My Thoughts on FMA “Flow”

If you hadn’t noticed… I’m not like most of the FMA guys out there. I think the way the art is taught–the new “tradition” in the FMA–through seminars and video, without the use of arranged matches, live testing, and the old fashioned method of making students pay their dues if they want to call themselves “experts” is hurting skill in these arts. FMA guys would rather engage in a battle of semantics, name-dropping, and background slandering than prove who has the superior fighting skill with a 3 minute match. We have become the new “my style is too deadly for tournaments” and it’s disgusting. So forgive me if my criticism of the FMAs is a little harsh. forgive me if I sound arrogant, or as some FMA patty-cake experts like to put it:  I “think I have a better art”. As if it were a sin for a martial arts teacher to say “my style is superior”. Heaven forbid if that teacher tells people that his art is better than another teacher’s art!

So, that said, I think this thing called “flow” is a distraction from learning how to fight. In other words, “flow” not only doesn’t teach you to fight… not only does “flow” not improve fighting…. I believe it’s a waste of time and will give you a false sense of what you should be doing in a fight.

Because of time and interest, I am not going to waste valuable space on my blog describing what “flow” is. If you don’t know what “flow” is, you can run over to Youtube and do a search on it to see probably thousands of clips on it. Everyone has a version, and I don’t like any of them. Lessee… we have stick drills with the flow. We have knife drills. Flowing to learn to apply locks and throws. Flowing to disarm. Even flowing from one “range” (I don’t like this idea either. Either the opponent is close enough to hit or he isn’t. If he’s not, use your footwork) to another. And the list goes on.

But the point is that fighting is much more choppy and ill-timed for “flow” to resemble anything like a fight. Even the way you strike when you “flow” is inaccurate. People will either stand too far away to land a real hit or they will be so close you can kiss your opponent. The strikes are never really thrown to land at the opponent; no, they are thrown to fit into the opponent’s “flow”.

Let’s take a test. Get a classmate (cause I know you probably won’t grab a combative opponent) and direct him to apply his “flow” stuff to stop you while you attack him. Now, I want you to attack his upper arms and his thighs, and his torso. And when I say “attack” him, I mean it… I want you to hit him. You don’t have to hit him hard, but really try to hit him. At the same time, I want you to keep your stick/knife/hands moving so that he can’t easily grab them. Even if you do this “drill” (yuck) with your Supreme Burrito Guro, I guarantee that he won’t be able to apply his “flow”. If you’re in Sacramento and you want proof, bring your Guro to me and let me demonstrate. I guarantee it won’t work.

Let me give you a few more reasons why I am not fond of “flow”:

  • there really isn’t an attempt to land those blows. the type of strike you throw for a flow drill is not the kind of strike when you spar. the reason why flowing strikes work in flow drills is because the strikes are made to fit into the model of the drill.
  • most of the time, the weapons/hands collide in between the two opponents. real attacks occur either at the recipient of the attack. meaning, a block rarely would occur in front of the defender, but right next to him. you don’t go out to meet a strike, you block what comes at you.
  • speaking of which, ever wonder why you are able to block in front of you? two reasons. first, the opponent really isn’t hitting you. he is hitting the space between you. and second, you know what he’s getting ready to do.
  • the element of power is not there. this is the primary failure of flow practice. you cannot do something without power and then think you will be able to deal with power when the time comes. you must work with power most of the time. really… and it’s not that dangerous. you know what kind of confidence you develop when you work without power? false confidence. you heard about it. you dislike it. but you have it. you actually believe you can stop a full-power attack, but you’ve never really tried to stop one. major flaw.
  • flow drills are really a practice of doing a set of techniques. it’s good for learning raw movement for beginners. but once you have learned the basic rudiments of a technique, it’s time to leave it alone and start working with speed, timing and power. sort of like high school or college students still practicing their ABCs. one of the reasons the expression “always a student”–another phrase for fake humility–is another fallacy.
  • flow drills are too compliant. for the guy who is interested in fighting, he needs to have activity that is adversarial. something where he is trying to impose his will, and someone is attempting to stop him. make a flow drill where the other guy’s job is to make your flow drill fail and maybe we can talk. “flow” is a partner do-si-do, when it should be a win-lose thing. fighting is not do-si-do–it’s win/lose.
  • flow drills have too much reliance on a pattern. even when you want to change it up, you are alternating between a set of techniques and skills that have been pre-planned. too much predictability, too much familiarity, and for fighting skill we need surprise and mystery about what is coming next.
  • there is no competitive speed factor in flow drills. “competitive” speed refers to two opponents in competition with each other in regards to speed. I am trying to hit you, you are trying not to get hit, and we will both move at top speed to try and defeat the other–trying to move quicker than the opponent. flow drills can be performed at a fast pace, but they tend to move at the same pace, even increasing speed, but increasing speed together. but if you do that, there is no more flowing, is there?

Now, we arrive at my point. What do you call a drill, where the partners are actually combatants, they are trying to hit each other, they are trying not to get hit, they are trying to make the other fail in his mission, they don’t know what the other is getting ready to do, they are using power, they are trying to defeat the other, one will lose and one wins, and there is a rush to move faster than the opponent?


See, flow drills were created as a substitute for fighting. A way to say you are getting ready for fighting without fighting. A way to fight without fighting. A way to test fighting skill without fighting. And they are utilized by guys who don’t like to fight, aren’t good at fighting, and don’t want to fight. So, they will come up with tons of excuses (not reasons–excuses) why “fighting” isn’t realistic enough, but somehow a flow drill is. I don’t get it.

And as always, if anyone here is in the Sacramento area, and you want proof that this or anything else I say on this blog is true–or you just want more clarification–please email me and we’ll arrange for an appointment for you to test my theories.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Author: thekuntawman

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

7 thoughts on “My Thoughts on FMA “Flow””

  1. I agree with some points, but overall disagree to the uselessness of flow drills.

    I believe they are useful for learning despite your skill level. For beginners, great for basic movements, for novice, great for building speed and coordination, for advanced, great for breaking the flow drill apart and understanding that it is all just components, for the master (or supreme burrito) great for teaching.

    The problem with flow drills are that people are so caught up within them. You’re right, a flow drill is not a fight, but what happens when you take a flow drill, speed it up, randomize the attacks and defenses, mix in other parts of different flow drills at random, strike like you mean it and vary your attack speed? You got a fight. And it all started from the flow drill.

    It seems to me that you’re complaining about the wrong thing and it is misleading to the uninformed and thus irresponsible. ‘Old School’ masters like Cacoy Canete and the school of Doce Pares employ the use of flow drills, are you saying that this school, founded by twelve WW2 tested masters are wrong for doing so?

    What you’re lamenting about is the misuse of flow drills and how mastery of set patterns is projected as complete mastery of the martial art. I agree with you here.

    Remember: There are no such things as bad tools, just bad carpenters.

    Misuse flow drills at your own peril, but properly employed, you have yourself a great way to train.

    Feel free to e-mail me to further discuss, I am genuinely interested in what you have to say.

  2. I’m with you on your basic point, but I differ in some areas. I think anything can have potential to help or hinder someone, depending on how they view it and use it. I personally dislike flows and complicated techniques, because as you said, real fights are choppy and irregular. But I do flows and techniques simply to improve my coordination. It’s kind of a funny contradiction: for me personally, the act of doing complex, oppositional movements in flows/drills makes it easier for me to see a simple opportunity in sparring. Just working through the confusion of learning a flow/technique and all of its details that confuse my body makes my body better overall.

    Example: Knife disarm techniques. In a real situation, I already know how I will react. A knife comes at me…I will hopefully be able to block somewhere on the forearm using both of my hands, however ugly I may look in what I’m doing, and not get stuck. And then I’m just gonna unload on the guy’s chin a couple times and hope that I’m still able to think a bit clearly and be in a position to do something halfway intelligent. No fancy stuff. I’m just not that good. But I still practice the knife disarms because they improve my hand/eye coordination. That could be beneficial sometime. At the very least, if I can halfway do a fancy knife disarm, then doing a crude, rudimentary survival block in real time will be a bit easier for me. That’s the idea, at least.

    I think anything can be misapplied or misused if viewed improperly; i.e. not looked at for what it is, and nothing else. So I try to keep things in their place. I much prefer to take apart techniques and learn the principles behind them, and then see if I can create my own asymmetric moves using the principle behind the technique. Or I may take part of the flow/technique and use it as a simple move. When I find something that seems useful, I stop at that point and don’t complicate it any further. I just do isolation drills by the hundreds and thousands to get the move into my basic muscle memory. But the idea may come from a more complicated flow/technique. So I do them. I just don’t kid myself to think they prove anything. They are simply another tool for learning.


    1. yes, i know this. does that mean my article is faulty then? i will need more convincing than a sentence that they use the drill. i knew that when i wrote it. i will feel this way until i am proven wrong.

  3. Isn’t a flow drill just a tool for developing attributes? The central one is coordination.
    Some boxing trainers advocate juggling as a way to develop coordination, and in the boxing traditions of Eastern Europe, they do drills involving bouncing tennis balls for the same reason. These drills are not about fighting as such, but about developing *some* of the abilities that can improve fighting.

    1. yes, they are supposed to be. but too many people who do the FMA do the drills too much and the drill becomes the main thing they practice. lots of the “attributes” are not useful. so people spend all the time on those drills and never really learning to strike, punch or fight.

      i have an opinion of the sinawali, and most of the give and take drills. that if I train a guy my way, and you train a guy that way, my man will win every time. why? because my guy is learning to hit and not get hit, and your guy is developing “attributes”. some of the drilling is okay when it really develops fighting skill, but people never get to the point that they test to see if those drills are useful.

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