I have always found it interesting, even amusing, that people who begin to study martial arts, tend to equate complexity with martial efficiency. I think a lot of this stems from the movies. The complex fight scenes we witness in movies are exciting, they capture our attention, and of course just look plain cool. I remember clear as day as a kid wanting to be able to fight just like those awesome characters in my favourite Kung Fu movies. However I can see the level of disappointment in a students face when either I have to tell them, or they realize through experiencing something like live sparring, that things like ‘fancy,’ or ‘complex,’ moves often result in them getting punched really hard in the face.

I started training Karate at the age of 6, and then picked it up again in my early teens. All in all, I have been practicing martial arts for well over three decades now. I no longer have any illusions of what it takes to win in fights, or what one needs to do to improve a game that works under fire. I have really become a student of Occam’s razor, when something works, it is normally the simpler of two explanations that wins out. Another way of saying it is that the more assumptions you have to make for something working, the one that makes the fewest assumptions is typically the correct one.

This brings me to the nuts and bolts of this article. Everyone wants to improve their techniques. Lets use for simplicity sake the jab. What are some of the things I can do to make my jab better? Hit the heavy bag more, throw more jabs in sparring, jump on the mitts and fire off a hundred jabs in succession? I have seen people do this, I have done it too, and to be honest the return on investment is often low. It really bothered me. It didn’t make any sense either. Surely more repetition, would mean better technique?

But as usual, the answer wasn’t a complex one, but rather a simple one. Here are two ‘out of the box’ nothing fancy kind of approaches which really made a massive difference to my boxing game.

The Ground That Supports, and Interprets Movement Efficiency

One of the best places to start, and the easiest places to begin when thinking about improving your technique is in the exploration of movement. In martial arts, all your movement begins from your feet, and if you are boxing, your feet are standing on the ground. In this sense, all your movement is first and foremost grounded, which is then supported by the feet, legs, back and so forth.

This is an interesting observation. Often times when I am coaching and I ask someone who just threw a punch where that movement started? I will get responses like the “shoulder” or the “hip”. But almost everyone misses the fact that all martial movement, punches, kicks and so forth start from good old Mother Earth – the ground, or the floor, mat etc, depending on what you are training on.

All movement that requires you to strike with power, such as a jab or a front kick, requires engagement with the floor. With this in mind, the better the quality of engagement with the floor you have, just as a car tyre with good tread engages with the surface of a road — will result in a smoother performance of technique. Imagine for a moment that you took the tread away from the tyre, and then place a car on a wet surface — well we all know what will happen — a lot of skidding around, and likely an accident!

Using the tyre analogy, what happens then if a person executing a jab for instance has all his focus on his arm, forgetting out the rest of his body? Well, there really is no difference then between the example above of the tyre with no tread on a wet surface. Sure you can still punch, but the only part of your body doing any of the work is the arm. That car example, with bald tyres on a wet surface is doing work too, but even with the strongest engine, it’s not going to get very far in that type of condition. Juxtapose this then to punching only with one’s arm, it can never then result in usable power that could knock out an opponent — unless of course you happen to be a 400 pound Samoan and your arm ways the same as an average human being (but then that’s not really a jab is it, lets just call it a sledgehammer).

If you want to improve both the efficiency of you martial art technique, the power, the speed and even your accuracy, you have to begin where all those movements begin — in your feet, and more specifically from the floor. You need to have a conscious awareness that this is where the movement starts. Just by a person having that awareness, I have seen massive improvements in my students techniques, especially in their boxing game.

A simple drill I do with my students is to ask them to be barefoot, and then to grip the floor or mat with their feet, in the same way you would if you were to grip a handful of cooked spaghetti to throw into a bowl. This drill is so much more effective if you do it on a mat or sand. Using the ‘gripping’ of the ground analogy, I then get my students to get the sense of gripping the mat, and then execute the technique we have been working on. The initial positive result from this simple drill normally comes with a lot of ‘aha’ moments.

It goes to show that improving the performance of ones technique does not take more complex knowledge. A simple thing of acknowledging the ground you stand on (something you do all day, and have done all your life) — and being aware that you are standing on it — and then feeling the quality of your stance upon it, using it to drive your technique forward can bring about massive changes to the outcome of the techniques you are performing. Through this simple drill, my students now begin to move more of their ‘entire body’ rather than only their arm when punching. The consequence of this awareness can then be seen in every other technique they are asked to do.

Want to try it yourself? Just spend some time working this drill. Don’t even worry about working a specific technique. Just feel the quality of the ground below your feet. How can you use that to move forwards more efficiently? Try moving backwards, to the side, etc. Focus on improving the quality of that ‘feel’ of your feet on the ground and how you move. Shadow boxing is a great place to work this. You can always add in the punches or kicks, or knees later.

After a while, you quickly begin to realize that the ground offers support to your movement. You begin to realize that all your martial art technique when moving is a relationship between the earth that you stand upon, your body and gravity. Get that right, and your technique efficiency changes over night.

The Chain of Movement

Moving from grounding discussed above, is the understanding that movement happens in chains. Said another way your body is connected, all parts are in relationship. When you execute a hook for example, it doesn’t happen in isolation to the rest of your body. You could try and execute it in that way, but going back to my example previously where I witnessed people executing punches simply by using mostly their arm — even then you will see only the arm move, and the body is held back. In other words, sure you executing a hook, but it’s an ‘arm hook’.

Heres and example: Think of a chain laid out on the ground. You grab the front end of the chain, while wanting to move the back end of the chain on the other side. If you pick the front end up, and make a wave motion with the chain, it is clear to see that the movement, moves through the entire length of the chain, until it meets the other end. The nature of moving the chain in this way, makes it virtually impossible to not move the furtherest end — but you have to move the front end first. So it is with the nature of movement. The whole body is connected. A jab for instance that works best needs the entire body engaged behind it. You can never execute an effective jab just with your arm. However so many people execute their technique in this way.

If you understand the sequence of the movement chain and work it in that order, the outcome is not only efficiency of movement, but power and speed. If you want to improve the proficiency of the jab for example, then you first have to realize that the arm is actually the last part of a sequence in the movement pattern. In other words, using the chain example above, its at the other end of the chain.

For example: If wanted someone who is small in stature, and who does not weight a whole lot to execute any kind of strike with power, they have to first learn how to move their entire body into the punch — not just their arm. But as mentioned earlier so many people just move their arm. Their body remains like a statue. Once a person begins to realize that movement first starts from the ground, and in the case of a jab, moves through and up the ankle, calf, hamstring, quads, into the hips, up the lower back, into the shoulder blade, triceps, bicep, forearm and then finally the hand itself — the performance of their technique changes almost instantly. What you realize is that the arm and the hand as mentioned earlier are actually part of the final movements in that chain.

Want to give it a go?

  • Spend time doing some shadowboxing. While you do, break down one movement you want to work on, it can be a jab, a cross , etc. Now look at where the movement really begins. You know already that the first starting point is the ground. Now, moving from this premise, what would be next in the sequence in the move, what would need to move next, follow that same line of thinking, all the way up until you reach the end and the movement is completed.
  • Now try execute the technique you are working on in that exact sequence you discovered over and over. Drill it until your body moves in that sequence without you having to even think about it.
  • Now take that movement to a heavy bag or focus mitts. See if the quality of your movement has improved. Are you moving more effortlessly? Is there more power and speed?

Have fun!