In the martial arts world we often tout the practice of forms (poomsae, kata, etc) as a means to hone techniques for self-defense and fighting. But have we ever thought about reversing the practice? How can we use our striking, kicking, and sparring practice to power up our poomsae game?

I’ve been taking LesMills Body Combat classes at my gym for over a year. They’re fun, mindlessly relaxing, and have been a great boost to my cardiovascular health. Since the routines are so repetitive I have plenty of time to sharpen my punches and kicks and play around with speed and placement.

Usually I’m thinking about sparring as I tweak my moves during Body Combat class. Yesterday, however, as I was doing an upward elbow strike (because it was “Muay Thai time,” y’all!) I thought, “Hey, that’s that thing from Pyongwon!”  

This thing

Pyongwon is a form typically learned at third Dan and was one, along with the elusive No Pae, that I talked my former Master into teaching me before he took another job. It’s compact, punchy, and strong. At the beginning and the end of the form there is a strong upward elbow strike that takes control, power, and core strength (as does the rest of the form). It’s fun to do, and as I realized at the gym, something I could practice over and over.

Last week my current Master and I talked about my goals around practicing advanced black belt forms. I don’t want to compete. I want to test for third Dan, and ultimately I just want to enjoy practicing and improving my forms. Her immediate feedback was to work on precision and power. The forms need to look crisp and strong.

I’ll let the forms apologists continue arguing the case for the existence of forms in martial arts. I’m squarely on that side and am not here to debate that argument today. I just want to make some observations and give some tips to people who like practicing forms or at least have to because that’s their marital arts school’s policy. Hopefully we can make it fun and interesting.

Sometimes people seem disconnected when they’re practicing forms. They’re just going through motions that can end up looking sloppy and ill-paced. There’s no intention behind the movement or follow-through and flow. It seems like they forget that the same blocks and punches and kicks they’re half-heartedly slinging through the air as if they were the most dreadfully boring things in the world are the same ones they use to hit pads, boards, and other people, which is quite fun.

I have often reminded my students that when they are doing a block, strike, or kick in a form THEY. ARE. HITTING. SOMEONE. I’ve never thought about making that connection back to forms when working on other drills. Maybe we instructors should reverse the lesson once in a while and remind our students as we are kicking targets or sparring that movement translates directly into forms.

During the rest of the Body Combat class I thought about things I could practice that would help make my poomsae stronger and more precise, as directed by my Master. These are things we do during kicking practice and sparring that can directly influence how we practice forms.

This might be especially helpful for students who happen to like forms and dread things like sparring or wearing themselves out with kicks. It could also be helpful for students who compete in forms and don’t spend much time working on other aspects of their martial art. We can help them work harder in something they don’t like as much (e.g., sparring) to improve the forms they love to practice. Everything in martial arts is connected, and everything supports each other.

Here are a few things I found myself thinking about as I continued my Body Combat class:
-Chambering and re-chambering
-Core strength
-Breath control
-Focus (both mental and literal, making sure my eyes are pointing in the direction of my block or strike)
-Proper technical execution

Those elements are crucial to a strong, precise, and well-paced form. You don’t have to take a Body Combat class at the gym. All you need to do is take a martial arts class with your intentions in mind. Continue to think about your fighting technique as you practice forms, and now do the reverse. Everything is connected and in service to each other.


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