Adapting Forms Training to Self Defense

Many proponents of so-called “real-world self-defense” downplay the value of traditional forms training, saying that it’s outdated or “too rigid” to be used for self defense.

I say that depends on how you train.

Now, if you go to a McDojo and everyone learns forms just because it’s needed to advance to the next level, then you’re right; you might as well be at dance class, because that’s what you’re learning.

Some instructors say that it teaches how to move and combine basic actions into combinations. I agree completely, but, if you only practice those combinations in the context of the form, it has no value for self defense.

How do I teach them and then apply them? By pulling out each combination and defense in the form and having the students learn it as a stand-alone combination or technique. They learn it first without partner as a simple combination, then they progress to defending against the actual attack.

As an example, in the Tang Soo Do form Pyung Ahn Ee Dan (one of the Pinan/Heian forms for other styles), there is a reverse in-to-out block, followed by a front kick/reverse punch combination. Rather than only practicing it during forms training, practice it as a combative combination. A great way to train this and make it realistic is that rather than stepping FORWARD, as the form dictates, have the students (or yourself for solo training) step BACKWARDS as you apply the block, then come forward with the counterattack, like you would in real life.

Take that one example and use it for every usable combination in every form you know. I don’t get hung up in the “But my Master says that it is supposed to be…”, each combination in a form is used for WHATEVER WORKS BEST FOR YOU. The true purpose of martial arts training is development of self, so do what works for YOU.

Forms training is just like everything else, you’ll get out of it whatever you put into it. If you approach it with the attitude that it’s just something you have to do, you’ll get nothing out of it. Come at it from the attitude of it’s teaching me combat movement and combative combinations, and you’ll get far more out of it.

Let me make a note about tournament competition in forms. If you train in forms to win tournaments, good for you, but then understand that tournament performance in forms has nothing at all to do with real-life applications. Generally, the method in which people perform tournament forms and win is softer and more free-flowing than those who train in forms for self defense. I don’t want my forms to be pretty, I want them to be powerful.

By the way, if you’re truly into TRADITIONAL martial arts, power and real-world applications is the key, not competition. The Hwa Rang knights of the Silla Kingdom didn’t defeat the other two kingdoms in a tournament, they defeated them in battle with their martial arts skill. They used forms training to prefect their combative techniques. Train with the goal of the ability to defend your life.

I hope this helps you in your training. Post your comments/favorite forms and combinations below.


Published by JD

I am the author of the Tactical Wisdom Series. I am a personal protection specialist and a veteran of the US Marine Corps. I conduct preparedness and self-defense training.

2 thoughts on “Adapting Forms Training to Self Defense

  1. Great article! I think it could be fun to also break up your students into small groups, assign them a form, and have them brainstorm with each other to come up with a defense combo from that form to demonstrate to the class. Great way for them to be able to analyze the form and have them really think about what it is they’re doing during it, instead of just going through the motions.

    Liked by 1 person

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