How to never stop improving in your martial arts training: Randy’s Law

I’ve often written “The differences are just as important than the similarities.”  It is a core principle of how I view martial arts, how I train to keep on improving and teach others to do the same. I don’t think I ever really explained where I got that from, so here goes.

About twenty years ago, there was a discussion on Marc MacYoung’s email list. I forgot the exact topic but I think it was about Filipino martial arts. One of the members, Randy, said something fundamental that I have to give you some background on first:

In many Filipino systems (Kali, Arnis, etc.) you learn weapons before learning unarmed techniques. Often, the stick is the weapon you start with (though lately it seems the knife is used a lot as well) and when you are proficient with it, then you learn the same techniques with other weapons and also how they translate into unarmed techniques. The idea is that you have the same movements in all of your techniques, regardless of which weapon you find yourself with, or when you lose your weapon.

There is a lot of validity to this approach. It makes for a structured and consistent learning experience, which speeds up your progress immensely. It also tends to avoid conflicts between the different parts of your brain when you are under adrenal stress, because you basically do the same thing all the time. So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that there is an inherent trap in this method.

You can avoid it if you train correctly and your teacher drills this into you, but Randy noticed this was getting lost. What he explained was that the stick is used as a “universal weapon” as it has the most similarities with the other weapons in the Filipino systems, like knife, machete, sword, axe, etc. You can indeed quickly learn to wield all of them by focusing on the similarities they share with the stick. As the stick is easier to control and more tolerant of mistakes, it makes sense to train with it first. However…

Randy then wrote what I use every day in my own training:

The differences between those weapons are just as important as the similarities.

This was an eye-opener for me and I’ve been working for decades to increase my understanding of how this concept applies to almost everything.  Let’s first look closer at Filipino arts and then expand from there. Here is a picture of the kind of stick typically used in those arts:

Here’s a compilation of other weapons used in the Filipino styles:

How to never stop improving in your martial arts training: Randy's Law

How to never stop improving in your martial arts training: Randy's Law

One of the ways in which Filipino systems teach is by using numbered angles of attack. I covered that in part in my video on knife basics. If you practice those angles with a stick at first, you can quickly develop clean lines of attack. When you then transition to the small knife, things overall remain the same, but some aspects change:

  • You now have a point that penetrates the opponent’s body when stabbing with it.
  • You have an edge that can cut both you and your opponent.
  • Your range is shorter than with the stick.

These are the main differences I want to focus on, though there are others. So let’s look at them in more detail.

  1. You can stab with a stick and it can hurt, but that’s nothing compared to using a knife that way. One knife stab to a vital target can end the fight quickly; not so much with a stick. Suddenly, stabbing becomes just as important as slashing and perhaps even more so. Remember that even as far back as the Romans it was already said: use the edge to wound and the point to kill.
  2. A stick is primarily an impact weapon, so you need to develop striking power for your techniques to be effective. With a sharp knife, you don’t need the same amount of power; the blade only needs to touch the target to cuts. With a bit of precision, you don’t even have to cut deep to deliver a lethal wound. So speed and precision tend to be more useful with the knife than raw striking power.
  3. A second consideration is that the knife can cut you too. How you retract it, how you use your live hand (the empty one) is now slightly different than with stick techniques.
  4. You can “play tag” from a relatively long distance with a stick. Using a knife, you have to come closer, mostly into the striking range of your opponent. Yes, I know about Largo Mano, but humor me: my point holds when you compare it to the stick, which is the whole reason I’m writing this article.

Here’s the thing: despite these points, the techniques largely look the same.  There are still more similarities than there are differences. But those differences are just as important to use each individual weapon correctly and most effectively.

 

There’s more…

Randy’s Law, as I like to call it, applies in more ways than this. For instance, when you fight stick against stick, you can pretty much hit any way you like because sticks are usually round and bounce off each other on impact.  When you have a stick but your opponent has a machete or sword, there are still mostly similarities between both weapons. There is one huge difference though: a metal edge will “bite” into wood.

If you block an angle #1 strike from a machete with your stick the way you block one from another stick, it can lead to a disarm. The blade can bite deeply enough into your stick so you can’t retract it quickly enough, or he can twist it out of your hands. If your opponent also has a stick, those techniques aren’t possible and you can ignore them.

The only way you know about this difference is if your teacher tells you or if you try it out.

Most practitioners don’t try it, so that’s not a realistic option. If your teacher doesn’t show you the relevance, it can get lost and leave the system. This creates a set of blind spots in your training you won’t address until it’s either too late or somebody else points it out to you. Given as we’re talking about using lethal force (fighting against a machete qualifies as such), I’d say this is kind of important information…

It gets worse though.

Just because you know about it, doesn’t mean you understand all the implications of this difference between a machete and a stick. Nor how to compensate for them with the many subtleties you don’t learn when using only the stick. The best way to truly get this understanding and the skill that goes with it is to practice. Which is a can of worms because you need somebody skillful and trustworthy, along with strict limitations on how to train or you’ll end up dead or mutilated. All of a sudden, some of the very codified training you sometimes see in weapon arts starts making sense… Not only does it allows you to practice full-speed and full-power with many techniques, it forces you to incorporate those differences I mentioned above because they are part of a strictly regulated form (kata, taolu, juru, use whatever terminology you like.)

Training in a codified way also helps you avoid debilitating injuries, as even a small mistake with a practice weapon can have lasting consequences. So, all in all, it’s a very effective and useful method of training, but it has been criticized a lot in the last few decades, mostly by people who don’t understand it. Sometimes rightfully so, but in those cases, it is often an issue of the system losing the relevant information for such codified training. Once that information is lost, the students practice an empty tradition: they do it because they always did it that way, not because they know why it is done as such.

My Kuntao teacher, the late Bob Orlando, made an excellent point about that:

There is nothing wrong with tradition, as long as it is a living tradition in which the reasons why you do certain things are explained to you correctly.

Specific details are there for a reason and the goal is that you shouldn’t have to discover those from scratch by going out and fighting. You’re supposed to use the knowledge of those who survived previous battles so you don’t get killed before you can learn them. Then you have to find a way to drill and ingrain them safely without injuring or killing yourself or your partner (codified training). Eventually, you get to the point where you can work more freely and perhaps spar.

What Randy pointed out is that in many Kali schools, those details were getting lost. The result was that practitioners tended to be very impressive in training, but had trouble using their techniques in an actual fight or when sparring all out. They no longer knew the differences and focused too much on the similarities.

A group that tried to address this in part is the Dog Brothers. Their motto, “higher consciousness through harder contact” guided them to full contact sparring with numerous weapons, testing what worked and what did not. They left out bladed weapons of course, so what they found is not exactly what was originally there, but I would definitely recommend checking them out.

There’s still more…

Another aspect is how different weapons can trigger different biomechanics, even if you don’t want to. For instance, there is a technique called “abanico”, which is a fan like movement. The way this instructor does it, it works great with a stick.

But imagine doing that with one of the heavier swords or axes pictured earlier: the leverage would be all wrong and it would be very difficult to pull off even once.

Now look at what this instructor explains. His body mechanics are radically different and more apt to move a weapon around that has more weight and a different balance than a wooden stick.

Unless you train with both weapons, you can get away with what the first instructor does and feel good about your technique. If nobody corrects your form, you will never be able to move like the second instructor, which means you won’t be able to use abanico well with a (relatively) heavy weapon.

This is one example of how focusing too much on the stick as a universal weapon, costs you knowledge and stops you from improving your martial arts skill.

 

I’ve talked mostly about Filipino systems to explain my point, but Randy’s law applies to other styles as well. In the Tai Chi Chuan style I teach, we have both sabre and sword techniques. The sabre is heavy and is often used to chop, which means you have to develop mechanics that use the entire body instead of just your arm. If you don’t, you have a weak strike and fatigue quickly in a fight because your arm will cramp up. Despite me saying this explicitly and repeatedly, I still have students mess it up when we practice techniques with wooden sabers for safety. Those are lighter, which means they can get away with using their arm and wrist for power. They often do just that.

I clearly tell them not to, and they still do it.

Often unconsciously, because the lightness of the wooden sabre allows them to do so. As a result, they tweak the technique because they can do it faster than with a real weapon. This ingrains bad habits that fail once they have that real weapon in hand.

So just because your teacher tells you this kind of stuff, doesn’t mean you are safe from making these mistakes…

How to never stop improving your martial arts skill: Randy's Law

Conclusion

I often get a comment on a technique in one of my videos along the lines of “That looks like X from style Y.” or “We have that too in our style.” Invariably, I’m reminded of Randy’s law when I read those. People usually mean well, but they focus on the similarities and then are done with it. They file away the technique as “I already know this” and move on. If they had looked more closely at the differences, there would have been an opportunity to learn something new by contrasting their version with the technique in the video. Every time you see a technique you “know” expressed in a different art, it’s a chance to keep on learning more about your own art.

I firmly believe that compare and contrast is a powerful method, as long as you do the contrasting well. What’s more, I’d dare to say that true learning is all too often only found in the contrasting differences.

So as you practice, read and study, try to keep Randy’s Law in mind: look at the differences and figure out why they are there. Ask the teacher if you don’t know right away or if it isn’t clear. But do try to look deeper than the surface, you’ll be amazed what you can find. In the end, you’ll follow the advice a Chinese martial arts teacher once gave when asked about learning different syles:

Don’t learn the same thing twice.

Understanding the differences helps you do just that.

 

P.S.: This article originally appeared in my Patreon Newsletter last year. I edited it slightly for improved reading and context.

Addendum 1:

If you want to see all this in action, here’s an excellent demonstration by Dan Inosanto:

Long version, one hour.

Short version, 5min.

Addendum 2:

I never gave Randy’s full name, because he is no longer on that email list and I hadn’t been in touch with him for years. Recently, he commented on this publicly so I can know acknowledge Randy Brannan in full for his contribution to my life. And it’s not just me…

Addendum 3:

Like I said, Randy’s Law is applicable in all fields. Here’s a comment one of my Patrons wrote.

How to never stop improving in your martial arts training using Randy's Law

Generating power in muay Thai

Here’s an interesting video. It covers generating power in muay Thai, at least, one of the ways:

Sylvie is a fellow Patreon creator and has a lot of great content for you if you do muay Thai. She trains with some of the all-time greats and makes videos of the sessions. I liked this one a lot as it covers a topic I’ve spent a lot of time working on: power generation.

There is a myth in martial arts: the human body can only move in so many ways.

This is then used to talk about the similarities between different techniques and styles. But it violates Randy’s Law which says that the differences are just as important. When it comes to generating power, this applies in spades.

Muay Thai has some very specific methods, but they are inherent to the art and its rules/limitations. It’s one of the reasons you see precious few Thai fighters transition successfully to MMA: the power generation has a few serious flaws for the different rules and allowed techniques.

But when it comes to stand-up fighting, you don’t know what it is like for a Thai fighter to punch or kick you until you experience it. Their striking has a different feel when compared to other styles and combat sports. Not better or worse, just different and you need to feel it to understand what I mean.

Anyway, I wanted to share this video because it shows in detail how you should train for power generation: methodical and with patience.

It is not about quickly doing it and then trying to apply it when you spar or fight: you have to ingrain the technique so you almost can’t do it wrong, no matter what. Too many young fighters ignore this phase of training and then don’t understand why they get beat up by guys who look like they aren’t even trying. So I suggest you take the time to watch the full video and see how you can apply everything in it for your own training.

 

One thing Chatchai shows her is to hold back the shoulder before letting it rotate in a punch. This is a physical phenomenon called the stretch-shortening cycle. In short, you stretch a muscle/tendon before contracting it. This makes it contract harder and generates more power.

Try this:

  • Do a vertical jump by bending your knees quickly and immediately jumping as high as you can. Note the height.
  • Do the same thing, except this time you pause three seconds with your knees bent. Then you jump. Note the height and compare with the first jump.

Your second jump will suck because the stored elastic energy can’t be used then and the muscle fibers won’t contract as well. When you quickly go from bending to straightening your legs, you jump high without much effort. The same happens with the muay Thai punches she’s being shown.

The upside of this method is an instant gain in power if you do it right.

The downside is that it is difficult to do when you are tired or have taken damage. It also risks long-term damage to the shoulder joint. Given my shoulder problems, I don’t use it often anymore, but you can make it work for you.

Another thing he mentions is using the full rotation of the body, including the lower half, to develop power in the cross punch. He also mentions alignment of the arm with the shoulder joint. This is sometimes referred to as “hitting with structure”. It means you “connect” your entire body to the punch instead of it being arm-dominant. As a result, you don’t depend as much on acceleration to create an impact and relatively “slow” punches still have a lot of power.

I cover that (and also the weight transfers he mentions) in detail in my Power/Control video, along with a lot more. Look at the drill with the barbell in my neck at about 40 seconds in the trailer, as well as the staff training afterward. These train the ability to use kinetic chains correctly and to their maximum potential. They also teach how to separate weight transfers from rotations and how to combine them. You need both to be an effective fighter, in muay Thai and in other arts.

The way the drill is structured, you first move in largesse to get the details right. Gradually, the drill changes to smaller mechanics and finally it turns into techniques. By that time, if you trained correctly, you have great body mechanics and have lots of power in every move you make.

Sylvie has lots of videos and instructional material. I no longer train much in muay Thai, but if you do, I very much recommend checking out everything she offers.

Patreon Overview for March 2018

Another month just ended, so it’s time for the next overview. Here are all the rewards I posted on Patreon in February:

 

All my recent free public posts on my Patreon Activity Stream

Topics of this month’s newsletter

Patreon Newsletter Wim Demeere

One-hour private Livestream chat

Quick Q&A #012: Using the flinch response

Quick Q&A #012: Using the flinch response

Violence analysis #016: Man beats up two women

Violence analysis #016: Man beats up two women

Instructional Video #16: Shock Entries #1: Shoulder Strike

Instructional Video #16: Shock Entries #1: Shoulder Strike

30Min Q&A #006: Weapons vs. Unarmed

30Min Q&A #006: Weapons vs. Unarmed

That’s it for the March and there’s a lot more to come in April.

If you enjoy my blog and podcast and want to support them while getting access to all the previously published content, join us here.

Podcast Episode 16: Listener Questions and Answers

In this episode I’m trying something new: I opened the floor to questions on my Facebook page and I try to give detailed answers.

If you’d like to ask me something for the regular Q&A, feel free to get in touch. All the links to contact me are at the bottom of this text.

On with the show!

1. What’s new:

http://www.wimdemeere.com/notification/

2. Question 1

3. Question 2

 

Thanks for listening!

Please like, share and leave a review!

Please support the podcast and get access to loads of unique content in return:

https://www.patreon.com/wimdemeere

Subscribe to the podcast and automatically get the latest episode:

iTunes

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Podcast Episode 15: Interview with Captain Jon Lupo

We’re at episode 15 now and in this one, I interview Captain Jon Lupo of the New York State Police. I’ve known Jon for a long time and he’s a solid, stand-up guy. I wanted him on the show to let him share his experience in law enforcement with us all and ask some specific questions relating to self-defense and the law. I think you’ll enjoy it!

Wim demeere podcast - interview with Captain Jon Lupo

Captain Jon Lupo

The reason this episode is a few days late is because I did a book launch last week and it took up all my time. You can get my Heavy Bag Training book again in paper and electronic version and now that this one is released again, I can get back to the regular podcast schedule.

That said, let’s start the show:

Show notes:

1. Updates:

2. Doing the job:

3. Self-Defense

4. Q&A

Thanks for listening!

Please like, share and leave a review!

Please support the podcast and get access to loads of unique content in return:

https://www.patreon.com/wimdemeere

Subscribe to the podcast and automatically get the latest episode:

iTunes

Stitcher