Home > Concepts & Principles > The Value of Forms Training

The Value of Forms Training

July 2, 2011

An instructor from another school asked me the other day, “How do you answer when someone asks why we practice forms?”.  While I think there are stock answers that most give to the question, the truth of those answers may vary with the system and how you use the forms as part of your training.

There are many that are of the opinion that training forms is a waste of time. I know that I myself had at one time believed the same thing. It was after years of training and learning multiple systems that I came to value forms as part of training.

Some people focus on drills or working techniques with a partner as part of their training, along with sparring. I would suggest that working set techniques with a partner is a type of two man forms training. After all they are working a specific attack and defense to that attack. When a boxer is shadow boxing he is practicing set techniques or combinations of those techniques against an imaginary opponent.  Again I say that is forms practice. After all you are supposed to be doing that when you are practicing your forms.

Perhaps it is more of a word play then anything else? I think the idea is that traditionally forms such as you see in Karate, Tai Kwon Do, Taiji are what most think of when they think of forms practice. Maybe the concept should be broadened?

Something I want to point out is that not all forms are created equal. These days many people create forms for open competitions. These forms are designed to be flashy and win plastic metal trophies. They highlight things like gymnastic, and acting abilities.  You constantly see people stopping to pose while making the most creative faces as they do very long and creative Kia’s. You see people standing holding one leg high above their head as they do multiple kicks at the ceiling. You see people doing forms to music. You see people creating weapons forms and doing self defense techniques with them they made up, that demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge of how those weapons were really used. Often times trying to actually use a weapon in the manner demonstrated in their forms would get them killed. If there is value in this type of forms training it would be equal to that derived from taking dance classes, or gymnastics.

Traditional martial arts forms on the other hand serve a different purposes. You need to spend a lot of time on jiben gong which is foundational training. Once you have warmed up practicing your jiben gong exercises, practicing your forms are a more advanced way to train solid fundamentals. Depending on the complexity of the fundamentals of a system, having a method to slow things down and work through forms with proper feeling can be a must to reach the higher levels. Many systems require physical changes to occur to be able to fully employee the fundamentals/ principles of a system. These physical changes take years and happen gradually. The only way to get there is through fundamentals and forms training.

Traditional forms are also a catalog of techniques as well as principles for a system. One thing to keep in mind is that the training method may not be the same as the fighting method. For example some systems may practice their forms with weight distribution between their feet done differently then would be in a fight. A reason for that could be they are also working the principles of lightness and sensitivity while practicing their forms. Another example is that systems that appear to have the waist excessively turned, perhaps doing techniques from a side horse. Some would look at these forms and think them impractical. Others might think they are hiding the techniques. The techniques might in reality be done facing the opponent head on not from a side stance. The reason you would train this way is to stretch the joints, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue. It also increases muscular strength for a particular movement. When we exert strength in any movement we are strongest in the middle of our range of motion.  We are weakest at the extreme end of any stretch/movement. By training in this method we increase stretch and range of our power curve in our technique. One more misunderstood thing done in internal forms is that they flow, and sometimes you can’t see strikes. The reason for this is due to a fundamental difference in internal and external arts. External artists are most powerful on guard and at the end of their strike, but go missing in between. Internal stylists don’t they are equally powerful throughout the whole movement and can issue power in any direction with any part of their body at any point. A reason to practice this flow is so they don’t condition themselves to be like the external stylist, only powerful at each end of the movement.

Often these days you see people practicing forms but, not really understand how the applications are to be drawn from the form. Due to the way point fighting/sparring has evolved it is common for the sparring method to no longer resemble the original techniques from the forms which are design for the street. Perhaps systems focused on sport in this manner derive limited benefit from forms? If the bunkai (analysis) of the forms is lost, perhaps forms are no longer of much value in those systems. If they train the forms, take them apart and work bunkai constantly, then forms training is of great value.

Having available training partners everyday to train with can be problematic.  Forms training is a good method of solo training.

I consider forms training to be an extremely important part of daily training.

Mike Murphy


Categories: Concepts & Principles
  1. July 2, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    In my opinion forms are very helpful but often rushed. Stances, strikes, and kicks should be learned before forms are implemented that use those techniques. For example, if a form calls for a back stance the student should have learned it long before going into the form and be able hold the stance while executing punches and kicks in that stance.

    My background it ITF and WTF TKD forms and I can still remember with Taegeuk OhJang the instructor showing us what every strike was for from the shoulder strike to the cross-stance backfist. This is extremely helpful and should be used with the onesteps / kicking combinations. In mention to the Kiap I don’t think using a two syllable word when trying to punch is helpful. I break it down to using Tae but only use it when I want to shock the opponent otherwise controlled breathing, for me, works so much better.

    Great Post, thanks for taking the time to write it. I do have a question when you have time. I have been told by some masters to chamber strong from forms but move faster without strong chambers when sparring. It seems odd to learn muscle memory for one and not the other. I think it proves your point the forms are for acting most the time.

    • mwmurphy59
      July 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm

      You make some very good points as well. The very first form I ever learned was a traditional Korean form. I also found that kiap to be more then I wanted to articulate. I’m not sure if that wasn’t just a cultural thing since I don’t speak Korean. I like one syllable myself. I too believe it should be use sparingly or it loses it’s effectiveness in a modern sparring environment. The constant use of the kia/kiap comes from the “one hit one kill” approach to fighting. So not only is it used to startle/freeze your opponent it is also to raise your chi/ki as you attack. I believe it may originate with the samurai. If you think of two men squared off with swords tip to tip, they kia as they make a pass. One cut one kill. Watch a modern day kendo tournament today and you’ll see the same thing. Now apply that same mind set to karate/ Tai Kwon Do. Add lots of conditioning, including iron hand. Then target vital points. I think you’ll see the same result. Mas Oyama is an example of this approach. He killed a man with a single punch. After that he stopped letting people punch to the head in sparring and kumite. The approach can certainly be effective under the right conditions.

      As far as the need to chamber before punching goes, In real fighting you hit from where your hands are. There are many reasons to chamber while doing your forms. First and foremost would be the applications derived from the forms. I suggest having your teacher go through those with you. Applications may not be what most students looking at the form think they are.

      One other thing you are working on when doing this besides the applications are fundamentals. I’m sure you have stood in a horse stance and thrown punches for hours. One thing that you work on is putting as much effort into the retracting hand as the projecting hand when you strike. This is a force multiplier. You actually rotate on your axis as you strike. Think of a line going through your center from the top center of your head all the way down into the earth. You rotate on this axis like a washing machine agitator. Think of putting all your power in the protracting strike and nothing retracting strike much like having an unbalanced load in a washer on a spin cycle with all the weight on one side. Practicing properly can help eliminate this error. Regardless of your stance there will be a rotation at the end as you hit.

      Another thing that is going on when they have you work your strikes from a chambered position is that they developing muscle coordination. The idea is that the more you stretch your muscles before the exertion the more muscle fibers you will engage during the contraction. Doing this is intended to develop muscle memory to engage as many proper muscle fibers as possible when you strike. If you have ever watched someone lift a lot of weight you’ll notice that they will stretch while they inhale just before they exert maximum effort.

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