Practical Application of Chinese Martial Arts with Tim Cartmell

When I started my at times rocky martial arts journey thirty three years ago, Chinese martial arts (CMA) was (at least for me) something unattainable. The only arts at hand in my city were Japanese and Korean, which I trained for almost a decade. However, I always felt something was missing, in the early 1990s I was finally able to find a group that practiced CMA and even though they really cared about fighting prowess, I had to leave a few years later to pursue better career prospects in Canada. I later spent a few years training in other arts while completing graduate studies and moving to other cities for work. In early 2007 I came across an Internet add about a Baguazhang and Xingyiquan seminar, even though I had some experience with Bagua this was the first time I saw someone willing to teach the applications of CMA openly to the public, so I had to check it out.  In the past I had met people who were competent teachers and others who were not, yet I noticed a few trends at that time. These people did not teach the applications to those outside their indoor disciples, the training was incomplete e.g. you learnt taolu/routines yet fighting had nothing to do with Taolu (making one wonder why spent so much time doing it) no teaching structure (in other words you would learn by fighting someone and with little to no supervision) leading in many cases to a royal beating and/or injury, last but not least some instructors would shy away from sparring because it was “too dangerous to do” using their martial art. Those experiences led me to believe there had to be a better way to train safely and without so much mystery. Therefore leading to that seminar I had a lot of expectations and doubts, all of which were quickly answered in a very positive way.

Tim explaining details about the technical rise

The first thing about Tim was how masterfully he would use his small physical frame against a bigger person, something of high importance in my personal case as I also have a small physical frame. There was nothing magical about it, only a good understanding of leverage and the use of techniques embedded in CMA. There are very few people that I know of who can compare both in technical know-how and experience. It goes without saying I was totally impressed with what I saw and learnt, especially because he and his students had/are competing using the very same techniques on a regular basis. Tim is a very soft spoken and open person and even though he has a lot to brag about if he wanted to or penny pinching with his knowledge, he does not which is refreshing and makes training with him a total bliss. In the last ten years I have attended his seminars whenever I can, including a visit to his former Shenwu academy in Orange County in 2008. There are a few interviews with him on the Internet giving different insights about Tim and his approach to training which I will link to but not repeat here. In this entry I will combine some of Tim’s older posts from his now defunct Shenwu forum to provide a general overview I hope the reader can use in his own practice. Some minor editing while organizing the old posts was required, however no changes were made on their original message.

Training in Taiwan

Q: Can you give us a general description on how your training was while in Taiwan?

I practiced Xing Yi Quan with my first teacher about four nights a week. Classes followed this basic pattern: about an hour of warm ups and conditioning (joint exercises, lots of variations of pushups and abdominal exercises, basic strikes, kicks and body movements in place), then rolling and falling, next we would review and practice forms for about 45 minutes to an hour, then techniques and sparring for about the same length of time (classes were about 2 and a half hours long). Sometimes we would practice techniques more and free spar less, depending on if we were preparing for a competition or not. The last five years or so years in China, I concentrated more on the Ba Gua Zhang in my own study, and visited my Xing Yi teachers on occasion and taught Xing Yi Quan in my own classes. I spent about six of the eleven years I was in Taiwan and the Mainland studying Xing Yi Quan with my teachers “full time.”

Q: How was martial art training in Taiwan at the time?

The ages and frequency of training for students in China varies depending on the type of martial arts taught and the focus of the school or group. Zillions of people (mainly middle aged and older) of both sexes practice Taijiquan for health (usually training is limited to a modified, easy to practice form). Xing Yi Quan more often than not attracts a younger, primarily male group. In the schools that actively participate in fighting competitions, this is even more the case. Most students that fight will cross train or practice San Da/San Shou as well.

Well, for one thing the Xing Yi Quan schools had a lot of competitors, so their pool of fighters was large. The more people you have training to fight, the more good fighters you will produce.

Xing Yi Quan also attracts people more interested in actual fighting, the forms are not especially pretty (to the novice at least) and the training may seem a little harsh and repetitive. Therefore, people with a fighting mindset tend to gravitate toward arts like Xing Yi Quan. Finally, Xing Yi Quan is a straightforward, practical style designed to produce fighters in a short period of time.

I’m not saying practitioners of other styles were not good fighters as well (there were many), I’m only talking about my personal experiences

About Xingyi Quan

Q: What attracted you to Xingyi Quan?

One of the things that first attracted me to the Xing Yi Quan was its practicality. All of the techniques are straightforward and efficient. When I fought full contact in Taiwan, I won using primarily Xing Yi techniques. I think that most martial arts have a lot of good stuff, the problem with most styles is not lack of technique, it’s unrealistic training methods (i.e. they don’t spar against resisting opponents or are limited to specific ranges of fighting).

Tim explaining a Sun’ style Bagua entry

Q: What is Xingyi Quan’s main strategy?

First off, the main fighting strategy of Xing Yi Quan (at least as I learned it) is not to “move right into the opponent.” The strategy of Xing Yi Quan is to obtain a superior angle, one at which you can apply your entire body force and at which the opponent cannot use the bulk of his mass or power. The confusion comes in, I think, because most of the techniques of Xing Yi advocate taking the smallest angle possible and then closing in. When you’re good at it, it often appears to be a straightforward attack.

Anyone who is larger and heavier than you has more potential force than you do, so the strategy of obtaining a superior position becomes even more important. Assuming the smaller fighter is strong enough to apply his techniques in the first place, he needs to do so without contesting the larger fighter force against force. In order to beat anyone (with the exception of a total surprise attack, which I always advocate as the first choice in a real fight), you have to be superior in some area. If you are lighter and weaker, you have to be more agile and more sensitive, and you have to respect your opponent’s force while keeping the single minded focus on putting him down.

How would I deal with a big guy? Assuming I couldn’t get away I would most likely attack, attempt to injure or otherwise unbalance him then put him on the ground as quickly as possible. Of course, what anyone would do, will depend on their own experience and level of particular skills; this is what has worked for me.

throws (2)
Throwing at the former Shenwu school

On Sparring Practice 

Q: How do you approach sparring in your classes?

Limiting sparring to only using certain techniques is a good way to practice as it forces the students to focus on specific techniques they might otherwise not adequately develop.

The sparring must be contextual and within certain parameters though, allowing one partner to “throw everything” while the other is limited to one type of deflection and punch isn’t really possible, no single technique will be applicable against every possible type of attack.

First off, sparring is a dangerous practice, even under “controlled” conditions. My advice would be to find a teacher familiar with actual sparring and fighting practices and begin under supervision.

As an overview of our methods, we start with basic defensive skills (learning how to defend against punches and kicks, common standing grappling holds, throws…) and quickly work into structured, but non-cooperative practice. For example, as soon as students have a basic understanding of covering skills (how to use their guard, footwork, where to focus the vision, how to move the body) we will strike them with gloves on at random, the speed and force of strikes is increased as the students progress. The same for standing and ground holds, once students have drilled the techniques in a cooperative format, more force is used and attacks are at random.

From these types of drills, students progress into non-cooperative contact sparring. There are various levels of contact, and different formats. We often break down sparring categorically (only strikes, only wrestling, only ground grappling, one fighter is only allowed to strike while the other is only allowed to wrestle…).

Advanced students will practice “all-in” free fighting with protective gear.

It is important that the teacher pay continuous attention to the students to make sure no one escalates the force beyond the agreed upon level, and makes sure to intervene in case of injury. It is also important to realize that the students that want to take the fighting to a higher level will be injured on occasion

Pummeling drill

Q: What attributes do you considered important when learning how to fight/defend oneself?

Who wins a fight depends on several variables. Size, strength and physicality are very important, but will not always be most important. My philosophy of success in a real fight is: Mind set is most important, physicality is second in importance, and technique is last in importance.

No matter how big, strong and skilled a person is, if he doesn’t have the will to fight, he will lose to the opponent that does. Techniques can only be practically applied if a fighter has the power to apply them and the endurance to get the chance. It’s important to note that superior endurance will often work in the smaller fighters favor.

Technique allows the fighter to amplify his force, the more force he starts with, the more technique will increase it. I have a ratio of strength to technique: If fighter X has decent technical skills and is 50% stronger than fighter Y, who is 100% technically superior to X, Y will most often lose the fight (a good example is the Matt Hughes vs. Royce Gracie fight, or the reason Kramer is the champ in his Karate school)

You will find smaller, well trained, well conditioned fighters defeating much larger and stronger but untrained fighters every day in any BJJ academy. But when the larger and smaller fighters are anywhere near the same level of technical skill, and both are equally determined to win, the larger fighter will most often prevail. That is why there are weight classes in combat sport martial arts (with the exception of professional Sumo. Sumo is a good example of this theory, occasionally, a “smaller,” technically superior wrestler will do well and move into the higher ranks, but he will never make it to the very top).

Every large BJJ tournament has an “Open Class” where competitors of all weight classes compete together. Sometimes a lighter, exceptionally skilled competitor will win, but usually the bigger athletes win, because when other variables are equal or close to it, the larger stronger man wins.

Unlike sport fights, in a “real” fight, strategy and the element of surprise will often go a long way in determining who wins the fight. A smaller, determined, skilled fighter can often win a fight when determination and skill are aligned with a superior strategy.

This is the promise of any legitimate “martial art” to the smaller practitioner; if you have the proper mind set, are well conditioned, have command of sufficient practical technique and understand the proper strategy in violent encounters, you will have a good chance of “winning” or at least surviving a fight with a larger and stronger opponent.

In general, a fighter will use strategies and techniques that play to his physical strengths, technical attributes and also his personality. These strategies and techniques should be included in whichever system the fighter studies. For example, it would be difficult to rely on wrestling if you only box.

For sport fights, rules and limitations will necessitate the fighter adjusting his game to the rules. For “self-defense,” it is necessary to have a well rounded grasp of free movement, clinch and ground fighting, as well as a strategy based primarily on escape.

Basic defense on the ground

Q: How do you teach skills such as throwing?

Note: This was answered by one of Tim’ students

Tim teaches the principles of the throw (usually including all the tiniest points)- the students pair up and slowly execute the throw as they get clarification on how to make it work- that may take 15 minutes for one throw. (In the traditional internal arts classes, Tim shows the ‘form’ or in which the movement of the throw is repeated)

Then the same two students work on the same throw with less cooperation for a few turns. (Tim usually follows that throw with it’s counter, which is practiced the same way- and the counter’s counter). By the end of an hour the students, if they choose, do light sparring where they can, if they see the opportunity- execute any of the throws in their repertoire. Generally, the students focus on that days throws, but if you feel a perfect chance to use a throw learned in a previous class- go for it.

It takes a few light-sparring sessions for the student to get the true feel of setting up and executing the throw. (And of course each light-sparring partner will respond differently and have his own repertoire of counters they’re working on). Whenever the students decide, they can take the light sparring into the medium/full-contact mode.

I’ve been in classes where a new throw is taught and later that same day some of the scrappier students put on headgear, gloves and execute the same throw in the heat of full-contact situation. And weeks later, have seen the same student use the throw during full-contact sparring again, seemingly as second nature.

I’ve never been all that scrappy myself- but have pulled off same-day techniques in light sparring that afternoon and have seen the opportunity to pull off that same throw multiple times during sparring some are just comfortable to use- which may be a ‘second nature’ thing.

The students who want to be well-rounded fighters spar a lot to get comfortable setting-up and pulling-off throws during the adrenaline rush.

Q: How important is drilling techniques during class?

There is a need for rote drilling when you first learn a technique, you need to do it under controlled conditions and practice until the movement and correct timing are in your muscle memory.

Once you can execute the movement correctly in a cooperative format, continuing to practice the same technique cooperatively is a waste of time. Now it’s time to work the technique into live sparring against resistance.

No matter the level, repetition of movements is necessary to acquire new skills, as well as to refine skills already acquired. Training should have the proper balance between cooperative /semi-cooperative training and full, resistant sparring.

You can initially limit the range of techniques to the category of the technique you want to try and apply while sparring against resistance.

For example, if you have been drilling a throw, you should limit the sparring to wrestling so you have more opportunities to set up your new technique without having to deal with too many variables. If you are working on passing the guard, start in your opponent’s guard.

Seattle seminar 2010

Q: Do you have ranks and how was training at your Shenwu school?

The only ranking system in my academy is the standard BJJ system. There is a fixed curriculum in the sense students start with basics and work their way up to more advanced techniques, but individuals will progress at different speeds.

Group classes are all two hours long. There is about 20 minutes to a half hour of conditioning, about 45 minutes to an hour of stand up training (striking and takedowns) and 45 minutes to an hour of ground fighting (including sparring). We spar about 20 minutes to a half hour each class.

There are literally hundreds of techniques to learn. I think my students would get bored quickly if they were forced to spend their class time learning forms instead of practical fighting skills and sparring.

Q: What is your opinion about the sparring vs. no sparring divide?

This is a very interesting topic, the sparring vs. too deadly to spar dichotomy. My students also get into this discussion with practitioners of other arts that believe they are too lethal to spar. I suppose there is no ‘answer’ short of no holds barred death matches, but it is important to look at the evidence we do have so that students can make an informed decision, especially students that want to prepare themselves for a real and violent confrontation.

I’ll preface my comments by saying I have trained all different ways. I’ve studied traditional styles of martial arts in which all techniques were supposed to be potentially lethal, and which forbade sparring, as well as traditional arts which allowed contact sparring. I’ve also practiced several combat ‘sports.’

One of the most, if not the most important aspect of success in a fight is mindset, next is experience, then physicality, finally specific technique. Without the will to fight, the greatest fighter in the world will lose to the most mediocre fighter. This is a common sense observation. It is extremely difficult (although probably not impossible) to develop a fighting mindset without some experience approximating a real fight. Like the boxers say, everyone has a plan until they get hit. If you have never been hit hard, crushed under someone’s weight or been on the receiving end of a painful and unrelenting attack, how do you know how you will react? You may imagine you will respond appropriately and fight back, but you will never know for sure. Sparring will never be as intense as a real fight, but it is the closest approximation you will find within the bounds of relative safety (although you will be injured on occasion, it’s an inevitability of learning to fight).

Getting hit, strangled and thrown hard by a determined and resisting opponent will condition your mind and body for the realities of a fight. Taking out your opponent with the initial attack is obviously the ultimate goal of a fight (and learning how to sucker punch is something I believe should be practiced often), but the reality is one punch knockouts almost never occur. When they do, the fighter doing the knocking out is usually always much bigger and stronger than his opponent. Despite the popular ‘deadly martial arts’ idea that a fight will be over in seconds with the opponent lying unconscious and broken on the floor, fights often go on for minutes, with both fighters injured as third parties pull the fighters apart.

Contact sparring and grappling are also a ‘laboratory’ for you to experiment with which techniques YOU can actually apply against a resisting opponent. Just because your teacher or classmates can smash bones with a blow doesn’t mean you necessarily can. You will never know what you can really do unless you have really done it. You must also practice sparring in all ranges and situations (striking and wrestling both standing and on the ground).

It is not that the techniques in most martial arts won’t work; all legitimate styles have potentially useful techniques. The problem is the method of training. Anyone can make a technique work against a non-resisting partner, and, of course, that is how techniques are learned. The actual execution of a technique is the easy part. The hard part is the set up and entry. The method of learning how to successfully set up and enter a technique for real cannot be learned without a non-cooperative, fully resisting partner. Because that is the situation you will be in a real fight. In a real fight, your opponent will be doing everything he can to stop you from applying your techniques. If your method doesn’t take this into account, it is not realistic. The best fighters in the world use relatively simple techniques, most often the same techniques they learned during their first few months of training. The reason they can actually apply these techniques is that they have learned to set them up against trained, resisting opponents. They have confidence because they have been successful for real.

Physicality is also extremely important in a fight. Size and strength do matter, and, especially if you are smaller than your opponent, superior endurance could save your life. Besides regular conditioning exercises for power and endurance, sparring practice will teach you how to conserve your energy and expend it when it will have the greatest effect. When the adrenaline is pumping, it is very important not to use up all your energy to no effect. Anyone who has ever been in a combat sporting event can tell you that whoever gasses first loses, no matter his or her level of skill.

Another place to look for answers is with men who have a great amount of experience in real fights (street fights). If you read the literature, men like Peyton Quinn and Geoff Thompson (who worked as bouncers in rough places, and who had the ‘benefit’ of hundreds of real fights) assert that contact sparring and grappling are absolutely essential to preparing martial artists for real fights. Geoff Thompson is especially interesting in that he has licenses to teach over a dozen Asian martial arts. But what he advocates practicing for real fighting ability is Western boxing (combat sport), wrestling (combat sport) and Judo (combat sport). The main focus of training in all three is non-cooperative free sparring.

In my own experience, I feel I developed more practical fighting ability from a year of Xing Yi Quan training in Taiwan (we sparred full contact on a regular basis) than years of training in other styles without non-cooperative sparring. Do I believe Xing Yi Quan is technically so superior to the other styles I studied? No, what made the difference was the method (we sparred).

I want to make it clear to my friends that posted above that I respect different methods of training. There is something to be learned from all drills, ancient and modern. What’s important is to be honest about why you practice martial arts in the first place (for example, people who practice for health or recreationally don’t need to spar) stay open minded and look at all different methods of training to see what works for you.

About Taolu/Routines

Q: What is the importance of taolu/routines practice?

Although I believe contact sparring is the best way to develop a fighting mindset, other practices are beneficial. For example, practicing skill based exercises and forms with the proper focus of the intent will go a long way toward training students to avoid either rage or denial when they actually do spar or fight. Also, use of the imagination during solo practice (visualization stuff, imagine the heavy bag is an enemy etc) also helps develop the fighting mindset. I think it is also important that the teacher remind the students on a regular basis of the dangers of real violence. It is important to have a healthy respect for what could happen to you, and it helps balance the fear/aggression ratio.

I have always been very interested in two separate yet related areas, martial arts, the most efficient methods of fighting, and body use, the best methods of developing the body for maximum efficiency (particularly as applied to martial science).

In relation to forms, I practiced set patterns of movement for many years, and I feel they were of benefit. At a certain point, I realized specific movements, especially as they pertained to “styles” were irrelevant, all productive physical training was based on underlying principles of mental and physical development. Once I had an understanding of the principles, I no longer saw the need for specific “forms” practice (as in memorizing and repeating sequences of pre-arranged movements).

On the other hand, any sequence or combination of movements could be useful if the underlying principles were understood and adhered to. The exercises that I teach, whether learned as such, modified or created by me, all adhere to these principles. There are, of course, levels of difficulty and areas of specific focus.

A decade or so ago I became interested in figuring out (at least for myself) which movements actually form the foundation of all other movements. It occurred to me that practicing more “universal” movements would lead to the greatest improvements in physicality in the shortest amount of time, and would hold the potential for continuing, virtually unlimited improvement. I also try to remain open minded and honest with myself so that I’m able to let go of the inefficient and improve.

I believe movements should be learned individually, and then the individual practitioner is free to combine them as they will. Individual practice should not be limited to a fixed number of forms, just like fighting, while involving a relatively small number of situational variables, is not limited to set patterns of movement.

Of course the “acid test” of all my training was how much it improved my physicality and abilities when sparring and competing in the various combat sports. I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to train with and compete against very capable fighters.

Every movement can be considered a “form,” and one is “practicing” every waking moment, not just when they are moving through specific patterns they have been taught as “martial art.” Better alignment, the ability to move my body in a correct, coordinated rhythm, an improved sense of balance and a method of internalizing specific patterns of movement useful for fighting.

Students just beginning the Shen Wu combined training are first taught about body alignment, and then basic exercises designed to coordinate the body and develop natural (whole body )power. There is a great emphasis on learning how to break fall and roll (the most practical “self defense” training one could ever learn). Next ground exercises are introduced as well as more difficult conditioning exercises. Concurrent to the above, the student begins to learn footwork, basic body covering (how to deflect and absorb blows) and basic defensive grappling skills (how to counter the most common holds one would be likely to encounter in the street; headlocks, wristlocks, chokes, the mount…). After the student is familiar with the basics, each class covers standing striking techniques (open and closed hand strikes, kicks, how to strike with the body…), wrestling (throws, takedowns and/or joint locking techniques) and ground fighting (primarily geared toward non-sportive situations). The average student will begin sparring drills by the third week of training. The training is geared around a set of foundational principles which apply to all the various aspects of training (striking and wrestling, stand up and ground fighting). Although the training is often divided so that specific skills can be improved, there is really no division between striking and wrestling in application, all the techniques flow from the same movements, and are based on the same principles. In a nutshell, the Shen Wu training is based on cultivating natural power, and its application to fighting as a whole.

The authors with Tim Cartmell in 2008

Personal Training

Q: How is your personal training schedule?

I spend between 30 hours a week on the mat teaching and training with my students.
I spend between one and two hours per day training on my own (Mostly cardio and conditioning exercises and bag work).
I spend about ten hours a week sparring with my friends, peers and students.

At this point is important to point out that even if one practices martial arts for reasons other than fighting, the practitioner should learn some of the applications of the moves practiced in taolu in order to have a real understanding of alignment and body mechanics otherwise mistakes will be ingrained during practice. It is very common to see people moving about a routine with apparent grace to the untrained eye, yet alignment has been sacrificed for the sake of show. We hope the above information will serve as food for thought in your own practice. As for Tim he is now the head coach at the Ace Jiu Jitsu school if anyone is interested in private training with him.

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