I trained in a LOT of traditional systems back in the day, including some forms of Karate and many styles of Kung Fu.
(Hung Gar, Northern Shaolin, Wing Chun, Southern Crane, Tai Chi, Hsing I, and Shotokan Karate to name a few.)
Kata and Forms were important components of that training, sometimes to the exclusion of nearly everything else.
In these pre-arranged sequences we would hop, shuffle, skip and jump around the room while throwing punches, kicks, sweeps, tiger claws, leopard paws, and crane beaks…
We went through forms so slowly, holding every position, that some of them took 30 minutes to finish…
We’d obsess on getting the positioning of every finger just right…
But even though I was just a teenager I was always worried. Would the techniques in this form or kata actually work if I ever had to use them?
Now, with the benefit of hindsight and much more martial experience under my belt I know that it mostly depends on what you mean by the word ‘work’.
If by ‘work’ you mean preserving an aspect of traditional Japanese and Chinese culture then sure, memorise the kata and dance away.
It’ll do you no harm to practise these folk dances!
But if you want the techniques to magically start working in a streetfight, to protect you and your loved ones, well, then you better make some adjustments.
At worst these forms and kata are a giant waste of time.
At best they are coordination exercises which might also give you some conditioning benefits while practising vaguely martial movements.
You can’t learn to fight by yourself.
Solo practice – forms, shadowboxing, drilling a move, etc. – are only the first level of training, and there are four more levels required before you know a technique will work (click here for my breakdown of the 5 levels of martial arts training with lots of examples of training methods).
To have techniques you can rely on you need to train with partners and against varying levels of resistance!
Bruce Lee said it best: “If you want to learn to swim jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”
Now that I’m in my fourth decade of training I’ve pretty much jettisoned all forms and kata training.
No more swimming on dry land!
In general my training time is spent with training partners, and solo time is spent doing conditioning.
If I have to train martial arts alone then I would rather shadow box, shadow wrestle and shadow grapple to work on my coordination, train on my takedown dummy, and hit the bag.
Life is short and time is precious, so make your training count!
How to Listen to My Extended Rant About Form and Kata Training in Audio Form
I recently went off on the topic of Kung Fu forms and Karate kata on my podcast.
(And immediately got some angry emails, but that’s always the case when you’re speaking from the heart and contradicting people’s long-held notions.)
This topic was episode 158 of my show, ‘The Strenuous Life Podcast’.
You can subscribe to the podcast on your phone, tablet or computer by using your favourite podcasting app and/or going to the appropriate feed below…
Or you can listen to the episode in the embedded player below…
Or if you didn’t watch it above you can watch that rant in video form (and also check out my sweet kung fu moves) in the embedded video here (direct link the Youtube video here)…
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