Category Archive: Martial Arts Controversy

How Dead Patterns Can Supercharge Your Skills

Maija Soderholm recently posted here, questioning the value of prearranged training sequences.  There’s a good bit of discussion in the comments, and then in her follow up post, here.  I responded with a few comments in those posts, but figured the topic would also be good for another post on this blog.

There were references in the comments of Maija’s first post to Matt Thornton’s concept of “aliveness”.  In the early 90’s, prior to MMA becoming popular, Matt railed against common traditional martial arts practice, which was (and still is very often) dominated by prearranged solo and partner drills, with very little sparring.  Matt’s point was and still is that fighting is alive.  There is real motion, timing, and resistance.  Your opponent will be uncooperative.  Prearranged pattern training on the other hand is dead.  Matt started calling prearranged patterns “dead patterns”, and the name stuck for many people.

I agree with Maija and Matt’s thoughts on the negative aspects of dead patterns.  Real fighting is random, not at all prearranged, and your opponent will be completely uncooperative.  In prearranged training, most of that is missing entirely.  Maija also made a great point that prearranged training prearranges success, which must be fought for in reality.

Back when Matt was all over martial arts forums arguing for aliveness and against dead patterns, I was on the other side on the dead pattern issue.  I agreed with him on aliveness, but disagreed that dead patterns were useless.  Some of that disagreement was due to my misunderstanding of what he was talking about.  Because prearranged patterns are “dead”, lots of fantasy techniques and unrealistic training ends up being spawned from them.  Sombrada (a common prearranged stick pattern) is a good example.  The idea to put a series of realistic attacks and counter attacks into a pattern, to drill for repetitions, doesn’t sound so bad on the surface.  I didn’t think it was.  But I wasn’t aware how most people were doing that pattern, as this was before YouTube, and no one in my area was doing it.  I learned sombrada at a seminar in 1993, very quickly, and unknowingly ended up doing it in a way that most people didn’t.  I made a video around 2000 to send to a couple of other instructors.  I posted it to YouTube in 2008:

I no longer train or teach sombrada.  But the above video still demonstrates the difference between using functional techniques inside of a dead pattern vs. non-functional techniques.  There is a very important and significant difference.

But if you can get the same benefits from random training and sparring as you can from prearranged, dead patterns, then why train such patterns at all?

Every Training Method Has Weaknesses

At least for training that involves striking, every training method has weaknesses.  Grappling/wrestling is a bit different.  You can train the majority of grappling techniques safely, and stop locks or chokes just before they cause damage.  Some people do argue that stopping an arm bar, for example, before you break your partner’s arm, or letting go of a choke when your partner taps out, will cause you not to finish the technique in reality.  My view is that that argument is BS, but that’s beyond the scope of this particular post.  In grappling, prearranged patterns offer nothing that you can’t get from random, alive training.

In sparring that focuses on or includes striking however, you can’t train with full intensity without being injured.  So you limit the techniques that can be used, you limit the speed and power, you limit the follow through, and/or you wear protective training gear.  Each of those components that are one degree removed from real fighting, creates a weak link in the chain.  So you use other training methods to compensate.  You train full power striking on a heavy bag or on focus mitts, to compensate for the lack of power development in sparring, for example.  In stick fighting, you may strike a tire as fast and hard as you can.

But what about being on the receiving end of full speed and power techniques, without safety gear, and without the need to limit techniques or “pull punches”?  You don’t get that from sparring, and you don’t get it from striking a bag or tire.

Prearranged training does have serious weaknesses, but it also has at least one serious strength.  It allows you and your partner to practice at 100% intensity, at 100% speed and power, with very little chance of injury.  Such training can take place for any duration.  You can train a single boxing jab against an evasion, catch, or cover, over and over again.  You can train a single stick attack against a single block or evasion, over and over again.  And you can do it at 100% intensity.  You can also string attacks and counter attacks together in a repeating pattern.  But they must be realistic techniques done at a realistic range.

The Downsides of Random, Low Intensity Training

As bad as the downsides of prearranged training are, random, alive training can be equally bad.  At low levels of speed and power, a great many techniques can work that would absolutely fail in reality.  There is a major difference between 50% or even 70% intensity and 100% intensity.  At lower levels of intensity, practitioners aren’t required to move the way they must at higher levels.  Strikes don’t knock people down or back.  Combinations that wouldn’t be possible due to the dynamic movement that occurs under real, full pressure, become possible.  Fantasy recoveries and counter attacks become possible.  And practitioners don’t realize these techniques would fail under pressure.

At lower levels of speed and power, balance is also different.  You can strike from positions you couldn’t have otherwise.  You have unrealistic amounts of time to attack, evade, and counterattack.

But none of that means random training at less than 100% is automatically bad.  It does have weaknesses.  And those weaknesses can spawn fantasy techniques and ideas, just as they can in prearranged training.

The Power of Prearranged, Full Intensity Training

Prearranged training allows you to safely train at 100% intensity, at 100% speed and power.  And the benefit of experiencing your partner coming at you with all the speed and power he can muster is extreme.  The benefit of doing that type of training on a regular basis is even greater.  It gets you accustomed to a full speed and power attack, as most real attacks will be.  In fact, if you and your partners train at 100% intensity regularly, your speed and power will be so much greater than that of the average attacker, that an average attack will feel weak and much easier to deal with.

Maija mentioned a drill she’s done that allows the use of full speed and power + random attacks, where once practitioners are good enough, person 1 attacks person 2 with full power, single, random machete angles.  Person 2 only blocks.  This kind of partially prearranged training would likely provide much of the benefit of entirely prearranged training.  And you can add on to such drills.  In the random flow video below for example (I got the idea from Maija), we’re adding certain types of counters to somewhat random attacks, where the attacker and defender’s motions are partially prearranged.  We’re not going at 100% in the video, but there’s no reason we couldn’t.

So there is a way to train at full intensity with random elements.  However, I see additional benefits to doing prearranged drills of longer duration, if they’re composed of realistic, functional techniques.  Stringing together a series of attacks and counter attacks increases the time at which you’ll be continuously training at 100% intensity.  And in my experience, the increased duration makes a big difference.  It develops the ability to attack at 100% for an extended period, and to defend against full intensity attacks for an extended period.  When there are random elements, there are artificial breaks in the action, and the duration is short.

In addition to increases in the use of and defense against full intensity techniques, training such prearranged drills ingrains/conditions techniques like no other training method I’ve used.  I’m not exactly sure why, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that to do such drills with full intensity you cannot think about the techniques you’re doing.  That’s also true for random flowing and sparring, and for short durations in high intensity training with random elements.  But training as hard and fast as you can without thought, for an extended duration, seems to produce even stronger conditioned responses in myself and those I’ve taught.

For about my first 10 years of practice, I trained and taught full intensity, prearranged drills.  For the next 5 years or so, I abandoned them for the most part.  I quit doing them in my own private training, and only did them with a few older students who wanted to keep them up.  The reason I abandoned them, was because I felt they were too unrealistic due to their prearranged nature, and I saw no short term benefit in teaching them.  Students who spent time doing random drills and sparring quickly outpaced students who spent more time on prearranged drills.

But after years of giving these drills up, I noticed that both myself and my students were missing something.  We were missing the higher level skills and reactions that come from regular full intensity training.  (It may also be possible to get this type of intensity from fighting competitively.  However, most of my students were not interested in doing so, and neither was I.  And, you can do full intensity training much more frequently than real fighting without the corresponding injuries.)  When I added this training method back to my practice, I very quickly noticed my skills increasing.

Diversity Is Best

If a practitioner could only either choose all random training or all prearranged training, I’d choose random training easily.  Fights are random.  Attacks are not prearranged.  Random, alive training with progressive resistance and uncooperative partners is the key to developing functional skills.  But no one is limited to a single training method.  Because every training method has weaknesses, it’s ideal to use a diversity of methods to compensate for the shortcomings of each one individually.  All training should be functional.  All training should have an understood purpose.  Prearranged, dead pattern training fits well in the mix, as a way to supercharge your speed and power, and get you accustomed to dealing with full intensity attacks, regularly.

Doxology: What You Think You Know

Papua New Guinea Battle Shield

Shield – Papua New Guinea

I’ve been disappointed with a couple of people recently.  Sometimes, for moments, I find it hard to understand how someone can seem so right in one regard but so wrong in another.  I figure it’s a common case of cognitive dissonance.

Years ago, I came up with a saying that I think is very important to keep in mind: The only thing I know is that I don’t truly know anything, and I don’t even know that.

When you think you know something, you close your mind to alternative possibilities.  When new information comes to light, you’re unable to see it.  It’s essential to realize that you don’t truly know anything.  Doing that allows you to maintain an open mind.

And a mind that is open is necessarily in a constant state of change.  There is no such thing as “changing your mind” when it’s open.

But there’s more to it than that.


When I use the term doxology, I’m referring to the old use of the word doxa (common beliefs), and not the new use (praise or glory).

The Kunsthistorisches Museum (Ethnology Museum) in Vienna, Austria is one of my favorite museums.  In the catalog for an exhibit called Fetish Modernity, Mats Rosengrens wrote an essay titled Doxology: For a Contemporary Protagoreanism.  That essay does an outstanding job of pointing to the problem not only with common knowledge, but especially with what is so ordinary to us…so ordinary that we don’t even think to question it.

About knowledge in general, he writes:

…our knowledge is always formulated and/or preserved in some language, institution or ritual; practiced and upheld by one or many individuals; in one historical moment or other and within the admittedly diffuse framework of an ever changing but still specific social situation.  All these factors codetermine our knowledge, make it a part of a fluctuating, always changing doxic situation.  So we have no reason to believe that our alleged universal human nature would be privileged and exempt from these aporias pertaining to all knowledge.  Each claim to universal knowledge is in fact always dependent on specific historical, social, and epistemic conditions.

And regarding why this is so rarely even considered, he writes:

Doxa is that which is never questioned, simply because nobody in the group ever thinks about questioning it.  Every group or domain that is more or less delimited has it’s own doxa – scholars as well as businessmen, politicians as well as artists.

Papua New Guinea Shield

Another PNG Shield

We may know there are certain things we don’t know, but there are many other things we don’t know that we don’t know.  The only way to get around this conundrum, is to admit that we don’t truly know anything.  Otherwise, we let the social conditions around us (society at large, family, friends, groups we belong to, etc.) dictate what we believe to be true, and how we see ourselves.

Practical Knowledge vs. Real Knowledge

Of course, we have to use our current understanding of the way things work in order to get along.  For practical purposes, we do have to assume many things are practically true.  We assume that the sun will shine again tomorrow, that 2 + 2 = 4, and so on.  Based on our experience, we can make assumptions.  And these assumptions may be generally correct.  At least, correct enough for our current, practical purposes.

But that is different from real, absolute knowledge.  When you make the distinction, understanding that all knowledge is situationally limited, you maintain your open mind and your ability to learn…your flexibility to change around you.

Question Everything and Everyone

Hold no one above you.  Question everything.  Question everyone.  Continuously.

This is where my disappointment arises.

In the first system I taught, although I would have done so by nature anyway, my instructor told me to question everything.  He was ok with that, as long as I wasn’t questioning what he was doing.  When it was his doxa, it wasn’t my place to question.  It was disappointing.  He knew better, and I needed to follow along.  So I quit.

I took two other instructors along with me.  And although they both realized there were problems with believing what we had been teaching was functional, the pull of doxa was too much for one of them.  Un-knowledge wasn’t nearly as attractive as believing, or somehow pretending he did.

It’s unfortunate, but I’ve had very few long term teachers.  I’ve had a couple more that also said one should ask questions.  But once those questions came up against their doxa, things became rather sour.

Sifu, Sensei, & Master Titles and Implications

This applies not only to martial arts/self defense:  You’ve got trouble when your teacher has you call him sifu, sensei, or master.  Or, when you call him Mr. Smith and he calls you Bobby.  He likely holds himself above you, and he wants you to do the same.  He wants you to believe him, not to question him.  When you do that, you’re on the path to martial arts group-think.

But the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing can be even more insidious.  Some instructors will tell you to call them by their first name, pretending to be open to questions and questioning.  However, they’ll be sure to let you know that they know something you do not.  They’ll try to reinforce their desired position regularly.  They’ll try to assert dominance in ways you may not realize.  They’ll be your master, and you won’t even know it.

In either case, if you don’t fall for it, if you question their doxa, things will quickly sour.

The Qualifications Trap

It shouldn’t surprise me, but it still does.  When I see that a person has certain qualifications, often many of them, especially when those qualifications include “real life” applications, I have some expectation that their ability will match their qualifications.  But it very often does not.  Or, the qualifications were meaningless to begin with.  It’s surprising how often that is the case.  Qualifications are meaningless.

The Importance of Doxology

According to Mats Rosengrens, doxology is a model for understanding that all knowledge is situational.  It may be practical, but it’s also relative.  It is not absolute.  Remember that.  Question it.  And most definitely, question me, too.

Street vs. Sport

Street Self Defense

Street vs. Sport

I very rarely read or participate in martial arts discussion forums these days. But when I did back in the late 90’s, when forums were becoming popular, everyone was arguing about “street vs. sport”. (Matt Thornton and Burton Richardson were two of the biggest contributors arguing for sport style training.) With the first UFC in 1993, people saw how grapplers and mixed martial artists were wiping the floor with traditional martial artists. Most TMA practitioners either closed their eyes and pretended their traditional styles were more effective than they were, or adapted. Those who stuck with traditional styles often used a “street vs. sport” argument claiming their style was designed for the street where there are no rules, and was too deadly to be used effectively in the ring. These arguments went on for years, and the TMA crowd mostly lost.

Why MMA Wins

Since that time MMA has become hugely popular and most people regard traditional martial arts with a bit of skepticism to say the least, usually rightly so. There are two primary reasons most MMA fighters easily beat TMA practitioners. First, training methods. MMA training and the training in sports that typically make up MMA (boxing, Thai boxing, wrestling, BJJ, etc.) is the best there is. In these styles people train against fully resisting opponents. Most TMA training on the other hand involves doing solo drills and prearranged partner drills. This training does not prepare you for real fighting. If you want to learn how to fight you MUST train against uncooperative, fully resisting opponents. You have to spar in all ranges (stand up, clinch, ground, and the three together). The second reason TMA practitioners were easy for MMA fighters to beat was their poor technique. When training is unrealistic and practitioners are only training with members of their own style, very ineffective techniques evolve that don’t work under real, uncooperative pressure.

Karate Block

This Won't Work

Both the punch and the block above are great examples of the horrible techniques that evolve as a result of unrealistic training, not to mention the complete lack of footwork. So MMA is the best, and the street vs. sport argument is BS, right? Not so fast! Just because many of the TMA people making the street vs. sport argument didn’t know how to fight doesn’t mean the argument isn’t at least partially valid. Like everything, it’s not black or white, but something in between.

Why Street Is Different

Street self defense requires several components that sport fighting does not, and these make all the difference in the world. The most important of these are awareness, deception, dirty tactics/techniques, and weapons. Awareness isn’t taught or trained in sport fighting or MMA, but it’s extremely important in self defense.

Deception is hugely important in self defense, and when combined with the use of more damaging techniques and weapons, it can give a smaller, weaker, less skilled person the ability to beat a larger, stronger, unsuspecting sport fighter. MMA fighters can of course learn to be deceptive and use more damaging techniques, but because their training doesn’t require it they generally don’t, and generally aren’t prepared for these to be used against them. You fight how you train.

There are rules in MMA, and in every specific combat sports competition, but not so in self defense. The quickest, most effective self defense techniques are illegal in sport fighting, and this changes the way people fight. The footwork that can accompany an eye strike or a groin slap for example isn’t very effective or useful in MMA. In MMA there are weight classes, and a 150 lbs woman has very little chance against a 200 lbs man largely due to the technical limitations of sport fighting. Typical sport style training completely neglects the most efficient and effective techniques, along with the set ups and footwork that makes them work best.

Possibly the most important distinction however is the use of weapons on the street. In MMA there is not only no weapons training, but the techniques and positions that are trained would often lead an MMA practitioner to be more vulnerable to weapon attacks. In self defense the use of and defense against weapons should represent at least half of all training. It’s highly unlikely a person will ever be attacked by a single opponent who is smaller, weaker, and unarmed. The use of weapons in self defense leads to a massive advantage, and the ability to defend against them is essential.

The Solution

MMA training is top notch, and all self defense practitioners should adopt the same approach to training. But MMA is severely lacking in the areas of awareness, deception, dirty tactics, and weapons. The solution is to combine the two, ending up with the most efficient and effective armed and unarmed techniques, realistic training, and a winning strategy involving awareness and deception. That’s reality based self defense, and the aim of Hertao.

Wing Chun: Take What Is Useful

Wing Chun is a controversial style, and for good reason.  Many of the training methods are ineffective at best.  The prearranged solo forms, which are questionable as training methods in the first place, have illogical orders and stick to the superstition that having 108 moves each is somehow better than 50, 63, or 107.  Routinely, MMA practitioners deride Wing Chun as being a BS system.  This sentiment is understandable, but incorrect.

The concept of simultaneous attack and defense in Wing Chun is excellent, as is controlling the center, the solid structure of the techniques, and basic trapping.  The emphasis on attacking the eyes, throat, and groin is also great for self defense.  But in order to pull any of it off in reality, the training needs to be realistic.  And, some modifications will make Wing Chun safer to apply.  Even still, Wing Chun was not made for the ring.

The lop sao or pull is a great trap to use before kicking your opponent in the groin (following up further if necessary of course).  And the groin kick is very effective.  But you can’t use groin kicks in the ring.  The pak sao or smack is another great trap for self defense, especially when followed by a hack in the neck or finger in the eye, neither of which are allowed in MMA.  You can follow the lop sao or pak sao with punches or palms, but against boxing style structures the “pak sao, punch” or “lop sao, punch” combinations are far less effective.

There are exceptions.  Using a pak sao to create an opening for a punch or two, possibly causing your opponent to cover or retreat, will provide the opportunity for a double lop sao (two handed pull) into knees and elbows against a cover, or a kicking follow up against a retreat.  But due to the unrealistic training in most Wing Chun schools, practitioners are only used to dealing with other Wing Chun stylists…who very often ineffectively stand in one place attempting to block, block, block as a cooperative defense.

In MMA you might see someone opening with a jab-cross combo from boxing, followed by a kick from Thai boxing, followed by a clinch entry and takedown from wrestling, followed by ground techniques from Brazilian jiu jitsu.  They take what’s useful from each style and use various parts where they’re appropriate.  Wing Chun can be used similarly.  An MMA practitioner could use a pak sao trap to increase the likelihood of landing a jab, followed by a cross, then a double lop sao into a knee, etc.  The structure of the “tan sao” can be used to stop a takedown attempt.  The “huen sao” techniques is identical to the initial motion of pummeling or swimming in the clinch.  In self defense, the simultaneous biu sao and punch works very well against most hooks, as does trapping to eye jabs, groin kicks, and throat strikes.

Wing Chun isn’t just BS, and it does have a great deal to offer.  But in order for the strengths to come out, both WC and MMA practitioners need to open their minds and forget about previous prejudices!

Nodan Karate Video

I received the following video this morning from “Nodan”, who talks about himself in the third person:

(Video embed has been disabled.  Here’s a link.)

I don’t have any problem whatsoever with a person practicing karate, breaking boards, etc., for fun. I did it myself years ago. But please don’t claim any of this stuff will work in self defense. Showing a gun defense from long rang where you dodge a single shot and respond by punching the attacker in the ribs is downright stupid. It will get you killed.

As Bruce Lee famously said, “boards don’t hit back”. Not only do they not hit back, but they don’t move! No attacker is going to stand and do nothing, allowing you to punch them dead in the face. The fact that this guy refers to himself in the third person, has the voice of an old woman, and talks about demons doesn’t help. It’s sad that most of the comments on the above video are positive. Come on people!

EDIT: Apparently this mystery man, “Nodan”, went on a DVD sending spree in 2005…sending DVD’s to martial arts schools with no return address or info on who he was. Here are two posts on the subject if you’d like to waste a little time.

More on Sumbrada

I’ve been meaning to re-design and update the entire Hertao site, add more video, blog posts, etc., but have been too busy lately. I was asked on the Bullshido forum if I could find a version of sumbrada that was done at an “acceptable level”, and will post the results of that unfortunate search here. First I want to be clear that with the following videos I’m not suggesting that any of these guys can’t fight or defend themselves with a stick…only that the way they’re training sumbrada is not realistic. On to the videos:

The block with the checking hand that you see in seconds 6 through 8 will not work in reality. The only reason it works in the above video is because the “attacker” is holding his stick still in mid air. If this were reality, the “defender” would have his hand smashed by the stick as it followed through. The stick WILL follow through in reality, as you can see here. Only a cooperative partner will stop his stick in mid air so you can put your hand on his hand.

The same “defense” is done again at the 15 second mark. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that if the attacker really swung hard and followed through, the “defender” would have a really messed up hand and arm. The rest of the video is more of the same. Here’s another:

It’s hard to say which of these videos is worse…but I’ll go with the second. These guys are playing stick patty cake. They’re tapping their sticks with ZERO intent, stopping them in mid swing, putting their hands in places where they’d get nailed in reality, etc. Seriously, this is stick patty cake. The guys move into Pekiti’s “thrust on tapping” drill and also into hubud. All of it is done as if the target is in the middle of the air. Another:

This one looks a lot better on the surface, and to many people not familiar with real stick fighting, it’s impressive. The guys are moving all over the place, and going relatively fast. However, the footwork is not done with a purpose. It doesn’t help with evading, entering, etc. The “checking hand” positions will not work in reality. The only reason they work in this drill is because the practitioners are stopping their sticks in mid swing.

I should add here, there’s nothing wrong with stopping your attack in mid-swing in order to do a drill like sumbrada. The problem is when that action stops you from realizing your technique will not work otherwise. When we trained sombrada we often stopped our sticks in mid-swing also. The difference is that our checking hand position was either out of the way of the follow through, or would have stopped the swing itself. For anyone who hasn’t seen our sumbrada video, here it is again:

Notice the details. When the checking hand is used (in the case of the inside swing or #1 for example), it checks/stops at the wrist, not on the hand. Checking on the hand will not stop the swing. It will follow through and nail your hand.

I think this was the best video I found, but still not very good. In general these guys have “better” hand positions, and sometimes they’re even almost realistic. Take a look at second 2:18. This obviously will not work, and that’s the checking hand position used against the #1 swing in the majority of the video. The idea/position at second 2:23 is far better than at 2:18, but I seriously question whether the structure of that check/grab would hold up under a full power swing. The swing goes directly against the weak part of the grip.

Some people may argue they know all of the above, and the poor checking hand positions are only used in training. But why? What’s the point of training positions that will not work, when it’s just as easy to train positions that will work?!?!?!?

So why are people training sombrada this way? I have no idea. But just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean it works!

Wing Chun Trapping

I’ve added the new video above, along with a page with more explanation here: Wing Chun Trapping.  I think the video turned out well, but may give the impression that I think trapping has less application than I actually do.  In the coming days I’ll add more techniques to the Wing Chun page along with additional applications of trapping.

How NOT to Blast: From Vunak’s R.A.T.

I learned Paul Vunak’s Rapid Assault Tactics (R.A.T.) directly from him in 2000, during two days of semi-private classes after a seminar of his in Long Beach.  Precisely due to that experience, I’m surprised to see this video of him performing the “blast” portion of R.A.T. in such an ineffective way:

Click here to read more »

The Truth

Michael Blackgrave wrote a great post yesterday titled Martial Minions. Many Asian martial arts are supposed to be about a search for the truth, often referencing philosophical elements of Zen, etc., yet promote the exact opposite. It’s common to see everything from entirely ineffective techniques that are trained over and over again without thought, to identically clad robots who move exactly like their instructors, to teachers with cult like followers. Although the Filipino martial arts have slightly less pseudo religious dogma, they’re full of camouflage wearing wackos who idolize instructors that talk about chopping off heads rolling with eyes still open, and the like.

Why people fail to question what they believe, very often to their own detriment, surprises me again and again. The lack of thinking in martial arts is only a microcosm of the world in general. Fairy tails are everywhere!