Forms Are Useless Part 2

Quan Shu Ke

In the first part, I covered the definition of a form with the ultimate definition being ‘a sequence of movements combined together to express an artistic stylization of combat.’  Now, as a writer I made the simple mistake of not exactly pointing out that definition, which was the point of examining different definitions.  There are lots of people that see forms work as remembering certain movements or techniques like a list or catalogue.  I see this as problematic in one or two ways. First, I know a few forms and for the most part remember most of the traditional applications, techniques, and drills that they contain but sometimes, I forget and knowing how the forms go is no help.  Plus, there are a great many out there who see the movements in forms, probably learned from a terrible teacher or a book and made up some nonsense with no bearing in experience of actual application.  Secondly, since I practice multiple systems, the “catalogue” definition is a bit weak since if you know principles behind the system(s) you are able to adapt things to yourself. If you don’t know or understand the principles then regardless of whether you learn a form or not, you’re still memorizing techniques and will be absolutely confused, and hurt should you have to use it. 

This is why I state that it’s important to understand that in traditional martial arts, especially the Chinese kind, that the forms you do are there to teach the stylistic expression of the system(s).  I think it’s important in Chinese martial arts to also make the distinction between forms and single movements.  Single movement training is there to build a sense of one or two movements over and over again, think Xingyiquan’s Five Elements or Forces for instance.  For those unfamiliar with Xingyiquan (Shape and Intent Boxing), the system contains five movements (Pi Quan or Splitting Fist, Zuan Quan or Drilling fist, Beng Quan or Crushing Fist, Pao Quan or Cannon Fist, and Heng Quan or Crossing Fist) that are done with varying footwork.  These typically are done over and over again, switching from side to side repeatedly.  Liang Ke Quan, my teacher’s teacher, was known to have taught 30-40 different ways to do these movements, most are only taught one way. These are meant to constantly drill these movements singly until they are utterly ingrained in one’s neuromuscular system.  This is much in the same way a boxer would drill jab, cross, hook, and uppercut until they can do it in their sleep.  There are variations to these forms taught with different forms such as linking the movements in different sets or in learning the two-man forms and the twelve animal sets.  However, all great Xingyiquan practitioners return to those five single movements to really understand how to use it.

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Now moving on to the original intent of this part of the article series is to revisit forms as actually being useful in some way.  Reading the article is important to understand this because despite what you may think by what the title is, I do not see them as being useless.  In fact, I returned to the traditional Chinese martial arts because I felt I needed something to balance hard training with weights, heavy bag work, pad work, and other types of conditioning.  This gave me a way to practice martial movements without over exerting myself and leading to issues with recovery and other such problems.  A health crisis was a big important motivator in this regard, so I definitely get it but I came back to it with the understanding and hopefully, dare I say, wisdom that forms work does not make the martial artist, the martial artist makes the form.  There are benefits though, and I thought it would be important to share what I think are important in this aspect of traditional training.

In some ways, the benefits of training forms in a martial art can include increased mobility and flexibility, strength and power, improved stability and coordination, lowered blood pressure and heart rate, improved mental concentration, and stress relief.  Obviously, as much as I would think I don’t need to say it, but as a health-care practitioner, martial arts training should never take the place of seeing a qualified health-care professional on a relatively regular basis.  Martial arts training, and even training in forms can have added benefit of aiding in leading a healthier lifestyle.

Mobility and flexibility is such an important aspect of healthy movement for martial arts and in general, that it should go without saying.  The problem is that we are more a sedentary society than ever before.  We sit at electronics or other aspects and it because transportation has become more efficient, walking and moving is done less and less.  I often recommend to my patients to go for walks just for basic exercise because much of what they experience especially in regards to low back pain as a lot to do with lack of movement.  Mobility and flexibility will greatly be increased with martial arts training and with their forms work, since it should take you through certain ranges or movements that you either way would not have done.

When we talk about strength and power in martial arts forms, there are two things I am not referring to here: brute force, and wannabe Qi (chi) powers.  Brute force is just untrained and poor quality movement, and it has no place in the martial arts, which is why it’s important to have uncooperative and resisting opponents to train with because you will not get far on brute force against a well-trained opponent.  When it comes to magical powers in the martial arts, look I get it, it looks cool but please stop.  There’s no such thing as Lin Kong Jin (Empty Force) in that you can move people from a distance with your mind and a wave of the hand, sorry.  Real strength and power has more to do with Gong Li, or trained force, which is what you acquire typically from training with resistance over a given period of time.  That resistance can be something as simple as body weight exercises, weight training, and wrestling/grappling with various opponents.  Even doing forms will build some degree of strength and power, but that is much in the same way as body weight or callisthenic exercises do. So, if you’re training to fight, it might not be the best or at least only option. However, it can be an excellent option for those who wish to maintain some degree of strength within their mobility and allow them to move well which can be quite beneficial especially in the older population or amongst people who are just starting the journey into martial arts.

In the martial arts, it is often required for practitioners to move and utilize their arms, legs, and the rest of the body in a unified fashion so as to achieve their specific goal.  This is coordination; whether it’s punch, kick, throw, or submit, it doesn’t matter because with coordination you won’t be able to achieve that.  With stability, we are able to have the necessary strength and ground path to produce power when we need to be able to punch, kick, throw, or submit.  These things are easy to develop in modern day training, with or without implements involved, but the one thing I’ve always liked about forms training is the essential specific training element involved especially if your style tends to have a specific body method that follows certain principles of movement.  When we look at whole body power, that which many martial arts especially the Chinese “internal” ones are famous for, we see a degree of stability or “rooting” necessary in order to do so.  This is something we can begin to develop in the forms we train in; however, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road in that regard, actually it’s honestly the beginning.  You will often find yourself taking the stuff you train solo to any version of partner drilling and sparring to only modify it in some way when you’re training it solo, this is normal and part of the journey.

There are definitely health benefits to practicing martial arts in general, which can include forms.  Improved blood pressure, heart rate, and other health-related markers can be of interest to many individuals.  This can more than likely attributed to benefits of regular exercise and something we see in many people who lead an active life.  Obviously, with the martial arts, and with forms specifically it tends to train the cardiovascular system fairly well since much of it involves highly repetitious training but that is not to say that it doesn’t build strength and power as mentioned above.  In fact, cardiovascular fitness can play a big role in strength and power. 

While most people would consider forms to be more aerobic in nature, and in some cases I wouldn’t disagree with them, I don’t think it’s that easy.  Obviously when looking at Taijiquan forms, they are typically relatively long, but done slowly and evenly with the exception being mostly Chen style.  Taiji then can be considered mostly aerobic; unless, you are doing some form of explosive training, and then that would add in an anaerobic factor as well.  Usually a traditional long form can take as little as seven to nine minutes (Sun style is usually done at this speed), all the way thirty minutes or more.  Some Taiji systems tend to make it a marker of achievement if you can go longer.  If you are training systems that tend to have more stronger, and explosive movements, like some “external” systems then you will vary the tempo which lead into tapping into your glycogen and phosphagen energy systems that are more anaerobic and require less oxygen molecules in their pathways, however this also means fatigue sets in faster. This video will provide a better explanation than I on this subject:

We live in a constantly distracting world.  There is some degree of stimulus from electronic devices to noise pollution.  A great many people have issues dealing with attention spans, awareness, mindfulness, and just the basic ability to concentrate.  Mindfulness is now a new buzzword, something I’ve been working since the late 1990’s when I became interested in Buddhism and meditation.  However, a great many of us are so utterly pulled into every direction by various items that we have lost our ability to focus on the now.  When you’re doing a martial art form, or training to fight, there is nowhere else to be but in the here and now.  There is something to that moment whether you are alone or with another individual in which you connect with the moment and move in the moment that is a bit indescribable.  I know that seems to be a bit of a cliché, but it’s important to take that moment, and only be there.  Whether you’re practicing baguazhang’s circle walking, practicing 200 reps each xingyiquan’s five elements, or practicing a taijiquan form, or even in sparring itself: be in the here and now.

Going along the same vein as developing concentration and mindfulness, one of the most important aspects of both martial arts forms training and fight training is the relieving of stress.  All of that noise pollution, the constant pressures of modern life, and the never-ending things to do provides an atmosphere of the inability to relax.  This is not to say that there was no stress a hundred years, or even ten thousand years, but those stressors are different, and the resources to relieve that stress is not exactly the easiest to come by.  Using the martial arts, specifically forms, can give you the time to move in a way that allows your mind to take a break from certain things and work into the movement instead. 

There are probably a lot more benefits to training martial arts, whether it’s forms or more, than just the six I listed above.  Honestly, after nearly a quarter of a century of martial arts training myself, the only reason I continue to do it is because I love it.  This is something that cannot be quantified or determined by any form of measurement.  It’s a part of me in a very deep way that can only understood by someone else who feels the same way about martial arts or anything else.  After all the disillusionment, after all the sweat, blood, and tears of training, of the tests to my ego and the subsequent bruising and breakdown, I train because I love it and because it is one with me.

Since all good things need to end in trilogies, part 3 is next.  This will focus on the dark side of forms and the unfortunate disaster it has caused for the martial arts. The plague of “perfecting” forms, super-secret family styles, and the inevitable disaster of not learning how to use the forms to develop the attributes you are after.

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