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6 Reasons Why You Should Train with Traditional Martial Arts Weapons

Ken Gullette - Chris Miller - Spear
Ken Gullette (right) practicing spear fighting techniques with Chris Miller.

I saw a cool video today that I'm not putting up because of the profanity involved. Two men on a commuter train begin punching and kicking another man repeatedly as other people in the train car look on, afraid to help. Except for one bystander who happened to be carrying a samurai sword. This young guy pulled out his sword and held it above his head in a good Samurai pose, ready to strike. He moved toward the attackers. They ran away and got off the train.

Apparently a sword can be an intimidating weapon in modern times.

I have some instructional weapons videos on YouTube, including one video on the fighting applications of the straight sword. Occasionally, an anonymous idiot will flame the video with a comment such as "That sword would be useless against a 9mm." 

Ken Gullette - Kim Miller Swords
Ken practicing the Chen Double Broadsword Form with Kim Miller.

To an outside observer who has never studied traditional martial arts, I suppose it might seem a bit silly to practice with straight swords, broadswords, elk horn knives, and similar ancient weapons that were used in battle centuries before Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson were gleams in their fathers' eyes. If your idea of fighting is MMA, it probably looks bizarre for someone to walk the circle and spin with elk horn knives. But there are several very good reasons we train with weapons. Here are six of them. Maybe you can add more.

1. Tradition -- Weapons such as these are part of the history of our arts. They were used in combat and to defend villages and families against bandits and other invaders. Peasant farmers could pick up an implement such as an axe or scythe, leading to the development of weapons such as the elk horn knives. One of the oldest known weapons was a spear, believed to be up to 300,000 years old, discovered in Ethiopia. 

2. Deeper Insight into the Art -- It is one thing to learn how the five elements of Xingyi are translated in fist postures using empty hands, but learning how they are used with a sword or staff gives you a deeper look into the art. Walking the circle and doing palm changes with empty hands in Bagua is the essence of the art, but doing it with a broadsword or a staff gives you an entirely different perspective.

3. Conditioning -- Weapons such as the Kwan Dao provide the benefits of weight training while also working cardio. Traditionally, the Bagua broadsword was huge and heavy, giving you an excellent whole body workout. Staff and sword also require more strength than empty hands, and provide good upper body exercise. After I lost the function of my left lung in 2009, the additional work and cardio required for weapons forms was very obvious. It's good for you!

4. Coordination and Footwork -- Movements that require you to control a weapon can be complex, involving twirling, turning, and coiling. You develop subtlety as you learn to deflect the weapons of opponents and counter. When an opponent thrusts with a sword, it requires control to deflect just enough with your sword to cause his sword to miss while putting your sword in position to counter. Footwork must be quick, light and lively with weapons. And while you may always use a sword with your right hand (if you are right-handed), using weapons such as elk horn knives, double sticks or double swords helps you develop ambidextrous skill.

5. Practical Self-Defense -- If I am in a situation that calls for self-defense and I can pick up a stick or a broom, I will be grateful for every moment I've spent training with a sword, staff, or stick. You can bet your life on it. Training with a knife can help you anticipate the movements of an attacker who is armed with a knife, a situation that could happen in real life.

6. The Phrase is "Martial Art" -- Don't forget that the word "Art" is included in this phrase. Yes, we are learning to defend ourselves and the people we love. But let's be realistic. I am 61 and I have not been in a real fight since I was 18. If my luck continues, I will never be in another violent self-defense situation. Why would I obsess about it at this point? I learned to defend myself decades ago, and still practice those skills and techniques and principles today. But as I have gotten older, I have learned to appreciate the art a lot more than I did when I was in my Twenties. I appreciate the beauty of forms such as the Chen Straight Sword Form and the Bagua Elk Horn Knives Form, the grace and the bursts of power, and I enjoy the strength and power of the Xingyi Staff Form. I enjoy the precision required by these weapons, and how to cut with a sword so that the air makes very little sound as the blade makes its most efficient cut. I also love the fighting techniques.

Here are a couple of bonus reasons to practice traditional weapons. Weapons are cool. And they are fun. And isn't that why most of us got into martial arts? Sure, we started because we wanted to learn better self-defense, but also because we thought it was fun and cool. I've been practicing now for almost 41 years and I still think it's fun and cool.

Weapons training has many benefits, even if you never see anyone carrying a broadsword down the street. So what if the anonymous flamers on the Internet don't understand? Who cares if their idea of self-defense begins and ends with MMA? 

Traditional martial artists know better.

I invite you to leave a comment with your reasons for training with traditional weapons.


Be Water, My Friend - Bruce Lee, Push Hands and Close-Up Self-Defense

One of my favorite quotes from Bruce Lee was not completely original. The concept was already part of Taoism and Zen long before he said it, but Westerners had not heard it in the early Seventies.

"You must empty your mind," he said. "Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. Put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

Ken Gullette - Colin Frye 1
My partner Colin aims a punch at my chest.

I think of this often when I work with my students on push hands and other close-up self-defense skills. I try to be water, and flow around resistance to find my way to my target.

What happens when you punch water? Bruce Lee talked about an inspiration he had when he was frustrated and punched water one day on a lake. Whether this story is true or not doesn't matter. Bruce said that when he punched into a lake, he was inspired because the water gave in to his punch and yet flowed around his fist.

Taoism says "the softest thing cannot be snapped." It discusses a blade of grass or a reed, bending as a strong wind blows. The wind might knock down a large tree if it is old and stiff, but a blade of grass is soft and flexible, and lives through the storm.

Ken Gullette - Colin Frye 2
I flow around the punch, removing the target and setting up an elbow strike.

When you are practicing push hands or any close-up fighting drill with a partner, you should become that soft blade of grass, giving way to force but surviving.

Be water, my friend.

Flow around the force that your partner or opponent directs at you. Relax, intercept it and find your way around, just as water in a stream does when it encounters a large rock in the river bed.

When I do push hands with someone who is too stiff, they are very easy to defeat. It is easy to find their center and move it, because a stiff arm connects directly to their center. Push the arm and the center follows.

Ken Gullette - Colin Frye 3
He stiffens his right arm but loses focus on his left, so my right hand finds his face.

Likewise, someone who is focused on the force they are trying to give you has often lost their center. Their focus can have too much purpose and too much intent. If you are able to remain relaxed and flow around that force, you can find your target and strike effectively.

This type of training should be started very slowly. You and your partner should look for openings and move very slowly for a while as you learn how your body should best respond. You will find yourself tied up, twisted, and off-balance, but you must respond as slowly as your partner moves (if either partner moves too fast, they must be called on it). Both partners should attack and defend whenever they feel an opening.

It is okay to do poorly at first. If you find yourself in a double-weighted position -- in a position where you cannot defend -- ask your partner to do it again, slowly, so you can figure out how best to deal with an attack. This is "investing in loss." If all you are interested in is getting a shot in on your partner, your skill will not progress as it will if you understand that your goal is to find your own weaknesses and make improvement in your skill.

Over time, you speed it up, but for a while, it is best to go very slowly, learning to walk before you run.

It doesn't take water very much work to be relaxed -- only a temperature above 32 degrees. For you and me, being relaxed and learning to flow like water takes a lot of hard work.

So how do you apply this to your life outside of self-defense? I'll talk about that in my next post.