Is a Weapon Truly an Extension of the Body in the Martial Arts?

Is a Weapon Truly an Extension of the BodyIt is said that elephant trainers can train their animals to be held by nothing more than a small rope tied to one of their legs that is pegged into the ground. When they are very young and much smaller they use the same size rope to tie them and, at that age, itโ€™s more than enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free. Humans do this for many things in life too, it’s in our nature to use predictive reasoning to make our processes more efficient. But sometimes things change and the process no longer makes sense. For this reason, we should always keep an open mind and re-analyze the things we do and the reasoning behind it.

A little while back, I heard a prominent Filipino martial arts instructor question this long held belief in the world of martial arts openly in front of his class. My interest was piqued. I have always believed that line of thinking as that is how we do things in our style. In the Filipino martial arts, they teach weapons first, followed by unarmed combat. The general thinking is that in Filipino society, where weapon violence is more common place, weapons have traditionally been more important for self-defense than unarmed combat, and continues to be the case in modern times. The instructor also claimed that it was more beneficial to learn weapons first because it allows you to transition more seamlessly into the Filipino unarmed combat techniques which stem from the moves learned with weapons. He made the argument that the weapon is not actually an extension of the body. Rather, unarmed combat is an extension of weapon training. He told a story about how he once handed a seasoned martial artist (*I can’t remember which kind, but I think it was one from Japan, possibly Karate) one of his eskrima sticks. He said, “If weapons are an extension of the body, take this and do what I do.” He looked perplexed and didn’t really have any sense of what to do. The instructor used this story to support his hypothesis, which makes for a compelling argument, except…

The martial artist had a completely different training background.

You Can’t Make an Apple Pie with Oranges

Have you ever heard the expression that you can’t compare apples with oranges? Of course you have. In the same vein, you can’t make an apple pie with oranges. The Karate-ka (if that was the art he had studied) could be likened to a person who has really great quality oranges. The person can use the oranges to make orange juice, but if they were to cut it up and use it to make an apple pie, well, that would just be ridiculous, no matter how good the quality of the oranges.

Making Orange Juice

Now if that same Karate-ka were given the stick and told to do a vertical hammerfist strike (tetsui uchi) or a horizontal hammerfist strike (ken tsui uchi), the person probably would have been able to swing the stick in a way that was more useful and applicable. It would not have looked the same as the Filipino martial artist’s way, but it certainly would have been a more usable method he could just pick up and do, by drawing on his prior training. This is how one applies the theory that the weapon is an extension of the body. Now the eskrima stick isn’t exactly one of the traditional weapons in Karate, so it probably doesn’t make use of its movements as effectively as a weapon that is traditionally taught in the style. Take the bo, for example. If you put a bo in a seasoned Karate-ka’s hands, they are much more easily able to apply their movements to the weapon. The striking hand wields the striking end of the staff, while the withdrawing hand helps add speed and power to the strike.

Taking the Apples Out of Apple Pie

This is not to say there isn’t logic to the Filipino martial arts instructor’s argument. It’s just based on his own experience. Because they have such a long track record of teaching unarmed combat drawing from their weapon combat techniques, they would naturally think this is the way the learning flows. And it has been a very effective way of doing things for them. From my own training in FMA, I found it quite an easy transition to do a particular pattern of movements with weapons, then removing the weapons and competently doing a version of it unarmed. For me, it was quite an interesting experience to see unarmed combat taught in that way, starting with the weapon wielding versions of the technique.

6 in One, A Half Dozen in the Other

As to the question, “Is the weapon truly an extension of the body?” I would have to say the answer is yes. For the most part, martial arts draw on commonality of technique to make the transition into weapon work more natural. That being said, just because the weapon is an extension of the body, doesn’t mean you have to learn unarmed combat first. The same concept can be used to make one’s unarmed combat more natural if the martial art prioritizes weapon training as their primary skill set. This is one of the things that makes the martial arts so very cool. All the arts have their differences, but some learning fundamentals, like this, are common to all. And we can all learn from the different teaching approaches that are used in by different styles to better understand the fundamentals of human movement and learning.

Now over to you. Do you do any weapon training in your martial art? In what direction is weapon work taught in relation to unarmed combat in your style? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Comments (5)

5 thoughts on “Is a Weapon Truly an Extension of the Body in the Martial Arts?

  1. It probably depends on the weapon too. In Shito-ryu Karate you had to be shodan to go into kobudo. That kind of made sense because in addition to bo the weapons like sai, tonfa, kama, and nunchaku are quite devastating (of course they all are in trained hands) to the user or an uke. This appears to have changed depending on the school and instructor. I don’t think it’s necessary for kids to train in them but some schools allow this. It might be a marketing ploy as well. But kids learning bo would be different than sai for example. This is probably why nunchaku were banned in the 70’s in some places. Likewase tambo, roughly the size of a kali stick, isn’t taught because it isn’t as cool as the other weapons.
    in Aikido you learn weapons at the same time as empty hand techniques consisting of about one third of your training though some people choose not to. The jo and bokken especially do give the sense of where the taijitsu techniques come from and help give the sense of the right body movement like “cutting down” for kote gaieshi or shihonage. I’m pretty sure the idea here is that the katanna/bokken is an extension of the arm, but that the extension trains the body – so both concepts apply.
    At some point I would like to do FPA for the sense of real survival it seems to entail. Any documentaries you see about prison life indicate the pervasive use of home-made weapons. I don’t plan on going to one but it is an example of an environment where it gets real really fast. Most conventional MA (Karate, Jiujitsu, Krav) deal with disarming methods that are essential as well but FPA seems to be one of the few that teaches offence technique (other than sword arts). Of course they have to teach you how to attack with them in the other arts too so you can learn the defense with or without a weapon.

  2. Great post, Lori! I agree that the weapon is an extension of the human body. But I think about FMA training a bit differently (and may change my mind down the road). While, FMA is primarily about weapons training with empty hand translation, I have tended to think that it’s more about angles of attack rather than “weapons” or “empty hand attacks.” Angle 1 attacks are just angle 1 attacks regardless of whether a stick, a broken bottle,a knife, a machete or a fist or something else is coming at you along that line. The angle dictate your defense or how you may draw someone into a trap. At least, this is where my thinking currently is….along with the concepts of the flow and countering the counter. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I realize it’s somewhat off topic but my comment about weapon awareness in FMA as preparation for real-life situations like prison was precipitated by this scene from Breaking Bad: It looks like it would be impossible to do much in these situation by multiple armed attackers with intent to kill. Probably the best way is to avoid getting in them at all.

    (also please edit my comments again and change FPA to FMA. I must have some neurological pathway confusion with F and Ph in Fillipino).


  4. I found weapon work quite akward when I first started training escrima, in spite of my years of unarmed experience so I’d say there are two entirely different areas of study with little overlap beside footwork. Technically too: to deliver a good strike with a baston you can’t use the same body-mechanics as in a hammerfist strike since you’ll give him your hand instead of the end of the stick, unless you’re going for a short range punyo strike of course. The ranges and tactics employed with weapons tend to be quite different than the ones used in unarmed fighting: as a result I think I may say I’ve grown quite a lot in my development as a martial artist but when it comes to weapons I still consider myself a beginner with some degree of basic skill, especially when compared to my teacher who flows between techniques like it’s nothing and effortlesly counters everything you throw at him. The funny thing is he says he considers himself a beginner when compared to his teacher (Flavio Ruiz van Hoof, a guy who fights in the Cold Steel challenges and won in 2010 in the stick competition) who probably feels the same way about his teachers Ron Balicki and Dan Inosanto.

    In relationship to your example of the karateka wielding a weapon not suited this style: I know jujutsu fairly well and it’s not because certain techniques resemble sword cuts or blocks that I’ll be able to use a katana with any degree of skill, not without enough training with the actual weapon first. I’m afraid I have to disagree with you here, respectfully of course.

    I don’t know if the other way around is any easier (first weapons then empty hand) but the only real benefits I had was my fairly developped coordination and the ability to quicly analyze complex techniques.

    Either way both should be trained in my view (two sides of the same coin) and if SD is your primary goal than the study of weapons should begin sooner than later. If only to get used to the way a potential attacker might use his weapon although it’s unlikely you’ll ever be faced with someone well versed in FMA, unless you regularly travel to the Phillipines of course. If you do have the misfortune you’d better hope you can run or are able to bring your own weapon into play and have a high familiarity with it. Which is incidentally the single best way (other than running) to deal with an armed attacker: when unarmed survival is the best you can hope for, at least when he’s not a complete idiot. I know a little about knife fighting: precious little really but I’m fairly confident I could beat even very skilled experts and masters at unarmed weapon defense. That’s how great an advantage the blade gives you. Almost everything he does can be used against him and that is why we may thank our lucky stars almost no-one in the west actually knows how to properly use an impact or edged weapon.At least not the majority of the criminal element of the population. Guns are an entirely different matter of course.

    In a few months I’ll be moving into a house with a garden so more space to practice. In that regard I plan to purchase a machete and a tactical folder to use in solo-practice to familiarize myself with a live blade, you never know when you might need to wield one and it’s good to add realism to one’s training. Naturally this would be a last resort measure but I regard the right to self-defence as a law of nature (self-preservation) and if someone is bold enough to threaten you in your own home the danger-level is quite high already. Having a blade handy doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start slicing and dicing right away: hopefully he’s smart enough to run away and if he’s not a whack on the hand or a (shallow) cut to a limb might be all you need. Full-on combat with edged weapons is bloody business and I’d rather not have someone’s death on my conscience if I can help it, not even if they really had it coming and there was no other way. Still it’s better to have the knowledge and the means and not need it than the other way around.

    Slightly of topic I know, my apologies.

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