Category Archive: Wing Chun

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.

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.

Wing Chun & Eskrima Stick and Sword Videos

Most of my blog posts recently have been about updates to my site, and this one is no exception. The new video above details the fundamental FSD progression for stick and sword work. I’ve posted the video on this page, where can you also read much more about FSD stick and sword training. Even if you’re not interested in stick fighting, learning to use blunt and sharp weapons is very important in self defense. See my weapons page for more on that.

You’ll notice on my home page and every other page of my site that’s not part of the blog, I’ve got email sign up forms. When a visitor signs up, they get a series of emails with self defense tips and info. A number of my subscribers have asked me to add more wing chun content to my site, so yesterday I added this video to the wing chun section:

It demonstrates both ineffective and functional wing chun techniques and training methods. In the near future, I’ll be adding more techniques from wing chun to my site.

Subscribers have also requested that I add techniques that allow a person to defend themselves without injuring their attacker. So that’s also one of the next things on my list. If you have any special requests for what you’d like to see, feel free to leave your requests in the comments here, subscribe to my site, or contact me here.

How to Use Adrenaline In Self Defense

Outside Grab

Positioned to Win

Massive adrenaline dumps caused by fear or surprise will decrease your motor skills, vision, hearing, and dramatically degrade your performance. This is typical for victims of surprise attacks.

But optimal adrenal levels will make you faster, stronger, and increase your performance.

Many martial arts and self defense instructors understand the problems associated with adrenaline dumps in self defense. But few explain how to use adrenaline to your advantage.

Would you like to know how to ensure you’re in the optimal state rather than frozen or with vastly degraded skills? Read on…

In The Zone: The Optimal State

Experienced athletes know what it’s like to be “in the zone”, where they’re able to perform at peak levels and everything is just right. This occurs in the optimal adrenal state, where adrenaline levels are above normal but not too high. It comes with an increase speed, strength, perception, and makes you less sensitive to pain.

Beyond the optimal level, you will be faster and stronger, but you’ll also lose your ability to perform most martial arts and self defense techniques you’ve practiced, along with having tunnel vision and a loss of hearing. And if it goes too far, you’ll simply be frozen with fear, unable to do anything.

Athletes are nearly always either in the normal or optimal state when training and competing, as there is no extreme fear to push adrenaline levels too high. The nervousness or anxiety that comes before a competition is just the right amount to push them into the optimal state. They’re not being surprised or shocked by an unexpected attack, which is what generally causes the adrenaline dump in victims of attacks who end up frozen in fear.

So how can you get yourself into the optimal state and avoid the massive dump?


An athlete in the optimal state is focused on the task at hand. He or she knows something is coming…not exactly what it will be…but that they must face a challenge. There may be anxiety, but that anxiety is focused on the task.

The first step in avoiding the adrenaline dump is to avoid being surprised by an opponent. If you’re surprised, your opponent will have the opportunity to blitz you either physically or verbally, creating the adrenaline dump. If you follow the advice on my awareness and prevention page, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be surprised by an attacker.

Being aware of your surroundings and preventing an attacker from surprising you is a form of prepositioning. You’re positioning yourself in such a way that the attacker cannot gain the upper hand without you seeing him coming.

But there’s more.

Even if you are aware, it’s still possible you’ll be approached and an attack will be attempted. The key is the second level of prepositioning.

Zone Theory & Prepositioning

In FSD we use a concept I call zone theory. (I describe it in great detail with application examples in my book.) The gist of it is that you maintain a position of advantage relative to your opponent by way of distance, positioning, and physical traps/covers/blocks.

In this position of advantage, you maximize your ability to attack while minimizing your opponent’s options. Getting and maintaining this position begins before contact. It begins as your opponent approaches you.

So your attack (your task at hand) does not begin when your opponent launches his surprise attack. It begins at the approach, before contact is even possible.

Focusing on prepositioning makes you the attacker instead of the victim. Rather than being surprised by the attack, frozen in fear or with a massive adrenaline dump, as your opponent approaches…you approach. You are focused on the task at hand, like an athlete before competition.

Mentally, instead of feeling afraid as an opponent launches attack, you become occupied with prepositioning to beat him, setting the optimal adrenal state for yourself rather than letting your attacker set it for you.

Wing Chun Training

Although it’s not necessary to train wing chun to ingrain the prepositioning habit, it was were I unconsciously learned it.

In a great deal of wing chun training practitioners begin with their arms outstretched, making contact on the outside. The aim is to stay to your opponent’s outside where you can trap him and use two hands against his one. After doing this training for a while, when approached on the street on more than one occasion, I instinctively focused on prepositioning, setting myself up to be ready or attack first. It put me in the optimal state and surprised my attackers instead of the other way around.

Of course functional training is a necessity, and prepositioning isn’t enough. You need the skills to back up your superior position. But the combination of awareness, prevention, and prepositioning will enable you to induce the optimal adrenal state instead of ending up frozen or with seriously degraded skills.

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!

Blast from the Past

I have very little video footage prior to 2000, as I got rid of most of my old video tapes since I had no way to play them. But a week or so ago I happened to come across some old training footage on an external hard drive, of Wing Chun trapping and a bit of early blast training. The training in the clips is not so good, and I thought I’d edit it together and post it as an example of what not to do:

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The same video is posted on the Wing Chun page, where more realistic applications of Wing Chun trapping and techniques are demonstrated in both pictures and videos. (I’ve recently updated the Wing Chun page with images of the pak sao, bong sao, and lop sao, and will be adding more images in the near future.)

So what specifically is wrong with the above video? The trapping practice in the first two clips might appear to be somewhat fierce, as I hit my training partner in the solar plexus and face in the second clip. Around the time these videos were recorded (1998), we regularly “sparred” from a Wing Chun reference point using a good bit of trapping. We did train hard back then, but the training was very unrealistic. The primary problem with the type of training shown in the first video clips is that there is no footwork or movement at all. No one is going to fight like that. If you attack someone they are going to move, and if someone attacks you, you are going to move. Standing in place does allow you to use more complex trapping, but you’re going to be at a loss if you ever have to fight or defend yourself for real…which leads me to the third clip of “blast practice”.

In 1999 I was invited to spar with a number of other New Orleans instructors I had never trained with before. I did pretty well attacking with Wing Chun trapping and blasting, interceptions, etc. I was able to back my opponent’s up over and over again. But, I was barely hitting them! Every time I’d enter with a blast, they’d back up and cover. My trapping no longer worked, and I didn’t have the techniques or training to deal with what were often unconventional and unskilled cover ups and retreats. I used this experience to begin working on a comprehensive version of what I called the blast…a continuous, forward pressure assault.

Wing Chun has the straight blast, which is generally taught as a punching only blast. Not only is this insufficient against an opponent who simply uses either a very tight or extended cover, but it can also be easily countered by a beginning boxer, as I explain in the video at the bottom of this page. After I had the above mentioned sparring experience, I tried to search out techniques and training that would solve this problem. I attended a seminar with Paul Vunak and took some private classes on RAT (Rapid Assault Tactics) in 2000. Although I loved the RAT concept, I found the specific entry (largely consisting of attempts to elbow incoming punches), pressure/blast (the Wing Chun straight blast), and termination (headbutts, knees, and elbows from the Thai clinch) to be lacking or unrealistic.

The third clip in the above video is basically Paul Vunak’s RAT with a groin kick entry/interception. Like I said, I don’t find it to be ideal against a high pressure, real attack. Additionally, there are better “termination” phase positions than the Thai clinch for the majority of people. So there you have it…the reasons that the training in the above clips is not so good. Fortunately I’ve since come up with much better solutions. We’ve now got great, effective and realistic ways to apply trapping and a comprehensive blast that works. I’ve been using and teaching them for 10 years now, and am 100% positive they work. You can see examples of effective trapping on our Wing Chun page, a couple of examples of the blast here, and detailed explanations of all the techniques and training methods in my self defense eBook.

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.