Speed: Unpunch & Unkick

martial speedThe following simple techniques will drastically improve your martial speed.

My confidence in this teaching tip stems from the fact I have used it so many times and it always delivers.  It is based on a key concept in what people call “reptile response,” or conditioned reflex; in other words, actions that are hard-wired to get you to safety as fast as possible.

In daily life, you snatch your fingers back without thinking, just before that slamming car door crushes them. By the time you realize you have placed your palm on that hot stove, your hand has already pulled away. Trail-walking, you demonstrate an unsuspected agility, ducking suddenly to avoid an eye level branch that almost poked you in the face. You reacted without actually “seeing” the problem.

My point, is that these unconscious survival recognitions can be consciously retooled for speed. Visualize your hand and that slamming car door: the threatened limb pulls away in the most efficient line possible. If you could harness this pure reaction you would have a valuable asset for martial training.


Ultimately, the body does know best—it always attempts to remove you from danger. That’s the secret behind “withdrawal” training. We start by withdrawing, and then reverse it.

Step One: Single Arm Pullback
Start by sticking out your arm. Touch the fist face against an object—a bag, a pole, a wall, even a trusting friend—the arm extended but with some flex at the elbow. Relax and sink. Then, when you feel almost too relaxed to move, pull back the fist with the speed of someone dodging a rattler. Repeat this exercise until your pullback is fluid and without telegraphing. It will take some time. Expect false tries and acceptable attempts. As you familiarize yourself with the pullback approach, the lightning quick return will become more predictable.

Step Two: Single Arm Withdrawal
Thad extends his forearm in front of him, parallel to the floor, and about heart level, with his palm facing his chest. Penny places her palms lightly on the front of Thad’s forearm. Penny waits for Thad to relax, then pushes, with both palms, against his forearm. The moment Thad senses this, he snaps into escape mode and retracts his arm. No strength is required for either role, but some lightning-quick reflexes would help.

Step Three: Doubles
Another speed play is that kid’s game: Thad holds out both palms facing upward, in front of him, and Penny lays her two palms, facing down, on top of his. Thad uses one of his hands to slap either of her hands, before she can pull away. What makes this a significant practice is that it combines withdrawal and advance; in other words, Penny is using withdrawal energy—based on reacting to Thad—but Thad has now added extension into the mix. While our consciousness maps more withdrawal scripts than extended ones, anyone can master this skill of direct extension.

Step Four: Explosive Extension
Look! You’ve reached the key point: Step Four is the reverse of Step One; that is, incorporating the energy of reactive withdrawal into explosive advancing movement.

Start with your arms dangling at your sides. Swing one of your arms—say, the right one—upward, at full extension, as though reaching forward. As you do this, further extend your arm towards a single target at about heart level. Turning your waist to the left will add the desired range and shape to this move. Once the target level is achieved, let your arm fall naturally.

Now it’s time to test it.

Step 5: Partner Test
A “tell” is a giveaway of some kind. One of the most common tells is the little shrug everyone goes through right before they try to move. In martial arts, we generally try to eliminate tells since we don’t want to give our opponents any advance notice of our attack. So, one of my purposes here is to teach you not only how to increase your speed, but how to erase that tell. On the other hand, though, let’s not forget that the other guy’s tell is not something to dismiss lightly. So this training has the bonus of teaching you to take advantage of that leak.

To test this, try the following partner practice. Thad stands with one hand in front of him, neck height, flat palm forward. This represents his face. Thad’s other hand is held parallel to the ground, palm down, about 3 – 6 inches below his ‘face’ hand (see picture).

Penny launches a front hand strike (FHS) with her right hand toward Thad’s palm ‘face.’ All Thad has to do is raise his blocking hand and touch Penny’s FHS before it taps his “face” hand, then retreats.

Most people with some martial training can throw a pretty fast front hand. But it will never obtain maximum speed without adding this particular energy we’ve been exploring here. In essence, this is a good example of taking the “yin” withdrawal energy and using it to create “yang” explosive extension. When attained, this extension will give Penny many more strikes and fewer misses.

I have many students in their 60’s and 70’s. Nonetheless, I teach everyone the basics of human speed. Within normal variations of individuals we find that not only do people pretty much move alike, they have the capacity to move extremely fast—that hot stove is always a good reminder. But people are not aware of their potential; the constraints of daily life reign all of us in. When I ask my students to move faster, they often stare at one another like pillars of proverbial salt. But when all rational precautions have been met, results are encouraging. The fact that they can first rediscover their natural speed, then will themselves to think differently, are further examples of the richness of internal training.

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2 Responses to “Speed: Unpunch & Unkick”

  1. Gary shapiro says:

    “Ultimately, the body does know best—it always attempts to remove you from danger. ”

    Boy, Ted really hit the nail on head with that. I would substitute “the nervous system” for the body, but “the body” sounds better.

    I had a P.T. who I considered a mentor. He would ask whether an abnormality was truly a defect—or was it a defense. When you see someone hunched over, taking short steps, most likely their balance is an issue. Without conscious planning, the nervous system is compensating/protecting him /her by providing more visual input of their feet on the ground, and less time standing on one leg between steps. That’s why tai chi is a balance enhancer, with its emphasis on erect posture(eliminating looking at the ground) and slow movement(increasing stance time on one leg).
    Unfortunately, the defense often leads to other problems. The shuffling gait is less efficient, more energy consuming, so the natural inclination is to move less frequently—a vicious circle develops.


  2. Jeff Crook says:

    Unconscious mind, or reptile brain. Or, as we call it around my house – Dad Catch.