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Footwork and its common types

When a martial artist uses legs and feet to move or to undertake martial movements, then the legs and feet undergo certain motions, which may be broadly termed as footwork in combat sports and martial arts terminology.

Footwork may be executed when the martial artist is standing or lying on the ground. Sometimes, when an opponent punches or kicks or throws or unbalances a martial artist, then that martial artist may fall on the ground. At that time, the martial artist may use the legs and feet to grapple, or block, or push, or kick the opponent. Nonetheless, most often martial artists remain standing while fighting.

Why focus on footwork?

Footwork has several benefits and the most important benefits are as follows:

* Footwork is essential to maintain balance

* Footwork can efficiently close or further the distance

* Footwork creates extra momentum to execute blocks / punches / kicks

* Footwork can control spatial positioning

While fighting, if a martial artist is standing, then without footwork, no stance can be taken, no punch can be delivered, no kick can be executed, and no block can be successful. Thus, in any fight, footwork assumes paramount importance.

Common types of footwork

There are as many types of footwork as there are martial arts or combat sports. For example, Boxing footwork, Kickboxing footwork, Fencing footwork, Taekwondo footwork, Karate footwork, and so on. Among all these varied types of footwork, a very broad common categorisation may be made as follows:

—Linear or Straight footwork

—Circular or Angular footwork

—Triangular or Diagonal footwork

—Unconventional footwork

Let us examine each one of them in brief.

—Linear or Straight footwork

This type of footwork is based on the logic that the shortest distance between point A to point B is a straight line. Movements employing a linear footwork are direct, sharp and speedily executed. They may be forward, backward or sideways, but in a straight line. Linear footwork is most evident in Fencing.

Olympics video “Learn the Basics of Fencing Foot Work ft. Erwann Le Pechoux | Olympians’ Tips”:

Linear footwork is also found in Taekwondo, where the focus is to bob up and down on the balls of the feet, while moving forward, backward, sideways, or to quickly change sides.

Ryan Carneli video “Taekwondo Footwork Training”:

Alex Wong video “3 Movements To Train for Taekwondo”:

For grappling martial arts like Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, linear footwork is the natural footwork, since their aim is to make the opponent hit the floor in the shortest possible time. The common example of linear footwork is found in close-range grappling, wherein one leg or both the legs of the opponent are grabbed and pulled to make the opponent hit the floor.

Paoletudo video “Grab that leg! (vol. 1) Olympic wrestling highlight”:

The following video shows Bruce Lee teaching linear footwork.

Bruce Weng video “Bruce Lee – footwork”:

In the following movie clip, both linear footwork and grabbing of legs are shown.

Олег Фомин video “Доска безответна – Мr.Lee VS O’Hara © Выход дракона – Enter the Dragon (1973)”:

—Circular or Angular footwork

Unlike the linear footwork where the motion is in a straight line, the circular footwork is done at an angle, so as to form a half-circle or a full-circle with respect to the opponent’s body position. This type of footwork is based on the Buddhist philosophy of “Wheel of Life” signifying birth and rebirth. The ‘wheel of life’ laid the foundation for the Chinese Tao philosophy and its concept of “Yin and Yang”. Due to these philosophies, Chinese Buddhist martial arts like T’ai chi, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, and Japanese Buddhist martial arts like Enshin Karate, follow circular footwork as their basic method of motion.

Blind spot or Blind side or Blank side

The fundamental benefit of a circular footwork is to occupy the “blind spot” of the opponent. The blind spot is also known as the blind side or the blank side. The blind spot is a spot where the opponent is temporarily visually blind to the moves of the martial artist. The opponent can neither see the martial artist’s moves nor can attack the martial artist. Temporary visual blindness can occur only at the back, or on the sides of the human body, since on the front the eyes are present and so everything is visible. Thus, the blind spot is either at the back or on the sides of the opponent’s position. Because both the martial artist and the opponent are constantly in motion, the blind spot also goes on constantly shifting. Due to this constant shifting of the blind spot, the martial artist has to move in angles to form a half- or a full-circle. With a half-circle, the martial artist can reach the side of the opponent’s position, and with a full-circle, the martial artist can reach the back of the opponent’s position.

Mr. Blonde video “Enshin Karate – The blind spot and the four basic positions”:

Pressure Points or Vital Spots

The Yoga philosophy of the Chakras and the Nadis, wherein the life force or Prana flows, was transmitted by the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who travelled to China and established Shaolin Kung Fu in the Shaolin Monastery. The Tao philosophy based on the Buddhist wheel of life accepted the philosophy of the Prana, Chakras and the Nadis. The Prana was called as Chi and the Nadis were called as meridians. Where the meridians intercepted, that point was known as the vital spot. By employing pressure at the vital spot, a martial artist could control the opponent. This led to pressure point fighting along with its various derivative forms. For example, in Taekwon-Do, Gen. Choi Hong Hi has enumerated several vital spots (Kupso), which are listed in the Technical Vocabulary of ITF-style Taekwon-Do.

“Vital spot in Taekwon-Do is defined as any sensitive or breakable area on the body vulnerable to an attack. It is essential that a student of Taekwon-Do has a knowledge of the different spots so that he can use the proper attacking or blocking tool. Indiscriminate attack is to be condemned as it is inefficient and wasteful of energy.” – Gen. Choi Hong Hi (Vol.2, p.88)

Besides Taekwon-Do, several other martial arts also utilise pressure point fighting by employing circular footwork, circular hand motions, and the blind side of the opponent. For example, traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu, relies heavily on pressure points, the blind side, circular footwork and circular hand motions.

Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu video “Grandmaster William Cheung Pressure Point Striking Seminar Day 1”:

—Triangular or Diagonal footwork

In this type of footwork, the legs and feet move in a diagonal direction and in a triangular fashion. Advance, retreat or sideways is done diagonally with respect to the opponent’s position. A martial artist employing triangular footwork appears to be zigzagging, as if touching the many triangular points of a diamond in a randomised fashion. Such footwork is mainly found in the martial arts of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. For example, Kali-Arnis-Escrima, Silat and Kuntao use this type of footwork. Panantukan, which is Filipino boxing, further mixes triangular footwork with boxing stances.

Nathan Carlen video “Triangular Footwork”:

Hwarang Warrior Martial Arts Acadey video “Kali Silat Footwork”:

The main benefit of triangular footwork is that one can evade instead of blocking. Evasion was important since the opponent usually had sharp edged weapons, and with empty hands it was extremely difficult to block such weapon attacks. By evading the attack, the martial artist could achieve a superior position to launch a counter attack before the attacker had a chance to recover. This zigzagging footwork also made the knee bend enough to jump and counter attack with or without weapons. In the following movie clip, we can see triangular footwork employed by Brad Pitt who plays the role of Achilles.

KAABA video “Troy (Achilles Vs Boagrius) 4K”:

—Unconventional footwork

There are innumerable martial arts and each has several styles of its own, which all lead to such a huge difference between them that they defy categorisation. Simply for the sake of understanding, all these are grouped under the common head of unconventional footwork.

For example, Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art which has footwork similar to a dance but actually are defensive and offensive techniques.

Richard Hunt video “Best Capoeira Brazil”:

Unconventional footwork is also found in several forms of Kung Fu, where the movements of animals like the tiger, monkey, snake, crane, etc. are imitated. These styles generally feature deep crouching and powerful jumps along with acrobatics.

Dragons Warriors Martial Arts video “Shaolin MONKEY Style by WARRIOR Monk | BEST KUNG FU”:

The legendary heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was famous for his unconventional footwork. He bounced on the balls of his feet while moving side to side, forward and backward, in a dancing motion, like a butterfly. This led to his footwork being famously called as “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”.

The Modern Martial Artist video “Muhammad Ali’s Footwork & Jab – TECHNIQUE BREAKDOWN”:

Bruce Lee was so much influenced by Muhammad Ali’s footwork that he incorporated it in his own unique style of fighting. Nonetheless, Bruce Lee was also famous for incorporating numerous other styles of footwork also.

All types of footwork in one scene

In the following movie clip, we can see Bruce Lee employing Linear, Circular, Triangular and Unconventional footwork.

Alex Truumann video “Bruce Lee – Original Scene from Game Of Death (39 mins), Part 1”:


Not only footwork, but any martial art movement can also employ such motions. Similar to legs and feet, the arms and hands also demonstrate linear, or circular, or triangular, or unconventional motions. Understanding and practising all these different types of martial arts motions is important for the sincere martial artist.

An important point to note is that the presence of any weapon can significantly influence the footwork of a martial artist. Inflexible weapons like knives, daggers, swords, sticks, pikes, staffs, and flexible weapons like whips, chains, ropes, bamboo, canes, etc., need footwork where generally the lead-to-lead rule is followed. The hand holding the weapon is the lead hand, which is supported by the lead foot. If the weapon is held in the right hand, then the right hand is the lead hand and the right foot is the lead foot. So, the right hand and the right foot move together in any direction, forward, backward, sideways, or angled. This type of lead-to-lead footwork enables the maximum possible reach and the body is shielded by the weapon. However, there are exceptions where the weapon is shielded by the body, primarily to give a surprise attack. Nonetheless, where weapons are used, almost all martial arts usually employ the lead-to-lead footwork.



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