Of all things that are hidden in the thousand year old treasure house of Kung Fu, there are few things more unrecovered or more valuable than the advanced leg manuevers.

Years ago, I wrote an article focusing on some aspects of this undiscovered treasure. The article discussed fewer techniques than I intend to now, mostly fixing on leg trapping. This remains, to this day, my only article “borrowed” and translated INTO Chinese.

legwork_fig3We’ve all heard the sermon: legs are the key to martial training. And, of course that is true, but the exact method to using this key seems to be missing. Just to connect my students’ top-and-bottom halves, I tell them to place their hands on their hips so they feel the coupling of the upper and lower body. It’s often the case that this is the first time they have ever felt such motion.

Basically, we are taught that there are three major aspects to footwork. Stance comes first, then stepping, and finally kicking. This is the way it goes for most people who walk into a school without the gift of Pele’s skill. After a while—sometimes a long while—a sifting occurs and a few skills blend with their lower neighbors. The stances, for instance, reshape themselves to be just a sub-category of stepping. A stance is recognized as a transitional moment, a photograph of a step. Given more practice, even the kicks follow suit and morph into just being steps,  albeit big ones.

At first it is difficult for the hard working student to recognize this, but this evolutionary step (so to speak) is well-known in classical Kung Fu, another example of how inherently different traditional training is from modern martial exercise. And these are just the run of the mill changes that inevitably grow out of training.

legwork_fig1Other shades of leg skills are not so well orchestrated. When I began teaching Northern Shaolin I realized that each one of the famous core of ten forms had at least a few odd stepping patterns. They certainly were not absolutely necessary and sometimes did not even seem to match the techniques they were harnessed to. Here, for instance, was a one-two step based on falling forward and catching your balance while executing a huge windmill with the arms. Here were stance changes where a low position was exchanged for an even lower one, and then a twist. Momentary positions exploded into new movements, yet maintained confusingly specific squeezing and tightening actions meant to enhance alignment, strength or generation of power. These orphaned actions turned up in the strangest places.

It often struck me that there was some master list of funny movements which they stitched into the fabric of the forms at unexpected places just to amuse themselves. It eventually dawned on me that there are higher levels of footwork than just trying to stay on your toes (or heels in Tai Chi) and move quickly, and some of these special patterns were showing this in plain sight.

legwork_fig2Here are a few examples I call “legwork” instead of footwork, evident in almost any intermediate or higher form.

BUCKLING: Using the knee area to bump your opponent’s stance and deform his posture. Buckling is associated with Tiger stance, front and rear crossovers, and other moves where the knee is flexed and the weight dropped.

POSITIONING: The art of wedging and obstructing is more sophisticated than most practitioners realize. The formal stances are road blocks, dams and walls discouraging the opponent’s freedom. Positioning the knee properly diminishes problems before they start and, because of this positioning, lives under the larger category of “checks.”

SQUEEZING: Your opponent attempts a kick. You capture it between your legs (this requires some timing. ONLY practice this at home or near a medical facility.) Then you twist to one side or the other with his legs still trapped by your thighs. Squeezing appears a lot in forms but is rarely mentioned. It makes a typical transition stance into something with focus and function—something you DO.

legwork_fig4POWER GENERATION: We all know that power “comes from the legs.” But that’s just the start of the tale. Some styles and training methods go deeply into this fundamental source. Baji Quan, for instance, uses the bounce back power of stomping and divides this training into at least eight different types of stomps. In forms we see this practice as stance changing, but without rising out of or relieving the pressure as you change. Having trouble with that shifting stance? Practice it even more.

LEG SPARRING: One of the more advanced methods of “sticky” training is where two partners put their hands on each other’s shoulders then essentially play “sticky feet.” Be careful if you try this. Knee shots are out, and it’s best to do this one on a soft surface in case someone takes a dive.

It just goes to show that the book of Kung Fu has many chapters, and one of the most valuable is titled, “Legwork.”



One Response to “Legwork”

  1. Twelve Roads says:


    This is a really good article that wonderfully dovetails with the Richard Miller article on the Ba Shi. I enjoyed it very much.

    Twelve Roads

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