Why Martial Arts Forms Aren’t Useless

On many levels, Bruce Lee is an idol of mine. Why? Because he refused to follow blindly. He knew a true martial artist should question the way things are done, and from there come up with their own way.

However, he WAS still a bit of an egomaniac/. Here’s this young kid who comes along and has the nerve to question hundreds of years of training. Who does he think he is?

Bruce was right on a lot of points. To this day, I see martial artists who don’t bother to work any kind of exercise regimen into their schedule. They think their martial arts training is exercise enough. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Your results WILL plateau. When that happens, you need to do something to push yourself to the next level.

Also, martial arts training was pretty much just a game of tag until Bruce insisted on more realistic training. Granted, all classroom combat training is destined to be somewhat artificial. Short of telling your students to go out and randomly jump each other on the street, there’s no way to effectively reproduce the unpredictability of a street fight in a martial arts school.

However, there is one thing I think Bruce was wrong about, and that is the uselessness of forms, or “kata.” Bruce once referred to forms as “the fancy mess of martial arts,” or “the classical mess.” What he meant is that people go to a school and learn the forms, then think they have learned how to fight. Therefore, in his mind forms served no purpose.

I think this may be the case in less than reputable schools, but anyone who is worth a damn will make sure their students know that forms don’t represent the way you really fight. For an example of that, go on YouTube and look at any wing chun practitioner going through their Sil Lum Tao. Do you honestly think a teacher would tell a student to start doing that if they found themselves in a fight?

This applies to karate, tae kwon do, and any martial arts style. If you watch a karate student doing a form, then it might look like an “imaginary fight.” They might start off dropping into their horse stance, then do a low block, then step forward and punch, then turn to the side, block, kick, and so on. The uneducated might think the students are being trained to fight this way…that the teacher honestly expects the students to believe they should start out with a head-level block first because their attacker will always start with a punch to the head.

Forms don’t teach you how to fight. They teach you the proper STRUCTURE of your techniques. This is especially true when it comes to wing chun, but it is also true of all other martial arts.

So why did Bruce label them useless? Well, Bruce never even learned the entire wing chun system. He understood the principles, but he did not learn everything. Also, he was a young hothead, constantly getting into fights when he lived in China. Someone like that doesn’t want to stand around doing Sil Lum Tao for hours on end; he wanted to learn how to kick ass!

It would have been interesting to see what Bruce Lee’s martial arts training and thoughts would have been like if he had completed the wing chun system. Unfortunately, this is something we can only wonder about.

Again, I don’t believe forms are useless. They are a tool to get a job done, and that job is learning the structure of your techniques…NOT learning how to fight! After all, you wouldn’t get very far if you tried using a hammer to tighten a nut, so why would you tell your students that forms are teaching them how to fight?

If you are a martial artist looking to supplement your training with a fitness routine that can fit into your hectic schedule, then I can help guide you! Despite being a family man (wife and 4 kids) and working two jobs, I’ve managed to fit martial arts AND fitness training into my schedule! To find out how to join forces with me, check out this video!



About Steve Grogan

I am 40 years old, divorced, and a father of four kids. I am a practitioner of a self-defense system called wing chun kung fu. My other hobbies include writing, playing guitar, reading, watching movies, and listening to music. Recently I have gotten back into fitness, and this time I am DETERMINED to get the washboard abs...whether my metabolism will cooperate with me or not! The purpose of this blog is to write not only about my hobbies, but also about whatever crosses my mind, whether it is something I don't understand or something that aggravates me. So join me as I indulge my tendency to think too much about topics that don't usually cross anyone else's mind!
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4 Responses to Why Martial Arts Forms Aren’t Useless

  1. Awesome post. You hit it right on with the forms and structure. Nowadays its hard to find people that understand this. There is something very powerful about having that strong structural integrity that makes the movements powerful in our arts.

    • wcman1976 says:

      Thanks for the comment. I went to my wing chun class the other day and for a half hour, all I did was the first section of the dummy form. Sifu showed me that the top and bottom halves of my body weren’t connected. However, when I started to get it RIGHT, I could feel my techniques getting better.

  2. That is very interesting, while in Tae Kwon Do I use to think, why are we doing these forms? The way you put it makes sense, my first husband was a big Bruce Lee fan. He was thrilled when they opened a Jeet Kune Do class nearby, and he became an assistant instructor.

    I agree that while the martial arts gets you in great shape a regular work out routine should also be incorporated. That is one thing that I always did while taking Tae Kwon Do.

    When we could not decide on a name for our second child I suggested Brandon, after Bruce’s son. We were watching a documentary, and while he was not sure at first Brandon it is.

  3. wcman1976 says:

    Thanks for the comment. You said you always “did” this in tae kwon do, which indicates to me past tense. You don’t do TKD or workout any more?

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