October 2014 – Spirit Made Steel Martial Arts

Monthly Archives: October 2014


6 Martial Arts Myths and the Truths Behind Them

The martial arts world is home to an awful lot of myths, misconceptions, half truths and sometimes even outright lies. Most of this comes from well meaning individuals – including well trained martial arts instructors – who are merely repeating what they’ve been told. Only a small portion of it is malicious, coming from hucksters and scam artists hoping to part people from their hard earned money. Even so, all of it is damaging – not just to those who are fooled, but to the martial arts community as a whole.

The selection below is just a very few of the martial arts myths that I’ve encountered over the years. As you can see, most of these myths are based on some small nugget of truth that has been expanded and twisted into a dangerous form.

Myth 1 – Super Secret Ancient Knowledge of Awesomeness

To hear Hollywood – and some martial artists – tell it, the only martial arts worth knowing are the ancient, secret styles taught by monks hidden away in fantastical mountains who never teach their mysteries to outsiders. The older and more pure a martial art is, the better. The fewer people who have studied it, the better. The less well known it is, the better. And all modern martial arts are just “watered down” versions of these ancient secrets.

Truth: Go ask the US Army if the oldest “martial” fighting systems are the most effective. That noise you here is their laughter. What was that? You can’t hear it over the roar of a cruise missile or the whump-whump-whump of an Apache attack helicopter? Yeah, me either. But trust me, it’s there.

The truth is that combat is always evolving. The oldest and most ancient martial arts began when a caveman picked up a stick and whacked another caveman over the head with it. Honestly, it probably began even before he figured out to use the stick. If we went back to the “oldest” system, it would be that simple.

There is a bit of truth to the idea of secret styles. They do exist. In fact, most martial arts styles were highly secretive up until about the 19th century. Until gunpowder revolutionized modern warfare (and remember – Japan was completely isolated until the 1890s, so this took a lot longer there), what we know now as the formalized martial arts were closely held military secrets. You didn’t let them out because you didn’t want your enemies to use them against you.

In this day and age, though, many of the secret arts have been aired to “the public” – meaning that they’re accepting students outside their secret clans, not necessarily that all the info is on YouTube. Outside experts have had a chance to study the once hidden styles. And although they’re often effective, they’re not anything particularly more effective than the less secretive styles. There are only so many ways the human body can move, and at this point in human history we’ve studied most of them quite well.

Nevertheless, some of these older and ancient arts can be a lot of fun to learn and can still have utility in the modern age. There’s nothing at all wrong with studying them. Just don’t expect them to be amazingly superior to other arts.

Myth 2 – Strength Training Will Make You Slow as Christmas

I’ve heard this one a million times from martial artists. The argument goes something like this: “I don’t do weight training because weight training makes you big and bulky and that makes you slow.” The raw ignorance of this argument makes me groan every time.

Truth: being big doesn’t make you slow. Being fat makes you slow. More muscle will make you faster. And stronger. And you’ll take a hit better. In short, for the martial artist there is NO downside to strength training. It will improve your martial arts in every way.

Some out there will even try to claim that strength training has to be done “right” to benefit martial artists. Specifically, they’ll say that you have to focus on “explosive power” rather than strength. There’s no doubt that this is the best way for martial artists to strength train. But almost any basic strength training program will benefit you, even if it’s less than perfect. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Start incorporating free weights into your training regimen today.

Myth 3 – All Fights Can Be Ended With a Hug and a Song

OK, technically speaking this myth doesn’t usually come from martial artists. It comes from others outside the community who think that all of life’s problems can be solved by sitting around a campfire singing “Kumbaya.” They live delusional lives in a make believe Cloud Cuckoo Land in their heads.

Truth: Most fights actually can be avoided – and that’s exactly what we encourage our students to do. Avoiding the fight altogether is the best way to defend yourself. The simplest ways to do this are to avoid trouble areas (your local police can tell you where the high crime areas are; these days they might even have it online) and keep your wits – and your calm – about you.

But there are people out there who, for one reason or another, want to hurt you. And they aren’t always so thoughtful as to keep themselves pent up in predictable “bad areas of town.” Thankfully, most of my readers live in a place and an age where those people are rare. It was not always so – and in many parts of the world still isn’t. Even so, some people out there will do everything they can to hurt you.

It may be because they’re high. Or it may be because they’re depressed. Or poor. Or hungry. Or they’ve had a hard life. Or, occasionally, even because they’re evil. It doesn’t really matter why. They are out there. Sometimes the only way to defend against these people is with violence.

Myth 4 – Fights Only End When One Combatant Gruesomely Kills the Other

This one is most commonly spread by a certain breed of macho martial artist that is obsessed with showing off how “deadly” he is. Every technique he trains is either deadly or maiming, and “nothing else works in the street.” Anything that isn’t heavily destructive to the opponent is “useless” and “not worth your time to learn.” They would have you believe that the only way to end a fight is to brutally maim your opponent, kill him painfully, and disfigure the corpse.

Truth: The fight ends when one combatant or the other no longer has the will to fight. Killing your opponent will definitely achieve this goal. Maiming and dismembering him often will as well. But quite often it’s possible to achieve this with far less destruction than either killing or maiming. Especially if you, like most of my readers and students, live in suburban 21st century America.

Most self defense situations are not fights to the death. Most of my students will never face off against a crazed meth-addled skinhead streetfighter in a dark alley on the wrong side of the railroad tracks – if for no other reason than that I’ve taught them (I hope) not to enter dark alleys on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. Most of my students, even those in law enforcement – are unlikely to find themselves in hand-to-hand combat to the death (it is at least plausible that my military students might find themselves there; but even so, if they end up in that situation unarmed, something has gone horribly wrong).

Far more likely for my students is to find themselves at a bar, either trying to control a drunk friend who’s gotten a bit wild or fending off a frat boy who’s had a bit too much to drink and wants to start something. End that fight with a maimed or dead opponent and you can count on a nice vacation at the county jail. Even my law enforcement students are likely to find themselves up on excessive force or police brutality charges.

Ending a fight without killing or maiming your opponent is certainly much harder. It definitely takes more training and more skill to do so successfully and without putting yourself in undue danger. But it is possible, and for serious students in the modern age it’s definitely worth striving for.

Myth 5 – This One Thing I Read on Facebook is All I Need to Defend Myself

I don’t know about you, but I see these pop up in my feed all the time – sometimes from very experienced martial artists who should know better. “Here’s this one thing I learned from a self defense class, and I’m passing it on so that YOU, TOO can now be safe!” OK, usually this is more like a list of 10 or 20 things. And if you read it closely, it never actually says, “this is all you need to be safe.” But people spread it around that way and act as if it is.

Truth: Learning effective self defense doesn’t happen from reading one article online, taking one 2 hour self defense course, or even a few short weeks of martial arts training. The problem is that even though you can learn a lot of things mentally, it takes time to train your body to actually perform correctly. There’s no way around it. That’s just how the human body works.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to learn from these articles – although even there you have to be careful. Many of these articles contain “tips” that sound good but are of dubious value in the real world. Occasionally they even contain a few ideas that are downright dangerous. But most commonly the true danger comes from the complacency of thinking that reading this article, taking this one class for a few hours, etc is all you need to do to keep yourself safe.

Learning real self defense takes time, effort and energy. There are tons of quality programs out there that will teach it to you, if you’ll take the time to learn it. If you’re not ready to invest the time, that’s fine. Really, it is. You have to make your own choices in life of what you want to spend your time on. But please, please don’t let yourself fall into this trap and believe that you know what you’re doing when you don’t. It’s a recipe for getting yourself hurt.

Myth 6 – Anyone With Less Than 20 Years of Training is Worthless in a Real Fight

On the flip side of the previous myth comes the belief that until you’ve spent [5, 10, 15 – pick a number] years training, you’re completely worthless in a fight. Hollywood is mostly responsible for this this one, portraying all martial artists as those who have spent decades training and meditating in temples (ironically, this is when they’re not portraying them as students who have learned all they needed to learn in two weeks). But some martial artists and some styles help to portray this myth as well.

Truth: Most decent martial arts training programs can teach you enough to competently defend yourself on the streets of suburbia in about 9-15 months. Will you be amazing in that time? No. Hollywood level? Absolutely not. Tournament winning? Depends on the tournament bracket. Taking on all comers? Nope. But against your average street thug (typically untrained and not really interested in a serious fight), you’ll probably do fine after about that much time.

Now, don’t get me wrong: after about a year of training there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Our program runs about 3.5-4 years for a black belt (longer for younger children). And remember, black belt doesn’t mean “expert.” It means “advanced beginner.” But expert level isn’t really necessary for most people for competent self defense.

Also keep in mind that some styles of martial arts specifically take longer to reach a level of real-world effectiveness. Aikido, for instance, is focused on a more “passive,” less destructive approach to self defense. It can be very effective – if you’ve got about a decade to put into practicing it. But if they aren’t supplementing the program with other things (and many Aikido schools do, to their credit), it will take a lot longer than a year to reach any level of effectiveness. But in most schools, 9-15 months will get you somewhere useful.

These are just a very few of the many martial arts myths out there. What are your favorites?


8 Benefits of Martial Arts Training

“Why do you take Karate?”

It’s a question I’ve asked almost every single student I’ve ever trained at almost every single belt test that I’ve ever run. To give credit where credit is due, I stole the question from my own Sensei. It’s a question that a good sensei should always be asking his students.

Over the years I’ve encountered a pretty wide variety of responses. Some are obvious – almost cliche, even. Others are humorous (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not). I’ve even had one or two that are downright weird.

Martial arts training can provide an astonishing array of benefits. I tell my students that there’s no right or wrong answer – only your answer. However, that’s not quite true. There is a wrong answer. You see, what you get out of the martial arts is largely dependent upon what you put into it – just like most things in life. Almost all of the benefits I’ve heard in the past can come from martial arts training. But if you’re not training correctly, they won’t. Here are eight benefits of martial arts training – and how to make sure that you do get those benefits.

Benefit 1 – Practical Self Defense

This seems like the obvious one, right? I mean, that’s the reason the martial arts exist in the first place, right? I hate to break this to you, but when it comes to practical self defense not all martial arts classes are created equal. Step back and re-read that sentence. Notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t mention styles at all. I said classes. The choice of words was deliberate.

There are a lot of different martial arts styles out there, and almost all of them have some kind of utility in a fight. If they didn’t, nobody ever would have trained them in the first place. But not all classes are run in a way that provides anything useful for practical self defense.

The easiest example is certain flavors of Tai Chi. All of us in the martial arts community are well aware that Tai Chi is an ancient Asian martial art. But there are places where Tai Chi is taught only as a low-impact exercise regimen, and nothing of the martial arts side is ever even mentioned. There are Tai Chi students out there who don’t even know that it’s a martial art.

Of course not all Tai Chi is like that – in fact, our own instructor, Steffan de Graffenreid, teaches Tai Chi in a way that is very faithful to its ancient origins and extremely effective as a martial art. The difference is in the focus of the training. In order for your martial arts training to be effective for self defense, it must contain the following:

  • Discussions of real-world scenarios
  • Examples of how to apply your techniques to those scenarios
  • Dynamic practice of your technique against real human beings (otherwise known as sparring, one-step practice, or many other names)
  • Practice of timing, distance, and power – not just motion.
  • Practice actually hitting something (or, in the case of pure grappling arts, actually practicing on a real human being)
  • A mentality that focuses on real world application

Benefit 2 – Physical Fitness

Martial arts can be great for physical fitness and overall well being. Or it can do nothing for you at all. The main key is intensity. Are you actually getting up and doing something in your class, or are you just sitting around? A martial arts class that features too much talking and not enough doing won’t do much for your physical fitness. Don’t get me wrong – you can still learn a lot about practical self defense in a class like that, and I know some great Senseis who run classes that aren’t very physically intense.

But if you want to get in shape, you need some intensity. And no matter how intense your class is or isn’t, you can make it much more intense. As noted above, it’s all about how much you put into it. So give it 100% while you’re there.

Benefit 3 – Weight Loss

As noted above, martial arts can be a great form of exercise. Don’t take my word for it – check out this calorie chart. That’s right, a 205lb man can burn over nine hundred calories per hour doing martial arts training. That’s right up there with running, soccer, and football and higher than hockey, cross country skiing and tennis.

If you’re out to lose weight, exercise is important. But it’s not everything. The running community has a saying: you can’t outrun a bad diet. The meaning is that if your diet is terrible, it doesn’t matter how much you run. You still won’t lose the weight.

You can’t out-fight a bad diet, either. The martial arts can give you great exercise. But if you want to lose the weight, you need to put down the donut, too. And the cake, and the cookies and the ice cream. Maybe try some vegetables and the occasional fruit instead.

Benefit 4 – Confidence

Let’s be blunt for a moment. There’s only one way to gain real confidence: do something hard and succeed at it. Everything else is the fake kind that’s worse than having no confidence at all. Martial arts training can help you develop a lot of real confidence. But in order for that to happen, you must be training toward difficult goals.

This can take a lot of forms because people are different. What’s difficult for you may be easy for your classmates – and what’s easy for you may be difficult for them. I’ve had students come in to class before and plop down at 90% of a full split on the first day. Focusing their goal on flexibility is silly – they’ve already got a ton of it. That doesn’t mean they should get complacent – merely that we should find something else for them to work on. Strength or form, perhaps.

On the other hand, I quite frequently have students (mostly adult males) who come in with almost no flexibility at all. Stretching with defined, achievable goals can be a huge benefit for these students – and achieving those goals can provide the added benefit of a great confidence boost.

If you want that confidence boost, set realistic but difficult goals for yourself – and then set out to achieve them.

Benefit 5 – Discipline

Here we go getting blunt again, but the only person who can give you self discipline is you. Your sensei can impose external discipline. And if you’ve got a nugget of self discipline in there, he can help you nourish it and grow it. But all the help in the world will do you no good if you don’t tend to it yourself.

Class offers you plenty of opportunities to cultivate your own self discipline. Use them. Push yourself to stay focused when others are getting distracted. Drive yourself to keep working when your fellow students are getting lazy.

Benefit 6 – Artistic Expression


Benefit 7 – Socializing

The dojo can be a fantastic place for making friends! I’ve made several lifelong friendships in the dojo. I even met my wife there! Get to know the people you train with. After all, you’re entrusting your safety to them – and they’re entrusting theirs to you. Most dojos are really great about this. Almost every dojo I’ve ever worked out with has had a very close bond. However, there are two important things to be wary of: cliques and bullies.

Like any other gathering of people, the students at a dojo can very easily fall into cliques – especially at bigger dojos. Small groups of people spend all of their time together and, usually without malice, are reluctant to take the time to get to know “outsiders” and let them into the clique. Or, more commonly, the higher ranked students form into an “inner circle” of sorts that the lower ranked students can’t penetrate.

Some dojos, though, are even worse. The students there are honest bullies – indeed, they’re often drawn to the martial arts because they’re bullies. The students think they’re big and tough and they often feel the need to go around proving it – to themselves, to outsiders, and, unfortunately, often to new students. Thankfully this kind of dojo is rare. They tend to run off new students who don’t fit the mold very quickly. As a consequence, they don’t stay in business very long.

If you find yourself in either kind of dojo, be the shining example. Take the responsibility on yourself to get to know the new guy and welcome him into the group. Or be on the lookout for the little guy who’s getting pushed around. Very often all it takes is a little nudge from one person to break outside of either the clique or the bully formula and completely transform the group – for the better.

Benefit 8 – Fun

No matter what you do, don’t forget to have fun in the dojo! The martial arts can – and should – be one of the most fun things you’ll ever do in your life. Finding the right sensei and the right group to fit your personality is important. But your own mentality and state of mind is even more important. Relax. Enjoy what you’re doing! There’s no reason you can’t be serious and have fun at the same time – we do it all the time in our dojo!

What benefits are you trying to get out of your martial arts training? Are you doing everything you can to make sure you get the most from it?

The Basics of Board Breaking

Last week I  talked about why some schools break a lot of boards, why some schools don’t break boards at all, and why we’re somewhere in between. This week I’d like to talk a bit about breaking itself. There are a lot of myths out there about breaking. Many of them are perpetuated by martial artists – sometimes nefariously, but most of the time out of ignorance.

While you can theoretically pick up anything you’d like for a breaking demonstration (it doesn’t even have to be wood!) most schools use small variations on the same basic concept. Schools that do serious breaking mostly use some variation of a 12 inch by 12 inch white pine board, around one inch thick. That’s an approximation because most martial artists will just go to the hardware store and by standard lumber (it’s what I do). Standard lumber doesn’t come in perfect one inch increments because it shrinks after it’s cut.

What I usually do is buy a long 12×1 board, in whatever length is most economical on the day I’m at the store. Then I’ll get them to cut it into 12 inch sections. However, a 12×1 board is usually actually 11.75 inches by 0.75 inches, or very close to that. Also, having it cut into 12 inch lengths usually means that the last one is closer to 11 inches.

I buy white pine. As I mentioned last week, some schools use even softer wood such as balsa (thankfully this isn’t very common these days, as it’s too easy to have it embarrassingly pointed out during a demo). Don’t buy hardwood like oak, cherry or ash. It’ll break your hands. Just as importantly, do not buy pressure treated lumber (more on that in a minute).

A standard 12 by 12 white pine board takes about 1100 newtons (roughly 250lbs) of force to break. Because wood is a natural material, that varies a bit from board to board. A rule of thumb generally taught to martial artists is that breaking one board is equivalent to break one rib. This is, sadly, one of those incorrect myths taught to most martial artists by their instructors and never questioned. Safety studies done by the Society of Automotive Engineers show that it takes about 400lbs of force to break a rib. That varies a bit depending upon which rib (the smaller ones at the bottom of the rib cage break easier than the thicker ones at the top of the rib cage). 250lbs might crack one, but it’s unlikely to break one.

250lbs isn’t that bad. The average adult male in the US ways just shy of 200lbs. It doesn’t take super great technique to come up with another 50lbs of force – but it does take good technique to properly protect your hands, feet, or whatever else you might be hitting with. That’s why I don’t have brand new students doing board breaks, whatever marketing advantages might come from it. I don’t allow students to do breaks until I’m comfortable that their form is sufficient to prevent injuries.

For simple breaks the board is placed or held between two supports. The first break I have most students do is with a downward hammer blow, so the board is usually placed on two cinder blocks. The blocks are situated in such a way as to hold the board steady but with the maximum distance between the two blocks. For breaks that use techniques such as a punch or a kick the board is usually held by one or two people, but in a similar manner. The arms are posted strong on either side of the board, with the minimal amount of hand coverage necessary for grip. Either way, this represents the “width” of the board.

The wider the board is the easier it is to break. If you’ve ever snapped a stick over your knee in the woods then you’ve likely discovered this for yourself. Going wider than 12″ results in boards that are ridiculously easy to break. Going less than 12″ wide can result in boards that are very difficult to break.

The last dimension is the height of the board. For adults, I use standard 12″ height boards. For children we go smaller – 10″ or 8″. Some schools go as low as 6″ or even 4″ boards. My personal opinion is that if the child is young enough to need a board that small he probably shouldn’t be breaking anyway because his bones are still in development. Even with the older children, I do less breaking than I do with adults – and I don’t do all that much with adults.

One final trick that some schools play is to bake their boards or bricks before they break them. Yes, bake in the oven like a cake. Baking the wood or brick removes moisture which makes it much easier to break. This trick is done with bricks far more often than with wood. From a distance you can’t tell that the brick has been baked – unless you see a giant puff of powder when it’s broken.

On the flip side, never break a board or a brick that is wet! That reinforces the material and will very likely break your hand or foot – especially if it’s a brick! Get breaking materials that have been kept dry and be sure to keep them dry before your breaking session! For the same reason, avoid pressure treated lumber and get only the untreated variety. The chemicals they treat it with will retain a lot of fluids (not water but chemicals) in the wood and make it much harder to break. I once witnessed a belt test where the student had been assigned to purchase his own boards and he absolutely could not break the board. The instructor later pointed out that it was pressure treated, and that was why.

Above all, if you’re going to do any breaking have somebody around who knows what they’re doing – and even then, be careful. It can be fun. It can bee a good way to prove to yourself, and others, that you’re capable of generating a lot of power in your blows. But if you’re not careful it can be a short road to a serious injury.