Most martial arts systems focus on providing students with the technique and power to intervene in a combat situation. There comes a time in every striving Martial Artist’s career when he or she has understood enough about technique and power to be able to physically intervene in a fairly effective manner.

If this martial artist is truly a striving martial artist, this will not be enough. They will continue to try to develop this power and control. To hone their skills more and more through ever deeper and more arduous levels of training and meditation.
This is the true path of a martial artist. To strive for perfection.

But, at this time in every striving martial artist’s career, another question becomes apparent. They have technique, they have power, but can they get from “A” to “B” effectively, with power and speed? Combat is all about movement. Very few combat situations involve standing in one place and fighting. I suppose that if you wait long enough, your opponent will eventually come to you but in giving them the advantage of time, they will advance in a way that is tactically beneficial to them but not to you. This is not a good approach.

Movement training becomes essential then if we are to be able to move quickly, effectively and with power. I’ll call this type of movement combat mobility.

At this point, many people become confused about just what they are meant to be training. Many people decide that speed is the most important thing to train, so they start training sprints, jumps and dashes to increase the explosive power in their legs. Some even use weights to provide additional resistance to this training to improve their explosive strength. While I believe that all of this training is excellent (variations of these training methods form part of my own training), I have found that these in isolation do not always effectively improve our combat movement.

Why would this be? If we train these movements with a weight-forward, aggressive attitude and typical Western combat posture, we turn ourselves into very rapidly moving meat-missiles with all the grace and maneuverability of steam-rollers sliding on ice. We may have improved the explosive strength in our legs and bodies, but changing direction rapidly feels like trying to push a train off its tracks. All of this wastes precious milliseconds in combat and leaves us open to a cunning opponent who can take advantage of our poor maneuverability and our unstable posture.

Combat mobility turns out to be less about speed and more about acceleration (both positive and negative) and rapid directional change (which is actually a form of acceleration). Think of it this way. If someone punches at your face and you block their punch with your arm, this movement of yours requires your arm to effectively shift from zero to high speed in a fraction of a second in order to intercept the punch. This is acceleration, not speed. So why is brute acceleration without proper structure not much use?

Consider the example of a person riding a bicycle. If they’re riding the bicycle on a perfectly level road, the power in their legs is well applied and they can accelerate and decelerate without any other forces being applied to them. This represents someone who maintains proper structure and poise while moving. If the cyclist is riding downhill when they apply the brakes, they have to change not just the velocity due to the force applied by their own legs, but also the effect that the force of gravity has on this velocity due to being on an incline. This represents someone who is badly structured (perhaps with a typical Western aggressive weight-forward stance). When someone who has their weight forward tries to stop moving forward, they have to fight against the force of gravity which is trying to make them fall forward as well as their own velocity and momentum.

Hopefully that makes sense to you and you can see why combat mobility is important to have. The great boxer Muhammed Ali once said famously “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” He understood the importance of being light on your feet and as maneuverable as possible.

So how do we practice the poised acceleration of combat mobility? It’s not easy to do because simple sprint and explosive strength training does not encourage students to maintain control of their centreline and centre of gravity. In fact, in some ways it encourages students to ‘cheat’ by throwing their weight forward in order to get the maximum acceleration possible at the expense of structure and stability.

Perhaps we could think about practicing movement while maintaining centre line and centre of gravity. But we should also be incorporating various attack and defence movements into this as well such as kicks, blocks, sweeps etc. Perhaps we could put this all together into an easy-to-learn set of standardized movements so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we train. Is this starting to sound familiar to you? Sounds like a form or a kata, doesn’t it?

And yet there is still a raging debate amongst martial artists and combat professionals over whether or not forms are effective combat training tools or not. I suppose the answer lies in whether you understand why you’re doing something in your training or not. If you don’t understand why you’re doing something, it doesn’t matter how effective the training method is, it will not benefit you to any great extent.

A sad example of this disconnect in understanding can often be seen in the stark difference between forms training and sparring seen in some traditional martial artists. When they perform their forms, their movement appears to be traditional but as soon as they start sparring, their movement looks exactly like western boxing or kick-boxing (with the typical fists at the face, neck craned forward, weight-forward stance and the dancing from foot to foot.). Their forms have had zero impact on what they are able to apply in combat and they have to resort to a Western approach.

If this is the way some traditional martial artists fight, I would very well be asking questions about why they are wasting time on forms. In these cases, I agree with the nay-sayers when they state that forms are useless. You would nearly say to these martial artists to stop wasting time practicing forms and enrol in a western boxing or kickboxing school. If your fighting is not an expression of the forms that you are practicing, there is a disconnect in your understanding and I would recommend approaching your teacher for further guidance.

Written by Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia