Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why bother with stepping in stances?


My preceding discussion about the pitfalls of "natural stepping"1 has prompted me to address the issue of why so many karate schools put great emphasis on stepping in basic stances.

Certainly, historical factors play a role: just before and after World War II, karate was popularized in Japan as a kind of exercise for school children. Karate masters like Gichin Funakoshi (who was a school teacher and who is credited as being one of the first to introduce karate to mainland Japan) are said to have quite deliberately tailored their classes to mass teaching, emphasizing basic training in large groups, often at the expense of bunkai (applications) and more in-depth understanding.

When Westerners came to Japan in the post-War years, this "basic" karate was generally what they encountered - and naturally it was this karate they brought back. To some extent, this "basic" karate remains a fixture in classes right around the world to this day. Only now with the advent of MMA, YouTube and the information age have people started to question basic training. Up to the 90s traditional training methods were steeped in mystique and gravitas and were, accordingly, largely sacrosanct. Even today, a quick Youtube search using terms such as "oi zuki" (lunge punch) together with "class" reveals countless videos of karate classes with people marching up and down the floor...

"Walking up and down the floor" - training that is still typical fare in many of the world's dojos.

The usefulness of basic stepping

Given my previous reservations about "dead time" in natural stepping and the fact that this sort of training is inherently very basic, you might be forgiven for thinking that I do not put much stock in it. But the reverse is true.

I spent my first 4 or so years of martial arts mostly training in this manner. My own early teaching was defined by it too.

I credit such training with a lasting legacy of solid basics and contextually relevant kinaesthetic awareness - a strong foundation that has served me well through the years not only by providing me the necessary muscle memory, strength and endurance but, more importantly, ensuring my adaptability across a very wide variety of martial disciplines.

Over the last 25 years as a teacher, I've occasionally tried to shortcut training methods and avoid basic "natural"1 stepping practice. This is particularly since it has so little appeal to me at this point; the basic footwork I'm more inclined to work on is that from xingyi or bagua - not the oh-so-familiar basic (natural) karate stepping and punching/blocking etc.

Xingyi footwork might seem easy - but, as I've often said before, it virtually requires you to "rewire your brain". This is the sort of stepping that interests me at my stage of learning.

However attempts at "shortcuts" for my students have always led to the same result; slower progress and a weaker foundation. Inevitably I've found myself going back to the same fundamentals with them. Because, in the end, there simply is no short cut. You have to learn to walk before you can run. In this case you have to learn to "walk up and down the floor" before you can do more advanced traditional martial footwork.

First steps in a longer journey

The concept of walking up and down the studio floor can seem quite daft to the pragmatic fighter. And, as I've often stated, if you want to learn to "fight" in a short space of time this isn't really an optimal pedagogy. But the traditional martial arts are not about short term gains; the goal is a deeper, lifelong journey - not an ability to "fight tomorrow". In order to absorb and master traditional martial arts skills, you need to have a solid, classical foundation - in much the same way as a classical pianist can't avoid learning to read music, play scales etc.

Walking up and down the floor might not translate directly into short-term "fighting ability" but it does provide some of the necessary foundation for applying traditional civilian defence strategies. Without that foundation these strategies don't work (at least, they don't work optimally). It's all very well for me to say: "Walking up and down the floor is old hat - let's do something that is far more advanced," when I've had decades of wearing that "old hat".

Whenever I have attempted to shortcut my students' development I've in effect short-changed them. Whatever skill I have now is not a function of what I am doing now; it is a function of all that went before. In much the same way, a beginner body-builder can't hope to adopt the training routine of a champion; his needs and the champion's needs are very different at that particular point in time.

So what are the needs of a beginner that are addressed by basic stepping? What exactly does the classical martial artist learn from "walking up and down the floor"?

I have previously discussed (at some length) the role of traditional stances, so I don't propose to cover the same ground again. Instead I want to focus on why one should practise stepping - specifically natural1 stepping - in those stances. Given my recent remarks about its lack of application in fighting, what possible reasons can there be for including this in one's martial arts pedagogy?

The answer comes down to the following:

Stances in a dynamic context

First off, it is worth noting that stances are not "static" constructs. I have previously discussed that they are merely snapshots - points in time through which your body will move. In fighting you won't be "adopting" or "holding" a stance. If anything is daft, then this is. Instead, the stances are merely "arbitrary" points of transition. I've put "arbitrary" in quotes because they might be arbitrary from the perspective of time, but from a pedagogic point of view they are not. Other points (eg. when your foot is half way to stepping) are inherently unstable, so they cannot form a useful focus point for martial instruction. Focusing on the most stable points in your movement makes a lot more sense than focusing on the (inherently unstable) transition between those points.2

Put another way, traditional stances mark the points of relative stability in martial movement. Because stances are points of stability, this encourages many to view them statically; as "postures" that one should "hold". Nothing could be further from the truth.

So, given that stances are not intended to be used statically, it makes sense to put them into a dynamic context. What better way to do this than by natural (ie. full) stepping?

Yes, you might adopt lunges and other "shorter" stepping patterns; these are laudable training methods that I use frequently.3 But there is one benefit that natural stepping confers that is not present in these "abbreviated" stepping forms: natural stepping involves a bigger movement. Why is this important?

First, the bigger the step, the greater the dynamic context. A greater dynamic context is always important in developing kinaesthetic awareness and timing.

Second, using big (full) steps is akin to dropping lower into your stances; it adds load (ie. difficulty). If you can move quickly with a full step, any other form of stepping is going to be made easier. This is particularly because a full step contains the "dead time" to which I have previously referred. In other words, natural stepping is useful as a training aid precisely because you are forced to deal with (and minimize) "dead time".

Last, what is true for basic blocks, punches etc. is also true for stances and stepping: A larger movement amplifies your errors, permitting analysis, correction and refinement. And, as I've frequently argued, a law of entropy always works against you adopting these bigger movements under pressure. Just as it is erroneous to say: "If I train in low stances, I'll go too low in a fight," there is really no danger of you "taking a full step" in a fight where a lunge would have been sufficient.

So basically full natural steps provides a dynamic context that permits the inculcation of good form.

But what is "good form" in stepping?

Typically it is efficient, economical stepping with no telegraphing and other extraneous movement. I think there is simply no better way of learning to do this than in the dynamic context of full stepping. Here are some specific examples of why I think so:

Avoiding extraneous movement/telegraphing

The single biggest issue one encounters with footwork (or martial movement of any kind) is extraneous movement. For one thing it takes time - time you don't have. For another it telegraphs your intention.

Full stepping in forward stance (zenkutsu dachi) is especially important in grooving efficient movement because it amplifies common extraneous movements and telegraphing. The most common of these is the "front foot out-turn". What is this?

The forward stance has the front foot angled so that the outside edge points forwards. This is a stable position that protects the more sensitive inside edge of the knee. I think there it is no accident that the forward stance is found in all Asian fighting disciplines. Moreover, lunges in savate, Western fencing etc. all feature it as well. Even the standard boxing stance is just a shorter version of zenkutsu dachi, with the back leg bent.

However I've noticed a universal tendency among students who are in this posture to turn their front foot out just before taking a full step. The students are, in effect, converting their zenkutsu dachi into an "open zenkutsu dachi" (or in Chinese, moving from "gong bu" to "bai bu").

This is understandable; the turning of the front foot opens up the hips and allows freer forward passage of your body.

However it is also undeniably "telegraphic". Unless you're doing a drop step (and putting pressure on your opponent), this extra "turn" takes time and tells your opponent what you're about to do.

Part of traditional martial arts strategy relies on the practitioner having a very high level of control of his or her body - not just by eliminating extraneous movement and telegraphing, but by being able to make minute adjustments when the need arises. The subtlety of this skill takes years and years of dedicated practice.4

Accordingly, I'm not surprised to see people turning their front foot out in basic stepping. I have embedded below a few examples of this tendency. I raise them not to denigrate the practitioners, but to illustrate that this is common.

Even though I've been working on it for years, I always have to be on my guard not to "slip" in this respect. It is a never-ending battle of control over the body, which is why everyone needs to "go back to basics" occasionally to ensure that the appropriate standards are maintained.

Turning the front foot when stepping forward: the most common error I have encountered in 30 years of training. We all do it to some extent!

Not only is such extraneous movement and telegraphing an issue with forward stepping, but it is even more of an issue with stepping backwards.

In that case, students will commonly raise their back heel before stepping back with their front foot. I'm not sure why this happens but it is, again, universal.

Take a look at the video below in which the practitioner (very handily!) demonstrates both forms of telegraphing (ie. both forward stepping and back). As before, I don't wish to be seen to be denigrating his performance; the level of control required not to move the front or back foot (as the case requires) is very high and, depending on the day, you might well catch me doing the exact same thing!

The issue is not whether we do it or not - but rather whether we are aware of what we're doing, if so, whether we are doing it for a specific reason and, if not, whether we are doing anything about it.

Practising basic stepping for year after year without correcting one's bad (extraneous and telegraphing) form is, in my view, wasted effort. Even worse, it inculcates bad habits. If you've spent decades practising basics with an unconscious out turn of the foot on your forward step, or a heel raise on your backward step, then you can be pretty sure that it will take you decades to learn to control that movement!

Another (handy) example of telegraphing in both forward and backward stepping.

Below I've embedded some class footage of my own students stepping in class. Nearest the camera is Jeff who has been with us since 1987. He joined in an era where we spent a lot of time "walking up and down the floor". I'm sure you'll agree that there is practically no telegraphing at all in his movement.

Some natural stepping practice performed in one of my classes. I'm proud to note the relative lack of extraneous movement and telegraphing - at least on this occasion!

Maintaining even height during movement

One of the final points I will make about natural stepping and its role in developing economical, efficient movement is the need to eliminate any "rise and fall". I've done the whole "sine wave" thing to death, so I'll just recap briefly that in the melee range you don't have the luxury of extraneous movement - and this includes rising and falling. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and accordingly that is what you should be aiming for when closing the gap or evading.

"But," I hear you say, "isn't the sine wave necessarily part of natural stepping?" Indeed, in previous articles I have maintained that the sine wave pattern does become evident over multiple natural steps.

However this is entirely consistent with what I am saying:

Yes, natural stepping (eg. when you walk down to the shops) does have a "rise and fall". But we traditional martial artists don't use natural stepping in combat. We use lunges and related footwork (yori and suri ashi). Accordingly when we practice natural stepping we only do so to amplify, and add load to, the kinds of steps we're actually going to do.

In other words, we aren't practising natural stepping to improve our natural stepping - but to improve our other (more abbreviated) stepping (eg. when we lunge or do a suri ashi, etc.).

Since we will be moving 3-4 feet at best in a furious melee exchange, probably by initiating movement with a front foot step (ie. a lunge) the whole business of "sine wave" is irrelevant. In fact, it is imperative that we eliminate any unnecessary "bobbing" movement as much as possible in our melee range approaches and retreats. If we need them for a particular reason5 we can always insert them as required. But we must have the necessary control to be able to move as economically and efficiently as possible. Papering over one's inability to move with such efficiency by inserting dogmatic "bobbing" does not alter this one iota.

Consider the video below and you'll see the sort of control I'm talking about. If you can stay level like this during as step, then you can also choose to bob up or down whenever you choose.5 In my experience, it doesn't go the other way.

An example of excellent height control in natural stepping.


There are many other specific comments I could make about natural stepping using basic stances. For example, I could observe that it teaches you to protect your groin by using crescent stepping. But in the end, these are all related to my original point: natural stepping in class makes for a bigger, more complete movement, which in turn permits better analysis and correction.

Even though I've been training for 31+ years now, I still take the time to practise such stepping myself. Moreover, I've learned not to ignore my students' need for such practice.

We should never lose sight of the fact that many martial arts training methods are not "fighting tactics" but are drills; drills for inculcating fundamental principles and conditioning the body. Sometimes these can look very formal or non-martial (for example, the uninitiated might wonder what skipping with a rope has to do with boxing). But this misses the point. Not everything we do in martial arts class will look like fighting. Stepping in basic stances is one such thing. And today it remains as relevant to developing traditional martial skill as it ever was.

An instructor gives some advice that I routinely give in relation to basic stepping. Note the age and experience of the student - we're never too old or senior to stop focusing on basics!

Some very good stepping - take a close look at their feet during movement and note the almost complete lack of telegraphing. Note also the way they maintain a level height.


1. I describe what I mean by "natural stepping" in this article. Clearly, stepping in any formal stance is going to have some element of "artificiality" to it. All I mean by "natural stepping" is that the back foot initiates the movement, then passes the front foot, and so on.

2. Speaking of transition between stances, I'm reminded of something I saw in Hong Kong in 2009. In my essay "More lessons from Hong Kong" I describe how I went to Kowloon Park and saw various groups practising martial arts. I say:
    "What struck me most about the taiji practice was the speed at which it was being performed - or I should say the lack of speed. In some cases movements were being executed so slowly that I wondered if the practitioners were frozen, often mid-step."
In fact, the leader of this particular group seemed to defy gravity, by hovering with her front foot off the ground and her weight half-way towards it. On closer inspection I realized she was, in fact, in constant motion - just at an excruciatingly slow speed. The level of control she had on her core and other supporting muscles was astounding. This sort of ability to "freeze" transitional points is clearly the exception rather than the rule.

3. There is nothing wrong with training every kind of step - even lunges and half steps. In fact, this should be done regularly in any traditional dojo/guan/kwoon/dojang etc. For example, occasionally I focus on the simple lunge (oi ashi) with a jab, followed by a retraction (hiki ashi) with a deflection. Commonly I will have the students move from cat stance (neko ashi dachi) to forward stance (zenkutsu dachi) but other stances can can also be used.

Oi and hiki ashi

Other formulations include the lunge with the back leg sliding up (yori ashi) or passing the front (suri ashi):

Yori ashi - where you lunge with your front foot and your back leg slides up, but doesn't pass

Suri ashi - where you lunge with your front foot and your back leg slides up, passing your front

4. For subtle skill involving a very high level of body control, note Adam Hsu's movement below. As a colleague of mine on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums noted, this sort of skill isn't something you can learn off Youtube. There's a lot more going on than is apparent to the uninitiated.

Adam Hsu demonstrating some very subtle body control

5. Of course, nothing prevents us from using particular footwork to drop or rise; we might do so for evasion, or as part of a counter attack, etc. In that case, we can use the push off from the ground or gravity (as the case requires) to assist our techniques. But this is a far, far cry from the wretched "sine wave" theory which dogmatically insists that this "gravity assist" or "push off" will somehow form part of each lunge in the melee. Most melee movements are simply too fast and too short to take advantage of either. For more on this, see my article: "Rise and fall" ≠ sine wave theory.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"Dead time": pitfall of natural stepping


In my article "How the internal arts work: Part 1" I discussed the issue of "dead time" as it occurs in natural stepping. I also alluded to it in my recent article: "Reversing momentum: "dead time" or useful tactic?".

The topic of "dead time" is so central to my own martial theories, particularly those of the internal arts of China, that I thought it best to make this the subject of a dedicated article.

After all, as I will explain in future articles, the internal arts go to great lengths to deal with "dead time" and other issues arising from natural stepping.

Meanwhile practically every other traditional far eastern art also avoids natural stepping as much as possible, preferring what is known in Japanese as "yori ashi" ("okuri ashi" in kendo) and "suri ashi" - ie. shuffling steps where the front foot advances first, followed by the rear foot.

Nor is this avoidance of natural stepping limited to eastern combat disciplines. Western disciplines like boxing avoid natural stepping just as much or even more. For example, boxing footwork utilizes a "skipping" action where both feet push off more or less together.1 Western fencing traditions also make use of lunges not dissimilar to far eastern fencing, with limited use of full, natural steps.

But before I go any further, it is important to explain what I mean by "natural stepping".

What I mean by "natural stepping"

"Natural stepping" is when you your back foot initiates movement. The back foot then passes the front, which in turn does the same, and so on.

This is what you would do in your ordinary walking - say on a footpath.

In Japanese this "natural stepping" is known as "ayumi ashi".

Notably, ayumi ashi can be seen in karate basics practice where (particularly beginner) students will "walk" up and down the floor in traditional stances (most frequently zenkutsu dachi or forward stance but also every other stance) executing various hand and foot techniques.

This is a very basic exercise designed to teach students the fundamentals of form and to condition their bodies. For this reason you see it in kata (forms), especially "beginner" forms such as the fukyugata/pinan series. It should not be confused with tactics used in fighting (although it often is so confused, no doubt due to its ubiquitous presence in karate classes that are still largely faithful to the mass teaching model popularized in Japan just before and after World War II and later exported to the West).

An example of "ayumi ashi" (natural stepping) in karate basic training. Note the lack of telegraphing by the front foot - one of the important kinaesthetic lessons to be learned from this practice.

Natural stepping is also the bulk of what you do when walking the circle in the internal art of baguazhang. As with karate basic stepping, there are subtle (though important) differences in posture and weight distribution between bagua stepping and how you walk down the street. In some schools the manner of planting your front foot also changes: some schools plant the front foot flat rather than do a "heel - toe" action. This is known as "mud stepping" (which we don't do in Chen Pan Ling bagua).

I will discuss bagua's use of natural stepping in "walking the circle" shortly and why, at the critical points of "change", it is abandoned. Suffice it to say that, for the present purposes, the back foot initiates movement and passes the front and that, in this sense, it falls within my definition of "natural stepping".

To a lesser extent, natural stepping can also be found in the taijiquan long form (albeit that it is usually mixed in with reversal of momentum).

It occurs hardly at all in xingyiquan, but that is largely due to xingyi's focus on the "drop step" as the principal means of avoiding "dead time" (where taiji and bagua use turning and reversal of momentum instead - both of which can still be done with natural stepping to some extent). Again, I will cover the exact nature of the devices adopted by the taiji and xingyi in future articles.

For now, let us go back to the core focus of this article, namely "dead time". What exactly do I mean by this expression?

"Dead time" in natural stepping

As I have noted previously, every time you take a natural step, there is a delay between the initiation of movement by your back foot and any real forward engagement of your core. Put another way, it takes a split second before you exert any forward force. This is necessarily because you are moving your back leg first. This split second is what I call "dead time".

Take for example the picture to the above right. In it I am "walking the circle" in bagua, executing a natural step. My back (right) heel has started to lift in preparation for the step. At this point my body weight is still largely over my back foot and the lifting of my heel on that foot has not changed this situation to any appreciable extent.

You will see from the picture to the above left that by the time my back foot draws parallel with what was my front (left) foot, my weight starts to become evenly distributed over both legs. As a consequence, there is still no real forward force being exerted.

Indeed, my body hasn't really moved much off its vertical axis; such movement as there is can be measured in centimeters, not meters.

It is only after what was my back foot passes my front (ie. when it passes the mid-line of my vertical axis) that I begin to "fall" forward (note the sudden blurriness of the last picture) and I begin to exert some forward force. Up to that point I'm really just setting myself up for a step.

Since no real forward force is exerted during that "set up" time, it is "dead" for martial purposes. In order to understand just how "dead" it is, we need to compare it to the "drop step" where force can be exerted from the moment you commence stepping.

Contrasting the "drop step"

The drop step is the very opposite of the natural step in that your front foot initiates movement not your back.

When you lift your front foot you should notice something very different from natural stepping: you start to fall forwards immediately. There is absolutely no delay between your foot lifting off the ground and your forward force being exerted. This should be apparent from the blurriness of second of the adjacent images.

Having lifted the front foot and stepped (or rather, lunged) forwards, you can proceed to slide the back leg up. Without this "slide up" it doesn't really qualify as a "step" - I tend to think of it as a mere lunge.

If your back foot slides up to close the gap created by the front foot but never passes your front foot, this kind of stepping is called "yori ashi" in Japanese (or "okuri ashi" in the Japanese sport of kendo - fencing with split bamboo "shinai").

Some more basic stepping, this time using "yori ashi" or "okuri ashi" - a kind of shuffle step found in most martial arts both eastern and western.

If your back leg ends up passing your front, this is called "suri ashi" in Japanese. This is the kind of "drop stepping" employed in the internal art of xingyiquan.

"Suri ashi" - stepping that commences with the front foot but still involves the back foot passing the front.

Regardless of whether or how you slide up your back foot, the important feature of this type of movement is that you initiate it with your front. As I have said, this means that you will instantly exert a forward moment with your whole body.

It is easy to test the veracity of this statement:

Have a partner stand in front of at arm's length. Now place your hand on his or her upper chest and lift your front foot. Now don't just lift it, but project the foot forward.

Next, repeat the same experiment with your back foot initiating the movement (as per a natural step). The difference should be quite marked.


There is nothing really wrong with natural stepping. Indeed, it is essential for our locomotion precisely because it enables you to cover larger distances economically and effectively. Lunges and "drop steps" are not suitable for covering such ground, otherwise you'd see people doing it!

But for distances such as those encountered in melee range fighting, the situation is reversed. You need to cover a distance of one to 1.5 meters at most in one go. And you need to be exerting a forward force from the "get-go". Even a split-second delay can be fatal.

Once your opponent retreats and you are chasing him or her, then you will revert to natural stepping. The same applies if you are being chased. It is only then that issues such as the natural "sine wave" of a running gait become relevant.

But natural stepping has no place in the short, furious bursts of the melee. Accordingly it should come as no surprise that natural stepping is not a significant part of any traditional fighting discipline or combat sport. You just don't have the luxury of time for natural stepping.

So why is natural stepping seen in the forms of some traditional arts (eg. karate and bagua)? Put simply, the role of stepping in those forms is very specific: it is not intended to reflect a melee range exchange. Instead, the steps function to cover ground to get you into the melee range.

The natural steps also function to put you into a dynamic context. In the case of bagua, the natural stepping sets up a rhythmic movement which you break by executing "palm changes". It is during these palm changes that the astute observer will note the almost complete absence of natural stepping - something that only resumes once the palm change is finished. Such natural stepping that does occur is either "post drop step" or as part of a spiral (one of the ways in which bagua deals with over-extension). But that is a subject for another day.


1. The video below shows some basic footwork drills from boxing. You'll note that this footwork does not involve "natural stepping" but utilizes a kind of "skipping" motion which addresses the "dead time" factor.

A video on boxing footwork. Note the absence of ""natural stepping".

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Reversing momentum: "dead time" or useful tactic?


In my recent article "How the internal arts work: Part 1" I discussed the issue of "dead time" - ie. time which is not productive or efficient in relation to achieving your desired outcome. Some of the comments made in relation to that article raised the issue of whether "reversal of momentum" is a subset of "dead time".

I believe that there are many instances where reversal of momentum is far from "dead time". This is true of both unarmed and armed fighting. In fact, as I will detail in a forthcoming article, taijiquan makes extensive use of this tactic.

However my recent immersion in the study of traditional Chinese swordplay, including the long military saber most recently known as the miao dao 苗刀 (used by the Chinese military in the Second Sino-Japanese War), has provided at least one other concrete example of why it is sometimes necessary (and useful) to reverse your momentum.

Reasons for reversing momentum

You might find yourself reversing your momentum for two main reasons, namely:
  • to recover or reset your position after an over-extension (eg. when your opponent has evaded your blow by moving off line and you have to "back-pedal" out of danger); or
  • to reload for another strike (eg. when your momentum along a particular tangent is exhausted or no longer relevant).
In either case, you'll notice that "reversal of momentum" is really about the necessary contraction of your momentum after a full extension or expansion. It is a resetting or reloading analogous to the withdrawal of a wave that has just crashed onto the shore.

Why reversal of momentum is sometimes unavoidable

Yes, retracting your momentum can give your opponent time to strike you; after all, you are not exerting force on your opponent during the withdrawal (at least, not usually1). However the human body is not built like a bowling ball; it can't keep pressing forward indefinitely. At some point you have to reset or reload. This is particularly true when you are facing a resistant opponent whose raison d'etre is as much to thwart your attacks (by evading, deflecting or stifling them) as much as it is to attack you. It is this issue (one that I hold to be a fundamental truism) which reflects my long-standing skepticism of "attack string" training methodology. Unless you're fighting a dummy or other inanimate body (or at the very least, a terribly inept opponent) a strung-together sequence of dozens of blows is not going to reflect how things pan out - not even remotely.

"Necessary" resetting or reloading

So some resetting or reloading is going to be necessary. But how much is "necessary"? Regular readers of my blog will be more than familiar with my calls for this to happen as economically and with as much contextual appropriateness as possible. It is for this reason that I have argued strenuously against hip pre-loading in kata (forms) and bunkai (applications). A pre-load or reload takes time - and telegraphs your intention. On the other hand, unless you want to pepper your opponent with ineffectual prods, some form of loading is warranted. Normally one side of your body will naturally load as the other side strikes. This is the essence of the much-maligned traditional "chamber" in punching etc.

A video in which I demonstrate contextual loading of hips and arms on one side while the other is striking.

However it is not always the case that you can load one side while the other strikes - eg. when using a 2-handed weapon. In those circumstances one can still minimize the time taken to reload by making it part of one continuous flowing sequence. To illustrate my point in this regard I find it useful to take longer weapons as an example since they amplify the issues and make them more apparent.

Master Tsou demonstrates xie kan (diagonal cutting) with the mia dao. See in particular from 0:26 onwards where he utilizes a circular wind-up to create a single, continuous movement out of the load and strike.

Accordingly, consider the above video and the adjacent pictures of Master Tsou, a practitioner and teacher of the miao dao. Here he is performing one of the basics of that weapon, namely "xie kan" (斜砍 - a diagonal downward cut). In the first picture you'll note that he starts to raise the sword: this not only reloads for another downward cut, but also serves as a rising, "beating back" deflection called "beng tiao" (崩挑). Having raised the sword, he might simply choose to reverse his momentum and perform another downward cut on the same angle as he started. However Master Tsou instead demonstrates a downward cut to the other side, taking advantage of the continuous circular movement both to minimize the loading time and increase the speed (and hence force) of his next cut.

However it is not true to say that such a circular movement will be appropriate in every instance. There are some times where a simple straight reversal is required. For example, consider another leading Chinese sword practitioner, Scott Rodell, performing the sequence depicted on the left. Mr Rodell initiates the sequence by performing a downward cut to beat down his partner's sword. His partner reacts by converting the downward momentum into a curve that takes his sword around and over his head so as to effect his own downward cut. So far so good: this is entirely consistent with Master Tsou's example of the xie kan basic (ie. Mr Rodell's partner is creating one continuous flow of movement out of the downward moment and his own subsequent counter).

But what happens next is most interesting: As Mr Rodell's partner swings his counter into action, Mr Rodell responds to it with a straight reversal of his own sword's momentum - ie. a retraction more or less along the same line as his initial downward cut. This retraction is the "beng tiao" to which I have previously referred and it enables Mr Rodell to deflect his partner's attack by beating backwards. Mr Rodell then reverses his momentum again with another downward "kan" (砍) attacking his partner's wrist/forearm.

In this instance the reversal of momentum (both for the beng tiao deflection and the kan counter) constitute the shortest line of movement; it would not be more economical to create any larger circular action, even if it creates one movement out of two and even if it would effect a more "powerful" cut. In other words, the beng tiao and kan response creates the shortest, most economical response to the attack effected by Mr Rodell's partner. Because of the sharpness of the blade, there is no need for any greater force than that made available through the simple reversal. The fact that this attack was deliberately prompted in this sequence speaks volumes: the beng tiao and kan response is not a compromise option; it is not a desperate, last-second tactic. Rather, it is a considered, deliberate tactic from the Chinese military long sword fighting method.

Scott Rodell demonstrates Beng Tiao and Kan - two basics of the Chinese long sword (set to start at 5:07).


The act of reversing momentum is often regarded as a highly defensive, reactive tactic. It seems the very opposite of what you would expect from military instruction.

Yet the surviving techniques of the miao dao and other double-handed sabers (used by the Chinese forces as recently as 1945) illustrate that not only is reversing momentum possible, it can be desirable. Indeed, traditional military tactics deliberately provoked the "beng tiao and kan" sequence demonstrated by Mr Rodell above. I think this illustrates that reversing momentum can be both pragmatic and desirable - desirable enough for you to draw your opponent into it. So what is the rule for reversing momentum? It is hard to say anything definitive other than that momentum should reversed only:
  • if it is part of a wider stratagem that takes into account (and exploits) your opponent's likely responses to your reversal; and
  • it is done as economically and quickly as possible (in particular, without any unnecessary pause in movement).
It is these principles that underlie taijiquan's use of reversal of momentum - a subject I hope to address in the very near future.


1. Not every retraction is defensive. Rather a backward movement of the body can, in some cases, power a forward thrust of the hand almost as effectively as forward movement of the body can - particularly when the hand is holding a sharp blade (making greater force unnecessary). In the end, you want to effect a very simple result; sufficient momentum under the formula p = mv. In other words, you want your mass moving as fast as possible in the available circumstances.

Taking the miao dao sword as an example, note Master Tsou's basic technique of a short energy thrust ("dian" 點) - as illustrated in the adjacent images and in the video below. It is true that a forward movement of the body can add momentum to a sword thrust. However for someone charging at you, the outward thrust of your arm counterbalanced by the backward movement of your body can still give your sword sufficient momentum to cause your attacker to be impaled on it.

Master Tsou demonstrates "Basic No. 7" (a "dian" or short energy thrust) using his reversed momentum to power the thrust.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic