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Weapons Training for the Development of Empty-Hand Skills

Posted 02-23-2008 at 01:38 AM by

I was perusing the number of Martial Arts publications at my local supermarket when I had decided to pick up the April 2008 issue of Black Belt Magazine. "Black Belt?!" you might be interjecting. Yeah I can hear it now, "Isn't that just filled from cover to cover with TMA crap?!" No, not at all. While it may be one of the oldest martial arts publications in existence (many of those years before the world wide acceptance of MMA, and before the GJJ Info-mercial inception of the fledgling UFC), it still tends to be one of the most impartial magazines I've read to date. While the contributing writers may take time to oppinionate over a published media from time to time (that is what they are paid for), they still afford contributing writers from the myriad styles and systems in existence their page space or cover from time to time. I guess you can say they give equal opportunity for a representative of each individual style a chance to make an ass out of themselves, but at least they tend to be impartial in that sense. But I digress...

On the cover of the the issue was Paul Vunak, famed accredited JKD and Filipino Martial Arts master under Dan Inosanto. Considering that the place I train at has a JKD base, and considering that Paul Vunak is one of the dorkiest looking martial arts masters I've ever seen (right next to Emin Boztepe, Ashida Kim, and "the Cock Puncher" Steven Seagal) I couldn't help but look inside. It turns out that the issue was dedicated to weapons training, and regardless of the fact that we no longer live in a world where warriors are gilded in armor and swords it expounded a lot truth. Let me explain.

While I could write tangents on the widely accepted folly of many Martial Artists that they in their unarmed state are much better off against someone who is armed, I will try not to rant on that. It is not uncommon to hear of an unarmed person defeating an armed assailant. Let's be honest, this is the stuff that they love to put on the prime time news. However, you have to realize that those types of incidents are very rare. Yes, if you follow statistics, getting attacked by a stranger is possible but the odds are not so astronomically high that most people even concern themselves with it. Taken from that, for those that do get assaulted the odds of successfully defending yourself is even lower. Given the fact that 70 percent of violent encounters involve some sort of weapon, whether it be intended like a pistol or improvised like a broken bottle, and that most of the unarmed participants in those encounters end up robbed, injured or dead, you have to reason that by default the armed participant in an encounter in the streets (or "out in the wild" as I put it) has an advantage.

Plain truth, it would be foolish to think that because one is trained they have the advantage over an untrained person who is wielding a weapon. Just like that 540-degree, flipping axe-kick you saw in the movies, leave confronting an armed assailant with a knife to your current action hero du'jour. They can have their directors call "cut" (oh how ironic) and do a re-take. Life on this side of the big screen is not so convenient. About the only way you stand a realistic chance against an armed attacker (aside from running like hell) is to find some sort of equalizer; a weapon of your own. If at that point you happen to be trained on how to use that type of weapon better than your assailant, only then you would hold an advantage over your opponent. It is just like getting a boxer on the ground if you are a grappler, in that situation you would be at an advantage and your opponent would not be as dangerous to you.

Okay... Maybe I ranted a little.

So, I see you scratching your head. You're thinking to yourself, "But I'm not really looking to shank someone in the neck any time soon... how is this going to help my MMA training?" Well, there are some principle points that it can definitely help you develop. With that let me list a few benefits of weapons training.

1) Training with Weapons Helps Develop Coordination. My teacher Richard Bustillo constantly states that the first reason why we do any stick work in our JKD session is to develop coordination. I am constantly amazed at some of the skilled strikers I train with that turn into complete oafs once you put a stick in their hand. With the inclusion of a weapon, your normal body dimensions change, and so does the distribution of your weight. This is true even for smaller weapons like knives. Because of that, the level of control you must be able to assert to train without hurting yourself or your training partners is much higher than it is empty-handed. It becomes even more obvious when your stance is off balance, if your feet are too wide, and if your swings are too wide or off target.

It becomes even more obvious if you are working with two weapons (one in each hand). In this scenario, just like drilling a jab or lead hook, you are actively working on making your off-side more co-ordinated. The roots of such styles of weapons fighting (for instance Sinawali or espada y daga) came from first attempting to develop the skills of the off hand if the warrior found their strong hand injured. From there it progressed to wielding two weapons simultaneously. Just like a good boxer, a good weapons practitioner will develop skills with both hands.

Whether it is attacking (thrusting, swinging or chopping) or in defense (parrying, checking, or redirecting) a good sense of full-body coordination is required when dealing with weapons. Leaving your arms or legs out for targets is bad in empty-hand arts, but in a weapon art that type of habit can be fatal. Those traits become second nature and easily carry over to empty-hand training (a bit on that later).

2) Weapons Training Helps Develop Your Sense of Range. Nothing is more surprising than thinking your completely safe from your opponent's strikes when all of a sudden you get caught with a punch, kick or put on your ass from a take-down. As human beings, and trained fighters even more, it is pretty amazing how resilient we can be. The truth being that it is rare that a physical encounter between people end in one shot finishes (cheap shots and sucker punches aside) if the fight is between two empty-handed people. Most of that is due to the fact that people are of a pretty even consistency and level of mass and density. However, if you introduce a weapon into the altercation, you can consistently count on the fact that the as soon as someone gets hit with a weapon the altercation will be over for that person. Most weapons are made of material that is much harder than human flesh. As a result, the propensity for injury producing trauma (including bruises, contusions, abrasions and fractures of all types) is much higher.

When faced with that on a regular basis, it becomes very easy to identify the "lethal range" of your opponent. This happens even when you are doing drills. Getting tapped in the hand by a rattan baston will teach you to step back and utilize the full range your own stick. After a while (even when working with different trainees) you don't get your knuckles smacked as much because your sense of range and distance is much more developed. In fact, effect range tends to be a more definitive with weapons than in empty-hand fights. A knife reaches longer than an empty hand, a cane is longer than a knife, a sword is longer than a cane, a spear is longer than a sword, and so on until you reach a gun which holds the highest lethal range in the that hierarchy. Many dangerous encounters involving weapons can be boiled down to staying outside of the lethal range of your opponent and getting within your own lethal range to attack. That brings up my next point...

3) Weapons Training Helps Develop Footwork. You may have read some of my posts where I've stated that dancing is a great way to develop footwork. While that definitely holds true, I don't think (even in some of the most lively of "battles" I've seen) dancing holds quite the same level of tension that weapons training does. Again, since the possibility of injury is at a higher level with weapons, controlling range is key. A big part of controlling range is good footwork, regardless of whether you want to close the gap or widen it. In fact, many of the footwork diagrams I have in this thread here come from Kendo websites.

Where foot work is key to the grappler or striker, it is cornerstone to a fighter armed with a weapon. Whether it is Eskrima, Fencing or Kendo you will always notice excellent footwork in the higher level practitioners. In fact, the "bursting" step that Bruce Lee uses in his sliding side kick or lead straight (the "straight blast") was modeled after a fencer's diving thrust.

I will add 4, 5 and 6 on a response because my entry is longer than what it wants...
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    Onganju's Avatar
    Continuing from above...

    4) Weapons Training Helps Develop Timing. If you train under semi-live conditions, or under "realistic" conditions you train with the mindset that each successful attack or technique is fatal, or going to be really, really painful. While getting marked with a No Lie Training Blade may be annoying in training, the practitioner comes out with the same realization: had the blade been real, they would be dead. If you train in the vein of the Dog Brothers with actual sticks and minimal safety gear, the consequences for coming short in a fight becomes painfully obvious almost instantaneously. Timing becomes even more important when the margin of error lessens.

    5) Weapons Training is a Viable Avenue of Training when you are not at your Physical Peak. Personally, I find that when I am at a point where I want to train but my body isn't in the best shape to constantly kick, punch, or grappler (due to fatigue, illness or injury) many times I can stay sharp doing sessions with the sticks. Because of the higher emphasis on control and technique (again, due to the likeliness of injury) I find that it tends to be less stressful on my body.

    That isn't to say that there aren't days when weapons training isn't really freaking hard, but it provides an alternative to route activities your body is in the habit of doing. Those same said activities may be the reason why you are injured or fatigued. I am not going to claim that you will be swinging around a stick if your rotator cuff is torn (you shouldn't be near a training area in the first place), but it will definitely work your body differently than the usual drills and sparring while providing the same type of opposing stimulus and tension that empty-hand combat would.

    6) Weapons Training Helps Develop Focus and Prepares you for Facing a Weapon. That isn't to say you won't get scared or nervous if someone pulls a knife on you, or rushes you with a pipe. Rather, your level of familiarity with the weapon would be higher than otherwise. It is the same deal for those who roll the first time. After enough sessions, hitting the mat won't even be the issue it was when you first got taken down many, many days, weeks, months or years ago. It will help your chances of surviving an encounter out in the wild that involves a weapon.

    Now that isn't a carte blanche guarantee that you will go unscathed if you get attacked by a person wielding a weapon. Rather if you know that it is better to run away from a knife when faced with it, you are less likely to panic and more likely to actually get away. Now if it is an instance where you can't get away (maybe because your escape route is blocked or if you have a loved one who can't get away as fast as you), your weapons training will help you make better use of an improvised weapon. The sai, tonfa, nunchaku, bo and most of the other classical defined martial arts weapons all evolved from farm tools. They were improvised weapons from the very beginning. The escrima baston was utilized because Spanish rule outlawed the ownership of swords by Filipinos.

    In closing I must state this: Kobudo (weapon techniques) did not come about because some 9-year old was going for his 3rd straight championship in kata demonstration. All weapon skills were developed from a dire need of self preservation. That same need brought about the procreation of the martial arts. Sure you may not enter a ring or cage with a sword in your hand, but you probably carry the other facets of training sword fighting addresses. Why not sharpen that as well?
    Posted 02-23-2008 at 01:39 AM by Onganju Onganju is offline
    swpthleg's Avatar
    This blog is AWESOME! The only weapons training I've done is with arnis sticks, but I'm going to use your blog as a reference as I go along. Very informative and insightful. - swpthleg
    Posted 01-07-2009 at 10:33 AM by swpthleg swpthleg is offline
    I agree. All of your blogs are very informative.

    I also can relate to "Getting tapped in the hand by a rattan baston...". Not a fun experience, but it will teach even the most stubborn.

    Good job on a great blog.
    Posted 07-31-2009 at 07:47 PM by Ethereal Ethereal is offline
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