

Twisting the fist  is something that we all know about and take for granted.  And why shouldn’t we, we’ve been doing it since our very first class in Karate/Tae Kwon Do/most styles of Kung Fu .  The reason that I write about it here, is because I believe that it is something that though deeply ingrained into us, is still not done quite right by a good many people.

It may sound a bit strange to question something so basic, but bare with me.  Although many will be doing what I describe below, a good many others will not be.

Why not?  Because people will rotate the fist to get it into it’s correct finishing position, but not think about how the rest of the arm is moving to get it there!

It would be more correct to say that you should “twist your forearm”.   The fist is actually incapable of rotating on its own, it is only capable of moving up and down in a waving/hinged motion when isolated from any other arm movement.

Try this little exercise.  Perform any linear punch, then just freeze for a second with the arm in the extended punch position (no snap back).  Now keep check if the crease of your elbow joint (where it folds) is pointing upwards or inwards.  If you are not sure, then being very careful not to move the upper arm at all, bend the elbow.  It the fist rises up then the crease of the elbow joint is facing up.  If the fist moves inward (parallel to the floor) then the crease of the elbow is pointing inwards.

So why should you care about that?

Like the fist, the elbow is incapable of rotating itself, it is a hinge joint rather than a ball joint.  From the starting position with the fist at the hip, the crease of the elbow joint points forward.  As the arm is extended forward (without rotating), the elbow crease should end up pointing upwards.

For the elbow to rotate (so that the elbow crease points inward), you actually have to rotate the arm in the shoulder socket.  To be a bit more technical, you rotate the humerus bone in the ball socket at the shoulder.

This is something that you shouldn’t be doing.  Firstly it is an unnecessary movement of the shoulder joint and as we progress, we should be looking to take out all unnecessary movements.  Secondly, it creates a small jarring feeling at the elbow, so it is not good for the long term health of either shoulder or elbow joint.

Furthermore, it’s a less efficient punching technique, so it is less effective if you really need it.

Try standing in front of a mirror with you arm and shoulders exposed.  Now extend your arm in front of you and towards the mirror.  Don’t worry about making a fist or any technique, just relax.  Now rotate the whole arm several times at the shoulder joint.  You will notice when you look closely that upper arm actually moves very slightly away from the body when you rotate the arm so that the elbow crease points inwards rather than upwards.  Linear techniques are based on having the body weight behind them, so anything that takes the strike sideways away from the body will weaken that technique.

Granted, this is a very slight outward movement, but as you get more advanced, so it become more about fine detail.

It also effects your muscular alignments too.  The shoulder and lateral muscles (underneath the arm pits) act as shock absorbers and maintain the body structure when you strike a target and receive a reaction force from the impact.  Rotating the humerus outward in the shoulder socket slightly stretches those muscles making them less efficient at absorbing that reaction force.

Furthermore, when you punch, you use your triceps to extend your arm.  The triceps work more efficiently with the crease of the elbow facing upwards.  Don’t believe me?  Ask anyone who does weight training, or look up “triceps curls” on Youtube.

The bones of the forearm (the ulna and radius) are much smaller and they can rotate around each other.  There is not a big ball in socket rotation required as with rotating the humerus in the shoulder socket.

If you are not used to doing it this way, it may feel awkward at first and you may not be able to fully rotate the fist all the way over.  Stick with it, your forearm muscles will become more flexible and it will become easier.  You’ll find when you get used to it that the whole punch is much smoother than when you rotate the shoulder joint.

There is an argument that the bone alignment is weaker when the ulna and radius are rotated about each other.  However, the idea when punching is that you actually make contact with the target before rotating the forearm (when the fist is still palm up).  So the point of impact is when these bones are still in a strong alignment.  You only rotate the forearm after contact has been made so that the rotational energy is added to forward impact to the punch, giving it a very penetrating “corkscrew effect”.

This forearm rotation comes into many other techniques too, such as at the very end of Soto Uke (Outside Block), Uchi Uke (Inside Block) and others.  With these blocks, the rotation of the fist at the end of the technique cannot be supported by the rotation of the shoulder joint because of the arm being bent and the elbow joint being lower than the fist.  Practicing for maximum forearm rotation in the punches will help maximise the forearm rotation in these other techniques too, making them more powerful, even with smaller movements.  It helps to give a small “whip” on the the end of these other techniques.

What Are The Differences Between Kung Fu & Karate?

One of the most popular and most frequently visited postings that I’ve ever done on this website has been an unbiased look at the differences between Karate and Tae Kwon Do.  So I thought I’d do the same between Karate and Kung Fu.

As with Karate and Tae Kwon Do, I believe that there is often a lot of misunderstanding between Karate and Kung Fu practitioners as they don’t really understand what  the other one is doing or why!  That said, there are many people who cross train between the 2 styles, in particular Karateka who train in Kung Fu to better understand the roots of the their own system.

This post is not aimed at arguing that either martial art is better than the other, as I have always maintained, there is no “best style” only a “best style for a given individual”.

But to  tackle a question like this is a massive subject as there are hundreds of styles of Karate and thousands of styles of Kung Fu; so I am going to have to lay down some parameters before I start.

Firstly from the Karate perspective; most modern styles trace back to the two Okinawan styles of Naha Te and Shuri Te.  There is arguably also Tomari Te, but that is really a branch of Shuri Te.  To confuse the issue further, many modern styles are also a hybrid of the two (like Shitoryu).

Naha Te (which later became Goju Ryu) was almost completely based on White Crane and Praying Mantis Kung Fu, whilst Shuri Te was quite extensively modified by the Okinawans.  So for the purpose of this posting, I’ll be looking at the Karate styles from the Shuri Te/Shotokan lineage.  Ironically, much of this will apply to Tae Kwon Do as well, despite significant development by the Koreans.

Kung Fu is even more difficult due to it’s huge variety.  So for the purpose of this posting, I’ll be looking at the traditional Shaolin styles of Kung Fu (rather than modern Wu Shu, Wing Chun or the Daoist based internal arts).

Usually one of the first things that people say when comparing Karate and Kung Fu is that Karate is more linear and that Kung Fu is more circular.  But what does that actually mean in application?

If you look at a Karate reverse punch, the hips are rotated, yet the arm goes out straight; so there is a combination of circular and linear movements within the same technique.  Many (if not most) Karate techniques are powered by a hip rotation, so does that make them partly circular.  Furthermore, although Kung Fu tends to have more techniques where the arms attack in a circular fashion, they also have a lot of techniques that come out straight forward, so are they linear?

Basically, what defines a linear or circular technique is not just whether the body rotates or not, or even if the attacking hand/foot moves in a straight or circular motion.  It is how the technique is powered.  A linear technique is powered by the forward inertia and momentum of the body, whilst circular technique is powered by the centrifugal force created by a rapid rotation which does not necessarily move the body forward.

You can see this more clearly in the 2 videos below.  In the first one you see a Karate reverse punch.  The hips rotate from being pulled back approximately 45 degrees to being rotated square to the front.  But overall the body weight moves forward in the direction of the punch.

In this Kung Fu example, you’ll see that the hips are rotated much further, so much so that the stance is facing at 90 degree’s to the direction of the punch and opponent.  When he performs the second punch, his hips rotate almost 180 degrees around to face the other direction (compared with Karate’s 45 degree hip rotation).  This obviously creates more centrifugal force.  The technique will vary from style to style, but it does demonstrate the general principle.  However, it does not create any forward momentum towards the opponent.

Again, I do not suggest that either method is superior to the other, they are just 2 modified ways of achieving the same result, which is putting down some b*****d who seriously deserves it.  It should also be made clear that Karate and Kung Fu both contain linear techniques and they both contain circular techniques.  It is just that Karate puts more emphasis on linear whilst Kung Fu puts more emphasis on circular.

Some people say that Karate is more aggressive.  Shuri Te was developed by the bodyguards to the Okinawan king.  They were the masters who evolved linear technique.  When you examine their requirements and the challenges that they faced, they needed a system of taking the fight quickly and ruthlessly to their enemies.  To do this you need to be able to move forward (linear).

With a circular system, to a certain extent you are letting the other guy bring the fight to you.  That may not have been an option for the Shuri bodyguards, but for us today who should only be interested in self defence, it is fine.  You can still take the initiative and give a pre-emptive strike if somebody comes too close (which an aggressor will do) but you don’t need to take the fight to him.

Circular technique is better for grappling, spinning very fast when you have hold of somebody is a good way to of-balance or throw them.  It also helps to apply locks to any trapped limbs very quickly.

Linear technique is less versatile in application, but was designed for very much with multiple assailants in mind where running away was not an option (as in bodyguards).  For this they needed to take the fight to the opponent, put him down very quickly, then move onto the next.  I believe that this is where the Japanese maxim of Ikken Hissatsu (one strike, one kill)  comes from.  Grappling techniques are too slow when you’re outnumbered, so that versatility was not required.

Furious 5 from Kung Fu Panda

Many of the Shaolin styles are based on animal movements such as Tiger, Snake, Monkey, Praying Mantis, Crane and many others (even mythical creatures such as the Dragon).  Although these styles imitate animal movements, they are still very effective in application.  Drawing from the movements of mammals, birds, reptiles and even insects has led to a great deal of innovation and inspiration, not only in fighting techniques, but in the principles adopted (for example, power from the Tiger, but flexibility from the Snake).

Karate however has been more influenced by the Zen philosophy which is (or was) very popular in Japan.  Part of Zen is to minimize everything, which has also been applied to the movements in martial arts.  Only the movements strictly required for a technique are included, all else is striped out giving it a much plainer appearance in many ways.  This also fits in with the linear concept of less emphasis on grappling and versatility, but focusing more on multiple opponents instead.

Of course this is a very broad subject as already mentioned and there is a lot of overlap between Karate and Kung Fu, so this posting can only be a guide rather than a definitive in every case and every application.  As such there will be plenty of exceptions, so any writing on this subject (by me or anybody else) should only be regarded as a generalised guide.

If you have found this useful, or if you have anything to add to the subject, then please leave your comments below.

Daoist Nei Gong: New Book By Damo Mitchell

Damo Mitchell was born into a family of martial artists.  His father, Paul Mitchell (who is my Karate Sensei & Tai Chi teacher) and his mother, Chris, introduced him to Shotokan Karate & Yoga at the humble age of 4.

His studies led him through many styles and various weapons, until he settled to focus on internal Chinese martial arts.  Damo has travelled to the Far East to seek out the very best of teachers and has studied not only the internal marital arts, but Qi Gong, Daoist Yoga, Nei Gong (internal change) and a whole range of related disciplines.

Since 2005 Damo has been a professional martial arts teacher who spends his time travelling, teaching and writing.  He founded the Lotus Nei Gong Association and has already had several books published.  Having trained under him myself, I can honestly say that he is a phenomenal teacher with a remarkable ability for his age.

He has a new book coming out which is due for release on July 15th.  For anybody interested in internal arts, this is to be highly recommended.

The following description is taken from the Lotus Nei Gong Association Newsletter:-

July 15th is the official release date for Damo‟s new book on Daoist internal practices.  It is being released by Singing Dragon in the UK and the US.
Students within our school have all noticed that there is very little information on Nei Gong available in English.
This book will serve to fill the gap in information as it matches exactly the methodology taught by Damo Mitchell and his senior students in Lotus Nei Gong classes.
The book contains an overview of the entire process of Nei Gong as it is understood by Damo as well as looking in detail at several important foundational practices. These include, aligning the body, developing a healthy breathing pattern through the practice of Sung and beginning to awaken the energy system.
The book also contains a detailed explanation of the Ji Ben Qi Gong exercises which are fundamental to Nei Gong as well as numerous photographs of Damo performing the movements.
A large degree of the book is dedicated to Daoist philosophy in order to show how arcane Daoist theory was the seed from which the internal arts of Daoism sprung forth.
Towards the end of the book are various sections which discuss the abilities which can be drawn from Nei Gong practice and the start of the alchemy process which enables a practitioner to systematically break down their acquired nature and so “return to the source”.
This book is available to pre-order from either or as well as directly from the Singing Dragon website.  Some sites offer pre-order discounts as well.
Release Date: July 15th 2011
“This book drills down into the golden core of the ancient Chinese art and science of internal self-cultivation known as “chi gong,” or “energy work,” and after reading it, you’ll understand why chi gong is the best way on earth to protect your health, prolong your life, and clarify your awareness of both aspects of the “Three Treasures” of life–mortal body, breath, and mind; and immortal essence, energy, and spirit. Known simply as “nei gong,” or “internal work,” this inner alchemy may be learned and practiced by anyone. Written by a dedicated practitioner who verifies scholarly research with personal experience and illustrates ancient theory with contemporary practice, this book provides the Western mind with a clear-cut introduction to chi gong that informs as well as inspires the reader to practice.”
Daniel Reid
Author of Guarding the Three Treasures


To order from the UK
// Widgets


Hiki-te Bunkai

I haven’t done any video’s for a little while and it seemed about time that I did.  Unfortunately, my “partner in crime”, Keith, has gone his own way now so I enlisted the help of another friend, Artchi (yes, that is how he spells it).

So with Artchi’s help, we had a look at hikite (pull back hand).

Tai Chi: For Advanced Martial Artists

Many martial arts are misunderstood.  I have written a number of times about how Karate and other arts have become dumbed down and stylised to a point where a lot of what is practiced would not work under pressure.

However, I don’t think any martial art is more misunderstood than Tai Chi.  I think this is for a number of reasons, but mostly:

  • Many people practice it purely as a for health and well-being, with no martial applications at all.
  • Many people do not believe in the concept of “Chi” energy on which Tai Chi is largely based.
  • With more and more people getting into “reality based” training, “hard” styles being seen by many as stylised and ritualistic; the slow practice of Tai Chi seems even further from being a real form of combat.

So lets have a closer look at Tai Chi.  Firstly we should look at the modern emphasis on health and well-being.  I am told that the Chinese communist government wanted to exploit the the health properties of Tai Chi as a simple way to keep people healthy and keep down expenditure on their health service.  They therefore called together a number of top Tai Chi masters and told them to create a simplified version of Tai Chi for introduction to the masses.  When the masters initially refused, they were told that they and their families would be sent to labour camps.  So they agreed.  The simplified Tai Chi that they created was nicknamed “Beijing Tai Chi” and this is the version that spread most rapidly around the world.

As for the concept of chi, some people will never believe in it which is fair enough, we are all entitled to our own views.  I just ask that if you are somebody that does not believe, then please just respect the views of those that do.

As for a combat system that is performed slowly, that one takes a bit more to get your head around.  The part which is often missed is that Tai Chi as a combat art was never designed to be, or expected to be the starting point.  In China, in the Shaolin monasteries and elsewhere, they would alway start with a “hard” style first and only after they mastered that would they move on to Tai Chi and other internal styles.  It is not simply that they start young and young people relate better to harder styles (which is true in itself), but learning Tai Chi is actually easier if you have experience in a harder art.

By learning the hard art first (such as Kung Fu, Karate or similar), the practitioner learns about speed, raw power, distancing, dealing with somebody steaming in full power, aggression, adrenalin and all the primary aspects of combat.  Many people will be quick to point out that Tai Chi does not teach these things.  In the main they are right; because Tai Chi is designed for people who already know them.  Tai Chi is not a stand alone fighting art, it is the polish and finish on other fighting arts, which takes them to higher levels.

As my instructor Paul Mitchell says, most martial arts teach you to be substantial, whereas Tai Chi teaches you to be insubstantial.  What does this mean?

Well in most martial arts, we learn the things mentioned above (speed, power, aggression, etc); how to meet somebody head on, or even when evading how to hit them like a hammer when you do strike.  These make you act and feel to the opponent very substantial indeed.  But with Tai Chi, somebody attacks and you learn to almost “melt” out of their way letting them finish an attack after you are no longer there.  To be able to move like this requires a high degree of relaxation.  This is being “insubstantial” so that you can just not be their when the attack is completed.

So why is everything practiced so slowly?

Firstly, it is learn the relaxation to be able move in an “insubstantial” way.  This primarily uses the internal muscles of the body rather than the major muscle groups (as most other martial arts do).  Learning to use the internal muscles can not be done by practicing fast.

Secondly it is learn to use and move your internal energy.  As mentioned above, I know that a lot of people reading this probably won’t believe in Chi, but again, please just respect that this is the belief of most people that do practice Tai Chi.  The idea is to learn to co-ordinate your internal energy with your physical movement and this can only be done slowly.

Thirdly (and this is where some people will probably think I’ve gone mad) it is to learn to deal with the effects of adrenalin and to stay calm when confronted by a hostile person.  Now people who do the reality based scenario training that I’ve discussed in earlier postings will probably have trouble seeing how moving slowly through a form can possibly prepare you for the effects of adrenalin.  Well the short answer is it doesn’t, that should have already been accomplished by the previous martial arts training (Kung Fu/Karate etc).  By the time you take up Tai Chi you should already be familiar with the effects of adrenalin and confrontation.  What Tai Chi aims to do is to keep you calm in the face of confrontation and to actually negate the effects of adrenalin.

Scenario based training as discussed in other postings is geared to giving you an adrenalin rush (so that you get used to operating in that state), which is fantastic when you start your martial arts career.  However, Tai Chi being geared to advanced martial artists is geared to stop you having an adrenalin rush.  This will not happen overnight and will take years to achieve, but it is a long term training program and that is what is works towards.  That is why as a martial art, it is only really for already accomplished martial artists.  As a form of health and well-being, you can start it anytime without any experience in other martial arts.

The slow movements are designed to give the feeling that you “have all day” when somebody attacks you.  Of course you don’t.  Of course you have to move very fast.  But that’s why you should have done another martial art first.  You are also training to achieve a deep state of relaxation which permeates into every facet of your life.  This includes staying relaxed when in a violent confrontation and we all know that you move faster when you are relaxed.

Some people may be concerned by the idea of negating the effects of adrenalin as it boosts strength and speed (which are obviously useful) so why loose these positive effects?  Well again, we go back to already being an accomplished martial artist.  You should be strong and fast already.

But what about the negative effects of adrenalin (which will vary from person to person and situation to situation)?

  • Blood goes away from your brain and into the major muscle groups so you loose some of your fine motor skills.
  • You tend to get tunnel vision (which is not good for multiple opponents).
  • You can’t think so well and you may blank out verbal advice from friends/allies trying to help.

So if you could function with speed and power (from previous training) without losing fine motor skills, without losing mental faculties, being aware of multiple assailants and being aware of helpful/warning shouts around you, then you can take your fighting ability to a whole new level.

Back To Basics With Al Peasland

Al Peasland (5th Dan with the British Combat Association, 3rd Dan Traditional Karate and internationally renowned teacher) wrote an interesting article on “Back To Basics”.  In this article he compares an experience he had learning to ski with how he teaches self protection.  He spent most of the time learning how to do “the plough” (position where the front of the skis point inwards, forming a triangular plough shape).

Al asked why they spend so much time in the plough position when it is not the way that they do “real skiing”.  The instructor explained that practicing the plough gives you control over the snow, when you have that, the rest of the fancy stuff can be mastered.  But without control over over the snow, the ability to ski fast, turn and (most importantly) to be able to stop; will be very difficult to learn.  When you see a good skier whizzing down a slop, skis parallel, twisting and turning around obstacles, you don’t see the plough.  Yet without learning the plough first, you would not see the speed and agility.

So (as Al explains) it is with martial arts and self protection.  Without learning the basic stances, basic techniques and sparring/drilling routines, you would not have a very a structure that you could use under pressure.

Although I am a further down the martial arts food chain than Al, I agree entirely.  People often talk of “muscle memory”.  However, muscles don’t have memory, only the brain does.  When you do a movement, any movement, or even a particular behaviour pattern, you fire a series of tiny electrical signals across the brain.  These are the parts of the brain that control that movement or behaviour.  When you repeat a movement over and over, those tiny electrical signals get stronger and the brain forms more links inside to carry the stronger signals.  This is called a “neural pathway” through the brain.  It is here, rather than the muscle that the memory of movement is stored.  The more we practice a movement over and over again, the stronger and bigger that neural pathway becomes, until eventually we no longer have to put in any conscious thought, we just fire the neural pathway and instinct takes over.

This is what we want when under pressure.  We want such strong, deeply rooted neural pathways, that we don’t need to think about how to punch/strike/kick etc.  We just want to be able to think this is it, action, and the rest just happens automatically.  The main difference between a master and a beginner is not necessarily their strength or physical prowess, it is the strength of these neural pathways, forged by years and years of repetition.

People often look for the quick fix (which is human nature).  Partly for that reason, pressure point fighting has become popular over recent years.  However, as I’ve said before, if you don’t know how to hit, if you can’t move with speed and accuracy, you will not be able to strike pressure point targets effectively.

Whatever your style of martial art, practice basics, basics then some more basics.  It is the only way to really be able to perform under pressure.  I promote the use of practical bunkai on this blog, but without good basics you will struggle to make them work.

I liken it to the foundations of a building.  The first thing the builders do is to dig a bloody great hole and fill it in with ugly cement and steel.  When the nice new shiny building is finished, you don’t see those foundations, you don’t see that hole and cement.  You only see the building on top.  But without that cement filled hole, the building would easily collapse.  So it is when you see a great fighter performing great athletic feats, breaking boards, fancy jumping kicks or annihilating an opponent.  You don’t see the years that the same fighter spent in a basic stance practicing a basic technique over and over again until he/she had a really deep foundation and incredibly strong neural pathways.

And let face it, if it was easy to learn in a few weeks, then all the muggers and predators would have done it to, so they would know what we know.  What sets us aside as martial artists is that we take the time to study and to evolve.  And in so doing we not only become better able to defend ourselves, but we become better human beings in the process.