The skills of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) are traditionally taught one-on-one. Out of the instructor’s presence, it is up to the student escrimador to refine what he has learned. Solo and two-man training have their rightful places in the practice of he FMA.
Shadow fighting (called carenza in some old styles of arnis-escrima) is still the best form of solo training. One good thing I love about escrima is you were able to accomplish a lot in a single workout. A non-stop shadow fighting routine for three minutes for instance carries with it the benefits of technique development, cardiovascular stimulation and muscular conditioning.
In arnis-escrima, power and good structure are mainly achieved through repetition. A common practice among escrimadors is to swing their stick over and over again in thin air to learn how to put their body weight behind a strike. A good indicator of power is how loud the swishing sound your stick can make. The following quote from Master Amante Mariñas was published in Mark Wiley’s “Filipino Martial Culture,” it reads, “If you want to be become good you must practice, practice, practice. At one time I did 20,000 strikes in one day. It took me six hours. The next day my arm was tired but I didn’t stop practicing, I developed arnis elbow because I was using an anahaw stick, which weighed about one kilogram. Swinging was easy but jabbing was difficult with the heavy stick.”
Besides hitting thin air, the escrimador can practice his techniques on an inanimate object like a heavy bag or a tree. Ideally, the woods is a good place to practice where one can hit rebounding branches and practice footwork on an uneven terrain. I have also seen fellow escrimadors who have constructed excellent dummies as training aids. A word of caution though about hitting surfaces whether with a weapon or with your bare hands. If your hitting an object with full power, be sure that it is not something that is more stable and more rooted than you are or something that is very dense. The reason for this is if you opted for such objects, you will be absorbing much of your striking force every time you deliver a blow. This could lead to joint, ligaments and tendons damage in the long run.
Another potent form of solo training though often overlooked is visualization. The late legendary death match master Floro Villabrille once said that he practiced visualization right before every match. The effectiveness of visualization in maximizing athletic performance has long been validated scientifically. The following is an interesting quote from “The Mental Athlete” by Kay Porter and Judy Foster, it reads, “You must know what you want and what results you are aiming for in a particular visualization. It is good to have the ‘language’ of your event, the terms and idioms of your sport. Along with this you should have a clear picture of how it looks to perform your event perfectly. This you can get by watching the best athletes in your sport in person, on television, or looking at pictures in magazines or at posters. We suggest that you hang pictures of athletes performing your event to perfection where you can see them as often as possible.” Porter and Foster explained that visualization enhanced performance because the brain cannot really distinguished between mental and physical experience.
While solo training would contribute greatly to the refinement of skills, practicing alone is not enough to attain mastery. As in other martial arts, there are certain aspects of the FMA that cannot be perfected by solo training alone like spatial judgment, kinesthetic sensitivity (the ability to read the energy of one’s opponent) and the attainment of fighting spirit. All these three components are best polished with a live training partner.
Every escrimador has a preferred range of fighting be it short, medium or long range. In a fight, bridging the gap between you and your opponent is almost always the first problem you have to deal with. Gauging the proper distance is crucial in the delivery of a strike for it would be the basis if a particular blow would land with accuracy and power. The experience is totally different between banging with your stick at a stationary sand bag or a stack of tires and trying to hit a moving opponent with it.
Since clinching and wrestling happen in real fights, kinesthetic sensitivity is a worthwhile attribute to acquire. The ability to read your opponent’s energy through feeling pressure or the lack thereof cannot be learned alone. This can only be acquired through the guidance of an able teacher and by constantly practicing with a live training partner.
Finally, the fighting spirit of an escrimador is best honed through free sparring. Despite the myriad of drills in the FMA, free sparring is still the closest thing to real fighting. The mental and emotional fortitude as well as the physical tenacity required to overcome an opponent can only be learned through the practice of sparring. The kind of safety equipment to be used is for the individual escrimador to decide depending on the intensity of sparring he wants to experience.
A common thread I noticed among authentic masters of the FMA is their willingness to spar. I have observed that such trait among these men was born out of sublime confidence on their skills and not because of boastfulness and arrogance. Pain is a specific element that can only be introduced best via sparring. Dan Inosanto, in his book “Absorb What is Useful,” relates how one of his teachers introduced him to the element of pain, he says, “Pain is important according to my early Escrima instructor Master Ellustrisimo [Illustrisimo], who said, “I hit you hard because you will never understand. Notice it affects your respiratory system not just your hands.” I didn’t know that. And even hearing it often isn’t enough for it to stick so well. Unless you are taken to the threshold of pain, you won’t truly understand.”