By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
In the martial arts there is an idea that there are no “secrets” out there. The belief is held by many that everything that can be taught is being openly taught, and secret martial arts techniques and principles held only by the by masters simply don’t exist. I’ve also noticed the commonly held idea that the only “secret” out there is plain old hard work and effort.
While hard work and effort are very important, the simple truth is that the reason martial artists think that secrets don’t exist is simply because they don’t their history, the definition of the word “secret”, or they don’t know any of the secrets themselves! If someone is successful at competition fighting or of high rank with 20 or 30+ years of study they naturally assume they know everything. If someone was a 7th or 8th degree black belt then surely they, if anyone, would know the secrets, wouldn’t they?
You can only learn what you’ve been taught. If no one has taught you any of these mystical “secrets”, and you haven’t figured out any on your own, then you don’t know any. I’ve seen many 6th, 7th, and 8th degree black belts give demonstrations, and in some cases I thought that what they were doing didn’t even qualify as martial arts (an explanation of why is below).
By assuming that there are no secrets and that you already know everything you simply stop learning. From what I have personally observed I think that this is happening to most middle level and high ranking martial artists. They think that they know all there is to know so for the rest of their martial arts career they learn more and more about less and less. At the end you ask a 70 year of 9th degree black belt, a “master”, what he knows and basically you find that he knows how to punch and kick in a straight line. Sure he probably knows forms, sparring, board breaking, traditional weapons, self-defense techniques, and some wrist locks and throws; but it basically adds up to most of what he knows is how to punch and kick in a straight line.
Please understand that I’m not knocking martial arts or the masters. What I’m trying to convey is that by thinking that there are no secrets to the martial arts you stop looking for them and then stop learning. There are more to the marital arts than a simple kick, punch, and block. However, the more and more I meet fellow high ranking martial artists the more and more I find that all they know is how to kick, punch, and block.
The martial arts are very old and many masters spent their lives studying and developing them. There are many secrets in the martial arts, but the secrets aren’t necessarily what most American martial artists might expect (more on this below).
The reason why certain things were kept secret is that originally the martial arts world was a very hostile one. The martial arts trace back to China, and in ancient China your ability in martial arts was often a great determining factor of how long you lived. This being the case you tried to keep an “ace in the hole” so to speak.
Towns, villages, and wealthy families all had their own private armies to protect themselves and their holdings. In these military groups you wanted everyone properly trained because you’d be fighting together and your life would greatly depend on the person standing next to you. However, there was also an internal power struggle in most of these groups. Lower ranking members would naturally want more and more status and power within the group and higher ranking members would want to keep the status and power they already had. One way of keeping the status quo was to withhold certain teachings. If the junior members of a family had to be strong well trained martial artists to fight for your family’s interests, the senior members, especially as they got older, needed to have tricks up their sleeves so they could keep their status if challenged by a younger lower ranking member. Thus, the more sophisticated teachings of most styles started being held back in order to maintain a status quo.
In most commercial martial arts schools there were two separate groups of students: inside students (often called “disciples”) and outside students. When a student came to a master and was accepted at the school be became an outside student. Outside students had two classes: senior students and junior students. You’d begin as a junior student and be taught almost exclusively by a senior student. You’d often spend years learning the basics and drilling them day by day having very little contact with the school’s master. Over time you graduate to being a senior student and you’d be given the responsibility of teaching new junior students. One may be an outside student for 5 or 6 years, while others might remain an outside student forever.
While you’d have very little contact with the school’s master he or she would keep a watchful eye on you to monitor your progress and behavior. A junior student would receive a basic martial arts education and a senior student would receive an intermediate martial arts education. However, after years and years of study the master might decide that you were ready to become an inside student and his personal disciple. This decision was often based on your personal skill, character, and the commitment you’d shown to learning the art. After all, even if you were the most skilled student at the school, if you regularly missed classes or didn’t practice on your own the master wouldn’t waste his time giving you more instruction.
As an inside student you’d receive the advanced training of that style. This training was kept secret and you could be kicked out the school and ostracized from the martial arts community for sharing it. During one of these training sessions you’d enter the school and the doors and windows would be locked so no one could spy on you.
The Chinese grew up with a very turbulent history and saw all non-Chinese as potential threats. When martial artists from Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Vietnam, Thailand, the US, and other countries came to China to study almost all did so as outside students. While many martial artists from other countries may have been accepted as inside disciples, most were not simply because they were not Chinese.
What this boils down to is that the basic and intermediate teachings of the martial arts were widely taught, often to anyone who paid the school fees, but the advanced teachings that inside students received was closely guarded and seldom shared. The result of this is that many students would study as an outside student for 10 or more years, think they knew enough, and then they’d leave and begin teaching martial arts. Then they would teach students, then their students would teach students, and suddenly it is several generations later and that outside student is now considered a “master” and his students aren’t even aware of what they don’t know.
An interesting example is that long ago I read an article about an American Kung Fu Master who was the direct disciple of a late well known master who came from China. This American Master was the head of a large organization and had several masters himself. One day he decided to go to China to visit the village that his art, and teacher, were from.
Upon arriving there he found that there really weren’t any formal martial arts schools but that many people did practice various arts including the one his master has brought with him. After finding some people who he deemed to be masters of his style (although they themselves denied this status) he put on a demonstration for them. They reported that his technique didn’t look right and several things were “off”.
What this American Master found out was that his style of Kung Fu was actually built around a certain style of footwork. Once they taught him the footwork he said it was like being hit in the head with a brick. Suddenly everything in the art made sense and he realized he had only been doing the techniques of the art, but not the true art.
When he asked the local masters why they thought that his master never taught him the footwork, they replied that his master probably had never been taught the footwork himself and most likely had left the village before his training was completed.
When he returned to America he had to recall all his masters and teach them the footwork. Now that master visits that village every few years to train with the villagers.
This is just one example of an art being taught without its secrets. Often arts would be developed around certain principles of combat. Then the techniques would be added that supported those concepts. The concepts and principles would be kept as secrets and only be divulged to disciples and masters. Everyone else would have to spend years getting just the techniques down.
Other reasons that secrets weren’t passed down were that the master quit teaching, closed down his school, was killed (numerous times Chinese Masters were hunted down and killed by local warlords and the government to prevent uprisings), or just didn’t like a particular student.
There are teachings that have been kept secret; close door lessons that only a select few in a school were taught. The really interesting thing to most people is that these secrets are generally not techniques. One of the reasons people think there are no secrets is because they consider the martial arts to only be a collections of techniques. However, most of the secrets are actually strategies and scientific principles that make the techniques work.
In the interest of sharing some of the secrets with my fellow martial artists, here are 11 of the secrets that my master has shared with me. I can personally attest that all of these 11 secrets will make all martial arts more effective. The reason why I know they are secrets is firstly because he told me that they were secrets when he taught them to me, and also in my 24 years in the martial arts I rarely if ever see them used, on purpose anyways.
I should state that there are hundreds of secrets in the martial arts. Some are sound scientific principles, others are actual techniques, and others boil down to personal preferences held by a particular master. What are discussed in this article are the 11 that popped into my head while writing this article. I believe these are the 11 that will be of the greatest benefit to the average martial artist.
I’m sure that while reading this certain people may say to themselves, “this isn’t a secret! I’ve knows this for years!” Well then that is great. You know something that the vast majority of martial artist don’t know, or at least don’t practice.
The first four secrets are what I consider to be the four pillars of martial arts. In my opinion what makes a particular movement martial arts is not exactly what you do but rather how you do it. You can throw a punch but if that punch does not contain these four things it is not martial arts, it is simply swinging your arm around. However, if you simply shove someone (not a traditional martial arts technique) but you did it using all four pillars then what you just did was martial arts.
11 Martial Arts Secrets
Secret #1: Proper Breathing. Proper breathing is something that I see a lot of people talk about but almost never practice. Proper breathing is important because it keeps you from getting winded, provides internal tension that gives you structure for your stances and strikes, and by regulating your oxygen flow you can keep yourself calm under pressure. Simply breathe in through the nose and slowly out through the mouth. Whenever you pull into your body breathe in and whenever you push out (strike) breathe out forcefully.
One of the most important things is the internal tension created by tightening your diaphragm and stomach muscles. An easy way to get this tension is to make a sound when you exert yourself. It doesn’t really matter what the sound is or how loud it is, simply making a forceful sound creates that inner tension. When I do techniques I make a sound that is basically a very quiet, but forceful, breathing sound. It is hard to hear and doesn’t draw attention but it does give me more power, structure, and help regulate my breathing.
Another great thing about sounds is that when you make a forceful sound the next thing that your body naturally does is to take a large inhale afterwards. This way you’re forcing air out to give you power and then encouraging your body to take a deep breath afterwards to keep your oxygen intake up during the event.
Secret #2: Grounding. This is another thing that is often talked about but rarely done. I think it is rarely done because it is described in a mystical sense and not understood. In Karate you’re taught to “grow roots” or to “grab the Earth with your toes”. What grounding really is is to simply lower your center of gravity.
If you stand up straight then your center of gravity is very high and your balance is easily disrupted. If you are dancing on your toes like a boxer then you have even less contact with the ground and your balance is disrupted even easier.
The easiest way to learn to ground yourself is to study Tai Chi. In Tai Chi you’re taught to stand up straight and keep your spine long. Push your heels deeply into the ground and then push the crown of your head (the rear portion of the top of your head) towards the sky. Next, with your feet naturally at shoulder width apart, bend your knees to lower your hips slightly towards the floor. With your center of gravity (your hips) lowered closer to the floor you suddenly come more stable and with practice much more fluid in moving.
You can ground yourself in any stance simply by keeping your back straight, keeping your shoulders back, bending your knees, and slightly lowering your pelvis closer to the floor.
The benefits of grounding are many. With a lower center of gravity you have better balance, can better handle being pushed or pulled, can generate more power for punching or kicking, you will move in a smoother more natural manner (which is harder for the human eye to detect), and your body will move as one unit. Simply, if any time you have to exert or take force you want to ground yourself, and if you study the martial arts and are not grounding yourself you are not practicing marital arts.
One complaint I get about grounding is from people who engage in sport fighting. They say they cannot ground because they need to be on their toes. Being on their toes allows them to move quickly in all directions so they can dodge incoming blows and advance to attack. My reply to them is to try it and decide for themselves.
When you ground your entire body will fluidly move as one unit, but you will move one step at a time. That doesn’t mean you won’t move quickly or that you cannot move in any direction, it just means that instead of hopping several feet at a time while on your toes you will take one step at a time (or a series of step) while being securely flat footed.
One great thing about grounding is that you’re forced to take one step at a time. By taking one step at a time you will be able to stay close to your aggressor. Instead of shuffling several feet to the side so you can “get ready”, you will step alongside and be in perfect position to attack or counterattack. In order to do any technique you have to be close and grounding will help you be close or allow you keep distance if you choose to.
Secret #3: Bone Alignment. A simple truth is that when an object moves it will generate force, simply by virtue of it having mass. When that object collides with another object a portion of that force will go into the object it collided with. If two objects collide with each other, whichever’s structure yields first will be where the majority of that force will want to go.
For example, if you punch someone and your wrist is not tight your wrist will want to bend. If your wrist bends your bones are no longer in alignment so instead of that force flowing smoothly down your arm it will be backed up in your wrist and you will most likely injure yourself more than your opponent.
To make sure that the majority of the force goes into your opponent you need your bones to be in alignment starting at the heel of your rear foot (which is ideally pressed into the floor) up your leg to your hips, back straight, shoulder down, elbow down and in, and fist and wrist squeezed as tight as you can. If all of these bones are aligned then the force you are transmitting will flow smoothly through you and into your target and you will not even feel it. If any part of your body is out of alignment that that is where the force will get backed up and lead to your injury and a wasted punch.
What I see is often people leaning to the side with their shoulder up, their elbow suck out, and their wrist bent. Their lower body usually has bent knees and their heels off the floor. This is one reason why boxers and people who practice on heavy bags often end up with problems in their knees, shoulders, elbows, wrists, or neck.
A bonus secret along this same line is that when you strike your opponent should move away from your first and not the other way around. One reason that in every test of punch strength Karate practitioners test as having some of the weakest punches is that they train to retract their punches as soon as they make contact. The reason for this is that don’t want their opponent to grab their striking limb.
However, in the same way that the longer you touch a hot pan the more severely you will be burned, the longer your fist is in contact with your target the more force will be transferred into the target. In order to put the most force possible into your aggressor you need to strike with proper grounding, breathing, and bone alignment and then push all the way through them and let them move away from your first.
Secret #4: Coordinated Body Movement (CMB). CMB simply means that in every movement you make your entire body should start the movement at the same time and finish the movement at the same time. The benefits of this are many; here are only four.
First, you will move more smoothly and will incur less wear and tear on your body.
Second, by moving in a smoother manner you will instantly appear much faster to your aggressor. The way that the eyes and brain pick up offensive movement is by observing all the movements in its field of vision and then focusing on the jerky ones. Fast jerky motions are seen by the brain as offensive but relaxed smooth movements, while clearly seen, are generally not considered offensive. By executing a technique smoothly with CMB their brain generally won’t realize you’re making an offensive moment until it is almost over. The late David Carradine was quite adept at this.
Third, with CMB your entire body has one intention. This means it will move quicker and end up generating and transferring more force.
Fourth, by moving with CMB you will always be stable and able to switch techniques or targets quickly.
Secret #5: Physics Explains Martial Arts. If you want to understand martial arts you should study physics. By studying physics we know we have six simple tools to accomplish “work”. These tools are the wedge, the inclined/declined plain, the lever, the screw, the wheel and axle, and the pulley. Every martial arts technique uses one or more of these principles and by understand them you can understand your techniques and fix the ones you’re having problems with.
The wedge exists when one object intersects another object. Every strike is a wedge. The purpose of a wedge is to insert an object INTO another object forcefully in order to split it. Think about this and then think about punches and kicks.
The purpose of your strikes is not to hit the surface of your aggressor, make him say “oww”, and give him a nasty bruise. You need to focus on penetration. Anytime you strike you should penetrate a minimum of 6 inches into your aggressor. By focusing on driving your strike inside your aggressor, and not just to him, you will accomplish far more “work”.
An inclined and declined plain are used to guide an object in one direction or another. A hard block is often a wedge while a passing block or parry is a plain. If you block with intent of injuring their arm then you’re using a wedge, but if your intention is to guide their arm or stop it by having your arm at a 45 degree angle then you’re using a plain. Plains are also widely used in takedowns, throws, and tripping techniques.
Levers are used to apply force on joints for submission holds or joint breaking. Levers are also widely used in both throws and takedowns.
A screw is used to accomplish “work” by turning something in a circle. Aikido and many internal Chinese styles use the screw concept widely. If you place a screw on a piece of wood and turn it enough in the correct direction the screw will descend into the wood. In the same way if you turn a human in a circle, in the right way, they will be forced to descend into the ground.
To best understand a wheel and axle think about your car. Your car has a wheel that turns around an axle. Essentially it is like using a handle to turn a screw. An example is the Japanese technique Kote Gaeshi. You turn the hand not to put pressure on the hand, but to use the hand to apply pressure to the wrist, and then the elbow, and then the shoulder.
A pulley is a machine that allows us to do half or less of the work of moving an object. How do we allow our aggressor to do half of the “work” (work = injuring him) for us? The easiest way is to pull him into a strike. If you grab your aggressor and pull him towards you as you step in and drive a strike into him then he will be supplying a great deal of the force needed to injure him. In Aikido when someone punches you can step and pivot to the outside and then grab his wrist and use his existing forward force to spin him around and put him where you want him; this is another great example.
If you understand these 6 tools and how they work you can look at your techniques and understand HOW they work. Once you know that you can better use them, tweak them if they if they don’t use the tool effectively, and fix them yourself.
Secret #6: Thrusting, Dropping, and Raising Your Body Weight. When you’re small you are weak; when you a tired or sick you are weak; when you grow old you will become weak. All these things are true and still we focus on muscle for our power.
There are many stories of little old masters in China seemingly touching a person many times his size and making them fly across the room. How did he do that? Was it magic? No it was physics.
The master was simply transferring the potential energy of his bodyweight into kinetic energy and then transferring that kinetic energy into the other person. Since people equate force with ferocious swinging of the limbs and they didn’t see that, they assume the effect was mystical.
Your bodyweight is the greatest source of force you have. If you are small you still weigh something; if you are tired or sick you still weigh the same as you did when you weren’t, and if you’re old you may be heavier or lighter but you still have bodyweight to use.
Anything with mass generates force when it moves. So if you move your body you will generate force and if your body runs into something a portion of that force will transfer into that object. If you weigh more you will have more force; if you move faster you will have more force.
If you want to add bodyweight to your punch then step into your aggressor while you punch. The deeper you step into them the more bodyweight you will add. If you step all the way through him and actually bump into him and knock him back you will send it all into him.
Force = Mass x Acceleration. The average lunging step forward a person takes while they strike is 3.5 miles an hour. So if you hit someone with all four pillars of marital arts (“secrets” 1-4) and you step all the way through your aggressor and actually bump him with your body you can send 3.5 times your bodyweight into him.
So, if you weight 100 you will send 350 lbs. into him. If you weigh 200 you will send 700 lbs. into him. Nearly any injury can be caused with 50 lbs. of force or less.
If you cannot step into him to generate and transfer force you can still move your body up or down. If you squat in a deep horse stance and then explosively straighten your legs while you throw a punch you will put bodyweight into that punch. If you are standing nearly chest to chest with someone and don’t have the room to throw a traditional punch you can bring your fist into body, and then bend your knees to drop your bodyweight while you punch. This can easily supply the force to knock someone back. To add more force use the “4 pillars” and rotate your body into the strike.
Secret #7: Unbalance them to move them or do leverages or throws. In the martial arts we often talk about the importance of keeping your balance while taking your aggressor’s balance. However, rarely if ever do they discuss why. The reason why is simply that if you are off balance then you are vulnerable.
If you want to walk up to someone and try to put them in a wrist lock you will have a hard time because they can easily defend themselves. However, if you walk up to them and knock them off balance they will go into a very brief period where have limited ability to move and are focused not on you but on regaining their balance. So, walk up and hit them with a palm underneath the chin to knock them back and off balance and when they’re busy being off balance you can put him in a wrist lock with little trouble. The same is true with both throws and takedowns.
If you want to throw someone who still has their balance…good luck. Take them off balance and then a little nudge will knock them down.
Secret #9: Targeting. Nearly every time I see a person teach martial arts they will tell their students “high punch, low punch”, “high kick, middle kick, low kick”, or “face punch, body punch”. This general manner of striking is made worse in sparring.
Training to hit general ambiguous places on your aggressor’s body generally leads to just standing there and trading blows with him. Hitting someone in the face does little but hitting someone in the temple does a lot.
As much as I don’t like to use “MMA” (I put it in quotation marks because it is not marital arts and has little to nothing to do with actual martial arts) for an example, a great example of this appeared on the TV show “Ultimate Fighter”. I saw a few minutes of a show that featured Kimbo Slice. In that short clip that I saw fighters warming up for a workout by paring up and taking turns lightly tapping each other with punches. You saw all these guys going back and forth warming up their muscles and then you saw Kimbo Slice doing that warm up drill with his partner. When the partner lightly tapped Kimbo with his gloves he tapped his body a few times and his head a few times; when Kimbo did it he tapped the body a few times and then tapped the tip of his partner’s chin a few times.
The result? In this slow warm up drill Kimbo dominated the other guy. Instead of going back and forth: partner 1, partner 2….partner 1, partner 2, Kimbo and his partner went: Kimbo…..partner 2, Kimbo…..partner 2. The light taps on the chin were enough to create a small effect that the partner had to recover from before he could respond.
If you don’t focus on targeting you’ll just trade blows back and forth with your aggressor. You’ll be fighting his entire body and causing bruises instead of injuries. If you do focus on targets (throat, ear, eye, knee, spleen, etc.) then it won’t be your entire body against his entire body; it will be your entire body against his temple, or your entire body against his groin.
Secret #10: Don’t block, strike. When it comes to defense, aggressiveness overwhelms non-aggressiveness, and action is always faster than reaction. This is why there is an old Chinese saying that anyone can block one punch, not many people can block two punches, only a couple can block three punches, and almost no one can block four punches.
If a training partner puts on gloves and comes at you with one punch most of the time you can block it. If he comes with two quick punches it is a lot harder; with three strong aggressive punches one of them will most likely connect; four will overwhelm almost anyone. Combine them with a combination of punches, kicks, knees, and elbows to varied areas of the body and four or five strike combinations are nearly always successful.
This being true trying to block what your aggressor throws at you is fighting a losing battle. A better strategy is to strike their arm instead of blocking it. If you block it then you’ll stop that particular arm but they can use their other arm, their legs, or retract their punching arm and continue their attack. However, if you strike their arm you can either knock it away and open up their body or knock it down and pull them off balance.
For example, someone comes at you with a right punch. You do a right cross block with your forearm as you step into the block with your left foot and rotate your body to the left. This moves your entire body into the block and you will hit their arm hard enough for it to go numb (most likely) and you will knock it out of the way and cause their body to come off balance and rotate to their right. Now their right arm is numb and they are off balance and temporarily vulnerable to counterattack. If they were planning on unleashing a combination they will be stopped in their tracks.
Another method would be to use that same right cross block with your forearm but when it connects with his arm bring your arm down sharply in a chopping motion to your waist. This will knock his arm down, most likely make it numb, and pull him forwards off balance getting the same basic result as before. A nice thing about this method is that is often quicker because a sharp downward chop can be added to any block to get the same effect and you can often move your arm faster than you can move your body.
Two more nice benefits of the second method are that since it makes them bend forwards sharply you can use that by throwing a quick strike of your own. By doing this they will bend into your strike and add their own weight to it.
Also this tends to create “eye jerk”. The quick drop of their head will often cause their eyes to go in and out of focus resulting in them perceiving that they actually lost that second of time. If you do the block-strike with your right arm and then chop the right side of their neck with your right hand it will have occurred with the rhythm “one-two”, but they will perceive it as happening at the same time.
Secret #11: Focus On Principles, Not Techniques. The final secret is to not put too much emphasis on techniques but rather focus on the principles that make them work. If all you know is the techniques of your art then all you’ll end up knowing is how to punch and kick in a straight line. By knowing the principles behind that techniques you can fix them if you or someone else is doing something wrong.
You will also we better at defending yourself because if all you have is techniques you‘ll have to sort through your bag of techniques to find a technique that matches the situation as it happens and it can take time. However, if you focus on principles you can quickly adapt and adjust to any situation.
Another great benefit is that you can walk into a different martial arts school and you’ll understand what they are doing. For example, when I started martial arts I focused solely on techniques until I got to black belt. Once I earned my black belt my instructors started to make me focus on principles. They stressed that techniques themselves are not power, rather knowing how and why techniques worked, or didn’t work, was power.
With this knowledge I walked into an Aikido school several years ago and found that I understood nearly everything after viewing it a few times. I looked at a joint lock or throw and knew the science behind it that made it work; I just had to see exactly how it was that Aikido applied that science. The result was that I picked up everything quickly and rose through the ranks with ease, despite only being able to attend classes infrequently
These are just a sample of the secrets that the martial arts have to offer. By studying these you can greatly increase your skill and get closer to mastery.