SW Portland Martial Arts Blog

Adversity and Adversaries

October 8th, 2018

If you are trying to get better a martial art that involves working against actively resisting partners, I suggest you become a good adversary. Being a good adversary is fundamentally different from being an enemy to your partners. Enemies drown one another without compunction. Good adversaries create a rising tide that raises all participants. Great adversaries can alter the level of adversity they provide to any partner, and assure that both they and their partner are learning to swim. In this article, I will talk about 7 ways to become a better adversary and avoid becoming an enemy.

First, acknowledge that you are training martial arts and not engaging in a death match. This seems laughable but it is easy to let your adrenaline and your emotions drag you under and switch from being an adversary to becoming an enemy. Some people can get away with this and survive without major injuries. Those people tend to be bigger, younger, and male but that isn’t always true. Many giant, young men end up smashing themselves against the brutal shoals of aggression and hobble away with horrible injuries, never again to return. Plenty of people who are smaller, older, and not male dive into the hurricane of aggression and emerge as quality martial artists. However, it is statistically more likely that if your treat your training like a deathmatch, you’re more likely to get hurt. Don’t become an enemy or transform your partner into an enemy by engaging in a death match. Remember you are training martial arts. Be an adversary.

Second, acknowledge that physical traits matter but don’t rely on them to win matches at your gym. Strength, speed, coordination, height, age, weight, reach, and power can all create advantages in martial arts. Martial arts builds skills. Skills can be enhanced with physical traits. In a boxing match, given two fighters of equal skill but one with a 6 inch longer reach than the other, I’ll put my money on the one with the longer reach every time. Do you know your physical attributes? Do you know how you stack up physically compared to your partner? Make a mental checklist of your attributes and your partner’s attributes. If you outclass your partner, tone down your intensity a bit. If you are 250 pounds, put a fellow 250 pound grappler in side control, and then press your full weight into your partner they are likely to perceive you as an adversary. If you do the same to a 150 pound partner, they are likely to perceive you as an enemy if they aren’t already tapping out or bemoaning broken ribs. Don’t become an enemy or transform your partner into an enemy by being ignorant of physical attributes. Remember physical traits matter. Be an adversary.

Third, acknowledge that rank is not a 100% accurate predictor of who will win. If you outrank someone and believe that you “should” beat them even though you are losing, you are on the path from adversary to enemy. Sometimes you’ll get beat by someone you outrank. Sometimes you’ll beat someone who outranks you. Don’t let attachment to rank get you sucked down into the undertow. Rank matters in your personal journey and yes, should reflect skill levels at the gym but a belt won’t protect you from injury. Don’t turn yourself into an enemy because of a colored piece of cloth around your waist. Be an adversary.

Fourth, beware and cherish the beginner. People who are new have no idea what is going on. They can be unpredictably calm one moment and then drop a tsunami of aggression on you without warning. They can be incredibly dangerous to themselves and their partners. If you are partnered with a newbie, do not use it as an opportunity to take revenge on all the people who have beat you in the past. To do so is to make yourself an enemy to the hapless novice. On the flipside, watch out for crazy moves. Remember that a beginner has no idea what they are doing and might do some unpredictable stuff. Don’t underestimate them, get surprised, get angry, and then become an enemy. Protect yourself, protect the beginner and don’t try and take advantage of the situation and become an enemy. Be an adversary.

Fifth, provide adversity and try to win. The word adversary may seem an odd choice to use when talking about how to act toward a partner but provided you are both training in hopes of learning how to better face challenges in your lives, being a good adversary is exactly what you should be trying to do. This doesn’t mean you should try and win the warmups and crush people beneath your oceanic power when you drill techniques. It means you should, during sparring, provide your partners with an appropriate amount of challenge. Don’t baby your partner or underwhelm them by not trying to win. Don’t become an enemy by disrespectfully babying your partner. Try to win. Be an adversary.

Sixth, when you are partnered with someone of nearly equal physicality and skill, dive in! Assuming you are both healthy and relatively injury free, enjoy those partnerships where it is simple to be a good adversary and just play. Don’t begrudge if they eventually become better than you and don’t gloat if you surpass them. Don’t become an enemy by taking your close matches personally. These close matches are where you will most see your best challenges. Be an adversary.

Seventh, there are some partners you should avoid, until the tides of your relationship change. Don’t assume that everyone is in touch with their physicality or level of aggression. It’s easy to assume that students who are super aggressive and/or strong are aware of the fact. They may or may not be. They may be completely unaware of their own level of intensity. They may think 100% aggro is the correct way to be. It’s not your responsibility to fix them. There are some partners who will view you as an enemy no matter how you treat them. There are some partners who have no idea how to play with smaller or lower ranking students. Avoid these partners on the mat. These kinds of partners will often drive you into becoming an enemy and this feeling can boil over to all your other partnerships and drive your whole training experience down the drain. Be a good adversary by avoiding impossible partners. Try warming up or drilling with these kinds of partners to help build trust and maybe someday in the future you can be good adversaries for one another. Don’t become an enemy by training with impossible partners. Be patient and take time to build an understanding with them. Be an adversary.

Hopefully these seven points are a good introduction into what it means to be a good adversary and not an enemy in the context of sparring. Enemies want to destroy you. Adversaries want to win while at the same time keeping it fun, safe, and respectful. Hopefully this makes it clear why it is to everyone’s advantage that you cultivate the attitude of an adversary rather than that of an enemy. Don’t take the short view of training and become an enemy of your own progress. Be an adversary.

In the case of sparring that is supposed to simulate self defense or street fighting, I think the same arguments still hold. Assuming all students want to keep training over the long haul, they still have to acknowledge physically and skill level. They still have to feather the intensity so that people don’t get broken and yet they still have to try and win so that everyone is facing actual adversity and not getting false sense of competence. Don’t let the goal of your training – self defense and survival – turn you into an enemy. Be an adversary.

Building Shoulder Strength

August 19th, 2018

If you do CrossFit, Martial Arts, or both – you need strong shoulders. Maybe you are blessed with naturally stable and strong shoulders – good for you! For the rest of us, there are countless ways of building strength. In the video above, I outline a program suitable for beginners to strength work.

First important point – start light, add weight gradually, and always err on the side of caution. This stuff is supposed to make you stronger, not hurt you.

Second important point – have someone who knows what they are doing coach you through all these movements and periodically check back in with them, so they can see how your form has progressed.

I recommend two main lifts – the shoulder press and the bench press. You could do one of these lifts, or both of these lifts. If you’ve got 25 minutes to spare once a week in the gym, do one of them. If you’ve got 25 minutes to spare twice a week in the gym, do both of them.   If you do have the time to do both of them, you should, never the less, only start with one of them for the first few weeks. These lifts should be done before any conditioning work (like a CrossFit workout or a martial arts class).

The basic protocol for both main lifts is to once a week do five sets of five reps. Your first set should be the lightest set, and each subsequent set should be heavier than the last. There is zero rush. Make your first week easy. Go light. Add small weights each time. The last set shouldn’t be hard. Always take a two to three minute break between sets.

I also recommend four auxiliary lifts. These are, as the name suggests, optional. If you find yourself with 15 minutes in the gym once a week, do one. If you have more time, do more of them – ideally you’d do these movements all on different days so that you aren’t overtaxing your shoulders. These lifts should be, ideally, the last thing you do in the gym – after your skill work, after your main lifts, after any martial arts practice.

The auxiliary movements are: the cuban press, the bottom up Kb press, the strict pull-up, and the bent over row. If you are just starting or only have time for one lift, talk to a coach about your particular shoulder issues and see which one (or maybe they pick an entirely different movement) they think is best for you to start with. Gradually add in the other movements if you have the time and if everything feels good.

The basic protocol for the lifts is four sets of five/five (meaning five on each side of the body). For the pull-ups, do four sets of at least five reps (use a band or do negatives if you can’t do at least five strict pull-ups in a row). Take a two to three minute break between sets.

Write your numbers down so that you know what weights to do the next week. Be consistent and do the lifts every week. It is better to do fewer lifts and be more consistent than to spread yourself too thin and be inconsistent. In addition to writing your numbers down, try and write yourself a note about each lift – how did the movement feel? What questions do you have about the movement?

There may be some initial discomfort as your body adapts to the movements but if you take things slow, it should be pretty minimal. If you’ve never done these movements consistently, expect awesome things to happen – and definitely ask lots of questions.

Escaping Mount

June 11th, 2018

I got to teach two classes for MDP camp this year – one about how to escape bottom mount position and one about how to use knee ride. Both classes were about applying groundwork to a self defense situation. The text that follows was the paper handout I gave to all the students who attended the mount escape class.


In this class, we will be working on confronting the problem of what to do if we end up on the ground in a self defense scenario. Specifically, we will be concentrating on escaping from the bottom mount position.

For clarity, let’s first define what bottom mount position is. Bottom mount is when we are flat on our backs and our partner is on top of us, with their knees outside of our hips. Sometimes, our partner might have their chest on us, mashing their body weight into us, sometimes they might be sitting upright delivering punches and elbows – both of these things are mount. There are, of course, tons of other terrible positions we might end up in but for this class, we will be concentrating only on bottom mount.

For further clarity, we will talk about why bottom mount position is a bad position and why it is a priority to change the position as opposed to strike or defend against strikes (we may still strike and defend but changing the position is the big concern.) Bottom mount is a terrible position for three main reasons: gravity is not on our side, we are constrained severely in our capacity to move, and our partner has the reach to hit us effectively in the head whereas we can not reach to hit our partner’s head. If we try to solve the problem striking at our partner, they are liable to strike at us and they have better targets, gravity, and their hips. If we prioritize defending against our partner’s strikes, then our situation will, at best, not deteriorate. Therefore, if we want to confront the problem of being in bottom mount, we must improve our position.

For ease of communication, we will be breaking the learning up into a three part steps. Those three steps are: technique, drilling, and play. The technique step will involve learning the pieces that make up the move – there should be no competition or fighting during this step. The drilling step involves some specific defense from our partner – they do a specific thing so that we can use the technique and see both the when and where of one possible application. The last step, play is where we try to apply the technique against an actively resisting partner – we may find that we have to change the technique radically or even use a different technique based on how our partner attacks.

To help build competency, we will be focusing on only two techniques so that (hopefully) in an hour long class, everyone can feel like they’ve had all their questions answered and they (at least) can do the techniques against a non-resisting partner. Reasonable competency (which we will define here as the ability to escape from bottom mount against a fully resisting, untrained person who weighs up to 10% more than you) groundwork typically takes between 6 months and a year of twice a week training.

The first technique we will learn will probably be familiar to many in the MDP community – the bridge and roll. We will break the bridge and roll down into 5 steps: bring your feet to your hips, block the foot, block the hand, bridge, and roll. Bringing the feet up to the hips gives you maximum leverage. Blocking the foot and hand will help prevent your partner reaching out a limb and stopping the roll. Bridging will life your partner up, making them easier to roll. Rolling will put you in top guard – thus improving your position.

The bridge and roll is a great technique but, like all techniques, doesn’t work if someone counters correctly, or if your timing is off, or if your partner is massively bigger (double your weight is a reasonable limit) than you. For all these reasons, when we first learn the technique, or any technique, it is helpful to do it against minimal resistance. Communicate clearly! If your partner resists, remind them that we are doing technique work and them resisting is going to hamper your learning.

The second technique to escape mount that we will learn is called the elbow escape. This more complex movement involves seven steps: keep your elbows down, roll 45 degrees over to one side, reach across their leg with your far foot, drag their leg over your close leg, pop your knee through, rotate 90 degrees over to your opposite side, take the underhook, and then use your free arm to frame. Keeping your elbows down stops the position from getting worse (high mount). Rolling over 45 degrees sets you up so you can reach their leg easier. Reaching across undermines their base. Dragging their leg over limits their movement options and sets you up to move to half guard. Rotating over to the other side makes it harder for them to smash you down. The underhook and the free arm frame both make you even harder to smash down and at this point, you are in bottom half guard, an improved position.

As with the first technique, communicate clearly with your partner while drilling. There should be no resistance while you are first learning. Your partner will need to still have some structure to their body so that you can move but they shouldn’t be fighting you. If one person improves, their new skills will help the whole community improve. As the cliche goes – iron sharpens iron.

Once we’ve got both techniques, we will work a drill concentrating on two specific scenarios – what to do if our partner’s knees are tight or loose? In the drill, our partner will feed us one of two options – are they squeezing us tight with their knees or are they relatively loose with their knees? If they are tight, we will do the bridge and roll. If they are loose, we will do the elbow escape.

For those who have seen both these techniques before and have a decent level of competency in groundwork, we will go over how to stand up from top guard (if you used the bridge and roll) and how to sweep from bottom half guard (if you used the elbow escape) – because our original goal, in this self defense situation, is to stand back up to our feet.

At that point, we will have done technique and rolls so we will finish the class with the last step – play. Partner’s will start in mount position. The partner on the bottom will try to escape. The partner on top will try to pin. The game will be over if either partner taps or if the bottom partner escapes to standing. The game can be modified in many ways – so communicate clearly with your partner. Consider competency, size difference, and injury when deciding how hard you and your partner should play. It is also completely fine to stick with the previous drill rather than escalate to play. For those who want the full self defense feel, they can add strikes as well.

Thanks for the opportunity to teach at camp! I love questions and feedback. Please send me your thoughts or just come ask me. If you want to get better at groundwork, check our BJJ schedule at Southwest Portland Martial Arts – all enrolled MDP students can attend those classes that concentrate on groundwork at no charge.

Camp Class Preview

June 2nd, 2018

This year, for MDP camp, I’ve been asked to teach a class about takedowns and groundwork for self defense. The two big questions behind the class will be: how and why might we, in a self defense situation, want to take an attacker to the ground? To answer these questions, the students and I have been playing with three techniques and a drill that are starting to coalesce into a decent class.

The three techniques involved in the drill are: a jab, an ankle pick, and the knee ride position. We settled on these three because they are fairly simple, the combine together well, and they allow the student to move from standing to a ground control position while still allowing for the option of standing back up if necessary.

The jab is the setup. As with all setups, if you can land it – bonus! The drill, however, assumes that your partner is going to parry and step away from your strike. This defensive action should give you the opportunity to step in and move on to the second technique – the ankle pick.

The ankle pick is a good fit for this drill because it allows you to take your partner down, and keep control of them by holding on to the shoe, pant leg, or foot without having to follow them all the way to the ground, ending up in side control or mount. While those positions are powerful and functional, we wanted to pick a control that allowed for easier disengagement, so we opted for knee ride.

Knee ride is probably going to be the technique that confuses students the most. It can be difficult figuring out which knee goes where, how to distribute your weight, and how not to injure your partner. We think the effort is worth it, because knee ride can provide a platform from which to strike, remain mobile, and disengage if necessary.

The jab to ankle pick to knee ride drill will be the first section of the class. It provides one answer to the “how” question that I opened this post up with – how do we take someone down? Well, we could fake a jab, move to an ankle pick, and then slide into knee ride. We could, of course, do many other different things to accomplish this same goal and for those students who feel comfortable, we will play a bit and explore some of those options. We will also allow folks who want to play further, the opportunity to sparring to see what happens when resistance gets added.

The “why” question, if you recall, was – why would we take someone down in a self defense situation? This is not a simple question to answer but one line of thought is: given that people can generate the most power when they are standing and can freely utilize their hips, if you can put them on the ground and control them then they are much less able to deliver a strong punch. Put another way, even a completely untrained person can hit hard if they are standing up but if they are flat on their back with you on top of them, not so much.

Hope to see you all at camp! You can still sign up here.


Summer Martial Arts Special!

May 25th, 2018

Have you been hiding in the shadows, waiting to sign up for martial arts classes? Come out into the light and train for all of July and August for only $30! Normally, two months of training would cost you $180 but this brilliant special offer gets you access to all our adult martial arts classes at a $150 discount.

Sign up by clicking the button below. This offer is good for adult martial arts classes (all of them! Boxing, Jiu-jitsu, Systema, Arnis, Mo Duk Pai). This offer is not good for kid’s classes or CrossFit classes.

There are no contracts to sign – just click the button, get out of the shadows, and get in the door!

Holiday Punch Card
Enter your email below: