Fighting in Slow MotionHow moving fast teaches you how to slow down
By Stacy Clifford
One of the more contentious long running debates in the field of martial arts (though hardly limited to Renaissance forms) is over the issue of performing techniques in slow motion to learn the actions of the art of fighting. With the revival of the martial arts of Renaissance Europe still young and practitioners often isolated or in small, widely separated groups, this question is an important one because it goes straight to the problem of how best to learn a long dead art from a book with no living tradition or lineage of schools and masters to draw on.
The world around us gives us many models for how to learn new skills, but which is best for our purpose? Many people take the common and understandable position that you should start slow and learn to speed up, which works well for many other skills such as playing music or driving a car. The problem is that when it comes to fighting, I believe this ethos is exactly backwards. In my experience as both a practitioner and a teacher, beginners shouldn't start slow and learn to go faster, they should start fast and learn to slow down.
Here's why. Step 1 of the Scientific Method tells us to first define the problem. The majority of the argument centers around a seemingly simple question: what is the best way to learn the biomechanics of forceful, high-speed action? Ultimately, biomechanics is what this is all about. We are trying to train our bodies to move a certain way under certain adversarial conditions. The goal is simpleefficiently apply force to your opponentwhile the conditions are complexhe's trying to do the same thing to you. When the real consequence of failure is death or serious injury, it's stating the obvious to say that speed is an extremely important factor in solving the "problem." So then, how to get there from zero? We'll look at the opposing view first.
As I said, starting off moving slowly sounds very logical to most people. When you first learn to drive, you don't immediately jump on the freeway and go 75 mph, you start off in a parking lot or a quiet neighborhood street and work your way up to roads with higher speed limits. As I pick up a guitar to try and learn to play it, I'm certainly not starting off trying to shred like Eddie Van Halen, hoping my random pickings will start to sound more coherent the longer I do it. I'm starting with simple phrases and scales and build my way up to quicker beats and longer tunes (someday...). Starting slow and building speed is a valid way to learn many real world physical skills that can be done very fast. However, that does not mean that all skills can be best learned this way.
The reason I believe this path of learning does not apply to fighting is because skills like driving and music are not analogous to fighting for one major reason: speed. Driving and music are by nature variable-speed skills. Whether I'm in a Model T or a Bugatti Veyron, I can still travel a thousand miles. James Taylor's Fire & Rain and Van Halen's Eruption on guitar can both move people's emotions. Even a beginner going slow can still accomplish something real, whether driving to the corner store or playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Fighting for your life, on the other hand, can only be accomplished at one speed: as fast as possible. A slow fight isn't a fight at all; it's an execution. Fighting is all freeway, all rock n' roll, all the time. The approach to learning must be different because being the "James Taylor of martial arts" simply isn't a viable option when somebody is trying to kill you. Self defense is by nature a skill that may be required on the way home from your very first lesson, no matter if you're in Heidelberg in 1389 or New York in 2012. If the goal of learning music is to play songs as soon as possible, the goal of learning martial arts is to survive fights as soon as possible, and the methods of learning must match the minimum skills required to achieve that goal.
Before I go any further, let me define what I mean by "speed and force" in a practice setting. There's a wide range between lazily stepping through the motions and ramming speed, and I am not telling you to abandon one extreme for the other. Just because there are no quiet neighborhood roads in fighting doesn't mean that you have to jump straight to the left lane on the freeway and go 90 mph your first time out. You can start off in the right lane and go 45 mph and still get a good feel for how the car handles, then work your way up, but going 5 mph in the middle lane isn't going to teach you how to avoid obstacles at 60 mph. It is important to practice at a speed you can control, where you aren't smacking the ground or over-rotating your body from sheer momentum, but fast enough that you are forced to move in a springy manner and to exert some muscular effort to stop. In ARMA's training program we have an informal scale that has been in use as long as I've been involved as a student and instructor: quarter speed, half speed, three quarter speed, and with intent. Quarter speed is slow enough to examine actions and motions closely. Half speed is similar, but just barely fast enough to get a feel for things. Three quarter speed is more or less equivalent to that 45 mph lane on the freeway, where to understand the action you must deal with the required energy of its consequences. Lastly, acting with intent means to strike as you would in an earnest fight, with the requisite power and impact control, just minus the harm. Experience has proven three quarter speed to be ideal for developing proper mechanics in early training so that you can make the best use of the rest of the scale later on. Going any slower is only for initial demonstration and explanation, not training.
The critical problem with performing martial arts techniques slowly is that without the right frame of reference, the mechanics of the motion are not an accurate predictor of how your body will move at higher velocity. The mass of your body, limbs and weapon move in very specific ways at different speeds. When moving with low speed and low force, small steps are the default, one foot can always remain in contact with the ground, and weapons or body-parts that clash are more likely to "stick together" in a position of mutual equilibrium. At a more athletic pace like three quarter speed, limbs stretch out more, the center of gravity shifts farther, both feet may conceivably leave the ground at some point, and the opposing forces of weapons are much more likely to be unequal, and the rebound forces much higher, requiring greater effort to maintain control or change direction. Each person's body will move differently in response to these forces according to his proportionsa stout, massive body can achieve the same force with less stretching and speed than a light, lean body, but sacrifices distance and time by doing so. Athleticism is an inseparable component of martial arts, and only by moving athletically can you get a true sense of the relative physics involved. The same is true for the perceptual component, where detecting and responding effectively to threats must occur in an instant.
By now, many people will point out that any good teacher of martial arts will often show things done in slow motion, and it is certainly true. Slowing things down so the eye can follow them is a necessity of good teaching. However, if you watch John Clements, Aaron Pynenberg or other experienced students like myself teach, you'll notice that even when we are demonstrating something in slow motion, we are moving in a way that is nearly identical in form to what it would look like at a higher speed. Our bodies, our feet, limbs, weapons, etc., maintain the same exact positions and range relative to our opponents. Ask a new student to demonstrate something at high and low speeds and you will usually see very different form in each. Why? Because the experienced practitioner has developed an accurate mental template of how his body moves with a weapon in his hands. Simply put, there is a right way and a wrong way to practice slowly, and it takes a little bit of experience to know the difference.
The whole point of executing a technique slowly is to mimic how you expect to move at full speed under adversarial conditions. If your movements are limp, your arms and legs are not extending and your muscles lack tension, then you're not doing it right. In order to mimic your own body at high speed, you first have to know how your body moves at high speed. In order to mimic the way weapons clash at high speed, you first have to experience it. Just as important, the only way to control and affect an opponent acting at high speed is to again know how things work at high speed. The only way to develop an accurate perception of your own mass and momentum in fast motion is to move quickly and learn how to observe yourself and analyze what you're doing in real time. This ability to pay attention to what you're doing is the single most important learning tool you have, but just like movement itself, it requires practice to develop it.
In the beginning it doesn't really matter if you're moving exactly the right way; the point is that you are training your brain to tune in to what's going on while you are moving this way so you can recreate the conditions for later experimentation. Once you've achieved that awareness, it becomes much easier to modify your motion, rewind things in your head and speed them up or slow them down as needed because now you know the proper context in which to consider them. If you don't define the context of your actions this way first, then you are almost guaranteed to start off with faulty assumptions which will have to be corrected the hard way later.
The next logical question you'll probably ask is: if I'm not moving correctly from the start, won't I teach myself bad habits that I'll have to unlearn later as I gain coordination? From my own decade of experience and the shared experience of many of my teachers and respected peers, I can confidently say the answer is no. Most reliable studies I've seen say it takes at least a thousand repetitions of an action to start developing lasting muscle memory. Even the most subtle of fencing actions are performed under the conditions of speed, force and conviction (or to defer to Master Fiore's term, audacia), but since most of fighting is far from subtle, then the most important priority for a beginner is to acclimate both mind and body to operating at high intensity. Practicing solo cutting exercises, counter-strike drills, and structured free-play with experienced fighters at near-realistic speeds early and often forces your brain to adjust to the demands of the combat environment usually before your body can catch up, greatly improving your ability to recognize, control and refine your movement. It isn't something that takes years of practice to master (as pop culture versions of "traditional" Asian fighting disciplines would have us believe); a few weeks of earnest work will quickly start rewiring the pathways in your brain, but even if you have been at it for years it is a habit that should still be reinforced regularly and often.
By now it should be apparent that I'm not saying you should never practice in slow motion. Sometimes it may be the only way to break things down enough to get a handle on them, but it's important to realize that without sound biomechanics, you can make anything work in slow motion only to discover nasty surprises later when things don't behave the same way at full speedwith an uncooperative assailant. By learning how to function at high speed first, you give your low speed practice more value through improved accuracy in replicating the physics involved. Greater accuracy then begets greater consistency of results as you put your interpretations of the manuals through the paces at varying intensity. In other words, by going fast before you go slow, you are laying the foundations for the bridge between the art and the science of defence.