The overlooked part of effective techniques

Last week I was reading an interesting article (if a bit dry) about deceleration of movements in sports. You can read it here, I think it’s worth it. One of the points it made is that little attention is given to studying deceleration. I agree. Compared to acceleration training, the attention deceleration receives is almost minimal. I always found that strange, as I learned many years ago that it is a hallmark of combat sports and martial arts, but it’s routinely overlooked. I’ll explain in a bit but first a quote from the article:

High levels of eccentric strength are required in tandem with appropriate training of deceleration technique specific to sporting performance, while the demands of the sport situation determine the critical distance, direction, and time that the deceleration must occur.

In other words, you need a specific kind of strength (eccentric) instead of the one you use for acceleration (concentric) while at the same time adjusting on the fly to changing conditions.

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s a good rule of thumb. It is particularly true in martial arts and self-defense. Here’s why:

overlooked part of effective techniques power and control

Power is nothing without control…

One of the ways sports are classified is into specific types of movement: cyclic or acyclic (also acyclic combined but we won’t cover that now.)

Cyclic means a repetitive movement pattern like swimming, running or cycling. In those sports, you pretty much do the same movement all the time. The only main difference is if you do it with endurance as a goal (run as far as you can) or with speed (run as fast as you can.) I know this is also an oversimplification, but bear with me.

Acyclic means several different movement patterns are necessary. Examples are team sports such as basketball or volleyball, but also fencing, tennis and boxing. In all these sports, you perform a variety of techniques/movements and go from one technique to another. Acyclic sports typically require good technique, speed and power.


Whenever you fight, in the street or in competition, you perform acyclic movements. You punch, then you kick, then you move then you grapple, then you punch again, etc. It always changes. What’s more, these changes happen because your opponent does the same as you. You have to adjust whatever you’re doing to his movements. That leads to only one conclusion if you follow this reasoning: [Read more…]

The effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts

The effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts has been questioned a lot, ever since it rose to prominence in the 1970’s when Bruce Lee splashed onto the big screen. We’ve come a long way since then and martial arts/self-defense today are not what they were back then. Many techniques and training methods that were the norm back then are nowadays discarded and considered ineffective. In a larger sense, this is true for many other martial arts and fighting systems as well.

Some teachers have taken it upon themselves to dig into those traditional arts and bring out their value in today’s environment. One of them is Iain Abernathy, who I met a while ago and is a great guy. He teaches a practical approach to Karate. On his website, there was a discussion about teaching traditional Chinese martial arts (in particular forms) in a practical way. You can read up about it here. Iain said some kind words about me (thanks Iain!) so I decided to write this blog post and share some thoughts.

As always, this is nothing but my personal opinion. It isn’t gospel, so feel free to discard it.


The current state of traditional Chinese martial arts

As mentioned in the forum discussion, karate gets a lot of bad press for not being effective in a “real fight” and one of the commenters claimed that this isn’t a big issue in Chinese arts. I beg to differ. There is loads and loads of crap out there (there is a lot of good too, but I’m going to focus on the bad in this article.) There are way too many people who really shouldn’t be teaching at all, because they both haven’t done the time to own their art and/or don’t understand it. That may be because their teachers didn’t understand it enough to pass it along correctly or perhaps information got lost along the way, I don’t know. Regardless, I’ve seen more practitioners doing ineffective traditional Chinese martial arts than effective ones.

This seems to be a particular problem in Western countries. You can often see schools teaching what they consider is a traditional style, but without the things that make it effective. Meaning, the things that were originally included in that style before it came to the West. An understanding of the purpose and methodology of practicing forms is a big part of that. Some of the explanations regarding forms and the practical applications they’re supposed to teach you see those teachers demonstrate are nothing more than best guesses or complete falsehoods to avoid exposing their lack of knowledge.

To be clear: maintaining the effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts is not just a problem in the West. It is now very hard to find good teachers of traditional styles in China. Young people don’t really feel like going through that kind of harsh training any more, so those teachers have trouble finding students. As a result, those arts are dying out.

All in all, given the number of practitioners out there, I’d say the percentage of them having the “real thing” is pretty low. This isn’t necessarily their fault, but it still leaves them coming up short.

effectiveness of traditional Chinese Martial arts - Shaolin

Me, in Shaolin in 1991

 What happened?

A lot of factors came together to create the current situation and I’ll only touch on some of them here below: [Read more…]

We do that too in our style

There is a commonly used phrase in martial arts and self-defense circles, one you can hear or read when practitioners from one art see a technique from another art:

We do that too in our style.

It’s right up there with phrases like:

A punch is just a punch.


The human body can only move in so many ways.

I disagree with all three of these phrases, but I’ll only talk about the first one here. In essence, it boils down to the “the differences are just as important as the similarities” theme you can find in all of my writing. If you see a technique and all you look at are the similarities, skipping straight ahead to the “we do this too” part, then you miss the opportunity to learn something. I feel that the better response is to focus on the differences and everything else that you don’t know about that art. The main problem is that you can only do so in a qualified manner by actually practicing  that art. Which is what most people don’t do. They just look at the superficial similarities, label that technique as “similar” to one of theirs and move on. That’s a shame.


There are two broad categories you can look at when digging for these differences: physical and abstract.

The physical category is things like body mechanics, angles, footwork, distancing, etc. In many ways, this is all relatively easy to spot, except for body mechanics. A technique may look similar to what you do, but feel radically different when you’re on the receiving end of it if the person has different body mechanics than found in your art. This is why it’s often necessary to have somebody use the technique on you before you know what’s going on.

A second trap is understanding camera angles and how you create clear instructional footage. The technique may look a certain way to you, but depending on many factors, you could be completely mistaken. I wrote a three-part series called How to Learn Techniques from Video in which I explain some of them. The main gist of it is this: the camera lies. It doesn’t tell the truth, only one part of it.


The abstract category is more difficult to get a hold of. It comprises of all the concepts and choices that are inherent to that specific style. Things like tactics, strategy, basic assumptions, training methodology, goals, etc. All of these, you know nothing about, unless you train in that style. So how can you confidently judge them with a trustworthy measure of accuracy?

I don’t think you can.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t form an opinion on a technique, only that you should realize upfront that your opinion is both uninformed and in need of further research. If you don’t feel the need to look further into it, that’s obviously perfectly fine. But then wouldn’t it be smarter to hold back on your judgement?

Case in point. [Read more…]

Violence is chaos in action

An instructor once told me that violence is chaos in action and it’s your job to bring order to the chaos. I believe this is an accurate statement and would add “before it kills you” to the end of that sentence. Violence comes in many shapes and sizes and each situation can be radically different from the next, despite starting off with the same or similar parameters. Predicting how the encounter will unfold is difficult and unreliable, to put it mildly. If you’re truly honest about it, you accept this. But that truth is uncomfortable because, in general, humans don’t like chaos.

We like things to make sense.

We like black or white answers.

We want it to be easy and simple.

It rarely is.

As a result, there is a need to analyze, scrutinize and study violence to put together a system that allows you to handle it when it comes your way. Martial arts and self-defense systems are a part of that. Studying human psychology, the legal system, physics, avoidance and prevention, etc. are also part of the solution. All those together make it difficult again and we typically don’t like that. A commonly used quick solution is to make assumptions by willfully omitting factors you don’t have an answer for or relying on “common knowledge”. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. That is why I always harp on Randy’s quote of “The differences are just as important as the similarities.”

You can take a violent situation and look at the similarities to come to certain conclusions. These conclusions can be completely accurate or completely false, depending on certain parameters you won’t know up front will be present. I covered this dynamic in the first article in my newsletter series, but when I saw these two videos, I found them to be prefect illustrations for it.

Both videos feature a man armed with a gun facing an unarmed man. These are the similarities. My point is that the differences are just as important and the chaos of violence makes it unpredictable what the outcome will be. Let’s take a look. [Read more…]

Top 5 posts of 2014

First of all, happy New Year! May the best of 2014 be the worst of 2015.

Second, I always like year in review programs and articles. It’s fun and often interesting to go over the things we found important, weird, fun or outrageous, once a bit more time has gone by. It can be an exercise in adjusting your perspective by re-evaluating your opinion on those topics. With that in mind, I thought it could be fun to go over the top five posts from 2014.

I selected them simply by looking at the number of views they got, tracked by Google Analytics. I’ll list them here below and add some comments.


  1. Street fighting mistakes: being an innocent bystander There is an old saw that states humans are very bad at assessing risks and avoiding danger. I believe it is true though. We smoke when we know it kills us. We eat crap and drink too much when we knows it kills us too. We knowingly do all sorts of things that are self-destructive. The ones I mentioned here are all well documented and only very few people argue that smoking has health benefits. We know better, because we have been informed about this (over and over, for decades). But a lot of people don’t seem to know better when violence is concerned. They simply act stupid. My guess is that it will take a long time before the general population becomes more knowledgeable on what violence is really like and what the true dangers are.
  2. Open hand or closed fist striking, which is best? As most of you who read my blog regularly already know: I hate dogma. The open hand/closed fist debate has been filled with dogma for as long as I can remember, so I put down my thoughts about it. As always, “it depends” is the most accurate answer I can give. Not the answer people want to read, but it is the “truth” as I know it. Doesn’t mean you have to agree with me though. It just means that I take certain factors into account, factors that are usually left out because of dogmatic thinking. If that helps you in your training, then I’m glad it worked for you.
  3. The Idiot’s Guide to Martial Arts for Those Who Don’t Practice Them This post was triggered by an encounter with an idiot who crashed one of my private training sessions. It made me think of all the similar encounters I’ve had in the last thirty years of training and I found myself remembering a bunch of them (didn’t include them all in the blog post though.) On the one hand, this post is about the silliness and stupidity of others you have to deal with as a martial artist. On the other, I wanted to share some of the ways I handle it.
  4. Krav Maga Knife Defense Video Somebody sent me this video and I had to shake my head when I saw it. For all the reasons I explain in the post, it doesn’t seem like a viable technique to me. Which doesn’t mean much, by the way. Lots of people make techniques I think are crap actually work for them in the street. It’s never black and white. That said, the specifics were pretty bad in this case here, so I analyzed it from my perspective. Funny fact: the instructor in the video, or at least somebody claiming to be him, left a comment on this blog post which was basically a challenge. I chose not to publish it, nor to respond. If it was a troll, then ignoring them is always the best option. If it actually was him, then I can only shake my head again and move on.
  5. Are you really an expert? One of the topics that often comes up with me and my friends is the horrors of “internet knowledge”. Meaning, people have gotten into the habit of reading something on the internet and then believing they know everything they need to know about that subject. What’s worse, they’ll then argue with somebody who not only has a degree in it but also works in the field, refusing to acknowledge that somebody else might know more than they do. For some reason, people have become convinced that their opinion is always as valuable as anybody else’s. I vehemently disagree with that. There is also nothing wrong with acknowledging others as smarter and more experienced than you. Refusing to do so pretty much means you have a God-complex, which is always a sad thing to see in an adult. Anyway, this post delves a bit deeper into “internet experts”, where they come from and what some of the problems with them are.

That’s it for the top five posts of 2014. If you liked them, please share them with others who might find them useful, thanks.

My next post will be a “New Year’s resolutions” one. Should go live tomorrow or the day after.