Learning movement—and therefore footwork—is a progression through four modes of stepping. First, when the beginner has just walked in off the street and you ask him to punch, he will shoot arm first, before stepping. Envision tense shoulders, chest out and arm fully extended as he steps/falls awkwardly. Here’s the first, or “untutored,” way to move.
The second method is basic training. In this, the student first steps, plants his weight on the advanced foot, then issues the power of his punch. Such a firm step forms a bi-pedal base that helps tremendously with waist rotation and power creation. It may be a little slow compared to other methods, but it yields a firm foundation—literally. This is the step-and-punch of Karate.
The third level is more like Xing Yi. Here the step and the punch are simultaneous, both arriving at the same moment. At first this is a difficult one to pick up. But when applied, it creates a technique that is fast and, since everything is moving in unison, very firm.
Finally, the fourth way, which is quite advanced . This is where you start by throwing your fist—or weapon—first, then following with a step. Sound familiar? Isn’t this similar to the untrained way? Ah, but he difference this time is that you have been trained, so now you know exactly how to do this step in the most appropiate way. For instance, you will use this crucial method in weapon practice, such as Kung Fu fencing, where it is a good idea to lead with your weapon instead of your face.
Any good martial artist can mix these methods. But, to really master movement, we keep them separate and practice each, individually. We must understand the time and place for each one. Even the “untrained” one can be useful if exploited at the right moment. For example, employed as a “drunken” style action, it can be a confusing delivery for your enemy to oppose.
Ultimately, we all practice movement by moving. Change the step as you will, but be scrupulous about form. Your footwork will naturally improve. Remember, though: beyond simply executing, movement really starts in the mind where it entwines with stillness (as I talk about in the next piece).