Martial arts and practicality


Readers of my blog will be familiar with my view that "it is the man, not the art". However it has recently been said to me on an internet forum that this is nothing but a myth. Rather, it is contended, some arts are plainly better than others when it comes to applicability for civilian defence (something I shall label "practicality" for the purposes of this article). Principally this view has been expounded to me by "modern" combat sports practitioners who deride traditional martial arts (with their forms/kata) as "impractical". At the centre of their argument is the observation that traditional arts are typically not practised or tested in "live" or "resistant" conditions. Why? "Because they don't work", is the inevitable retort.

So are some fighting systems (in particular traditional ones) less "practical" than others (in particular the modern combat sports)? Is "the man not the art" just a screen of political correctness erected to hide something "everyone already knows"?

In order to examine these questions I think it is important to understand what is meant by "practicality". In a martial context this term is actually short hand for 2 different things, namely:

1. practical training methods;

2. practical techniques.

For example, it is generally accepted that most aikidoka don't have a "practical" training method in the sense that they do not practise or test their skills in a "live" or "resistant" environment - but does this mean that aikido techniques are necessarily impractical? Muay Thai training might have a more "live" training environment, but does this mean that it has more practical techniques for an ordinary person in a civilian defence scenario?

Practical training methods

It is true that most traditional martial artists are not inclined to practise in a live environment. But is this really enough to consign all traditional arts to the "impractical" bin? I certainly don't think so. Why not? Learning the finer points of an advanced traditional martial art (eg. aikido/wing chun/taiji/karate) takes a lot of "impractical" isolation training just like a golf swing or tennis serve (more on this in a minute).

So you can't just grab out selected traditional techniques and say "I like your karate front kick - I'll just throw that in to my sparring". If you did the latter you'd probably end up with techniques such as the "pushing kick"... not the same thing and not nearly as good as good (see my articles "Visible force vs. applied force", "Hitting harder: physics made easy" and "Understanding the internal arts" for an explanation of what I mean). I don't know many "non-traditional" martial artists or combat sports practitioners who can do anything like a good front snap kick - most are not even aware that they are lacking what I consider to be a basic, essential fighting skill.1

Leaving aside specific technique acquisition, what about the lack of "live" training? The argument goes, "one does not swim best by flailing one’s arms on dry land. One learns to swim by getting into the water and then later moving into the deep end." Very true. On the other hand this doesn't mean that the best training is to jump into the pool and start swimming with the doggy paddle assuming this to be an optimum stroke. It isn't - irrespective of the fact that it is "natural", "no-nonsense", "straightforward", "easy to learn" and "useful immediately". And it doesn't matter how long you perfect it - in the water or out.

It is certainly the case that if you take a student with no experience and train him/her for one year mostly with gloves/bags and sparring, and simultaneously train the student's clone mostly in kata, the latter will be less prepared for combat than the former. But he or she needn't stay that way: the student will learn a formal version of "freestyle", "backstroke", "breastroke" and "butterfly". Now all he or she needs to do is start applying it.

Of course the swimming analogy is deeply flawed: unlike combat, swimming does not require reacting to another party. Leaving this aside, the main difference is that unlike swimming, combat has almost infinite angles of movement and variables. This means that "doggy paddle" will be much more tempting and that "breastroke" will be harder to apply. It doesn't mean it is impossible. And it doesn't mean that the "extreme training" that has produced doggy paddle will be producing the optimum method. The "extreme training" if anything, discourages experimentation and development of better technique. It encourages conservative reliance on what you already know.

No one disputes the value of "live" training. But all too often I hear people devaluing the importance of technical development (or the assumption that honing the right cross to within an inch of its life is the same thing). You need a mix of both live training and technical progression. Just as you need to get out into the "real world", you shoudn't rely on your grade 7 texts for ever.

As an aside, I think that BJJ is a good example of technique (not surpising since it is firmly based on judo and jujutsu, depending on how you want to label the activity that spread to Brazil). It is much richer and more complex than what people in ring sports adopt as a stand up strategy.

Grappling is however different from striking arts in that it can only be practised with a partner - hence it has never had single person kata etc. even in the traditional realm. But the technical complexity (stemming from traditional martial arts) is there - same as "stand up" arts like karate. That this complexity (eg. the art of deflection, front kicks) are not being absorbed by ring fighters is, in my view, a function of the fact that they require a lot of dedicated study and are therefore largely misunderstood, not that they are inapplicable.

Unlike grappling, stand up dynamics are also a lot more variable, making it harder to apply skilled techniques cleanly. The fact that application also means a missing tooth (rather than a twisted arm) goes without saying.

Practical techniques

The reference to "practical techniques" is itself short hand for a number things, namely techniques that are:

1. capable of being used in combat; and
2. easily learned; and
3. in themselves sufficient for civilian defence.

But is this a truly useful definition for determining whether a martial discipline is worth studying? Grappling meets the first 2 requirements - but not the third (it is generally accepted by all except die-hard grapplers that you need good stand-up skill for self-defence). Yet few have been game to say that grappling is "impractical" - particularly after the first Ultimate Fighting Championships where the Gracies showed the effectiveness of their Brazillian jujitsu. Rather most combat sports practitioners stress the importance of acquiring at least a grappling skill subset.

By extension, if I choose to augment my skills in another highly useful sideline to punching/kicking (eg. trapping skills from Wing Chun), I cannot see why I am being "impractical" even if I feel that these skills are not, in themselves, sufficient to constitute a "complete" civilian defence system.

Most importantly, I cannot see why I should preclude myself from studying an art that is hard to master, yet once mastered is very good in combat (ie. an art with techniques that fail the second requirement but pass the first and third). Rather I feel that senior students should practise such an art in tandem with other (more easily acquired) skills.

I know that my views in respect of the latter are not shared by many combat sport practitioners who have argued to me that it is best to rely on a much smaller subset of skills that is immediately practical to some extent, and forget about other "hard to learn skills". But this doesn't make much sense for someone who has trained for as long as I have. Why wouldn't I expand my range? Is the need for immediate practicability really that much of an issue to me? I am not able to punch and kick as fast and as hard as when I was young. I see little point in trying to refine my right cross by tiny increments in the hope of maintaining a small edge over the big new bruiser in the gym who can naturally hit twice as hard as I can...

On the flip side, I know of martial artists and even footballers who have "cross-trained" in such activities as ballet hoping to get some small unexpected edge. I get the feeling that most combat sports practitioners wouldn't even consider something as obtuse as that. But they can and should look to acquiring traditional skill sets, just as traditional martial artists should look to other traditional martial arts and combat sports.

"But", some will argue, "I just can't see some techniques working - aikido for example. You just can't do that stuff in MMA." As an example they will offer a video like the one below:

An example of "non-live" aikido training

It is quite clear to me however that many of the defences in the video (at least the standing ones) are solid - move in early and intercept the attack, then drop the opponent. I have no doubt that they could be practised realistically and then applied in a "real world" environment. They might require some adjustment in terms of attack interception etc. - but the principles are sound.

Presumably what some people find objectionable is the training method of aikido. Yes, the video shows too much compliance for realistic training. However the art of aikido is based on solid principles related to other forms of jujutsu and this must be distinguished from the "intensity" issue.

Here's some aikido done a bit more realistically:

I have no doubt the techniques are capable of being used in reality - maybe not as cleanly as demonstrated, but more or less (at least the majority). I've seen many of the techniques applied (usually in a more limited way) in ring fights (including the kick defences at the end).

That aikido is hard to apply is true. The reason is 2 fold:

First you need to learn fairly refined movement. To learn movements of this refinement requires many years of "non-live" isolation practise. After all, you can't learn a good golf swing unless you do it without pressure. And a golf swing has nothing on an aikido throw, believe me.

To use a better analogy, you couldn't expect to learn a proper baseline or net shot in tennis if you never spent time isolating the movement. If you just go straight into playing full tennis games because "you don't have time for isolated practise - you're too busy returning balls" you'll be wiped off by even a slightly coached player.

Second, once you've learned the technique you need to introduce it gradually into a live environment. While most aikidoka don't do this, it doesn't invalidate the technique, nor make it impossible. Free fighting has many more variables than a game of tennis, which means it is harder environment to apply technique of any kind. Refined technique can be applied in a free fighting environment provided you actually go to the trouble of training to do so. The fact is that neither MMA nor aikido practitioners ever have: Most people who have the inclination and patience to learn aikido aren't minded to train in more live enviroment. It is a matter of natural selection. Are people drawn to ring fighting ever going to start aikido? Are people who do aikido the types who might have joined and stayed in an MMA gym?

Criticise the lack of intensity all you like - you'll probably be right. But as for the techniques - aikido is a highly skilled discipline with a similar technical base to BJJ or judo - trashing it or its experienced exponents by simplistically focussing on the training method and ignoring the technique shows some other "issues" in my opinion. It is also deeply insulting of the many years of sweat and dedication aikidoka put into the mat. The techniques work - an armbar is an armbar, a shoulder lock is a shoulder lock. Take a look at the video below: when aikido type locks or projections are inadvertently applied in MMA fights they work; why shouldn't they - they are based on sound biomechanical principles.

An example of aikido type techniques applied in MMA

What people are presumably saying when they criticise traditional techniques is that they disagree with self defence "formulae" - ie. "if he attacks you with X, step forward and do Y" etc. Such formulae hardly ever work - even when the attacks are more "realistic" - and they need to be distinguished from the techniques which comprise them.


Is there an optimum way of learning, practising and combining martial skills for civilian defence? There are probably many. It is even likely that what is "ideal" will vary greatly from person to person. Consider that in tennis Steffi Graf was reknowned for her ability to run around a ball just to use her powerful forehand (where others would have simply used a backhand). In combat sports Bill "Superfoot" Wallace was reknowned for his skill with his right roundhouse/reverse roundhouse kick combination which he often used in preference to simpler kicks and strikes. The fact that in both of these cases an athlete made something quite "unorothodox" work for them suggests to me that it is unlikely "one size will fit all".

My personal approach has been to recognise the need for a sequentially relativistic syllabus - one that ensures a continual path of skill development mixed with the necessary elements of realism in training. Such a syllabus will vary in its implementation depending on why people train in the martial arts. In the case of a person wishing/needing to use his or her skills in the ring or in a military/security/law enforcement context the mix will require less "long term" development and more "live training". In the case of the average person and his or her needs for civilian defence, exercise, fitness, health and fun, the mix will favour more "grooving in isolation". Regardless, I favour a gradual shift from simpler, more practical techniques to progressively more complex/advanced/efficient ones - in other words, a transition from "external" to "internal". For more on these subjects read my articles "My quest for the martial holy grail", "Hitting harder: physics made easy" and "Understanding the internal arts".

So is any particular art "less effective" than another? Sure - depending on your goals, experience and other individual differences one art will suit you more than another. Are some "arts" absolute nonsense? Indeed. Some newly made-up systems are not even based on sound biomechanical principles. But the established traditional systems don't suffer from this malaise in my opinion. They have had long periods of evolution to iron out the biomechanical kinks. While some arts will statistically confer more "practical" benefits sooner (or perhaps overall) I don't know if this provides any useful data when it comes to evaluating an opponent. Why? You have no idea of your opponent's individual differences - his or her level of skill, experience and ability to apply techniques which are commonly regarded as "less practical" - think Bill Wallace and his high roundhouse kicks or Steffi Graf and her "run around" forehand shots. In my experience these individual differences trump "style" or "art" any day.


1. I have recently encountered the argument that "traditional ball of foot front kicks aren't used because they carry a higher risk of toe injury - heel kicks are better". Except that this misses the point I make in the article "Visible force vs. applied force": you can't do a snap kick with the heel (at least not very easily or effectively) - making it hard to impart hydrostatic shock. And in almost 3 decades of hard and fast sparring I've broken a toe only 3 times... But I have what I consider to be a very hefty front snap kick! In my opinion people don't avoid front snap kicks because of "toe" issues; they avoid them because they don't know (a) just how effective they are; and/or (b) how to do them correctly. This kind of argument is usually countered with "front snap kicks are not used because don't work". There is little I can do to answer this except say: "you obviously haven't been on the receiving end of one".

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic