Footwork is a critical aspect of all martial arts, and I just had to search the blog because I couldn’t believe I hadn’t written this post earlier. Proper footwork gives mobility, but also balance, structure, and root – without it, you’ll be off-balance, immobile, and unable to exert power.
The term “footwork” covers multiple aspects of movement. At its most fundamental level, you can describe it as the study of weight and balance – where you put the weight on your feet, how you arrange your feet under your body, and how you transfer your weight while moving. This has implications, however – depending on how you arrange your feet, the directions in which you can exert power or absorb force change. Even subtler, the structure through your legs determines how much muscular tension it takes to support yourself, and therefore how quickly you can move your legs.
This post isn’t going to be about how to do proper footwork, because the details of footwork are highly style-dependent. If you look at someone practicing taiji, someone practicing taekwondo, and someone practicing, say, boxing, they look very different, but if they’re done correctly the fundamentals are identical. So, this post is going to look at the fundamentals: what does good footwork need, regardless of what art you’re practicing? What, in other words, are the principles of footwork?
Let’s start at the beginning. The balance point of your feet is in the center, right behind the ball of your second toe:
This has to do with the structure of your ankle and the cantilever effect of the arch of your foot. If you need to stand on a pole, that’s the spot to put it on your foot; anywhere else and you’ll have to contort your ankle, knee, and hip in order to keep your balance, and it will cause a lot of extra muscular tension. Ideally, you’d like all the weight to fall on that point on both feet.
Incidentally, this is why there’s disagreement between arts as to whether your feet should be flat or whether your heels should be raised. The balance point is right at the edge of the contact area when your heels are raised, so either way can work. I prefer a compromise: keep your heels in contact with the ground so that if you suddenly absorb force they’re there to catch you, but don’t plant weight on them because that tends to make you immobile.
Being in balance is critical. If you’re out of balance, the best case is that you need to use some muscle to maintain your position, and that’s muscle that’s then not available for movement. Worse, you may not be able to exert or absorb force, because ultimately all force must connect to the ground. For example, try standing on one foot and pushing on a wall – you’ll just push yourself away without exerting any particular force on the wall, because you’ll immediately take yourself out of balance. The worst case of being out of balance, of course, is that you fall down.
Because humans are bipedal, the region of perfect balance forms a line between the balance point of one foot and that of the other. If your center of mass is anywhere above that line, you’ll be in balance. Anywhere else, and you’ll be out of balance to some degree. From this, you can immediately see that there’s only one way to move that doesn’t result in being out of balance at some point: shift your weight 100% to one foot, move the other foot without placing any weight on it, and then shift your weight along the line of balance. If you watch taiji practitioners, they’re a really good example of this type of movement (and they tend to move slowly enough that you can see what they’re doing!) Anything else involves moments of off-balance – for example, if you try to put weight on a foot before it contacts the ground, you’ll “fall into your step”, and in that moment you’ll be unable to change direction or stop.
Done correctly, this creates a “rolling” style of movement, where your center of mass glides over the surface of the ground. Sensei always described this like rolling a basketball – if you drop it from any height, it bounces, but if you roll it perfectly (on a flat surface) it’ll move quickly and perfectly level. Similarly, keeping your center of mass at a constant height allows you to put all of your energy into horizontal movement, without wasting energy in vertical shifts. There are secondary benefits to this in terms of making your attacks more accurate, but that’s a bit outside the scope of this discussion.
This, by the way, is one reason for the “crescent step” used by many arts. The idea is to move your trailing foot to your leading foot and then back out as it passes, so it describes a crescent shape on the ground. Of course you first need to shift your weight to the leading foot, but then when you bring your trailing foot up, it’s awkward (though not impossible) to move it from behind you to in front of you without bringing your feet together in the middle. There are other reasons for this step, such as to move around the leg of your opponent (e.g., for a leg sweep).
OK, so now we can move in balance. Now what? Well, the goal of footwork is to be able to move freely and to exert power when and how we need to. In order to do any of those things, we need to be able to translate force to the ground. As a counterexample, think again about the situation where you’re standing on one foot. You can absolutely be in perfect balance while standing on one foot, but you can’t easily exert power from that position (with the exception of certain kinds of rotational power), nor can you move without first taking yourself off balance.
If you’re moving in balance, every position can be structured and there are no “transitional” positions. Given that, you can just take any random position and analyze it for structure in isolation. What is “structure”? You can think of structure as a mechanical connection from the point of contact – say, a fist, or a hand holding a weapon – to the ground. Ultimately, all force comes from the ground; this is just Newton’s Third Law (“every action has an equal and opposite reaction”). If I push on you, you push back on me exactly as hard; if I’m not supported by something stable, I’ll just push myself away from you.
So, we need a mechanical connection to the ground. Now we have to get into some biomechanics. There are two groups of tissues in the human body that deal with forces: bones (and their connective ligaments), and muscles. These tissues have very different properties, and marshaling the right ones at the right time and place is critical if you want to be successful. Muscles are good at creating motion, but not so good at opposing it, nor are they good at handling sustained forces. Bones and ligaments are, obviously, dreadful at creating motion, but they’re terrific at opposing it, and they’re extremely good at handling sustained forces (your femurs don’t get tired after standing up, for example).
So, the goal here is to use muscles for starting motion, and bones for stopping it. If I throw a (vastly oversimplified) punch, I want the muscles of my arm to send it towards your face, but when it gets there I want the force coming back to translate down the bones and not down the muscles. You can feel this one for yourself: think of the top of a pushup versus the bottom of a pushup. At the top, your bones and ligaments are taking the force, and it’s fairly relaxed. At the bottom, your muscles are taking the force, and it’s a lot of effort.
When that force translates back down the bones of my arm, I need it to have somewhere to go, because otherwise it’s going to throw my whole body back. I need that force to translate down my arm, into my spine, down to my pelvis, and down my legs into the ground, ideally all without moving me. My skeleton alone isn’t going to do that, because while the individual bones are rigid, the overall structure is floppy – it’s like tying three rulers together at the ends with string and trying to use the collection to push on something. The rulers are rigid, but the collection is not, and your force will just go off to the side. That’s where the muscles come in – you’re going to use your muscles just enough to keep your bones in the places where you need them to be in order to translate the force properly.
A full examination of structure is (far, far) outside the scope of this post, but for the purposes of footwork, the important thing is that your feet are in contact with the ground and your legs are set at an angle where the force can translate. If your feet are close together when you throw a punch, for example, the angle between the force coming down your leg and the ground will be too great, and you’ll knock yourself off balance.
Root is a funny concept. It means different things to different people, and sometimes it means different things in different situations. Root might be “resistance to being moved”, or it might be “ability to move someone else”, or even “connection to the ground”. Fundamentally, it’s all the same thing, though – root is the combination of balance and structure. If you have balance but no structure, or structure but no balance, you have no ability to exert or resist forces. In the former case, you’ll collapse on yourself (that’s the “bottom of a pushup” situation), and in the latter case you’ll move away from the force (and probably fall down).
When you combine balance and structure, you get synergies that start to feel a bit magical. The cliché of the elderly martial arts master who can’t be moved by the giant bouncer? That’s root, plus a little bit of energy redirection. The guy who can send you flying with a gentle push? That’s root. With proper root, you become an extension of the ground, and the ground can’t be moved by pushing on it.
Tradeoffs: Stability vs mobility
If you look at different arts, they make different choices in terms of their footwork even if they’re following all the principles I’ve outlined here. The two arts I spend most time on here, kenjutsu and Destreza, are good examples: kenjutsu tends towards deep rooted stances, and Destreza makes a point of keeping the feet together and standing tall. Why the difference, and what are the advantages of each?
The fundamental tradeoff here is stability vs mobility. With your feet far apart and your knees deeply bent, you get good stability – you have a lot of room in which you can move without losing your balance (the line between your feet is long), and the angle at which you can push on the ground is acute so you can exert or absorb more horizontal force. However, in order to pick up either foot, you have to shift your weight a long distance to the other foot, so it’s more difficult and slower for you to move in this position.
With your feet close together, on the other hand, your stability is lousy – any force is likely to move you. When you move, however, you barely have to shift at all in order to free up a foot, meaning that it’s very fast to move in any direction.
There is one additional consideration here. In order to take a step in balance, you have to put a foot down without putting weight on it. Consider doing this with your knees locked – you can’t, right? If the knee of your post leg is locked, you can’t touch the ground with the other foot (yes, you can point your toe, so this isn’t strictly true, just run with it) and so the only way to move is to fall into your step. Try walking without bending your knees (“goose stepping”) and you’ll see how hard it is. The deeper your stance, the further away you can put your feet, and so the more ground you can cover in a single step. The taller your stance, the shorter your steps have to be.
In Destreza, we try to take advantage of this tradeoff. At range, we stand tall with our feet close together, optimizing for mobility. If you and your opponent both have rapiers, you probably aren’t going to have to absorb force at range – if they hit you, it’ll be with the sharp end. When we close, we widen our stance temporarily to increase stability (usually by just leaving the trailing foot one step away as we close with the leading foot), because at that point we’re worried about pushes and other kinds of strikes. There’s not as much room to move in close, so mobility isn’t as important in any case. On the way out, the stance becomes tall again.
Footwork is, literally, the foundation of all martial arts. If your footwork is poor, it doesn’t matter how good you are otherwise – you won’t be able to put power where you need it, or resist forces that are applied to you. You won’t be able to get yourself to where you need to be, when you need to be there. There are some fundamental principles that all good footwork must obey; while different arts may make different choices, they all have to move in balance, with good structure and root.
I should say that there are exceptions to every rule, including this one. For example, lunging or leaping movements definitely have their places, and can’t be done by following these rules. There are cases where you deliberately give up structure and balance, such as in a sacrifice throw. Mostly, though, if you take these rules to heart you will dramatically improve your own movement and find that it’s a lot easier to apply all the other stuff that your art has to offer.
Just to tease a future post, there’s a fundamental interaction between stepping and power generation. I tell my students all the time “it’s just a step, all the other stuff is a side effect”. I’m sure they’re tired of that. 🙂