Question: Can training in forms or set patterns help your martial ability?
Answer: Forms training is one of the best things about the style of Kung Fu.
I recently read an article written by a Jeet Kune Do instructor in which he advocated the idea that the learning of forms or choreographed patterns was a useless endeavor.
My humble opinion is that whenever someone tells you that there is no value in training in a certain way or using a certain method it says a lot about their understanding of the martial arts. Broad sweeping statements such as those are the equivalent of saying that that it never snows in Las Vegas.
Training in forms is not useless.
Forms can teach you many things. It can develop many attributes that will help you become both a better fighter and martial artist. One attribute that training in forms can develop in you is the attribute of fluidity. Kung fu forms are known for its flowing and powerful movements.
Performing a set or kata without stopping or pausing between moves will directly translate to being able to fight without stopping. In a real life self defense situation, the ability to flow is so much more important to your success than almost anything else.
Practicing forms or sets, will also teach you the correct way to strike and block while in motion. Many time students can perform blocks and strike perfectly while standing still but, add in footwork and they now have to concentrate on moving multiple body parts at the same time.
Forms training will help you build up that all important level of coordination that is needed to move like a true martial artist. Forms as a type of conditioning exercise At the highest level of training, forms become the ultimate conditioning tool.
How much of a workout you get out of doing forms it all depends on how much intensity and speed you put into the forms. Much like a boxer that does shadowboxing, his workout will depend on whether he shadowboxes at a lackadaisical pace or at a very high pace with intensity.
Being able to recognize the next target to strike after your initial hit is an essential skill. However, there are a couple of things that training in forms will not help you with.
Training in forms will not teach you a feel for what is correct range or distancing. A feeling of what is good distancing can only be developed when practicing against an opponent.
You need to develop a good instinct or feel for what is the correct distance needed to actually apply many of the blocks and a feel for where you are in the correct distance to actually strike. Forms practice also will not teach you how to flow or follow up effectively when striking an opponent. Being able to recognize the next target to strike after your initial hit is an essential skill. This type of skill should be learned against a partner who is willing to give you a glimpse of what it would actually happen if you were to hit someone.
Variety of systems I have trained in many different systems in my own life. In many of these systems, I have seen very traditional forms being taught. I have then seen these very same programs teach sparring and self defense using completely different techniques and principles then when they taught sparring. It is almost as if they were teaching an entire different style. These systems taught sparring in the same way as a kickboxing gym would teach sparring. Kickboxing or Muay Thai is actually the best style to learn if you are interested in sparring. All of their techniques have been developed and proven to work well within the ring and following the rules of sparring. The techniques of Kung Fu, on the other hand, have been proven to work in real life fights. People who think that all techniques must be tested in sparring to know if they would really work, are misinformed and should try sparring with live sharp knives.
In My Opinion I think that the Jeet Kune Do instructor who advocated that the learning of forms was a useless endeavor, was actually referring to this preceding type of program. In the those types of programs, it seems as though the traditional forms have no real use, because the traditional movements cannot be applied. However, in the style of Shaolin Kung Fu, the movements contained within the forms each have a direct application in fighting. If the movements have no martial or warlike application, then the movements become a dance. There is nothing wrong with dance, but the word dance is a good way to describe creative movement that has no martial value. Forms are a tool. A very good tool for sure, but still just one method of practice. There are many methods and ways to train the same style. A boxer, will work sparring, heavy bag, double end bag, running, jump rope, and focus mitts all in the same day. They still consider themselves to be training in boxing.
Practicing Forms Has No Value?
It has taken me the last 14 years of hard work since then to feel like I have a better grasp of all of the forms in the system, and I still feel that I have more room for improvement. Saying forms has no value is like saying hitting the heavy bag has no value. I could just as easily make an argument that the heavy bag does not hit back at you, and therefore there is no sense in training with it. It is nothing like a real opponent. It makes more sense to say instead that the hitting or kicking the heavy bag will help to develop the attribute of striking with power. It makes sense to say that jumping rope will help develop fast footwork in you. It makes sense to say that jogging will develop your endurance. It took me almost a full year to learn my first Shaolin Kung Fu form. Sometimes, when I tell my students how long it took me to learn the first form, they do not believe me. I actually knew most of the form within nine months of starting, but only after a year, did I feel comfortable performing it. It has taken me the last 14 years of hard work since then to feel like I have a better grasp of all of the forms in the system, and I still feel that I have more room for improvement. Learning Shaolin Kung Fu can take an entire lifetime to learn and still you will not have found it’s deepest depths.
This intrinsic difficulties of Kung fu is one of the things that initially drew me to it. I also think that is why Kung fu is not as popular in the United States as say, Tae kwon do. I think kung fu appeals to a certain type of student, the type of student that is interested in continuous and constant work and improvement. Kung fu is not about instantaneous gratification but rather it takes hard work and perseverance to be successful