Foot­work is a main­stay of com­bat sports and self-de­fense.


For most of us, the Amer­i­can fron­tier would be the last place we’d look for train­ing meth­ods de­signed to boost our bal­ance and power for mar­tial arts, but Mark Hat­maker thinks oth­er­wise. The ex­am­ples he presents make a con­vinc­ing case.

The feet are the deuce and a half that gets your mu­ni­tions to the field of bat­tle. The feet are your mode of re­treat to get out of harm’s way. Your feet are the pegs you use to cut an­gles to bet­ter de­flect, di­min­ish, evade and ap­ply your own mean­ness. Foot­work was, is and al­ways will be vi­tal to all mat­ters mar­tial.

An el­e­ment of foot­work that’s just as im­por­tant as mo­bil­ity is what you can do on your feet while ba­si­cally stand­ing stock-still. How steady is your bal­ance? How ma­neu­ver­able is your up­per body? How much force can you gen­er­ate?

THE HIS­TOR­I­CAL RECORD pro­vides a huge ar­chive of ma­te­rial show­ing how much em­pha­sis was placed on sta­tion­ary power, but this static base wasn’t the pri­mary fo­cus of stat­ic­stance drills. It seems that static bal­ance in the midst of power was the trea­sured at­tribute. It was the abil­ity to de­liver “oomph” while re­tain­ing your poise.

Records present us with more than a few drills that seek to de­velop this. We also find a hand­ful of “sport­ing matches” based on the at­tributes of bal­ance and power.

On the Eastern mar­tial arts side, we can find com­plete fight­ing sys­tems ded­i­cated to bal­ance work — plum-blos­som kung fu and its pole train­ing come to mind. To those un­fa­mil­iar with it, pic­ture a se­ries of short­ened tele­phone poles driven into the ground. The prac­ti­tioner drills and even spars while ma­neu­ver­ing on these pre­car­i­ous perches. Any­one who’s tack­led pole- leap­ing chal­lenges in ob­sta­cle-course rac­ing can ap­pre­ci­ate the added dif­fi­culty of fight­ing while treach­er­ously aloft.

I also call your at­ten­tion to a sport in Thai­land that I ab­so­lutely love:

muay tale, some­times called muay talay, or “sea boxing.” Es­sen­tially, two com­bat­ants strad­dle a hor­i­zon­tal boom that’s ap­prox­i­mately 5 feet above the wa­ter or a padded sur­face. Then they go to town with stan­dard boxing rules un­til one or both plunge into the wa­ter. They can still fire punches if they lose their bal­ance and spin un­der the boom, in which case they would need to keep out of the wa­ter with a stout leg-scis­sors.

In­ter­est­ingly, his­to­rian Paul Well­man cre­ated a sim­i­lar bat­tle in the form of an apoc­ryphal knife duel in­volv­ing Jim Bowie on the pi­rate is­land of Galvez in his novel The Iron Mis­tress. Again, I love this sport! It’s well worth adding to your train­ing if for noth­ing else than the fun fac­tor.

BRING­ING BAL­ANCE and power train­ing closer to the Western side of things, we have ac­counts of “rail” and “tres­tle” matches in boxing, wrestling and a com­bi­na­tion of them known as Fron­tier Rough and Tum­ble. The con­tests were con­ducted atop logs, on sus­pended rail­road ties and on the sides of tres­tle bridges. Ba­si­cally, the com­bat­ants would go at it any­where odd.

Those matches hap­pened so of­ten be­cause bal­ance and power were cov­eted at­tributes on Amer­ica’s fron­tier — if you’ve wit­nessed lum­ber­jacks com­pet­ing in the spring­board-chop event, you know what I mean. Stand­ing on a 12-inch-wide board pre­car­i­ously notched into the side of a tree while you’re chop­ping with full power — now that’s power and bal­ance!

There are more than a few ac­counts of Na­tive Amer­i­cans en­gag­ing in com­pet­i­tive brawl­ing atop logs in a vari­a­tion of the Robin HoodLit­tle John quar­ter­staff fight on the log bridge. (FYI, if you dig Robin Hood nar­ra­tives, An­gus Don­ald has de­liv­ered a gor­geous se­ries of nov­els called

The Out­law Chron­i­cles that gives a down-and-dirty ver­sion of the tale.)

We also en­counter numer­ous ac­counts of old-school boxing coaches ty­ing their fight­ers’ shoelaces to­gether to get them to find bal­ance and power in their foot­work and to re­duce over­com­mit­ted lunges. We see sim­i­lar ideas in “tea tray” train­ing, in which 18th-cen­tury Lon­don fenc­ing masters would have their pupils work call-and-re­sponse with a foil or epee while perched on a tea tray to limit their foot­work.

It’s with such his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tions in mind that I of­fer the fol­low­ing vari­a­tions of com­bat bal­ance-and-power ex­er­cises culled from Fron­tier Rough and Tum­ble ac­counts.

BABY RAIL Place a two-by-four or fourby-four on the ground in front of a heavy bag. Stand on it and put in your rounds of bag work. Try to find your power in this con­stricted po­si­tion.

EL­E­VATED FRONTAL RAIL This ex­er­cise uses the same idea, but this time you el­e­vate that four-by-four to at least 28 inches above the ground. If you don’t have a heavy bag with that much height clear­ance, do what I do: Po­si­tion the frontal rail near a tree and sus­pend your heavy bag from a sturdy branch. Even if you found the baby rail to be a piece of cake, el­e­vat­ing the plat­form takes some get­ting used to be­cause the con­se­quences of over­reach­ing or bag blow­back are higher. You’ll find timid­ity drops your com­mit­ment to power. Your job is to keep the work up un­til you find your power ris­ing back to a re­spectable level.

FLANK BABY RAIL Place the four-by-four on the ground in front of the heavy bag at a right an­gle to it. In other words, it should lie so one end is fac­ing the bag. Do your rounds from there.

EL­E­VATED FLANK RAIL Sus­pend the rail as de­scribed above and be­gin strik­ing. Once again, you’ll no­tice a de­cline in oomph be­cause the stakes are, lit­er­ally, higher.

THERE ARE MANY MORE un­usual train­ing meth­ods in the Rough and Tum­ble tra­di­tion that we’ll save for an­other day. For now, try the four de­scribed here for a dose of prepara­tory train­ing on the bag. Then add a bit of lim­ited spar­ring to your rail work. You’ll find that when you go through a week or two of this and then take your game back to an un­lim­ited-foot­work, flat-ground base, you’ll be cook­ing with gas!

Or, as an old-school Rough and Tum­bler might say, “You’ll be a rough and tough fighter who has fought through the mill and re­fused to grind fine.” In our mod­ern par­lance, you’ll be a bit more badass on your road to badassery.

Static bal­ance in the midst of power was the trea­sured at­tribute. It was the abil­ity to de­liver “oomph” while re­tain­ing your poise.

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