Martial arts from around the world employ a huge variety of tools to aid their solo or partner training. From specially designed heavy weapons to strange contraptions of steel spheres hung from frames, if you dig into the various martial traditions you can find almost any object used as a training tool. In this article we will look at why using tools is so important for body skill development and the general approach to using tools like sticks, balls, clubs and weights in our MartialBody training.
The tools used for the development of the body and mind cover every possible developmental situation, from conditioning the skin to enhancing whole body connection, from creating movement skill to increasing muscular endurance. In the traditional martial arts, these tools would be drawn from the weapons used during that particular martial arts hay day, or from common objects from the environment. From weapons to sticks, from sandbags to trees, using tools is a mainstay of the traditional martial artists toolkit. Further, in the modern martial arts and combat sports, tools are heavily relied upon to increase everything from an athlete’s strength, endurance and flexibility, to their ability to problem solve and move with confidence and clarity.
In this article i will outline some of the overarching goals that people aim for when using tools to enhance their body method. Although there are many more general goals and sub goals, this article aims to be a useful introduction to the subject.
The most obvious and perhaps commonest use of tools is to add and manipulate external weight. We see this approach utilized by many, if not most, martial artists around the world and the weights they use can take any shape or size. They can take the form of objects you would find in any modern gym, like kettlebells or obscure heavy metal or wooden versions of traditional weapons.
For instance, in some Japanese traditions we see the use of extra thick wooden swords (bokken) made from the densest, heaviest wood. These ‘Suburi’ Bokken would be used in similar cutting actions to that of the style’s sword work. The repetition of cuts with this very heavy tool would aid in the exponents ability to utilize the correct body method when cutting with the standard weapon.
Similarly, In the Chinese traditions we see either, extra-large versions of common weapons made from thicker steel (see image), or sometimes simple Iron bars the length of common weapons like the Jian (Straight double-edged Sword). The purpose of these weapons is, again, generally not to simply develop ‘strength’ in the traditional sense, but to understand how to incorporate and manipulate the added load, using the entire body with subtle body skill.
‘Relaxing’ into the manipulation of the extra weight is something we commonly see in the traditional schools where building segmented power is generally seen as a serious error. The goal of manipulating the extra weight in this instance is to and begin to understand how to use the body efficiently with connected power. Similarly, in MartialBody training we employ heavy objects, not with the goal of enhancing isolated muscular strength, but instead with this goal of improving whole body, relaxed, connected power.
Of course, the use of weight is also commonly used to increase muscular endurance, strength and cardiovascular health. There is obvious merit to increasing our muscular endurance if the goal is fighting capacity and for this reason it is advisable to still undertake some endurance training. Protocols common in gyms around the world such as kettle bell training are very useful for this goal and persistent kettlebell sessions, flowing from one method to the next are extremely useful for the building of endurance and long-term health outcomes.
Another interesting, if less common, way that we can use tools, especially poles or sticks is to apply pressure to them as we hold them in various positions. This method can look like nothing is happening to the outside observer, but inside of the person holding the stick, a battle can truly be happening.
This technique is akin to attempting break a stick using only your body. There are myriad ways in which you can attempt to break the stick, we can try to snap it by bending it, pushing it against our bodies, squeezing it against our legs. The common factor with this work is that we will need to apply equal opposite forces to the stick in order to create a ‘snapping’ type of power. This equilibrium of internal pressures is superb for training whole body power as we must recruit as much tissue as possible to break the stick.
In addition to breaking a stick we can use the stick, and also material lengths like belts to create isometric pulling forces. This practice is quite common in some styles of Chinese wrestling where they will hold a belt under tension as they move through throwing techniques.
The image to the left is from the MartialBody ConnectedBody foundations course, in this instance the stick is being pressed in the middle by the inside of the thigh, activating a chain of connection in the legs.
Improving proprioception and awareness
Traditionally one would say that the weapon would use would become an ‘extension of adept’. This sort of phrase can be seen in martial arts that use weapons throughout the world, from the Silat masters using their Kris to the Iaido Masters and their Katana. This concept points to a very interesting developmental idea, that we are able to use tools to enhance our 'proprioception' so as to include a foreign object.
Far from being some esoteric idea, this state is something that we experience all the time, we are simply not usually aware of it. Extended Proprioception occurs when our senses extend to include the object we may be interacting. What does this mean? Perhaps the most common example of this process can be felt is when we drive a car. If you have owned the car for some time, you intimately know where the edges of the car are, you can park it precisely and almost feel when it may touch another car, where the mirrors may touch a hedge or the wheels may touch a curb. You don’t have to think or calculate this accuracy, the edges of the car become encapsulated in your awareness in much the same way that the edges of your body are. The car becomes contained within your sphere of awareness.
This is an effect that we can tap into by using tools. We can hold a stick or similar tool and, during its manipulation incorporate it into our own movement and awareness such that it becomes an extension of our own body. By doing this work, we are essentially exercising our awareness and the structures in our body such as the nerves and sensory organs, so as to improve our overall level of awareness.
Tools to move
Finally, we can use tools to help us to train our movements. Either specific movements to our style of martial art, or more general movements that improve qualities like flow and changeability. There are many tools that can be used to achieve improved movement, from tennis balls and sticks, to Gym balls and sand bags. Provided the goal is to improve movement the tool can take almost any shape. For example, some styles of Russian Martial Art will utilize everything that the find in a room to work on their movement, chairs, tables, coat stands, the walls themselves, brooms or books, nothing is out of bounds for their training.
The main idea with using a tool for improving movement is to create conditions where the body must adapt, act or react to the tool. To take the example of a ball, we may use the ball in a number of ways that help the individual move better. We can place a ball against a wall and then roll the ball over all surfaces of the body without letting it fall to the ground, we can add to this simple drill a number of other factors, avoiding pokes with a stick or pushes from a partner for instance, all the while maintaining the balls contact with the wall. We could use the ball to throw at the partner, having them avoid the balls path, or catch it and return it. We could drop the ball at differing angles and direction, asking our partner to intercept and catch the ball before the second bounce.
Here is an example of using a ball for movement training from the brilliant 'Fighting Monkey' group.
The methods of using tools are endless, but the goal remains the same, to increase the body skill of the partner. And this goal, of general improvement, is at the core of using tools in the MartialBody approach. Every benefit highlighted above can be found across the world of martial arts and I am sure many of you reading this article use tools in one of the ways outlined. Try exploring some of the other goals highlighted in this article and explore how you can create new and interesting uses for the tools of your martial trade.