Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cross-training in multiple martial arts?

In response to one of my posts from 2007, Jiu-jitsu is Adaptable, an Anonymous commenter posted a couple of interesting and essay-length comments meditating on the merits and practicalities of many techniques vs few, and of different systems of martial arts, contrasting and comparing his experience of Jiu-jitsu with various other styles, including Krav Maga, Kali and Kick-boxing, and finishing up with the question:
What do you think about cross-training and how do you train defenses against kickboxers and armed attackers?
A few comments, broken across a few posts

Can be good, can be bad.  I appreciate that the hope is that by training in multiple arts you will be able to compensate for weaknesses in one art with the strength of the others, but I think that it is more complex than that.  Do you have time to train sufficiently in both arts to really get them? Do they blend harmoniously, or do they contain opposing principles and strategies?

I have students with a background in other martial arts come and train with me.  Inevitably they have a lot of patterns of movement drilled in that are difficult to modify; the level of difficulty varies with the individual and the kind of training that they have done.  Put their body in a particular position or situation and the drilled responses come out.  With those who empty their cups, and persist until they reach higher grades, there seems to be a process of unlearning, and then eventual re-integration, but it takes dedication and time.

Our organization primarily teaches Jiu-jitsu, classical judo and chinese boxing, with secondary arts including (but not limited to) ken-jitsu, aiki-jiu-jitsu, judo-do, and sambo.  So you could say we have built-in cross-training.

The head of our organization replaced his late master's preferred striking art -- shotokan karate -- with hung kuen chinese boxing, because he found that it made for a more consistent mix.  Even masters disagree on these things.

My rough advice to people who are aiming to be in martial arts for the long term is:
  1. Seek the best instruction you can find that seems like a good fit for you.
  2. If this includes integrated cross-training, great.
  3. If not, defer cross-training until you have reached a significant level of expertise in a base art, and then seek cross-training in consultation with your instructor.
I just don't see people without expertise being able to mix and match disparate martial arts training particularly effectively.

Another point of caution is that standards of safety in training vary widely.


Sue C said...

I think some level of cross training can be beneficial but it has to be thought through. I think it is important to have a 'main' martial art - one who's stragegy you wish to follow. It may then be possible to cross train in other arts that compliment the main one in some way...

For example, my main art is karate. It is predominantly a striking art but we do do some throws and take downs. However, the attention to technical detail on the way we punch and kick is far greater than the attention to detail on the way we throw. So our throwing technique is not good. Hence I am attending a jujitsu club to learn more about throwing techniques. At this club I also do kobudo because I think that kobudo is an important adjunct to karate, indeed many karate systems incorportate kobudo as part of their art. Unfortunately in my system we don't. So for me cross-training in jujitsu and kobudo enhances my karate training.

Interestingly in my jujitsu club the students do do some striking practice but the attention to detail on punching and kicking technique is mimimal - hence they don't do it very well. I think they would benefit from some cross-training in karate!

I don't think it would be a good idea for me to cross train in something like kung fu though. Though karate probably evolved from some styles of kung fu the bio-mechanics used and the way of moving are now very different - to train in both would be very confusing to the body and mind.

Anonymous said...

I agree it would be better to have a solid base in one martial art before embarking on cross-training (it’s basically what I did) since you’ll learn faster (a lot of the principles are the same, even among at first sight very different arts) and will be better able to integrate it all. However, even for a total beginner, provided he has the time to spend a decent amount of time on each art, cross-training can be beneficial right from the beginning. While it’s unlikely he or she’ll be able to reap the full benefits and probably won’t see how it all fits together they’ll still be developing abilities and techniques that will serve them well later on. Even a beginning karateka (typical stand-up striking art) will benefit from studying judo or BJJ since he’ll be learning how to hold his own standing and on the ground, even if he doesn’t see the connection between the two arts. If his opponent punches or kicks at him he’ll be able to retaliate, if he’s taken down he’ll at least have learned how to close the guard or bridge and work from there. This modus operandi might be confusing in the beginning and it all depends on how motivated you are and how much time you can devote to this but I don’t really see a valid reason why you should restrict yourself to one art, even as a beginner. That being said it would be better to take two classes in one art per week over 2 classes in different arts since you’ll progress much faster in the first scenario let alone shop around and never grasp the basics of anything. If you have the time to put in 3 to 4 hours for each art per week there’s no problem and it might even be more beneficial than 6 to 8 hours doing the same thing. Chances are you’ll overtrain (using the same muscle-groups and movements over and over again) and become bored.

What I object to however is the attitude of some people who regularly switch arts (six months here, a year there or this week I’ll train thaiboxing, the next jj and so on) and never stick to anything long enough to get even mildly good at one art, let alone many. After a while you’ll discover where your true interest lies and you can develop that as a base (putting in the most effort and training hours) while complementing your weaknesses with the basics of other arts. Don’t spread your resources too thin or you’ll suck at everything, I do advocate doing cross-training at some stage in your training though: if you don’t know at least something about fighting stand-up, fighting on the ground and fighting with weapons you’ll be at a severe disadvantage if the fight goes beyond your area of expertise and you’ll be countered easily by a knowledgeable opponent. Both you and Sue are correct in stating the arts shouldn’t be too dissimilar although this would relate most to arts in the same category (the way a karateka punches and a boxer punches are so different it just doesn’t pay to try to combine karate with boxing) rather than another playing field entirely. It makes sense you can’t use karate techniques on the ground (except maybe in ground and pound) or judo principles in striking. In the end what binds these different arts and principles is experience and the resulting wisdom to see in what situation they’d be most useful and how they can be combined to form an unstoppable chain of action and reaction.

The days of training in one art and one art only your entire life is over though and progress in the martial arts dictate you branch out and at least learn some skills outside of your main curriculum. The funny thing is that in the old days this is exactly what they did: if you specialized too much you wouldn’t survive a confrontation that was outside of your league so professionals trained with a wide variety of weapons and using all aspects and technical categories combined with tactics and a whole spectrum of technical and practical skills to achieve victory or preserve one’s life and family. As Musashi said it doesn’t do to become too familiar with one weapon or too unfamiliar with others.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Sue

I agree with your self-diagnosis. It *might* make sense to eventually switch to another similar martial art, but training kung fu and karate at the same time is bit like trying to learn tennis and squash.

However, even seemingly safely separated martial arts can also have conflicting ways of moving. With one exception to date, the people who have switched from or cross-trained in my jiu-jitsu class from karate have had significant adjustments to make.

The exception was a fellow who had a good base in a softer karate style than the others, and he did continue to train in karate (rather than switch). After six months I asked him whether the jiu-jitsu training was aiding or interfering with his karate, and he said something like: "Well, I now have far and away the best breakfalls, rolls and throws in the karate dojo!" After a year with me he went back to concentrate on his main
style, including increasing teaching duties, having acquired some sound jiu-jitsu basics.

And of course, you tend to improve most in what you practice most, at least initially. Breadth and depth compete for available training time...

Dan Prager said...

Hi Anon

I tend to agree with most of what you write, including that good training depends on what your goals are, and the amount of time that you have to devote to training.

However, it seems to me that much of your assessment on the virtues of cross-training is likely based on the premise that the training offered in individual martial arts is necessarily narrow and specialized, and that this is best remedied by cross-training by the individual. There may be some truth in this, however, if you have the option of training in three narrow martial arts, or one broad one under an accomplished master with many capable students to show, which would you plump for?

I think that the issue of when and how much cross-training to engage in depends also on what's available locally in terms of schools and instruction, in addition to the personal factors that you have cited.

Anonymous said...

Not necessarily narrow, necessarily limited (some more than others of course). Every martial art is by definition limited since it cannot possibly contain everything. Besides that the more comprehensive arts tend be more shallow in certain area’s of their curriculum (inherent to the art and its history or the preferences and weaknesses of the teacher) so it still pays to train extra in those area’s other arts are simply better at: an example would be to train both Japanese jj and BJJ since the latter’s groundwork is clearly better and more developed, both technique-wise and in teaching methodology. The (potential) problem with a comprehensive and classical art is that it can get stuck in the old ways, favour ceremony and tradition over effectiveness and in trying to cover everything never get really good at anything. What you gain in breadth of knowledge you lose in perfection of technique, the practical application. Even if you know how to throw the perfect punch you’ll still be less good than someone who focused much more on punching than you did in your art simply because they trained it much more, I’m not claiming a simple art is necessarily better (much does depend on the teacher and your natural aptitude and motivation): I’m saying it pays to combine training in a complex art with a simpler one. My main goal in cross-training (besides improving my own skills) is to bring what I’ve learned from other styles into my own system and offer my students the best and most effective training possible. I think it’d be highly negligent of me to just pass on what I learned from my teacher without improving and expanding the curriculum (which I am grateful for obviously): martial arts aren’t static and it’d be foolish of me not to take into account the evolution in the martial world, nor to identify weaknesses in the system and not trying to do something about it.

There is much validity in the adage ‘absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own’: this doesn’t mean everything has to work right away (otherwise there’d be no need for training) and you have to throw it out and never look back (especially not when you want to become a teacher); it just means research arts and techniques and find what is truly effective and what you can use naturally and express yourself in the most efficient manner possible. Styles were originally hypotheses developed by individuals to solve the problems they encountered: the techniques that were kept were the ones that obviously worked (on a battlefield it usually meant death if they failed) and worked for them. Later on these hypotheses became law and principles and techniques were set in stone to be passed on unchanged in the ages to come. The problem with this is that the arts don’t change anymore (people don’t depend on them for survival anymore and sports are hardly comparable to real combat) to meet different situations and solve different problems and they lose much of their effectiveness (what worked very well hundreds of years ago may not work so well now, what worked in feudal Japan may not work in 21st century Europe or America). Find out for yourself what works (most importantly for you: martial arts aren’t a team sport and nobody can do it for you) and build on that: surely you need a certain base to start from and some technical knowledge but you shouldn’t become stuck in it and do something just for the sake of doing it or just because it’s hundreds of years old. There’s a nice analogy here: it you want to make a statute out of a piece of marble first you have start with an rather shapeless rock, then you chip away at it until you get the result you want. Obviously first you need a certain mass to work with and you need to learn basic techniques otherwise you’ll just ruin the material but once you have that personal creativity comes into play and you can express your own ideas and ideals, not someone else’s. …

Anonymous said...

For me personally cross-training has worked out great and I have become much more effective and a more complete martial artist and teacher because of it. To each his own of course and if you want to train in a traditional system that’s fine but to me ‘style’ has ceased to be a serious issue and as I progress on the path I’m less and less bound by it. Why pass up on a good technique or training method just because it isn’t ‘your’ style? I’m pretty sure it’s not what the old masters would have done and if you claim to offer self defense you should only give your students what you know truly works and what they can absorb quickly and retain even if they suddenly quit training. Self defense is the foundation, after that we’ll teach you the art. How much of both you’ll absorb and how much you’ll grow as a person is up to you. Surely it shouldn’t be necessary to train for years in order to become capable at self defense: if a system claims to teach self defense yet takes such a long time to develop the necessary skills and attributes they’re offering an art and passing it off as pure self defense. This is dishonest and misleading of people who don’t know any better. I know for a fact it takes many years to become truly effective in jj since it consists mainly of advanced techniques that can’t be learned quickly (people in the old days trained this stuff every day for hours on end) and because of that it’s a martial art and not a true self defense system. We try to offer both. If I teach people what I learned back in the day and the way I was taught (highly amateuristic by today’s standards) their self defense skills wouldn’t truly start developing from blue belt on and even then it’d largely depend on their self-control and mental fortitude, what I teach now will make you effective in a matter of mere months and it won’t depend on becoming an enlightend being or a superior master but on simple body-mechanics and muscle-memory. I’m not claiming to train superior martial artists, at least not before they’ve had 5 to 6 years of training behind their belt (about the time it takes to be given the chance to test for black belt). What I am trying to do is to bring people to a level they can take care of themselves (verbally, mentally and physically) and make the journey as pleasant and fulfilling as possible.

Anonymous said...

About the question: obviously there are much more choices available so it’s sort of a leading question. Given a relatively modest amount of training time available I’d advise people to train in one comprehensive art and one specialized, the choice depending on both personal preferences and what’s available. You certainly have a good point there. We have a student at our dojo who trains in both jj and thaiboxing: to me this is a great combination since it means he’ll get a solid base in stand-up striking and kicking (we do train that but necessarily less so and in less depth than a purely pugilistic art), plus he’ll learn more soft ways of defense and control (this becomes more effective with time and he’ll have something to look forward in the future to instead of the same old kickboxing routines) and most importantly he’ll learn to hold his own once the fight ends up on the ground and how not to get damaged getting there. Our system is already heavily modified jj and it offers solid defense against a plethora of street-attacks (using a mixture of atemi and grappling), much broader than what is offered in thaiboxing (especially weapon-defense which is becoming ever more important) while thaiboxing will give him a chance to practice one-on-one sparring (we focus more on one against many) and learn effective striking combo’s and focus much more on conditioning than we do. In our dojo we encourage cross-training and our strength is our openness and a good base in traditional jj coupled with fairly extensive experience in other arts. When we teach we point out which elements we got from where (give credit where credit is due) and encourage our students to try out new things that would suit them well and be a great addition to what he’ll learn in our curriculum. If we happen to lose some students this way so be it but most people appreciate this and know what we have to offer is solid and honest and we’re not in it for the money anyway. If I wanted to make lots of money I would have hopped on the bandwagon of MMA or the latest fad. ...

Prof. Guilherme Fauque said...


Good blog! I meet this blog by the blog "My journey to black belt". I'll come back here another times.

I invite you to know my blog too. It's in portuguese, but there are a translator on the top right of the blog.