Some people love them, others hate them, but in most traditional martial arts training there will be a least a certain amount of form work. Forms are sequences of fighting movements performed as a routine. Sometimes these are performed fast and explosive, other times slow and flowing, sometimes in a relaxed fashion, sometimes with dynamic tension.
Those who hate them will point out that real life combat situations are unlikely to unfold in exactly the way that you have practiced a form, so surely it is better to just practice individual techniques and applications? There is some truth to this, combat tends to be unpredictable and you need to be adaptable without fixed ideas about outcomes or strategies to do well, but forms still have their purpose – this is why they have been used as a training method for thousands of years.
Here are seven of the top reasons why we do forms as part of our kung fu training:
1. Body Mechanics
Some of the body mechanics used in martial arts are quite sophisticated and to master them requires a great deal of practice. Forms create a format for practicing and mastering these mechanics which is more interesting than just repeating the same movement over and over again. Recent studies also show that practicing a variety of different movements together leads to faster development and greater retention of motor skills. So practicing movements in a form which incorporates several other movements is likely to lead to faster learning than learning movements in isolation only.
2. Sequence and flow
Forms are put together in such a way as to teach sequences of movements which naturally work well one after another. Practicing the movements in this way will help you to move fluidly and quickly between them.
3. Conditioned response
By repeating certain sequences of movements over and over again you develop strong neurological pathways for performing those movements. This means that when under stress your body has easy neurological pathways to follow, there is less thought required before you move into action. This type of conditioned response can help to overcome the dreaded ‘freeze’ that can occur when someone is extremely stressed.
The forms are actually quite strenuous when performed at fighting speed. They also use pretty much every muscle in your body. Once you have learned a form you can work on becoming faster and more powerful with you movements until doing the form is much like going for a run or some other vigorous activity. This is a great way to develop strength and cardiovascular fitness as well as flexibility, co-ordination and timing.
5. Facilitate learning
There are literally an infinite number of ways that your body can move, and that you can combine those movements into sequences for fighting. However for a student it is helpful to reduce this down to a finite number of movements and sequences for them to become good at. By all practicing the same forms it provides a common framework of movements for all students to work on. This makes the process of teaching and learning much easier.
Putting sequences of movements together into forms is one way to remember combinations of movements that have proved to be particularly effective in the past. You can learn someone else’s most useful combinations from forms they have created, or you can create your own forms to help you remember things that have worked well.
7. Demonstration and Performance
Forms provide a way to demonstrate what a student in learning without having to actually fight. The forms create an interesting visual display that gives spectators an idea of the types of movement used in kung fu. Having standardized forms in common means that you can display your skill as part of a group.
Forms are a valuable and important part of kung fu training, they teach important principles and develop useful skills. Some forms are created for one time use in competition or demonstration or are changed regularly to suit circumstances, others are passed down through generations with only minor changes. Either way they are a useful way for you to practice your kung fu.
For inspiration, below are two videos. The first is a video of Ip Shui – the late Chow Gar grandmaster, performing a version of Saam Bo Jin the famous mantis power development form, which you will notice is very similar to the version of Saam Bo Jin that our adult students learn. This form has been passed down for generations and is practiced by thousands of students all over the world. It teaches very important basic principles and as such is unlikely to change much over time.
The second is a competition form probably choreographed by the performer himself. He may be the only person to ever perform this form, but for him it is a valuable training and performance routine.