Category Archive: Martial Arts Controversy

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!  🙂

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.

Learning Self Defense Through Solo Training

First, an update. I’ve received a few emails over the last couple of weeks asking if I’ve quit. No, I haven’t. I wrote several months ago about my mom’s death. It was accidental and completely unexpected, and it knocked me off the course I was on for several months. I quit working on the weapon use and defense book, and really didn’t get back to it until last week. I have continued to practice though, and I will get back to posting more, finishing the weapons book, adding new content to this website, and eventually I’d like to make a number of instructional videos.

Lots of people have asked about the book. I’ll be finished the text in about a week. It was nearly finished 6 months ago. But I’ve realized that I need another hundred or so pictures. This is more difficult, as I need two other people to help with them, but I’ll try to get them done as quickly as possible and finally get the second book done! Now, on to an important topic…

Solo Training

Solo Training

Solo Training

I’ve written about this before in various places, but I get questions about solo training at least a couple of times each week, so I’d like to specifically address it again. How can a person learn self defense without a training partner? What is the best material to train alone?

You cannot learn self defense without a training partner, and solo training is close to useless for self defense. It’s unfortunate, but true, despite what many other instructors will tell you.

Think about it like this: Your training partner in self defense/martial arts functions about the same as a piano does for a piano player, or as water does for a swimmer. You absolutely cannot learn to play the piano without a piano, and you absolutely cannot learn to swim without water. You can press your fingers down on a table, or in the air, but you’re not going to learn to play the piano. You can do swimming strokes in the air, but you’re not going to learn to swim.

What about hitting a heavy bag or doing striking techniques in the air? These things can be a little useful for a beginner. Hitting a heavy bag can be a great workout, and it’s something that professional boxers still do, of course. But imagine what would happen if someone had only trained on a heavy bag for three years, and then tried to fight a boxer who had fought other people for three years. (In my experience, focus mitt work with a partner who can strike back between combinations is more effective than heavy bag work, for self defense.) Imagine what would happen if someone who had only done solo forms got attacked by an attacker with a knife.

Self defense requires at least two people. Everything you do as a self defense or martial arts practitioner is in relation to another living human who will be moving, resisting, and fighting back. Practicing solo and fighting against another person is literally about as different as ballet dancing and Thai boxing. It would be awesome if we could train alone and develop real skill in self defense, but it’s just not the case.

Solo training can be great for strength and conditioning, and it can be used to increase qualities that will be useful in a self defense situation. But without spending the majority of your self defense training time with a resisting and uncooperative opponent, it hardly matters how strong and conditioned you are. Additionally, there are better ways to increase your strength and conditioning than doing martial arts specific movements only. So, your first task if you want to learn self defense and don’t have a training partner or partners is to find one!

One thing I will try to do soon is add a section to my website where people who are interested in training functional self defense can post their city and contact info, in case there are others in their location who would like to train together. I’ll send out an email once that’s done.

If you have any questions, comments, or thoughts about solo training, please post them in the comments below. 🙂

PS.  I’ve gone ahead and added an FSD page on Facebook:  Please like it and tell your friends about it!

Is Your Training Realistic?

To start, I want to make an important point.  The other day I noticed an online reference to my page on Why Most Martial Arts Don’t Work.  Someone posted a link to the page, and another person commented that my page/site couldn’t be trusted because I’m only trying to sell something.  I do sell a book that can be found on my site, but everything else on my website and blog is free, including instructional videos.  I try not to push the book, as I’m sure most of you reading this have already noticed.  I do this because I’m passionate about self defense and martial arts, I enjoy teaching, and I genuinely want other practitioners to understand what works and what doesn’t…how to train realistic, functional material.

When I mention other styles, teachers, or training methods and explain why they don’t work, the point is not to put down other systems or people, and the point isn’t for me to make money.  (I haven’t taught martial arts for a living since 2007.)  The point is for you to see examples that shed light on inefficient and ineffective training.  Why?  Because I hate to see people wasting their time, doing something they think will work, when it will likely fail in reality.  I’ve been there.  I don’t want you to be there too.  So with that said…

Is your training realistic?  Here’s an easy way to find out:  Does your sparring look like your other training?  If not, then your training probably isn’t realistic.

If you’re not sparring, then you have a problem.  Your training definitely isn’t realistic.

Many people tell me their techniques are too dangerous for sparring.  Anyone who thinks that simply doesn’t know how to spar properly.  With protective gear and/or lowering the intensity of the sparring, any technique can be used in sparring.  100%.  In BJJ chokes and arm breaks are trained.  You just don’t take them all the way.  It’s not a problem.  In my teaching/training, sparring includes eye strikes, neck hacks, neck breaks, and groin kicks.  It’s not a problem.  You simply wear protective gear and/or watch the contact and intensity.  You gradually build up in a safe and responsible manner.

What is sparring?  It’s testing your techniques against an uncooperative and fully resisting opponent.  If you’re not doing that, then you have no idea if your techniques and training methods will actually work, even if they seem to work perfectly in the training room!  Many people who train traditional martial arts do not realize what an uncooperative and fully resisting opponent means.  Here’s an important post on that.

So if you do spar, does your sparring look like your other training?  In my experience, in most schools it does not!  In most schools (outside of the sport systems), training and sparring look entirely different.  This is a serious problem.

A Popular School

I was talking to someone yesterday about a big, popular school in my city.  Some of the teachers are very good, and highly skilled.  I imagine they could handle themselves in most self defense situations.  I wouldn’t want to fight them if I could avoid it.  But most of their training is very inefficient and ineffective, it looks nothing whatsoever like their sparring, and it would not stand up to a fully resisting and uncooperative opponent!

Fortunately they do spar.  But their sparring is basically just kickboxing/MMA.  Great.  However, what is the point of all the other training they do, if they are using nearly none of it in sparring!?!?

Their training looks very cool.  It looks really impressive.  Sometimes I look at it and have to think twice before I remember that things don’t actually work that way myself!  But no one is actually applying the techniques and combinations that are used in training.

If your training partner is attacking and then standing still with his arm out in the air while you execute a combination of counter techniques, then what you are training is likely unrealistic.  If the defense you are practicing would not work if your opponent continued to attack, then it is likely unrealistic.  Unfortunately, this is how most traditional martial arts training happens.

It’s not the best video, but take a look at the following kali empty hands video I made as an example.  The first (ineffective) techniques I demonstrate require unrealistic distancing, that the attacker only attacks with one or two strikes, that he does not follow up, and that he does not resist.  The more functional applications I demonstrate (not as well as they could have been demonstrated) in the second half of the video are not like that!  Those techniques do not require a cooperative opponent.  They do not require specific attacks, and they work even if the opponent attempts to continue to attack.  Here’s the video:

Negative Conditioning

I get emails from people nearly every day who tell me that they agree with the material on my website.  Yet when they send me video links or tell me about what they are doing, it usually turns out that they are practicing ineffectively themselves.  They think that everyone else is practicing an inferior system, but their system is realistic.  Their system has been around for centuries, it has stood the test of time, it was created and used by a woman monk, it has been used on the battlefield, etc., etc..  This is really unfortunate.  Through training in a semi-cooperative environment, we humans are easily and quickly conditioned to believe that ineffective material works!  It works in the training room, so we think it will work in reality.  But what people fail to realize is that their training partners are only attacking in certain ways, that they aren’t really resisting, that they aren’t really being uncooperative.

There are two things you must do in order to make sure your training is functional.  First, when you try your techniques, tell your training partner “don’t let me do this”.  You’ll probably need to repeat it, as we naturally begin to cooperate with each other in training.  Second, make sure that when you train it is nearly indistinguishable from when you spar.  If the techniques and combinations you are training are not the same ones you’re using when you’re sparring, then there is a problem with the techniques, or a problem with how you are training them.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

Advanced Class

Today I read a blog post by Rory Miller, Advanced Class. Rory has very interesting and insightful material on violence, among other things, and I link to his blog in my blogroll. So this post isn’t meant to imply that I disagree with all of his material. In fact, his material on violence led me to realize that I wasn’t putting enough emphasis on awareness and prevention in my own teaching, at least on my website, and that I tended to take it for granted rather than vocalizing it. Anyway, I disagree with nearly every aspect of his post, left a comment there, and want to expand on it here.

The premise of Rory’s post, as I see it, is that “everything that works can be taught to proficiency in forty hours.” He does write that “years spent practicing would hone the skills”, but then writes, “but in the end, this isn’t hard”. I very much disagree with this, and I suspect that with more thought on the matter Rory will also.

Concepts or Techniques

Rory is explaining that he teaches concepts, that everything boils down to manipulating skeletons (our skeletal structure and the skeletal structure of our opponents). He uses joint manipulations as an example, writing that there are thousands of techniques, but only eight underlying concepts. So if you know the eight concepts, you have the thousands of techniques available right away.

First, every method of categorization and teaching has problems. There are problems with breaking joint manipulations into thousands of techniques, and there are also problems with breaking them into eight principles or eight categories. If you teach someone thousands of joint manipulations, it’s going to take a very long time, many of them will be ineffective, and it will take the practitioner an unnecessarily long time to really get the substance of joint manipulations…how to APPLY them in reality, under pressure. But if you teach them eight principles they can use to break or lock a joint, they may not even discover the best techniques in any given situation. They may train the techniques they discover in an unrealistic scenario, with unrealistic levels of force, cooperation, and resistance (which is also a problem with the thousands of techniques approach), and so on. You cannot give a student a long list of techniques or a handful of concepts and expect them to be able to apply either, especially not in 40 hours.

No method is perfect. Every method has advantages and disadvantages. But even more importantly, you can’t give a student a handful of new techniques, concepts, or even training methods, and expect them to be proficient in any period of time. First, they need it all, in combination. Second, they need guidance to keep them on the right track. That guidance can theoretically come through their own feedback if they are using effective training methods, but without giving them the best techniques, they may never discover them.

A friend, cop, and former student of mine wrote in the comments of another post: “The best decision is the right decision, the second best decision is the wrong decision.” Similarly, there is a “best” technique for any given person in any given situation. I’m talking about physics paired with physiology here. There is a single best technique, and every other technique is not the best technique. That doesn’t mean a sub-optimal technique won’t work. But it also doesn’t mean that sub-optimal techniques are ideal, or that giving a group of students a hand full of concepts and telling them to discover what works best is an ideal approach.

People learn and discover many, many things, if not most, that are not efficient, effective, ideal, or even true. That’s why you not only need to give them concepts, but also techniques. That’s why you can’t expect a student will learn all they need to learn in 40 hours, and then the rest of their time can be spent honing those skills/techniques/concepts. They need the guidance of an expert teacher to keep them on the most efficient and effective path. Otherwise, the easiest thing is to get off of that path without even realizing it.

Hard Work, Time, and Adjustment

40 hours is *nothing* in terms of really learning the fundamental concepts of any living/changing/interactive “art”. It’s not even enough time to get a basic understanding. I started playing a new musical instrument about 2 years ago. I take private lessons and practice for at least 2 hours every day. I’ve read numerous books on the instrument, the music, and the music theory. I listen to the music for at least another hour or two each day in addition to my practice. And I’m just beginning to have basic understanding of the full range of the instrument. I’m at the very beginning of understanding the music. Sure, I intellectually knew about the instrument and the music in a relatively short period, but I had zero ability or deep/personal understanding.

It’s no different with learning a language. It’s no different with learning to dance. Any interactive, live art will take a great deal of hard work and time to learn. Without expert guidance, you will not follow a straight or efficient path to solid ability, unless by unlikely chance.

Rory writes: “Do you have to teach a dog pack dynamics or an ape how to live in a troop? Hell no. So with humans you just have to point out what they already know.” This is incorrect, and the implications even more so. A dog learns “pack dynamics” through being raised in a pack. The dog is taught pack dynamics through the experience of living in a pack. An ape learns how to live in a troop by growing up in a troop from birth, through experience. It does have to be taught.

The human mind and body is incredibly adaptive. If we’re born and raised in an environment with no violence or hostility, we will not understand or be able to deal with violence and hostility. If we are raised in a violent environment, we will adapt (or not!) and learn how to survive in it. But the majority of people reading Rory’s post, and this one, did not grow up fighting. They did not grow up surrounded by real violence. Most people reading these posts do not instinctively have an effective response to being attacked by another human. These responses are most definitely learned, and just like any other living and interactive art, they take a great deal of time and experience to learn.

Concepts are not enough. Techniques are not enough. Training methods are not enough. You need all of them, AND you need to put in the work and time. To progress at a decent pace, you need a teacher to provide guidance, to adjust your path when you move off of it.

When I had my school, I taught the crash to almost every new student on day one. I explained the concepts behind it. I explained that using specific defensive techniques that must be matched to specific offensive techniques is likely to fail in the face of an unexpected attack. You don’t know what your opponent is going to attack with. You don’t know if it’s the right hand or the left hand, a straight punch or a hook. Is the first move a fake? You don’t know. So having a single “punching defense” that works against all high-line attacks is a more effective option. Everyone I taught understood this on day one. Yet none of the martial artists I taught had ever learned or discovered such a technique, despite many of them having practiced and/or taught for years. And despite everyone understanding this, no one REALLY got the significance of it until they had practiced for a long time…much more than 40 hours. One student came to class a year or two after he had started, and as I opened the door he said, “I finally get the crash!”. These things are not natural.

Rory’s point is that there is no “advanced class”. There are the fundamental concepts, and then there is practicing them. But there is much more than that. There are numerous techniques to learn that do require time and guidance. At the introductory level practitioners will learn them at an introductory level! The material practiced in an “advanced class” may not be different from the material practiced in beginning classes, but the level at which it should be practiced will indeed be very different, as will the subtlety with which it is practiced. And that will be greatly enhanced, more efficiently learned, with the guidance of an instructor.

NOTE: I’ve expanded/updated this topic here: How Fast Can You Learn Self Defense?

Don’t Get Involved


What should you do if you see a woman or child you don’t know being attacked by a grown man?

My gut reaction is to step in and stop him.  But as hard as it may be to accept, that might not be the best move.

The first priority in self defense is to avoid getting injured or killed, and if you have a wife, husband, and/or children, you have even more on the line.  Maybe you don’t see a weapon, but that doesn’t mean the attacker doesn’t have one.  Maybe you move to stop a man from beating a child and he turns around and shoots or stabs you.  How smart is it to risk your life for someone you don’t know, particularly if you have a family to take care of?

In 2002 my wife and I were at a hill tribe market in a remote part of northern Vietnam.  We were the only foreigners there.  We turned a corner and saw a man beating a woman, with a small crowd circling them.  The woman was bleeding, and the man kept punching her.  I really wanted to step in and nail the guy, but I had no idea what would happen if I did.  Would the crowd of people attack me?  There were sharp farming tools on the ground all over the market.  I could have been swarmed and killed.  Or, I could have ended up in a Vietnamese jail.  What would have happened to my wife?  As hard as it was, I think I made the right decision…to walk on.

On another occasion my wife and I had a couple of friends over to watch a movie at our house.  During the movie we heard a woman screaming outside.  We went to the window and a man was chasing a woman around a car parked in front of our house.  My wife ran to the phone to call the police, but as soon as she picked it up the man jumped across the hood of the car, grabbed the woman, and put her in a rear choke hold, choking her.  Without thinking, I went straight out the front door, moving to stop the guy.  It was dark, and I had no idea if the guy had a weapon.  I went outside so quickly that I didn’t even consider grabbing a weapon myself.  Fortunately, as I got close to the guy he let go of the woman and she ran away.  He turned and walked away too.  I got lucky.  When I came back in my wife asked me if I was crazy.  I made a mistake.  Although what I did was perhaps normal and definitely understandable, in my neighborhood it could have easily resulted in me getting shot.

Yesterday a good friend of mine emailed me and told me about a situation that had just occurred.  His brother stopped a driver (with a passenger) from driving away after hitting a parked car.  The driver got mad, the situation escalated, and he grabbed my friend by the shirt and attempted to hit him.  My friend hit him first and dropped him.  But then the passenger had grabbed my friend from behind, trying to hit him.  This continued for a bit, with my friend fortunately getting the better of the situation.  But it could have easily gone another way.  The passenger could have stabbed my friend in the back.  Would it have been worth it, to potentially stop someone from getting away with a hit and run?

So I decided to write this post.  These situations are never easy.  What you should do isn’t always obvious.  But my rule of thumb now is: Don’t get involved.  You’re not the police (most of you, at least).  If you or someone you care about isn’t being injured, call the police.  Maybe say out loud that the police are on their way.

It may feel wrong to stand by while someone attacks a smaller or weaker person, and some people may be unable to do that, but you have to consider the consequences of getting involved for those who depend on you.  If you do decide to get involved, you should do everything you can to accurately assess the situation first, and to minimize the damage you do.

If you come upon a situation where someone is doing something wrong, like a hit and run on a parked car, but no one is actually in danger, you definitely shouldn’t get involved.  You’re not the police, and it’s none of your business.  Don’t put yourself in danger.

This is a controversial topic, such situations are rarely simple, and different people will disagree on what should or shouldn’t be done. What’s most important is that you realize the pros and cons of getting involved. Think about it now, rather than acting without having thought about it before. Think about what you have to lose, what you would be risking, and when you are willing to take such risks. Let me know what you think about this in the comments.

Two Crazy Emails, What You Can’t Control, & Blind Faith

I received more than 30 emails in response to my last blog post.  The vast majority of them were positive and useful.  But two of them were a little crazy, and even dangerous in terms of faith in systems that would likely fail in the face of a real attack.

The first one came from a wing chun instructor.  Before I post it I should mention that several of the positive emails I received were also from wing chun instructors.  As I wrote in the last blog post, there are effective techniques in wing chun, and some WC instructors (especially the ones that tend to write me) teach the techniques in a functional manner, along with other systems that train what WC is lacking.  So don’t take the email below as representative of all WC instructors.  Here it is (cursing edited out by me):

You comment on wing Chun like you know anything about it. Well if you take all the sh&@*y wing Chun teachers then you will have sh&$%y students. Someone who knows the art it looks nothing like wing Chun , anyone who knows wing Chun knows that . An there are many so called functional martial arts instructors who got their f*$#ing certification in a weak long class. So just like everything else you have people who scholdnt be teaching that are. And let me see your certifications in the arts you claim to know all about!

This email is typical of the negative emails I tend to get (which are rare).  The writing is usually terrible, even when written by a native English speaker, and there is never any actual argument against whatever point I was making that they disagree with…for obvious reasons.  But this guy really is a martial arts instructor, certified by very well known martial artists.  So he’s out there teaching people, which is scary.

What he doesn’t realize is that I’ve studied in the past with the same people and groups that he has, which makes implying that he knows wing chun but I know nothing about it rather laughable.  For the sake of being transparent, I do not have any certification in wing chun.  I was never interested in specifically teaching wing chun, and quit wearing my first black belt soon after I got it, disillusioned with rank…having seen how little it actually means.  Actual skill/ability and knowledge are important to me.  These things tend to have very little to do with certification in the majority of systems, and I’d rather people focus on ability, knowledge, and logic instead of believing in a certificate.

My point in the last post was that every style is limited by nature.  If it is a specific style, then it is not any other style, which automatically limits it.  That’s pretty hard to disagree with if you think about it with an open mind for just a moment.  But a “pure stylist” is going to have a problem with that, because he believes in his system, and this idea is going to conflict with his belief.  Rather than changing his belief when faced with contrary evidence or thinking, he resorts to a personal attack.  It’s sad, but common.

What You Cannot Control

The second email wasn’t crazy in terms of content.  But the idea within it is, and it’s something I tried to address in a previous post.  The guy who wrote it said he agreed that wing chun doesn’t work, which is not something I actually said, as wing chun techniques can work if trained and used properly, but that the reason was because it was a martial art and not actual self defense.  He then went on to explain that no martial art or fighting system works in self defense, because in self defense you cannot fight your opponent…you need to just take him out…with Combatives.

This is nice in theory.  Just take out your opponent.  But in reality, you cannot control what your opponent does!

This is a fundamental concept that is extremely important to understand.  Many martial art instructors only teach with cooperative training drills.  These drills assume that your opponent will move a certain way, respond a certain way, that your defensive technique will succeed, and so on.  But it may not go that way.  It probably won’t go that way!

When you have two or more powerful adults trying their best to hurt or kill each other, there will be chaos.  Even if you are an outstanding martial artist or a highly skilled self defense practitioner, your techniques will be dictated by the position, movement, and reactions of your opponent.  And you cannot control that.  You can control what you do, but you cannot control what your opponent will do.  This is why training against an uncooperative opponent is absolutely essential.  That’s how it’s going to be in reality.

So it’s great to say that you shouldn’t “fight” in self defense, that the MMA Base is all about fighting, and instead you should focus on just taking out your opponent with deadly techniques and unrelenting force.  But let me ask you this:  What happens when your opponent moves in an unexpected way?  What happens when your opponent counters your attack?  What happens if he has friends?  What happens if you want to take him out, but he makes it a “fight”?

I’d like to know what you think about this and if it makes sense to you.  So please let me know in the comments below.  Have you also trained in schools or with instructors who assume that their techniques are simply going to work?  Why is it so difficult to understand that an opponent is going to resist, and you need to be prepared for that?

The Problem With Wing Chun (and every other martial art)

Wing chun has one of the same problems that every martial art has.  And if you’re only studying wing chun, or any other art, then this problem could cause you to be seriously hurt in a real self defense situation or fight.  (I’m using wing chun as an example because I receive more questions about it than any other system.)

What It Is, and What It Isn’t

Wing chun has a specific style.  It utilizes specific techniques, training methods, and concepts.  Anyone with just a little knowledge of various martial arts would never confuse a wing chun practitioner’s movements with those of karate, tae kwan do, or boxing.  Each of those styles, and many more, is specific and easily identifiable.

Wing chun is not karate, tae kwan do, boxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu, western wrestling, Thai boxing, kali, and so on.  There is much, much more that wing chun is not than what it is.  This is the nature of any specific style.  It is necessarily limited by what it is.  What it is defines its boundaries.  What it is determines what it is not.

This is a serious problem.

In a self defense situation or fight there are no standards or rules.  In a wing chun class your partner will only throw wing chun style punches at you.  You’ll learn how to block wing chun style punches.  But outside of a wing chun school, an attacker isn’t going to attack with a wing chun punch.

Theoretically, the same “lines of attack” or “angles of attack” apply.  Theoretically, wing chun defense should be able to work against any punch.  But in reality, if you haven’t trained against something, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to adapt to deal with it in time.

There was a story on NPR about a year ago that discussed studies demonstrating how professional baseball players did very poorly when attempting to hit a ball thrown by women using an underhand pitch.  Although professional players can hit balls thrown at extremely high speeds, they become accustomed to exactly how the ball is thrown.  And when it’s thrown just a bit differently, they can no longer hit it.  Surprising as it may sound, their ability to hit an underhanded pitch is no greater than that of the average person.  Their specific skill is not transferable to another pitching style.

The same goes for martial arts.  If you only train in a wing chun school, in a relatively short period of time you’re going to become conditioned to defending against wing chun attacks.  And, you will not be conditioned to defend against attacks thrown by the average person.

In addition to the stylistic elements of the techniques included in a system, there is the larger problem of techniques that are not included in a given system.  Wing chun is primarily a close range system.  The majority of training does not take place in the range that tae kwan do, judo, or Brazilian jiu jitsu takes place in.  Practitioners do not learn to defend against techniques from tae kwan do, judo, or BJJ, because they don’t know how to do them in the first place.  And, you cannot learn to defend against something that you cannot do well yourself.

A Fancy Mess

Bruce Lee used the phrase “a fancy mess” to describe what many traditional martial arts have become.  It’s an accurate description.  People who practice a single style like wing chun not only practice techniques in a certain stylized (unnatural) fashion and leave out techniques that are not part of their chosen style, but they also develop a fancy mess as a result.  One practitioner uses a wing chun attack, another uses a wing chun defense, and the initial attacker develops a wing chun counter to the wing chun defense.  Evolution happens, and you end up with a fancy collection or series of offensive and defensive techniques and training methods that look nothing whatsoever like an actual attack on the street!

There is a common training drill in wing chun called chi sao, which is a great example of this.  Take a look at the following picture:

Bruce Lee Chi Sao

Bruce Lee & Yip Man doing chi sao

Have you ever seen anyone fight like this???  Of course not.

Now, I understand that chi sao is not a fight.  I understand it’s a drill designed to train wing chun techniques, skills, and strategies.  I practiced and taught it myself for many years.  So I know first hand that although there are some valuable techniques and concepts in the exercise, there are also a host of problems with it.  It has largely become what Bruce Lee declared, a fancy mess.  It bears very little resemblance to a real fight or self defense situation.  There are better ways to train the effective techniques and principles used in wing chun.  But it’s natural that in a school that is limited to a particular style, a fancy mess of techniques and training methods will evolve.

Fixing the Problem

No single style is sufficient for self defense, because by definition every style has particular stylized movement, excludes what is not a part of the style, and over time evolves to become a fancy mess.  But, many styles do have valuable techniques, training methods, and strategies.

The key is to do exactly what Bruce Lee, arguably the most famous wing chun practitioner ever, said: “Take what is useful, and discard what it useless.”  Unfortunately the system he created, jeet kune do, which was supposed to be a system with no system, has become as much of a stylized fancy mess as any other style.

It is for this reason that I call what I teach “functional self defense”.  It is not a system or a style.  It is simply a collection of the most efficient and effective techniques, training methods, and strategies from wherever they may come.  Some of them come from wing chun.  Some come from boxing.  And so on.

The key is to avoid practicing or creating a structured, limited style.  Learn to use and defend against the most common attacks.  This is what I call the “MMA Base”…boxing, kickboxing, and wrestling…the most natural and common techniques of fighting.  Add modern weapons to the mix.  Add the most efficient and effective techniques, training methods, and strategies.

It’s ok to study wing chun or any other specific martial art.  But if you want to learn how to defend yourself, it’s not ok to limit yourself to any particular style or teacher.  Keep an open mind.  Explore different things.  It’s the only way you’ll avoid limitations and fancy messes.

Where’s The Beef?

The physical version of my book, The Ultimate Guide to Unarmed Self Defense, is finally out!  You can see it here on Amazon.  For all of you who don’t live in the US, it’s also available on the European versions of Amazon.  The digital version is available for immediate download, for anyone, anywhere, here.

Darrin Cook, from, did a nice review of it here.  Darrin’s blog is one of the few in my blog roll (at right), because I find the majority of his posts to be valuable and interesting.  I just noticed that a couple of days ago he did another post referencing an old Pekiti Tirsia video I made, and I want to comment on something he said.  Here’s the video he was writing about:

The quality of the video is rather poor and there are a few things I don’t like about it, but I made it more than 6 years ago…and the material is solid.  So Darrin wrote:

If you take a look at Instructor David’s other videos, you see he is offering a lot of “meat,” really good techniques that other teachers would have held back.

Hiding The Meat

I thought about what he said for a while.  And it’s true.  But why would teachers “hide the meat”?  Don’t they want their students to be as skilled as possible?

I think there are a variety of reasons, most of which do not involve bad intentions.  Most martial arts I’ve practiced hide the meat.  And the meat is often hidden in a large pile of inedible material.  Honestly, I don’t think most teachers even realize it.  They teach what they were taught.  Especially if they don’t test their material, they may not even know the difference between the meat and all the other stuff.  Many of them think that it’s all meat, so they’re not purposefully hiding it.

A Shooting In 1997…

I was hanging out with my sister and a good friend.  All three of us were instructors at the same martial art school.  We had already been branching out and trying to find the best material we could, but we were all still only teaching that one style (which was self defense focused).  It was around midnight, and my friend was just opening the front door to leave.  Right as he opened it we heard BAM! BAM! BAM!, and then tires screeching.  A guy had just been shot walking in front of my house, an innocent guy in a robbery attempt.

We talked about it.  What would have happened if my friend had walked out just a couple of minutes earlier?  Would he have tried one of our gun threat defenses?  One of the ones that we taught?  Would it have worked?  Would he be alive or dead if he had walked out just a couple of minutes earlier?

Very shortly after that incident the three of us quit teaching at the school we had been teaching at.  The material wasn’t bad.  It worked for many people who used it in self defense.  But we knew it could be better.  We decided to make “efficiency and effectiveness” the core concept of our training and teaching.  We needed to.

The “problem” in my experience, is that most traditional martial arts teachers don’t need their material to work.  It’s different for martial sports/combat athletics.  Since their practitioners compete they do need the material to work, and it does work for what it’s designed for.

Use It Or Lose It

When the meaning of a thing changes, when you use it for something else, it’s easy to lose sight of the original purpose.  For most people teaching and practicing traditional martial arts, they don’t need them to work.  They practice for other reasons…for fun, for exercise, for a sense of belonging.  So they don’t realize the difference between what works and what doesn’t, what is meat and what is not.  Because for them, it is all meat.  It is all fun.  It is all good.  And it all looks like it works, because it works in the training room, in a cooperative environment, in a conditioned environment.

When you’re doing or teaching something for fun you can come up with all sorts of fun/cool techniques and drills that really have nothing to do with functional self defense.  Again, on the surface though, they appear to.

Using A Hat For Self Defense

A week or two ago, a former student, cop, and friend of mine sent me a video from a popular Filipino martial arts instructor showing how to use a baseball cap/hat as a weapon.  A couple of the techniques were fine…throwing the hat at an opponent to distract him before nailing him, etc.  And the instructor did make a comment about “having fun”, about training for fun, so maybe the rest of the techniques were more for fun than anything else.  Nevertheless, the rest of the techniques were very ineffective and a waste at best, if not downright dangerous to even try in self defense.

I wrote back something along the lines of, “Just because you can use something doesn’t mean you should.”.  But it looks cool.  It looks fun.  It probably is fun to practice!  However, it’s not functional for self defense.  It’s just that most people don’t think enough about these things, because they don’t need to.

Back To Pekiti Tirsia

I was fortunate to have a Pekiti Tirsia instructor who was ok with teaching me whatever I wanted to work on…just the meat.  But when I went to Pekiti seminars, I felt 16 hours were spent going over relatively ineffective variations of core techniques and concepts that could have been taught in 1 hour, and then trained for 15 more.  Instead, in my opinion, most students came away with a TON of memorized combinations, many of which were ineffective.  Why?  Why invent all these combinations for students to learn?  I can’t say for sure, in the case of Pekiti.  You could argue that each combination has a principle or concept embedded.  But, just teach the concept in its purest form!  Then, it can be applied to anything.  That is, if the concept is functional.

Holding Back

Regarding teachers purposefully holding material back, in this day and age I would hope that’s a minority of teachers.  That’s just a disservice to students, and to me, a sign that they don’t really know what they’re doing, that all they have are a few tricks.

I started practicing martial arts for self defense, and my goal has always been to teach functional self defense rather than material that looks cool, takes a long time to learn, etc..  I want my students to be able to defend themselves as quickly as possible.  So it makes sense to “offer a lot of meat”.  What’s equally important to realize, is that the vegetables and fruit are even more important than the meat!  You need all three to achieve a healthy balance, and then everything becomes clear.

How to Develop Chi Power

Chi Power

The Power of Chi

I get numerous emails every day from subscribers, and I make sure to answer every one of them.  But people ask many of the same questions, and I figured it would be valuable to answer some of those questions on this blog from time to time.  One that I got just a moment ago, which I regularly get, is asking how to develop chi power.

What Is Chi?

The term Chi or Qi (in Chinese, AKA Ki in Japanese), can mean a great variety of things.  The best rough translation is probably energy, although others might argue life force is more common (not necessarily more accurate though).  But it’s used in so many different contexts, from universal energy and Chinese medicine to martial arts and feng shui, that it needs to be defined in each context in order to be useful.

My feeling is that because the concept of chi originated prior to the scientific understanding we have today, along with corresponding words and definitions, it was used to describe a variety of different things we now have more precise terms for.  In almost all situations, we’d be better off using those more precise terms than using the term chi, particularly because chi is so often associated with magic.  No one in their right mind believes in magic.  But many people (also not really in their right mind), do believe in magical uses of chi.

With respect to martial arts, chi is generally used to refer to energy…the energy or power present in a technique, or in a person’s body.  Advanced practitioners who exhibit a great deal of power, rootedness, etc., are said to have chi power.  Unfortunately, the term chi power is also used to explain complete BS, like throwing invisible balls of chi to defeat opponents, knocking people out without touching them, etc.  A surprising number of people still fall victim to charlatans and frauds professing to have magical powers, despite these things being disproved over and over again.  A quick YouTube search for any of the particular magic uses of chi will show various examples of these uses failing against anyone who is not a member of the magician’s group.

Then what is chi power as it relates to martial arts?  How can some advanced practitioners exhibit such power?  The explanation is pretty simple, and makes perfect scientific sense.  I’ll start with a non-martial arts example many people will be familiar with.

How Chi Power Works

In high school I was on a power lifting team, and when I began teaching martial arts for a living, I also became a certified personal trainer to supplement my income while building my business.  I had noticed something that every personal trainer has seen over and over again, and something that anyone who has worked out seriously will have seen in themselves.  When a person first goes to a gym and begins to lift weights, especially if they haven’t been athletic, they can lift very little.  If they push hard, in just a few workouts, they’ll make dramatic gains in strength without corresponding gains in muscle mass.  In the mid-term, their body will change.  They’ll gain muscle, lose weight, etc.  Then, their body will plateau in terms of size and weight, but they’ll still be able to increase the weight they lift.  How is it that a person can increase their strength without increasing their muscle mass?

Frequency and Recruitment

This is something I learned about when studying for my personal training certification test.  In order to use your muscles, your brain sends electrical impulses to what are called motor units within the muscles.  Sending these impulses to the motor units is called recruitment.  Aside from the amount of muscle a person has, there are two factors in this process that determine the degree of strength or power a person can use: the frequency of the impulses that are sent to the motor units and the number of motor units that are recruited.  So a person can and will increase their strength without increasing their muscle mass, by using their brain (energy) more effectively.  With time and practice, a person will learn to send a higher frequency of impulses to a larger percentage of motor units, dramatically increasing their power and strength.

Tension and Relaxation

Another important factor in the use of muscular power is the role of tension and relaxation.  A beginner will tense muscles that are unnecessary to tense, and this includes muscles that are in opposition to the desired movement.  If you tense or contract your biceps as you push forward, when you should only be using your triceps, you’ll inhibit your speed and power with the oppositional tension.  The longer a person practices a physical movement, the better and more efficient they’ll become.  Practitioners with more experience only tense the necessary muscles and keep the rest of their body relaxed.  This also gives the appearance of a more relaxed power.


The proper use of structure is another major component of strength and power, and one that takes time to develop.  Good structure entails using your body with the best possible alignment for any given task.  Beginners will often punch using only their arm, for example, whereas a practitioner with more experience will punch in such a way that the entire body is used, and the structural alignment of the punch maximizes its power.  Structure can also be used to maintain a position, where an opponent struggles against the strength of bones rather than muscle alone.


Leverage serves to maximize or multiply force.  Applying a joint lock with poor leverage will require a great deal of strength and may still fail, whereas applying the same lock with good leverage can be easy even on a stronger opponent.  Leverage can be used to maximize the power of an offensive technique, and denying an opponent the leverage he needs can also be used to prevent his attack from succeeding.

Frequency of impulses and recruitment, relaxation and tension, structure, and leverage are all ways to dramatically increase strength and power.  When combined, they can lead to incredible displays that seem to border on the impossible.  But it all comes down to physics.

Developing Chi Power

Some so-called teachers mystify students with their displays of chi power, and hold students back (maintaining their god-like status in their student’s eyes) by using terminology and training methods that make it difficult or impossible for students to reach the same levels.  Rather than using the term chi, more descriptive and useful terms can be used to increase a practitioner’s skills far quicker and more effectively.

The way to develop chi power, or powerful energy in combat arts, is to maximize the frequency of impulses to muscles, to recruit as much of the muscle as possible, to keep opposing muscles relaxed while tensing the right muscles at the right time, and to maximize the use of structure, leverage, and body mechanics.

How can this be done?  Practice.

Just like with lifting weights, if you don’t push to your limits, you won’t increase your limits.  You won’t get stronger.  The way to increase your ability to use your muscle is to push to and eventually beyond your limits.  There’s nothing better than full speed and power practice to do that.

Practice sparring, hitting focus mitts, and hitting a heavy bag.  The more you practice, the better you’ll get at using the optimal combination of relaxation and tension.  Especially when you push your limits, you’ll be forced to relax, as remaining tense will require too much effort.

The best way to learn to maximize structure and leverage is to train with a teacher or partner who knows and can communicate the most efficient and effective positions and ways to apply techniques, and then to train against an uncooperative opponent who tests your structure in motion.

Doing solo forms can increase your power.  By doing them fast, hard, and to exhaustion, you can push your limits.  And if the techniques within them are designed to maximize structure and leverage, you may learn something about that.  But the fastest way to increase your power is through training with a partner.  A partner will provide something to push against, but even more importantly, a partner will ensure that you can actually use your power.

There’s nothing magic about the use of energy or chi.  The expert use of it may seem amazing to those who don’t understand the mechanics.  And, some people may be mislead into believing the impossible due to martial arts frauds.  But all it takes is functional practice.  The more realistic and functional your practice is, the quicker you’ll develop and increase your strength and power.