general movement

Simple momentum vs. continuous force

Here’s a thing you’ll hear a lot: kinetic energy is mass times velocity squared, so if you can get more mass into your strikes then you’ll have more power. By moving your body into your strike, you have more mass behind the strike. Seems self-evident, right? I actually used this one myself in a lesson just last week, and it’s certainly true, but it’s not the whole story.

Another perspective: when I teach my students how to punch, I normally explain it as establishing structure through your arm and then hitting the back of that structure with your body. I teach it that way in order to make it clear that you need to move your arm before your body, reach full extension at the moment of impact, and that (most of) the power in the strike is coming from your body and not your arm. This is also not the whole story.

If you were leaping into your strike with a rigid arm, the kinetic-energy explanation would be correct. At that point, you’re effectively a thrown brick, and you’re going to deliver precisely mv2 joules of energy. Things aren’t as simple as that in a real strike, though, because your muscles are continuing to generate force up to and even after the moment of impact.

To take a counterexample, consider a simple push. There’s no particular kinetic energy going on here; you’re moving slowly and your body is relatively stationary. You can still generate quite a lot of force, though, by pressing continuously against the target and balancing that force with a push into the ground.

There’s an intermediate stage as well: picture jumping straight up, and at the peak of your leap pushing horizontally against a target. In this case, you’re not pressing into the ground and your kinetic energy isn’t contributing to the push; it’s the inertia of your body plus the energy of your muscles that combine to create net force.

A real strike is a combination of all of these. Thinking about a simple straight punch, you generate force with your muscles into the ground, which moves your body forward. You generate more force into your arm. At the moment of impact, the energy delivered is your body’s kinetic energy plus the “push” through your arm, supported by your body’s inertia plus an additional push into the ground.

Losing any one of these components means that your strikes won’t have the power they need (see my previous post on the principles of power). If you don’t move forward, you lose out on the mass of your body in the kinetic-energy calculation. If you don’t generate power through your arm – i.e., hitting with a rigid arm – you’re losing out on that component. If you don’t simultaneously press into the ground, the power in your arm will go towards pushing your body away from your target rather than delivering that energy where you want it.

The tl;dr here (too late, I know) is “striking is complicated”. You start out by standing still and punching with your arm, and then you layer all these other factors on top over the course of your training. When you start considering strikes more complex than a linear punch – say, a sword cut – it gets even worse, since you’re having to generate power and body movement along lines that aren’t necessarily obvious or convenient. As Mushashi is so fond of saying, “you must think deeply on this.”

kenjutsu weapons


One of the weapons practiced in my style is the yari, the Japanese spear (technically, the suyari, the straight spear, as opposed to any of the many other variations of yari). Our bo style is actually derived directly from the yari, meaning that our staff work looks a bit strange when compared with a style that’s designed specifically for the staff. In this post, I’m going to talk about the way Japanese spears work and how the Suisha Ryu uses one.

The suyari looks like the image at the top of the post. It has a long, straight, double-edged blade. Sometimes the blade is flat, but often it is triangular with a pronounced “belly” on one side and a fuller (groove) on the other – this makes it much stronger without adding a lot of extra weight. The interesting thing about this design when compared to your average European spear is that it has two effective sharpened edges in addition to the point, so it can be used for massive slashing strikes as well as for thrusts. (Note on terminology: a spear thrust is properly referred to as tsuki, but that causes confusion with the sword technique so I normally use the English instead.)

That said, the advantage of a spear over most other weapons is its reach, and maximum reach is achieved when you’re using the point. If you watch someone practicing sojutsu, you’ll see them doing lots of spinning and cutting movements, but fundamentally what you want to do, almost all the time, is thrust. Ideally, I’d like to keep my opponent a good six to nine feet away from me (or farther depending on the length of my spear; the ones we normally use in Suisha Ryu are on the short side for yari, roughly seven feet including the blade) at all times. At that range, I can stab them with the spear point, and unless they also have a spear or a polearm of some sort there’s nothing they can do to me.

The spear itself is normally held with the left hand over the wielder’s head, the right hand extended forward, and the spear sloping down with the point around waist level. This position places the spear in front of the wielder as a “shield” – small movements to one side or the other can deflect direct attacks as from another spear or a long tsuki with a sword. The wielder’s left hand is at the butt of the spear, and their right hand is as far forward as possible; this gives the wielder the maximum possible control over the spear. It also yields the minimum length sticking out in front to be used by the opponent to manipulate your spear, and the maximum space between the hands for parrying.

The thrusting motion brings the left hand down in an arc close to the body and past the wielder’s left hip and then out in front to the center line. The right hand aims the spear; if done correctly, the point of the spear will travel in a more or less straight line from its initial position to its target. You specifically want to avoid hooking the point to the side, which commonly happens because people push their left hand away from their body as they bring it downward; this creates a half-circle movement of the point that makes aiming very difficult, though this motion can be used as a parry.

Like all “secondary” weapons in the Suisha Ryu, we normally think about using the spear against a sword, though there are spear-vs.-spear techniques as well. A fight of spear against sword, or any shorter weapon, comes down to a battle of range. The spear wielder wants to keep the opponent at maximum range; the sword wielder needs to close to within sword range, which requires them to pass the point of the spear.

Spear thrusts, done correctly, are very quick. The spear jabs out to full extension and then whips instantly back to guard. The swordsman wants to be closer to the spearman than the tip of the spear, so it’s critical that the recovery be as fast as possible – in particular, it must be faster than the opponent can cover the space, so that by the time they get there the point of the spear is waiting for them.

OK, so that’s a lot of talk about thrusts, and it’s deserved – if you’re doing it right, thrusts should be close to 100% of your techniques in practice. What about all that spinning and cutting stuff, though? What’s that for?

First, to illustrate the kind of thing I’m talking about, check out this video. It’s not an accurate representation of Suisha Ryu sojutsu, but it illustrates a lot of what I’m talking about here. The practitioner is a little bit more enthusiastic about using the spinning motions than I think they ideally should be – they’re creating a lot of openings by reversing the spear in cases where they could just stab – but I’m guessing that a lot of that is just for demonstration purposes. At about 1:05 you can see an example of a guard similar to the one I’m describing, though theirs is held to the side and ours is on the center line. That’s a reasonable compromise, especially against a sword – it makes thrusting easier and quicker, at the expense of some of your defensive ability.

Basically, there are two cases where you’d want to do something other than just thrust: an opponent who’s too close, or multiple opponents. Looking at the second case first, big sweeping motions are good for clearing space around you. If you hold the spear near the butt and sweep it through a full circle, most sane people will get the hell out of the way. It’s best to keep the point low while you do this, because that makes it harder to block – you really don’t want that sweep to be stopped in the middle, or you’ll lose control of your spear.

More interesting is the case of an opponent who’s too close. If you keep your guard as described above, you can still thrust even at a fairly close target, but it’s not very effective because the thrusting motion doesn’t really generate power until the last third or so. Also, the thrusting motion is fairly predictable, so if you’re one-on-one and at a range where you’re in danger, it’s not a great option.

In this case, you’re better off using the spear more like a staff – this is why Suisha Ryu’s bojutsu techniques overlap so heavily with sojutsu, and also why we tend to use fairly short spears. You can strike with both ends of the spear just like a staff, you can thrust with both ends (though one is obviously more effective), and you can perform sweeping motions from the middle that cover one side of you.

I’m not going to try to describe all the possible movements in detail, but the idea is to keep the spear in motion at all times so that it’s hard to predict. When you’ve got two ends to strike with and the spear is constantly moving, it’s very hard to tell which way that strike will be coming from. When one of those ends has a foot-long blade on it, there’s a really strong incentive not to take a hit, so most people will respond by backing up – which is exactly what the spear wielder wants. The whole goal at this point is to re-establish safe distance so that we can go back to just poking at them until they make a mistake.

A side note here: the trickiest bit about the various slashing and spinning movements is maintaining blade alignment. Some spears historically had oblong or otherwise non-round shafts to provide some indexing, but many did not. When you’re using these movements, one hand or the other will be “driving”, and the trick is for that hand to stay parallel with the flat of the blade. Sometimes, such as during a thrust, one hand (usually the left) will be driving and the other will just guide loosely – in this case, the left hand is indexed to the blade and the right hand is not. At the end of the movement, you need to make sure your hands are parallel (for a thrust, both hands will be palm-up) so that you can switch the indexed hand without having to reposition. This takes quite a lot of practice.

Historically, spears were often the primary weapon of the samurai on a battlefield. Swords were more of a sidearm – there if you need them, but not your first choice. For any art that claims to have applicability to a battlefield, sojutsu (or possibly naginatajutsu) is a necessary component if you want to be a complete system.

general weapons

You have two hands

Scenario: you have a knife and you’re in a fight. Somebody grabs your knife hand. What do you do?

If you’re like most people, your immediate focus is to free your knife. The unsophisticated reflex is to try to use your other hand to pry the grab free; the trained reflex might be some form of grab-escape technique, like a wrist lock.

While you’re doing that, what are you not doing? Well, you’re not striking. You’re not improving your position. You’re not making any progress towards winning the fight, all you’re doing is trying to recover the status quo.

When someone has a weapon, they tend to get very focused on the weapon. The weapon is usually by far the most powerful tool available, and so it certainly makes sense to prioritize it. In combat you don’t have very much attention to spare, however, and in the process of prioritizing the weapon people often neglect the rest of their available weapons.

When someone grabs your wrist or hand, think about what they’ve done – they’ve established a mechanical connection between their body and yours. They’ve used one of their hands (or, if you’re really lucky, both of their hands) to immobilize one of your hands. This is exactly the same thing that would happen if you grabbed them instead: you’d establish more or less the same mechanical connection, and you’d remove the same set of weapons from the fight.

Now, they presumably chose their trade in a way that seemed advantageous: if they grab your knife hand with their empty hand, that’s a win for them. All they’ve done, though, is to remove your advantage and brought the fight to an equal plane – they haven’t gained an advantage of their own.

I mentioned grab-escape techniques above, and I was thinking about, for example, turning your wrist through their fingers, locking their wrist, peeling a finger, all of that sort of thing that always gets taught in self-defense classes. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t accomplish anything other than escaping the grab. Turns out, breaking someone’s nose will usually also make them let go, and as a side effect now they have a broken nose. In the words of literally every teacher I’ve ever had: “if you can just hit them, just hit them.”

If they do something like grab your shirt, that’s even better: they’ve taken away one of their weapons in exchange for none of yours. By all means, please hang onto my shirt, I’d be delighted to use my free hand to hit you until you decide it was a bad idea. You presumably grabbed me with the intention of pushing or pulling me, but if my structure is good, nothing stops me from moving you instead.

So, how do you train this? The reflex to fight the grab is a strong one, and it takes practice to respond with offense instead of trying to escape. The first step is just to practice using multiple weapons (punches, kicks, headbutts, grabs, throws, etc.) This can be a bit counterintuitive – “I have a sword, why am I kicking them in the shins?” By doing this, however, if your sword is unavailable for whatever reason you’ll more easily and automatically fall back on your other weapons without that tunnel vision. It’s also never a bad thing to introduce some secondary strikes into your attacks – as a distraction, if nothing else.

Once you’ve done that, then you can train for the grab itself. Ideally you’d do this with a partner, of course, but failing that you can hold a weapon in your primary hand as if had been grabbed and then work through responses. Hit the attacker several times with whatever weapons appeal to you and then break the grab and use the weapon to finish them. Odds are that if you’ve hit them effectively, you won’t need to break the grab, they’ll let go on their own.

You can also practice attacking the grab itself. This is a bit different from trying to escape from the grab, because the goal here is to damage the limb that’s holding you. Elbow breaks, wrist locks, finger breaks, muscle-body strikes, nerve strikes, they’re all options. By the way, I’m not a big fan of nerve strikes in general because they’re really difficult to pull off at speed, but they’re a whole lot easier when the limb you’re hitting is attached to your own body! Attacking the grab may or may not make it let go, but the damage done will stick after it does let go so at least you’re making progress.

Having a weapon is a powerful advantage in a fight; that’s why there have been so few people throughout history who voluntarily went into battle unarmed. That said, it’s important not to let your weapon become a weak spot by over-emphasizing it.

general training

Training multiple arts

There’s a famous quote from Bruce Lee: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” The common wisdom in martial arts is that it’s better to dive deeply into a single art than to skim the surface of multiple arts. That said, life is messy. I’ve personally trained no fewer than ten different arts (kenpo, aikido, kenjutsu, Destreza, xingyi, bagua, taiji, yichuan, kung fu, escrima), and that’s not even counting subtler distinctions like the different flavors of aikido or taiji.

I didn’t set out to collect a whole bunch of arts, stuff just happened: I studied karate as a kid like so many people do, then I did aikido while I was in college. After I started training kenjutsu and Destreza with Sensei, he decided he wanted all of his students to cross-train in a bunch of arts he knew, then he got in a motorcycle accident and stopped teaching. I trained kung fu for a few years, then I moved to Pittsburgh for a job and started training escrima here.

Is that “good”? Well, yes and no, there are advantages and disadvantages. I’d say, though, it’s probably pretty normal for a serious practitioner – the days when somebody can go live on a mountaintop and train one art for eight hours a day their entire life are largely gone. So, given that this is probably unavoidable for most modern practitioners, it seems reasonable to look at how one should go about training multiple arts.


One thing every teacher hates to hear from a new student is “that’s not the way we did it in my last school.” Different people do specific things differently; sometimes it’s a matter of taste, sometimes it’s what works for the specific person. If you ask me why I do something a particular way, I’ll give you an explanation, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it, just the one that I’ve found best for me. When you come to a new school, a new style, or a new teacher, it’s absolutely critical to leave your ego at the door. You may be hot stuff in your previous art, but there are reasons why your new teacher is telling you to do something, and you may not have enough experience to understand them properly.

An example: Sensei taught us all circular structure. Elbows were always out, in the “hugging a barrel” position. When I came to Sifu’s school and started training kung fu, he wanted me to put my elbows down by my sides. I thought “this is wrong, this isn’t structure”, but I did it anyway because that’s what Sifu was telling me. Now, with more experience, I understand that circular structure is excellent for exerting power on an arc or to the side, and it’s adequate for exerting power straight forward, but it’s not optimal – if what you want is specifically linear power, you’re better off with your elbows down.

Another example: I first studied escrima with Doug Marcaida (though he uses the name kali). I stayed with him for only a few months before deciding that what he was doing wasn’t what I needed at that time, but I learned a few things in the process. Years later, I came to my current escrima school, and I mentioned that Doug had wanted me to hold my sticks close to the end, with very little punyo (the butt end of the stick) sticking out. Doug’s explanation for this was that it makes it harder for you be disarmed – and he’s right – so I asked my current teacher why he did things differently, with two or three inches of punyo. My teacher said “does Doug use knives?” The reason I was given (there may be others that I’m not aware of yet…) for leaving punyo sticking out is that it behaves like a knife held in what Pekiti Tersia escrima calls a “pakal grip”, with the blade edge along your forearm. By holding the stick in what might be considered a suboptimal position, they’re creating greater crossover between the aspects of the art.

Asking questions is good, but don’t assume you know what the right answers are. If the answer doesn’t agree with your preconceptions, throw away your preconceptions and do what you’re told, and have faith that it will make sense eventually.


Different arts are based on different principles, but there are only so many ways to move a human body: structure, root, balance, distance, and timing are universal. It’s important to understand the principles of the art you’re practicing and use them appropriately, but it’s impossible to keep the principles of one art from bleeding over into all the others if you’ve internalized them properly, and it’s usually not important or even desirable to do so.

If you’ve learned to step in balance, your movement is going to be improved no matter what style of movement you’re using. If your art wants you to leap, you won’t be able to do that in static balance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start and end in balance. If you’ve learned to maintain structure in your body, that will serve you well no matter what movement you’re making.

That said, you do have to understand the needs of your art. If you’re using a yari (spear), it’s critical to move with the weapon – it’s so heavy and unbalanced that it’s effectively impossible to muscle it around, all you can do is steer it. You need to understand how your body structure interacts with the weapon, how to guide the weapon into the movements that you want, and how to stay out of the way once you do. If you’re using a knife and you try to apply those principles, you’re going to have a bad time; the knife is so light and fast that it doesn’t have any momentum to speak of, and you have no real choice but to muscle it around.

When I studied kali with Doug, he was always telling me I had too much body movement, because I was trying to make my sticks behave like a sword. Using the katana in my style is closer to the yari – it’s relatively heavy, and it’s important to understand how to guide that mass rather than fighting it. Sticks are closer to knives; they’re too light for that kind of thing to work, and if you try to generate all kinds of power in your body all you’ll do is slow yourself down and reduce your effectiveness.

If you go from Muay Thai to taekwondo, you’ll run into a similar problem: both of them use kicks as a primary weapon, but they’re so different that translating principles between them is going to leave you in a bad place. At some point you have to understand when to treat what you’re doing as a new and different thing and forget what you know; after you’ve studied it for a while and understand it in itself, then you can try to synthesize it into your existing knowledge base.


Again, there are only so many ways to move the human body, so lots of arts have similar techniques. You’ll find straight and hook punches in every art that punches; front, side, and round kicks in every art that kicks; inside and outside wrist locks, straight arm bars, and hammerlocks in every art that includes joint locks.

Once you understand how to do these techniques, they’ll largely translate from one art to another – but only largely. Every art has its own subtleties – round kicks in most arts chamber the leg horizontally, for example, but in Wan Yi Chuan kung fu the chamber is the same for every kick and the change in direction happens only as the kick is launched. My kung fu steps end with the rear heel raised for more forward power, but escrima wants me to leave that foot flat for maximum mobility.

In general, it’s best to try to forget all your previous techniques when entering a new art. If you go in with a “beginner’s mind”, assuming you know nothing, then you’ll learn the techniques as they’re intended. If you go in thinking you’re an expert, your techniques will always be a little bit off from the perspective of the art you’re practicing. Again, once you’ve learned and internalized them in their proper context, then you can start trying to synthesize them with your previous arts.


Eventually, of course, you need to put things together. When I spar, unless I’m specifically trying to fit myself into the mode of a single art, I use bits and pieces of all of my arts. I throw round kicks and vertical straight punches in the kung fu style and hook punches like a boxer. I step like I’m doing kung fu, I use heavy weapons like a bugei (practitioner of budo, a Japanese martial artist) and light weapons like an escrimador (practitioner of escrima).

Did I plan all of that? No, of course not. Each technique comes out the way I was trained in one of my arts, whichever one I’ve internalized the best. I hope that I’ve chosen the best parts of each of my arts, but probably it’s just the most comfortable parts. As long as they form a cohesive art in practice, I’m happy with how it came out, and I’ll keep polishing it together.

If training multiple arts is unavoidable, the best thing you can do is to maximize the advantages of having multiple perspectives and minimize the downsides of having less depth in each art. Just understand your own limitations, and don’t think that you’re going to know as much about any of your arts as someone who has focused entirely on that style.


Groundwork in Combat

Let me start with a disclaimer: I suck at groundwork. Sensei was of the opinion that if you end up on the ground, you should focus on standing up as quickly as possible, so we did basic escapes and not much else. Sifu did some groundwork, but it was very much not the focus. It’s also almost entirely unrelated to everything else; different weapons are at least philosophically similar, weapons arts aren’t that different from striking arts, and striking arts blend fairly seamlessly into standing grappling, but ground grappling is a whole different beast.

That said, I’m working on it, because groundwork has its place in combat. However, in my opinion the way most people train groundwork is not particularly useful for combat applications. This isn’t unique to groundwork – a lot of martial training is oriented towards tournaments, exhibitions, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re aware what you’re training for and you’re not kidding yourself that it’ll work in a bar fight.

Let me be a bit more concrete about that. Combat is a chaotic, fluid situation where your primary goal needs to be to preserve your own life and well-being. The way groundwork is often taught, especially in arts such as BJJ, focuses primarily on taking a dominant position where you can control your opponent. That’s OK in a one-on-one match under controlled conditions, but if you’re worried about the guy in the corner of the bar possibly breaking a bottle on your head, taking a cross-body control position is a bad, bad idea. If you’re concerned about the potential for broken furniture on the ground, rolling to your back in order to establish a guard isn’t a good plan.

In the context of a combat situation, the goals of groundwork should be, in descending order of priority:

  1. Protect yourself from the person you’re on the ground with
  2. Protect yourself from everybody else
  3. Get away and get back to your feet

Note what’s not in that list: controlling or hurting the opponent. If I’m safe and can escape to standing, I don’t particularly care what my opponent of the moment is doing. If I get a chance to do something that might keep them from getting back in the fight I certainly will, but I’m at such a tremendous disadvantage on the ground that standing has to take priority over everything but safety.

OK, so let’s say you buy that prioritization. What does that mean? First, obviously you need to keep your opponent from striking you. This is a central part of every ground art, but in a lot of tournament-focused training it’s often glossed over or even ignored. If your opponent is in a top mount and you reach up to grab them, you’d better be aware of the chance that you’ll get punched in the face before you can control their torso. If you put two hands on one of theirs, you need to worry about what their other hand might be doing. If their hands are on your chest, it’s not OK to assume that they aren’t going to choke you while you’re jockeying for position.

Next, you need to stay aware of your surroundings. Even if you have your opponent’s hands tied up and you’re in a safe position, if you can’t see you’ll be vulnerable to attack by someone else. Even if you can see, you need to be prepared to defend yourself. If possible (and this is often a tall order), it’s best to avoid committing both hands to your opponent so that you have something to defend yourself with. If you can place yourself next to a wall, a piece of furniture, or some other obstruction, this may help to protect you from at least that side.

Finally, you need to get away and stand up. Escapes are a big part of every ground art so I’m not going to go into the technical details here, but it’s important to think about what happens in the moment after the escape. When you stand, you need to keep your feet away from the opponent on the ground, or you risk getting pulled right down again. The instant you can, you need to free your hands and step away so that you can establish mobility and defense against any other opponents. Staying fixated on the opponent on the ground – who is probably the least dangerous person in the room at that moment – is hazardous and likely to make you miss other threats.

I’ll say one more time, I’m not criticizing arts like BJJ here. If you’re training to win tournaments, then by all means you should optimize your art for tournaments. Where I have an issue is when practitioners of tournament-focused arts such as BJJ, kendo, and (most) tae kwon do make claims about the combat effectiveness of their arts. Yes, certainly parts of those arts will be combat-effective, but if you’re not training them in the context of combat you won’t be able to apply them effectively when you need to.

movement training

Body Structure

I’ve been putting this one off because it’s an extraordinarily complex and subtle topic and I wasn’t sure how to describe it properly, but here goes. I’ve touched on this a bunch of times, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a single post about the whole concept of structure.

Structure is a general term describing how resistant your joints are to being moved by external pressure. It’s not (directly) about resisting your body being moved – the best structure in the world won’t keep you from sliding on a slippery surface or from being simply picked up off the ground. There are ways to do those things, and they involve structure, but that’s outside the scope of this post.

Note that structure is not achieved by tensing your muscles to rigidity. You can resist movement by tensing your muscles (and it’s what everybody tries first), but this approach has a whole bunch of problems:

  • Tensing your muscles prevents you from moving when you want to, which makes it fairly useless.
  • You can’t keep your muscles at maximum tension for very long.
  • Tensed muscles are bad at transferring stress smoothly to other parts of your body, so you’ll find that some other joint will be overloaded and fail instead.
  • It’s “brittle” – by using maximum tension, any additional force will cause a complete failure rather than a smooth compression.

Let’s start with a single joint to illustrate the principles; I’ll use the elbow, because it’s the simplest joint we usually care about. Your arm is effectively two rigid segments connected by a simple hinge. If you want to prevent your arm from bending, most people will tense their tricep and bicep to make the arm rigid. This has all the problems laid out above: you can’t move your arm, you can’t do it for very long, pressure on your arm will tend to make your shoulder or hip move instead, and when it fails your arm buckles entirely.

Instead, you can establish structure by creating light tension through your tricep and countering that with light tension in your bicep. This feels like “expanding” your arm, like it’s on the surface of a bubble that’s growing. You’re just “taking up the slack” in your tissues here, so there’s no looseness in the joint. Horseback riders talk about “riding in contact”, meaning that you should have just enough tension in the reins to feel what the horse is doing but not enough to actually pull on the horse’s mouth – that’s the kind of thing that you’re doing here with your muscles.

Having done this correctly, force applied to your arm that would normally bend your elbow will instead transfer down the bones of your arm into your torso. Bones don’t get tired and can support a lot more stress than soft tissues, so this makes it a lot easier to resist an incoming force. Since there’s some elasticity to your tissues, your elbow will bend a bit, but in a springy way; if the pressure disappears, your arm will return to its original position without you doing anything. Because the resistance is coming from elasticity rather than muscle, it gets stronger as your elbow bends, and the force is transferred in a smooth way to your shoulder and torso.

One important note here: this only works when your elbow is within a specific range of angles. If you lock your elbow straight, you can’t apply enough tension in your tricep to establish structure before you start to stress the muscle unsustainably. If you bend your elbow more than about 90 degrees, you change the angle of the force in a way that prevents your bones from transferring it to your torso – instead, the force goes across your bones and directly into your muscle, which is what we were trying to avoid. In general, all joints work best in the middle of their range of movement, and get weaker towards the ends of the range.

You can experiment with this specific case fairly easily: put the back of your hand on a wall with your elbow bent and lean some weight onto it. Envision holding yourself away from the wall by reaching through it rather than by locking down your muscles. Now, try changing the angle of your elbow. You’ll find that as your elbow bends more, it gets progressively harder to maintain your structure, putting more and more stress on your tricep. In this example, straightening your elbow will make it easier as more force transfers from your muscle to your bones, but you can feel the loss of “spring” in your shoulder.

OK, so much for a single joint. How does this generalize to your whole body? Shoulders and hips, in particular, are ball joints with much more complex attachments than elbows. Thankfully, the principles here largely don’t change – keep the joint in the middle of its range, apply light tension just to keep “contact” in the same way you did with your elbow. Again, this feels like “expanding” outwards like a bubble.

By keeping structure in your elbows, shoulders, hips, and knees, you can transfer forces from your extremities to your center. To be useful, though, you still need to establish a connection between your shoulders and your hips. This is extremely subtle, because there are lots and lots of muscles involved in stabilizing your spine, but in gross terms if you keep your back straight and your shoulders square to your hips, you’ll be in roughly the right spot to use the stabilizer muscles in your core to support external forces.

Having structure in your limbs and in your core means that you can transfer forces from one extremity to another. In practice, this normally means transferring force from your hands to your feet and vice versa. If you throw a punch, you want the force in that punch to connect to the ground so that you’re not pushing yourself away from the target. If you resist a push, you want to send that incoming pressure to the ground so that you don’t need to fight it with your muscles.

How do you learn to do all of this? That’s tricky, but there are drills that can help. The best and most “straightforward” drill (quotes because it’s not in the least straightforward except when compared to other structure drills…) is standing. I’ve talked about this before, but this time I’ll try to explain how to do it. Understand that this is extremely subtle; it’s the sort of thing you need to just do for a while before it will start to make sense to you, but it’s a lot better with a teacher who can guide you.

First, put your feet about shoulder width apart. Bend your knees. Point your tailbone down by rolling your hips slightly forward. Stack your spine vertically on top of your pelvis and pull your chin back slightly so that your spine is holding up your head rather than your neck muscles. Make sure your shoulders are back and down, and raise your hands so they’re in front of your shoulders, with palms towards your chest. Bend your elbows so that your arms form a rough circle, like you’re holding a beach ball. Let your elbows droop a bit, but don’t let them fall all the way.

Now, pay attention to the tension in your body. What you want is equal tension across your whole body; when you do it right, it feels like you’re a single solid unit but still springy, like a solid rubber doll. Activate your quads, like you’re pressing yourself away from the ground. I like to use the image of a weight sitting on top of my head, and I’m resisting the force of that weight by pressing with my legs. Feel the beach ball in your arms expanding, and resist the expansion by pulling your hands together. Feel the backs of your hands wanting to move away from your shoulderblades, and your elbows wanting to spread apart, and resist that force using the minimum amount of tension that will do the job.

Stand there for a while. Eventually, things will start to hurt, and things will start to tremble. The probable points of failure are your quads and your deltoids; for the former, figure out how to relax your legs while still holding yourself off the ground, and for the latter, figure out how to relax and drop your shoulders without letting your arms fall. You can move slightly within the posture, like a tree swaying in the wind, but this complicates things so I recommend against it at first. Trembling muscles, by the way, does not mean that they’re about to fail completely, even though that’s what it feels like. You can stand there with your legs shaking for quite some time, it’s just not pleasant to do.

That’s the problem with standing – it’s not at all fun. It’s painful and often boring, and so people generally don’t do it very much. It’s also the sort of drill that you have to do for a while before you start seeing benefits, so while I teach it to all of my students eventually, I don’t really push it except for the few who are serious about improving their abilities.

More advanced structure drills add movement. The simple form of these are called shi li or “silk reeling” drills and just use a back-and-forth movement of some sort. The traditional version, as I learned it, puts you in a diagonal stance with one foot leading and has you “pull” your weight forward and “push” it backward with your hands. In other words, you’re pushing and pulling with your hands and shifting your weight opposite the push, so your hands stay relatively stationary and your weight moves from foot to foot. The trick in these drills is to maintain constant structure throughout the entire movement, especially in the transitions at either end. This is much more complicated than I can reasonably describe in a blog post – if you get this far, go find yourself a teacher.

Structure is absolutely key to every martial art. Without it, you can’t exert power, and you can’t resist forces from outside. Not every art actually acknowledges the concept, though, and most of them don’t seem to really study it as a topic and figure out how to maximize it. I’m very grateful for the work that I did on the internal arts, where structure is a primary component, because it’s a fundamental skill that improves my performance in every art that I practice.

general movement

Principles of Power

With thanks and apologies to Sifu Mark, who taught me all this stuff.

When I was training Wan Yi Chuan kung fu, Sifu taught that power generation has five components:

  • Mass towards target
  • Wave-like motion
  • Crack the whip
  • Towards, through, past
  • Drive your intent

Understand that this is one perspective on power generation – every art effectively uses all of these components, but different arts think about them in different ways. The purpose of this post is to lay out my understanding of these components, how they interact, and how they contribute to particular movements.

To be clear, every movement incorporates all of these sources of power to a greater or lesser extent. You might do them badly, even so badly that the net effect is negative (such as striking forward while moving backwards), but they’re always there. The power in your movement is the combination of the contributions from each component, and the amount of each will vary depending on the movement and the circumstances.

Sifu, if you ever see this, feel free to tell me all the ways in which I’m wrong in the comments.

Mass towards target

This one is simple: kinetic energy equals mass times velocity squared. If you want to hit something hard, throw as much mass at it as you can, as fast as possible. When you throw a punch, ideally you should step into the punch so that your entire body mass is moving at the moment of impact.

Wave-like motion

The internal arts teach that all human motion is reciprocal. In order to go down you must go up, in order to go forward you must go back. Many of those motions end up being internal, but they’re no less real for it. When you step forward, there’s a rising-then-falling component to the movement even if your center of mass doesn’t physically change its distance from the ground. That falling component incorporates the force of gravity, so you can use it to increase the power of your movement.

This is true for all movements that exert force, but it’s most obvious if you look at a downward strike such as the pi quan strike in Xing Yi. As you “fall” onto your front foot, the structure of your torso and arm translate that momentum into your strike. With proper timing, you can add this power to all the other sources discussed here.

Crack the whip

This is a concept I’ve seen called “staged activation”. The idea is that each joint is attached to muscles that can create power in that joint. If you want to maximize your power the best thing you can do is to activate each of those sets of muscles in sequence so that each can add their power to the movement. The longer the distance over which you can do this, the more joints are involved and the more power you can generate.

Let’s look at a movement like a full-arm slap. I’m specifically not using a punch here because it’s a bit more complicated – in particular, I disagree with the idea of moving your hand last when you’re punching, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. In order to execute a slap with maximum power, you would start at the foot pushing away from the ground, turn the knee, then the hip, then the shoulder, then the arm (without letting the arm move outside of the zone of structure, of course).

By staging the activation of your body in this way, the power builds as it moves from joint to joint. If you time it correctly, it reaches a maximum at the moment of impact and is added to the power from each of the other sources.

Towards, through, past

This is standard advice in every boxing class: “punch through your target”. All the stuff above talks about focusing your power to a specific instant in time, which is also a specific point in space. The idea with this principle is that you don’t want that point to be on the surface of your target, or you’ll expend your energy there and not be able to penetrate – you want to focus your energy within your target so that the energy will be fully transferred.

How deep within the target is a matter of some debate, and it depends on what kind of strike you’re talking about. A short snappy strike like a jab certainly wants to be pretty close to the surface, while a committed strike like a cross should be farther inside. For something like a stomp kick (also called “heel kick”), you might even want it to be beyond the target. Go too far beyond, however, and you lose the focus of your strike; it’ll turn into a push, with no real sharp impact.

Sidebar: there is a concept in Chinese internal arts called fa jin. This has to do with focusing the power of a strike into an extremely small area and then releasing it into a target. This style of striking deliberately focuses a strike close to the surface of a target and relies on the shock wave generated within that target to carry the energy beyond the point where the strike actually ends. This is the secret to the so-called “one-inch punch” – by using all of these principles, it’s possible to generate a lot of power in an extremely small space and to deliver that power beyond the reach of your actual fist.

Drive your intent

To this point, everything has been about the shape and timing of the movement. This one is about your mental state, but of course it has to translate into the physical in order to result in a change in power. The idea here is that you have to intend to hit and to hit hard. If your intent is to strike to the target, that’s what you’ll do. You have to put your mind on the other side of the strike, both in space and in time (that is, both “past” and “after” the point of the strike), in order for the strike to arrive correctly.

I said this has to translate to the physical, so what form does that take? Primarily, driving your intent results in relaxation and lack of hesitation. If you’re striking to a target (and this is much more common than you might think, especially among people who are used to point-sparring), you’ll unconsciously start to tense the opposing muscle groups before you reach the target. For example, if you’re throwing a jab you need to keep your bicep relaxed until (just barely) after the moment of contact, and the way to ensure that happens is to drive your intent through the target.

Related to relaxation but separate, if you’re not sure about striking you may hesitate. Committing mentally to the strike removes this hurdle. You can commit to a strike without actually executing the strike – some arts refer to this as “loading”. Crane-style kung fu uses this principle and describes it (or at least it was described to me) as “leaning on a glass wall” – the idea is that you have decided to attack and you’re being held back by an invisible force. The instant the force is removed, the attack will go off and you don’t have to make a conscious decision to do it.

In kenjutsu, we practice this using an exercise called “sensitivity drills”: you lock swords with your partner, look for an opening, and try to hit it. Each person is trying to maintain a constant committed offense at every moment, so that if the obstruction of their partner’s sword is removed, their strike will occur automatically and without hesitation. If there’s a suki (gap) in your intent, your partner may be able to strike you without being struck in return, because you’ll have to make a conscious decision to move before your attack will occur.


Cutting with the rapier

Here’s something that will make certain people mad: the rapier is a great sword for thrusting, and kind of a terrible sword for cutting. The weight distribution is all wrong, for one thing – swords designed specifically for cutting have more weight towards the tip. The bigger consideration, however, is the shape of the hilt. Here’s a longsword, which is designed primarily for cutting and secondarily for thrusting:

Note that the hilt is long (sized for a hand and a half) and open – the natural grip would hold the blade at roughly ninety degrees to the arm.

For comparison, here’s a rapier:

This is an Italian rapier, but the open guard shows the hand position better than a cup-hilted Spanish rapier would. Note that the hilt is short (with no way to put two hands on it) and closed – the natural grip, with a finger over the cross, is much closer to in line with the arm.

The long hilt on the longsword allows leverage with two hands for increased power on the cut, and the open hilt gives flexibility for the wrist to swing the sword through its natural arc. The rapier’s hilt allows neither of those things, being primarily designed to support the sword in the thrust and only secondarily to allow cutting.

All of that said, cutting with the rapier is important, and more so in Destreza than in most rapier styles. If you want to be able to pull it off, it’s important to understand the mechanics of it.

I want to start by saying that rapier cuts are percussive cuts. That is, you’re striking with the blade moving at more or less 90 degrees to its direction. There’s little or no slicing action like there is with a katana. This is partly because of the structure of the hilt, and partly because the rapier doesn’t have very much mass at the tip. With so little mass to work with, you can’t afford to “sacrifice” any by angling the cut in order to get better edge geometry.

Destreza, as I was taught it, classifies cuts by the pivot point: shoulder cuts, elbow cuts, wrist cuts. Shoulder and elbow cuts are big and powerful but often too slow to use in combat, so wrist cuts get most of the action. I don’t think other rapier styles make this distinction explicitly, but I do think it’s generally useful and applies to all rapier cuts.

When I was taught to cut, Sensei described the wrist cut as an extremely tight motion – from the palm-down right-angle guard, pretty much just turning the hand to palm up and snapping the hand horizontally. That motion never felt good to me no matter how much I practiced it, and it wasn’t obviously the same kind of motion as a shoulder or elbow cut.

This bugged me for years. Now, a couple of decades later, I think I’ve figured it out. In retrospect it should have been obvious, but since it wasn’t at all obvious to me I figured I’d share.

Rather than trying to create a list of types of cuts, I want to describe the fundamental principles at play. A cut has two components to its motion: the circular component and the linear component. The former happens because you’re rotating the blade around a pivot point; the latter happens because you’re pulling the blade’s center of mass towards yourself and then pushing it back out at the moment of impact. It’s possible to minimize the linear component, but there are consequences if you do (more later about that). The angular and linear momentum of the two movements (I’m trying to avoid using the correct-but-pretentious “momenta” or the clearer-but-wrong “momentums” here) combine to create the impact force of the cut.

Let’s start with the circular component. The defining characteristic of a circle is its center; the shoulder/elbow/wrist classification is a start towards this, but you can go further. If you pick any point between your shoulder and the center of rotation of the blade (more on that in a moment), you can use that as the pivot point. For example, choosing a point at the ricasso of the blade, you can drop your pommel as you raise your point so as to pivot the blade around that point.

That term “center of rotation” is an important concept in the rapier, and it’s surprising to me that I haven’t mentioned this before. The center of rotation is the point around which the sword wants to rotate. Intuitively you would think this would be the center of mass, but you would be wrong. You can prove this to yourself: first, find the balance point of the sword – this is the center of mass. Next, hold the pommel of the sword and wiggle it back and forth, and observe the point that stays still – you’ll see that it’s not at all the same point.

If you don’t care about the physics, skip this paragraph. If you do, here’s why the center of rotation isn’t at the center of mass. Any long skinny object can be modeled as a massless rod with a point mass at each end, where the two masses and the length of the rod depend on the mass distribution of the object. In the case of a rapier, most of the mass is at the hilt, so that mass is significantly larger and the center of mass is fairly close to that end. However, you’re holding that end in your hand, so you’re moving that mass directly. This results in the blade pivoting around the mass at the other end, which turns out to be roughly halfway down the blade.

If you choose the center of rotation as the pivot for your cut, the result will be that the sword moves perfectly in balance. Unfortunately, the effect of this is that there’s no net angular momentum in the movement (if you don’t believe me, think about the massless-rod model above), so you won’t have any power in your cut. Any pivot point “above” (closer to your shoulder) the center of rotation will result in net angular momentum, and the farther “up” you go, the more mass you’ll be swinging and the more momentum you’ll get.

There’s an additional factor: the radius of the circle. The larger your circle (distance from the point of the sword to the pivot point), the faster your tip will move and the more angular momentum you’ll have at impact.

The linear portion of the movement is much simpler. The more (and faster) you move, the more linear momentum you’ll have. “Higher” (closer to the shoulder) pivots result in more linear movement due to the only-bends-one-direction structure of the arm joints, so all the components generally agree that a higher pivot means more movement and therefore more power but more time.

OK, so that was a lot of physics, so let’s tie that back to the actual technique. If you pivot at the shoulder, you’ll have the full mass of your arm and sword moving, you’ll have the largest possible radius, and you’ll get the largest linear movement. The result is that shoulder cuts are the most powerful version, but also the slowest because you’re moving the most mass over the longest distance. Elbow cuts are faster but less powerful, wrist cuts even faster and even less powerful.

What’s past wrist cuts? I use the term “snap cuts” for any cut with a pivot point past the wrist. Once you get past the wrist, cuts mostly stop getting faster because you still have to articulate your hand and wrist, but they have a significant tactical advantage in that they keep the sword in the space between you and your opponent. A wrist cut necessarily has a moment where the hand is in line but the sword is not, and in that moment you’re open. A snap cut does not have this moment, because you’re displacing your hand in order to keep some part of the sword in a defensive position.

To execute a snap cut, pick a spot on the sword as your pivot – I like to use a spot about three or four inches past the guard. Starting from the palm-down guard, you slightly bend your elbow (this creates the linear component of the movement), drop your hand, and raise your point, pivoting the sword around the chosen spot. The larger the circle your point makes (that is, the more you deflect your sword from the right-angle position), the more momentum you’ll get in the final cut, but the slower your movement will be.

If you take the snap cut and make it as small as possible, you end up with more or less what Sensei was describing to me twenty years ago. Choose a pivot point close to the center of rotation, use a very small deflection from the right angle, and you’re pretty much just turning your hand over. This is the fastest but least powerful version of the cut, and it’s why that cut never felt good to me. Pulling the pivot point back towards the hand and increasing the deflection angle results in a lot more momentum and makes the cut feel better.

One other point here that applies no matter which pivot point you choose. I said above that minimizing the linear component causes problems. That’s because, at the end of the cut, you want your force going outwards, not along the arc of the cut. If you minimize the linear component, you’ll end up with entirely angular momentum, and if you don’t hit something it will want to fly around the arc and end up far out of line. By introducing the linear component you not only add more power to the cut, you redirect that final momentum to an angle where it will try to pull the sword away from you rather than out of line. This makes it a lot easier to control the followthrough of your cut and lessens the need to reduce your power in order to keep control.


Respect and ego

Ego is a major problem in the martial arts. Any time you put people into a competitive situation you get egos involved, and when it’s as “masculine” as martial arts (which is not to say that there aren’t extremely able female and nonbinary martial artists!) it’s worse. Everyone is familiar with the swagger associated with MMA fighters, boxers, and so forth, and there are lots of people in the traditional martial arts who are just as bad.

TMA often disdains competition and claims to put a priority on humility, so ego there is usually quieter but just as prevalent. It’s the guy telling you that the way you’re doing the technique can’t possibly work, or challenging you to spar “to see which style is better”. It’s the student saying “that’s not the way we did things in my last school,” or “I like to do it this way and not the way you’re teaching.”

Ego is damaging. I was in a class once with my sensei. I was already a black belt in kenjutsu, and he had started teaching a bunch of new students, so I was far and away the most senior person in the room. He was demonstrating shinchokugiri, the vertical cut, something a student usually learns in their first few classes. I was paying only marginal attention and just drilling the cut that I’d done thousands and thousands of times.

Sensei repeated the lesson over and over. Finally, he pulled me aside. He told me that my cuts were terrible, and that the lesson that he’d been giving was for me. I was so sure that I knew what I was doing that I’d been ignoring him as he was explaining what I was doing wrong. If he hadn’t taken the time to specifically whack me on the head (figuratively… at least this time), I would have just kept doing it wrong and probably teaching it wrong.

The flip side of ego is respect. I wasn’t listening because my ego said I had nothing more to learn about that simple technique (for the record, fifteen years later I’m still learning about it), and I didn’t have enough respect for my sensei to assume that what he was saying would be valuable. If you respect someone, you listen to what they have to say and try not to prejudge based on what you think they’re going to say.

Respect, of course, goes both ways. As a teacher, you must have respect for your students. Of course they’re not as skilled as you are – if they were, they’d be in the wrong class. That doesn’t mean that they have nothing to teach you, and it doesn’t mean that when they disagree with you they’re wrong. Listen to what they say and consider it respectfully. More often than not, you’ll go ahead and tell them that they’re wrong and point them towards the right answer, but once in a while they may surprise you.

I do a lot of writing here about kenjutsu, and some about Destreza. I mention kung fu and taiji sometimes, but not to say “this is how to do it”. I pretty much never talk about escrima even though that’s what I’m currently training. Why is that? Because I have respect for my teacher and the art.

I have permission from my sensei to teach the things that he taught me, which includes kenjutsu, Destreza, and taiji. He also taught me some bagua and xingyi, but I don’t have enough training in those arts to speak intelligently about them so I don’t.

I don’t have permission to teach kung fu or escrima, so I don’t, even on those aspects where I do feel qualified to offer an intelligent opinion. To do so would be to disrespect my teachers in those arts, because I’d be implicitly claiming that I could teach it as well as they could. That’s not my decision to make, and I won’t take it upon myself to make it.

At some point, if I stick with escrima, I’ll be asked to teach it to more junior students, and I’ll happily teach what I’m asked to teach. If I’m given permission to teach the entire art, I’ll consider that my “graduation” (which doesn’t mean I’ll stop training and learning, of course!) At that point, you may hear about it here.

kenjutsu weapons


There’s a section of the curriculum in the Suisha Ryu called “muto”, which we inherited from the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu. It deals with disarming the sword – that is, if you’re fighting unarmed against someone with a sword, these are techniques for taking the sword away.

I feel like I’m saying this a lot recently, but obviously this is not something you’re going to do if you have a choice. If you have a sword, use it. If you don’t have a sword and they do, run the hell away if you possibly can. Trying to take a sword out of somebody’s hand while they’re trying to kill you is a good way to… get killed.

OK, now that’s out of the way. If you do need to do this, how do you do it? In Suisha Ryu, we do a lot of one-handed cuts, so we start by doing disarms against one-handed cuts (which are conveniently a good deal easier than against two-handed cuts, as you might imagine). For a one-handed cut, the general steps are these:

  1. Step inside the arc of the cut and stop it, just like I described in the post about jamming (except without a sword, obviously). Also just like jamming, you need to simultaneously provide some threat of offense or you’ll just get hit.
  2. Capture the sword arm so that it doesn’t get away while you’re messing around with the sword. Grab the tsuka (hilt) with the hand that’s not holding the sword arm.
  3. Turn the tsuka over the sword hand and to the outside. For a forehand cut, you’d be turning it counterclockwise; for a backhand cut it would be clockwise. This will force the attacker to let go.
  4. Back away, possibly cutting with the sword as you go, though you’ll probably have a terrible grip on it so your cut will almost certainly be awkward.

Let’s look at a specific cut to see how that works. As usual, I’ll start with forehand kesagiri (downward diagonal cut), because it’s the most common cut. As the attacker begins their cut, you step in and raise your left forearm to stop the cut (making contact with the attacker’s forearm). Simultaneously, you strike to the attacker’s face with your right hand – I like to do this as an open palm to the nose, because the open hand is startling, gives you a lot of room for error, and lets you strike hard without worrying too much about hurting yourself. The point of this strike isn’t so much to hurt them as it is to take their attention away from what’s going on with their hand.

Assuming you pull that much off, you move your right hand to capture their arm at the elbow. Don’t go much below the elbow or they’ll fold their elbow away from you and you won’t have room to manipulate the sword. Move your left hand to the tsuka, palm up with your thumb to the inside (so your fingers are pointing back towards yourself).

Finally, torque the sword counterclockwise, pushing it against their little finger and turning their thumb towards the floor. They don’t have a lot of rotation available in their wrist in that direction, so it will quickly lock up and let you torque the sword against their fingers. You’ll end up holding the sword in a left-handed reverse grip, all the way at the end of the tsuka near the kashira (butt cap). At that point, you can back away, maybe making a clumsy reverse grip cut with your left hand to keep them from chasing you as you do. Once you’re clear, you can fix your grip.

For other cuts, it works more or less identically. For a backhand yokogiri for example, you’d catch the cut on your right forearm and strike with your left hand. You’d capture the arm with your left hand and the tsuka with your right, torque the sword clockwise, and end up in the same awkward reverse grip but right-handed.

OK, so much for easy mode. I haven’t said anything about shinchokugiri (vertical cut) yet, and that’s because it’s pretty much always done two-handed.

For two-handed cuts, you enter the same way, but then you need to use two hands on the actual disarm. The trick is to put your two hands over the attacker’s two hands, with your palms on the backs of their hands. You then press into their hands, which puts you in a stronger position than they are (and also hopefully they’ve just been whacked in the nose and aren’t thinking about fighting you). This will cause their wrists to cross and lock together, and further pressure will let you take the sword out of their hands. You’ll end up in the inverse grip: two-handed, reversed, with your left hand next to the tsuba. This works with any cut, but with forehand cuts it takes a lot more rotation to cross the attacker’s wrists than it does with backhand cuts. It can be done from that side, but it’s not ideal.

Tsuki is a completely different beast in that it’s done with the blade more or less in line with the arm, so there’s no nice convenient lever sticking out. Instead, we’re going to use the blade itself as the lever. When the thrust comes in, you slip to your left (keep in mind that on a standard tsuki, the blade edge is to the attacker’s left or your right, so you’re moving to the dull side of the blade). You put the back of your forearm or wrist on the mune (spine) of the blade and lift it upwards as you move in. The goal here is to flip it entirely over, and ideally you’d like to lay it on the attacker’s right shoulder so that the ha (edge) of the blade is against their neck. You may or may not pull that off, but it’s OK – the point is to torque the attacker’s hands and to put the blade in a position where they can’t easily just turn it into you. You’re still striking towards their face while you do this, for the same reason as in all the other disarms.

Once you get the blade out of the way, you slide both hands down to the tsuka. It really doesn’t matter where or how you grab it, but ideally your hands are over the attacker’s hands in the same palm-to-back-of-hand position as for other two-handed disarms. Once you get your grab, you simply drop your weight and step back, and you’ll find that the attacker is forced to let go. Ideally, you’ll end up in a good two-handed right-hand-lead grip on the sword, though in practice you’ll usually have to adjust the position of your right hand.

One caveat – in most of these disarms, as in almost every other technique where you’re manipulating someone’s body, a prepared and resistant opponent can make the techniques not work. If you try a hip throw on somebody who’s ready for it and who wants to resist, you’ll find that it’s very difficult. Does that mean hip throws don’t work? Well, I have thoughts about that, which I’ll save for a future post, but in general – no, of course they work, you’re just not doing it right. To make throws work in combat, you need atemi (strikes).

Here’s an exercise I like to do with students when they’re learning these techniques. I’ll get to the point where I have a grip on their sword, and then I’ll stop and tell them to resist as hard as they can. I’ll demonstrate that they’re strong enough to prevent me from taking away the sword. Then, while they’re still resisting, I’ll reach out with my other hand and tap them lightly on the forehead. In the moment when they’re figuring out what just happened, I’ll take the sword away.

Disarms, and grappling techniques in general, don’t work if your opponent is prepared and centered. You need to break their intent to make them work; that’s what the strike is for when you’re entering. If you try it without the strike, odds are good that it won’t work. If you land that strike solidly, they may let go of the sword without you having to do any fancy disarming technique.