For Writers, Some Notes On The Martial Arts

Most people don’t write martial arts into books. The details of how and why things work in martial systems is difficult to distill into simple words. I wrote a post sometime back about how to translate the physical aspects into something that was a bit more entertaining than “A hammer-fist to the back of the head followed by a palm strike to the nose and claw to the face.” Whether or not it helped anyone out, I don’t know, but it was a good exercise for me.

The basic gist of that post was you need to have an understanding of how and why things work and the ability to turn it into fiction without sounding like a pompous ass or ITG. Today I’d like to take a slight turn and look at the macro world of the martial arts instead of the individual movements of the martial arts.

Many years ago I was reading one of Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake books when I stumbled across something peculiar. Hamilton was probably my first exposure to the world of urban fantasy and I still generally enjoy her work even if a lot of it has become an excuse to lurch from one kinky sex scene to another. Or maybe because her work lurches from one kinky sex scene to another. Hamilton was doing the vampire human werewolf thing long before Meyer dropped onto the scene and, to be frank, Hamilton did it better.

At any rate, there was a line in one of the books where Anita Blake tells the reader she’s been studying Kenpo. I thought “Aha! I know that one.” At that point I’d been studying Kenpo for a few years and had a fairly good grasp on what the system was really like. Then Anita drops a bomb on us when she says Kenpo is basically like Tae Kwon Do.

That’s probably not the exact quote, but it’s the general gist of the narrative. Now, as someone who has studied both Kenpo and Tae Kwon Do, let me tell you something: they’re nowhere near the same.

So, with that firmly in mind, I decided to put together a little bit about some of the more popular martial systems out there to (hopefully) give authors a decent idea of what each system does. Bear in mind, I’ve only studied a handful of these, so I may be a bit off on some of them, but this should be sufficient to give a decent introduction. At the very least, you won’t be stuck with the old Judo chop meme.


Since we’ve already brought up Kenpo and Tae Kwon Do, we’ll start with those and then move into some others.

Tae Kwon Do


Take that board. And your buddies, too.

Tae Kwon Do is a Korean martial art renowned for its kicks. The whole system – from what I’ve seen of it – isn’t exclusively kicking, but there are a lot of different types of kicks in TKD. and they do them all very well. All TKD schools follow the same curriculum, which is pretty convenient. It’s one of the few really well codified systems out there. If you have a character who excels at kicking, TKD is a good art for them to know.

For more information on TKD check out the World Tae Kwon Do Federation

Fun Fact: There are an estimated 70 million people world-wide practicing Tae Kwon Do.

Other common Korean martial systems include Hapkido and Hwa Rang Do



Everyone’s got a little Elvis foot in ’em.

Kenpo, American Kenpo anyway, is an American system. It was born in Hawaii in the 1940s and moved into the mainland in the 60s and 70s under the guidance of Ed Parker. It has since dispersed across a number of masters and bits of it have been changed or added to over the years. Kenpo is primarily a hand art that focuses on rapid-fire strikes to multiple targets. There are kicks in Kenpo, but they’re not as prevalent as, say, Tae Kwon Do.. Kenpo is not a sport system; as such, strikes to the knees, throat, groin, and eyes are all encouraged.

Kenpo’s fairly fractured, but most of the schools I’ve seen all teach pretty much the same kinds of things. Check out my school’s page here.

Fun Fact: Elvis Presley was a Kenpo black belt. The picture above is Elvis and Ed Parker.

Muay Thai


One of the more popular striking arts in MMA is Muay Thai. It’s also known as Thai boxing, Thai kickboxing, and the Science of Eight Limbs. Muay Thai is the sportified version of the traditional Thai martial arts and it’s extremely popular in Thailand. It’s known for its use of fists, elbows, knees, and feet, hence the name: The Science of Eight Limbs.

Muay Thai fighters are famous for being able to do things like kick down banana trees with their shins.

Find more information on Muay Thai here

Fun fact: the non-sport versions of Muay Thai are collectively referred to as Muay Boran.

Kung Fu


Kung Fu isn’t a totally accurate term for the fighting arts of China – Wushu is a bit more accurate. But even then, Wushu is a blanket term for a country that’s probably done more for the martial arts than any other place on the planet. Wushu covers dozens of distinct styles including things like Wing Chun, Mantis, Hun Gar, White Crane, Fighting Crane, Drunken Boxing, and so on. Calling a character a Kung Fu master is a bit misleading since there are so many styles native to China. Wing Chun is a common style that, among other things, makes excellent use of blasting – rapid fire strikes to a target.

Find out more about Wing Chun here

Fun fact: It has been argued that Okinawan Karate (and thus Japanese Karate) was based on Chinese White Crane Wushu.

Jeet Kune Do


Jeet Kune Do is less a system of fighting than a philosophy of fighting. When Bruce Lee developed Jeet Kune Do, he did so as a response to what he felt were too many strict rules in Wing Chun. Jeet Kune Do fighters make use of a lot of Wing Chun, but the system is more stripped down and has added elements of fencing and Western boxing. The focus in Jeet Kune Do is to be able to fluidly move and react in a fight situation without relying on traditional methods.

Find out more about Jeet Kune Do here

Fun fact: Jeet Kune Do was created by Bruce Lee.



Contrary to the Judo Chop meme, Judo is primarily a grappling and throwing system that relies less on striking and more on tossing opponents around. It was originally developed as a less-lethal and easier to learn version of Jiu-Jitsu. While strikes exist in Judo, they are only part of kata and are disallowed in competition. So much for the vaunted Judo chop.

Find out more about Judo here

Fun fact: Vladimir Putin is a world-class Judo practitioner and has even delivered classes at the Kodokan.

Jiu Jitsu


Jiu Jitsu was developed by Samurai who realized punching or kicking an armored opponent would have little effect, but throwing worked quite nicely. No matter how much armor a person is wearing, a good throw can be devastating. It has since traveled the globe and morphed into many forms including Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu primarily focuses on throws and joint locks and relies less on strikes.

Find out more about Jiu Jitsu here

Fun fact: The women’s suffrage movement owes a lot to Jiu Jitsu; suffragettes used it to defend themselves against an aggressive police force. Also, Anthony Bourdain (the famous chef) is a practitioner and recently won his first match.



Another system that I’ve studied, albeit very briefly. Aikido was primarily developed in the 1920s and 1930s by Morihei Ueshiba. While Aikido makes extensive use of throws and joint locks like Judo and Jiu Jitsu, Aikido’s goal was to create a self-defense system that not only protected the practitioner, but also the assailant. It focuses less on grappling than either Judo or Jiu Jitsu and instead relies on quick throws and joint locks.

Find out more about Aikido here

Fun fact: Aikido is the system Steven Segal practices.

Krav Maga


Krav Maga (literally “contact combat”) is an Israeli system that was originally developed for the Israeli Defense Forces. It’s primarily a striking art, but is unique for the amount of time it spends teaching students how to deal with armed opponents. Krav Maga is a no-frills, all-out system of fighting.

Find out more about Krav Maga here

Fun fact: the IDF still uses Krav Maga and is continually updating and refining the system.



Much like Wushu, Karate covers quite a lot of ground in various Japanese and Okinawan systems. It runs the gamut from hard style to soft style and everything in between. I’ve studied Okinawan karate in the distant past. Karate practitioners tend to rely on fists, but kicking is definitely not out of the question. Common Karate schools include Shotokan, Kojosho, and Kyokushin.

Find out more about Karate here

Fun fact: One of the great tests in Kyokushin Karate is the 100-man kumite where one person will fight 100 others.

Western Boxing


Western Boxing is a hands-only fighting system common in America and Europe. While some martial systems look down on boxing for failing to use kicks, it’s an extremely effective fighting style. Sometime back in the 70s or 80s, Kenpo set up some show-off matches against boxers. The Kenpo fighters won the first set hands-down, but as the boxers learned how to deal with kicks the tables turned pretty quickly.

Find out more about Boxing here

Fun fact: In its early history, boxing was a bare-knuckles affair. Bare knuckle fighting tends to get bloody, so to reduce the blood (and attract more women to matches) gloves were introduced to the sport.



The final entry on this list is a lesser-known system: Capoeira. Capoeira is South American system developed by slaves. At the time the slaves weren’t allowed to learn to fight or practice fighting, so they hid their movements in techniques that looked like dance.

Find out more about Capoeira here

Fun fact: Capoeira fights often contain music and are referred to as games

These are just a few of the hundreds of martial arts systems out there. They all have their own philosophies and ways of doing things. Just like any other process – driving a car, shooting a gun, hacking a computer – it behooves authors to read up on and learn about what kind of fighting their characters may be doing. It could be codified like Savate, or just a straight-up bar room brawl. If you have someone who’s supposedly an Aikido expert punching and kicking, it’s going to look strange. If you say Tae Kwon Do and Kenpo are basically the same, you’re gonna get some raised eyebrows.

Questions? Comments? Drop me a line! I’m always happy to talk martial arts.

I am Chan

I grew up watching Kung Fu Theater back in the day, marveling at the majestic feats of those fighters as they battled their way through all manner of evils. These tales weren’t the martial arts tales you see so often nowadays, they were fantasy – pure and simple. But they were so amazing. This was the golden age of wire work and acrobatics.


This is actually from Kung Fu Hustle, a relatively new movie that managed to capture the essence of the classics while still being funny as hell.

In a sense, all those movies were classic fantasy stories where the protagonists used their fists instead of swords and sorcery. They were porn where people fought instead of having sex. They were, in a word, incredible. The bad guys were the worst, the good guys were the best. The good guy always lost initially but through training and hard work was able to overcome the incredibly powerful bad guy.

The story lines may have been trite and rehashed over and over again, but the action and the cinematography were the stuff of legends. This where people like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Gordon Liu got their starts. And, well, to a lesser extent Chuck Norris.

Do you run away crying or do you put your fist through him?

Do you run away crying or do you put your fist through him?

The thing about all those movies, and the martial arts in general in the 1970s, is they really were fantasy. Sure, there are some people out there who can do some absolutely amazing things, but flying through the air simply isn’t one of them. Movies are movies. Arnold can’t get shot and walk away from it like nothing happened. Sylvester can’t avoid mortar rounds by simply running around them. And Lo Pan can’t shoot lightning bolts out of his fingers.

Well, maybe Lo Pan can do that; he was a sorcerer after all.

The world of the martial arts in the 70s and 80s embraced that fantasy some people honestly felt (some still do) that the more fantastic elements of the martial arts were real. Extended testing has not born out that theory. The actual, factual world of the martial arts is repetition and practice, not flying through the air or killing people with the vibrating hand of death.


Dim Mak is not exactly what Count Dante was advertising it was.

So I grew up with all of these and the newer movies that came long in the 80s and 90s. I came to see the martial arts as a way to solve a problem and took away the idea that with enough training and dedication you could do anything. Now my joints are sore and my knees make lovely cracking noises, but I’m relatively confident I can handle most situations, even if I can’t do the acrobatics.


But those classic movies are still so much fun. Even if Jet Li, Donny Yen and Tony Jaa aren’t using the old wire work and sorcery of the classics, they’re still amazing to watch, but the fantastical elements of the classics are gone. And that’s kind of sad. Granted, recent movies like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and – even though it’s a comedy – Kung Fu Hustle have brought back some of the magic, but the heyday of movies like Master of the Flying Guillotine are long  gone.

My homage to the martial arts classics of the 70s is Chan. He’s a character in a couple stories in The Clock Man (including the main story) and will likely be one of the primary characters in an upcoming Aluna novel. There are parts in The Protectors and The Clock Man that hint at Chan’s capabilities, but since those stories weren’t really about him, they’ll remain hints until he gets more developed.

In the interim, go watch some classics. Or even the new classics. Kung Fu Hustle is great place to start.


Tactics and Strategies in the Martial Arts

This is kind of dual purpose blog post.  I don’t hit on martial arts as much as I have in the past because I’m focusing more on the writing side of things, but I still study and teach Kenpo so the martial arts are very much on my mind.  For those of you studying martial arts, this is useful information because oftentimes we forgo a lot of the beginnings of the fight in favor of the finality of beating holy hell out of an opponent.  For those of you writing fight scenes, this will give you a bit of an insider look at fighting and very fluid nature of combat.

First up, a couple definitions:

Strategy:  Strategy in a fight is similar to a strategy in warfare.  It’s the overarching goal, the intended end result of the conflict.  This could be escaping with minimal contact or rendering the opponent unable to continue fighting.  Of, if you’re Batman, simply causing a lot of pain is enough.

batman dark knight image 1

Tactic: A tactic is a way of achieving the strategic goal.  If the strategy is escaping with minimal contact a tactic would be placating the attacker.  If the strategy is rendering the opponent unable to fight a solid kick to the knee would be a good tactic.

It’s important to realize that tactics must align with the strategy.  If a strategy is to escape with minimal contact then a ground and pound tactic simply won’t work; a throw and then running away would be more in line with the strategic goal because a throw is very good at knocking the wind out of someone’s sails, giving you time to escape.  Ground and pound is more in line with teaching punks a lesson.

Not certain what happened to her clothes.

Not certain what happened to her clothes, but I’m little leery of questioning her about it.

Most people don’t enter a fight situation without some strategy at least lurking in the back of their head.  The strategy could range from “I want to get this person’s wallet and get the heck out of here” to “I’m going to teach this punk a lesson for looking at my girl.”  Strategic goals in fights, especially street fights, are wildly unpredictable and prone to change during the fight.  This is an important note for writers.  All too often fight scenes in books (and movies) have a very simplistic approach to the rationale for a fight and the tactics and strategy never change.

Strategies can change quickly in a fight because fighting is dynamic by nature.  It’s likely that both people will start the fight with the strategic goal of “winning” the fight, but as it becomes more and more obvious that the strategy isn’t working goals will change from attack to defense.  It’s also important to realize fights can start and end extremely quickly.  The long, drawn-out fights of the movies simply aren’t realistic.  Take, for instance, this:

Three strikes.

Three strikes, you’re out.  This looks very Kenpo to me.

The attacker’s strategy was like to end the fight with one punch.  The tactic was to move in quickly and decisively with a single shot to the face.  If you’ve ever been punched in the nose you know it’s debilitating: sinuses fill out, eyes start watering, it gets difficult to breathe. all in all not a fun thing.  The defender had a strategic goal that seemed to be to end the fight as quickly as possible.  As such, he didn’t limit himself to s a single decisive blow and instead chose a tactic of a defense followed multiple strikes designed to cause mechanical damage, which is pretty much Kenpo’s philosophy of fighting: hit him a lot in places that are going to hurt.  Fights can be over very, very quickly.

Trained fighters can go for a long time in a sporting environment, but even then Rhonda Rousey, in her first MMA fight, took out Hayden Munoz in 23 seconds.  And that’s without doing any of the real nasty stuff like kicking someone in the side of the knee.  Bear in mind, though, that trained fighters are trained to make sure the other person can get up and fight again in the future.  It’s sport fighting, not trying to cripple an opponent.  Back in the old days of Pankration this wasn’t necessarily the case but the ancient Greeks were a pretty surly bunch.

A couple weeks ago someone posted a video on one of the various martial arts groups on Facebook.  It was pretty grainy and wobbly and showed two guys fighting – don’t worry, they were actors – in a parking garage.  One thing led to another and the smaller guy threw the bigger guy and tried to go for a submission using an arm bar.  Problem was, the bigger guy wasn’t looking for a submission and wound up stabbing the smaller guy in the chest a few times with a knife he fished out of his pocket.

The moral of the story was never go to the ground in a street fight.  Plenty of Jiu Jitsu guys disagreed and a huge amount of dick waving took place.  In the end, of course, no one could agree with anyone else, but a good time was had by all.  By which I mean nothing was accomplished.  Shocking, I know, that trained martial artists can rarely agree that other systems might have some valid points.


Shocked. I am shocked.

But it did get me thinking along the line of tactics and strategies in a fight.  In the video there were two very mismatched strategies: the big guy wanted to pummel the little guy and didn’t how much damage he did.  People like this are dangerous.  The little guy didn’t want to fight and when he did engage he chose a strategy of making the bigger guy submit and a tactic that necessitated getting in real close.  His tactic was was a simple hip throw followed by a cross body arm bar.

One of these.

One of these.

Unfortunately, people who are really keyed up rarely submit and the little guy – even though he seemed to know what he was doing – wound up with a chest full of steel for his troubles.

What should he have done?  Submission holds are good for the ring, but in an abandoned parking garage there’s no ref to make sure the guy who just tapped out stays tapped out.  In my opinion he should have done as much as possible to disrupt the attacker and high-tailed it out of there or fully committed with the intent of destroying his opponent’s ability to fight back.  Both could have started with that hip throw. Hip throws are effective (hell, any throw can be) at knocking the wind out of someone and followed it up by either a: bolting or b: stomping on the big guy’s nuts and ankles.  And maybe his face, too, depending on circumstances.

So, then, what does this have to do with writing?  Simple really and it’s mostly character development stuff.  Most people will avoid a fight at all costs.  Anyone willingly entering a fight will have to have a good (enough) reason to fight, something they want to accomplish by fighting, and a plan for how they’re going to accomplish their tasks.  It all comes down mental justification, a strategy, and a set of tactics for accomplishing that strategy.

Last December I wrote a post on Writing the Martial Arts that took apart a Kenpo technique, examined what it would probably do, and tried to make some decent fiction out of that technique.  The general gist was in order to write a fight scene you have to be able to visualize the space the fighters are in and have some idea of how people react to being struck.  Now, to take that a step further – and make the characters that much more realistic – you really need to examine why they’ll fight, what they hope to get out of the fight, and how they’re going to fight.

Not every fight needs to be a fight to the death.

Now, one last little bit.  This video has been floating around Facebook for months now, billed as a US Marine vs a Bohemian Kickboxer.


It’s actually a scene from Never Back Down.  No US Marines or Bohemian Kickboxers (whatever the hell that means) were harmed in the making of this gif.

The funny thing is I work with a couple Marines, one of whom was stationed in Thailand.  He says in Thailand it’s not all that uncommon for anyone to walk into a Muay Thai ring.  Some of the Marines in his company got drunk and tried it.  They got beaten senseless.  Apparently they guy I work with told them “Well, your first mistake was stepping into the ring drunk…”

Military folks are often regarded as being fighting machines.  Granted, hand to hand combat is one of the things they study and there are some dangerous folks out there, but your average member of the military may have only been through a few weeks or months of training.  They’re usually not inept at fighting but they’re hardly unstoppable killing machines.  Except maybe the SEALs.  Those guys are scary.

That’s another little tidbit to throw into your next book.

Book Review – A Twofer from John Hennessy

I’ve got a special going on this week, two reviews for the price of one.  It wasn’t entirely intentional, but I couldn’t pass up a vampire book and a book on marital arts from the same author.  Now, if only John Hennessy would write a martial arts story about vampires I could sleep at night.  The first review is for Hennessy’s Murderous Little Darlings, the first tale in his series about young vampires.  The second is for The Essence of Martial Arts, Hennesy’s treatise on, among other things, Kung Fu.  Both are entertaining reads, well written and well thought out.  The first is a must read for anyone interested in vampires.  The other is a bit more rarified; if you’re into martial arts it’s a fascinating read.

First up: Murderous Little Darlings

Remember vampires?  The real vampires, not the ones that sparkle in the sunlight.  They were hunters.  Predators.  They fed on blood and were completely unapologetic about it.  Deacon Frost, the bad guy from Blade said it best:


“For fuck’s sake, these people are our food, not our allies.”

The vampires in Murderous Little Darlings are young, little more than children with a taste for blood.  It’s a short story that explores what it’s like growing up vampire.  While the story has a twist ending (that I won’t reveal here), there are elements of the story that make me wonder if there’s a further twist that hasn’t been explored yet.  There are multiple books in the series ranging from short like Murderous Little Darlings, to longer works that I have yet to read.  I need – need – to read the others now because I really want to know what the overarching story is and whether I’m correct about my assumption.

That need to read to more is the mark of a good story; you become invested in it and want to know how it ends.  Had this been a poorly crafted tale I would have finished it with a “well, that just happened” mentality and moved on, but the characters have stuck in my craw and I want to know what happens to them.  This first story is like the opening salvo, a bloody good yarn that introduces you to some kids who are struggling to understand their world and their place in it.

I have a feeling their place will be, shall we say, interesting.

So, if you like vampires and want to see a better take on them than certain recent stories have done, check out Murderous Little Darlings.  You won’t be disappointed.


Next up is The Essence of Martial Arts,

This is a treatise John Hennessy has put together on his years of experience in the martial arts.  It focuses a lot on Kung Fu, specifically Wing Chun, but there are notes on his experiences with Karate and Tai Chi as well.

A bit of background for those not in the know.  The Chinese martial arts encompass a wide variety of styles and systems ranging from the antics of Drunken Boxing through the various animal styles and into things like Hun Gar and Wing Chun.  They all fall under the blanket term Kung Fu, which actually refers to a skill that is learned or a talent.  Some people insist on referring to the Chinese martial arts as wushu, which is probably a more apt term but Kung Fu has stuck.

I’ve spent a large amount of time in the Japanese and Okinawan arts (Shodinji Do, Kenjutsu) and the Asian-American fused Kenpo, but don’t know a whole about the Chinese arts, so this was an interesting read to me.  When you get right down to it, martial arts are martial arts and while they may look different, they all share certain similarities.  A punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick as Bruce Lee would say.

John Hennessy has spent decades studying and teaching martial arts and I found his insights fascinating, especially the parts about training.  The Essence of Martial Arts is, in some ways, Hennessy’s notebook about his travels.  Even if you’re not interested in the martial arts (and I don’t know why you wouldn’t be), this is just a good book to read to understand why people study fighting even when they’re not really interested in fighting.  There are stories of how and why he started studying, where it’s come in handy in real-life situations, and some of the things he’s found as he’s traveled the path.

If you’re thinking about studying martial arts, this is a good place to start; Hennessy knows his material and presents it in an understandable way without resorting to nonsense.  He’s also one of the few martial artists I’ve read who is smart enough to draw a distinction between what we do in sparring and what we do in real life.  If you’re more advanced, The Essence of Martial Arts is still a good read because no matter how much experience you’ve got, you’ll still find something useful in here.


John’s written a lot more than just these two books, these just happened to pop out at me.  Trust me, though, I’ll be reading more of his work in the future.

Find John Hennessy’s complete catalog on Amazon.

Get Murderous Little Darlings here and get hooked

Find The Essence of the Martial Arts here

Follow John on Twitter

Check out his blog

Punch Out!

There are a lot of different ways to punch someone: strong arm in front, strong arm in back, jabs, punching along a straight line, hooking punches, uppercuts, vertical fist, horizontal fist, half fist, and so on.  If it’s a fist, someone has figured out how to hit with it and people tend to get themselves wrapped around the axle about which way is best.  Most sytems, especially the hard-style systems, tend to throw the power strike from the rear hand.

The hand that's furthest away from your opponent is your rear hand

The hand that’s furthest away from your opponent is your rear hand



The reason for putting the strong punch in the back hand is due to the way you can use your hips and legs to help generate punching power.  Simply put, when you engage your whole body starting with the legs, moving through the hips and up into the shoulders to throw a punch, you can put a lot of power behind it.  Boxers use this kind of punch, as do most karateka, kickboxers, Krav Maga, and Tae Kwon Do practitioners.  It’s relatively easy to learn (if somewhat hard to master), and highly effective.  It does, however, have one drawback: since your fist is further away from your opponent so it has further to travel before it hits.

Enter some other styles, including Wing Chun and the style put together by this guy

He just hit you.  You'll feel it tomorrow.  Maybe.

He just hit you. You’ll feel it tomorrow. Maybe.

That system is, of course, Jeet Kune Do, also known as the Way of the Intercepting Fist.  Jeet Kune Do emphasizes putting your strong hand forward and stroking quickly.  It makes for a different kind of generating power and is a tad harder to master, but works quite nicely when you want a fast strike.  So, your straight punch works like this:

Note the twist of the hips to generate the power.

Note the twist of the hips to generate the power.

But a strong forward punch can work just as well.

One inch punch.  Note which hand he's using.

One inch punch. Note which hand he’s using.

Lee could knock a guy down with a one inch punch from the front hand.

Both styles of punching contain a lot of power, you just have to generate it a bit differently.  The twist of the hips doesn’t work the same way with your strong hand forward.  You’ll still engage your hips but there’s also more of a push off from the back leg.  I’m sure someone has done some actual studies on this and found using the rear had for the power strike will generate more power, but there’s more to strike than just the power.

Kenpo is one of those systems that empasizes the power strike coming from the rear hand.  We tend to use our front hand to jab and parry.  Unfortunately, fighting is a fluid situation and you don’t always have time to set up that perfect position for a strike so over the past couple kids’ classes I’ve been trying to introduce them to punching from unconventional positions.  Last night we worked on using the front hand as the power hand.  I stole a lesson from Jeet Kune Do that I picked up somewhere or another and introduced them to the water hose analogy.  This is similar to the whipping philosophy for circular strikes in that it requires a relaxed arm but rather than working from arcing position the water hose analogy works on explosively moving forward.

To try it out yourself, get a solid stance that will let you push forward with your rear leg.  Keep your arms relaxed.  I started the class with their hands on their thighs, but you can really do it from anywhere.  Now, imagine what happens to a water hose when water suddenly flows into it.  It goes from soft and dangly to rigid very quickly, right?  Keep that image firmly in your mind and just raise your hand from your thigh into a punch.  You’ll get a kind of upward then forward movement in your fist.  Imagine it almost as your fist is attached to your shoulder with rope and you’re throwing your fist forward.  Practice, practice, practice and you’ll soon find you can whip that arm forward from any position and drive it forward with your rear leg.  If you’re relaxed you’ll get an explosively fast punch with almost no telegraphing.



It may not be as powerful as standard rear hand punch, but it’s wicked quick and it doesn’t matter how powerful a punch is if it doesn’t hit anything.

One thing to keep in mind is punching is like anything else: the more you do it the better you’ll get at it.  Find a heavy bag and start hitting it regularly.  Practice slowly at first and work your way up to experimenting with different strikes.  Make sure to use some kind of hand protection (I use cotton wraps) or your hand might wind up looking like this.

Broken arm


Now, if you’re so inclined, here’s the science behind Bruce Lee’s one inch punch.

Bruce Lee’s One Inch Punch

Go train hard and train safe.

Kenpo vs Damaged Goods

This is bit of long setup, so bear with me.  Also, I kind of stole the title idea from Adam Oster’s blog, so props to him and a promise I won’t do it again.  It was just too perfect to pass up.

When I was in college I slipped on some ice in Colorado Springs, CO, and folded my left leg under me and landed right on my knee.  Yes, it hurt, but I was in my early twenties and indestructible, so I got up, walked it off and put up with the discomfort until it healed.  I could, and probably should, have gone to the student health services and gotten some advice on it but young and stupid trumped wise course of action.  Over the years, it’s gone in and out of whack from time to time and I usually just put a brace on it and wait for it to heal.

Last week in the kids’ Kenpo class I was trying to get them to understand that you don’t always have the perfect position to strike from, so we worked through punching from a bow stance.

Forward knee bent, holding most of the weight of the body, back leg rigid to keep from being pushed back

Forward knee bent, holding most of the weight of the body, back leg rigid to keep from being pushed back

We also worked on crescent kicks from a horse stance.

Weight evenly distributed, legs loose.

Weight evenly distributed, legs loose.

And striking from a twisted stance.

Stand with a wide stance and twist.  Now try generating some power from here.  You can unwind or rise up.

Stand with a wide stance and twist. Now try generating some power from here. You can unwind or rise up.

One thing all of these have in common is they all require a lot of leg strength and put some serious pressure on your knees.  I’m pretty sure the kids were less than pleased with me, but it was kind of an important lesson to learn.  Amazingly, my legs (which were already sore from running and lifting that morning) held up but my left leg was feeling a bit wobbly.

Flash forward about fifteen minutes and I’m teaching one of the brown belts a black belt technique called Whirling Python (Sorry, can’t find a video on it).  Whirling Python looks like a fairly simple technique but it has one of the hardest kicks in the system to pull off.  The gist of the technique is to deal with an incoming punch by slipping to the opponent’s side and winding up behind their back.  From there, you twist their neck to stress the vertebrae and strike the side of the neck.  That part just requires some speed and dedication.  The next section involves a chicken wheel kick.  You hit the side of your opponent’s right knee with a wheel kick (most people call it a roundhouse, the JKD folks call it a hook kick, we just call it a wheel kick).  This starts to collapse the opponent over to their right side.  Now, jump off your left foot and bring that left kick way up to the opponent’s head and continue the turn.  Do it right and you’ll wind up pulling them down onto the ground.  It’s effectively a throw with a kick and it’s pretty slick when you do it right.

Do it wrong, or have an aleady weak left leg, and the results are less impressive.

I’m pretty sure I pulled every muscle in my left leg.  That was Wednesday.  Now, on Sunday, I can mostly walk again although my leg muscles stiffen up when I sit down and getting up means I need to stretch the muscles back out again.  Rather than just sit on my butt and wait for everything to be fine, I’m working it gently and actually made a trip to the gym this morning to do a little workout on the heavy bag.  Needless to say I didn’t do any kicking, but I found I was having to fight my instincts to kick.  This just left me with punches and elbows.

While I was hitting the bag I was kind of thinking about how this whole debacle could be turned into a lesson.  In some ways it spins off my original lesson of realizing you don’t alway have the perfect position to strike from.  In others it should probably be an object lesson about listening to your body when it tells you to knock this crap off.  So, I guess in some ways, I taught myself an advanced lesson about mobility and striking from bad positions.

Shove Off

It’s been a while since I’ve talked martial arts on here and it’s high time I try to be a bit more regular about it.

I recently got hold of a copy of Gershon Keren’s Krav Maga: Real World Solutions to Real World Violence and have been reading it when I’m not busy reading books for the Indie Author Review Group or writing my own stuff.  Amazingly, that still leaves plenty of time in the day to glance through and pick up a new idea or two here and there.  Now, I don’t know Krav Maga at all, but I find it a fascinating study in simplification and generally meeting fire with fire.  To the best of my knowledge no one in Albuquerque is teaching it so I’m picking up bits whereever I can and fusing them with Kenpo.  Both systems are pretty practical and all martial arts share a lot with each other, so the fusion isn’t too hard to accomplish.

Every Wednesday, or almost every Wednesday, I’ve been teaching the kid’s Kenpo class.  It’s been an eye opener for me because teaching something requires a much better understanding of it than just learning something.  It’s forced me to examine my assumptions about how and why things work and also let me branch out a bit.  I try to bring in something new every Wednesday, some small bit of arcane knowledge or a different way of looking at things.  For instance, we’ve done exercises where one student will close his or her eyes and another student holding a kicking shield will move around the first student.  When someone calls stop, the student with his or her eyes closed will open up, find the target and strike it.  It’s designed to teach them how to pick up a target when the opponent isn’t directly in front.  We’ve also scattered kicking shields all over the floor and done kata to show that your environment isn’t always as smooth the school floor.

So, back to Krav Maga.  Most of what the Krav Maga folks deal with is fairly practical stuff but things like knife and gun attacks aren’t things most of the kids are going to need to learn to deal with at this point.  At least I hope not.  There was one thing I pulled from Keren’s book, though, that was pretty appropriate for the kids: dealing with a shove.

Mess you up, sucka.

Mess you up, sucka.

The shove is a classic fight starter, it’s a way of pulling off the alpha dog thing and is usually accompanied with a pithy phrase like “I’ll fuck you up.”  Kenpo, like Krav Maga and most other fighting systems, has numerous ways of dealing with a shove and most of those end with the shover on the ground crying.  All of our techniques, though, are predicated on the assumption that the fight is already started and both parties are fully committed to the fight.  Stances are set and both people are primed and ready.

What happens, though, immediately after the shove is important and there are a few ways to go:

  • Shove ’em back
  • Back down and apologize
  • Fully commit and end the threat immediately

Most people choose to shove back, which is really the worst thing you can do in that situation.  Shoving comes down to that alpha dog mentality I was talking about earlier.  It’s a way to exert authority and dominance.  As humans we like to think we’re above all that but we pull that kind of nonsense all the time.  “Accidentally” bumping into someone, getting in someone’s space, pushing your way into an elevator before anyone can get off, yelling, and many other things are just attempts at dominance.  Shoving is just a more physical way of saying “I’m tough but not quite ready to commit to the fight.”

Grrr.  Bark.  Woof.

Grrr. Bark. Woof.

Just in case you think it’s a stupid guy thing, women do it, too.

Wait for the fight, kids.

Wait for the fight, kids.

So why is shoving back such a bad idea?  Two reasons: 1) it ups the ante, forcing the other person’s hand, and 2) it takes away an important tactical advantage.  When someone shoves you the best bet, depending on the situation, is to either walk away or decisively end the fight.  For the kid’s class I emphasized the idea of walking away.  In fact, for the most part, it’s best to just walk away from a fight whever possible, after all it’s always easier to avoid a fight than to win one.  Walking away, apologizing, whatever it takes to defuse the situation costs you nothing but some ego points.  The way I see it, I have a huge amount of ego already so losing some doesn’t really hurt me.

It's all good, bro-dog.  It's all good.

It’s all good, bro-dog. It’s all good.

Interestingly enough, even though picture is supposed to be just a one-off funny, Kramer has actually adopted a good defensive stance.  His hands are up, palms out.  He look innocuous and non threatening.  Look at the position of his hands, though; he’s actually in a position to intercept or block incoming strikes and counter strike if necessary.  This kind of stance is pretty prevalent in the martial arts.  The Krav Maga guys call it the interview stance, other systems have different names for it.  We don’t really have a name for it in Kenpo, we just call it being prepared and non-threatening, but ready if necessary.

Defensive can become offensive in the blink of an eye.  Or a finger in the eye.

Defensive can become offensive in the blink of an eye. Or a finger in the eye.

So, the lesson for Wednesday was basically this: if someone shoves you it’s best to let it go, but get into a position where you can defend yourself if absolutely necessary.  Hopefully the lesson stuck.  I’d hate to see some of the kids getting in trouble at school for fighting.  Although, my son has been hit before at school and hasn’t pummelled anyone into pulp (even though he loves sparring), so maybe the lessons are sinking in.

Next time you get shoved, rather than shoving back or putting on your Ninja face and going to town, you might want to consider just apologizing and walking away.

Ninja Mask!

Ninja Mask!

Compassion and the Martial Arts

I may not look it, but I’m a halfway decent martial artist.  Note: this doesn’t mean I’d be a good cage fighter or survive more than a round or so against a trained MMA fighter, but those aren’t things I’m really interested in doing anyway so it’s all good.  Over the past twenty five years or so I’ve studied Shodinji Do, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Kenjutsu, and Kenpo.  Looking back on it, it’s one of those “how the hell did I find time to do it all?” sorts of things.

Now, 2.5 decades later I can look back on my philosophy of fighting and ponder my reasons for starting and continuing to study.  I got bullied a lot in my youth and I think that may be part of why I started.  No matter how evolved you think you are a lot of what happened in your formative years will taint the rest of your life.  It’s very easy to say, “Just let it go,” but much, much harder to actually accomplish that goal.  Even though the Buddha may whisper to me to forgive and forget, it’s still on me to actually, you know, do it.

Here’s an interesting thing to notice for all you would-be martial artists out there and it’s a message that’s often bandied about but seldom implemented (at least in the arts I’ve studied); we like to say we’re doing this only for self defense but the things you can do to another person once you’ve been taught how to do them are pretty terrifying.  Of all my instructors over the years only one has really talked about that.  We were in Kenpo, looking at ways to break someone’s arm and really getting into it when the head of the school asked us if we thought we could actually do that; did any of us have the mental ability to actually hold someone’s arm and break it?

I’ve got a couple of friends who are former Marines and one of the things they’ve talked about was how it used to be difficult to get a soldier to point a gun at someone and pull the trigger.  Think that through for a moment.  These are soldiers, U.S. Marines (Semper Fi!), the baddest of the bad, and getting them to pull the trigger used to be one of the hardest things to teach.  Now, with a generation raised on first person shooters it’s apparently much easier to get a soldier to fire.

If that didn’t raise your eyebrow, go back and read it again.

Things like that are rarely discussed in the martial arts.  Granted, we’re not shooting anyone, but I did learn how cut someone from shoulder to hip with a katana and that’s a much more personal thing to do.  To this day, I wonder whether or not I could actually break someone’s knee in a fight if I had to.  It’s a quick and easy way to end a fight, probably forever for whoever’s knee just got broken, but it’s a pretty brutal thing to do.

But the bottom line is you’re taught to do just that, you practice doing just that, and when you’re in a stress situation and your brain turns to mush (as it is wont to do), you fall back on what you’ve practiced and pop goes the knee.

Unfortunately, there’s not much of a way around this.  Fighting is brutal, nasty stuff, and there’s always the fear that if you don’t do it to the other guy, he’s gonna gleefully do it to you.  And probably take your wallet, too.

So, how do we get around this problem?  I’ll grant, there may be times when breaking someone’s knee is the only way out of the situation but those times are extremely few and far between.  Most people want to avoid a fight.  This is usually what I tell the kids when I teach the Kenpo kid’s class: it’s always easier to avoid the fight than win the fight.  It’s an appeal to laziness but it’s better than a trip to the hospital.

What about the times you can’t avoid the fight?

Well, there’s almost always a way around an obstacle that doesn’t require going through it.  As the saying goes:



Okay, most o the time there’s a way to solve a problem without resorting to violence.  There will always be that person out there who absolutely will not stop.  It’s best to avoid those people but if it comes down to it, do what you need to do and get away quickly.  Beating that person to a pulp won’t solve the problem, it will just help you extricate yourself from the situation.

Most of the time, though…  Well, even if someone is spoiling for a fight it doesn’t mean you have to engage, at least not physically.  I like to regale students with a quick telling of Terry Dobson’s “A Soft Answer.”  The gist of the story is this: a man on a train winds up in a situation with a raging demon of a man.  Before the fight can begin, an old man engages by asking “What are you so angry about?”  Six simple words that completely defused the situation.  He jumped into the fight, but not in the violent way; he sought the way that would solve the root cause of the problem, rather than focusing on the surface problem.

That’s compassion right there.  It’s easy to say “I’m going to be compassionate to my fellow man” when your fellow man (or woman) isn’t actively screaming about beating you down.  When you can take the compassionate route when your life may be actively in danger… Well, that’s a whole other ballgame.

I haven’t been in a fight since Junior High and I often find myself wondering if I’d react as well that old man on the Tokyo train would.  Personally, I hope I never have to find out.

Writing the martial arts

Here’s a couple of terms for you to digest for a moment: jargon and argot.

They both describe a similar concept.  The gist of both definitions is they’re a customized vocabulary used by a subset of the population that have a particular meaning to that subset.  Trade vocabularies, if you will.  The IT world is full of jargon.  I’ve spent entire days subnetting IP addresses or instantiating classes.  A delegate in programming is damn sight different from a delegate in politics.

The key difference between jargon and argot is their intended use.  Jargon is just a customized vocabulary that evolves.  Argot is a custom vocabulary meant to exclude outsiders from understanding the meanings.  I picked up the idea of argot from an Intercultural Comm class I took when I working on my Master’s degree.  Outside of academia, I haven’t heard it used much.  Subnets and classes are perfect examples of jargon.  Lolspeak is a pretty good example of argot.

Interestingly, if you stop and think about it, most jargon eventually evolves into argot, sometimes accidentally sometimes intentionally.  It’s doubtful that Lolspeak was intentionally designed to make it difficult for outsiders to understand since it originated with people texting on phones with limited keyboards, but it’s the closest example I can come up with.

The martial arts world is no different.  We have terms that we use that aren’t even necessarily interchangeable between systems.  A wheel kick in Kenpo is a hook kick in Jeet Kun Do and a roundhouse kick in Muay Thai.  There are, to be sure, subtle differences in how those kicks are executed between various systems but the basic concept of a kick that hits from the side remains the same.

So then, and this is where the writing part comes in.  Most people in the world are not versed in martial arts terms and even those of us who grew up on Kung Fu Theater might have some problems interpreting the various nuances.

Master of the Flying Guillotine is still one of my favorites.

Master of the Flying Guillotine is still one of my favorites.

This was one of the problems I found when I was writing Henchmen.  It’s got a fair amount of martial arts in it because you’re supposed to write what you know (I know Kenpo) but I wanted to make it understandable.  Whether or not I was successful is open to interpretation, but it did force me to think about how I described things.  In my Kenpo school I can say “Darkness” and everyone who has learned that technique can do it.  Perfect example of argot.

So, let’s break it down and see if we can take a somewhat common Kenpo technique and make it work in a fiction environment.  I chose Thundering Hammers, largely because it’s an easy enough technique to understand but has just enough built in argot to make it a little weird.  It’s also one of the few Kenpo techniques that most schools seem to use to some degree or another.

As a side note, and this is just a personal defense thing: the hammer fist is a very effective tool for striking without worrying about things like breaking your fist.

About to get more than the purple purse he bargained for.  A hammer fist to the temple is an effective and safe strike.

That purse doesn’t even go with his outfit.

We’ll start with a technical description (essentially my own notes from I learned it for my green belt, lo those many years ago).

Thundering Hammers: Green belt chart

Attack: The opponent is attacking with a right punch, right foot lead, stepping in and punching at the same time.

Defense: As we step forward into the attack move slightly to the left to slip past the incoming punch and execute left inward block to deflect the opponent’s fist.  This should place us nearly hip to hip with the attacker.  From this position, execute a right rising hammer fist using the top of the fist to strike the opponent’s groin.  It’s imperative that this strike be powerful; drive it with legs and hips.    Expectation: this will stop the attacker’s forward movement and cause him/her to collapse at the knees and start to bend forward at the waist.  From here, the right foot slides back and to the left as we adjust our position to continue the attack.  Execute a downward hammer fist with our right hand to the opponent’s clavicle, furthering their bend at the knees.  The left hand now executes a left downward hammer fist to the kidney.  This should pull the opponent’s head back up slightly.  The left foot now steps back and slightly to the right to prepare our position for next strike.  The right hand executes a back knuckle to the back of the opponent’s head, forcing their head toward the ground.  Before the opponent can fall, the right hand executes an upward palm strike to the opponent’s face.  Target is the probably the nose or some other soft target.  The right hand now forms a claw.  The left foot shuffles back slightly and as we move backward we use our momentum to pull the opponent – using the claw hand – forward and further off balance.

End result: If all goes well, the opponent will be incapacitated and face down on the ground.

Further responses: It’s technically possible to kick the opponent in the head, but it would probably be overkill.  Cover out and escape.

Yee haw.  That’s some excitement right there.  For a bit more of a visual example, check this Youtube video.  AKKA’s Thundering Hammers is slightly different, but this is close enough for jazz and government work.  The video gives a pretty good example of body positioning and where the strikes will land, even if it’s not spot on with what we teach.

So, now you’ve got the technical description of the technique and a basic understanding of what to expect.  From a pure learning perspective, you’re probably ready to practice on a partner.  Don’t try it immediately on an opponent, it’s nigh impossible to learn something to that level from a video a text description.

Still, it’s not exactly what I’d call compelling writing.  We need dynamism if we’re going to have some action and adventure here, so let’s try to put it into fiction:

A cold rage burned in Chan’s mind.  With every taunt Rory threw at him, Chan’s desire to hurt the other man grew.  The fight had gone on too long, he’d spent too much time in snake mode, playing with his food and picking at Rory’s weaknesses.  It was time to unleash the monkey.

Rory’s smirking face was an example of everything that was wrong with this place; all the lies, all the pain, all the death.  Chan longed to charge forward, but the monkey was patient.  Wait, it whispered, wait for him to come to you.  Fight where you want to fight, not where he wants to fight.

Time slowed as a deadly calm rolled over Chan.  A slight twitch from Rory telegraphed the fast right hand.  The man was going to step in and strike, covering the distance and smashing Chan’s face in one neat move.  Chan steps slightly to the left, slipping the attack, and put up a right hand to block.  As he stopped next to Rory, Chan’s fist shot forward from his waist straight into the man’s groin.  The man in black howled a scream of pain familiar to everyone that’s had his testicles smashed.

They wind up right next to each other, shoulder to sagging shoulder.  The monkey begged Chan to press on, to finish the fight once and for all.  A simple movement of his right foot changes his position as the master raised a fist ready to beat down the beast.  Chan’s deep southern growl echoed the names of everyone Rory had hurt in his mad quest for power over this realm.

“Amanda,” he snarled as his right hand hammered Rory’s clavicle.  Rory’s body drooped forward.

“Nelson,” Chan growled as his left hand slammed into Rory’s kidney.  The other man’s back straightened from the pain.

“Kevin!” Chan yelled and slammed the back of his fist into the back of the beast’s head.  As Rory’s face hastened to meet the floor, Chan decided it wasn’t done yet.  His hand, still moving after smashing Rory’s head kept moving down before suddenly changing direction and opening.  Chan’s palm slammed into Rory’s nose.

Rory collapsed, Chan’s hand on his shattered nose the only thing holding him upright.  With one final bit of rage, Chan’s fingers closed into a claw.  “Alyssa,” he growled.  Chan stepped back and pulled on Rory’s face.  His strong fingers ripped canals into the other man’s face as he pulled him forward by the face.

There was blood under Chan’s finger nails as he watched the Beast of Aluna fall face-forward into the ground.  Not ready to be fooled again, Chan stepped back, ready to continue pummeling the man if he so much as moved.  Rory’s head bounced once on the hot pavement before the man lay prone and still.

Okay, so it’s a rough draft, but you’ve got to admit, it’s a hell of lot more interesting than the technical description.  Hopefully, it’s easy enough to understand, too.

Now, just so we don’t wind up taking ourselves too seriously, let’s hear Master Ken’s (another Albuquerque guy!) take on Kenpo.

Tiger claw!

Tiger claw!

Take it away, Master Ken.

Smash, knee, elbow, kick

My son and I spent last weekend at AKKA’s bi-annual (biennial?  Hell, twice a year) Black Belt test weekend.  As always, it’s auspicious affair marked by loud music and rampant goofiness.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a serious component to it, too, but we also get Chinese lion dances and guys pretending to be grumpy Scotsmen.  I also got pestered more than once to test for 3rd Black.  I really don’t see the problem with holding a belt for nine years; so what if my rank is older than some of the kids I teach and if I had kept up my momentum I’d probably be heading for 5th now?

But I digress.

After spending the weekend surrounded by Kenpo I hopped on Facebook and found this image floating around.


Being the martial arts geek I am I immediately recognized some of the moves.  Steps one through three are almost directly from Defendu and are regularly used in military martial arts.  A headbutt to the underside of someone’s chin is pretty debilitating and I have no doubt that guy would be in a world of hurt as soon as her head impacted his jaw.  Step 4, the knee to the groin, would probably finish him off.  The rest may well be extraneous, but I’m assuming this guy is a potential rapist and he probably deserves what’s coming to him.

At a glance, it looks like a simple set of strikes that anyone can learn in a short amount of time and employ effectively against an attacker.  The devil’s in the details, though, and there are a couple of potential dangerous spots and at least a couple of murky areas.

Now, let me back up a bit and throw out a bit of an explanation.  As you may have surmised, I study Kenpo.  I’ve been at Kenpo for just over fifteen years now (yes, I know I need to test for 3rd, let it go.  I had my reasons), and studying various other arts for 25 years now.  I have a pretty good understanding of what I’m talking about.

Kenpo is an art that emphasizes multiple strikes all over the body, usually to soft targets and we’re not averse to kicking someone when they’re down.  It’s a fight; we aim to win it.  There are certain predictable elements to a fight that can be used.  For instance, if you’re facing someone and knee them in the groin their head will come forward and their knees will buckle.

I think it’s the little predictable things that make me wonder about the picture.  In step 4 she knees him in the groin.  In step five, she’s at his side.  How did that happen?  There’s a step we’re missing here.  The same thing happens in step 6.  Now she’s in front of him again.  After step 6, he should collapse straight to the ground, but in step 7 he’s on his side and she’s beside him.  Steps 8 and 9 seem to show an axe kick, which works like this:


The axe kick goes high up and then smashes the heel down on your opponent.  But the opponent is already on the ground so the axe kick is going to be less effective.  A better solution would be a kick to the back of the head or to move and stomp his ankles.

I guess the bottom line is this: you can’t really learn how to fight from a picture.  There are too many nuances and gotchas that you need some experience to catch.  If you’re really concerned about getting attacked, look around and see if you can find a personal defense class or something like that.  You could embark on a study of Karate, Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga, or whatever, but those are long-term studies.  Someone out there has to have a shorter class: a few weeks, a few nasty tricks.  Most of the people you’ll ever tangle with will back off after a couple strikes and most people will never need to fight a dozen ninjas at once so unless you’re looking for a long-term study, stick to the shorter classes.  If you are looking for long-term study, research schools, attend classes, try it out before you commit yourself to it.

How would I handle the situation in the picture?  If someone were to try to grab me like that I’d keep it simple.  Kick him in the side of the knee and get the hell out of the situation.  If your opponent is close, stick your fingers or thumbs in their eyes.  Be mean in general.