Sunday, September 27, 2015

Learning Techniques From Principles

Autumn Rhythm

With all of the science talk I do here, someone might get the impression there is no "art" aspect of martial arts and that everything can be broken down into a formula.  Rest assured, that is not the case.  In martial arts (as in life), the apparent dichotomy of art and science is really just two perspectives on one thing.  They work together like dance partners. Science is about analysis and learning.  Art is about expression and beauty.

In my last postI talked about the scientific process that allows you to extract big ideas from individual techniques.  Here, we go the other direction.  Instead of analytical skills getting us to our destination, creativity is our vehicle now.

Part of the reason that I emphasize generality so much when determining principles is because the more general a principle is, the fewer restrictions there are in applying it.  This makes room for creativity.  If the principle is truly a principle, then you should be able to apply it in many different ways and have it work.  Using this in sparring, I've performed techniques (strikes, joint locks, submissions, throws, etc.) that I had NEVER trained before yet the techniques were applied successfully.

You just need to know what the principles are, when they are relevant, and have a few basic ways of applying them.  Doing that will enable you to "make up" moves on the fly.  For example, take the push-pull mechanic/principle.  It applies not only to joint locks but throws, structure manipulation, weapon disarmament, and more.  I could (and probably will) do a whole series of posts on how to use the push-pull mechanic to do joint locks on every joint in the human body.

So first you should gain knowledge about fighting and your preferred fighting style using scientific methods.  Then take what you have learned and artistically express yourself through movement.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Learning Principles From Techniques

So, I talk a lot about the value of learning principles rather than just techniques.  If you have an instructor the explains the principles to you then you're in good shape, but what if the instructor doesn't explain the principles?  What do you do then?

If you want to extract the principles out of a technique, then you need to first deconstruct the technique into its components and then try to generalize each component as much as possible.  Now, there is not one, unique way to deconstruct a technique and different principles might be learned from different deconstructions.  In any case, you're sure to learn something.

Let's look at an example of something basic: a rear hand straight punch.  Here's a good example I pulled from


We can break this down from the ground up.  First, I see a balanced stance with the back heel slightly up.  He takes a lunging step forward and to the left of the target.  He rotates his hips and shoulders, which seems to give the punch more power.  He keeps his shoulders up, protecting his jaw, and his punch makes contact with the target before his lead leg touches the ground.  Also, he pulls his punching arm straight back the way it left.


So, let's see how we can generalize these components into principles that apply to much more.  From the stance, I can see that he has both balance and the ability to move forward quickly.  In fact, this stance looks like it can move in just about any direction quickly.  That sounds like a good thing.  So, we can get the principle of having a good, balanced stance.  In fact, his stance demonstrates an even more general principle of mobility.  Fighting on your feet, mobility comes down to stance and footwork, but on the ground your feet aren't going to help you so much.  The doesn't mean that mobility isn't important on the ground.  So, I'm going to say that the footwork in this technique is demonstrating the principle of mobility.

One of the goals of a straight punch is to do massive damage.  As seen in the picture, much of the power from this technique is coming from the rotation of his hips/torso/shoulders.  Is that rotation unique to this punch?  Well, if he opened his hand up into a palm strike, that wouldn't really affect the need to rotate for power.  An upward/thrusting elbow strike from the rear arm would likely also need the same rotation.  Is rotating this way a striking thing only or does it also apply to other things like grappling?  Well, if his hand had started on the target before the rotation, then the rotation would have ended up causing him to shove the target away.  That sounds useful.  So, I'm going to say that the rotation in this technique is demonstrating the principle of rotation to generate linear force.

In a fist fight, for the most part if you can reach the other guy, then he can reach you too.  That means that you might have to deal with an incoming punch while you are punching.  Keeping the shoulders up facilitates this defensive goal.  I imagine that not wanting to get hit while in the middle of a strike applies to any strike, not just this one.  In fact, anytime in a fight that you can hurt the other guy (striking, grappling, etc.) then you're probably at risk for being on the receiving end as well.  So, let's generalize even further and say that your structure and positioning during an offensive technique should mitigate against the risk of a simultaneous incoming attack.

Watching the animation above, I see that he gets a pretty good result on contact.  This is because of the timing of when his fist hits verses when his lead foot hits the ground.  That results in all of the momentum and force being transferred through his fist.  None of the forward motion is sent into the ground.  This certainly applies to other linear punches...probably jumping kicks too (land the kick before the support foot hits the ground).  Come to think of it, any time you make a movement that is meant to affect the other person, it would be better if none of your effort was wasted by having it dissipate into the ground (or really anything other than the opponent).  So, make sure to use your motion efficiently.


There you have it.  Four extremely general principles extracted from a single technique.  These principles not only applied to other techniques that are "near" the original like a jab or a front kick, but they also applied to grappling and ground fighting.  If you think about it, they apply to some weapons fighting as well.  So that's one of the scientific processes you can apply to learning martial arts.  Use this to extract lots of value out of your training!

Bonus points for anybody who understands
why this picture totally belongs here

Monday, September 14, 2015

Principles vs Techniques

This image taken from

I grew up watching kung fu movies.  Often times, the success of the protagonist depended on him or her mastering a particular technique or having more techniques than the antagonist.  While this does provide a simple and concrete sense of character growth through a movie, it doesn't really work that way in a fight.

In fact, most street fights and competitions are won with very simple techniques that were just applied in a superior way (better timing, better distance, etc.).  In competitions like the UFC, you very rarely see an "exotic" technique that leads to a win, but for the most part they use the same small set of techniques because they tend to work.  In a fight, attributes like speed, power, distance, timing, and perception have more to do with winning than the actual techniques used.

There are a number of factors that go into this, not least of which is the speed of decision making.  As Hick's Law states, the more options you have, the longer it takes to make a decision.  In a fight, decision making time is scarce.  So deciding which of your 101 techniques best fits the situation is not realistically applicable.

Rather than picking from many techniques, good fighters will apply knowledge of a small number of principles and then "flow" with the situation as it unfolds.  In sparring, virtually every time I do something "impressive", it's a technique that I had never practiced before and hadn't planned.  In fact, the technique I finished the encounter with is usually not the technique that I started with.

There are basic laws of physics that always apply and a handful of guiding principles that will get you through just about any scenario.  Learn those and your decisions will happen faster because you have fewer options.  When you decide faster, you can move faster.  The faster you move, the less likely you are to get hit.  I don't know about you, but not getting hit is really high on my list of priorities.  In fact, when you fight this way, you're not the one choosing which technique you should use...your opponent is choosing for you.

So learn the basic principles and mechanics of fighting and stop worrying so much about learning new techniques.  The techniques you use in a fight aren't likely to look exactly like the ones you practice anyway.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Dealing With Injuries

Most people who train in martial arts for any significant length of time end up with some injury or another.  Usually, it's not the end of the world or your training, but choosing how to deal with the injury can have a significant effect on your training.

Like I said in my earlier post, sticking to your routine is very important.  You don't want to disrupt it if you don't need to.  Something like a mildly pulled muscle or broken pinky finger might not warrant a total hiatus from training.  Wrapping up the area, taking things a bit easier, and notifying your training partners of what to be careful of will usually suffice (assuming your training partners aren't going to be jerks and exploit your weakness).

However, if the injury isn't healing well or is severe enough to hinder proper form in performing techniques, then you would do yourself a favor by taking some time off of the physical aspect of training.  For smart/good students, this time can be used to study your art on an intellectual level.  Even showing up to class isn't out of the question.  Most people probably don't see the value of simply observing a class, but if you are practiced in martial arts and have a good sense of body movement, then you can gain much from observing your instructor and other students as they attempt to perform the required movements for a class.

Now, some people try to push through the pain and train when they really shouldn't.  Yeah, you might avoid some of the short term strength and coordination loss, but there is often a long term cost that young students in particular fail to recognize.  I have enough minor aches and pains in my body to constantly remind me of this fact.  I can remember where I got each of those aches and pains, and I also regret not taking it easy to let them heal properly.  Instead, I'm left with a constant reminder of how stupid pushing through the pain of injuries can be.  Don't get me wrong.  Pushing through pain when it is simply your muscles or cardiovascular limits being met is great for improving.  Trying to do 200 kicks with a broken toe is stupidity.

Don't be stupid.  Train for longevity.  Train in such a way, that you won't be crippled or highly immobile when you're 70 years old.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Importance Of Routine

Variety may be the spice of life, but there's something to be said for having well established routines as well.  Sticking to a training routine is important for several reasons.

First, people tend to have habitual inertia.  By that, I mean that we're more likely to keep doing the things that we're already doing.  If you are going to the dojo/gym three times a week for several months, you'll likely continue that.  However, if you go on vacation and miss a whole week of training, not only has your body lost a step in terms of conditioning but you are also mentally less motivated to get back into your routine.  I find this particularly true of any routine that is difficult either mentally or physically.  It's just like going back to school after summer break.  It's painful at first, but if you force yourself you can get back into the swing of things.

As mentioned above, stepping out of your routine will result in a quick degradation of whatever physical gains you've achieved.  As the saying goes, "use it or lose it".  This step backwards actually makes returning to the routine harder for many people because of the feeling of wasted time and effort.  And besides, do you know what's easier than going to the dojo?  Watching TV.  The TV never kicked you in the gut or hyperextended your arm (at least I hope not...otherwise you might be doin' it wrong).  The longer you are out of your difficult routine (training) the more entrenched you will get in your easy routine (leisure).

To paraphrase a quote from Tim Ferriss, you should guard against the weaknesses of your lesser self.  That means that if you know that breaking your routine will result in a downward spiral of behavior, then do everything you can to maintain that routine.  A good tip is to never miss two days (or classes) in a row.  Missing one day is just a slip up, but twice in a row is on its way to becoming a new habit.
In martial arts, we train to know ourselves better.  So take an honest look and figure out a way to stick with the training that you know is good for you!