Want to be a Better Martial Artist?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: martial arts
15 Jul 2009


Ok – you have stuck with your training and achieved a black belt in your chosen style. Perhaps you have really stuck it out and made it to 2nd or 3rd degree black belt! Are you stuck in a rut? I mean do you know it all? Have you wondered what is the meaning of life? Ok – the meaning of life will not be addressed in this post. :)


Many times we as martial artists get to a point where we think we know it all. After all once you learn all of the kicks, punches, knees, elbows, and kata – what else is there to learn? In this post I will talk about what the different levels of karate (the martial art I am most familiar) mean and how one progresses when they know it all.


Do we really have to retreat to the mountains and meditate to gain insight? How can we improve our fighting methods? Are there better ways of teaching students? Answers to all of your questions to help you in your quest to become a better martial artist in this post! Here is a video I found about the first masters of the marital arts doing a demonstration.


Kung Fu is widely recognized as near the beginning of Eastern Martial Arts. Today we view Buddhist Monks and Kung Fu Masters with awe and respect. They are widely thought to have spent their life honing their marital art. How does one graduate from student to master (sorry for yet another question)?

Let’s examine the natural progression of martial arts. Karate has belt ranks. One joins a school and commits to learning a system. Once a student becomes an advance belt ranking such as brown, he or she is just at the beginning of the journey.

Brown belt’s know most of the system but have not put it all together well yet. Some of their moves are at the expert level but not quite fluid yet.

When one advances to black belt in a system, he or she knows more of the system and is at the beginning of the expert level. The moves are more fluid and one can see the beginnings of creativity!

Whatever the martial artist’s interest is now explored. Many like sport karate or kata competition. Some focus on self defense and teaching. Whatever the area of interest, the martial artist skill level is increased for a while.

Soon most martial artists start to stagnate. What? Yes I said the quest to learn new techniques is stalled because as a black belt – you can pretty much defend yourself in most situations (my definition of a black belt) so why work so hard anymore?

There is one group of martial artists that cannot afford to stagnate as much; these are the active teachers. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard, “What about if he does this? Then what do I do?” Yes the instructor does have to remain creative and open to situational techniques. But even the instructors will be limited somewhat if they try and stay in their mold (of their style).

Here are some principles I think that can help martial artists improve.

  • Do bag work while imagining your opponent to develop new skills

  • Do step sparring to develop new skills
  • Get away to new surroundings to meditate and create new skills

The easier of the three suggestions are to do creative bag work and escape to a mountain top (assuming there are close mountains) to let your creativity flow. Doing creative step-sparring is harder because both you and your partner have to be in the zone.

When I was beginning training for my 4th degree black belt, the requirements were to create 10 self-defense techniques and one kata. As this was roughly equivalent to the rank of master – I reasoned that I should take the training seriously and did part of the training on Rattlesnake Mountain.

The mountain was not too high but very secluded. While on the mountain I meditated before each practice so my mind would open up to my creative potential. I also whittled a staff out of a tree limb that I used in my weapons kata I created. I was able to come up with some great techniques too! I found that I discovered new ways to move my body that I might not have discovered if I just practiced within my style.

Creative bag work is a good way to try stuff, hone skill, and vet new techniques. Bag work for me trains my muscles to do moves so as I am fighting  – I can put the moves together however my opponent is open for them. I also can feel if a movement is awkward or not in advance of putting myself in harms way.

If you are just using the bag to develop power and to get a good workout, you are missing a great opportunity to try new stuff! I really like to work on my initial movement kicks and punches to really isolate most of my body while my strikes start out. I find once I work on a new move for a while – it is ready for some sparring or step sparring.

Step sparring can be one great way to explore the potential of new techniques! Both you and your partner have to be of a like mind and open to new variations. If you are both in the zone – you can train some muscle memory while not risking a harsh counter attack!

Remember to thing outside of the box. Your current training has got you to this point but if you are a black belt  – the sure fire way to become a master someday is to figure out some moves for yourself!

What is a master of karate?  A master is one that is an expert karateka at a style usually first. Once one advances to the higher ranks in your style and has also opened oneself creatively – one is then on the path to mastery of the martial arts.

While many consider mere belt rank enough of a test. I reject that out of hand because I have known some 1st degree black belts or non-belt holders that I consider to be martial arts masters and I have known some 5th degree black belts that I have wondered how they ever progressed so far.

So Grasshopper – go apply creativity to your marital arts and branch out to a higher plane of existence if you want to become a better martial artist.

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4 Responses to “Want to be a Better Martial Artist?”

  1. Urban Samurai Says:

    Interesting post. That’s quite a lot you had to do for your 4th dan. Were you able to come up with ten totally original techniques? My system only requires we create one technique for 2nd and 3rd dan plus we have to learn a two man kata and demonstrate a load of self defense techniques.

    I agree that when you get to black belt stage you should start getting creative. I’m at that stage now myself. There are so many techniques in Jujitsu that it would take you a lifetime or more to learn them all. I’m happy knowing a core set of defenses for every situation. I don’t feel the need to keep adding to them. Instead, I just try and master the ones I do know. I think that’s more important. I’m more interested now in uncovering my own personal style, but still staying within the confines of my existing art.

    It depends what your goals are. I think if my goals were to train purely for self defense then I would end up just doing mostly striking techniques because that would be keeping it simple and street wise. I like Jujitsu as an art though, so I try and respect it and practice it for the sake of it, for the sake of the art. I think you can learn a lot by doing that. Concentrating on the art allows you to reach the deeper aspects of it. Pure self defense training is very clinical and functional. There’s no real room for art.

    I suppose being a black belt is about finding your own path, whatever that may be. I don’t think you should feel pressured into following the exact same path as your sensei. I respect the path my sensei has taken and I follow him down it to an extent, but I also add my own thoughts and experiences into that, the result being that I get my own unique experience of the martial arts. I think that’s it. You have to experience it in your own way, express yourself instead of someone elses ways. I’m rambling. I’ll shut up now.

    Incidentally, training in the mountains? Very cool. I’m thinking Van Damme in Kickboxer when he has a moment with that eagle! I’m so jealous. If I tried that here in Ireland I’d probably die from exposure or get washed back down the mountain with all the rain!

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Neil, Thanks for your thoughts! This is a deep subject but I like you see the benefits of improving your base.
    I did create 10 new techniques, about one a week… they were fun creative ways of fighting as I recall. Finding ones I really liked was the tough part because my base (240 self-defense techniques in the system) is just a guideline (for me). I suppose there are people out there that can use a technique they practice but I view it more creatively.
    For instance one complex technique will have 15 parts to it. My muscle memory only recalls how to do each part… putting it together is my own thing in the moment. Part of the difference of being a black belt versus a brown belt. What I think (providing my body is in good shape) – I can do… no need to depend on the variations of my ancestral masters in my variety of kenpo karate.
    The area I most achieve new movements is when I am practicing on the bag or shadow sparring with weapons. I “discover” a new way of doing a kick or elbow… (Although I am not so naive to believe it is new – just new for me) and I start incorporating it into my workout.
    Yes the mountains are not too bad in San Diego :)
    Thanks for you insightful comments!

  3. Anon Says:

    This is a very insightful article, and I am glad to be able to learn from someone of such skill. Although I am still quite a long road away from the level you are at (Green Belt – Shotokan Karate), your advice is something I will remember to keep in mind throughout my experience with martial arts. You are practicing more than one martial art right? When you talk about your muscle memory, I am assuming you are talking about more of a sense of knowing it rather than the move being in your mind, which would take a lot of skill to hone. The mountain idea is something I would want to eventually do, except for the fact that I don not think there are any mountains here in lonely saskatchewan, but aside from that fact I thank you for your insightful article and will always remember to be creative.

  4. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Anon!
    Green belt is where things start really coming together. There is benefit to learning more than one fighting art. In school I was a good wrestler. I learned some Lima Lama in high-school. I learned kenpo as an adult. I transitioned into kick boxing and also learned boxing at that point.
    Kenpo has complex techniques and I learned how to do the moves, strikes, blocks, stances and then as I got better I could recall as needed whatever worked for a situation. That is what I mean by muscle memory.
    It is kind of funny but someday my ideal home would have a Japanese garden with a bridge over a gold fish pond leading to my private dojo. I’d spend a couple of hours working on my form (bag work, shadow sparring, doing moves in a mirror to validate my initial movement, speed bag, reaction bag, judo mats, and anything else to broaden my horizons).
    I do think there is a benefit to clearing the mind and allowing it to focus as you work to improve your martial art… whatever it is.
    Thanks for you comments Anon – best of luck to you.