Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Honor in Giving

Today was a special day. After breakfast I spent a few minutes wandering around the garden checking on everything. It's amazing to see things growing so fast this time of year. I think you can see the plants growing if you sit and watch long enough.

As I took in the green calming scenery, I found two baby sentinels had arrived - Mantids. No larger than your smallest fingernail. One was hunting prey by the string beans. The other was perched atop a Kale stalk patiently waiting for something much bigger than it to wander by.

After taking a few photos to try and capture these aspiring hunters, it was time to head to the Dojo, to train more hunters...Lions. Today was typical in regard to classes - Mantis Boxing: work on Cross Kick, Side Kick and applying them with some solid kicking principles. Jiu Jitsu: Americana subs, counters, sweeps and rolling. The atypical part of the day arrived at the end of each class when it was time to award a few individuals with a belt promotion to recognize the advancement in their skills. 

It is an honor for a teacher to award a belt. To give your knowledge is fulfilling, but to see people work that knowledge and apply the recipe for success (effort, perseverance, discipline/blood, sweat, tears) is truly rewarding.

Today I was honored to give a few belts out to some deserving individuals:

Mantis Boxing

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Congrats to everyone today and thank you for the opportunity to share this with you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Learning to Walk (again) in Martial Arts

The original title for this article was "Why is BJJ easier than my [insert Stand-Up Art]?" This was a question proposed to me last year when we were taking submissions for the
 Swamp Talks videos. Truth be told, it was a question that made me uncomfortable at first, as I assumed it would be misconstrued. This question, out of all of them, really stood out to me and made me think.

It made me think about something I hadn't previously considered. Something that was clearly on the mind of more than one of my students. I opted not to address this question, even though I left it on the list. I needed more time to think about it, to ponder the implications. It wasn't until a few months later that I had formulated a decent answer.

So why is it so difficult to get the stand-up game? Let's break it down by each element and it will begin to make sense.

In the interest of saving some of you some time - this article is meant to help people that have a 6 months, to a few years into your training. If you are a brand new student to the martial arts - Welcome aboard. See you in a few months when this will be more important to you. 

Crawl. Walk. Run.

I have an analogy I like to use when I hear people (usually those training less than a year or two) getting frustrated when learning something new in class. It goes something like this - 

Student: "I can't get this!!!"
Me: "Did you walk out of the womb?"
Student:  Followed by: "No."
Me: "Right. First you laid there kicking your legs on your back. Then you laid on your belly for a while doing push-ups. Next you started to crawl. Then you started to use your arms to climb, and stand. Once your legs gained strength, you began to take your first steps. After you got the walking thing down, you started to run."
"That was how many years ago?"
Student: insert answer
Me: "Ok, so now you are learning to walk all over again, but run right away."

Monkey Staff 2006

You Monkey!

At our roots we are primates. Our instinctive method of striking is large, powerful swings that maximize our anatomical structure. This creates power, but leaves little in the way of protection.

In martial arts (boxing, kickboxing, karate, etc.), you learn a new way of striking. Ways completely counter to your instincts, and some that will build off of them. This new method can provide power, while offering a guard for helping to protect your own head in a fight.

Striking seems simple from the outside, and I believe that is why I see so many people baffled by the amount of time it takes to get good at it.

I read a blog post from +Dan Djurdjevic yesterday speaking about 'what it means to be a beginner' (see his post here). In his article he brought up boxing, and the amount of time before a boxing coach thinks you are moderately skilled at striking. This was new to me as I am not in the western boxing circuit. He claimed 4 years for proficiency, but coaches do not consider you close to stepping into a ring with a pro-fighter until much later. This is a martial art built around 'STRIKING AND FOOTWORK ONLY'.

 It is healthy to have realistic expectations. A heavy bag routine a few days/week can help increase your striking game and cut down on the mistakes. Remember, it's about building motor function. The more you punch, the easier it becomes to tweak and fix.

Building Blocks

You may have come with a natural affinity for striking, even if a coach tells you it's the wrong way to fight, but you have even more limitations when it comes to blocking. Your natural instincts tell you to shield up, turn into a ball, or flail wildly.

When you enter martial arts, these motions are new, and you have to refine and work on them. Which includes technical elements, structure, timing, position. The training time for this can be fairly quick with proper partner training, but it is not a stand alone. Unfortunately you can't stand there and block all day long. Eventually they will find a hole.

You can practice blocks without a partner as well. Getting the repetition is important with or without a partner. Here is a short video showing basic blocks, and practicing them in the air, and then with a partner.

Your other LEFT foot!!!

Oh, you thought you knew how to walk...? Since we spend a large part of our life moving around on our feet, you'd think Footwork would be a given. Nope. On the contrary. Building a proper stance, then learning how to move in that stance takes a lot of repetition for it to become second nature. Until then, you will have holes in your game that are easy to capitalize on for a moderately skilled opponent.

Shuffling, stepping, circling, angling, cross circle steps, spin outs, change steps, are a lot of meat on the table. In order to polish these, you'll need to spend the time working it. The nice thing is, you don't NEED a partner to practice footwork.

Just for Kicks

As if that wasn't enough, now we're telling you that you should be able to stand on one leg, breath, relax, and kick someone hard enough to make them think twice about attacking you again. Yup, this one is definitely outside the normal realm of human motion and fighting instincts.

Kicking is going to be a skill that takes a focus on it's own. As with striking, if you have a bag you can beat on it will do leaps and bounds to help you get your kicking to a decent skill level. Once you have the repetition, and you aren't falling on your ass every time you lift one leg off the ground, then you can grab a partner and focus on targeting, plus timing.

Kicks expend more energy, and create bigger liabilities (depending on the type of kick). Wasting them on targets that are not open can bleed out your endurance and leave you sucking wind. Knowing when and where to throw the kick is the key to the leg game.


Next on our list is another completely foreign skill. Beyond the basic charge and tackle, throwing is an art form. One that has been separated out from other martial arts for specialization. Styles such as Shuai Jiao, and Judo are primary examples, both comprised of techniques not inherent in human instinct.

Learning the technique is one thing; building the timing for the perfect execution is a highly advanced skill.

Chin Na class circa 1999

Lock Up

Joint locks (Chin Na) are another highly technical aspect of martial arts. They require a certain finesse to be effective and become proficient in. There are tons of locks out there, but knowing how, when, and on who you can use them is sometimes confusing. Combine this with timing them off a punch, or grab, and the difficulty increases exponentially.

"Repetition is the mother of all skill." This is the truth with joint locks, and the more you train them, the better you will get, and the more sensitivity you will have to make adjustments when things change on the fly.

Check out Size Matters for more on the intricacies of joint locks.

Hooked Up

Once the range changes, you now have to deal with the clinch and getting tied up with hooks. Learning to escape and dominate the clinch, as well as throwing Elbow Strikes, and Knee Strikes, is yet another skill we throw in the mix. Like kicking and punching, practicing these on a heavy bag can help knock off some of the repetition and get your skills kick started, but you'll need to apply it with a partner to get the full benefit.

So, "Why is BJJ easy?"

Part of my discomfort with this question was that I knew it would be misconstrued. I understood what they really meant to say, but I was afraid others might take it as "BJJ is EASY!?!?! Say, What?!?!?" That wasn't the implication in the question. BJJ is not easy, and they know that, but elements of the question had merit. Why does it seem easier to pick things up than with stand-up arts?

BJJ, at least most sport BJJ, is heavily focused on the ground game. That means you are working on a single plane, with your body weight supported; allowing for ease of movement with your arms and legs available to focus on attack, defense.

Additionally, unlike all the items we listed in stand-up that have nothing to do with your instincts - BJJ is much akin to your natural movements and innate self-defense skills. Like tiger cubs that practice sparring before leaving the safety of their mother, so to do we practice fighting when we are young, pliable, and less likely to hurt one another, and ourselves. Watch untrained kids go at it. They have a natural inclination towards wrestling and that type of movement, and if they had fur you'd think they were monkeys.

You Don't Need Another Hero

We all have hero's we see in films, or in the ring/cage. We see people we admire for their skills. But that's it, we see the results. What we do not see, is what they had to go through to get there. The blood, sweat, tears; the pain, the setbacks, the injuries.

Many people find Bruce Lee to be an inspiration. There exists an invisible effort behind he, and every other icon such as Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Holly Holm, etc. when you see them, you see them in their prime, or entering their prime. You see them after years/decades of training, practicing, sweating, sacrificing. 

There is no 'short cut' to gaining "mad skillz". You have to do the work. In order to do the work, you have to enjoy the art, the people you train with, and stay focused on your goals. 

The Sum of All Parts

So in summary, if you look at the base elements I listed above, you can quickly see how things can seem overwhelming and hard to accomplish. It's normal. Any skill takes time to master.

On top of each individual component being an art in and of itself, trying to tie all the pieces together while your brain is in the early stages of learning, is thrilling, and yet seemingly insurmountable at times. Push through this and you will be rewarded.

When you walk into a stand-up martial art like Mantis Boxing, at it's essence - you are being told that you do not know how to walk, talk (lingo/jargon), punch, kick, grapple, or throw, and all the stuff in between. You are starting fresh. This is a great time and feeling, but after a few months, when the newness wears off, you start to feel the deck is stacked against you. Things you took for granted in everyday life, are now being retrained. And it takes work. This can be overwhelming, humbling, and at times seem unattainable. Nonsense.

Take a deep breath, relax, and focus on enjoying the process, the people you train with, and have fun with learning. If you think in terms of belts/time, or years to mastery, you will forget why you started doing this in the first place, and talk yourself out of the arts altogether. Live in the moment. Enjoy the journey.

Thank you +Max Kotchouro for some of the photos and video. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Do You Hate BJJ?

photos by Max Kotchouro
 Are you a Traditional Martial Artist that is turned off by the idea of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? I used to be the same way. I am not someone that enjoys physical contact, so the idea of having to work that closely with someone else, especially on the ground, used to 'skeeve me out' (a little 80's slang).

It's completely different to go from striking, kicking, and takedowns, to rolling around on the ground with someone else.

My Mantis Boxing teacher suggested I take up BJJ at least to a Blue Belt level, so that I would know what to do on the ground if the fight ended up there. Mantis Boxing has been around for a long time, but it was missing a ground component and that was a huge liability.

I was hesitant at first, but eventually I tried out BJJ. Unfortunately, at first I had a couple of bad experiences with who, and where I tried to train. On the third try, I found a great instructor, and the right atmosphere to train and learn.

At the time of this article (revised version from when I was a BJJ Blue Belt), I have been doing BJJ for a little over 4 years.  I have 16 years experience in Chinese Martial Arts, and a smidge of Tae Kwon Do background. After adding BJJ to my other skillsets, here is my take on the ways it can benefit you as a Traditional Martial Artist.

Fills the Void 

This one is simple. A vast majority of Traditional Martial Arts styles cover stand-up fighting - striking, kicking, throws, maybe joint locks, but what is the answer for fighting a guy that wants you on the ground, e.g., a wrestler, a BJJ fighter, ex-football player, some big drunk dude? If you are like me, you want answers, and you definitely want to succeed once you end up in the shark tank.

I have to be frank here, I've seen a variety of answers to this - "I will use my eye strikes, groin strikes, and secret pressure point attacks." No you won't. You will usually be too busy trying to figure out what the hell to do, and why you are on the ground being crushed.

Another is - "I won't let them get me on the ground." Yes, you will. If their style(s) is designed to get you on the ground in order for it to function, they will have been training constantly to take people down. Do you train consistently to prevent takedowns? I live in the Northeast where snow and ice are prevalent for a large portion of the year. Ending up on the ground is a common mishap up here, without someone trying to help you land there.

Bottom line - as a traditional martial artist, we benefit by recognizing the holes in our systems, and learning to close them up.

Primary to PRIME 

Studying BJJ improves your primary art. Some of the techniques in traditional arts have been lost through the annals of time. Putting the pieces back together can be difficult to downright impossible. Finding crossover principles and techniques in other arts, can help link things together in your primary style of choice.

I can't tell you how much studying BJJ has helped me learn more about my own style of Mantis Boxing. From takedowns, to defenses, to even just kinesthetically putting pieces together to flow. It has taken my knowledge and game to a new level. Especially an art such as Mantis that is rooted in stand-up grappling. It helps you flow better, and add depth to your style that may not have been there before.

Perhaps you have all the applications of your style already. Now it is your time to add to your art and expand upon it for the future that follows. What better way to do this than to close off the liability of not having a ground game.

Donut, or Do Not?

Traditional Martial Arts teachers across America are known for being out of shape. I have seen it at countless tournaments since the beginning of my training, and for a few early years of owning and running a school, I ballooned out as well. 

How can we stand with our heads high and sell 'fitness', 'discipline', along with our self-defense, when we are out of shape ourselves? Are we nothing but an army of hypocrites?

How can BJJ change this? BJJ is an incredible workout. It takes some serious conditioning; and what's better than having fun learning while getting in, or staying in, shape. It will help you shred fat, build cardio, strength, and keep or return that weaponized body you once aspired to. Of course, the nutrition aspect has to go along with it, but the mat time you put in, will incentivize you to eat better. 

At an IBJJF tournament, there are more 6 packs than you'll find at a redneck BBQ.

Cutting the BS

The saying is - "The mats don't lie." This means - you can't say you are something you are not and get away with it for long. When you roll with another BJJ practitioner, the truth becomes clear very quickly who is the higher hand.

Being a part of the Traditional Martial Arts World through the rise of the internet, from BBS's,

to forums, to facebook, etc., I have seen more petty arguments and nonsense about - "My style is the greatest". "I'm better than you." "I know more forms than you." "My lineage is pure." "My teacher is the best. My teacher is better than your teacher, My teacher's Grandmother was better than your teacher"...and on, and on it goes.

It is downright embarrassing and pathetic to see this behavior from Martial Artists. Warriors. People who train their lives to be more.

I have met some of the nicest people in BJJ since I have been a part of it. Sure, there are jerks, and I'm sure asshats abound, but the majority of people are grounded and pretty cool.

Why? Because when you run your mouth in BJJ, someone will say, "Ok, let's roll." When Traditional Martial Artists run their mouth; they stand behind lineage, belts, seniority, number of kata known, sources of kata, performance of kata, or ability to translate Asian languages. They rarely stand up and touch hands to find out who is the higher hand.

"In my experience, the more dangerous two people are, the more respectful they are to one another."

BJJ will keep you humble and aware that we are all students of the martial arts for life, and we all have progress to make in bettering ourselves inside and out. We may be king of our sandbox, but getting tapped out by a smaller opponent or a BJJ white belt, gives you firsthand knowledge and experience, in one of the most important martial arts principles to aspire to - humility.


And finally, it's just downright fun. Many of the techniques (sweeps, submissions,

escapes, takedowns) are extremely awesome and cool to learn. I know first hand that we have to keep it fun in order to stay energized about teaching. Training BJJ gives you that excitement you had when you were a new student in your original martial art style; when everything was new and enchanting.

Personally I found it to help keep the fires burning in myself. Teaching others is rewarding and fun, but if we are not continuing to learn and grow, we can become stagnant, bored, disenchanted, and even bitter.
So there are a few reasons I recommend trying it out and adding it to your game. Training in something else keeps the spark alive, and allows you to continue to feel like you are advancing yourself, while sharing your knowledge with your dedicated students.
So, put on that White Belt, box up the ego, and take the plunge into a fascinating world of new friends, sweet techniques, and years of humble learning. You won't regret it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Why Do I Suck At This???

Does this represent your training face?
"Arrrrgghh!!! Why Can't I Get This!?!?!", or, "Why is that person getting this so much faster than I am?" These are common things I see, or hear as a teacher. I want to take a few minutes today and try to shed some light on this obscure 'suck zone', and perhaps offer you some perspective to help you through it.

In order to understand why martial arts, or any new activity requiring physical prowess [other sports apply but we are going to focus on martial arts here], is giving you a hard time, we have to look at the human brain. No, I am not about to say you are a dumbass. On the contrary. I have taught highly, highly intelligent people over the past decade and a half that can't tell you where their arm is located if they don't stop and look down at it.

What many people fail to recognize in themselves, or cut themselves slack for, is their level of physical activity going into the arts. Maybe you played sports in high school. Then you went to college, got a job, and realized at 35 you haven't been active in 17 years. Maybe you are 16 year old and have lived in front of a video game console your whole life; never really using your body. Maybe you are 65 and deciding to take up Tai Chi to stay active, but you sat at a desk job since you were 35. See the common thread?

Here's what is happening from the brain's perspective. The human brain is incredibly conservative. If something is not being used, then the brain ignores it. We have pathways connecting neurons in our brain, and each pathway connects from one piece of information to another, to another, creating connections (more below). This happens with physical activity as well. Compare it to your high school Algebra, that thing you said you would never use in life. Say you were right. Now try to go do Algebra. Doesn't work so well does it? The same thing happens with your body and physical movement.

When you have a group of common connections, it is due to your brain building relationships. Connecting one neuron to another neuron to build a network. Think of it as a power grid; transmitting information from node to node. Except this power grid shuts down lines that are not being used in order to save energy.

Unfortunately, if you stop using it, the brain starts overwriting these connections. Pathways grow dormant, and new information, information that is relevant to whatever you are doing in your life NOW, is what is going to take precedence. If physical activity is not at the forefront in your life, then atrophy sets in; physical AND mental. The brain does not waste time and energy trying to keep things 'alive' that are not useful to it's purpose. If you were a star athlete in college, you will still have pathways for those actions in your prior sport, but they have faded. If you return to the sport in your 30's, you will probably stumble a bit in the beginning, but may pick things back up relatively quickly after the initial climb.

The Neural Network

Your brain is full of billions of neurons. When you start training in martial arts, you may develop a neuron for a block you learned. You know the block, you practiced the block, and it is part of you. You also developed a neuron for a punch. Now when someone punches you, you block, but you don't punch. Why? No connection. So after practicing for a while, and seeing similar circumstances, one day you are comfortable enough with your blocking and someone taking a swing at you, that you see an opening and throw a counter punch. Your brain then creates a connection from the punch neuron, to the block neuron and you will know to respond that way the next time.

Let's add a piece. Now the person punches. You block. You counter punch, but suddenly your punch misses. The person slips. Now you stand there for a second unsure what to do next. Why? You don't have the connection laid yet. Like trying to cross from Boston to San Diego in your car, but there are no roads to connect you there.

Grappling example: You learn how to do an armbar. Neuron is mapped. You learn how to Triangle choke from guard. Neuron mapped. Now you are fighting with an opponent in your guard and you go for an armbar. An armbar that you are quite successful at and have trained thoroughly. Your opponent pulls the arm before you can secure it. You lose the submission and have to start over with something else. Or instead, you learn how to snap on a triangle when they pull the arm. You have mapped a connection between the two submissions, and your next response is to immediately counter their counter with another submission. Something that is impossible to do when you have not mapped out either neuron, or built the connection between them. 

The more you train, and the more experiences happen to you in the arts (failures most importantly), the more neurons you build connections to as you find solutions. Eventually you get a web of connections, and when faced with unfamiliar stimuli, you have a response. The better you get, the more likely you are to have a 'proper' response to this new threat or action.

It would be impossible to train every single scenario/outcome that can happen. That supercomputer residing inside your skull would take 100's of years to try and calculate all those responses. And, training students that way would result in absolute disaster. Instead, we train principles, and we train with randomness and variability, and the results we get are far superior.

Your left foot. NOOOO!!! YOUR OTHER LEFT FOOT!!!

From a teacher's perspective, it can be extremely frustrating to tell someone to move their left, or right foot, and have them not know where their leg is. I have been in schools where teachers have thrown out students and told them - "This is not for you." I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, even though at times I confess to have watched students and wondered if they were ever going to get it. [meditate]

Someone could be the next one to pass on the art, but you turned them off of martial arts for good because they didn't get it right away.

Patience and understanding are easier said than done, but they are necessary when teaching your art to ALL those who wish to receive it. Someone with long periods lacking physical activity is going to take longer to get up to speed with basic movement than a seasoned athlete. It's like trying to teach a child at 5 or 6 to do Fine Motor Function, when at that age they should be learning Gross Motor Function. You can't put the cart before the horse.


When teaching adults and teaching people who are not REQUIRED to stand there and take your
bullshit, you have to have some flexibilty, and draw out the timeline for success. You can't just scream at them until they get it (flashbacks of boot camp). Unless you are training people for combat in a condensed period of time. But then, you shouldn't be teaching in-depth martial arts, you should be teaching self-defense systems like Krav Maga. Simplified, and meant for short training, not mastering high levels of skill.

To be honest, the drill instructors in boot camp have a hell of a job to do. 8 weeks to turn goofy, uncoordinated, head up their ass teenagers, into lean, mean, fighting machines. This is not an easy task, and our lives depend on getting it right. Quickly. However, we are a captive audience; by choice, or not.

If you are teaching out of your garage and do not need to sustain yourself, or you are trying to train people as quickly as possible, then you can cherry pick your students and kick out (directly, or indirectly) the one's that won't get up to speed fast enough. But...if you are interested in creating a strong community of martial artists that help one another grow and learn, and accept people of all skill and talent levels amongst their ranks, then keep in mind not everyone has been training for our arts their entire life. Some will need more time and patience in the process.

One approach I like to use in thinking about this, is drawing. When you want to draw a human face, you don't start by drawing every freckle, line, or hair. You start with a rough circle for the head, and rough circles for the eyes, nose, mouth, ears. Then, you begin to create finer and finer circles and lines. Adding more and more detail as you go. Martial Arts is no different. Don't feel like your ROUGH DRAFT is supposed to be a MASTERPIECE.

All black belts are not created equal. All black belts are not created in the same amount of time.


photos courtesy of Max Kotchouro


Buonomano, Dean. Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

"The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science Paperback – December 18, 2007." The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science: Norman Doidge: 9780143113102: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Fighting 'Peng'

The Combative Nature of Tai Chi's First Principle

Peng - Ward-Off
Ward-Off is a fascinating example of human anatomy in action. Our bodies are comprised of muscles, tendons, and ligaments, that together, assist us in moving where the brain wants us to go. In addition, because of our anatomical design, there are inherent strengths, and weaknesses that can be capitalized upon.

Peng (pronounced - pung), translated as 'Ward-Off' in English, is the first 'character' listed in Tai Chi's (Tai Ji Quan) 13 principles. It is often discussed in texts/classes, and demonstrated in various ways, but how does it translate to fighting? Surprisingly it is not unique to Tai Chi, and is found in various other fighting arts, but Tai Ji Quan highlights it as an important method.

Standard Ward-Off demonstration
In Tai Chi practice, to include Tui Shou (Push Hands), the Ward-Off principle is often demonstrated as the arm being somewhat rounded; used for connecting with our opponent, or pushing arm to arm. Those concepts are more closely defined with the principle An (Push), and a sub-principle known as 'Join' (Zhan - to connect or join), in Tai Ji Quan, and 'Contact' (Zhan -- same character) in Tang Lang Quan. While this is an adequate demonstration of the proper shape and structure of the arm, the true value goes far deeper.

Ward-Off is more accurately referring to the arms proper structure, and use. Originating as a stand-up grappling art (strikes, kicks, throws, trips), Tai Ji Quan is heavily dependent upon arm position and structure for defense and control. There are subtleties that have to do with pressure, spacing, timing that many styles also share, and are crucial to proper execution of technique.

The structure of Ward-Off

Arm collapsing

  • Wrist in front of elbow - once the wrist passes below the 90 degree bend in the arm, the arm becomes weaker and will collapse. 
  • Elbow below wrist - placing the wrist at or below the height of the elbow, reduces the structural strength of the arm.
  • Hand relaxed - tension in the hand will reduce muscle strength in other parts of the arm, leading to collapse. 
  • Shoulder relaxed - raised or tightened shoulder muscles also reduce the ability for the arm muscles to maintain structural integrity of the position. 
  • Head upright - tilting the head slightly in either direction, weakens the capabilities of the arm.

What makes Ward-Off important, significant, and how can it be applied in combat? 


Note position of lead arm on right
Difficult to remove the arm
Vulnerable to the follow-up actions
In striking, a good fighting position has the fighter's arms up in a ready position to defend shots to the face/head. If the wrist passes behind the elbow, or becomes completely vertical, the arm loses the 'ward-off' component and has entered a weakened state.

An opponent pressing on the wrists can collapse our arms back, negating our ability to defend or control, and manipulating us into a bad position.

When tightening up the guard position for closer range (guard shown on the right versus the left), bring the elbows tighter to your ribs instead of bringing the wrists behind the elbow. If you maintain this angle, you'll have a much stronger guard and increase your ability to maneuver the arm(s) under pressing attacks such as pushes, grabs, controls.


Arm shown too far back.
Arm supporting pressure.
The same holds true when grappling (stand-up). If the arm is allowed to collapse back into the body due to a weak posture, the limb can be pinned against the body and become immobile and useless.

This can allow the opponent to advance to a body clinch, underhooks, or to apply a push with arms or shoulder to upset our balance and position, or facilitate a throw.

Using pressure to maintain position can allow us to manipulate our opponent by releasing the pressure at the right time, dumping them into a hole...or, "lead your opponent into emptiness" as the Tai Chi saying goes.

This handling of pressure and timing is a refined skill and requires using the opponent against themselves. Keeping the angle of the arm out, allows us time to rotate the arm and circle back to a strong position if it collapses. This is commonly seen when battling for underhook positions. The wrist stays ahead of the elbow, and the hand leads the arm like the head of a snake.


BJJ concept called 'framing'. Arm and neck here.
In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu this 'Ward-Off' concept is often referred to as 'framing', as in the frame holding your house up. Placing the arms, legs, in a position to block the opponents pass, or keep them from gaining side control.

Ground fighting allows for an expansion of this principle to the use of the legs as weapons in the battle for pressure and space. Typically blocking the hip, knee, and the neck are good places to frame (Ward-Off).

 Once the knee, arm, or a foot is in place, it can be used to apply pressure at the right time to not only keep our opponent from passing, or gaining a superior position, but to create space allowing us to move to a better position, or escape.

Arm structure - wrist before elbow
Again, pressure used at the right time, can cause the opponent that is determined to advance, to over commit their position. Releasing the pressure can cause them to make a larger move than anticipated, or cause them to fall forward once that pressure is released. Using this advantage can create the opportunity needed to escape, sweep, or gain a position for the submission.


Ward-Off in Tai Chi texts is often understated, it seems innocuous or perhaps insignificant even, but it can be a powerful principle when it becomes part of our arsenal.  It was given position number one in a short list of thirteen characters defining the principles of the style; with good reason.

Photos courtesy of Max Kotchouro

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Cost of 'Living' - Self-Defense vs. Martial Arts

How to find a self-defense course that is right for you or your child.

photo by: Max Kotchouro
Basic self-defense knowledge can mean the difference between life and death, or assault and avoidance, but is it necessary in suburban America? If so, what is the best type of training for you? How do you find a good course, or even know what to look for? How involved does the training need to be for it to be effective?

Do I need it? 
There are many reasons we can find to spend our free time doing activities we enjoy, working around the house, or when it comes to teenagers - shuffling them from one activity to the next, or letting them enjoy a breather from school/work. I am asked from time to time by people who live in relatively safe areas, about the necessity of self-defense training. My response usually involves a few questions. “Do you know where you will be in the next 5 years? Do you plan to travel? Do you ever go into urban areas at night for social activities? Would you like to know some basic ways to defend yourself without a firearm, spray, or other weapon in the event of a home invasion, or mugging?”

When it comes to teenagers, especially young women, I don't believe anyone thinks their child will not benefit from a course in self-defense/rape prevention. Especially when statistics show that 1 in 4 girls in college will be sexually assaulted. Yes, that's 25% of all college women - that is based solely on the 'reported' cases, so actual rates are depressingly higher.  

What type of training is best for you?
Martial Arts versus Self-Defense Training - Most of us don't know the difference, but there definitely is one. A big one. A majority of Martial Arts styles do teach self-defense, but the pace to learn competency in real world scenarios can be long and arduous, and not always fitting to the body type of the individual training that particular style. 

In addition, some styles focus predominantly on competition fighting, which does not allow for hitting targets one would normally want to hit in order to disable an attacker that is trying to take your life, your virtue, or harm a loved one. I recommend martial arts training for those looking for self-defense and improving their lifestyle by learning effective skills while enjoying the process, and camaraderie, of training and improving one's self.

Self-Defense training is typically streamlined and focused. It lacks the benefits of self-improvement, personal growth, teamwork, goal achievement, and fun you get from training martial arts, but replaces it with short term orientation that produces effective results - quick, simple methods to get you out of a bad situation. 

What is a good style of Martial Arts for you?
There is no simple answer to this as it depends on your body type, goals, and how well you use the style you are taught. Some of the more effective arts for self-defense are Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, San Shou/San Da, Tang Lang Quan, Judo/Shuai Jiao, Muay Thai, Boxing, and Wrestling. If you are of a smaller stature, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the better arts as it focuses heavily on the ground and using leverage, not strength, to increase effectiveness. At it’s core, it is better to find a good school/instructor teaching effective arts, rather than focus on the style.

How do I find a good self-defense course?
Look for a course that promotes principles such as - simple, easy, highly effective. Courses that rely on multi-step responses to a bad guy's attack, or the use of fine motor skills, will fail you when you need them most. Simple, clean techniques that use gross motor function, and are reinforced through repetition, will be easier to depend upon under dire stress and an adrenaline dump. Martial Arts training uses repetition to reinforce fine motor skills in combat, as weekend self-defense course should rely heavily on gross movements that your body uses under duress.

The course should address physical differences such as size, gender, strength, and not rely predominantly on punching. Punching, apart from being a refined skill in and of itself, will be harder for smaller and/or weaker opponents to produce enough power to disable or slow down an attacker (think 115 lbs woman versus 280 lbs male...).

Ideally the course offers scenario training with suits and trained attackers, but also addresses the setting of 'verbal boundaries' and how to deal with obnoxious, what I like to call 'space invaders', or the creepy family friend or relative that likes to touch you while no one is looking. These are subtler situations that, like date rape, do not always warrant a full on death dealing blow, but rather a lower key response that sends a strong message of deterrence.

The length of the course should be relatively short. 40 hours of self-defense training is not a bad thing, but if 40 hours is required in order to get you through all the material, then see my previous statement on simplicity and efficacy under stress. Usually a two hour focused course is 'ok', but should not be all encompassing. 8 to 12 hours of training is substantial, and if reinforced every few years, can be extremely beneficial.

Look for courses that cover defenses from common attacks, body/neck holds, and grabs, while promoting the use of weapons you will have on you at all times (your limbs). Reaching in your purse, or pocket for a weapon when being caught off guard, puts you in a worse position as you use your natural weapons to fumble for something you likely will not find in time. 

Note on weapons: Weapons can be great tools, but do you have it on you at all times? Is it accessible? Is the person able to take it away from you, and are you prepared for defending against that weapon now that it will be used against you?

The course should address ground self-defense. Anyone can end up on the ground in an altercation, and many attacks end up here. Does the course offer extensive knowledge and training on how to deal with a larger, stronger, heavier attacker that has you pinned on the ground? Again, with simple, and effective techniques.

As previously mentioned, verbal boundary training is a must. For some people (specifically those that have trouble telling other people “no”), this can be the toughest type of training, but the most rewarding. 

Scenario training puts you in a stressful situation against a suited attacker so you can test the material you learned. Stress has an amazing ability to reinforce learned material in the brain. Having the opportunity to use what you learned, gives you the confidence to know that it works, and you can succeed. Make sure the course offers some type of stress testing.

Lastly, weapon disarmament. Weapon disarm courses should be considered with care. Gun disarms are a viable training course and useful knowledge to have, while knife defense training is a slippery slope. Knives are very dangerous, and it is extremely difficult to teach knife defense to an untrained person, especially in a short course. Also, buyer beware, there are many knife defense techniques that will not work, and are based off unrealistic attack styles (Jim Carey’s ‘In Living Color’ skit comes to mind).

How much should it cost?

What should a self-defense course cost? This varies from free courses to expensive courses. We’ve all heard the saying “You get what you pay for.”, but let’s add a little perspective. Sometimes a person offering a free course is doing so because they believe strongly in helping others to avoid becoming a victim. Perhaps they were a victim themselves at one time, and decided to channel their horrible experience into something positive in this altruistic manner. 

We live in a monetary based society, and like it or not, we rate the value of something based on the price. This is good, and bad. Charging money for something does not automatically mean it is of higher quality. It is ultimately up to the consumer to research the courses, or try the free one first, and see if it is adequate by using some of the suggestions/criteria above. If you are satisfied and received a good service, then count yourself lucky.

When dealing with paid courses, how much is too much? This becomes tricky, ultimately we are talking about the value of your life, or your child's life, and the value of the material/skills being passed on in order to teach you to protect yourself or your family. A good course will likely cost more money, but may be unaffordable. If money is not an object, what value can be put on knowing your child is a bit safer in life? Or you walking away with the confidence to handle a bad situation? 

We’re not simply talking about life or death, the true cost of 'Living' can mean surviving a sexual assault, mugging, or domestic violence, and dealing with the emotional trauma for years or decades to come. If these situations can be avoided altogether, the savings in monetary, emotional, psychological, and physical currency will be priceless. Choosing a good course and instructor is above all else. In the end, you will walk away feeling that you can rely on the material you learned, and hopefully, you will never need it!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Xiao Da - The Truth on Effective Strike

Xiao Da - The Truth on Effective Strike

by Randy Brown
(Article published in Journal of 7 Star Mantis vol. 4, issue 4/Northern Shaolin Praying Mantis Institute and Association 2013)

Effective Strike (Xiao Da), is the Chinese principle of striking to vital targets, or targets that have more destructive impact than other areas of the body. This is a common concept in many styles of martial arts. I recall the first time I showed up for Tae Kwon Do/Hapkido class back in 1991 -  my teacher said - "Want to kill a man? Hit here, here, here, or here." I was happy, but stunned.

I thought to myself - "WOW!  Cool!!!" Followed by - "wait...why would you tell someone that in their first class? Isn't that dangerous information to hand out to strangers? After all even US Army Basic Training Hand to Hand Combat didn't teach us that!". I chalked it up to him just being half psychopath since he spent most of his life training elite South Korean Special Forces Soldiers in Hand-to-Hand Combat.

It was some time later in my martial arts career that I realized why this information wasn't so dangerous after all. The reason is simple. If you don't train it, you won't use it. Effective Strike is a skill like any other. It needs extensive practice and proper training in order to be effective in real combat, or in other words - to manifest itself under stress. In said Tae Kwon Do class, we never used finger strikes, throat chops, or did any sort of training that incorporated strikes to these vital areas; we simply kicked, punched (less), blocked, and smashed our shins and forearms on one another till bruised an battered.

Train Like You Fight, Fight Like You Train

I like to use the terminology - train like you fight, fight like you train. In your Kung Fu training, the constant focus of hitting to Effective Strike targets is crucial to making this habitual. There is no time to think in a fight. One must react and react appropriately; which is the whole objective of proper training.

So when should you learn this skill? Ideally the sooner the better, especially for smaller fighters.  Smaller fighters lack the power that a larger or heavier opponent can produce, so this skill is crucial for us. Being able to hit someone in a targeted area means that your strikes pack more bang for the buck.

With that said, one needs to learn how to properly punch first, before focusing on Effective Strike. Trying to perform Xiao Da from Day One, gives the brain too much to focus on at one time.  A beginner should be more concerned with proper striking, blocking, guard principle, and defense first. Once Xiao Da is properly introduced, aim for these targets with every strike in your arsenal.

After you have learned it, you can then veer off to other non-effective targets that may lure or distract your opponent; creating what we call Open Doors to the effective targets we want.  This is necessary because an opponent with a good defense will 'require' you to 'open doors' in order to hit his covered targets.

Training Tips

These vary based on whether or not you have a training partner.  I did not have a partner to use when I wanted to integrate this into my fighting, so I took colored price stickers used in yard sales, and I plastered them on my heavy bag in the general target areas on the human body. I then practiced various combinations striking to these targets. To test them, I sparred with other people.

For those with a partner, I recommend a great technique called 'Walk the Body', passed down to me from Master Puyot. Walk the Body has one person standing still (in their fighting stance is fine) while the other practices slow and very low power combinations to targets on their partners body.

As you grow more comfortable with the targets, the complexity increases by having your partner put their hands up in a defensive fighting position forcing you to move their arms. Following that, you need striking combinations, that the partner blocks, so you can open doors to the Effective Strike targets you wish to hit using solid striking combinations.

Note: this is not a fast paced exercise and requires patience, cooperation, and hours of practice to become second nature. It challenges your critical thinking skills once you add the complexity of combinations versus a live defense. Done properly however these strikes will become automatic and ingrained in your skill set.

DIM MAK - The fallacy of pressure point based combat

Early in my training I met people, and still do from time to time, that have little knowledge of martial arts, but they talk about Dim Mak (pressure point striking) from books they've read, or videos they've watched, or even some Hollywood movie.

You can find videos online of teachers knocking out students at demonstrations to show Dim Mak, and all the supposed power one can have over other human beings by hitting them in these targets. People are fascinated by this and very enthusiastic. I can understand why, the idea of knocking out someone else with such ease is...alluring! Unfortunately, while some of these are legitimate strikes to real targets, some are incredibly finite and difficult to get to.

In a previous article, Size Matters - In Chin Na I discuss 'gross' versus 'fine' motor function in combat. Just like finite Chin Na skills, high precision striking is less reliable when we are under stress, AND when our opponent is trying to hit us back. That's the live, active, and moving opponent that is also trying to ‘take your head off’ component.

This complicates things and makes it much more difficult to perform a finite strike to a small target area. So unless you're Luke Skywalker firing your torpedo at the Death Star, give up on the idea, and stick with something that will work.

Natural armor - in addition, a human being under the affects of adrenaline in combat (never mind the affects of drugs), is more resilient to these strikes. It really sucks when you're in the thick of it and your silver bullet doesn't really kill the werewolf! This is why it is better to learn multiple targets, strike in combinations that you would normally throw, and cover your bases in case you miss the first target.  Meaning, you missed but it still hurts them like hell!!!

Below are the targets and the effects a person experiences when being hit in those regions.

8 Head Targets

  1. Throat - Crush the larynx making it difficult to impossible for opponent to breathe
  2. Side of Neck (Brachial Stun) - Knock out blow, or excrutiating pain at the least
  3. Back of Neck (Occipital Lobe) - Knock out blow
  4. Jaw - Break or Dislocation. Extreme pain.
  5. Nose - Pain. Bleeding. Watery Eyes causing reduced vision.
  6. Eyes - Loss of sight. Extreme pain.
  7. Ears - Tear them off for extreme pain.
  8. Temple - Knock out blow. Extreme pain. Disorientation.

12 Body Targets

  1. Shin - Extreme pain and discomfort.
  2. Knee - Break/Dislocation. Extreme pain. Loss of Mobility.
  3. Outer Thigh - A solid kick to this target can cripple a fighter and make them think twice about closing distance.
  4. Inner Thigh (Femoral Nerve) - Identical to the Outer Thigh, this target causes excruciating pain.
  5. Groin - Extreme pain and discomfort. Potentially cripple opponent.
  6. Bladder - Pain and discomfort. Possible bladder release. (you figure it out)
  7. Rib (Floater) - Break. Extreme pain and discomfort. Possible breathing effects.
  8. Kidney - Potential knock out as well as extreme pain.
  9. Liver - Knock out blow. Extreme pain/discomfort.
  10. Stomach - Knock out blow. Extreme pain/discomfort.
  11. Solar Plexus - High concentration of nerves. Also the meeting point of the heart, liver.
  12. Collar Bone - Break. Extreme pain. Loss of use of arm on that side. Harder target to hit and not effective on everyone.

Photos courtesy of Max Kotchouro
(original blog 11/2009)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Southpaw - An In-Depth Look

The southpaw term is used for many reasons but for our purposes it is to connotate the position in fighting where the fighter has their right foot forward versus the traditional pose of the left foot forward. Of more interest to us is the advantages and disadvantages of one fighter having their left foot forward and the other having their right foot forward, and the reciprocal.

There is a long history of ancient cultures including the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese that prejudice left-handed use. It is seen as sinister, wicked, evil, etc. and many of the words for such are derived from the word left in these languages ( In Chinese culture the major philosophies and religions believe in the universe spinning from left to right and things must always start on the left and move toward the right to remain in harmony. This expresses itself is in many of the Kung Fu forms that we see and is heavily documented in Tai Chi.

It is interesting as to why people usually place the left foot forward. It may very well be the majority of right hand dominant people versus left-hand dominant people. It may be a subconscious desire to protect the right kidney since it hangs slightly lower than the left, partially exposed without full protection of the rib cage. Placing the right side in the rear offers more protection to the flank. Keeping the powerful right in reserve if they are a righty. Who knows. It is not in the scope of this article to determine the root of these beliefs but rather what effect the Southpaw stance has on fighting.

What we do know is that people use this stance when they fight and knowing the advantages and disadvantages to its use can be quite beneficial. Here are some of the pros and cons to having your left foot forward while your opponent has their right and vice versus.

  1. Easier to attack the flank.
  2. Cuts off the opponents second hand from attacking when on the outside.
  3. Sets up for trips, sweeps, take-downs.
  4. If dominant hand is forward - offers a stronger jab.
  5. If on the inside it squares up your opponent offering clear shots to solid targets. Exposes the groin to attacks with kicks, grabs, strikes, knees.

  1. When on the inside you are in reach of both hands and susceptible to attacks not normally possible when directly in front of your opponent.
  2. Opponent can attack your flank hitting vital or destructive targets.
  3. Groin is exposed to kicks.
  4. Legs are side by side if opponent is on your inside making you more vulnerable to double leg takedowns.
  5. Fighting southpaw allows your opponent to sweep your foot when you shuffle in and if you circle to their inside you are walking right into their cross.
  6. This position also affects your range, placing the jab closer to your opponent and keeping the cross so far away that it is often out of range and awkward to throw unless the other person makes a mistake.
Know your weaknesses and capitalize on your gains.
What to do on the outside:
  1. If you are on the outside you want to remain there if possible, providing you have the correct angle. In this position you should be lighting up your opponent with hooks to the head, ribs, and kidney while attacking the inside line with your other hand using effective combinations.
  2. Ideal position for setting up a few throws like side leg scoop and thigh lift throw.
  3. In fight training it is common to fight one sided. In other words people choose a side to train and often ignore the other side or give it less attention. In these formats a Righty will spend most of their time fighting Righty's while a Lefty or Southpaw will spend most of their time fighting Righty's. This gives the Lefty an advantage as they spend a vast majority of time in this position and develop superior tactics and strategies.

What to do on the inside:
  1. Strike up the middle high and low while being aware of any position changes made by your opponent that may put you at risk.
  2. Kick or Punch to the groin.
  3. Perform Double Leg Takedown.

Here are a couple applications from our Kung Fu styles that use this position:
  • Mantis Boxing
    Crazy Ghost Fist - The first move in Beng Bu. This move is a perfect example of proper use of the southpaw. Opponent punches and you move to the outside while blocking the arm and striking the ribs.
  • Tai Chi
    Deflect Parry Punch - exists throughout the long form. In this move you ward-off your opponents arm, use cross circle step to their outside and shift forward to Southpaw bow stance while pinning the arm with your outside hand and striking with the inside.
Southpaw can be a great advantage or a great liability in fighting depending on your skill level with using it. As a rule when I teach beginners I leave it out. If you don't understand the dangers then the advantages are not worth the risk. When you understand match stance (left to left or right to right) then you should begin to play with the Southpaw position.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Many of us make mistakes in training/practicing martial arts outside of class. When I was starting out I made an all too common error of collecting every drill, form, and exercise my teacher gave me. By the end of 1.5 years I had 2 pages of itemized material to train every time I practiced outside of class (which was quite frequently).

After a while my practice time went from 30 minutes to 2+ hours. I didn't always have 2 hours in a row so I had to start dividing up sessions during my day and training some things on my lunch break at work, others after work, and more when I left college class at night before going to bed. What I didn't know at the time was, that certain drills are meant to give you a skill, and once you have that skill, you leave the drill behind, or it becomes cumbersome or even counter productive to other training.

For example - if I have an intermediate student and they are still practicing Level 1 footwork and not working on Level 2 footwork then they will constantly be at a disadvantage when fighting their peers in the same level. So in essence they are holding themselves back by not directing their efforts in the appropriate place and spending more time on practicing their newest and least proficient skill.

I am a strong advocate for the saying, "practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect." This can seem perplexing as how is one to practice something perfectly when they first learn it? That is a misinterpretation of this quote. Perfect practice means effective practice that focuses on the target, and hits the material needing practice at that time; not jumping all over the map or practicing material from 2 years ago that is not currently relevant to your training and skill advancement. It does not mean that one should have mastery over something before they decide to practice it; otherwise how would we get anywhere?

It will take you on average 10,000 repetition before you are really good at something, in this case maybe throwing a punch, blocking, or moving. The longer you put off those reps the longer it will take for you to master these skills and the more delayed the evolution of your abilities.

Many people have jobs, school, and families, finding practice time outside of class can be rather difficult. That is why it is crucial that the material you do practice is 'focused', 'effective', and 'enjoyable'. To do this you can follow some simple guidelines
  1. Take suggestions you were given in class from the instructor, coach, or a peer and train fixes. If you lack the knowledge on how to fix that quirk then you should speak to your instructor and perhaps they can give you a drill you don't know about to fix the problem.
  2. Current material - take the current material being taught and focus on practicing that. Isolate and annihilate the current defects in your training instead of skipping around like a new puppy sniffing every tree you can find and getting lost in the smells.
  3. Beware the Rat - rats are innovative and cunning, but they collect things, and if you collect drills, forms, etc., make sure you are cycling your practice appropriately so you are not ineffective.  Rather instead, fix things and move on to the next task at hand when appropriate.
  4. Boredom - Likely you have more than one thing that needs to be fixed, so in order to prevent boredom in practice (making you not want to practice at all) mix up your practice routine with multiple drills for the same task, as well as incorporating one or two other skills you know you are weak on.
These are some tips to make your practice mean more to you in the long and short term. Practice does not have to be a chore, but if you make it boring, monotonous, or cumbersome, then you'll be all the less interested in taking part in it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Speed Kills - Your Martial Arts

In martial arts there is a significant importance placed on speed. Why shouldn't there be, this trait is often times what gives one fighter an advantage over another right? Yes. The problem is, speed in 'training', has more negative effects than positive.

All too often speed is the culprit that inhibits our learning and growth when training how to fight. This is easily explained by the emotional state of the fighter who is stressed out in unfamiliar territory; confused, and/or trying to multi-task. Once we can slow down the training/sparring, we see that there is much to learn when we play things out at a decreased pace.

Example - while footwork training two students are going too fast for their skill level. One has never done the drills at all and is green as a zucchini. At the speed they are going, the two of them are wandering all over the ring with no concept of where they are, and why they are moving. Just moving for the sake of moving. They are failing to use all of their newly trained footwork skills just trained earlier in the class; instead opting for speed. This causes them to revert back to what they had done the most, thereby losing possible advantages and failing to reinforce the lesson learned in class.

When we are learning something like footwork, if someone says, "Freeze!", can you explain the reason you stepped where you did on the last step? Can you describe the advantages and disadvantages of your current position? Can you map out the last 3 moves before you landed there? Or, what your opponent has to do from here to counter you?

 If not, then you could benefit greatly from decreasing speed. Slowing down the footwork allows us to see our mistakes. We can then either do it over again, or move on knowing next time not to repeat our previous mistake because we were running at a speed where we could analyze instead of just react.

This principle applies to other aspects of combat training as well, and is not restricted to just footwork. Blocking is a great example. Our partner is throwing punches at us. We are blocking away. They speed up. We start getting hit more often than not. Now we're in survival mode, not training/learning mode. If our partner slows the pace down to 'success, success, fail, success, fail, success' from 'fail, fail, fail, success, fail, success, fail, fail' then we are able to learn and fix. Once we start succeeding too consistently it's time for our partner to ramp the speed up a notch or two till we again fail once in a while.


Do not mistake this as advocating an abolition of speed, as speed is a necessary component when introduced at the right time in the training process. If training is slow all the time, you will never build up the reactions, kinisthetic feedback, or gain the confidence to block for real. So speed has to be a part of the training.

Speed is used heavily to test skills, to determine if we have attained and retained a technique, movement, skill, reaction, but has to go away if failure is the higher percentage of results, or if new material is introduced.

When going fast, we have no ability to analyze our actions. We are throwing our training to the 'Fates'. As a rule of thumb - "Fast as you can, slow as you must!" and "Slow to learn. Fast to Test." - Tony Puyot

Speed increases with skill, not the other way around.


A highly productive training environment is evident when sparring/rolling and you are able to ask your partner for a 'do over'. Yes, a 'do over'. A chance to go back one, two, or three positions and try the same move over again to see why you failed. Perhaps you got your De La Riva hook in, but you were too slow and missed the sweep, only realizing after the fact. It could be months before you end up there again, so repeating the setup then and there is a perfect way to try again.

A real fight doesn't give you that opportunity, but our training environment, and friends in the dojo are able and willing to help. This produces better fighter's than an ultra competitive atmosphere where no one ever wants to see their partners succeed. In martial arts, we're only as good as those around us. If you don't help elevate your partners/classmates, then your skills will eventually plateau until you or someone else helps others rise up.

(updated 2/6/2015)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Size Matters - In Chin Na

Size Matters - in Chin Na

  'Why Chin Na works, and does not work'
  By Randy Brown

(article printed in - Journal of 7 Star Mantis vol. 3, issue 3/Northern Shaolin Praying Mantis Institute and Association 2012)

Chin Na - the Chinese art of bone and joint locking found in many styles of Kung Fu including Praying Mantis. The human body has a plethora of ways that it will, and will not bend. Chin Na capitalizes on these anatomical weaknesses with the objective of controlling, or destroying ones opponent. Locks exist for every joint from the head to the toes; and quite possibly 20 to 50 variations of each one depending on who you talk to, or what reference you use. 

Having spent years studying these locks, I found it awkward to pull some of them off in 'live' situations. A great many of them if even attempted, would have landed the practitioner in a world of hurt from their opponent. Simply from the person reacting by punching them with their free hand/arm. This article attempts to clarify some of the misunderstanding of how and why Chin Na does, or does not work.

Qing and Republican Era 

Much of the documentation I have been able to find on Chin Na, comes from the late Qing Dynasty (late 1800's when China's Martial Arts practice was in decline), and the Republican Era; with some emerging during the Communist reign. These sources are often littered with a ridiculous amount of locks; and include locks that are completely irrelevant to fighting. I recall one technique involving a hair grab from the front - the victim is attempting a forward hand press lock with no leverage to counter the attacker grabbing hair on the front of his head. A simple counter-attack to the persons groin would suffice, yet here lies an ineffective lock.

Forms - Our Window to the Past 

Forms are perhaps our oldest and most reliable documentation of Kung Fu's history of techniques. They are our library or catalog of applications that are relevant to each system or style. Given the lack of documentation on Chinese Martial Arts through the ages, we have to rely on forms as our window to the past. If you look at the majority of Kung Fu forms they are comprised of strikes (fists, elbows, knees), kicks, throws, and locks. The locks however, typically focus on gross motor movements; attacking the most accessible joints - elbow, shoulder, hip, and knee. Earlier in my training I studied close to 25 to 35 hand forms, and rarely, if ever, have I found a small binding lock within those forms.

Motor Function and Stress 

The primary reason Chin Na often fails to work, or has no place in certain situations, is our motor function skills. According to the National Police Association the level of accuracy in gun fights across the nation was reported at 12% for 2008. These are individuals that train to use their weapons over and over; yet there is a problem hitting their targets when under intense pressure; proving we as human beings lack accuracy and fine motor skills under stressful situations. 

In the world of Chin Na - humans in the midst of situations such as physical altercations, use gross motor function and react with adrenaline coursing through their system; the heart rate is up, breathing becomes erratic, palms sweat. These factors alter the reality of trying to attempt a finite lock on someone as they attack; grabbing a hand out of mid air becomes increasingly difficult.

Training the same technique over and over through repetition, helps eliminate this problem, but only if the training approaches live scenarios in its charter. In essence, if the locks are simply practiced with compliant partners and/or in fixed sequences such as line training, then we will find them unreliable in combat. To counter this, we can train the locks with 'feeder drills' that lead to random sparring to increase effectiveness.


The where, when, and on who, of locks is the most crucial element of lock training. What we cannot recover from, is attempting a lock on a larger and stronger opponent when we tried to use the wrong lock on them. This is typically where we get punished trying to use joint locks. 

A human body is a human body; no matter what size the person is. Aside from certain individuals who are double jointed, locks will work no matter how big the person is. The problem isn't whether a joint will lock, the problem is with a larger person - they also have larger muscles. It becomes increasingly difficult to manipulate these larger muscles when we are a smaller fighter. We need the appropriate strength to turn/position the joint and apply the lock. The battle becomes strength on strength, instead of technique winning the day.

As an analogy - joint locks will work on animals just as they will work on people, but you will see drastically different results if you attempt a lock on a dog vs. a horse. The two animals are not only different sizes and weights, but possess far different strength potentials. 12 dogs to pull a sled vs. 1 horse to pull a wagon. In the human world of Chin Na, there is no difference. If you attempt a lock on a much larger opponent, they will resist with strength and then counter with a punch, grab, or counter lock.

Working with different sized partners can give us insight and kinisthetic feedback to this phenomenon. Learning to move from compliant to resistant training, will train us on how to detect and become sensitive to the when and where of applying locks; so when we meet someone that resists, we know automatically to switch to another lock, or resume striking to soften the target.

Target Fixation 

Military and civilian pilots have a term - 'Target Fixation'. For a military aviator it is most common when we are diving and attacking a ground target. We become so fixated on our target, we fail to realize our altitude change, and leave insufficient altitude to pull the aircraft out of the dive - then crashing into the target or ground.

This same principle applies to joint locks. It is a common occurrence when we train Chin Na in fixed patterns, to get lock fixation. As we attempt a lock, and the initial attempt fails, we become fixated on making the lock work, and continue attempting to apply the lock while our opponent is first resisting, then changing position, and then starting to hit us, throw us, or reverse the lock.

We can avoid these instances by dynamic lock training, or principle based lock training. Instead of opponent throws X punch or Y grab, we train the principles of locking by themselves; direction, fulcrum, refined technique. Then once we have an understanding of these, apply feeder drills to train dynamic locking and counter locking. In this type of training, opponent attacks, we counter and apply X lock, and our opponent resists and/or applies Y counter, and then we can apply our counter. The lock, the counter, and the counter to the counter, so each of us learns to move fluidly from one joint lock technique to another, or even transition back to striking. Since fighting is random, it only makes sense for us to recreate this randomness in our training without full on fighting. If we try to apply in sparring, stress will take over and we operate in survival mode rather than learning mode. 

Small vs. Large Binds 

We can narrow locks down to two major categories:
  • Large Binds - locks attacking major joints such as the elbow, shoulder, knee, ankle.
  • Small Binds - locks that attack small joints such as the wrist, fingers, toes.
The key is for us to know when and where to use each of these locks. Given that stress is involved in a live situation, and as previously stated, gross motor function is more likely - large binds should be used for initial contact. The larger joints take larger motions, which fits into our first response to an aggressive act. Gross movement is more reliable and quite possibly why we see these in the Kung Fu Fighting Forms and a lack of small binding locks.

Small binds are more appropriately used when we are responding to a grab, in the clinch, on the ground, or finishing the opponent after softening them up with a throw. When we are tied up (grappling) with an opponent and have access to the occasional finger, toe; wrist, or ankle, then small binds are extremely effective. After we have thrown the opponent and they are stunned, we have access to time and movements that were otherwise difficult to pull off and can score a small bind as well if appropriate.

Leg Locks

Leg Locks are effective when we are able to pull them off; keeping in mind that the legs are proportionally stronger than the upper body of a human being. When we are attempting to lock up an opponents legs, we are fighting strength, maneuverability, and multiple weapons - other foot/leg, arms.

These are best attempted after a throw, or when our opponent is least expecting it - such as rolling in a ground fight. Basic knee bars can be applied as a counter to a kick, but attempting to maintain the lock on the ground after you have tripped them, is foolhardy at best. Our arms alone lack the strength to keep their knee from bending, and once they bend it, they will be more than willing to use their fists on our head. 

I mention these due to our applications of trapping a kick and trying to apply a leg lock in the air. This works to effect a takedown, but enters problems when trying to maintain that lock on the ground without using larger parts of our body as the fulcrum and lever such as the hips or torso.

In conclusion, Chin Na is a highly effective and rich part of our art and can be of great benefit. Training and practicing with appropriate measure is crucial to success, as well as understanding when it is appropriate to use each lock. We are wise to avoid the over complication that is commonly seen in much of the reference material on Chin Na. Seek out the K.I.S.S. method (Keep It Simple Stupid) when locking and you will find success.