Technique, Concepts, and Body Mechanics: A Hearty Cheer for What Really Works

What really works? My opinion is that what works in real combat depends on situational variables, to include the skill set and dedication of the person attempting to make a technique “work.” I can’t count the number of times that I have seen someone write or heard someone say “No one can do XYZ in a real situation,” “That won't work,” “That crap doesn't work on me (or for me),” or the standard refrain from many in the gun-toting and law enforcement crowd, “Very pretty. I’d just pull my gun” and it gets old pretty fast. It really got old when I was younger and a bit less patient.

First of all, I will freely admit that nothing works every time and all the time. Cut the tendons on the arm and the arm drops and can’t attack you, except when you don’t quite sever the tendons and the arm still moves. Shoot the guy through the eye with a powerful handgun and the guy is dead, except when the hollow point bullet enters the eye, ricochets off the orbital bone, and exits the skull at the temple, and, aside from losing the eye and having an interesting scar, the guy goes on to live a “normal” and healthy life. (Yes, I have seen both situations above in the real world). Crap happens, and anyone who says that “XYZ” will work every time on everyone is either inexperienced when it comes to real fighting, is trying to sell you something, or both. However, there is quite a bit of heckling and nay saying in regards to very functional, realistic techniques.

When I was a teenager, I recall quite a few skills and techniques that I learned because the instructor wanted me to, because they were part of a system I was studying, or because it was otherwise necessary, but that I knew did not work under the stress of hard, full-contact sparring. I assumed from personal testing of the technique that the techniques would not work in real world fights, because real world fights are much more stressful and dangerous than any sparring or sporting situation, as people are actually trying to kill or injure you. About a decade went by, I practiced a lot, fought on the street a time or two to defend myself, and I suddenly discovered that the “ridiculous,” “ineffective,” and “outdated” moves that I had discarded for personal use now worked for me under stress, and that a couple of them were used by me automatically when people were trying to beat the dog snot out of me in the real world. The skill sets and techniques were not “bad,” my skill had just not been sufficient to use them. I could not see the practicality, largely because I originally could not make them work and I was young enough in the arts not to examine everything from a body mechanics and conceptual standpoint. I started out in a traditional, rote repetition of technique, “don’t think, do” methodology of instruction. I learned a lot, but I do believe I would have learned more if the techniques had been broken down to the body mechanics level.

I do not discount or discard techniques now without a critical examination of the concepts and body mechanics behind them. If the technique happens to be a 42 move series requiring the flexibility of a high-class stripper, the explosive strength of an Olympic power lifter, the reflexes of a Formula One driver, and the finger dexterity of a world-class concert pianist, then it is probably not for me. That is not to say that there is not some Conan the Barbarian look-alike yoga master with the fast twitch muscles and dexterity of a young god of Olympus out there who really could make it work. I just happen to know that I am not that guy, and that, way before 42 moves are executed, I want to be standing over the inanimate bad guy or bad guys and thinking about how to compose my use of force report. I have to admit, though, that I sometimes tend to collect techniques like a Dallas debutante collects shoes. That said, I learned a long time ago that technique is really not important, it is the concepts that are behind the techniques and the body mechanics that make the concepts work which are important.

One of the core principles of Albo Kali Silat is an emphasis on body mechanics. When techniques are taught, the concepts behind the techniques are taught, and the body mechanics that allow the technique to work are shown. For example, you are facing an opponent and you are taught that you can hit the inside of your opponent’s upper thigh with a rising knee. This is a technique, and I have seen many instructors stop right here. Some will go further and identify that the femoral nerve complex located in this area as a good place to hit which can cause pain and/or numbness in the leg. Some will go further still and explain that, to reliably hit the inside thigh, the knee should come in at an angle, not straight at the centerline of the body. Now a student has a technique that can be used in many situations. The student has to do a lot of introspection, examination of the technique, and experimentation in order to go much further than this with the technique. Contrast this to the following teaching methodology:

  • Concept: Balance Disruption: to cause your opponent to be off balance and to have to use much or most of his mental and physical faculties to continue to occupy his current posture, thus leaving little time, energy, or effort free to launch an attack upon you.
  • Body Mechanics: One way to disrupt balance is to turn the pelvis. A strong front stance (one foot forward, one to the rear, feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent) is very stable in a straight on confrontation. It is not very stable against force applied at an angle 45 degrees to the side. A forceful strike to the inside of the thigh coming in on about a 45 degree angle will attack a known vulnerability of the front stance, cause the opponent’s pelvis to twist, making his body turn sideways while he is trying to resist a push (the force of the knee strike) against a line where his stance is weak. The opponent has to utilize time and effort to maintain balance, making it more difficult for him to launch or to continue a previously launched attack.
  • Technique: With the concepts and mechanics explained, possible technique expands exponentially for the student. If a knee to the inside of the thigh works, then a forceful angle five or angle six (rising diagonal strikes in the Albo Kali Silat system) to the inside of the thigh with a baston, open palm, or hammer fist could also work. A forceful strike to the juncture of shoulder and chest, when applied at a 45 degree angle, could also turn the person”s torso, spine, and/or pelvis, couldn’t it? What about an attack on the outside of the leg going inward at a 45 degree angle? Would that turn the pelvis and disrupt balance?

In Albo Kali Silat, as in many of the Filipino Martial Arts, there is a recognition that all techniques and motions are not for all people. Some students have body types or injuries that prohibit them from doing a specific technique for the full range of required motion to complete the technique and at the speed which is required to complete the technique in a “for real” situation. This is OK. Students learn the concepts and body mechanics behind the techniques, practice the techniques, and make the opponent’s body work for them. If they cannot, after that last knee surgery, get any power into the “earth to sky” rising knee to the face, then they smack the inside of the opponent’s knee with an elbow while in a low level posture, and smack the guy’s face with their knee as they begin to rise and his structure starts to crumble and he begins falling, letting him bring most of the power into the strike through the collapse of his balance. Students learn the full range of techniques, but the goal is to make the concepts and body mechanics behind the techniques a living part of the student, so that whatever is necessary to end a fight successfully comes out of the student without thought. Combat is every changing, every challenging, and always new. Adaptability and flexibility are necessary and actions must be fluid, continuous and without thought if a high probability of a successful outcome against real world attacks is to be achieved.

There is nothing in the Albo Kali Silat curriculum that does not work or that is there because it is pretty, looks cool, or wins weapon demonstration tournaments. What is in the art is there because it works under stress, in the for-real-and-for-keeps world of combat. That is not to say that everything will work immediately or for everyone. Motions become your own only with a lot of practice, and it thus takes awhile to learn. The harder you work and train, the more you get out of this art, or any art for that matter. It takes time and dedication to be good at any physical skill. Students in Albo Kali Silat are encouraged to critically examine their techniques and to ask questions if they do not understand the concepts and body mechanics behind everything that they are being taught. After years of analyzing things from a conceptual and body mechanics standpoint, it becomes fairly easy to spot ineffective motions, technique repeated by rote with no understanding of what the technique is really supposed to do, and pure, airy, light, pretty fluff that looks beautiful or acrobatic, but which accomplishes little aside from burning up time that you could have used to apply nasty, hard hitting, techniques to beat down your evil-doing opponent. Albo Kali Silat students are taught to view all systems, styles, and techniques with respect, and to examine anything that they are taught critically. A key component of any examination of technique, though, should be a thorough self-examination and real understanding of your own skill set and abilities. Awhile back, I was emailed an article about three months prior to its publication in a magazine. James Keating was quoted in the article as saying “Don”t apply your own crappy standards to someone else”s technique,” or something similar (I am paraphrasing as I do not have the article in front of me as I type this). This is great advice that I constantly reiterate to my students. If the body mechanics behind something are just wrong”a low vulnerability area is being attacked when a high vulnerability and key body component is open and available for attack; if the technique, as shown, lacks the capability to develop real power when a slight change in posture could develop power; the person executing the technique is in an unstable posture; et cetera, then students can feel free to critique and question. If the mechanics look solid, though, I tell students not to assume that just because they cannot do the technique effectively that others cannot. That attitude leads to unpleasantly painful surprises. I have seen many critics who do apply their own limited knowledge and limited skill sets to others and who ridicule some very effective motions. I hope, for their sake, that they never have to use their skills to save their lives, as many of them probably would not survive.

Examine the available training in your area. Research the various arts and systems available. Pick a system that displays realism, where the body mechanics indicate what is being shown can actually work, and an instructor who displays knowledge, skill, and the ability to teach, and train in that system (there is much more involved in determining what is “right for you” and many methods to assist in picking a school and instructor, but that is a topic for another day). Train hard; examine your training, form, and techniques critically; ask questions if you do not understand something; and stay safe.

Tuhan Holloway
November 2008

Copyright © 2006-2012 - All Rights Reserved.