Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Should women train differently to men in martial arts?

Over on Ikigai's blog a few day's ago I got into a dialogue with the commentator wenhsiu in response to a question I wanted Matt to put to the martial artist Forrest Morgan when he does his interview with him (see: Ask Forrest Morgan).

My question was this:

"I would want to ask him a question about women in martial arts. I base my question on the premise that traditional fighting arts were developed by men for men to fight other men and are thus best suited for the male physique. As a consequence of this I tend to think that women are slightly square pegs in round holes when it comes to learning a traditional martial art and we have to make it 'fit' to our physiques as best we can. With this in mind does Mr Morgan think
that traditional martial arts training techniques should be adapted to help women learn techniques that play to their physiological strengths i.e techniques that utilise their proportionately greater core strength, adapting kicks to take account of a women's different shaped pelvis (which affects the angle of articulation of the hip), learning techniques that compensate for a woman's lack of upper body strength etc. Or does he think women should just get on with it and train the same as men?"

In wenhsiu's replies to my question he mentioned that the Ancient Chinese did indeed recognise the differences between men and women and that in the Chinese arts of Qigong and Taiji men and women were trained in separate techniques. Wenhsiu also mentioned that Wing Chun was developed by a Shaolin Nun called Ng Mui. She noticed the plight of a young girl called Wing Chun (Her name means "Beautiful Spring") and taught her this new art to defend her self against an unscrupulous landlord (warlord in some texts) who wanted to force her into marriage. The art was subsequently named after her. This is the first example I've seen of a fighting art being developed by a woman for a woman (albeit to fight a man!).

This got my interest up and I attempted to find out what I could about these arts, or any others that seem tailored to a woman's physique.

Wing Chun (Wing Choon) kung fu continues to be a relevant martial art that is well suited to women. It is a Southern Shaolin style (external style) that is characterised by solid stances, powerful arms, fast movements and elaborate hand techniques. According to the website Uk Wing Chun :

"If we were to look at the percentages alone, we would have to say that women reach a far higher standard than the men. Women make particularly good progress in the early training as they tend to be less competitive in the way they use their strength"

According to this website women particularly excel in the following techniques:

  • They are more able to 'feel' the intention in 'sticky hands' sessions and are still able to generate tremendous force behind their strikes.

  • women are as dangerous as the men in applying a finger strike to the eyes.

  • Women can make good use of the lift kick. In its simplest form this kick goes directly upward into the groin. The use of the lift kick and knees make for more respect from opponents when entering into the ladies 'personal space', the range where potential danger becomes imminent danger.

  • The use of elbow techniques is of great use to women as it is hard to make the elbow soft, one has to hit softer to cause less damage. After getting over the habit of over rotating the palm when using the elbow, the women consistently strike hard and accurately with this weapon as most men will attempt to grab and hold or wrestle a woman down and not throw a clean punch.

They go on to say:

"We have found that women certainly do not lack strength but they do tend to use their strength differently. If a man were to 'arm wrestle' a lady he would find that she can be very strong at holding her ground, but not as likely to be able to exert more power to beat him. The 'frame can be very strong indeed, and as Wing Chun relies on a powerful framework, women do tend to do equally well. Therefore, when a woman is in chi sau (sticking hands) range she can prevent being easily overpowered and can feel the moment to change direction and release the power (fa ging). It does not require great strength to nullify an opponents power when in contact, and with consistent skill training drills she can also deal with breaks too."

A commentator on a martial arts forum said about Wing Chun: "...but in Wing Chun they knew that a woman could not compete with any man blow for blow. Hence the system continually puts pressure on its opponent once contact is made… in Wing Chun you continue to throw combinations of blows, relentlessly (many instances blocking and punching simultaneously). It makes up in quantity what women lack in strength. There is a saying in Wing Chun "As It Comes Retain It, As It Leaves Follow It (Pursue)"."

Both Qigong (Ch'i Kung) and Taiji (Taijiquan or Tai Chi Chuan) are internal styles (nèijiā). These internal arts are linked with Taoism, whereas the external styles (Shaolin styles) are linked with Buddhism. Internal styles focus on awareness of the spirit, mind, chi (breath) and the use of relaxed leverage rather than unrefined muscular tension. Pushing hands is a training method commonly used in neijia arts to develop sensitivity and softness.

There is room for confusion with this classification of internal and external styles. Most Chinese arts have elements of both internal and external techniques but external styles tend to teach the external elements first (the fighting techniques) and move onto the internal ones at an advanced stage. The internal styles on the other hand start with the internal techniques and move onto the external ones later.

Of the two internal styles that wenhsiu mentioned to me, Qigong is not technically a martial art. It is considered to be an internal Chinese meditative practice which often uses slow graceful movements and controlled breathing techniques to promote the circulation of qi within the human body, and enhance a practitioner's overall health. It is often confused with other martial arts because other internal styles, including Taiji often include qigong techniques within them.

Though I couldn't find any reference to women being taught differently to men in Taiji, most Taiji websites promote the considerable health benefits to women of practising internal styles. These health benefits range from improvements in the cardiovascular system, reduction in glycosolated haemoglobin in diabetes, boosting the immune system, maintaining bone density in post menopausal women, to reduction in stress, increased mobility and balance in people with Parkinson's disease and a reduction in cognitive decline in Alzheimer's disease. The list seems endless. I may look at this in more detail in a future post.

But I do karate, not Wing Chun or an internal style such as Taiji, so can this knowledge on 'female friendly' techniques still help me? Well wenhsiu suggests that there are elements of qigong and taiji in karate. He described them as '...those bits in your katas that don't make any sense'. Mmmmm- I'll have to look out for those! We also do kicks, elbow strikes and finger strikes, so maybe we're not too different from those Wing Chun girls after all.

Here's some Wing Chun video:

So in conclusion, should women train differently to men? I suppose the choices are to learn a martial art that is particularly suitable for women, such as Wing Chun or to be aware of techniques that particularly play to a woman's strengths (kicks, elbows, finger strikes, utilisation of core strength) and focus on them in the style you already do. I think this is possible in karate - it's just a matter of thinking about what you are doing and being aware of what suits your physique

Thanks wenhsiu for your comments.

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Man of the West said...


I read the exchange you had over at Ikigai before commenting.

Hmmmm. I don't want to get too long-winded on you, but your correspondent is right: there are indeed ju-jutsu-like techniques in karate, quite a lot of them. We generally refer to them as tuite or torite. There are also a lot of nerve techniques. Quite often, the nerve techniques and the tuite work together. These techniques are most certainly in the kata.

Now, the question is, "Where do I send this lady for more information?" I cannot send you video material from my own library; those materials are supposed to stay within the organization I belong to, and I was given them only on condition that I not share them. (The organization is the RyuTe Renmei, of which I am a very junior member.) Material from other associations is usually, in my opinion, not as good. But this is what I suggest:

Search YouTube for "Taika Seiyu Oyata" and "Peter Polander" (a seventh-dan student of Oyata's) and look for the grappling techniques.

Then go to Amazon and order Practical Chin Na. Chin Na is to Chinese Kung Fu what tuite is to karate. That will be enough to get you started.

As to the suitability of these techniques for women--well, my teacher is sixty-one as of tomorrow. He is an oxygen patient. Skinny old man, really, with hardly any physical strength. I am much larger and stronger than he is, and he can quite easily make these techniques work on me. Doesn't that tell you most of what you need to know?

Dan Prager said...

Hi Sue: I take an almost opposite view!

With their powerful legs, lower centres-of-gravity and generally superior rhythm and grace, women are in many respects better equipped for martial arts than men, who tend to be top-heavy and rely (at least initially) on brute strength.

I know and train with both slender women and short women who, having grasped the essentials of body movement, consistently surprise larger stronger men with the power (and grace) of their throws (often hip throws).

On the other hand it is true that there are some techniques that rely on upper body strength and/or a more rigid spine, and tend to be less-suited to (many) women. Example: Judo's kata guruma (shoulder wheel).

Sue C said...

Man of the West: Long winded comments are just as welcome as short to the point ones! The tuite thing is interesting. I've looked up a bit more about it and realised that we do actually do some of this (we just didn't call it tuite). In fact our new syllabus includes quite a lot of this kind of thing and we did do a sort of 'push hands' technique at a recent course I attended.

I think a lot of what I identified as being useful for women in Wing Chun is also available in karate. Your comment has helped me to recognise a bit more of it. Thanks

Dan: I agree hip throws are very 'do-able' by us petite females. I have had a go at these and was surprised how easily I could throw a heavy man - I definately think this throw utilises core strength, which women seem to have in abundance (particularly if they do pilates). The shoulder throw I haven't tried but it sounds tricky.

I've definately come to the conclusion that small people do better if they get in close, partly to capitalise on low centre of gravity and good core strength, but also to stop the big guy landing his kicks and punches on me. Thanks for commenting

Old Wisethinker said...

I also teach women at located in Fairport NY. Check out the website as we teach a male and female system of martial arts. Currently there are several women in class that the men are fearfull of. They hold there own very well.

Sue C said...

Old Wisethinker, Thanks for leaving a comment. I checked out your website, your program sounds well thought out and organised. I like the way you have a separate approach to teaching kids and teens.

Unknown said...

most martialarts styles have much in common,the most importance thing is the input of effort in learning martialarts,females are very good martialartists if they are learning from a good master who has good teaching method.

Unknown said...

A child who is involved in martial arts is generally a child who is confident in herself. Working through a martial art and the belt ranking system gives a child measurable goals to follow that are realistic to attain Best karate in Connecticut.


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