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5 Misconceptions About Escrima

Updated: Feb 19

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When escrima — which is often used interchangeably with the terms arnis and kali — was introduced to America, it was done mainly as a seminar martial art. Of course, there were a few schools, mostly near large Filipino communities around the country, but most martial artists were not exposed to the arts of the Philippines until Remy Presas, Leo T. Gaje Jr., Dan Inosanto — all members of the Black Belt Hall of Fame — and others began doing seminars.

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Unfortunately, to make escrima more marketable, some instructors presented it in a way that caused people to get the wrong idea about what it really was. In some cases, the martial art was simplified to make it easier for seminar students to learn. In others, things were actually changed to fit the legal atmosphere of the United States.

One of the biggest mistakes was in marketing the martial art as an add-on to other arts. Many magazine articles claimed that stick training would add to a student’s taekwondo or jujitsu skill set. This helped foster a climate in which even instructors began to believe some of these incorrect ideas.

This five-part post exposes the most common fallacies about the Filipino martial arts.

Misconception No. 1: Stick Fighters Must Contend With Separate Fighting Ranges

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The idea that there are specific and separate fighting ranges, and that escrima practitioners focus on and train in only one range (i.e. long range, middle range or close range) is untrue. The fact is, all styles developed according to the restrictions of the local terrain and the body type and physical ability of their creator. Additionally, nearly every real self-defense encounter involves all fighting ranges at some point.

Escrimadors (escrima practitioners) from heavily forested or jungle areas developed thrusting styles and used longer sticks because slashing and striking were not practical in the heavy foliage. Movements were also completely dependent on the vegetation.

The styles that developed in the rice-farming areas used linear footwork patterns, where circular and sidestepping movements were impossible because the small raised paths between rice paddies limited the options. The escrimador could not make very heavy strikes because the ground would be slippery, so the style focused on blocking techniques and middle-range measured blows.

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The styles that developed in open areas or on plantations were able to take advantage of the terrain and use more aggressive slashing and striking attacks, along with more complicated footwork. These practitioners would have begun an encounter at long range, looked for openings and then closed to middle or close range to strike. If they were still able, they would have immediately moved back out to long range to prepare a new attack.

The systems that now claim to be close range developed within the cities. Fighting in doorways, alleys and small open areas determined the length of the weapon and the most effective techniques. The increased use of the stick instead of the blade also dictated a closer range because now one could grab the stick.

If these escrimadors were taken out of the city to one of the other types of terrain mentioned above, their fighting style would have quickly adapted because a close-range urban style in heavy jungle or wide-open fields would have been disadvantageous if the practitioner had no closing or other long-range skills.

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The opposite is also true: The jungle fighter would have quickly shifted to a more effective style after moving to the city.

The point is that escrima is a style of fighting that takes whatever the environment gives — and makes it work. To call oneself an escrimador means not limiting oneself to a single fighting range or a particular weapon, and any system that makes that distinction is doing a disservice to its practitioners.

Real fights constantly flow back and forth between all the ranges, and one must be prepared to handle whatever happens wherever it happens.

Misconception No. 2: Sinawali Will Make You Ambidextrous

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The idea that a beginner should practice with his off-side hand to become ambidextrous, or the idea that the double-stick sinawali exercise (as taught in the United States) is going to make someone a good fighter with his off hand, is ridiculous.

The fact is, to learn to fight effectively with even one’s strong hand takes years of instruction and practice. To make the claim that one can be a better fighter by taking practice time away from the strong hand is silly.

Some people ask, “What happens if your strong hand is injured in a fight?”

Think about this: If your opponent is good enough to injure your strong hand or disarm you, what makes you think your weaker hand would have even a remote chance against his attack?

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A practitioner's time would be better spent working on empty-hand techniques that work against weapons, since they at least have applications of their own. The idea that the skill will transfer to empty-hand fighting is flawed because in any style of fighting, there are strong and weak sides, and a good fighter will always adjust his style to take advantage of his strong side.

Even in the Philippines, double-stick fighters are very rare. Among those who do use double sticks, the style often consists of using one stick strictly as a blocking tool while fighting with the other.

There is nothing wrong with doing the sinawali drills (or the broken-six drill, heaven-and-earth drill, or whatever a particular style calls it), but it should never be presented to students as training to fight with double sticks. The drills are helpful for beginners because, among other benefits, they help ensure that muscular development in both arms remains relatively even.

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If a practitioner wants to become a double-stick fighter or wants to be able to use either hand to fight, he should first master his strong hand, then let his strong hand teach his other hand. He can, of course, train hard for many years and learn to use the off hand just as well as the strong hand.

Once both hands can execute techniques well, he can try to integrate the two hands to work as a team.

Unfortunately, apart from tournaments and forms competition, the escrimador may find that the practical applications are few and far between and that his training time might have been better utilised. But that is for the individual to decide for himself.

Misconception No. 3: It's Possible to Stay Safe While Facing a Knife Attack


In FMA — escrima, kali, arnis and so on — it's taught that knife fighting results in getting cut. Anyone who claims he can fight with knives and not get cut is not telling the truth, plain and simple. If you ever meet a teacher who claims to have been in lots of knife fights, ask to see his scars because if he doesn’t have any, he didn’t have the fights.

In fact, a 10-year-old is dangerous if he has a knife because power is not needed to inflict damage. Even against a gun, if the gun is not drawn and ready, the knife is the more dangerous weapon at close range.

A few years ago, some police departments sponsored a test to see how armed officers would do against a surprise attack by a knife-wielding assailant, and the results were dramatic. It was found that the officers were unable to draw their weapon fast enough to save their life from any distance of less than about 20 feet. A well-known escrima practitioner played the assailant, and in nearly every scenario, he was able to “kill” the armed officers.

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You may be thinking, Well, what’s the point in training to defend against knives if you are going to get cut or killed anyway?

The reason is simple: With training, you may be able to redirect the cuts to non-fatal areas and at the same time prevent your opponent from executing further attacks. It’s a question of surviving, not of avoiding a cut.

There is a related misconception about knife training, and it is very important for surviving a real encounter. In many schools today, the training focuses on trapping drills and passing the opponent’s blade back and forth and from side to side using the back of the hand and forearm to maintain contact with his arm. To put it bluntly, this is dangerous. While it’s a plus to gain a feel for where the opponent is at any one time, you are learning more bad habits than good ones.

First, because cuts cannot be avoided, it is wrong to practice giving your opponent additional chances to cut you. In a real encounter, you must judge the proper timing and distance and, when the attack is made, deal with it. That means avoiding or redirecting the attack and responding immediately.

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Every time you successfully live through an attack but do nothing to your opponent, you’re just giving him one more chance to kill you. Dealing successfully with a knife attack means disabling your opponent, disarming him or getting away. The first two require you to grab, strike and/or close with your opponent.

Second, because you do need to block, grab, strike or parry with your hands, using only the back of the hands is another error. While the reasons people give for using the back of the hands are valid to a point (fewer blood vessels, tendons and ligaments are better protected, etc.), they can’t make up for the loss of sensitivity and the resulting decrease in available responses.

Using the back of the hands is effective for drills and training, but in a real life-threatening situation, you must be prepared to grab and parry with your hands, which means you must use your palms and fingers.

Also, in a real fight, the resulting flood of adrenaline, which is a part of the fight-or-flight response, gives the impression of slowing things down. Your focus becomes sharper, and increased concentration allows you to accomplish things you normally can’t do in training. Unfortunately, as already mentioned, you will probably still get cut — but better your palm than your throat!

Misconception No. 4: There Are Range Limitation for Sticks

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That's incorrect. The main reason for this FMA misconception is that many escrima teachers still teach a blade-based art, and the particular slashing and drawing strikes necessary when using a blade are best done at the long and middle ranges.

The modern stick fighter, however, does not use blade-based attacks. The older stick styles, which imitated blade-type attacks with heavy sticks that were often flattened to resemble blades, depended on powerful strikes using the same motions as with a blade.

More recently, using a stick has meant that attacks have changed to emphasize speed and accuracy over raw power, and the means to execute these types of attacks are available at very close range. Using the wrist to snap and the waist to develop axial torque has replaced arm and shoulder extension as the source of power.

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At very close range, almost nose-to-nose, a modern fighter can hit any target from low on the right side, across the entire upper body, to low on the left side — a full 360 degrees. Being able to do this requires constant practice to develop the necessary wrist flexibility, and as the range of motion increases, so does the strength of the snap.

The learning process also includes training to generate a great deal of power with little or no room. The same basic principles that apply to the 1-inch punch and 3-inch punch apply to these strikes.

Accuracy is also extremely important to be able to fight effectively at close range. When all the power is focused on the tip of a stick at the point of the snap, it is imperative that the tip hit its target. A snap aimed at the temple that ends up hitting high on the side of the head will not accomplish its intended purpose.

Another important area of training for close-range stick fighting is to learn how to create space when you need to. This does not involve stepping out or moving away, but works on recognizing the fact that between two bodies, there is a great deal of available space depending on the angle of upper-body lean and the movement of the hips.

Because of the design of the human body, when we stand toe-to-toe, we can lean away and create as much as three or four feet to execute techniques. If we add slight shifts of the feet, we can see that having enough space for techniques is the least of our worries.

Misconception No. 5: Escrima Is a Weapons-Only Art

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The belief that escrima is not a complete fighting art arises from more than one source. The first is the most obvious: When the art was first brought to the West, it was taught almost solely at seminars and was promoted as an add-on to whatever system the student was already studying. This was done to get the word out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

But in the rush, very few sophisticated empty-hand techniques were put out because they didn’t fit into the scenarios that had been created. If you advertise that something is an add-on to the student’s art, you can’t make it too complete; otherwise, it might be too difficult to justify the teaching methods.

The second reason has to do with the art itself and the range of variations practiced by different instructors. In actuality, there is no specific empty-hand system that accompanies escrima. Since styles of escrima vary so widely, why should we expect that all have the same empty-hand system?

Many escrimadors practice a form of fighting called pangamut, which is basically Philippine boxing with throwing and locking techniques. Others use fighting styles brought from other places and adapted to complement escrima stick techniques. These include judo and jujitsu, silat and Chinese-based kuntao. There is also the local grappling style dumog, along with many styles of kicking with names like sipa, sikaran and pananjakman.

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Finally, there are escrima practitioners who developed an empty-hand system based almost completely on the motions of the stick and knife, and this has even more variations because of the differences in the way the practitioners use their sticks. All are escrima, but none is like any other.

If we add the first issue to the second, we can see things a little more clearly, perhaps. The seminar styles of escrima first taught in the West were actually aggregations of a variety of escrima styles. Instructors passed along systems that were drawn from many teachers and many styles. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it can cause a problem for the art.

Martial artists need to stop thinking of escrima as a single art, for it is not. Now that it's accepted as a legitimate system in the martial arts world, it's time to allow it to find its proper place. As happened to karate in the 1950s and 1960s and kung fu in the 1960s and 1970s, escrima needs to be recognized as a general term for a country’s fighting style. Then the various systems within that style can and should receive the exposure they deserve.

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