INB #16: Teaching the Combination

Combination techniques occupy a special place in martial training. They let the student perform sequences of movements long enough to create a kind of scenario. Good combinations are long enough to have interest but short enough to make learning easy.

inb16seqHow people train their combos differs as hugely as ice and embers. Almost the entire Kenpo repertoire centers around combinations (called “techniques”) while other styles seem to avoid them for the single strike theory. Some see combinations as too robotic and programmed. Others believe they can lead to fluidity and power if taught properly. Bruce Lee thought them significant enough to make ABC (Attack by Combination) one of the five primary forms of attack.

Everyone in Kung Fu should practice combinations at some point in the training. They teach the mind to link movement and overcome fixation.

How do you build a decent combination? Here is one way …


The first hint is to know the final combination you are aiming to reach. You don’t have to have it all mapped out but its a good idea to know what planet you would like to visit.

I’m going to pick an admittedly easy one with just about universal application. It could not fit EVERY style but it will give you some ideas.

Snap kick off the rear leg and plant forward.
Then punch with the front hand.
Roll the punch into a front hand back knuckle.
Roll the same hand down into a hammerfist to the groin.

inb16_03bThis is barely Kung Fu—more of an alphabetic sequence— but we’ve got to start somewhere. Let’s reduce it to a formula so we can really understand the sequencing of the instruction.

K= rear leg kick
S= step forward
P= punch
B = back knuckle
H = hammerfist

Now comes the unexpected twist. Here’s how I would suggest the sequence be taught. I learned this sequence from my old teacher, Jim Tracy, somewhere in the pre-Cambrian period. It has worked wonderfully long since. My own sequencing (and this is the point, not the particular actions of the sequence but the presentation) would go something like:

1. S P
2. S P B
3. S P H
4. S P B H
5. K S P B H

inb16_05aNote that they are definitely not in progressive order. If they were the sequence would look like this:

1. K S
2. K S P
3. K S P B
4. K S P B H

The obvious difference is that there are fewer steps. But there are bigger differences. The biggest is that we are not really trying to teach a certain combination. We’re making a combination from groups of movements which themselves could be rearranged into other combinations. In other words little blasts of movement that are useful onto themselves without having to be a part of a larger combo.

Look: S P works by itself. So does S P H and S P B. All these hand techniques constitute what some call an “Root”. The basic idea here is to punch and then roll your arm around to strike again whether up (B) or down (H). Can you kick before launching the combo? Of course and that’s why the kick is taught last, because it’s not crucial to the Root. You could also flip, kick twice and spit if you so desired. All these initial movements constitute Prefixes. By the same token you can follow up with more movements at the end. These constitute Suffixes.

What’s the point? Very simple; that a logical, progressive, powerful series of movements is at the core of the training. California, being as unusual in martial arts as everything else, actually used to have tournament divisions (still does, I think) where students enter to perform self defense combinations on cooperatoing partners termed “dummies”. In the early days these combinations were demonstrated mostly by serious practitioners of Hawaiian, Polynesian or Okinawan persuasions. Now they follow our Hollywood bent and have become, as might be expected, miniature auditions. That’s ok. That’s the modern entertainment approach. But they also show some BAD habits and ideas because performance is the opposite of efficiency. Its even crept into some school curriculae where I see combinations that are irrational , inefficient and just plain silly.

inb16_07aGreat combinations can be a useful tool in training the martial body to move like it knows something. The approach above can be tailored—as we do in our school—to some very sophisticated motions. If you want some really tough examples you might check out the “Three Mirrors” section of Adam Hsu’s book “Lone Sword”.

Are there rules for combinations? Well, of course you are the teacher, but here are a few slippery spots you might think to avoid…

1. Mixing defense and offense. The simplest combination to understand is either all attack or attack following a defense. Of course we can enter, slip back to defend, and then re-enter. But for the beginner one defense (or none) followed by one attack sequence is easiest.

2. Follow the front hand rule. You definitely don’t have to end with a front hand strike but for many this is easier, too. In the above case all the strikes are front hand. If a student can’t do this one they may have rough breakers ahead.

3. Follow the rule of three. I have seen SO many instructors trying to teach marching combinations to groups only discover to their embarrassment that the whole thing scans wrong. Their general response is to add some transition move as a clunker to get back into the groove. It’s often something like Block-Hit-Hit-uh, step forward and take a stance then repeat. Build your early combinations around three movements, which naturally brings you back to the first position, rather than two or four.

4. Try to create flexible sequences you can use in many ways. The above combination can be done standing still, stepping once and then fading back to repeat the same side over and over, advancing with only one side forward and advancing with alternating sides (marching). Good combinations go from the stationary to the marching with ease and grace.

Play around and see.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts; probably more than at any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. Indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincere handling of informed viewpoints.

One Response to “INB #16: Teaching the Combination”

  1. Craig says:

    Very nice indeed. Thanks for sharing! Too often I’ve taken the easy road of progressive combos (as in the order done in the form), and gave more lip-service as to the creative ways they could be combined…Now this lil formula makes a world of difference. Many thanks!

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