ImageMartial arts have been around for centuries. Traditionally, each system was passed down from generation to generation through a series of movements performed in a dance-like arrangement called a form. Since nothing was written down, forms allowed one to memorize certain movements and technique sequences. Now that times have changed and the martial arts are constantly evolving, do forms still have any value?

The common view is that forms are ineffective when learning how to protect oneself and fighting full contact. These people see no value at all if they can't use them to their advantage in a combat situation. They say they would have joined ballet if they wanted to learn to dance. If there isn't any importance to forms when it comes to self-protection or full-contact fighting, does that make them totally worthless?

This article will project the significance of forms, and that they are not just a means for martial arts instructors to waste time and take your money. Martial arts greats Cynthia Rothrock, Chris Casamassa, Jhoon Rhee, Bob White and Steve LaBounty share their views throughout the article. You will find that counting out forms when it comes to self-defense and fighting may not be wise.


Chris Casamassa's aerial talents helped him soar to the top of the tournament heap.
Self-discipline is a key factor to all martial arts training. You need to train yourself to have the appropriate mindset for all situations; you must focus on what you are doing at all times inside the dojo; and you should to be able to visualize certain movements and have to work at becoming conditioned to get in shape. Forms are an excellent tool to tap into these areas.

A tremendous amount of discipline is required to improve your form movements; just learning the forms takes a lot of work. Forms allow you to pay attention to detail and provide you with a blueprint of motion. American kenpo master Bob White maintains that forms are essential in helping you grow as a martial artist. "Forms give us the opportunity to improve on our mindset as well as our technique," he explains.

Conditioning your mind is a valuable asset, regardless of style. Forms discipline your mind and allow it to harmonize with the body and spirit. They also condition you to breathe correctly. Tai chi, for instance, teaches you to go through slow, soft movements while inhaling deeply through the nose on the first part of a technique, and exhaling deeply through your mouth on the second part. It repeats the process all the way through the form. All systems' forms teach you certain breathing patterns. Many utilize the kiai-a loud yell from the abdominal region-to demonstrate power and spirit. Conditioning the body is an essential part of forms, which also requires self-discipline to work hard when you don't feel like it.

"Practicing forms the correct way helps you develop speed, strength, concentration, endurance and focus," explains Cynthia Rothrock, an actress and martial arts expert who won many forms division world titles. Rothrock notes that it will not help you to constantly practice incorrectly. In fact, it will do more harm than good. Part of self-discipline is to focus on doing them correctly and not getting too lazy. You can't allow yourself to daydream and think about anything other than what you are performing.


Cynthia Rothrock was among the finest forms competitors on the open circuit.
A building cannot be built without first laying the foundation. It is what keeps the building stable so that it can be supported. If the foundation is weak, the building will tumble. This is precisely how it is in the martial arts. You must first establish your foundation so that you can build from there. However, once your foundation is created, you must not neglect it or it can become frail. Forms play a significant role in not only creating your foundation, but also maintaining it.

Your foundation consists of several basics, which are a major focal point within forms. Forms allow you to work your stances, transitions, footwork, blocks and strikes correctly, which develop the appropriate base. To have a strong base, you need to learn to be rooted when you strike. Forms create the appropriate mindset and body mechanics to become solid in your movements.

When you have a firm foundation, it opens many doors to every aspect of your art. For example, to develop a considerable amount of power you must be grounded in your movement. Although there are many power principles that come into play, most of them stem from grounding yourself with your strike. This is also important when blocking. It's best to strike and block by using your entire body rather than just an arm or a leg. By establishing your base, you develop more power and stability, which gives you a greater chance in self-defense and full-contact fighting.


Almost every martial art system has forms. Some have short, miniature forms without much movement, such as wing chun kung-fu. Others have lengthy forms, such as American kenpo's advanced forms and many Chinese systems forms. The Japanese systems utilize the "H" or "I" patterns and are linear in motion. They generally are not as lengthy when compared to Chinese systems; for the most part, what you see is what you get. Chinese systems do not utilize the "H" and "I" patterns, but generally flow in myriad directions. Also, they mimic animal movements and include many hidden techniques.

American kenpo forms were constructed in their own manner, but mostly take after the Chinese rather than the Japanese. Since American kenpo is a mixture of circles and lines, you can see they have both Chinese and Japanese roots. American kenpo has nine hand forms throughout the system. The first four are considered the basics and exercise forms, and are regarded as a dictionary of motion-defining movement. You learn to establish your base. The final five forms are considered the technique forms since several of the systems' self-defense techniques are put in action. These are considered an encyclopedia of motion, where you can receive much more information than just a definition.

In kenpo, forms are more valuable than most people believe. There are so many meanings throughout each one. The kenpo forms are not primarily used to visualize an imaginary fight, although you could practice that way. They were set up to teach the rules and principles of motion, that everything has an opposite and a reverse.

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Forms create much more value than that of a frozen stationary movement. Watching an expert fly through a form with ferocious tenacity, intense power and perfect flow creates many visuals and is highly stimulating. Just the sight of a skilled practitioner going through a form at full speed and power can create emotional responses in your body. You can actually see the imaginary attackers and feel the power.

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Pictured here are the empty-hand forms (1-6) and the application. Michael Miller (right) steps toward 11 o'clock into a transitional stance. He delivers a double parry and right vertical block (7). The attacker opens with a right straight punch. Miller uses direct torque into a horse stance and fires a left straight punch to the ribs (8). Miller then drops a hammerfist into the opponent's kidney (9). He then claws to the face (10) and finishes with a right outward swordhand to the back of his enemy's knee (11). He concludes with a right thrusting sidekick to the back of the left knee (12).

One major misconception is that forms do not help you in street self-defense. "Forms definitely help with self-defense, because that is what a form is all about," says Rothrock. "Each movement is a block or a strike." Martial arts expert Chris Casamassa, a former world forms champion, also agrees that forms are beneficial.

"Forms are imaginary fights between the practitioner and multiple opponents," he notes. "Using the techniques will always help a person in self-defense because a kata is, in essence, a series of self-defense techniques."

According to American kenpo master, sigung Stephen LaBounty, if you devoted yourself to hardcore forms training, you would get leg burn like you've never experienced. "To me, that in itself assists in controlling the fear factor, massive adrenaline dump and subsequent withdrawal in a fighting situation," he explains. "Oxygen depletion is oxygen depletion, and if the body has no real knowledge or experience with it, because your forms are lazy or sloppy, then when needed, it will ask 'what's this?' "

Forms also assist in muscle memory by allowing your movements to become subconscious. Any repetitive practice will produce this result, but forms are more fun and can easily keep your interest. This is in stark contrast to the mundane exercise of assuming a stationary horse stance and throwing 1,000 punches. Forms also assist you in cardiovascular training, which ultimately helps condition you for the streets. Although, most street altercations last no longer than 10-20 seconds, the better shape you are in the better chance of coming out on top.


If you want to be a serious martial artist, forms are necessary throughout your training. Not practicing them would be like omitting the egg while baking a cake. To bake a cake, you need all the necessary ingredients; leaving something out will have a lasting effect on the final product. The same rule applies in martial arts. To get the most out of your training, you need all that comes with it-basics, self-defense techniques, sparring and forms. You also need to drill with and without partners.

Although many feel that forms have nothing to do with fighting, experts will tell you differently. Forms constitute one component of fighting. It's obvious that if you only practiced forms and had no hands-on partner self-defense training or sparring, the only people you could defeat in a real situation would be imaginary opponents you envision while going through the forms.

There are never guarantees on the street. The more you have in your repertoire, however, the better chance you have of coming out alive. Just because forms by themselves won't make you a good fighter doesn't mean they can't assist you when coupled with sparring and reality-based self-defense drills. Forms teach you to be crisp, not sloppy, with your movements.

Professor Bob White insists that only through balance curriculum can we hope to achieve enlightenment. "Eliminating forms would have a negative effect on students' growth," he explains. Cynthia Rothrock says that forms are important to keep the history of the martial arts. "I have found that many people who do not like forms are not very good at the movements. Once you understand a form and how to perform it the correct way, there is no way you can say you don't like doing it," she concludes. Tae kwon do grandmaster Jhoon Rhee believes that forms are as important in the martial arts as capital letters are in the English language. To write correctly you must place capital letters where they belong. To perform the martial arts properly you must practice forms.

"My vision is that human society is changing from the society of violent fighting to the beautiful society of performing arts," Rhee explains. "There will be no ideological conflicts, no conflicts of interest and no conflicts of emotion. Therefore, martial arts forms will have more value than fighting as time goes by."

Whether you are a tournament fighter or you focus on self-defense, forms can be a major element. There have been some great fighters, Joe Lewis for example, who didn't do forms and tore people apart. But then there are few Joe Lewises in the world. There are also those great fighters like White who used forms as a foundation for future training. Forms training is the answer if you want to get the most out of your martial arts experience.
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Pictured here is the form (1-6) and application of the fighting set. As A.J. Comilla attacks with a step-through right punch (7), Miller steps back toward 6 o'clock and utilizes and left inward block. Miller performs a step drag-foot maneuver forward and strikes the ribs with an inward horizontal elbow (8). Miller fires a right elbow just below scapula (9) and adds an outward swordhand to the back of the neck (10). He follows with a left inward sword (11) and finishes with a heel palm that catches the jaw and throat (12).

Michael Miller is a freelance writer and American kenpo instructor based in Bradford, Pennsylvania. He is a fourth-degree black belt and runs Miller's Kenpo Karate Dojo. He is a member of the Chinese Karate Federation under the direction of his instructor, Sean Kelley. Miller can be reached at or through his Web site