Forms Are Useless Part 1

Alright, that may perhaps be a bit sensational and attention-grabbing, but while I have it, I’d like to examine forms for a moment. I may not find forms useless because if I did, I wouldn’t do them, I’d stick with the barest minimum of movements that tend to be the highest percentage in a fight yet have the most reward in terms of skill development. However, I like training my forms, and I like understanding how they work. However, before we get too far down that rabbit-hole, let’s try to define what is thought of as a “form.”

When looking for a defined version of a word that closely associates it with what is generally understood as the most accepted version of the word.  If we go to that thing called a dictionary. Using the Google dictionary function, (https://www.google.com/search?q=meaning+of+form&oq=meaning+of+form&aqs=chrome.0.0l6.4351j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8), we find several meanings for the word as both a noun (person, place, or thing) and verb (an action, state, or occurrence). In the martial arts world we can apply this word in both manners, “this is my Eight Postures Boxing Form” (noun), “his form is superb” (verb). In this sense, we can look at it in a couple ways but for the sake of this article we may want to focus on the definition as it pertains to a noun.

Even as a noun, the word ‘form’ can be defined in several ways, and while I would love to show them all here I want to keep this article a little neater.  So, if you look at the above Google link, the first definition seems to fit pretty well:

  1. The visible shape or configuration of something.
    • arrangement of parts; shape.
    • arrangement and style in literary or musical composition.

This definition seems to fit nicely from what we generally understand about how our forms are put together.  Since I primarily practice Chinese martial arts, the important question is, what do the Chinese call ‘forms’ in, well, Chinese?  The common term used nowadays, is tào lù (套路) which is more commonly used in performance wushu and translated as a “routine” much in the same way gymnasts might have a “floor routine.”  Typically, tàolù refers to a solo routine, whereas a form or set involving two or more people “fighting” each other is called a dui lian (對練).  According to Andrea Falk’s “Wushu Dictionary,” the Chinese terms are a) huo jia zi or “practice a routine stance to stance, moving quickly and smoothly between the stances” and b) ding jia zi or “practise a routine stance by stance, stopping in each stance.” This seems to denote more a way of practice rather than terminology for martial arts forms, however.

Another way of describing what we do is looking at other groups to see what terms and definitions they use.  Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, who founded Yang’s Martial Arts Association, originally headquartered near Boston, Massachusets, and now located in California, has used the term ‘sequence’ to describe forms especially moderate to lengthy ones.  David W. Granthamn writes in his article The Value of Practicing Sequences on http://legacy.ymaa.com/articles/the-value-of-practicing-sequences,  that a “…sequence, (Quan Tao, 拳套), is a continuous flowing routine made up of a number of defensive and offensive techniques.”  He later defines it further, “… techniques are either a single form such as a block, punch, or kick, or they can consist of a combination of forms used for specific situations when defending or attacking an opponent.” This, I think, is an excellent definition, and probably one we are most thinking about when it comes to the definition of forms.

Well, what does that really have to do with the title of the article then?  Well, a couple things.  First, you really don’t need forms to learn how to fight.  Secondly, forms training is not just about fighting but without fighting, you are just doing strange looking dancing and calling it a martial art.

Professional and amateur fighters, as well as soldiers, law enforcement officers (LEO) do not learn forms (for the most part) in order to fight effectively depending on their respective environments.  Especially when it comes to combat sports participants, they spend a huge amount of time training, strengthening, and conditioning to prepare for the rigors of competition.  Even in Taiwan, in the mid-1980s, when they were preparing for the fighting competitions of the day would spend less time on forms and more time on fighting.  Tim Cartmell, my teacher, describes what it was like training with Xu Hong Ji and his son Xu Zhen Wang during that time:

I practiced Xing Yi Quan with my first teacher about four nights a week. Classes followed this basic pattern: about an hour of warm ups and conditioning (joint exercises, lots of variations of pushups and ab exercises, basic strikes, kicks and body movements in place), then rolling and falling, next we would review and practice forms for about 45 minutes to an hour, then techniques and sparring for about the same length of time (classes were about 2 and a half hours long). Sometimes we would practice techniques more and free spar less, depending on if we were preparing for a competition or not.

This is an important consideration when trying to understand how and why (or not) to do forms. Practicing simple and easy to use, otherwise known as high percentage, techniques and strategies tends to be better for preparing to fight. Even if we’re talking about personal or self-defense, then it would be better to practice basic movements, good footwork, strategies for getting away, hitting various objects for power training, and sparring for learning to deal with stress than forms.

Why should you learn forms then?  Well, obviously, not everyone needs to learn how to fight for competition or work as a LEO.  Even in these days, self-defense is not nearly a necessity as once had been, especially since society despite what you hear or see in the media is getting better (https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2017/11/30/why-the-world-is-getting-better-why-hardly-anyone-knows-it/#35c2db9d7826). Perhaps, at the end of the day, you just enjoy the art of it?  I do.  Having come to Chinese martial arts more than 20 years ago, and then leaving it behind to pursue kickboxing, boxing, Jeet Kune Do, and some grappling, I came back to it because I love it.  However, that’s not all, I truly believe the material I train in works when it’s trained properly.

The reason forms, sets, or whatever you like to call them, are important is that it allows you to train the necessary attributes that are associated with the style.  In terms of the internal martial arts of xingyiquan, baguazhang, and taijiquan, it can be looked at like applying concepts of movement that have a stylistic flair.  It’s not necessary to learn them for combat but if you learn them from the right person who understands the movements, and what they mean, you’ll benefit from them immensely and not just for fighting.

Even when it comes to just training for health and fitness in the martial arts, it is important to understand the principles especially physically.  All too often, I’ll go on YouTube to watch a person do a particular style that I do and see it completely butchered.  When principles of basic body movement are not followed, this is not “training martial arts for health.”  The movements, especially in the internal martial arts and I suspect all arts, must be done to some degree with proper alignment and structure, this is vital for proper forms work regardless of whether or not one is training with the intent to fight.  The only difference that should exist between training for health and training for fighting is pressure and resistance.  Obviously, a subject for another time.

That’s the end of part one, in the next article in this series, I will address the benefits of training in forms and what that means for martial arts and learning to fight.


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