Saturday, April 19, 2014

How Not To Suck with the Sticks - FMA basics for non-FMA people

My art, Modern Arnis, is generally taught in the United States as "the art within your art".  That is, it's taught as an "add-on" to what you already know (that's how the Professor popularized what we do).  I think this is true for many versions of the Filipino Martial Arts, as I see people with lots of experience in other martial arts attending seminars and incorporating what they learn there into their training.

I think this is a great thing, and I totally support people learning some of our principles, training methodologies, and techniques and incorporating them into what they do as martial artists.

But the down side to this is that there is an awful lot of poorly understood and poorly performed FMA techniques out there.

Aw, c'mon, it's more complicated than that, Master Ken.  See
his whole take on "stick fighting" here.
So here's some tips to help you make sure that the stick work you do in your dojo, dojang or training studio isn't bullshit.  This is all basic, entry-level stuff in general that seems to be relatively universal (but not totally - there are as many variants of the Filipino Martial Arts as there are islands and languages and families in the Philippines).


Do not use hard woods like bahi or ironwood (kamagong) or oak.  Rattan is cheaper and is far less likely to cause permanent damage when you get hit - and you will get hit.  DO NOT, under any circumstances, use dowels you get at the home improvement store.  They will throw off splinters when they break - heck, you could get splinters in your hand just by handling one!  White waxwood is not as bad as other hard woods, but I find them to be pretty noisy. Best to stick to rattan.

Burning rattan smell is the additional bonus.
Every FMA player reading this just smiled and nodded.


There's a little variation within the FMA's, but generally speaking, hold the stick like so:

This is the hand that will deliver the beatings.
FMA style vary in terms of how close they tend to get (long, medium, and/or short range).  How and where you grip the stick is related to the range.  If you're close or medium range, you want to hold the stick a so that you have some space at the end of a stick.  Some arts it's a full hand, others, it's two fingers width. If you're a long-range player, you don't want much butt end (or "punyo" - we probably should spell it "puño" as the word is from Spanish, but nobody ever does), in order to have as much reach as possible.  Make sure you know which strategy you're using.

Two things to avoid in your grip:

Pictured left: No.  Pictured right:  Hells to the No.
Avoid sticking your thumb out because it seriously weakens your grip on the weapon (easy disarm, that), because that thumb makes a very attractive target, and because you can get grabbed and put into a painful thumb lock (or even get it broken).  Avoid sticking your index finger out because the target and lock/break problem applies there, too.

Your grip should be firm, but you shouldn't hold on to the stick with so much force you end up with white knuckles (it's not necessary to death grip it).  And for Pete's sake, don't twirl it around like a drummer - you should always keep your stick in a relatively firm grip.  If you look like this very talented man in this video, you might have a future in a rock band, but not as a stick fighter.


It's a common belief that the stick is ALWAYS a stand-in for a blade, but that's not exactly true. In fact, the way I play is far more "blunt" than blade (and thus you'll see me do things that makes other FMA people cringe as they envision cutting themselves).  Know which type of weapon you're studying, and why.

Key differences:
  • Blunt weapons require a lot of force, as they inflict damage by crushing whatever's being hit.  Slashing motions will do little to no damage with a blunt weapon.
  • Blades separate matter, so it's better to prolong contact with the edge so that it can separate as much matter as possible.  You do not need a lot of force to make a blade work - that's why they're sharp. You aren't chopping wood. 
  • Blunt weapons allow you to do stick exchanges hand-to-hand with any part of the weapon.
  • Blades, if you switch hands, must be only on the hilt of the blade. I'll admit, I don't know if the blade-ier FMA's ever do an exchange, but if I were to do so with a bolo, that'd be my advice.
  • Blunt weapons can be used to trap and lock.
  • Blades - you wouldn't trap or lock with one, you'd cut stuff off instead.
  • Blunt weapons do not require you to have "edge awareness" - bladed weapons require that you know where the edge/point is at all times.
  • Vital points are different!  I wouldn't mind getting hit in the crook of my arm at the elbow with a blunt (it won't tickle, but that's not a critical hit).  With a blade, I could lose my entire forearm and bleed out quickly.
It's okay to study both approaches, but don't make the mistake of starting a technique as one and ending as the other (your weapon will not magically transform from blade to blunt in the middle of the technique).

If this were a blade, I'd have cut my fingers off.

People from "hard" empty hand arts - karate and tae kwon do for example - tend to tense up and hit very stiffly when doing FMA techniques.  This is their habit when they do kata and such, as that's how they "have power", so it's understandable that people would think that this is the way to generate power with the sticks.

The power of the stick comes from speed and technique, not pure muscle (our strategy is not typically "one hit and you're out").  You cannot be fast if your muscles are tensed up.  Relax and do your techniques slowly at first.  Over time, you'll speed up naturally, and your strikes will have more power.  As the saying goes, "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast".  Tense muscles tend move in a choppy way, and FMA players flow, moving smoothly.

The exact opposite of this guy.

Sinawali, or "weaving" drills, seems to be the most common thing people learn from the FMA's. It doesn't matter which pattern you learn - there are literally hundreds - or whether you learn with one stick or two, the point of sinawali is to learn distancing, targeting, chambering, moving your feet, flow, stick control, training both hands simultaneously, and to get a lot of reps in while you learn those things.

Here's ways to make sure your practice of sinawali is serving its intended purpose:
  • Don't chase the stick.  People are doing sinawali as if it's just patty-cake with sticks.  They are being careful to make sure that they hit their partner's stick.  This is not the point of the drill.  You need place your strikes as if you were hitting your partner. If your partner does the same, you'll meet in the middle (like an "x").
  • Aim for targets.  So, if you aren't chasing the stick, you need to be sure where you should be striking.  For example, in the sinawali shown below, the actual targets are to the head, and to the knees.  When doing the drill, aim there!  People tend to aim high on high strikes (head shots) because they are afraid of hurting their partner.  If you have enough space between you, this is not a problem, and you do not want to get in the habit of feeding high strikes too high.
  • Don't stand still, rooted.  Standing still in a locked stance is just not what FMA people do.  We move around, we step from side to side, playing with and using angles.  You should play with this idea when doing sinawali.  You will see videos of experienced people staying in one place sometimes - it's usually because they are isolating something else at that moment temporarily, or the camera can't be moved when they recorded the video.  It's not the way they actually play sinawali for real.
  • Chamber.  Do you train to punch or spar with your hands hanging loose in front of you?  Probably not - you chamber them into a ready position of some sort.  We do the same thing, with sticks.  Don't let your hands stay out in space in between you and your partner.  Chamber them so they are ready for the next strike.  Don't drop your sticks down to your sides - this is a VERY common mistake - and remove your guard from around your head.
  • Use Medium Range.  What this means is that if your partner stood still, you should be able to hit them with the tip of your stick. What a lot of people do is use long range, and so you end up not actually having to defend against your partner (when the sticks meet in the middle, after all, is your "defense" as well as your "strike"). Part of what you're trying to learn is force-to-force blocking, so if you're too far away, this skill never develops.
  • Go Slow.  Newbies make the mistake of trying to go as fast as possible when doing sinawali.  That's not the point here - slow down, chamber, move around, be smooth and target.  Speed will, in time, come naturally.  Don't force it!
Basically, avoid looking like this.  Ninja gear optional.
I hope these tips help you integrate your FMA-derived techniques into your normal training routine easier.  If I can be of help (or if you want to be referred to experts who know a jillion times more than I do), let me know!