The Four Stages of Effective Martial Arts Training

Attempts to categorize the various styles of martial arts practice typically place them into one of two groups: striking or grappling, soft or hard, internal or external, etc. But this type of classification is overly broad and misleading; all comprehensive martial arts transcend simple dualism.

Here is a different model you can use to describe and analyze your training. This model is based upon four distinct stages of movement practice. Each stage contains unique challenges, and attaining mastery at each stage confers specific benefits.

The Four Stages of Movement

No movement. In stillness, you discover the precise location of your center of gravity. You learn to position your limbs and torso such that balance is maintained with minimal effort.

The ability to remain upright is a vital skill, both figuratively and literally. Expending less mental and physical energy on this task means having more energy to allocate to other goals (martial or otherwise).

Solo movement. Graceful movement requires stability and balance. Without these qualities, you must constantly engage your muscles (and your mind) just to keep from falling down.

Solo movement training teaches you the exact amount of effort required to move your body from one position to another. You learn to avoid the clumsiness associated with underestimating or overestimating this amount:

  • Underestimation causes an early loss of momentum, requiring re-engagement of agonistic muscle groups, and results in wasted effort.
  • Overestimation requires excessive use of antagonistic muscles to halt the movement, also resulting in wasted effort.

To master solo movement is to end the fight between your mind, body, and the force of gravity.

Movement with a partner. This non-competitive training builds sensitivity to your partner’s position and intention.

Without training in this stage, you will often find yourself reacting to what your partner did in the past, or to what they might do in the future, rather than what they are doing in the present. Consider the following scenario:

  1. Tony punches Bruce in the nose, knocking him a few steps backwards.
  2. Tony takes a step towards Bruce.
  3. Bruce instinctually raises his hands to protect his nose, leaving the rest of his body exposed.
  4. Tony punches Bruce in the chest.

Combat takes place in the present moment, and nowhere else. Attempting to prevent the past or predict the future is an exercise in futility. Effective self-defense requires calm awareness.

After mastering both awareness and balanced movement, your partner will not able to maneuver you into a vulnerable position for a strike, joint lock or throw.

Movement against a partner. In this stage, you use cultivated awareness to capture and occupy a superior position, from which you may successfully attack at will. You learn not to fight an opponent—fighting implies a mutual struggle—but rather to beat them effortlessly.

Failing to incorporate any of these stages into your martial arts training will hinder your progress. Although it is possible to learn these skills in fewer than four stages, it is not very efficient to do so.

Do you address each of these stages in your own practice? If not, why not?


  1. Great article! I definitely agree that those are the four main stages of movement, though you could also categorize the partner movements differently.

    I think of it in terms of defensive movement, offensive movement, and directing movement.

    The first stage is defensive movement when you learn to get out of the way of an attack. You then add movements for blocking, absorbing, or otherwise preventing the attack from doing damage.

    After that, you have offensive movements: punches, kicks, takedowns, locks and footwork like stepping in to shortcut a strike.

    Finally you have the directing movements. This includes things like throwing a jab to the face to open up the body or taking an incoming punch and using it to throw your attacker. this category basically includes counter-attacks and active positioning… controlling your opponents movement to your advantage.

  2. Wayne,
    To be frank, the most skilled martial artists I have met make no defensive movements; to borrow Bruce Lee’s analogy, they set the schedule rather than following it.

    I see this model as an infinite spiral, where one is never completely finished with one “stage” of development.

  3. That no-movement does seem to be, a time of study, the structure which is available. This solo-movement is about how movement does change the body, which does address the fact that studying a static-item is different, from a dynamic-item.

    Those movements with the partner, are about mind-training. The mind is about the present situation instead of drifting, to a different time or place. The movement against a partner is about how experiencing thinking about the present-time with present-place, does make an item possible. That trained mind, can be more effective than a person which does not have a trained mind.

    These first-two stages involve training a body to do a task with the body, while the second two stages involve, training of the mind. The task is trained first to the body because those skills are the most critical part, of the task.

  4. yeah i do agree with this article but i find it really hard to balance and i think the biggest problem people have when balancing like myself is judging distance with good sense of judging distance you should be able to balance better well so i have heard i was wandering if you agree or have any other advice on how to balance

  5. Thanks for sharing those 4 stages in martial arts training. This is really informative. Keep posting!

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