Stretch Kick

The Stretch Kick is one of the first kicks new students learn.  It is not a fighting kick, however.  The Stretch Kick is intended to, as its name implies, stretch the hamstrings and lower back.  It also serves to warm up the body for the fighting kicks that will follow.  New students may find that it tests their balance as well.

The Stretch Kick:

  • From a forward bow stance, swing your leg straight up as far as it can go.  Don’t over-stretch the kick in the beginning.  As time goes on and you feel more comfortable with the kick, try to get foot as high as it will go with proper form (i.e. with a straight leg) and work toward head (or overhead) height.
  • The hip of the kicking leg should be well forward of the other hip at the top of the kick.
  • As with all kicks, your upper body should be relaxed.  Release any tension in the shoulders, hands, and face.
  • Unlike most fighting kicks, your arms can be held low at the sides of the body for balance.

Stances

All Kung Fu styles have their strengths, but one they all share is strength of the lower body, or leg strength.  They all employ low stances so as to be able to root themselves for offensive as well as defensive movements.

The twelve ton tois that we train are actually sets of movements which are designed to work on your stances.  Ton toi means thunderkick in Chinese.  Low stances gives a practitioner a lot of jumping and kicking power as well as excellent cardiovascular training.

So lower your stances!

Self Study – Super Slow Kicks

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Kicking

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Kicking

An excellent way to increase strength and develop proper kicking form is to practice kicking very slowly – the slower you can do it, the harder it is.

One way to develop this, and the best way for newer students, is to put one hand on a wall and practice your slow kick – thus taking much of the balance difficulty out of the equation.  The kick could be a snap kick, heal kick, turn kick, or side kick for starters…. hook kick, cutting kick, or others can also be practiced for more advanced students.  Be sure to begin each kick by bringing up your knee first.  Then, depending on what kick it is, fully extend your leg as slowly as possible and move your torso accordingly.  As slowly as the kick went out, re-bend the knee and bring your torso back to an upright position.  This takes a great deal of body control and strength – both from your leg muscles and core of your body.

To add even more difficulty, take your hand off the wall and do these kicks without supporting yourself.  In addition to developing your ability to balance, this method requires even more strict attention to proper form.  Just as when you’re balancing on the wall, you must initiate each kick by raising your knee first, extend the leg fully, re-bend the knee while bringing torso back to upright position, and step back into start position.

This method of training is relatively difficult for people to do, typically for less limber practitioners who struggle with balance.   Start small by only doing a few kicks and keeping it at a speed that’s manageable.  Remember that proper form is more important than anything else.  Should you feel tightness in your hip or leg muscles, spend time stretching those muscles.  After practicing for a few weeks, add more kicks or simply keep the same number of kicks only do them more slowly.

The ultimate end result of this practice is the ability to properly execute head height kicks and hold them at full extension without losing your balance.  This requires a great deal of strength and flexibility, particularly in your legs and the benefits of this ability will certainly show in your sparring and forms.  However, the ability to execute slow kicks with perfect form will translate into fast, sharp full speed kicks, which will prove quite useful in sparring.

Training at Home

“A day of missed training can never be recovered.”  This thought has been echoed by Kung Fu masters for generations.

There is no question that the more time you spend intently practicing your art the faster you will advance and the more skill you will acquire.  That said, when you can’t attend class for whatever reason try to spend some time training on your own.  Many have found solitary practice indispensable for overcoming weak areas, practicing new movements and conditioning their body.

There are three kinds of home practice.  The first is focused on creating a class-like workout at home, which would typically include kicking, single-step movements, forms, stances, exercises, etc.  Ideally, this workout is based on a self-examination of your kung fu skills and a focused effort on overcoming your imperfections (e.g. stances, kicks, saltongs, upper body strength, etc.) or further development of movements and techniques that you want to perfect.  If you are lucky enough to have a housemate or family member to train with you can even work on chin na, san shou and potentially sparring, although sparring must be done cautiously (just be careful not to get injured.)  This should be your primary training when not at the kung fu school.  At the very least, practice the latest forms you’ve learned or work on perfecting the eight stances and holding them until your legs begin to shake (and then a little more).

The second kind of training, some call it “cross-training”, can also be of value by way of physical conditioning.  This training seeks to develop speed, strength, and endurance.  Swimming is an excellent exercise that both strengthens and stretches your body while giving your joints a break from gravity.  Jogging, lifting weights, yoga, and playing various sports will all benefit your kung fu training as long as you are careful not to overdo it and avoid injury.  Another good idea is to combine some of the above exercises with traditional kung fu training.  For example, jog a lap around the block, do a few forms, followed by push ups and stances, and repeat.  An excellent work out.

The third kind of training involves resting your body and using your mind.  Simply put, there are times when you must rest like when you are sick, injured, or just plain exhausted to the point where you become irritable and achey.  Resting your body and brain allows it to recharge and regenerate, which is necessary for growth.   Many studies have supported the benefits of getting eight hours of sleep and how it significantly improves both physical and mental performance.  Daytime naps have also been shown to be healthy.

While your body is resting, kung fu training can continue in your mind through self-imagery.  Imagine yourself in various sparring scenarios successfully utilizing counters to your opponents attacks.  Go further and think of your opponents response to your counter and what you would do.  Or, you can think about chin na techniques you know and visualize exactly how they are to be performed.  The same can be said for san shou.  You can even think about your forms and what fighting techniques can be derived from various movements in the form.  This self-imagery training is very valuable and many professional athletes swear by it.  One of the all-time great golfers, Jack Nicklaus said, “I never hit a shot even in practice without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.  First, I “see” the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I “see” the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behaviour on landing. Then there’s a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality and only at the end of this short private Hollywood spectacular do I select a club and step up to the ball.”

At times life can get hectic and unfortunately take precedence over coming to the school for class.  However, you can and should find a way to practice on your own – if even for a short time – and you may very well find your skills move to the next level because of it.  Sample home workouts will come in future posts.  Keep training…

Circle Kicks Before Class

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Circle Kicks

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Circle Kicks

If class hasn’t officially begun 5-10 minutes after the hour, then it is the responsibility of the highest rank in class to start circle kicks.  There are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The highest rank should run through all the kicks they know until class begins – starting with the more basic kicks and moving to more advanced.  These include:  stretch kicks, off-side stretch kicks, snap kicks, heal kicks, turn kicks, side kicks, outside crescent, inside crescent, back leg side kick, hook kick, back leg hook, double side, jumping snap, double snap, pema, outside pema, back leg spear, front leg spear, saltong, back leg saltong, rolling, and all sorts of combination kicks, etc.
  • Call out what kick is to be performed before starting.
  • If the class has a lot of people in it, form two lines for circle kicks
  • Should there be lower rank in the class who don’t know the next kick called out, then provide them an alternate kick that they do know.  For example, if they don’t know a hook kick, have them do a side kick.
  • If there is a very new student who knows only a few kicks, the highest rank asks the next highest rank to take the new student off to the side to work with them on what they know.  If there are many new students in the class, then have them sit at the side and watch.
  • When all kicks have been performed, start doing single step movements.  After all the single step movements have been performed, move into tan tuis.  When all tan tuis have been completed, check with sifu for direction.

Visualizing An Imaginary Opponent

As mentioned before there is “no fat” in your kung fu training.  Everything has a purpose and the primary purpose is to develop your martial skills to the highest level possible given the amount of time and effort you devote to training.  Something that can really benefit your training from very early on to higher levels is visualizing an imaginary opponent or “shadowboxing”.  It can and should be something you do in every training session.

A wide variety of kicks are performed in each class – tens, hundreds, even a thousand-plus kicks can be counted out.  At times these kicks can become “lifeless” if you’re not trying hard or having an off day.  To avoid this waste of time, make the mental effort to imagine a potential threat in front of you and use that to motivate yourself to block an imaginary attack or arm out of the way and kick this imaginary opponent with as much speed, power and height as possible.  This mental imagery will not only bring “life” back into your kicks, but will also help you develop better kicking ability for forms, san shou and, most importantly, sparring.

The same mental exercise should be used for single step movements.  As you are stepping to do a forward bow punch, imagine you are blocking an imaginary attack or arm out of the way with the retreating hand and strike the imaginary opponent with as much speed and force as you can muster.  You will realize that you move smoother and can execute the technique with more power against your imaginary opponent with low stances.  Again, your san shou and sparring will greatly benefit from this visualization practice.

Lastly, visualization can really come alive when it comes to forms.  In the beginning, it may be difficult to understand what techniques the forms are teaching and how an opponent would attack.  However, you will be taught the purpose of many of the form’s movements (there are usually a number of uses for each individual movement in a form) and you need to think and ingrain how the technique would work against your imaginary sparring partner.  This is especially helpful when doing the form on count as movements are broken down into pieces (although visualization can and should also be done with forms at full speed eventually).  Practicing forms at home while visualizing an imaginary opponent is an excellent self-study practice.

Spinning Movements

As you progress and learn more kicks, hand techniques, chin na, and forms (even weapons), you will find there are a number of movements that require you to “spin”.  The key element (and the reason why these movements are done somewhat sparingly) is that at some point you expose your back.  Exposing your back has potential for disaster as you are unable to see what’s going on and a number of vital areas could be attacked and quickly end the fight to your opponent’s favor.  However, after developing the ability to execute spinning movements with proper timing and distance, these techniques can provide advantages in combat, such as the element of surprise, the combining of a defensive and offensive move at once, and the development of a powerful strike/movement through the torque of the spin.

An example of all three is the spinning side kick.  If an opponent launches a punch or a snap kick, quickly blocking and stepping away from the punch or kick while spinning will likely surprise the opponent as well as provide defense from the attack.  Follow it up with a powerful side kick to the midsection and you have one very effective movement.

Even a number of chin na movements utilize a spin.  Fortunately, for those techniques the back is mostly protected as you are leading your opponent to the eventual lock and he’s likely both wondering and worried about what was happening to him.  However, if you’re opponent understands what you’re doing, then he will likely react by spinning along with you to avoid being locked.  You’ve likely uncovered a skilled fighter if that’s the case.

So, as you learn spinning movements, make an effort to consistently practice them in san shou and sparring to develop proper distance and timing.  In sparring, using spinning movements as you’re learning them is a calculated risk, which may result in your opponent’s advantage more often than not.  That’s ok, however, as if you keep trying and persist in making the technique work, then it will be yours to draw on when needed.  If executed properly (at the right time and distance from your target), spinning movements are just one of the many different fighting skills available to students.