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Martial arts

The highly respected martial arts author Dave Lowry maintains that not all so-called 'martial arts' are actually martial arts...
'Martial art' literally refers to a combat system that has been tried in battle/used by professional warriors/soldiers.
Such an art was intended to incapacitate, maim or kill - and the fighting methods should reflect this. Usually a martial art is weapons-oriented, with unarmed combat being a secondary concern.

Fighting arts are the most common

Most contemporary classes teach 'fighting arts'. They may have been designed as a sport, fighting bouts/competitions, gang warfare/street fighting or for their aesthetic value.
A fighting art is usually very functional and effective, but (by Lowry's definition) it is not a martial art. 

What does martial arts training involve?

You may find different combat approaches in a typical martial arts class:

  1. Fighting

  2. Sparring

  3. Self defence

  4. Traditional martial arts

The purpose/function of each mode of combat is an essential consideration. e.g. the aim of fighting is to beat the opponent whereas self defence is all about avoiding harm.

1. Fighting

'Fighting' literally refers to conflict - physical and psychological - and typically culminates in the exchange of blows. It has the connotation of reciprocity: two people trading blows. Taking turns.
Both parties are involved in the conflict. People may fight over serious matters, for fun, prestige or money.
Fighting often involves emotion, aggression, stubbornness, pride and the desire to get your point across/have your way. Usually there are two or more people involved in the combat.
There may or may not be rules. A fight can be for sport, it can be lethal, it can be playful.

It is said; “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move. At the opponent's slightest move, I move first."

(Wu Yu-hsiang)

2. Sparring

Sparring is fighting practice. There are rules. The combatants may wear protective gear and there may be a referee to ensure fair play/sporting attitude.
People spar in order to hone their skills and experience fear. Although sparring is not as emotionally charged as fighting, it still has the potential to be very dangerous.

3. Self defence

Self defence is quite different to fighting and sparring. Unlike fighting, self defence involves one person being assaulted by another. The scenario is not a fight or a duel. It involves bullying.
There is an attacker and a victim/defender. Self defence classes vary greatly in what they teach. Some classes offer short courses featuring tips & pointers.
Other classes are much more serious; with the defender seeking to fight the attacker or even incapacitate them.

4. Traditional martial arts

Most martial arts were not designed for competition fighting or for sparring or for self defence. They were designed to inflict serious harm on the opponent.
Maiming, killing and breaking limbs was typically the goal. Clearly, such outcomes are not suitable for competitions, sparring or necessarily self defence.
Schools that train classical/traditional martial arts explore these skills safely and carefully, with the aim being to apply the techniques as realistically as possible without actually harming anyone.
Exponents are usually roughed-up but not typically injured. The training is not geared towards fighting in a ring/bout and may not even work in that context.

Which approach is best?

Martial arts classes tend to offer a variety of options aimed at different personalities and preferences. Individual systems and styles favour certain training methods.
Most classes teach a workable system. Which approach is best?
It all depends on what you want. A person who enjoys fighting will choose a class that focuses on fighting.
Someone who wants to finish the somebody quickly may select a traditional martial art that focuses on incapacitation. Another person may choose self defence because they have no interest in fighting.
Which approach works best for you?

Too lethal for practice?

Some martial artists assert that their particular art is too lethal to be used against other people. This seems counter-productive. If the art is lethal, then what do you plan to do with it?
In all fairness, most fighting and martial arts have the potential to maim or kill somebody. It is relatively easy to inflict injury, break a bone or cause joint damage.
good instructor should be capable of demonstrating their fighting method without hurting the student. And should be able to provide material that adequately illustrates the nature of their given art in a non-lethal way.

Full contact or full power?

Full contact is commonly assumed to mean full power. This is not accurate. A full power karate punch would kill.
A full power judo, ju jitsu or aikido application would break a limb or concuss the attacker.

Full contact

If you don't actually make contact, there is no way of knowing whether or not your martial art even works. Pulling punches is just bad practice. A punch must impact a body.
A throw must take the person to the ground. An arm break (during practice) must tax the joint.

Power management

Think of power management as being akin to volume control on a stereo system. Low volume is suitable for safe, controlled practice. The higher the volume, the more unpredictable the outcome.
Martial arts are meant to be lethal, so full power means killing somebody and no one wants to do that. Ideally, you should train as vigorously as you safely can.

The martial arts were not developed for the defence of soldiers fighting on battlefields. Neither are they sports. The combat that martial artists practice is free of restraints. Martial arts have one objective only: to neutralise an attack by any means, and as rapidly as possible.

(Howard Reid)


Page created 14 February 1996
Last updated 04 May 2023