Tag Archives: martial arts

Q&A: Incomplete Question

I wanted to try out martial arts so I was in a trial lesson today, and the first thing they showed us(my friend came with me), after stretches, was a joint lock. We were kinda just following along with a normal class but I thought….

We never got the rest of this, so I’m going offer my best guess.

In most martial arts joint locks are intermediate techniques. They’re not the basis of the martial art. They are very useful. So, they’re good to know, but not central.

With some martial arts (Judo and Aikido come to mind here), joint locks are fundamental. If you’re training in Judo you need to know some locks. That’s not negotiable; almost everything you do is based off of them.

In contrast, something like Shotokan doesn’t depend on joint locks, and they’ll probably be presented in abbreviated form, at least in introductory courses.

Both Shotokan and Judo do seek to control how your opponent can attack. However, they have different ways to do this, and as a result, different priorities in how they train you.

This isn’t intended as a jab at you, but, saying, “trying out martial arts,” is a bit like saying, “I decided to try that ‘car’ thing.” It’s not very specific, and could cover a lot of different forms of driving. With that in mind, I don’t know what your instructor’s priorities would have been.

Also, because you were auditing a class, it’s possible you were dropped into the middle of something. Joint locks are pretty safe to train people on, they restrict movement, but unless someone’s doing something very wrong, there’s no significant risk of injury.

When picking a martial art, you do want to make sure it’s a good fit for you. Reasons to learn a martial art include practical combat (and self-defense) training, physical fitness, sports, or even spiritual growth. Knowing what you’re looking for can help you choose the one that’s right for you.

The same thing is true of your instructor’s style. There’s a lot of different approaches to teaching martial arts. If you’re not comfortable with the school’s approach, you’re free to look elsewhere. This isn’t like public education, you do have the freedom to look around and see if another school will better fit your goals. Though, I do recommend if you have an issue with the approach you try talking to your instructors to understand their methods before simply wandering off.

Unrelated to everything above, as a writer, you do want to work within your limits. Tumblr’s Ask system has a fixed number of characters you can use. If you’re running up against that limit, you probably want to start making decisions on what to cut, so you can get under that. There’s an irony here, formal education will ask you to pad your work, while almost any other situation rewards brevity.

I hope that addresses the issue you were asking about, but like I said, we never got the back end of this question.

-Starke

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Q&A: Never to Late to Start

I want to learn a martial art but I am 25. I feel like I’m too old to train my body for something new. I even tried to take figure skating classes a year ago and it was embarrassing and frustrating. Everyone who great at something seemed to learn when they were kids. I read books all day and do well with learning new intellectual things but struggle with learning new physical skills.

Twenty-five is not too young. I’ve seen people get their black belts in their eighties, I’ve seen cancer survivors get their black belts, one of my major training partners for my third degree black belt was a woman in her mid forties who’d survived a stroke and the other was a man in his late forties/early fifties. Dave went on to get his fourth degree, and is still a part-time instructor at our martial arts school to this day. He got into martial arts because of his kids, and stayed long after they quit because he loved it.

Believe it or not, most martial arts masters and instructors at most schools actually started in their late teens/early twenties. You get the rare ones who start when they’re five or twelve, but most of the ones who start as kids eventually quit. They lose interest, and go on to do something else.

You’re not going to get past the embarrassing and frustrating part if you’re embarrassed by struggling, nothing regarding physical activity is going to click quickly. Training your body to do something new takes time. Realistically, in a recreational martial arts school where you train three days a week for forty-five minutes to an hour a day, the techniques will start to click about three months after you start. That’s if you’re consistent with showing up to training, and if you try hard. At two years, the techniques are going to feel good and you’ll be limber enough/coordinated enough to start doing them well. Four years to six years in is when you usually test for your first black belt, so that’s when you actually start getting good.

However, it’s only embarrassing and frustrating if you let it be.

There’s a real reason why willpower and fortitude are the most admired traits in martial arts. You don’t give up in the face of adversity. Mostly, this is a learned skill. The vast majority of people who start give up within the first three months. They get frustrated and they get bored because they’re not progressing fast enough. Physical activity is the beast where the conditioning part feels miserable until you reach a point where your body clicks, you plateau, it gets easy, and then you start all over again. There are no short cuts, you just have to do it.

It’s important to remember that the stunt actors you see in the movies have made martial arts and martial arts choreography their careers. The people you see who started as kids have all been doing this for anywhere between five to fourteen years depending on how old they are now. You don’t get to see how they looked when they started out, which most of them will admit was pretty terrible in comparison to what you’re currently seeing.

You’ve got to give yourself permission to suck. Give yourself permission to say, “yeah, I’m doing okay.” Realize everyone you train with has been where you are, at the beginning, at the bottom of the mountain and intimidated by the climb. It’s going to take awhile for your body to catch up to what your mind imagines, and you probably won’t be able to do a high kick day one. Or day two, or by day three. It takes time for your body to build up coordination, to develop your balance, and work on your flexibility.

Be honest with yourself about what you really want from the martial art experience. There’s nothing to stop you at twenty-five from eventually competing on the martial arts circuit if that’s what you want, but if you just want to practice recreationally or get skills for self-defense then try not to beat yourself up for not being Jet Li.

Focus on the progress you are making, rather than what you’re not doing right. Try to have fun. Find a good, supportive community, most martial arts schools aren’t what people imagine. They’re family affairs with people who start from all different ages and are from different walks of life. They’re communal, rather than competitive. They’ll push you to find the best version of yourself, if you’re willing to put in the time.

Learning not to be immediately discouraged by something your not immediately good at is difficult. It may take a few tries to find a martial art and a school which fit you. I can’t promise the experience won’t be frustrating at times and occasionally embarrassing because it is, you’re going to fall down even when you’re really good. You’ll get sweaty, and gross, and your face will be a red mess, you’ll get out of breath, you can pull muscles, even break bones. There will be days when you want to quit, want to give up. However, there’s no better feeling that conquering your own body. No better feeling than conquering your fear. The sensation you get where everything just clicks into place, and just works is great. The point where it stops being hard and starts really feeling good? The fantastic thud of landing a powerful kick on the training pads? Those are the moments you live for.

Martial arts is a fun, rewarding experience. Martial arts is for everyone willing to put in the effort. There is no cut off, only the hurdles you build in your own mind and your own perceptions. Ultimately, life is what we make it. Training in martial arts, what you’ll eventually learn is, most of the time, the only thing stopping you is you.

So, don’t let fear, frustration, or embarrassment stop you from getting what you want. The only way to know is to start, stick with it, and not give up if studying your martial art is what you want to be doing. Also, study a martial art you’re actually interested in because that’s half the initial battle.

-Michi

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Q&A: Flashy Martial Arts

If melee is all about not exposing yourself and not using up all your stamina, why are eastern martial arts so flashy? Like, with spins and flips? Wouldn’t an enemy just tackle them or stab them while they’re jumping?

Most of the time, Eastern martial arts aren’t particularly flashy.

The big exceptions are things like Wushu, where it’s performance art. That’s not about getting into a fight and winning, it’s about putting on a show. The same thing is true on film; the fight is about presenting an appealing set of visuals.

Turns out, when you have performers who are in excellent physical condition, and you ask them to put on a show, they can do a pretty good job of it. It has no relation to reality, and becomes a genre convention.

Why would you ask someone to engage in acrobatics for your fight scene? Because it looks really cool.

A lot of Chinese Wushu practitioners have been training since childhood. This includes people like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. They’re fantastic entertainers. They’ve spent their entire lives dedicated to martial arts, and as a result, when asked to put on a show, the results are amazing.

Now, that’s a performance, not a fight. In live combat, movement is generally minimized, stamina is conserved, and, anyone who knows what they’re doing will aim to end the fight quickly. Most of the time, that means the flashy stuff stays at home.

There are exceptions, and there is a reason. Stuff like Taekwondo keeps some elements. Those flashy moves, where someone leaps into the air and drives a spin kick into your head will kill you.

That’s not a joke.

That’s not hyperbole.

When you get your entire body moving, driving a strike into someone’s head, if it connects properly, can kill.

It’s risky. I was going to say, “in a real fight,” but Michi tore her leg apart doing a tornado kick. This stuff is not easy, and can seriously harm the practitioner if anything goes wrong. However, it can end the fight on the spot.

Spin kicks, of any variety, are no joke. They drive a shocking amount of force into the target. Kicks in general, are fairly advanced. Even basic kicks require prior training, and the flashy stuff is not easy. However, they deliver a lot of force.

There seems to be a semi-common perception by people who’ve never trained or experienced violence, that people are far more mobile than they really are. If someone’s doing flips to get away from you, you’re not going to be able to simply walk over and shank them mid-bounce. If they’re flipping towards you, you’re going to have a hard time lining up a strike before they connect. Now, you’re exceedingly unlikely to see someone flipping around in an actual fight because, as you mentioned, that’s extremely taxing, but someone doing that isn’t as vulnerable as you might think.

There’s some other stuff that looks flashy if you don’t know what you’re doing, but is practical. Throws are a good example of this. They look flashy. You just grab your opponent and bounce them around the room. The truth is, most throws are pretty easy to execute. They don’t take much energy, and you’re often using your opponent’s momentum to carry the throw. These are also very effective as your attacker ends up on the ground. They won’t end a fight, but they can quickly shift the balance.

Weapon tricks can also look flashy, but are low energy. Things like reversing the grip on a knife can be casually done by an experienced fighter. It’ll look cool, but it’s trivial in the moment, with practical uses.

So, the short answer is, if you’re watching martial arts movies, you’re not seeing how violence actually works. You’re seeing a performance. Those performances aren’t intended to reflect the real world. They’re supposed to be high-energy, and visually engaging. It is art, but it’s not emulating life.

-Starke

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Q&A: Yes, Kicks are a Thing

My cousin is a fan of the character Archer from the series ‘Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works’. He was curious if Archer’s habit of kicking a foe away from him to gain distance in a close-combat fight with weapons is something belonging to a particular martial arts style. Do you know if this is the case? How reliable would that tactic be in real life? Seems to me that there’s a big chance of your opponent grabbing your leg, after all.

It’s not a specific martial art, because nearly every martial art has their own variation on this one. Martial arts have a concept called distance, or range, which governs the ranges one can fight at with different weapon types. This runs from swords to knives to kicks to hands and then to grappling, and after grappling we’re on the ground. Unless specifically attempted to alter, combat invariably moves inwards from your feet to your hands to grappling and then the ground. Now, this means you have specific techniques which can be used at specific ranges and once you get too close or too far away those techniques become significantly less useful.

So, if you’re a warrior like Archer who relies on specific ranges in order to be effective then what do you do? You’ve got to find a way to get your enemy back into the range you want, which is away from you. Now, under normal circumstances, one would most likely consider using their hands. This is what most non-combatants are going to gravitate towards, because kicks require training to be able to pull off in combat. They’re powerful, but they’re also high risk. However, Archer needs his legs. He dual wields his blades in close quarters, he can’t use his hands without sacrificing one or both of his blades. Those blades cost mana to resummon, over time this will become costly to his reserves and takes time. He won’t drop them unless the situation requires it. So, he falls back to a secondary option by utilizing his legs and feet for defense/control.

Hence that specific kick. In Taekwondo, we call it the push kick. It isn’t about damaging your opponent so much as pushing them back. This kick is specifically utilized in getting your opponent into the range you want them, i.e. the range where you are more effective. For Archer, this means getting a melee enemy away from him and back into a better range for his weapons.

Here’s the thing to understand about kicks:

Strike to strike they are incredibly powerful. Power comes from your body’s momentum. Momentum is gained by torque, or twisting your body and joints in order to gain power to strike. The whole body moves. For a punch, this means using your shoulders and hips together at the same moment with your arm in order to connect. Kicks involve one of your legs taking flight, they’re heavier, stronger, faster, and utilize greater rotation than you will ever get off your hands and arms. They are a martial arts mainstay for this reason, even in the disciplines where they are not the specialty. If you ever wind up facing someone with a kicking specialty that knows how to properly utilize their legs, watch out.

You can catch a kick, you can block a kick, and they are riskier because they require more motion which is easier to see coming. If your opponent manages to capture your leg, then the fight is over for all intents in purposes. For this reason, a kick is often part of a finisher or at the end of a combination. They distract your attention with other techniques, and then the kick comes. Blocking a kick is also risky, not just because their powerful but catching a kick requires you be able to preempt it and catch it before  the leg enters extension. This means you have to stop the kick while its still in chamber stage, and you need to guess that they’ll be committing to risky business or else you just lost your defense to a feint. Blocking a kick rather than dodging a kick requires you move your hands or a leg to stop the kick. A push kick cranks all the way into the chest before it extends and acts as a shove outward, which means it can be done in tight confines like when in the hand range where most of the general kicks (in disciplines other than Muay Thai) become useless. You can also grab your opponent at that distance and crank your leg right into their stomach/chest. They can’t go anywhere and they’re forced to take the full blow rather than absorbing some into the stumble/fall. Take a roundhouse to your forearm and you’ll walk around with a bruise the size of your forearm for several weeks, at least. Time your block wrong, and that can easily translate into broken bones.

It’s easy to discount kicks if you’ve never seen them in action, and most self-defense experts will say you shouldn’t use them. This is because they take longer to master, are more dangerous, and have greater requirements in overall flexibility in order to be used effectively. You can’t effectively learn the sidekick in a two week crash course. However, the kicks are a defined pillar in the four pillars of martial arts. (Fists, Feet, Ground Fighting, Standing Grappling/Joint Locks.) Sometimes, it can be broken into five. If kicks were totally useless, or too risky, they wouldn’t exist as a focus.

  Kicks are powerful enough as techniques to be worth the risk.

For writers, especially writers without a martial arts background, this is going to be difficult. You’re not used to thinking with your feet, or utilizing the wide array of options which come with footwork and kicks. The key to understanding the utility of kicks lies in the if,  if they can catch your leg. If they can stop you. If they see it coming. If you miss.  But, what if you don’t?

The reward you gain in success runs about equal to the chance of failure. These techniques are high risk, high reward.

Now, envisioning this is going to be where most writers will run into problems. Hands are easy, you can wrap your mind around them as a basic concept. The strengths and weaknesses of the leg are similar, but its too easy to start seeing catching a leg coming at you full speed to be easy as catching a hand.

It isn’t.

A foot buried in your stomach in full extension is much more dangerous than a sucker punch, even if you tense your abdominal muscles a large portion of that force is going to go right through you. The timing risks are higher in failure with a leg than they are with the hands.

Archer is essentially performing a sucker punch with his leg on an incoming enemy, and then he’s saying, “get away from me.” He does this without ever having to lose hold of or sacrifice his weapons in a situation where he very well might have to. This is why warriors carry somewhere around two to four weapons on their person at all times. Total specialization in archery makes you next to useless when knocked into sword range, short sword range, or knife range. If you’re in a situation where someone else can hit you, they’re too close and you’ve ceded your advantage. You want to not be there anymore, or you want them to not be there anymore. Either way, you need the ability to either switch to a different weapon, or force them to be somewhere else. This kick is the definition of, “be somewhere else.” It creates the needed opportunity to move someone from standing grappling to kick range. Which is why lots of martial arts actually do use some variation of it or keep it in their back pocket as part of a larger tactical approach.

The one thing I can give the Fate/Stay Night anime series is that they excel at showing ranges for weapons and incorporating them into the different character’s combat styles. I mean, it is very Japanese, but studying up on Lancer versus Archer versus Berserker versus Saber is not a bad place to start if you’re looking to grasp how different weapon types can function when dialed to eleven. The characters do utilize strategies and tactics when fighting each other, which is nice. They’re usually, loosely, working off some real world combat concepts in the way the weaponry pairs off. The series is pretty good about balancing out the strengths and weaknesses against each other to create tension in the fights. Saber having trouble closing on Lancer is a real problem someone with a sword will face against a spear. I mean, the setting is war games with heroes from history in a battle royal martial arts competition.

-Michi

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Q&A: Distinctive Martial Arts

Hi, i’m giving my MC a dinstictive combat style. Is there any inherent advantage/drawback in a fighting style focusing on elbow/knee strikes over just punching and kicking?

I’m going to say something, and it’s going to sound very mean, but the problem with authors trying to make their own distinctive martial arts is often they don’t know anything about martial arts or the process in how martial arts are developed.

As an example, this is basically like saying Kenshin’s Hiten Mitsurugi style is special because he uses a katana, not the way he uses a katana and the specific approach he chooses to take to combat. In the course of the manga, he would also never fight another character using a katana during the Revolution even though they were common. That’s basically what the elbows and knees suggestion sounds like.

If that seems a bit silly to you, it should, because it is. This is a beginner problem. If you don’t understand the basics, you’re not going to be able to advocate for anything unique or different.

(For reference: Kenshin using a reverse blade wasn’t just because he wanted to avoid killing. The Hiten-Mitsurugi style was based on the fundamentals used in Iaido, and specialized in the fast draw for the katana which is a very fragile weapon. The blunt blade hindered the speed at which he could draw his blade, reducing both its power on the attack and the speed at which it struck. He essentially gave himself a personal handicap. The reverse blade is an iaito or a practice blade.)

When you’re setting out to create a martial art for your character, it’s a very good idea to go read up on a lot of different martial arts and specifically the autobiographies written by martial arts masters. Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings is  one of the quintessential recommendations for martial artists, but Sun Tzu’s Art of War, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee, Small Circle Jujitsu by Wally Jay, Kadokan Judo: The Essential Guide to Judo by Its Founder Jigoro Kano by Jigoro Kano, and many others are an excellent place to start.

Reading these books will give you insight into the minds of martial arts masters and their explanations of what they noticed was missing in the martial arts world around them, and how they developed their martial art. They’ll also help you better grasp the concept of techniques and what makes those techniques distinctive or unique. The major flaw most authors in the written medium have in giving their character a “distinctive” martial art comes straight out of an important trope in Shounen anime. When one character has a special/unique martial art… so does everyone else of any importance. This is true to life, everyone is developing their own unique takes on their martial art, modifying those skills to what works best for them, and moving forward. Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, Bleach, and most major martial arts based manga will showcase this with both the heroes and the villains, ultimately making their setting stronger as a result. The idea never occurs to just one person, the difference is in what they do with it.

Everyone uses elbows and knees, and no one does “just punching and kicking” unless those elbows and knees are banned like in some competitive sports. You need your elbows and knees, they’re primarily functional at distances where you can’t generate force for a punch like when you’ve been grabbed or you’re standing nose to nose with someone else. However, if your character over focuses on elbows and knees they’ll be at a distinct disadvantage always against the punchers and (especially) the ones who kick. They’ll have difficulty creating the openings they need to bring the knees and elbows into play. Which is done through… yes, punches and kicks.

Knees and elbows are one of the most obvious, easiest, and effective defensive tactics for someone who knows nothing. They are also among the easiest to block. For reference, the idea that other characters in your setting wouldn’t come up with the idea of using their elbows and knees puts the concept in the range of “my character invented menstruation.” (Which yes, did happen in a rather infamous book series.)

Like everything else, elbows and knees are distance based strikes and actually less powerful than their fist and foot counterparts. You’re only using half the leg or arm to generate force. What makes them strong is the soft parts of the body they aim for, rather than them as techniques themselves.

You can figure out how close you need to be in order to use an elbow by making an elbow. Hold your hand out before your face with your arm completely stretched out and then bend it into an elbow. That’s how close your opponent will be to you.

Here’s the easy breakdown on martial styles.

1) Every martial arts style is actually distinctive. They’re all unique.

I know it sounds like “everyone’s unique in their own special ways” but this is true. The only way you’re going to develop really distinctive martial arts for your setting is to start fanboying or girling over every single prominent practitioner like you get out of a Japanese shounen anime like Rurouni Kenshin. There’s a reason for this, and that reason is: every martial art style is unique, and every person who practices a martial art has a unique and individual style. Everyone’s body is just a little bit different. Everyone will have techniques that appeal to them more than others. Those differences can lead to some massive changes, including the evolution of new martial arts.

The Japanese are a little weird, but the full celebrating of characters with these highly specialized techniques is somewhat close to real life. They just hyper-focus on single action, which is cultural. (It also cuts down work for the artist and animators.) However, to understand the importance of Kenshin’s draw or Saito’s, you’d need to understand iajutsu/iado, kenjutsu/kendo. The answer for the katana is that it’s an exceedingly fragile weapon, so you need to win on one strike.

2) What makes a martial art distinct is combat philosophy and the way techniques are used/modified.

Often, you’re looking at minute differences in chambers or footwork or turnover to divide one martial art’s technique from another. The difference in how these techniques get used, how they’re combined into combinations, or the parts of the body they target.

The trick to understanding what makes Muay Thai special isn’t the fact it’s hyper aggressive. It is, but only for sport martial arts. The unique aspect of Muay Thai is in its ability to utilize it’s powerful kicks within hand striking distance without losing speed or power. This is what primarily makes the martial art distinct from other kickboxing martial arts. However, that doesn’t mean these other martial arts like savate don’t come with their own advantages.

Krav Maga’s distinct technique is called “bursting” which is when you strike with two hands instead of one. The drawback being, of course, that you give up all defense. This fits Krav Maga and Israel’s hyper-aggressive military combat doctrine. However, Krav Maga isn’t the only martial art to strike with two hands simultaneously.

3) The environment and enemy are what make us special.

Martial arts aren’t developed in isolation, they’re developed via consistent challenge and like any weapon are meant to deal with very specific threats within an environment.

Karate being the martial art of preemptive interruption doesn’t sound all that impressive in a modern sense, until you remember it was developed in large part to deal with the Samurai. The defensive blocks of karate can preemptively halt a samurai from drawing his katana via wrist to wrist. If you can’t get to your weapon then you can’t fight, then you followup with a strike. Not unlike grabbing the wrist of someone about to draw their pistol and shoving down.

Krav Maga’s bursting is usually what comes to mind first about Krav Maga being distinct, but another major part of what makes Krav Maga unique is the way its techniques have been adapted from other martial arts to suit fighting in tight urban environments like a marketplace in Jerusalem. The chambers on all Krav Maga techniques are compressed, allowing a practitioner to use techniques like the sidekick in very tight urban quarters which you’d normally need more space for.

Or Sambo’s combination where they grab an incoming fist and then perform the sidekick. Ensuring the enemy has nowhere to go, and takes the full force of the blow. (This isn’t unique to the Russians either.)

This is about adaptation. Techniques are developed to deal with something, to create some advantage over their enemy, and to exploit an opening in general combat. How a martial art uses their elbows or develops those techniques in conjunction with others in the repertoire might make it distinctive whereas just using elbows will make it like everyone else. I do mean everyone too.

Intent, need, and environment are what creates distinct individual approaches. A martial art developed on the docks of France is going to be different than one created in the jungles of the Philippines. A martial art developed for military use is going to be different than one created for law enforcement, self-defense, or spiritual enlightenment.

However, if you don’t understand any of the above, you’ll find yourself running face first into a wall. As a beginner, you will invariably come up with ideas that sound unique to you but silly to anyone who understands the subject.  This is part of being a beginner, and its a drawback you won’t be able to escape without putting your nose to the grindstone.

4) Approach mingles with character and this is Important.

Another martial art that makes heavy use of elbows and knees is Judo. This is because elbows and knees work best in tight quarters and at close range, but what Judo uses their elbows for differs from Muay Thai. Again, how one uses a body part is the distinctive aspect rather than using them at all. However, what these martial arts share is their close quarters approach to violence or, in the case of Judo, the ground fighting which is what lends them to making heavy use of their elbows both as attacks and as joint breaks.

How your character fights is an important representation of their personality because this is how they’ve decided to solve their problem with violence. There are an array of options, but this is their preference. In this case, you’ve got a character who likes to fight up close and personal. They’re going to be specializing in either boxing, throws, ground-fighting, or a combination of the above. They’re visceral, and are probably pretty free with the headbutts.

There’s no separation between the martial art and the character except in how they use it, and with a distinctive martial art you’re beholden to the combat approach because this is the direction the character has purposefully developed for themselves.

5) Every style comes with its drawbacks.

No martial style is invincible, every approach has its drawbacks. Like I said earlier, the draw back of the elbow is you must be very close to use it and for all its power it is exceedingly limited in use. The same goes for the knee, even the flying knee. Both can be blocked, and blocked fairly easily if the opponent sees them coming. Outside a surprise attack (like being grabbed from behind and driving the elbow into the stomach), both rely on strong setups from the martial artist utilizing other techniques.

A character who specializes at fighting in close quarters means they must get into close quarters, which is easier said than done and much harder against another martial artist who specializes in keeping their opponents at specific ranges.

6) You need to be more than a one hit wonder.

Martial arts are collections of techniques which work together in order to achieve specific goals.

7) Learn How Things Work before you start breaking them.

The biggest mistake a writer can make is trying to skip the end before they’ve got their feet on the ground for the beginning. If you don’t know how something works then do research to learn, there are a lot of materials easily available including fictional where they got it right.

A great example of magical martial arts setting building is still, in my opinion, Naruto. (Yu Yu Hakusho is a great example of how to tie your character’s emotional development to their combat progression.) Naruto goes out of its way early to explain how the setting rules function in terms of the Jutsu by breaking them into three categories so the audience better understands specialties, by locking down the hand signs used for casting to differentiate those techniques from the special kekkai genkai, and explaining the use of energy. Sometimes, Naruto can be exposition heavy but it is very clear on its rules even when it proceeds to break them.

You’ll notice like with all great shounen anime the breakdown covers where the inspiration for the technique came from, its background, history, why it got made, and what it is used for. Heroes often use a set collection of techniques that they build off of their special one in new ways for new situations. Spirit gun, spirit palm, and spirit bomb are all slightly different versions of the same technique. Your character being able to summon one skeleton and working their way up to three skeletons is both a progression and possibly the creation of a new technique.

Another good example is the lightsaber forms from Star Wars, they’re silly in some cases, but they’ll point out the specific uses for the form and what it is known for. The lightsaber form focused on the deflection of foreign projectiles is different from the one that’s highly acrobatic and aggressive.

This will help you in understanding what “distinct” means in terms of martial arts when you’re ready to go back to your character’s own style, and ultimately aid you in creating one that truly is distinct without seeming silly.

8) Focus on World Building first.

It can be tempting to figure out how your character is special and different when you first start out, but unless you know how combat works within your setting it will end poorly. You’ve got to figure out the general rules first, then accept other major characters will have specialties too, and if your character’s fighting style is well known enough to be recognized then it must be for a reason. By hammering out your setting, the environment, and the dangers, you’ll have an easier to time figuring out how combat works within it.

While violence is often active, it is primarily reactive and reliant on the world it exists in. Your character is using violence to solve their problems, this means figuring out what the problem is, how they got there, and the systems others before them used.

Going over the works of martial arts masters will help you in understanding what the general expectations are for martial artists, which will also help you write the general combat in your setting better.

Start at the beginning and work your way up.

-Michi

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Q&A: Tenth Degree Black Belt Takes Awhile

not sure if this is the right blog to ask this question but its the closest one that i know of, i have a character who started doing Karate at the minimum age (Age 6 from what i see) and so i want to know what is the minimum realistic age for him to become a first degree all the way through tenth degree black belt?

Assuming we work from the commercial martial arts school metric (which is the quickest), it’ll be around 45 years. A black belt past a certain rank (anywhere between two and five) will need to start journeying Japan on a semi-regular basis in order to be tested for their next belt ranks. And if they’re not, their master is the one who is making the pilgrimage. That also assumes the belt testing for the higher echelons is handed by one master, which it may not be. It something like eight official karate strands recognized by the World Karate Federation, and more unofficial. So, your character doesn’t just know karate.

That assumes the school goes to ten.

That assumes this is the belt system used by the school. (The classic martial arts legend is that in the old days, you trained so long that your belt turned black and that was when you achieved mastery.)

Assuming they allow any underage student to test for black belt. (Some schools don’t. If not, minimum age for a tenth degree is 63.)

Assuming they don’t have specific time constraints on your belt progression that has nothing to do with curriculum and everything to do with X amount of time spent in the school before they’ll consider it.

Your martial arts master is the one who decides when you get to test. If they say you’re not ready then you’re not testing. It is possible to fail the belt rank test, at any level. Commercial martial arts schools hold rank tests at specific intervals, usually spaced two to four months apart depending on belt rank level. You’ve got to be ready when the time comes, or you’ll have to wait until the next round. The Ernie Reyes school held black belt tests twice per year, but they were a large organization with over a hundred testing participants. In smaller organizations, it may happen less often. Usually, there’s a pretest before they allow you to test for your black belt. You can fail the pretest, and they reserve the right to fail you out of training prior to the test at any time.

Forty-five years training is a generous estimate. You’re not likely to hit tenth degree until you are eighty years old. Achieving mastery is a lifelong process. This is better than the traditional Chinese method for establishing a new martial art, which was go around and beat all the other masters in duels.

Trust me, having your ass handed to you by a sixty year old man is not a fun experience. It.. will also happen. Tradition in martial arts is you get tested in combat, to go up in rank you defeat those at rank, to become a master you defeat yours. “Now, I am the Master” is not just a trope, it’s tradition. (Not today, obviously. It used to be, in some cases.)

You’d reach the point around second or third degree in the higher ranks (and depending on style proliferation) where you’d be making the trip to Japan in order to be trained and tested by the school’s Grandmaster. A high ranking black belt would need to be at least partially fluent or speak passable Japanese, even if they could not read it. This is true for most Japanese martial arts, and for other martial arts too.

In the Ernie Reyes Organization, there is a monetary cost to testing. That metric rises by around a hundred dollars per black belt stripe. Fourth degree test costs around 400-500 dollars. Again, this is assuming a commercial martial arts school, not a school that is specifically training for active combat. If the school is training you for active combat, it’ll all take a lot longer.

In modern era combat, karate does not work unless it is modified. I got that from a Shotokan master who was also a Police Officer, and tested for his last black belt rank in Japan. (Third or Fourth degree.) He knew what he was talking about, and he was in his late thirties.

I was a third degree in Taekwondo by the time I was eighteen, but that’s out of a commercial system and that’s actually unusual. When looking at third degree tests, usually, they’re in their early to mid twenties.

In a traditional school, you can usually age your black belt rank per decade. First degree in the tens, second in the twenties, third in thirties, fourth in the forties, etc. 35-40 is the lowest age for a martial arts master, younger than that they’re usually technically good but not spiritually good and the spiritual component is what’s necessary.

Realistically, your character will never see tenth degree. When we talk tenth degree black belt in a martial arts system, that’s a number you can count on one hand and they may not exist at all. I’ve trained with seventh degree black belts and order grand masters in hosted seminars, but I’ve never seen a tenth degree.

The upper echelons past around rank five are spiritual journeys rather than technical or acquired skills, and this is especially true of tenth degree. You’ll get there when you get there, if you get there at all. That also assumes commercial approach rather than traditional, because traditional means you’re lucky if you see black belt at all. Ever. My shotokan master, one of his adult brown belts had been in training for about seven years, and his green belt training for five. Under this system, it could easily take ten years to reach black belt and you wouldn’t see a black belt testing under eighteen. (Not just danger, also maturity.)

The more sacred the belt ranks are in the system, the longer time it will take to reach and the harder it will be to reach them. However, those are the systems where the rank means something.

I’ll tell you right now, most martial artists at twelve who hold the rank of black belt aren’t actually worth anything on a technical level. (I say that having been a thirteen year old black belt.) The belt rank means something else in the commercial system. A child who got their black belt at twelve will be great by the time they’re twenty if they keep training, but they aren’t right now.

The amount of time necessary with traditional martial arts for rank progression is pretty much the reason why martial artists have the reputation for being godlike. The problem martial arts have in the modern era is they still have their place but combat moves too quickly for that kind of specialization. The counters are being developed while your character is training, so a hard counter will exist when they’re ready to put their skills into practice. However, many professionals train in martial arts because of the health and mental benefits and the flexibility the additions or alternative skill sets provide.

Traditional martial arts is not fair, it is not quick, and it takes decades of work. Commercial martial arts is/can be quick, but it’s balancing the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with money. That is survival, and martial arts schools cannot or will have great difficulty surviving in the US without the commercial/business side. Usually, the first two black belt ranks get sacrificed to the commercial because kids are where most commercial martial arts schools make their money. That first black belt test is all important to the school, to the kid, and their parents. It’s an achievement, it’s a journey, and it looks great on a college application. It is real, but it means something else than what it would mean in a traditional system to someone who trained for ten years. Five years is much more reasonable/palatable to a parent and a child than ten. (That’s a long time, you’ll still have something like a 60% drop off between the kids who come for a few months to those who stay.) I know, that information kills the mystique some.

Understand, that every black belt earned their rank by the metric set for them. The question is do others agree, and the answer is usually no when we’re discussing more stringent systems. A lot of really popular martial arts will have that accusation leveled against them by others, and a lot of popular schools will as well. That their business model produces inferior students. Whether that is true or not is a matter of opinion and the opinions are diverse. I suggest carrying that knowledge with you into your fiction.

If you can’t tell me or anyone in your book which version of Karate they are practicing, then that’s where you should start working. Karate also gets used in the US as a catchall term for martial arts, just FYI.

-Michi

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Q&A: Drunken Punchin’

Does drunken fighting have any basis in reality?

I don’t think this is the question you’re asking, but, yeah, bar fights are a thing. People will do all kinds of stupid things while boozed up, as any bouncer or bartender can tell you.

I seriously encourage you look for work stories from bartenders and/or bouncers. They make for some very amusing reading, and can be very useful inspiration when you’re writing someone who’s been killing their brain cells for the past four hours.

Drunken patrons are mostly harmless. Most of them haven’t been in a fight since high school, and don’t know what they’re doing sober, to say nothing of when they’re unable to walk in a straight line. Mostly.

There are plenty of unfortunate accidents, or fluke occurrences, where a bar fight turns fatal. They’re the exception rather than the rule. But it is there.

There’s also plenty of unfortunate incidents where someone tried to run down the person who pissed them off, when they’re staggering out of the bar, or someone pulled a knife or gun.

But, I don’t think that’s what you wanted to hear about.

There are (at least) a couple Chinese martial arts variants that imitate drunken movements into their combat style. One is Drunken Monkey Style, which is, unsurprisingly, a variant of Monkey Style Kung Fu. The second is Drunken Fist, which is a variant of Shaolin. There’s also a Wushu Drunken Form, which is what you may have seen Jackie Chan practice on film. (At least, I think that’s the variant he’s using.) There may be others I’m unaware of.

The important thing to remember is that the practitioner behaves as if they are drunk, they don’t actually get wasted. In both cases, the martial artist uses exaggerated and relaxed movements to mask their movements, and make it more difficult for their opponent to read their body and react. There may be other benefits involving resisting restraint holds and taking hits, but I’m not an expert on these styles, so I’m not 100% certain what the full implications are.

There are real applications here when dealing with a trained opponent. There are also practical reasons you might want a foe to think you’re drunk until it’s too late to respond. Which goes beyond the scope of these martial arts.

So, if you’re asking, “is there a school of Kung Fu where you get drunk, and fight people?” No. There isn’t. However, there are multiple Chinese styles where you pretend to be drunk to confuse and distract your opponent; as tactics go, it’s not a bad one.

-Starke

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We’ve had questions about machete combat in the past, so I thought you might find it interesting to see a documentary on the Haitian martial art:
Tire Machèt

and its master Papa Machete. The style is (for the most part) unknown outside of Haiti and it is tied to their cultural traditions.

For more information on this little known Haitian fencing, check out their website.

What are some hurdles a person who has practiced taekwondo, fencing and aikido might have to jump when thrown into a real life or death fight? What will happen when they get much better at escalating quickly (almost too quickly) and they’re thrown into a situation where that’s the opposite of what they need to do?

By, “the opposite of what they need to do,” you mean, not
escalate the situation, or specifically work to try to limit the harm being
inflicted. You know, like an Aikido practitioner?

I know we’ve said this before, but; martial arts are not interchangeable.
They’re not just alternate move sets, or aesthetic considerations. Every
martial art, every one, brings its
own philosophies and outlooks into play. When those philosophies overlap, you
might have options to start mixing them together, or lifting elements from one
for the other. Aikido and Taekwondo don’t really have much of anything to talk
about.

Aikido is a martial art of pacifism. It works well for self defense
because the entire idea is, you stand at the center, plant your feet, and send
anyone who attacks you to the floor, so they can think about all of the mistakes
they just made.

As I said at the beginning, Aikido doesn’t escalate, at
least not on its own. This is a martial art that focuses on ending conflicts
with as little harm done as humanly possible. People will get hurt, that’s an inevitability,
but, this is a martial art that is heavily focused on avoiding escalation.

If you want to start mixing it with something else, there
are other martial arts that have common ground. Jujitsu and Judo both have some
of the same philosophical underpinnings, they’re just pretty sure that plopping
someone on the ground isn’t enough to get the message across, that sometimes
you’re going to want to get down there and make your point in person.

There are even aggressive martial arts that you can
(probably) mix Aikido with fairly effectively, including Muay Thai or Krav
Maga. Martial arts that say, “I want to get really close to someone and turn
them into goulash.” They do have common ground on the ranges that they think
combat should be taking place at.

Taekwondo doesn’t. It’s a very active martial art. It wants
to go places and kick people in the head. As a practical martial style it
shares almost nothing with Aikido. Where Aikido wants its foes close enough to
reach out and touch, Taekwondo is all about forcing your foes away, and keeping
them off balance while you drive your foot through any internal organs they
were using.

Taekwondo exists as a practical martial art, but you’re
going to be hard pressed to find that variant outside of Korea. If your
character served in the South Korean military, worked for the police or as a
bodyguard there, then it’s possible they learned this.

Taekwondo traditionally pairs with Hapkido. I don’t know
much about the martial art itself, beyond that it has a focus on joint locks.
But, these are designed to work together, and against one another, so a
practitioner in one would probably also learn the other.

Ironically, Taekwondo can also find common ground with
martial arts like Muay Thai or Krav Maga. These are all martial arts that enjoy
moving around a lot and messing people up. Where Taekwondo excels at doing this
at range, Muay Thai or Krav Maga offer options to do this up close.

Now, if you’re sitting there and wondering why I just listed
the same two martial arts as compatible to both of the ones you picked, that’s
because they have common ground with one another, the two you picked, really
kind of don’t. It’s not that martial artists never learn conflicting styles.
That does happen. But the benefit you gain from that isn’t being able to blend
them together into a single style, it’s being able to switch up your approach
to fit the situation you’re in. And, yes, escalation control is an element of your martial art.

A character who’s been trained in Aikido and (practical)
Taekwondo, would be in a very good position to work as a bodyguard. Taekwondo
allows for rapid vicious responses when called for, and Aikido allows for them
to deal with attackers in public situations where you really wouldn’t want a
bodyguard tearing apart an overly eager fan.

I’m just going to toss this one out, but fencing really
doesn’t add much to this situation. It will help with physical conditioning,
but then again they’d already be getting that from Taekwondo and Aikido.

So, if your character’s been training in Aikido, either
recreationally or practically, they shouldn’t be having issues with escalation.
Remember, escalation is where you increase the amount of force you use to a
point where combat ceases to be an appealing option for your opponent. The
entire concept is anathema to Aikido, which seeks to end combat with as little
violence as possible.

Also, there’s a side nitpick, it’s not really possible to
escalate too quickly. The issue is escalating too far. Again, the idea is that
you demonstrate a degree of violence your opponent isn’t psychologically ready
to handle, forcing them to back down.

Escalating too slowly can give them time to come to terms
with what you’re doing, but the only problem with escalating too quickly is
that you’ll use excessive force. For example, grabbing someone by the skull and
gouging out their eyes would (almost certainly) convince their friends or
allies to back down, but if the situation doesn’t warrant that kind of force,
it’s excessive, you’ve escalated too far, and there will be consequences. These
can be the obvious legal issues associated with extreme violence, or it can
provoke responses in opponents where, instead of backing down, they’ll be more
willing to retaliate in kind. For example, pulling a gun on someone’s friend
might get them to back down, where killing their friend will drive them to come
after you, where they wouldn’t have with less escalation.

The problems faced by a character who escalates too far is, that
they’ll make far more enemies, which will eventually catch up with them. This
is part of why escalation is such a tricky concept. It’s requires a substantial
amount of finesse to pull off effectively.

Escalation is also something that is seriously frowned on by
most of the recreational martial arts community. Unnecessary, and excessive
violence is a serious liability issue for the school, particularly if their
students are children (and, honestly, that’s pretty common.) A large part of
this is because of the exact problem you’re describing. The actual difficulty
is about going too far. It’s not hard to go way too far in an instant, that
happens all the time. But, unless your character is operating with some kind of
“above-the-law” protections, going too far once is a good way to end up
spending the next 25 years in a small cell.

-Starke

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I have a character (in a typical swords-and-sorcery world ala Middle Earth) who decides to fix metal ridges to the bottom of her boots that doubles as better traction and making it hirt more and deal more damage if she needs to kick in a fight. Is this realistic, or would it be too heavy to fight in?

I’m going to be that pedantic asshole here for a second and remind you that Middle Earth is High Fantasy, and if we’re going with Lord of the Rings then it’s Epic Fantasy. “Sword and Sorcery” is actually a different sub-genre of fantasy established (mainly) by Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard. The famous narratives surround the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Conan the Barbarian.

You will probably break your brain trying to figure out all the fantasy subcategories from dark fantasy, to low fantasy, to gaslamp, but the distinction here is important. “Sword and Sorcery” is a sub-genre is a set up where the fantasy focuses on the personal costs to the characters rather than a sweeping epic. It’s generally populated with anti-heroes, but if you’re writing a story that involves a small group of friends on an adventure and they are focused on personal growth over epic battles then you’ve got Swords and Sorcery.

However, if you don’t understand your genre then you eventually end up in this situation: Dragon Age (epic fantasy) versus Dragon Age 2 (sword and sorcery).

If you want my advice though, I’d say you pull a Tolkien and start researching medieval combat. Too many authors attempt to come up with “clever”, more “modern“ solutions in order to give their characters an edge that people in the middle ages either actually solved or just weren’t applicable.

In this case, it’s probably both and definitely the latter. Steel ridges on the bottom of the boot aren’t going to add anything to the foot’s stopping power. The reason for this is that stiffening up the sole in a boot or shoe that you intend to use for kicking is a bad idea.

When you’re looking at application of force via a punch or a kick, you learn quickly that the body position and posture ensure that the force is distributed over a small area rather than a large one.

In simple terms = the smaller the area, the more penetrating force you get.

For example, the reason why a boxer’s fracture occurs in the fore and index finger on the hand is because that’s where the connecting force is being applied. The rest of the hand is reinforcing those two fingers. Ultimately, a similar principle applies with the foot.

The whole bottom of the foot isn’t used for kicking, except in a very few circumstances (like the push kick, which does exactly what it’s defined as). Kicks use the blade of the foot (the outside edge), the ball of the foot, and the heel. Sometimes, the top of the foot is used. When you use the whole of the foot to kick i.e. spreading the force across a wider surface, you get the push kick rather than the front kick. The push kick is a defensive kick, used for maintaining distance. You bury your foot into the other person’s gut and shove, like a literal push. You use your foot to push your opponent away from you. (This is the point where some of you may be realizing that martial techniques are often given literal names that correspond directly to their purpose, which will help you in the future when figuring out what X technique does. Case in point = triangle choke (arm forms a triangle and chokes) and the arm bar (opponent’s arm is extended to form a literal bar).)

The front kick  = leg kicks toward the front (point of impact: ball of the foot)

The side kick = turn sideways in order to kick (point of impact: blade of the foot or heel, depending on type)

The roundhouse = the leg comes across the body, literally swings around to kick. (point of impact: either ball or top of the foot depending on type of kick used.)

The back kick/spinning sidekick = your back faces your opponent when you kick. (Point of impact: Heel.)

The hook kick = leg’s chamber forms a hook as it kicks. (Point of impact: Heel)

The spinning hook kick/wheel kick = you spin and perform a hook kick. (Point of impact: Heel)

The axe kick = leg lifts and drives the heel on a sharp downward angle like an axe. (Point of impact: Heel.)

The shin kick = instead of connecting with the foot, this Muay Thai kick connects with the shin. (Point of impact: Shin.)

The mule kick = you know how mules and horses kick with their hind legs? Yeah, it looks like that. (Point of impact: heel.)

The push kick = A defensive kick which pushes an opponent away from you to create distance.  (Point of impact: the entire underside of the foot.)

When you see someone breaking down a door with their foot in the movies, they are, usually, using a push kick.

If you’re wearing boots that don’t allow for much articulation of the ankle or bending in the foot then your character isn’t going to do much kicking. Kicks are easiest to do with no shoes on, then in sneakers. There’s a lot of bendy, rotational, mechanical detail that goes on with kicks like the side kick or the roundhouse. Add in that kicks are risky business, going up on one leg is sacrificing a lot for attack, and their use in most modern combat is confined almost entirely to the mid/lower body.

With the way kicks function, there’s no point to affixing steel to the bottom of the boot. It won’t matter if they’re fighting someone unarmored and if they’re armored then they’re best bet will be going after the joints left exposed in the armor for articulation like the knee. You wear steel on the top of the foot to protect the foot and the toes, and on the shin.

If you don’t plan on having her kick as a major part of her fighting style, then I suggest going with a medieval variant of the steel toed boots. The boot will be too heavy for fancy kicking, but you get to upgrade kicking someone in the shin from “OH GOD WHY” to “OH GOD YOU BROKE IT!”

Something similar to the sabaton.

I’ll be honest, cool as they are, kicks aren’t the easiest to pull off especially in a combat situation. Most fighters, especially when going up against enemies in armor, will avoid them entirely. Unless you’re doing a lot stretching and remaining loose, getting practice in, they’re very difficult to do cold. Do to the necessity of going up on one leg, kicks end up in the category of risky business.

Also, unless you’re building your setting on “Rule of Cool”, avoid the spin kicks. While devastating when they connect, the average combatant isn’t going to want to risk taking their eyes off their opponent for any length of time. They also aren’t going to want to expose their back to the enemy.

You need your spine and your kidneys.

The back kick and its brother the mule kick will get the most mileage off an enemy coming in from behind you. However, take care of the opponent in front of you first. Otherwise, it’ll put them in the perfect position to grab your head with all the other openings provided to pick from.

The other thing that’s important to remember about kicks is that due to their risky business (very big motion, up on one leg, total commitment), you gotta be fast. Wearing heavy footwear will impede the speed, which ultimately both lessens the power of the kick and makes it easier to avoid/block/counter.

The one thing you don’t want is to throw your leg out there only to have the other person catch it and then break your knee. Or, you know, drag you around the field until you fall down.

No, really, it happens. If you ever want to know about the horrors that can be committed on a captured leg, check out Hapkido.

TLDR: Just give them some normal protection for their feet.

Please.

While the most risky, kicks are the most powerful of the hand to hand techniques. They don’t need help to make them more effective against unarmored opponents. They crush organs and break bones just fine all by themselves.

Your bones, even, if you screw up. (Hello, Sixth Grade.)

If they are facing enemies in armor then take weapons.

-Michi

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