When starting out in the martial arts, it’s easy to get caught up in the intricacies of technique. How to bend and break someone a dozen ways, a hundred ways to throw and submit an opponent, a thousand methods of defending and countering any and all attacks. In the training hall, a student narrowing his focus exclusively on delivering force into his opponent is an understandable impulse — especially if the student is a soldier or a police officer being prepared for combat or the streets on a compressed timetable.
Yet the great paradox of martial arts training is that while we train for combat, we *shouldn’t* train for combat. More precisely, we shouldn’t *just* train for combat; we should train for life.
Consider this video:
This is a demonstration by Sensei James Williams, one of the foremost martial arts teachers in America. A student of the martial arts since 1960, today he teaches Nami Ryu Aiki Heiho and is a certified instructor in the Russian martial art of Systema.
He is also 70 years old.
*70 years old*, but he looks two decades younger than his true age, and he moves much better than someone half his age.
For combat-oriented practitioners, the pinnacle of martial achievement isn’t simply to strike down your foes. It’s the ability to do so whether you’re 17 or 70. As you age, you can’t do what young whippersnappers can do. You can’t bounce back from injury as fast, you lose muscle and bone mass, and your reactions slow. I’m not even 30 yet, and I’m already feeling myself slowing down.
The mission statement of the Dog Brothers is ‘Walk as a warrior all your days’. To do this, to be able to train and act on your training regardless of age, you can’t train simply for brute force and speed. You need something else, something that will not fade even as the vigor of youth fades.
Grand Master Bobby Taboada is 71 years old this year. But with a stick in hand, he becomes a grey blur, and he can easily match students much younger than him. Slow down the video and watch his left hand; you’ll see that he’s constantly checking his partner’s weapon hand, and seizing thumbs and wrists and forearms. At the speed he’s moving at, the slightest mistake will lead to smashed joints, yet he pulls it off with aplomb.
How does he do it?
GM Taboada is the head of Balintawak Arnis, a Filipino martial arts style that specialises in extreme close quarters combat. Over the decades, he’s ingrained the skills necessary to recognize incoming attacks and respond to them appropriately. He knows the angles of attack and the proper angles to respond to them with whatever weapons he has on hand. His nerves have been trained to fire the instant he senses the attack, and his motions are swift and clean and free from excess movements. At his level of skill, he’s not thinking about every attack; he’s already in motion before his conscious mind logs it.
In decades and centuries past, masters and grandmasters had the luxury of training for hours every day, without worrying about supporting themselves. Today, unfortunately, most of us have to tend to our jobs, families and other mundane matters, leaving us little time to train. Thus, we must make the most out of training time by focusing on the most important skills.
See how easily this 94-year-old grandmaster handles the younger men around him? The trick lies in precise body movements and manipulations, so small and so subtle they’re practically invisible to the untrained eye. As the commentators pointed out, he pushes off the ground with each weight transfer, and he moves his entire body as a single coherent unit, flowing smoothly from one motion to the next.
If you watch other videos by James Williams, you’ll see many related principles. How to maintain your balance while taking advantage of your opponent’s motions, how to move smoothly and deceptively to prevent your opponent from reacting until it’s too late, how to direct and redirect force vectors to your advantage. Being able to manipulate *chi* is nice, but without a solid grounding in these principles, you won’t get anywhere.
The principles these grandmasters have demonstrated are advanced skills. But these are also the true foundations of the art. To maximise the benefit of martial training, we must know how and what to train.
With this in mind, I’ve developed a few training principles in my own practice of Pekiti Tirsia Kali. They may not be complete, they may evolve in the future, but they are presently my personal training guidelines.
# Preserve Your Body #
You only get one body to last your lifetime. You must do everything in your power to minimise self-inflicted harm.
It’s much harder to do this than it sounds, not the least because much of the glamour of martial arts lies in the accomplishment of feats of strength–feats that erode your joints and tendons and bones.
It may be popular among certain crowds to pass around videos of children and young women showing off feats of strength, such as punching and kicking trees without hand and shin protection, breaking bricks with bare knuckles, and so on. While impressive, these practices are extremely harmful. The force they generate will be transmitted back into their bones, causing microfractures and nerve trauma, and the damage will accumulate silently. They are setting themselves up to develop arthritis in their 20s and 30s. That means 40, 50, even 60 years of constant pain and inability to use their hands. That is no way to live.
When training with rookies, I’m extremely particular about stances and joints. In a weapon-based art like Pekiti Tirsia Kali, it’s unbelievably easy to hurt yourself. If you throw a strike wrong, if your leg is out of position, you will cut off your own thigh or shin. When exchanging blows, if your elbow is locked at the point of impact, you might hurt your joint–and give your opponent a prime opportunity to slip out and snap your elbow. If your stance is imbalanced and your knees are turned in or out too much, it will slow down your movement and you could wrench your own joints while turning and striking.
To train for life, we must first minimise self-harm, and that means developing proper stances and body mechanics, and avoiding self-mutilation.
# Train Fast and Slow #
Training slow builds the neural pathways for clean, efficient movement. It lets you monitor your targeting and body dynamics and gives you time to adjust if you make a mistake. Training fast teaches you how to apply techniques and principles in real time, and to do your best in spite of the inevitable skill degradation that comes with increased adrenaline.
Training in the grappling methodologies of Filipino martial arts demands this. FMA grappling, or *dumog*, is stand-up grappling in a weapons-based environment. Many throws, takedowns and locks are executed with only one hand connected to the opponent. The working assumption is that the other hand has a weapon, is accessing a weapon, or is striking the opponent. You can’t simply muscle through a technique and hope for the best; you must develop an understanding of leverage, angles, momentum, physiology and timing. If a technique doesn’t work slow, it will *not* work fast.
# Footwork and Fence #
Some fighters may prefer to wade into their enemies, taking a blow or two in exchange for landing a knockout blow. But kali assumes a weapons-based environment, and you cannot trade stab for stab, cut for cut. We do not want to see who goes to the hospital or the morgue first; we want to survive the encounter, preferably unscathed.
This means the most visible aspect of martial arts–punching, kicking, throwing–*cannot* be the principal focus of training. If your sole training focus is on cutting down the enemy, you’ll walk into a blade.
Training must integrate footwork and fence. Footwork takes you out of the line of fire and places you in an advantageous position. Fence, what Marc MacYoung calls a combination of offense and defense, prevents the enemy from harming you while allowing you to deliver force to him.
# Focus on Foundations #
Every art is predicated on key principles. Nami Ryu emphasises deception, force redirection, and relaxation. Chinese internal martial arts uses subtle body mechanics. In Filipino martial arts, timing, footwork, angles of attack, and weapon and target properties are major fields of study. Without training these foundations, you’re not training the art effectively.
These principles are the building blocks of any and all techniques catalogued in their respective arts. It doesn’t matter if you know ten thousand techniques; without the foundations, your attacks will be weak, out of time, and easily countered. But if you have a solid grasp of the foundations, if you know the proper principles to apply in the moment, techniques dissolve into nothingness, leaving you completely free to respond to any attack–even if you think you’ve never seen it before, or if you’re taken by surprise.
# The Great Paradox #
Train for war, yet do not train for war. Do not train to preserve life, yet train to preserve life.
This the paradox of the martial arts. But with greater understanding, we can reconcile these concepts. The purpose of a combat-oriented art is to defeat an enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible. Yet the principles and training methods that allow us to do this also enable us to preserve our own lives, and the lives of those around us.
While training, do not simply focus on the big finishers and the dramatic techniques. Train instead with an eye towards training for the rest of your life. If you destroy your body through training, the rest of your life will be bleak and painful. But if you preserve your body and drill the foundations, you will reach heights and depths of skill that transcends mere youth.
For long-form stories packed with martial arts action, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.