5 Martial Arts Skills You Need To Master: Distance, Balance, Timing, Rhythm, & Future Movement

Regardless of where you are in your martial arts journey, there are five fundamental skills that you want to work on mastering- independent of skill, style, or school. 

In this article we explore these five skills as a way to see them in your own training, isolate and experiment with them through training drills, and help take your martial arts training to that next level.

The transmission of the martial arts is about the way things are done and how you move your body.

A way of moving and utilizing your body with efficient principals.

Often these are demonstrated through the use of techniques known as waza- locks, throws, restraints, ways of striking, etc. These waza are not the art itself, but rather a way to express, teach, and learn the art.

What is outlined in this martial arts post are five of these methods of using your body- principals that should be in motion regardless of the technique being employed- they ARE what powers the technique and makes its execution possible.

These principals are illustrated so you can find them in your own martial arts training regardless of style, experience, or rank, along with some fundamental drills to demonstrate how you can learn them.

As a martial arts coach the aim in writing this quick guide is to not only help your progress in the ‘arts, but also to cut down that learning curve so you can learn faster and quicker.

To give you a way of taking your current studies and make them more efficient- one you can see these five skills in your movement, you can begin to explore and incorporate them into all your movements.

Ready to get started? Let’s go!

Distance

Distance is the hard counter to a faster training partner, by controlling the distance you negate their speed and determine the when and where a technique is applied to them, while preventing your training partner from placing a technique on you.

For this exercise there are three distances to understand and be able to manipulate, and then a fourth distance where we want to always operate from.

Imagine you and a training partner in the dojo…

You are standing in the center of the mat and they are fifteen or so feet away which is the first distance. At this distance you are very safe from a direct attack because your training partner can’t physically get to you without taking a number steps in your direction.

Even with a running start it will take them a few moments to reach you, and in that time you can prepare for the attack and easily counter them- obviously a bull rush straight in is never a good idea. We would all LOVE for our training partners to begin an attack in this way, but it is rarely going to happen.

The next distance (2nd) again has you in the center of the mat with your training partner now ten feet or so away from you. At this distance to now execute an attack at you, your training partner has to take a step or two forward to close the distance. You are in “danger” at this range, but this is a good start and place to be in- by having them take step or two before the punch, grab, or tackle (attack) you have a moment to be able to counter them.

Keep in mind this 2nd distance gets adjusted +/- a few feet depending on the terrain and the length of your training partner’s legs- with how much distance they can cover in each stride.

For example with one person the 2nd distance might be eight feet, but if you and I were working out that distance would be ten feet since I have very long legs and stride.

The 3rd distance is where you are on the training mat and your partner is only a foot or two away from you and this is THE worst place to be! Without even having to take a step they can punch/kick/tackle you and this is the distance were is comes down to pure speed (not where WE want to be)- is their punch quicker than your legs.

At the third distance you are at the most danger and we don’t want to be here unless we can then use timing and balance against our training partner- more on this in a bit.

Before we get to the 4th distance- the sweet spot we want to exist in, we have to understand the other three distances and be able to both see when we are at those distances, and be able to float in and out of them with our footwork and martial arts body movement at a moment’s notice- so get to work figuring this out for a few…

NOW we are ready for the 4th distance and how to implement it- go back to the center of the mat and have your training partner assume the 2nd distance- the one where they can get to you with a single step or two. Once they have set this up, before they attack, take a slight step back, an inch or two, and now you are at the 4th distance- you appear to be in “range” of an attack, but are really just outside of it.
You have now shifted form the 2nd distance to the 1st distance without your training partner even knowing it!

A MISS is a MISS be it by an inch or a mile, and now you have the illusion of being in range when you are not really in range. When an attack comes into play against you from your training partner you now all have all the time in the world so to speak to deal with it, fully negating their speed against you- having them miss without even knowing it.

Now that you have an understanding of distance you are going to have to take a look at your style of martial arts and the type of footwork it uses to move around, playing and adjusting it to begin manipulating the distances.

Balance

Balance is the next place where we want to develop our martial arts skills, and for many of us it is a one sided issue- we train and practice to make sure we are in balance in our movements, kata, and techniques, but what about our training partner?

I hope you are not neglecting their balance, by neglect, I don’t mean helping them to stay in balance but rather helping them to take their own balance!

Balance equates strength- control the balance and you take away your training partner’s strength and ability to resist you.

Building on the understanding of distance for the moment, this concept of balance is VERY important because although we are going to be doing our best to control the distance so we never arrive at the third distance, mistakes and bad days happen, so if you suddenly find yourself at the third distance, and you can shift away or correct it, then you shift into taking balance to keep yourself safe.

So in a nutshell, stripped down from style, dogma, and hard to understand martial arts teaching what is taking balance?

Imagine I asked you to hold a twenty pound rock with both your hand- how long could you do it for?

Without thinking you would probably hold it naturally with two hands and close to your body- our bodies by design want to remain in balance.

I bet you could hold that rock that way for a good ten minutes, not that you need to try, but you get the idea.

Your body is in balance.

Now what if I asked you to hold that same rock, again with two hands so it is easy, but now you had to bend forward or backwards 45 degrees with your back/spine.

How long would you last?

A few minutes at best?

Or even if it was a long time since you are strong and well-conditioned, it would require much more effort to maintain, and in that position you would not be able to do anything else in terms of movement, while if you were holding the rock normally you could move and walk around with it, even If it was heavy.

THAT is taking balance, getting your training partner to bend their spine when they move, and as they move so to the point where they can no longer move.

Accomplish this and they can’t use their strength against you.

Take it a step simpler- back to the center of the mat with your training partner at the third distance and ask them to throw a punch at you- very dangerous and a great place for them to be to hit you. After that, go back to the same distance and ask them to bend their back and touch their toes, and while holding that posture to throw a punch.

A bit more dramatic, but you get the idea.

So how are we going to get our training partner to bend their back when a body naturally wants to stay in balance?

Well, that is the next point to explore of course…

Taking balance is something that happens bit by bit in such a way that your training partner does not notice it until they attack and then when they do attack they are not readily aware of it- so it takes them by surprise and they become trapped by it- they have already started the attack and can’t stop, but at the same time they are out of balance.

They key to the lesson here is of course to use what martial arts skills you currently have and to break them down bit by bit in application to make this idea work. Let’s take a look at an example of taking balance in action common to many martial arts to help get you thinking…

Here is the setup: You and your training partner stand across from each other and they begin by stepping forward to grab you with their right hand to your chest- a simple chest grab. You are going to respond by taking their grabbing hand in a wrist lock (kote gaeshi) and then apply a leg sweep to take them down (osoto nage).

Perhaps simple stuff that you have practiced dozens if not hundreds of time- but have you done so with an eye for taking balance?

And if not done hundreds of time, in a moment you will know the place to start so you can develop that eye (martial arts eyes).

Remember, taking balance stars bit by bit, and this will again lead us into the concept of timing in a moment, just as distance took us into balance…

So, your training partner is getting ready to grab your lapel, and in preparing for that, there is a moment in their mind where they line everything up and say “OK, now I can go for the grab and have it work!) When that happens, their feet, knees, and hips will be in alignment and directly facing your chest for the grab.

As they move to grab, you are going to step off the line of the grab just a little big causing them to move off center a bit, tracking you for the grab. This will have the effect of grinding and locking in place their ankles, knees, and hips- not enough to stop the grab but enough to begin slowing it down to give you some more time (distance) and to begin taking their balance without even knowing it.

Next as they grab there is a moment where the hand grabs your lapel- as this happens you want to move with it, extending the reach of their arm just a bit more than they would like- again not avoiding or breaking away from the grab, but causing your training partner to further extend a bit more than they would like.

Further taking their balance…

NOW, when you apply the wrist lock, use this technique not to take them down to the ground or flip them over, but rather to lock their body in place and bend their spine- which THEN allows you to sweep the leg in such a way that your training partner can’t resist or attack you back- you have taken their balance form them and by the time they realize it, the time is late.

Of course this is just an illustration, an attempt to capture an idea of motion into words, so the challenge again is going to be to review your own martial arts techniques- stuff to throw, flip, and strike your training partner, and ask yourself, how can I get them to bend their spine as they move leading up to the technique so that when I apply it they cannot resist it or attack me back in the moment.

Timing

Timing in the martial arts is VERY important. We often talk about getting lucky in the moment when a technique is applied or scoring a point in a competition. Martial artists that are “lucky” create their own luck by controlling the timing.

So where to start?

Just like with distance, we are going to now look at the three levels of timing so you can begin to see them in your own martial arts training and start to look at manipulating them.

Back to the mat with your training partner.

Timing 1: For the first timing you stand off across from your training partner and they execute an attack- which attack really doesn’t matter, and you respond to the attack with a technique- again really doesn’t matter, BUT pick and perform something you are comfortable with so you can focus on the concept of timing rather than trying to execute a fancy technique.

The first timing begins with your training partner executing the attack and then you respond to it. They start, you see it coming, and then you respond.

For the most part this is where and how many of us learn a martial art technique in the dojo- but is this the best timing for us?

Not really since your training partner has picked the type of attack and the moment to deliver it, forcing you to react.

In dealing with this type of timing you are going to need something to slow down their attack with (distance!) so you can properly respond without being taken by surprise.

If you don’t have distance you are going to have to put something in the way physically- perhaps an object of something in the current environment to slow them down.

Naturally we don’t want to be at this timing for anything other than learning and practicing techniques, but we need to understand it and be able to move from it both as a building block to the second timing and as a way to deal with it as it happens.

Timing 2: The second timing again has you and your training partner squaring off with any attack and response.

Now in the moment that they attack you also respond- both happen at the same time!

The key here is to respond appropriately at the same time, so obviously if your training partner is going to be delivering a punch and you are responding at the same time, you don’t want to run into it and knock yourself out!

Think about HOW distance and balance can force your training partner to respond with a certain type of attack…

For example, if you are at the second distance, and maybe a little out more as we discussed the most likely attack is a punch, especially if you lower your guard for a moment to lure in your training partner with a particular type of punch/attack.

NOW you know what is coming and can respond as it is happening.

This type of timing is getting closer still to where we want to be- if your training partner executes a good committed attack, the moment it starts they will not be able to change it without destroying their balance, and making it ineffective.

They will have no choice but to continue along the arc of the attack.

Since you are going at the same time, there is no gap in the movement between you two, or moment they can counter. Literally as they are finishing their attack you are starting your technique on them- there is no room in the movement for anything else.

Timing 3: OK, so timing three is where we want to be at- and we only get there though understanding, training, and manipulating the other two timings.

Back to the mat…

Now the moment before your training partner executes an attack you respond as if they have executed the attack.

Take a right punch as an example since every martial art has it in some form or combination. The moment they think of executing a right punch, the moment before they lift that fist, shift that foot, you respond with a counter as if they executed the punch since the thought of it is the same as doing it in terms of exposing weak points in their movement.

Admittedly this is a hard concept, but we are coaching and pushing you to be the best martial artist right?

So how do we learn and practice this third timing so we can adapt it to our art?

Imagine you and your training partner again standing across from each other and I come over to them and whisper in their ear: “Throw any kind of attack you want at them…”

Your training partner is going to look at you, and have their choice of attacks.

Do they go for a grab?

A punch?

Kick?

Tackle, takedown, and submission?

The sky is the limit.

Now, take what you have learned and been exploring with distance and balance and think how you can move your own body to limit the number and types of effective attacks your training partner can deliver.
Just by turning your body to the side off line of the attack will protect half of it…

Extending your arms forward will further make certain attacks much harder…

THINK about the postures (kamae) in you martial arts and how they will limit the type of attacks thrown at you…

…and suddenly based on that, plus distance and balance you will be able to know what is coming and you can execute the third timing.

This will give you a level of endurance against a training partner who might indeed have a much higher level of endurance then you naturally.

Rhythm

Every social interaction has a rhythm to it- including the martial arts, which is at its core an interaction between two or more people- you and your training partner(s).

Society, how we grew up, and the current social norms for the group we find ourselves in dictate how we act even if we are not aware of it.

Since that is the same with the martial arts, it is the fourth skill we want to be able to master and apply to the art we study.

Rhythm is the flow of the martial arts interaction from start to end and is often dictated by the attack or aggressor since they have a plan in their mind of what they intend to do.

Imagine this as the starting point to understand rhythm in the martial arts…

You are standing over your training partner and have their arm locked and immobilized on the ground- but how did you get to that point?

MANY things happened BEFORE that which influenced the outcome.

First your training partner sized you up from a distance, perhaps trying to figure out where you are weak and how to attack in the most effective manner.
Then they made their approach to you, perhaps undetected up to the last moment.

When in range, they executed and attack, and you responded.

There was a flow in their mind from start to finish, which is RHYTHM.

Now what would have happened to that RHYTHM if they had sized you up and started to approach from behind you, and just as they were closing the distance to you undetected you turned around with a smile and waved “HI!”.

No I’m serious!

There would have been a momentary PAUSE on their part for a moment before they figured out what to do next- by turning around and saying “HI” you broke their rhythm- a break in time, a moment you can take FULL advantage of as appropriate to the situation (run away!) and your martial arts skill.

How to do this in the martial arts ?

Well obviously a general awareness of what is going on is required- if you are taken by surprise or are not aware of potential surroundings or training partners then you can take their rhythm in the first place.

We don’t need to really look at or focus on martial arts awareness since I KNOW you are diligently working on that skill anyway without any coaching…

They key to taking rhythm is in the movement as your training partner is setting up the situation. You want to be closer and further away as they are planning their way in so you can break the rhythm at the moment which is best for you and worst for them.

The spiral at the start of this chapter shows the most important fundamental concept of taking the rhythm- moving in a spiral.

As your training partner is planning, approaching, and executing their plans they are making assumptions about you based on your actions and where/how you are standing.

If you move away a little faster, they will adjust their speed, etc.

Moving in a straight line means they can see how you are moving and adjust to keep their advantage, but moving in a spiral allows you to adjust without them knowing.

The spiral can move both in and out, from the center, and to the center- making things big or small depending on where you are on it.

Examples…

Put your training partner in the center of the mat and stand away from them a good distance.

Ask them to raise their hand when you get close enough to throw a punch and then start walking towards them.

Each and every time they will be able to tell you to STOP when you get close enough.

NOW, instead of walking straight in, start walking in a circle around them and start spiraling in closer and closer with each few steps- done correctly you will have the illusion of moving but not really closing in.

Eventually they will realize you are closing in, and they will raise their hand to stop, but you and they will find that you are MUCH closer than they thought.

Use this spiral concept to be closer when you need to be farther and farther when you need to be closer when interacting with a training partner to take their rhythm.

THE FUTURE

If you noticed that each training topic has been getting harder and harder that is a good thing! It not only gives you LOTS to practice with, but also is it leading up to the final martial arts skill that I want you to cultivate which is existing in the future.

The place where we want to exist in the martial arts (as far as my own practice and coaching I offer, and from the point of view of this training outline) is to exist in the future.

Imagine if you were interacting with your training partner and you knew the moment they would attack, how they would attack, and what you needed to do to safely de-escalate the situation.

By controlling distance, balance, timing, and rhythm you can do this.

The first step is to look at where you are in your own martial arts training and star practicing the concepts one by one, separately using the movements that you know, the techniques you know, and the situations that you are training for- sport, self-defense, competition, etc.

Don’t worry if things seem a bit advanced, the concepts leading to existing in the future are advanced, but we don’t have the time to wait till we are “ready” or “good enough” since we might be called upon to use our skills at any moment.

Go back to picking an attack they are comfortable with dealing with.

Then pick a defense or technique to that attack that you are comfortable with and can execute fairly well.

Grab your training partner and practice distance 1, distance 2…timing 1, timing 2..balance taking..etc. with the same attack and defense.

We are not worried about the type or attack or defense, but rather trying to make your body comfortable and able to understand and assimilate the concepts.

After that, either in the same training session or later, pick and attack and defense/response that you are NOT comfortable with, to put it honestly, something you need to improve at- and (going VERY slowly) with your training partner practice distance 1, distance 2…timing 1, timing 2..balance taking..etc. with the same attack and defense.

This will help shock your body/movement and force you to pull out and adapt the concepts.

Practice in this way each time you learn new knowledge in the martial arts and you will come to gradually both understand and exist in the future, controlling the five concepts.

See you on the mat!

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