Don’t Miss This!

If you really want to maximize your physical self defense skills there is some great information on this site that will help you do just that.  But you’ve probably missed it.  And if you have seen it, you probably didn’t realized how valuable it is.

For those of you that did realize how valuable it is, please take this opportunity to take another look at how well you’re integrating it into your training.

Of all the emails I get from readers and subscribers, almost none of them mention the most valuable and useful material I have: the Covered Blast, the Fundamental Five, and the 4 Step Matrix.

It doesn’t matter what martial art(s) you practice.  These are strategies that anyone can apply, and if you apply them correctly you will win every time.  I’ll write that again.  These are strategies that anyone can apply, and if you apply them correctly you will win every time.  Use them!!!

The Covered Blast

The Covered Blast is a strategy that maximizes your options while minimizing your opponent’s options.  It allows you to continuously attack your opponent without taking damage yourself.  It gives you a way to combine offense and defense, distance, position, and timing so that your opponent doesn’t have a chance.  I won’t go into the strategic and technical details here since I already have a page with information, pictures, and examples, but check out my page on it:

The reason why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners were and generally still are able to slaughter Japanese Jiu Jitsu practitioners is because they use part of what exists in the Covered Blast – “position then submission”.  The BJJ founders and practitioners realized that if you are in a superior position you can have your way with your opponent, while he can do nothing to you.

When two people fight with only techniques and no meta strategy, the fight is won by whoever happens to score first, or whoever happens to get more techniques in against their opponent.  This is a recipe for disaster, especially if you are smaller and weaker than your opponent.

But if you understand how to start from a superior position and how to maintain that position throughout the fight, your opponent will always be playing catch up, at best.  That is what the Covered Blast is about.  It is the most important concept/strategy on my website.

You’re already here, so make sure you apply it to your practice!

The Fundamental Five

The Fundamental Five is only briefly covered on this website, but there are 35 pages on it in my first book, The Ultimate Guide to Unarmed Self Defense.  And there is enough material on this site to get the gist of it if you watch the video and click through the links on this page:

The Fundamental Five is the application of the Covered Blast in 5 different scenarios.  It provides practitioners with 5 default responses that are geared to real world physical self defense situations.  If you are threatened and cannot escape you can hit and run or blast the opponent until he is no longer a threat.  If your opponent attacks first with strikes, crash to get to a superior position and take him out.  If he uses a grappling/take down/tackle attack, use the grappling defense to turn the tables.  And if you find yourself overwhelmed, use the clinch entry or low strike intercept.

These default responses provide you with solid solutions to a wide range of attacks.  They don’t require you to match specific defenses to specific attacks.  They work without thought.  And you don’t have to use exactly the techniques that I use.  I recommend that you do.  But if you train another system you can probably find techniques from your system that you can use in their place.  The key is to have default responses for each of the different scenarios, and to make sure that the default responses incorporate the principle of the Covered Blast.  Having solid default responses is the difference between taking out your opponent when threatened and freezing under pressure because you weren’t sure what to do.

The 4 Step Matrix

The 4 Step Matrix is the application of the Covered Blast for self defense with weapons.  In my second book, The Ultimate Guide to Weapon Use and Defense, there are 84 pages on it.  And here on my website there is a detailed page on it with pictures and video:

The 4 Step Matrix works with any weapon and against any weapon, and because it is the application of the Covered Blast it ensures that you are able to continuously attack your opponent from a superior position while he is unable to do anything but attempt to block your attacks – at best.

Why Are People Missing These?

The Covered Blast, Fundamental Five, and 4 Step Matrix are concepts/strategies.  When I teach people in person and demonstrate these concepts, students instantly see how valuable they are.  But on the web and in print, where I can’t demonstrate these concepts *on* readers, it’s too easy to forget about the concepts and only pay attention to the techniques I’m using.  The techniques are easier to see, so people miss the concepts that are being applied.

Don’t do that!

These concepts will be more beneficial to you than any techniques I demonstrate, if you actually think about them and work on applying them to your practice.  Once you have a solid technical base, they’ll allow you to beat opponents who are much bigger, stronger, and faster than you.  They’ll allow you to do more with less.

Please let me know in the comments below why you think people may not be seeing the value in these concepts.  Am I not explaining them well enough?  If you have any questions or comments regarding them, please ask in the comments below and I’ll be happy to answer them.

A Bad Review

Bad Review

Bad Review

A couple of months ago someone wrote a bad/one star review of my first book, The Ultimate Guide to Unarmed Self Defense, on  There are two unfortunate aspects to this review.  First, it is entirely wrong.  And second, it caused my book sales to immediately drop by about 75%.  I’m going to address the points this person made in the review here on my blog.

You can see the bad review here.

I think the main reason he disliked the book was due to his misunderstanding regarding this sentence that he wrote: “The author’s insistence that sport based fighting form the base for real world self defense was also highly suspect.

On both my website and in my book, I explain that the foundation of unarmed physical self defense training should be what I call the MMA Base, which is simply training punches, kicks, knees, elbows, and wrestling against an uncooperative opponent.  If you do not train these most common techniques against an uncooperative opponent, then you cannot learn to defend against them.  Period.  Many martial arts practitioners do not realize this.  It should be entirely uncontroversial, but unfortunately it isn’t.  In order to learn to defend against something, you have to actually train against it!

But the MMA Base is not self defense, and I’ve never said that it is.  The MMA Base is one small part of self defense.  Self defense involves a combination of strategy, training methods, and techniques that include awareness and prevention, unarmed physical self defense, and armed physical self defense.  The MMA Base is only one part of unarmed physical self defense training and techniques.  Awareness and prevention are far more important than the MMA Base, for example.  It is for this reason that the MMA Base section of my book is in Chapter 6 and not Chapter 1.

Before I get to the MMA Base in the book, in Chapter 1 I cover the difference between self defense and martial arts, pointing to the fact that self defense and MMA/sport based fighting are not the same.  The first chapter of my book points out the opposite of what this reviewer claims I insist upon.  The second and third chapters are all about violence, avoidance, awareness, and prevention – part of the strategic side of self defense.  I write in the book that this should be all you need for 99% of self defense.  Again, this is the opposite of saying that sport based fighting should form the base for real world self defense.  Chapters 4 and 5 cover more aspects of self defense strategy, along with functional training.  In Chapter 5 one section is titled “Self Defense: Beyond the MMA Base“, which includes this:

“The techniques and systems of the MMA Base are designed primarily for one-on-one sport based fights between people in similar weight classes, in an area designed for safe fighting, where both participants know what is about to happen. There are rules that prohibit some of the most effective and damaging techniques from being used, and by removing those techniques from the equation, unique and effective footwork, perfect for self defense, is also neglected. For the most efficient and effective physical self defense, we must go beyond the MMA Base.”

I proceed to explain why sport based fighting is not enough for physical self defense.

After Chapter 6, on the MMA Base, there are chapters on Functional Self Defense, Environmental Applications, and Physical and Mental Fitness – all important components of self defense that have nothing whatsoever to do with sport based fighting.  So I’m not sure what book this reviewer read, but it doesn’t appear to be mine!

The reviewer also wrote, “I did not find any new or original material and/or insights inside this tome.”  Again, he must not have read the book.  I have hundreds of martial arts and self defense books myself, and spend time at least looking at every new book that I come across.  I can guarantee this reviewer that he has never seen some of the concepts, strategies, and techniques that are covered in my book.  There absolutely are new and original material and insights in my book.

What frustrates me about this review is not so much that this one person missed just about everything in the book, although that is frustrating, but that his misguided review has caused many people not to buy the book.  (This is most likely due to the book ranking worse because of his review, although I’m sure some people have decided not to buy it after reading what he wrote.)  And the primary reason I am frustrated about people not buying the book has nothing to do with me making money by selling it.  I made this website and wrote the books because I genuinely care about people knowing what works and what doesn’t in terms of self defense.  It is a passion of mine.  This is not what I do for a living.  I don’t need the money.

I receive emails almost every day from people who have either read my books or spent time on my website, telling me how much they have learned from the material.  Most of them have practiced other martial arts, and many are martial arts instructors.  Just as I was taught ineffective material and thought it was effective, these people have done the same.  Reading my books and training the material in them has allowed people to see what actually works and what doesn’t, to really learn self defense, and to make their training much more functional and realistic.  It frustrates me that this one bad review from someone who clearly either didn’t read my book or somehow didn’t see most of what was in it, has substantially decreased the number of people who have access to realistic, functional material.

So I have a favor to ask.  Many of you reading this have purchased my books.  Many of you have emailed me to express how much you learned from them.  If you’ve read the books, please take a minute or two to write a review on Amazon.  Doing so will help other martial artists and self defense practitioners who won’t see this material otherwise.  Thank you!

Update: Changes Ahead

I haven’t posted or sent out any emails/updates in several months now.  I’ve been very busy with a number of big changes.  At some point early next year things will settle down, and I have plans to add more videos to my website in addition to possibly offering instructional videos.  I’ll also get back to posting more on this blog.  I have a backlog of at least a couple hundred emails, and I apologize if you’ve written and I haven’t written back.  I’ll try to respond soon!

How to Learn 10x Faster

Optimize Your Training

Optimize Your Training

I recently started taking lessons with another excellent oud/music teacher, and the exercises he has been having me do in our lessons have reminded me yet again how important teaching and learning with an optimal curriculum is.  The difference in the quality and speed at which you can learn with optimal practice is incredible.  I recently played for a friend of mine who has played the oud since he was a kid, and he remarked that in the last three months I’ve made seven years of progress.  That’s probably an exaggeration, but the point is solid.  The same goes for martial arts/self defense, or anything else you may be learning.

Unfortunately, in my experience most teaching is far from ideal, and most students really don’t know how to practice to get the best results.  Even when you do know how to practice optimally, the natural temptation is to do what seems easier or what you feel you may enjoy more, and it’s easy to get off course.  Two years ago I wrote a post titled 5 Tricks to Learn Better and Faster.  Two of the most important tips in that post were to master one small thing at a time and to practice just beyond your ability rather than attempting to go too far beyond it.  Even though I wrote that post myself, in my music practice I’ve still tended to practice playing entire compositions rather than breaking them into small/difficult parts in order to improve, and I’ve often practiced material that was far beyond my ability.  I got very little benefit from such practice, and a good bit of frustration.  And this is despite my first teacher telling me to do otherwise!

I see the same thing in martial arts practice all the time.  For example, at the last school I went to I watched as an instructor had students practice a combination of techniques that nearly everyone was failing to execute.  Why?  Because most of the people in the class weren’t able to do each of the individual techniques in the combination well enough.  They couldn’t possibly remember the combination, because they were too busy failing to do the first technique in the combination correctly.  But rather than stopping and working on each technique one at a time, the instructor just watched as the students made sloppy attempts, and then he moved on to the next combination they were unable to do!  This kind of practice is not only useless, but counterproductive.  But it’s common everywhere…

My wife and I have both taken foreign language lessons.  Recently my wife was complaining that her teacher has her read whole pages out loud, where she doesn’t know a substantial number of words.  This is how her textbook is arranged.  And I had exactly the same experience in my first foreign language classes.  Our teachers simply followed the text books without thinking about how much sense the curriculum made.  It would have made far more sense to learn the vocabulary first, then to listen to the teacher read the material, and then to read through it ourselves.  Trying to read through something where you don’t know what the words mean or how to pronounce them is pointless, frustrating, and counterproductive.  Yet, many language books are structured that way.

Attempting to learn or practice like this is like teaching someone a few boxing moves and then telling them to fight.  It just doesn’t work.  Students with such sub-optimal training will end up overwhelmed and developing bad habits.  And bad habits take much longer to correct than if the material had been learned well in the first place.

The solution is simple.  You need to use what Matt Thornton called the I Method, which I have briefly written about in the training section of my website and in detail in my first book.  There are three phases to the I Method: introduction, isolation, and integration.  It doesn’t matter what you’re learning.  The concepts are the same.

Begin with a single technique.  This is the introduction phase, and it only takes a minute or two in most cases.  Then drill the technique in an easy/cooperative environment with progressive resistance and intensity.  This is the isolation phase, where the technique is learned well and pathways in the brain are really laid down.  The isolation phase can and often should always be a part of training, where you can perfect technical mechanics and increase speed and power without being interrupted.  And the final phase is the integration phase.  At this point you integrate the technique into actual performance.  And at this point it is crucial that you do not train too far above your ability!

You can start the integration phase with a single technique and a single defense with low intensity, and slowly and gradually add techniques and intensity.  The key is to train right around the edge of your skills.  Sometimes a little below them, where you can perform solidly, sometimes at the border where it’s challenging, and sometimes JUST past your level where you fail.  Once you fail, you can stop, determine why you failed, create an isolation exercise to address the failure point, and then re-integrate.

This strategy of training right past the edge of your ability, figuring out why you fail, and creating an exercise to deal exactly with that failure, will lead to very fast and efficient increases in your skills.  On the other hand, if you either get stuck in the introduction phase, which is what happens in many martial arts that primarily use solo training, or get thrown into the integration phase with too many techniques and too much intensity too soon, as is also common, you’ll end up learning very little of anything that actually works.

You can and should apply this to everything that you do or teach!  🙂

The Importance of No Style

Breaking Walls

Breaking Down the Walls

Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do concept, which is philosophically rooted in Zen, was and still is outstanding.  The central aspect of it is to have no style, to avoid being limited by the confines of particular styles and to maintain a fully open mind with respect to everything.  It is only with an open or empty mind that one can see clearly, without being blocked by the boundaries of particular ideas and ways.

Are All Styles Bad?

It’s not that every style is all bad.  There are great techniques, training methods, and strategies in many styles.  But in order for a style to be a particular style, it must be defined.  It must be limited to particular ways.  And those limitations become your limitations.

If the style you practice only trains striking, then you won’t know what do to if someone gets you into a clinch or on the ground.  If the style you practice only trains grappling, then you won’t know how to handle someone who tries to strike you.  If the style you train only involves techniques to certain areas of your body, then you will be ill prepared if your opponent attacks you in an area that is off limits in your style.

Some styles only train stand up, and some only train ground.  Some styles only train strikes, and some only train locks.  Some styles don’t train with weapons at all, and some only train with weapons.

In order to train real “self defense”, no single style is enough.  Additionally, being limited by any single style is detrimental both mentally and physically, limiting what you are able to see and what you think about what works and what doesn’t work.  Whatever you train or think operates in two directions.  Your training and thinking influences how you see the world.

Breaking Down The Walls

This concept is also very important outside of self defense and martial arts.  Limiting yourself to particular ways of thinking or to particular ideas and ideologies blinds you to the truth outside of them.  You literally become a prisoner of your own imaginary walls.  Anything outside of your walls becomes either bad, wrong, or must be ignored in order to maintain the validity of your walls.  If you break down your walls, refusing to attach yourself to any ideology or way of thinking, then you open your mind to the truth regardless of where it originates.  Reality and the truth exist beyond any ideology or system of thought.  The only way to see as clearly as possible is to break down your walls.

This is far harder than it may seem, and very few people are able to come close to accomplishing it.  In Zen, breaking down the walls is “enlightenment”…100% freedom of thought, not limited by anything other than physics and biology.  Complete freedom requires destroying ALL of the imaginary walls.  It means destroying your conception of self, who you think you are, and therefore how you think you need to act.  It means severing all attachment to everything you have learned.

This does not mean that you should or even can forget what you have learned and experienced.  But if you want to be able to see whatever truth exists beyond what you already think you know, if you want to see where you are mistaken and what that you think is incorrect, then you must sever your attachments to any knowledge, group, or ideology.  If you want to see as clearly as possible, your mind must be free to do so.  It must be unattached to style, ideology, and doctrine.  The truth is beyond them.

The way you think determines what and how you think about everything.  Breaking down the walls will not only allow you to see beyond the limitations of various self defense and martial arts styles, but also to live your life as freely as possible in every moment.

What imaginary walls have you built for yourself?  This is worth seriously thinking about and applying to both your self defense practice and your life.  It will make you a better and more satisfied person in every way.

Gyokusui Shakuhachi

Gyokusui III 2.4 Shakuhachi

Gyokusui III 2.4 Shakuhachi

My wife and I recently returned from another terrific vacation in Japan, where thanks to our friends Jerry and Hiromi Schmick, we had the great fortune to meet Gyokusui III, the third generation shakuhachi maker of the Gyokusui family, and to buy an incredible shakuhachi from him.

I’ve written about the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute created by ex-samurai monks as a meditation device and musical instrument that could double as a weapon, at least twice previously.  And as I’ve also written before, the more I practice it the more I realize how great it is as a compliment to self defense/martial arts training.  Not only is it a great counter balance to hard and violent physical practice, a doorway into the optimal mental state for action, and a tool for both self expression and clearing the mind, but the traditional one-piece shakuhachi, as it was originally made, is also an amazing weapon that can be carried anywhere.

Although the shakuhachi was a one-piece instrument for centuries, the modern version being made by most Japanese makers today is made in two sections, with a joint in the middle of the flute.  This makes it much smaller for transport but nearly useless as a weapon.  Of course, the vast majority of shakuhachi players today don’t look at the flute as a weapon.  Last year I visited Kitahara, a famous shakuhachi maker in Kyoto, and bought a modern two-piece flute from him.  But as a self defense practitioner and teacher, the traditional one-piece version is much more appealing to me.

Fortunately, in addition to being a famous and highly respected maker, Gyokusui III makes shakuhachi both in the traditional and modern styles.  The most common shakuhachi size is a 1.8, which is 54.5 cm/21.5 inches, but I was looking for a longer flute with deeper tones.  So I went to Gyokusui’s place looking for a traditional one-piece in a 2.4 size, which is 75 cm / 29.5 inches.  Here is my 2.4 next to a kali stick:

Gyokusui 2.4 & Kali Stick

Gyokusui 2.4 & Kali Stick

The shakuhachi I chose is thicker and heavier than the kali sticks I typically use (which are thicker and heavier than most kali sticks).

For traveling with a flute, Jerry recommended Japanese sword and shinai bags, which I found to be perfect, and you can get them with or without a shoulder strap.  Here are two that I’m using for my 2.4:

Shakuhachi Bags

Shakuhachi Carry Bags

Gyokusui was a fantastic host, and Jerry and his wife Hiromi were great guides and translators.  We spent more than 2 hours trying numerous flutes, all incredibly beautiful instruments in both sound and appearance.

Myself and Gyokusui III

Myself and Gyokusui III

Gyokusui's House

At Gyokusui’s Place

Gyokusui Shakuhachi

A Few Gyokusui Shakuhachi

Our friend Jerry is a practicing Komuso monk, living with his wife Hiromi in Nara, and is sponsored by Gyokusui, who lives and works in Osaka.  If you’re visiting Japan and interested in an incredible shakuhachi, in either the traditional or modern style, I highly recommend Gyokusui’s instruments.

As for the sound, I’ll end this post with a recording of myself playing one of my favorite honkyoku (Zen meditation compositions), the Jin Nyodo version of Kyorei, which I played on my new shakuhachi:

How to Avoid Injury

Training for physical self defense is harsh. There’s just no easy way around it. If you want to learn how to deal with a fully resisting opponent who is trying to take your head off, then you have to train against a fully resisting partner who is trying to take your head off. Anything less will not prepare you for the brutality of a real attack. But you don’t have to train 100% intensity all the time, and you should do it as safely as possible.

The purpose of self defense training, other than for enjoyment and exercise, is to develop the skills to avoid injury in an assault. So it certainly makes sense to train in such a way that minimizes the chance of injuring yourself and your training partners.

I’ve definitely had more than my share of injuries over the years, from bruises and sprains to broken bones and torn ligaments. And I’ve also unfortunately injured numerous training partners. In my teens and 20’s, my biggest concern with injuries was that they limited my ability to practice and teach. But in my 30’s and now 40’s, the injuries from my past have added up, and these days if I do get injured it takes far longer to heal than when I was younger. At this point in my life, avoiding injury is probably the most important consideration in my training. I wish it would have been the same when I was younger, and I highly recommend you make it an important consideration in your training. Below are several concepts you can use in your training to minimize injury.

Progressive Resistance

One of the best ways to avoid injury is to train with progressive resistance. When you begin with any technique or training method, you need to start slowly and with low intensity. As your skills increase, when you feel safe and comfortable at a given level, you can slowly increase the intensity. The key is never to increase the intensity too far beyond the limits of your skills.

This not only decreases your chance of injury, but it also leads to faster learning. Training too far above your skill level teaches you nothing, because you’ll tend to fail in ways that are hard to learn from. Training right at the border of your skill level, pushing past it just a bit, will cause you to fail. But the failures will be small and much easier to learn from. At this level, your partner should also be able to use better control to avoid injuring you even when you do fail. You do need to get to the point where you and your training partners are really trying to take each other out, but doing so with progressive resistance, moving forward only as you can safely do so, is crucial.

Protective Gear

I prefer to train with as little gear as possible, and I’ve read about studies that have shown that protective gear actually increases injuries, particularly brain damage, because people think they can go harder and less safely than they should. Boxing gloves for example lead to boxers ending up with much worse brain damage than if they had practiced without gloves, as the gloves cause boxers to take thousands and thousands of punches to the head. Without gloves, punches would have to be thrown softer or with the open hand to avoid hand injuries, and fights would probably be over quicker as strikes would do more surface damage than with gloves.  In any case, boxing is one of the most brain damaging sports there is.

With that said, in certain situations protective gear just makes a great deal of sense. When training with eye strikes, protective goggles are a necessity. I was once accidentally hit by a student with an eye strike, and his finger nail went into my cornea. Due to both the strike and the treatment, that was one of the most painful injuries I’ve ever had. If you’re training eye strikes, wear goggles!

If groin strikes are a possibility, purposefully or accidentally, wear a cup. I was once kneed so hard in the groin that it hurt to walk and sit for many months. Trust me, it’s not something you want to experience.

A mouthpiece is also a necessity for harder training. I’ve had ligaments in my jaw torn that made me unable to eat for two weeks, and led to repeated pain for years. If I would have been wearing a mouthpiece, it’s likely that I wouldn’t have been injured, or less severely. I’ve also knocked out training partner’s teeth, which could have been prevented if we had been wearing mouthpieces. And this doesn’t only go for stand-up/striking. When grappling it’s easy to get an accidental foot or knee to the face/jaw, so a mouthpiece is a great idea for almost any type of training.

I’ve also gotten hit and hit training partners in the hand with sticks, causing various hand injuries. These days whenever I spar with sticks I wear hockey gloves. There’s just no good reason not to considering how bad and lasting hand injuries can be.

I generally prefer not to wear head gear. Not only does head gear tend to restrict your vision, but like with boxing gloves I feel it causes practitioners to take too many head shots. The exception I make is when stick sparring. For stick sparring it is safer to wear head gear with a face cage. However, padded sticks are an option that I prefer for most stick sparring.

Don’t Do High Kicks

For the first 10 or 15 years of my practice and teaching, high/head kicks were a part of my training. They not only destroyed my hips and lower back, but also did the same to my primary training partner and another person I taught with. For about the last 3 years I’ve had nearly constant pain in my right sacroiliac joint, which my doctor has said was most likely caused by high kicking.

I know high kicks can be fun, and they’re a big part of many martial arts. But our bodies were not meant to be used that way, and if you practice high kicks hard and long enough there is a pretty good chance that you’ll wreck your joints. You might not feel it now, but you probably will later. Take my advice, and forget about the high kicks!

Lower Intensity Training

Again, you do need to train hard in order to learn how to deal with a full power attack. But you don’t need to train as hard as you can 100% of the time. Use progressive resistance to safely get up to your max level, but only train at that level occasionally. Most of my training now is probably between 50-70% of max intensity, and I only train at 100% with certain drills that are safer than sparring or completely random/uncooperative practice.

If you have any additional ideas for training safe and avoiding injury, please leave them in the comments below!

The Ultimate Guide to Weapon Use and Defense

The Ultimate Guide to Weapon Use and Defense

The Ultimate Guide to Weapon Use and Defense

After more than two years, my second book on weapon use and defense is finally finished:  The Ultimate Guide to Weapon Use and Defense.

My first book covered techniques, training methods, and strategies for unarmed self defense, awareness and prevention, and physically defending against an unarmed attacker with no weapon of your own.  This second book starts where the first book left off, and covers both unarmed defense against weapon threats and attacks, and how to use weapons to defend against armed opponents.

Although I find both books equally useful, particularly since the material covered is entirely different, and the first book has received very high ratings/reviews, the few people who have read the first book and draft copies of the second one have told me they like the second one even more.  If you’re interested in weapon use and defense, I’m confident you’ll find this book extremely useful.  It contains the most efficient and effective weapon techniques, training methods, and strategies you will find anywhere, for stick, knife, gun, and improvised weapons.

You can find out more about the book, and purchase either a digital version or a hard copy here.  If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below or contact me here.

Chi Sao, Hubud, and Other Sensitivity Drills

I recently received an email asking what I think of the value of sensitivity drills and figured the topic would make a good blog post. This is somewhat controversial, as a number of traditional martial arts rely very heavily on such drills, and most sport and MMA fighters consider them to be completely ineffective.

What Are Sensitivity Drills?

For those of you who don’t know what sensitivity drills are, they are a little difficult to define.  I’m not certain about this, but I think the term may have come from Dan Inosanto or someone in the Jeet Kune Do Concepts area, where it was applied to drills like chi sao in Wing Chun, hubud in Kali, pushing hands in Tai Chi, and so on.  The drills tend to take place only at one particular range, and are designed to train reactions to different energy your partner “feeds” you.  The idea is that you become more sensitive to your partner’s energy or force, and learn to respond to it with techniques from the system you’re studying.  If you search YouTube for chi sao, hubud, or pushing hands, you’ll find many examples of such drills.

The term sensitivity drill is usually applied to drills that don’t closely resemble actual fighting.  Although a training drill that works particular counter punch responses to a jab, a cross, and a hook could also be viewed in terms of reacting to energy or techniques fed by your partner, I’ve never heard anyone call such training a sensitivity drill.  From my perspective, it’s possible that the term sensitivity drill was invented to give purpose to drills that are at least a step or two removed from actual fighting…they don’t teach you how to fight, but they increase your sensitivity or qualities that you can use in fighting.

In the JKD Concepts area a distinction is also made between “self preservation” training and “self perfection” training.  The sensitivity drills are considered to be self perfection training whereas sparring or drilling techniques in a realistic context are considered to be self preservation training.

Do Sensitivity Drills Work?

First, I trained and taught such drills for many years.  At the time I felt they were beneficial.  I learned concepts from the drills, honed techniques, and eventually applied some of them in sparring.  So can a person learn something from sensitivity drills?  Certainly.  But the question I asked myself as both a practitioner and a teacher was, are sensitivity drills the most efficient and effective way to learn whatever is supposed to be taught through them?  The answer is no, at least with respect to the drills commonly grouped under that term, and the way they are practiced.  Furthermore, most sensitivity drills also ingrain bad habits.

In my experience, using sensitivity drills to train techniques and qualities is like using a screw driver as a hammer.  You can hammer a nail in with a screw driver, but a hammer would be a much better tool for the job.  The hammer would not only be a more effective tool, but it would also be a lot faster.

Better Alternatives

Think about what it is that you’re trying to train or improve with any given sensitivity drill.  Does it actually provide benefit in a real fight or self defense situation?  If it does, then think about how you can best train it.

Most if not all sensitivity drills I have seen, practiced, and taught, include techniques or combinations of techniques that would not work against a fully resisting uncooperative opponent.  Some of the drills have almost zero resemblance to actual fighting or self defense.  If your goal is to increase skills that can be used in a real self defense situation, then your training drills should mirror what actually happens in a self defense situation as closely as possible.

If you look at how people who fight for a living train, professional fighters, you’ll see that the techniques and drills they use correlate 100% to what they and their opponent’s do in the fight itself.  But let’s look at a sensitivity drill like chi sao in Wing Chun:

Brue Lee Chi Sao

Bruce Lee Chi Sao

Does the above image look even remotely similar to what you might see in a fight?  Unless you’ve been brainwashed, you will have to admit that it does not.  This is exactly why Bruce Lee moved away from such drills and into western boxing.

You can learn techniques and concepts through chi sao that can be used in real fighting or self defense, but if you pull those techniques and concepts out of the drill you can train them exactly as they work in reality in a more efficient and effective manner.

Let’s take a look at two skills people try to increase through chi sao training: controlling and dominating the centerline, and trapping your opponent’s limbs to prevent his offensive and defense.  Both of these skills can be trained exactly as they would be used in self defense, in a scenario based context.  Both of these skills can be practiced in the context of sparring.

My goal in teaching is to provide students with the most efficient and effective path to functional skills.  Rather than learning to trap an opponent’s limbs through a drill that has no resemblance to actual fighting, why not learn to trap an opponent’s limbs in a drill or in training that exactly mirrors fighting?  I can’t think of a single good reason.  Of the two following images, which would be a more functional place to learn to trap your opponent’s arms?  Which would be more likely to lead to skills that you could actually use against an opponent?



Chi Sao

Chi Sao

Both are contrived for the purpose of training, but one is more realistic than the other.  At this point in my teaching and training, I’m fairly certain that anything that can be learned from sensitivity drills can be learned more efficiently and effectively from training methods that more closely resemble actual fighting or self defense situations.  I can get a student to be able to use trapping much faster in the context of boxing than in the context of chi sao.

I’m not implying that techniques from Wing Chun, Kali, and Tai Chi can’t work in self defense.  I use and teach trapping that can be found in Wing Chun and Kali, and techniques that can be found in Tai Chi.  My book is full of them.  But many people don’t recognize them because the context is different from the context they are traditionally taught in.  The traditional context is in my view something that slows students down rather than speeds them up.  In the context of a stylized dojo I can understand how such training could evolve.  But just because many people do it doesn’t make it ideal.

What are your thoughts on this?  Can you think of a quality or skill that would be better to learn in a sensitivity drill than in a more functional/realistic training context?  If so, please let me know in the comments.

How Many Reps Should You Do?

I’d like to share an idea I read about on another blog this morning that I find very useful.  How many good vs. bad repetitions do you need to practice in order for whatever you’re doing to stick correctly?

When you’re learning something new you’re not going to do it exactly right the first time around.  Let’s say it takes you 20 attempts to do it more or less correctly.  You got it “wrong” 19 times but right on 20.  According to what Noa (a sports/performance psychologist) wrote on the post Adequate Learning vs. Overlearning, the optimal number is around 20 more correct reps, or 100% more correct reps.  This makes a great deal of sense to me.

Whatever we learn is stored in pathways in our brains.  Incorrect repetitions create incorrect pathways.  So if you’ve practiced something wrong 19 times and right only once, you’ve trained your brain to do whatever it is you’re doing wrong.

Of course it’s not quite so simple.  It may be that each repetition was better and better, so instead of ingraining a bad pathway 19 times you were actually modifying/changing one from wrong to right.  Nevertheless, what you really want to ingrain in your brain is the best pathway.  So it makes sense that you’d want to do at least as many correct/perfect/ideal repetitions as incorrect or sub-optimal reps.

In my own practice and teaching I probably don’t do enough correct reps after learning a new technique or skill.  This leads to coming back the next day and doing worse than I did at the end of the previous day.  Then I wonder why I “got it” the day before, but lost it the next day.  Based on Noa’s post and the corresponding research, the reason makes sense.  I did it wrong more than I did it right, so the right path wasn’t optimally ingrained.

I’m definitely going to try to integrate this concept into my practice, and I think you should too.  I also highly recommend subscribing to Noa’s blog.  Although it’s related to music, most of his posts are about learning or performance, have excellent insights, and apply equally to any performance art.

You Need to Fail



In one of my recent posts, Is Your Training Realistic, I mentioned two important aspects of functional training. First, if your training partner isn’t really trying to stop you from succeeding with your techniques then you need to tell him “don’t let me do this”. And you need to hold him to it. Second, you need to make sure the techniques you’re using in sparring are the same as those you are using in drills and other training methods. If your training partner isn’t trying to stop you by any means, and if the techniques and applications you’re drilling are not what you’re using in sparring, then your training is not realistic.

The Value of Failure

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: You need to fail. If you’re not failing in your practice, then you are not realistically training and you are not maximizing your ability to learn. If you’re not failing, then you’re not pushing to your limit. If you’re not pushing to your limit, then you don’t know where your limit is, or where the borders of your skills are.

You need to know where your limits are in order to most effectively work on extending them, on increasing your skills. You shouldn’t be training to fail, but you should be training until failure at least some of the time. When your partner attacks, resists, or fights back more than you can handle, causing your defense to fail, it provides the best opportunity for you to learn. At which point did you fail? Why did you fail? Repeat it again. Slow it down or lighten up just a little until you no longer fail, and then gradually increase the intensity to extend your skills. If you need to, break whatever you were doing down into different components to figure out exactly where your problem areas are. Focus on the problem area until you’ve solved it, put the parts back together again, and repeat.

Continuously training above your level, where your instructor or opponent is always beating you, is not productive at all. But training well below your level, where you’re always winning, is equally unproductive. The ideal place to train is right below the edge of your skills, having your partner push just beyond them to gradually extend your limits.

Strength Training

If you’re doing strength training, and you should be for health reasons, this same principle applies. The growth of muscle and strength is a biological adaptation. Your body is not going to adapt unless it thinks it needs to. You have to send the signal to your body that it must adapt. How do you do that? With failure.

If can lift 100 pounds ten times, and you continuously go to the gym and lift 100 pounds ten times, you are never going to increase your strength. If you want to increase your strength, you need to fail in your workouts. You need to attempt to do more repetitions than you can, or more weight than you can. When you fail, it will send the signal to your body that it needs to adapt. Otherwise, your body will have no good reason to add strength or muscle.

Failure In General

Anyone who has ventured out and tried new things will fail. I’ve certainly failed a lot more than I’ve succeeded! But failure should be the best lesson you can learn. It’s a step on the path to success. Failure may teach you that something is harder than you thought. But it shows you where your skill or knowledge gaps are, which allows you to fill those gaps. You may also learn that whatever you were trying to do isn’t worth the risk or the effort. That’s ok too. But if you’re never failing, then you aren’t really trying. Look at failure as a positive sign, and use it to grow. It’s a sign that you’re pushing into uncharted territory, an opportunity to learn or move forward.