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3 Truths about Forms

In a follow up to my last post about forms practice in Martial arts, I wanted to go over 3 truths of forms to balance out the myths from last time. In that piece we talked about how forms are not fighting and that any skill or lack of skill in fighting must be built by actually fighting. Forms serve as a exercise to help train and prepare the body for the act of fighting not as a blue print for what to do in a conflict. 

So what are forms good for? If they don’t teach fighting per se, why even practice them? Wouldn’t this make them completely useless for fight training and therefore should be tossed out (as per Bruce Lee’s admonishment to remove the useless). There are plenty of fighters who are very good yet, never do forms. And there are many who do forms but can’t fight. This make forms no more than a dance, right? 

A little from column A and a little from column B. To be a good MMA fighter or boxer or wrestler or any other combat sport athlete, you do not necessarily need forms practice to excel at the sport. However, boxers, wrestlers and other athletes from these types of sport have often been encouraged to take ballet or dance to help their skills in the ring. Certainly literal dance isn’t a martial art? No, of course not. But dance requires a number of physical attributes that are very helpful to the combat sport athlete and trains them specifically to increase these skills. 

Now imagine a dance that was intended to be used by boxers to help with patterns and modes of performance for the fight? That is where martial art forms come in. They are literally the dance that is focused on fight training.

Here are the 3 biggest benefits from practicing forms: 

Cardiovascular training

Fighting is hard. Very hard and very strenuous. And every fighter know the old adage “He who ‘gasses’ first looses”. ‘Gassing’ is running out of breath and reaching the limit of your cardio endurance. The extreme stress and effort that one puts forth in fighting put an enormous strain on the cardiovascular system. This can cause dizziness, reduced strength, and unconsciousness. There are in fact many strategies that Martin parts devise to “steal the breath” from your opponent. Cardio is an incredibly important part to being able to fight for any length of time. 

But all cardio is not created equal. Martial artists and combat athletes do many things to try to increase their cardio endurance in the ring. But often, people waste time with activities that will have limited effect on the performance in a bout. The cardio needed for fighting is called “burst” cardio. This means it is requiring your body to put forth a “burst” of effort, in the 80-95% percent range, then stop and recover quick enough to do it again. Each burst may not be long, but it is intense and burns lots of energy. This burst, recover, burst, recover, cycle is trained by sprinters but is different than that trained by long distance runners. Long distance running will have limited effect on your burst cardio and vice versa. 

Forms are uniquely suited to train this type of cardio. In fact, if we look at many forms, they all are about 1-3 minutes long. This is a common length of time for fights or altercations. The forms require a burst energy at almost 100% of effort. They require you to move in similar ways to fighting and trains patterns that come up a lot. The cardio trained here is the exact type that is useful in fighting for many contexts. Together with the movements from martial arts, fighters can get the benefits of ballet while also getting some specific technique training in along the way. Using forms to periodize your training regimen to increase endurance and recovery is a very successful way to build this endurance for your bouts. 

Neuromuscular patterning 

Next, the issue of patterning the body. Forms use exaggerated movements and low stances to add difficulty and challenge to any set. Many of these train “good habits”, like sinking your weight or distinguishing what foot your weight is on. But these general good habits are global in nature. They are not the kind of habits that will be built up for direct fighting strategy or technique. The big movements and strong effort help to focus attention and improvement for the frame work of smaller movements. This is a focus on body mechanics, not on fighting technique. The idea is that technique should follow from good body mechanics. No matter what the application. 

Neuromuscular patterning is based on Hebbian Learning.

This is all based on the principle of “Hebbian Learning”. This is the phenomenon of neural connections becoming stronger the more frequently they are used. These patterns become habitual down to the nerve cells. The ore you do a particular movement, the stronger that movement gets for your body to do it. Like making a groove in the dirt by walking over it for years. This is the basic principle behind motor learning.

The body mechanics trained in forms may look too fancy, intricate, or abstract to be applied to fighting. But this is an illusion brought about by the large nature of the movements. Making the movements larger, even to the point of abstraction, adds some basic and essential stimulus to the limbs that begin to for the body in ways that make those movements more efficient or easier. As your body becomes more accustomed to the movements in the form, your body will expend less effort to do the movement correctly, leaving plenty to be devoted to powering the technique. This will also help your cardio regulation and endurance. The specific movements strengthen patterns not only the body with its self but, also with the breath. 

Low stances help train your lower body to sink down. Wide arm movements teach your body how to use your shoulder and arm in tandem while keeping your shoulder safe. Shakes and sudden explosions train the core and explosive power. Spins and rolls desensitize the vestibular system reducing dizziness and disorientation while under duress as well as keeping the body able to do these maneuvers without loosing one’s balance or equilibrium.  And of course, through out the entire set you need to breathe in specific ways to complete the form without running out of breath. 

‘Pleasure’ testing

I am often asked by students, what’s the worst bad habit one can have in martial arts. I often say, not practicing. There is also bias that people acquire where they do not practice on their own because they are worried about building up bad habits in their form. But, one cannot correct what is wrong if one does not practice. Add this to the natural disinclination to expending effort during the day, more skill is squandered, and more athletes dropped from the sport due to not practicing. 

Also, as stated before, this is hard. Between drills, footwork, sparring, strength training, there is a lot on our plates. Most of it is not very fun or dynamic. It is practical, concise and easy to do. If we are training every day, most of that time is spent out of the ring or without a partner. It is easy to practice sparring and fighting with a class. Thats what everyone like s to do in these classes. But her is some due diligence that must be paid to the demands and requirements. If all you have are repetitive drills, apparatus work, and weights to train by yourself, finding the time or inclination to do a bunch of footwork drills on your own is a difficult sell to novices. 

Forms provide a respite from such drudgery without sacrificing practice in the basics. Simply being able to move through a set of movements deftly takes focus, understanding, and practice. Forms can tell stories, or simply provide a frame work for one to have a little creativity and challenge. When learning forms, the challenge is memorization, physical training, and novel movements. After one knows the form, the challenge is in polishing it, correcting it, and making it one’s own. It is a practice that can grow with the practitioner and can be entertaining demonstration of the principles of one’s art. 

The term “pleasure testing” is from our Council member and colleague Jared Miracle. He says: 

“…a lot of people are so focused on “pressure testing” their skills/systems/etc. that they forget to “pleasure test” them. Training only matters if they’ll actually do it long term. “

The popularity of sports like Mixed Martial. Arts (MMA) have brought a lot of the martial arts culture out in to the open. Many people are taking classes at gyms and such but the huge influx of spectators has been the biggest change. With this rise in the popularity of MMA is the idea of testing arts against one another in the ring. This is now widely called “pressure testing” and it is an essential part of learning how to fight. However, The idea is used most often now to claim one methods superiority over another or the opposing arts inferiority to modern practice (most often the sport of MMA). Recently, many traditional arts have been claimed to be “fake martial arts” because those practitioners do not engage in free fighting activities or sparring. 

However, through this process of elimination, some other important things are forgotten. Beside the differing contexts of martial arts (military, street defense, sport fighting) the basic and omni present truth is that no matter how “real” you think your art is, if you do not train, you will not gain skill. One of the crucial components to getting people to train regularly is enjoyment. It is too common to actually see folks argue that training should not be fun or enjoyable. 

Those reading this blog from the lightsaber perspective, will be very familiar with this. It is part and parcel of the TPLA method for lightsaber sport and light fencing in general. But, anyone coming to us from the traditional martial arts may or may not find this compelling or convincing. The traditional arts often take themselves and their practice very seriously. The issue of ‘fun’ does not seem to be a big component. But we all have drills from or exercises in class that we prefer doing others we do not. While we should concentrate on our weaknesses in training to keep us moving forward, we must not forget that what we practice more, we will be better at. Forms help us work on things we don’t like because these things are mixed in with  the form, requiring the skill to complete it. The challenge, the feeling of accomplishment, and the enjoyment in a form is a good benchmark to use on your own movement competence. 

I got into traditional Chinese martial arts through movies and comic books. It was the fantasy and subsequent enjoyment of training and performing these sets and skills that drew me in so deep. And it is the need for continued imagination and reinvention that pushes me along even today. When I practice my forms, I can place myself anywhere. On a misty mountain top practicing in solitude like a wise hermit. In a pitched battle between the force of good and evil. In the training hall drenched in sweat and vibrating with fatigue while at the same time following in the footsteps of those that came before me.

There is a richness to forms practice if one is mindful. A dynamism that is unique to forms. It is meant to be solo. It is meant to make you think and puzzle through things that are unfamiliar. And they give you something to polish. 

Conclusion

The road of martial arts is really a solitary one. Fighting is not generally a team sport. Even when we are working together, there is a solitude in actually being in the fight. It is our training that is with us. And the more we train the better we can become. But we must be mindful that all things have their place. Mixing those places up is what most likely causes these issues. 

Forms are not fighting. But forms help us prepare for fighting in a very specialized way. They also give us benefit that fighting cannot. We can increase our power speed and agility and never want to fight. Forms are practiced by thousands of people who love martial arts and love to train them. Forms can foster that love. And it will pay back dividends for one’s entire career. 

See: Myths about forms

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