How Not To Suck With the Sticks: FMA Basics for Non-FMA People
As a practitioner of the Filipino Martial Arts, I just LOVE it when people want to pick up some rattan and start learning what we do. It's not uncommon these days for empty-hand styles of all sorts - striking AND grappling - to add FMA's to what they teach in their schools.
That's awesome, guys.
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.
So here's some tips to help you make sure that the stick work you do in your dojo, dojang or 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).
USE RATTAN STICKS
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! Rattan does NOT throw off splinters when it breaks, so it's a lot safer to use. White waxwood is not as bad as other hard woods, but I find them to be pretty noisy. Best to stick to rattan.
GRIPPING THE STICK
There's a little variation within the FMA's from style to style, but generally speaking, hold the stick like so:
FMA styles 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 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.
If you're close or medium range, you probably want to hold it so that you DO have some punyo (again, how much depends on your style). You end up using it as part of your fighting strategy.
Make sure you know which range you're using.
I actually have a little too much punyo in the image above for my style, but we were trying to make the image very clear in terms of grip.
Two things to avoid in your grip:
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). At the same time, though, your fingers should NOT leave the stick as you move it around (like making an "Ok" sign with a stick in your hand). Like this:
UNDERSTANDING BLADE VS. BLUNT
It's a common belief that the stick is ALWAYS a stand-in for a blade in the FMA's, 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.
I could write a whole blog post on the differences (makes note to self), but the two most critical things to be aware of is that blunt requires force and blades don't, and that a hit that is devastating with one may have little to no effect with the other. A smack on the inside wrist with a blunt weapon is NOT a problem versus getting cut there and bleeding 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).
Part of this is because a newbie's gonna n00b no matter what, and that means they'll be stiff and unsure of how to move correctly. I think this is a somewhat universal truth in all martial arts, not just the FMA's.
Universal truth or not, most experienced martial artists I've taught coming from empty hand arts like karate or taekwondo are usually way, WAY too hard and fast in playing FMA's.
I think some of this is just falling back on how they initially learned how to "generate power" with striking. I would hope that as they progressed, though, they relaxed in their empty hand arts too, because tense muscles are slow muscles, regardless of what you're doing.
Whether it's a stick or a blade, power comes from technique, not muscle, just like it does in the empty hand arts. Speed is also incredibly important, and you cannot be fast if your muscles are tensed up. Relax and do your techniques slowly and smoothly at first. Over time, you'll speed up naturally, and your strikes will have more power when you need 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.
I can't teach you FMA'S in a blog post (and you can't learn it without a teacher you see in real life anyway, in my opinion) but here's a few more tips that might help you along the way:
✔ When working on any drill, don't "chase the stick". Your goal is not to hit the other guy's stick, it's to hit the other guy. Just make sure the other guy knows how to block or your friend might not want to play with you any more.
✔ Chamber. Don't leave your hands in front of you in space, or drop them by your sides, no matter if you have weapon in your hand or not. Just like in the empty hand striking arts, we advise you to keep your hands up.
✔ If you are using a single weapon in one hand, your empty hand - the "Live" hand - should not be dropped to your side or doing nothing. We call it a "Live" hand because it does stuff - it traps, grabs, parries, passes, and strikes - and it can't do stuff well if it's out of play.
✔ Footwork is KEY in the FMA's. Make sure you understand your style's footwork and are doing it (not just standing still).
✔ There is no ONE "mother" FMA style. There are literally hundreds of styles and systems and there's more every day as more innovation happens (it's a living, breathing martial arts tradition versus one codified hundreds of years ago).
✔ Generally speaking, FMA training DOES include empty hand material as well as weapons (we start with weapons because it's easier than empty hand). What you learn with a weapon, you can translate to empty hand.
✔ If you're really used to empty hand training, it can be difficult to recognize that the hand and arm are targets in their own right, not just obstacles to block and get around to get to a head or body shot. That is also true for kicks - it's so nice of a high kicker to bring their hamstring and Achilles tendon up to your knife, isn't it?
✔ If you are cross-training from another style (like kung fu or BJJ) don't be surprised if you spot things you already know in what we do. As Remy Presas, founder of Modern Arnis, is often quoted, "It is all the same."
I hope this helps you on your FMA journey. Feel free to reach out to me if you have questions! If you play Arnis / Eskrima / Kali / Escrima, did I leave a favorite tip of yours out? Let us know in the comments!