5 Simple Steps to Mastering the Martial Arts

That title may say five simple steps, but that doesn’t mean they’re five easy steps. Martial arts training is damn hard, anything worthwhile always is, but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. In this article, I’m going to give away the “secret formula” that instructors follow when teaching a new technique to a student: the five steps to mastery.

Are you ready to become a martial arts master?
Are you ready to become a martial arts master?

Is that all it takes to master the martial arts, five simple steps? Yes…and no. You did catch the part where I said this isn’t easy, right? First of all, these are the steps necessary to master a single technique. Using that technique in an actual combative situation, setting up an opponent…there are a lot of aspects of the martial arts these steps do not cover. But before you can utilize a technique as part of a strategy, you need to master its use. This article will give you the steps to do that.

Take each of your techniques through this five-step gauntlet as many times as you can over as many sessions as possible. There is no end to this journey. The bar for “master” doesn’t exist; it’s a lifelong process of tortuous learning, and you’re going to love it – if you haven’t fallen head over heels for it already.

Step 1: Practice in the Air


The first step to mastery is monotonous, but possibly the most important: you need to practice your techniques in the air, and if you can see yourself (in a mirror or a video) even better.

Why? Ever hear of the 10,000-hour rule? No matter what pop-psychologists say, you’ve gotta put your reps in, and this is the best place for it. If your style incorporates strikes, then punch at your shadow. Joint locks, practice kata. If you practice a grappling art, solo and partner drills.

What makes this the best step is that you can almost (style depending) practice it anywhere. So there’s no excuse not to be able to train.

Step 2: Practice with a Willing Opponentblock-punch

This step is where you start to learn how your technique interacts with an opponent’s geometry and thinking mind, often in the form of martial arts drills. But beware: “getting a move right” can be exciting, but that’s a false-positive at this stage. You haven’t performed the technique properly; you just executed the steps while someone let you borrow their body.

Sadly, this is the step where many martial arts practitioners stop. They execute the drill, disarm, or combination on a willing opponent and believe they can execute it anytime, anyplace, against any opponent. It’s a recipe for disaster. Don’t fall for it. If your school doesn’t go any further than this, it’s time to make a switch.

Step 3: Practice with Resistancebruce-lee-punching-bag

There’s a saying in some boxing circles that goes: “you are as powerful as you are.” I’ve heard it many times in different ways. What it refers to is not trying to generate power during a fight, just throw your punches and let your power come from your repetition-perfected technique (you did your reps, right?). When you’re in a fight, your opponent can see you tensing for that monstrous haymaker (it’s called telegraphing), but they won’t see the smooth rear straight punch that is executed like so many others you’ve done in while training air. It doesn’t pay to try to generate power when you’re in a fight unless you have a position of advantage over your opponent (but that’s a strategy discussion for another article).

But here’s the thing: you can improve your power, even your power in a fight, and I’m not just talking about weight training for bigger muscles (though that does help). There is one time when you can and should go all-out with your techniques, and that’s when you’re hitting a heavy bag, focus mitts, kicking shield, etc. Training in this way teaches you how to tense at the right times, how to turn your hips, pivot your ankles…how to explode on your target. The level of your “powerful as you are” goes up, even when you’re not trying for it.

Or you could dress your friend up like a crash test dummy
Or you could dress your friend up like a crash test dummy

Since grappling is more about the smooth application of force than the transfer of power into a target, this step isn’t as crucial for grapplers. I would suggest that dedicated grapplers build their gross motor strength (lift heavy weights) and skip worrying too much about heavy bag training.

Step 4: Practice with an Unwilling Opponent

They'll let you know if the technique doesn't work
They’ll let you know if the technique doesn’t work

This step will let you know if you can make the technique work when your partner doesn’t want to let you use it on them (but don’t be that guy). For some styles, this is sparring, others call it randori, and for some, it’s simply just one partner not letting the other get their move off while drilling. Whatever your style, this step is when your training partner is giving you resistance and making you work for the technique.

It’s important to wait until you’ve gone through the other steps of practice before trying the technique out on an unwilling opponent. If you jump to this step on a move that you question the viability of then you’re likely to not have mastered it to the point where it will work anyway. I’ve seen many people throw solid techniques away because they couldn’t make them work after their first session of practice. Give it time before you get here.

Step 5: Practice in a Stressful Situation

No one does "stressful situation" like Jason Statham
No one does “stressful situation” like Jason Statham

Have you ever heard of situation-based training? It has a lot of different titles depending on which organization is charging for the material. Whatever you choose to call it, this is where you set up a distressing (or shocking) situation that adds emotional turmoil similar to what you’ll find in a real fight. You might fake a mugging, have a training partner push you face first into a wall before you turn to face their technique… it could even be as simple as practicing the technique while exhausted from a grueling conditioning session. There are thousands of situations you could put yourself in for this step. Just pretend you’re in a Jason Statham movie, and you should do fine (just no snapping necks).

This step is your final exam for the technique. When you don’t have the time to set up a stance, line up your target, etc., then you’ll be putting your mastery of the technique to the test. If you practice situation-based training a few times and still can’t execute your technique, there are two possibilities: (1) you haven’t put the technique through enough repetitions in the previous steps (you haven’t mastered it yet), or (2) the technique leans too far on the side of martial theory instead of combative technique (the problem is with the technique, not the practitioner). But it takes a lot of training to know the difference.

So Am I a Master Now?

Sure, if you want to say that, but I wouldn’t let anyone hear you call yourself that unless you want to earn ridicule on the level of people who lie about being Navy SEALs. See, “Master” isn’t a title you give to yourself; it’s something other people call you. Don’t be so egotistical that you make up titles for yourself.

But if you take a single technique through this crucible, it’s likely that you are on the path to mastery, a path that never ends.

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