How Long Does It Take to Learn How to Fight?

“How long before I am able to defend myself?”

If you are a Martial Arts teacher, you are probably asked this question at least once a week. I know I am!

It is a normal question for the martial arts student. We get several types of martial arts student in my school, and some of these guys are unique because my school is primarily an FMA school:

  • those wanting to get in shape or lose weight
  • victims of a crime who just want martial arts skills
  • victims of a crime who did their homework and are searching specifically for the FMAs
  • former FMA/JKD/Modern MA students
  • people who worry about self defense
  • those who saw “Ong Bak” and confuse anything from SE Asia with that stuff Tony Jaa does (LOL)
  • recent Black Belters who want to add FMA to their resume
  • Filipinos who want to reconnect with their heritage (and non-Filipinos who like Filipinas)
  • martial artists interested in fight competition

Regardless of why they come to the martial arts, most students really are curious about how long it will take before they can use it. Then, of course, we get the occasional “when will I be able to take on ten men?” 🙂

Seriously, I have heard some instructors consider this a question posed by the misguided and ignorant. I beg to differ; along with wanting to know how long it takes to achieve instructorship, most people want to know how long their journey will be. And as teachers, we owe it to them not to respond with some vague, vapourous answer. At least for those of us who have been teaching for a few years, we really know how long it takes to develop self-defense skill and should reply with something realistic. Of course, there are many factors that will determine how long. There will also be the question of “define ‘learn to fight’.” Are you referring to just some punk on the street? Or a seasoned streetfighter? Or empty handed versus an armed opponent? The truth is, if a student has learned to inflict damage, has learned to counter an opponent’s attacks, has the physical ability to do it, and the mental fortitude to handle such a task… then that student can defend himself. You as the teacher must guide his training to that point as quickly as you can, as soon as the student has undertaken study with you.

One of the things we see in the business of the martial arts is the assumption that students will be with us long-term. I believe this is why there is such an emphasis on certification and rank; there is the purveying belief that giving students goals to achieve will make serious martial artists out of those not cut out to be them. But this is not true. While I agree that some people are psychologically and genetically predisposed to excelling in fighting arts, there have been many people who overcame the odds to become great fighters because of plain old hard work. Hanging a carrot on a stick may work for a while with some (like children), but not everyone is ready for the blood, sweat and tears it takes to perfect this craft. And to push a full curriculum on students who have yet to prepare for this journey is an injustice, as not everyone is here for that. The truth is that most students will not be with us long, and in order to make their time with us worth the money, we should give them real skills that they can use as soon as possible and save the “attributes” stuff for the ones who will commit for the long term.

In other words, we should teach our students how to kick a mugger’s ass within 3 – 6 months.

Really, it isn’t that hard. Teach a guy how to ball a fist, how to train his fist to use it without injuring himself, how to inflict injuries on an opponent, give him the strength and physical ability to hurt someone with those techniques, and then, finally, give him opportunities to try it out under pressure. I say:  he should be ready to spar within a month, and sparring with some skill within 3 months, and feel like he can wear a guy out within 6 months. And this is empty-handed as well as with weapons.

Now, I have heard the argument that we should be teaching open hand techniques in the beginning, instead of the fist because the hand is not prepared for fighting while balled up yet. I believe that this is a good philosophy. However, I feel that there is a better reason to teach the student to use his fist and to train his fist so that he can use it:  the fist can cause more damage, and although it takes a little longer to learn, the student needs to have something to show for his training time with you. In my own system of Kuntaw, we traditionally use the open hand more, but because my grandfather was a fist guy (who also didn’t practice langka), I am also a fist guy.

I also recognize that many systems and teachers do not have skills that can be used right away–“right away”, as in “within 6 months”–so teaching a guy to fight within 6 months may seem awfully quick. If you have the desire to add this set within your style, here is the easy formula again:

  1. learn how to make a fist and punch
  2. learn basic hand conditioning
  3. learn power mechanics and vital targeting
  4. develop physical fitness, strength and durability
  5. teach him to spar, and have him spar until he is confident enough to fight without fear

Within one month your student should learn his skills well enough to spar; at least lightly. After 3 months, he should be proficient enough to pick and land shots, as well as stop attacks. And by his 6 month, he should have sparred enough rounds that he is no longer afraid to spar and confident enough to face whomever you put in front of him. This is a rule of thumb I use, and have been using for nearly two decades. Try it for yourself, I am sure that if you incorporate my timeline, you will see quicker results in your students.

Once your student has developed testable fighting ability, you should then proceed to your curriculums. I believe that what we see in the Filipino arts is the opposite:  we develop curriculum skills before developing actual skills. The result is several generations of martial artists who “know” many techniques, but have either poor ability to apply these skills, or are afraid to attempt application. Developing the ability to fight is actually quite simple, unless we wait too long to develop it. Once you have introduced students to the art without fighting skills, it will be very difficult to teach the fighting skill.

Thank you for visiting my blog. Please leave comments!

Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

2 thoughts on “How Long Does It Take to Learn How to Fight?”

  1. I agree with your overall timeline.

    While I’m not a believer in instant results, I think some styles are too complex, and have too steep a learning curve. I also think the more complex the system is, the greater the likelihood that it will fail under pressure.

    I think it is a good idea for a teacher to think in terms of an objective, and explicitly state it to students. E.g. “By the time you leave today, you will be able to drop someone with a knee if you are attacked in the parking lot.” Admittedly the student’s knee strike may not be perfect, and he may be out of shape, but at least there is a focus to the lesson, and some sort of tangible result.

  2. It is unethical for a school to string students along with curriculum skills when they came looking for help. The student is putting trust in his teacher to learn how to defend himself and his family. Most schools do not intend to teach fighting. The instructor is perfectly fine with students never learning how to fight.
    The FMA school I went to was not about fighting. I realized this when none of my questions were met with a straight answer. My question was answered by a question, or a circular argument. I was finally told that it takes several years to learn how to fight. That is total bunk! How could a teacher have no concern about something so important. How could a teacher not do the right thing for someone who is trusting him. It is a huge responsibility to be the person someone is trusting with their life.

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