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Is there any evidence to suggest that practising techniques on the left and right side of the body produces more adept martial artists?

By "adept", I mean the learned ability to proficiently and consistently nullify one or more trained or untrained aggressors displaying genuine intent to do harm.

And by "nullify", I mean to prevent an attack from causing bodily injury to yourself, your friends, or your family by restraint, counterattack, or evasion.

I have heard instructors say to:

  1. Train your dominant side more. It is better to get good on your dominant side before practising on your non-dominant side. ("That's why guitarists pick a side and stick with it.")
  2. Train both sides equally. It is important to practise both sides from the very beginning. ("Because you don't want to train a technique on the right side for five years only to get jumped by a left-handed attacker.")
  3. Train your non-dominant side more. Because it will require more work to get it to the standard of your dominant side, because "the best martial artists just react -- they don't favour one side" and because it is best to "train your weaknesses until you do not have any".

But I've seen little evidence to support each argument; they are merely expressions of opinion. Hence, I am specifically interested in:

  • Scientific study that shows that practising on one side only or both sides speeds development and / or produces a higher calibre martial artist after sustained practise. This study can reference other, non-martial fields if necessary.
  • Quotes supporting either case (pro both side training or against it) from established martial artists, including their rationale if available. (e.g. "Bruce Lee did it this way... because...")
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Not really an answer, but I believe Kendo trains one side exclusively. –  William Mioch Feb 1 '12 at 9:05
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Strategy is not a search for truth. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Feb 2 '12 at 16:23
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@WilliamMioch: There are no Japanese sword styles that teach left handed sword work as far as I know. I would be interested if anyone knew of one. –  Sardathrion Feb 10 '12 at 9:53
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Japanese sword training is taught on one side due in part that it is mounted on one side (i.e. you draw it from the same side). The other part of the reason is that it is a two handed weapon. There is little advantage to switching which hand is dominant. Single handed weapons, particularly if they are held in both hands, are taught with the expectation that you will develop both hands. –  Berin Loritsch Feb 20 '12 at 20:14
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"That's why guitarists pick a side and stick with it." But of course, guitarists face no risk of being attacked by a off-handed guitar... –  dmckee Mar 17 '13 at 20:24
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17 Answers 17

Traditionally, in times of war you teach the right hand. In times of peace, you teach both hands. I train in a Chinese school, and Chinese schools typically favor ambidextrous training ... if you have the time.

In my case, I find myself freely using either hand in simple, day-to-day life tasks. This happens without thinking. I find that movements that show up during daily life tends to come out during fight-or-flight. Most of the buddies I play with can also freely use either hand while sparring, even though they come from other arts. You need both sides in order to play past a certain level.

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Define "adept."

You aren't going to find much in the way of scientific studies that are specific to martial arts in this regard. There are too many variables, and we encounter many of the same problems that the fitness community does.

To add a data point, however: With my group's Hapkido, we're taught to use both because it is a self defense martial art and both you and your opponent have "two arms and two legs" and in a real world circumstance one or more limb may be injured or tied up (e.g., held by your attacker, holding your beer, whatever). You may also be injured on one side in class, so rather than starting from nothing on the side or not training you are already prepared to continue training the technique and seeing what it looks like from the other side.

This comes in particularly handy later, because a great deal of our later training involves push-pull motions where both hands are active. If you are starting from nothing or have neglected your offhand side, it shows when you are then trying to use it in a combined technique.

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Thanks, David. I've revised my question to offer a definition of an "adept" martial artist. I'm interested in non-martial studies into training and "handedness" as well. Thanks for the Hapkido data point too; I've heard the expression about "two arms and two legs", but feel the "one excellent arm is better than two average ones" argument is equally compelling, hence me probing for scientific studies that demonstrate how one or other method of study shapes development in students over time. –  Nick Feb 1 '12 at 10:01
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You should practice techniques on both sides. That being said, most of the time you're going to use your dominant side, so you should practice that the most, but more often than you expect, the opportunity is going to come up where a non-dominant side technique will allow you a decisive score or perhaps even a victory, so never discount the possibility.

Also, life is not "handed" and threats or attacks could come against you from any side at any time. Being experienced at handling your non-dominant side could make the difference between being a victor or a victim.

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To add to this, think of it in terms of having a few primary weapons and lots of options to fall back on. Your dominant side is going to be your weapon of choice - when you're in control of the situation, that's what you'll be using for maximum effectiveness. If you're not in control of the situation, however, training both sides effectively doubles your options. It will also help to balance your strength and flexibility, which will improve your overall ability and help to prevent injury. –  Rophuine Feb 1 '12 at 0:06
    
Nice perspective. I like that way of explaining it. –  Simon Peter Chappell Feb 1 '12 at 0:09
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To add one to the list of excuses: "If you can do it on your right side, you can do it on your left". This is, of course, completely false.

The most simple analysis of this is playing catch, which most will acknowledge as a game of gross motor skill. Have someone lob a dozen balls to you, attempting to catch with your dominant hand; then have them repeat and attempt to catch with your off hand. There will, in the case of most of us, be a significant difference.

The reason for this is two-fold: the relative inactivity of our off-hand, which causes a slower muscle twitch response to signals; and also the lack of efficient neural pathways to relate to the action.

If we ignore one side, we do not create efficient transport across receptors. That is, when we try to do an activity, whether of fine or gross motor control, with an unused part of our body, it can be quite difficult because we simply do not know how to access that part of our body. Flex, for a moment, your abdominal muscles... This should be relatively easy since you do it consciously each time you move to stand up from the couch. Now attempt to twitch your oblique muscles without, for instance, moving another muscle. The less used muscle has a delay in its use as your body attempts to send a signal to it. It's only through forcing that action repeatedly that we develop a pathway (a shortcut, if you will) to find it.

In addition to this basic example, it may help to understand how it works by visiting http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/life/human-biology/nerve2.htm

Edit: In an effort to better address your concerns posted on meta, I would like to better post to your specific interests in this question:

  1. Scientific study:

  2. Quotes: I have none. I've heard them said time and time again, but I have none that I can reference. I believe this is with good reason: Generally in training, you're working from a prescribed set of movements. That is, your curriculum is based on a set of discrete techniques (in Japanese arts, these are waza). The waza is how the technique is taught. You apply first the happo (The eight directions – ahead, behind, left, and right, then each point between), then the apply the sanpo (three elevations - high, middle, and low). Then you apply them mirrored (I recall seeing this sometimes referenced as kage). It's not simply that the techniques are not there, but they are traditionally taught right-handed (it is, after all, a right-handed world). This is based on my own observation and training in the Bujinkan. Not really what you're looking for, but here's something that I'm hoping will suffice: Southpaw Swordsmen

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Re: The catch thing - you said yourself that people have issues catching with their off hand because they don't usually catch with their off hand. Train both sides and you can use both sides. It may take a while to train the off side, but it can be done. Good examples of this are bellydancers (they can flex their obliques without moving over muscles, not to mention isolating the three sections of front abdominal muscles, which is really hard to do), and jugglers (can catch with either hand). –  Shauna Jun 25 '12 at 13:51
    
@Shauna +1 for belly dancing and "train both sides to use both sides". It's a bit like anything: If you want to do a task better, do that task; I don't subscribe to the idea that, "If I need to carry a 180 lbs. man, I should do bench presses." Instead, carry dead weight in similar fashion. –  stslavik Jun 27 '12 at 15:41
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Jiu-Jitsu fighter here. Bear in mind that the technique in question can play into this.

For example, when escaping from a position where your opponent has a clear upper hand (such as the bottom of the mount), you're less likely to control which side you escape on; you have to look for openings and take what you can. If you're in a dominant position and trying to attack (such as the top of the mount), you have more options, and can choose which side you're best at. So it's useful to consider the use case for the technique before you train it.

Personally, I tend to practice one side only, but on escapes I try to use the weaker side at least a little. I usually get practice on both sides during live rolling anyway.

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This is not scientific, nor a quote from a famous martial artist, but I've noticed during sparring that my seniors pick up very quickly on what is my dominant side and use it effectively to their own advantage.

I would expect the same thing to happen in a prolonged real-life fight with an experienced opponent. Alternatively, in an emergency situation, you want to be able to react in the most appropriate way possible which again may not be with your dominant side.

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From a street fighter. I'm right-handed, 6'1, and 160 lbs. Like the others I have no scientific facts to support my claims other than experience. In real fights, you are typically (if not the aggressor) in the position of defense; if you survive you win. If you are on the offense, total submission is required to call it victory.

It has been my experience that in those situations both hands should be trained; though I hesitate to use that word, since to train unless strict attention is paid to actual scenarios, i.e. sparring, wrestling, and throws done with the view of true combat, they are robotic programs that will crash upon being struck.

No one lets you punch them out or throw them around or pummel them without a fight. When you practice keep this in view. Mix up your partners; short, tall, fat, skinny, agile, clumsy. I can't tell you the number of times I've gotten hit by the clumsy guy with no technique rather than the well trained "black belt," who attacks by rote, with a form or kata, or some predetermined move.

That stuff will get you in real trouble if your in an actual life or death situation. Mostly I use south paw though right-handed. This is for the reach (for throws and take downs) but I mix it up and if I'm fighting a lefty I usually adopt the regular stance (left foot forward) to mirror my opponent. This takes some training though as others have mentioned, the main thing is not to be caught in an unfamiliar or compromising position.

The mistakes I typically encounter are:

  1. Feints that are not followed up by attacks.
    Don't waste time on stuff that does not affect your opponent. This also can be a disadvantage since to an experienced fighter the faint can show you a lot about your opponents style and lines of attack so be wary of using it.

  2. Trying to land a favorite punch.
    Watch the Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield fight for details. So many times I've been in a fight with someone right-handed, 6 foot plus, over 200+ lbs. with loads of upper body strength with a preference for the right cross or right hook, who they'll try and turn every encounter into an opportunity to throw that favored punch. That's an almost guaranteed way to get your hat handed to you. Same goes for combos if you can't throw your right hook without first setting up with the left jab or something else, then you'd better hire a bodyguard. There is no one punch/one kick fits all solution. The best fighters, the ones you really don't want to fight in a dark alley are guys who have no formal training and therefore; they have no hang-ups nor preconceived ideas.

    They get up when you knock them down, and are most often a greater threat than men skilled in one particular set of routines. I'm not knocking any particular martial art. I've sparred with most of them who practiced tai chi, kung fu, krav maga, akido, sebukan to name a few. The best of them, when sparring, almost threw their formal training out the window and hardly a "traditional" punch or kick was thrown.

  3. Always striking.
    You've seen that guy that gets red in the face lowers his head and charges, or that guy who throws wild haymakers without aim or intent. This is an easy victory to the man who has any street fighting under his belt or judo for that matter. In the first situation, let him come and his momentum will do the rest. You can apply total stoppage to that momentum, as in a knee to the lowered face, or let the momentum continue until they are committed and then side step and throw or take down, etc. If you are not good at your ground game, don't take guys to the ground. Just throw them down and get ready again. It wears down their ego as well as there body.

My final word of caution is don't get cocky. There is no defense against a well timed and properly aimed attack. Be patient but never hesitate. Try to react without thinking but out of instinct. By all means give ground; it is the fool who can't give a yard to take a mile. Unless your back is to the wall, moving backward is just another direction. Though like the feint simply retreating is not going to win anything. I find that if I retreat for the first couple encounters I can get a feel for their rhythm and disrupt it. It's like in music even the rests are counted, and when played properly every note in the song has meaning.

Every move your opponent makes reveals more about him. Learning to recognize and counter those movements is the key. For me in my training since my muscles are not for show but for work, I don't go in for fancy or elaborate workout routines. I run every day I can. I chop wood for practicing my aim, especially making kindling. I spar with as many different types of guys as I can. I eat what I call the homeric diet, cut out the bread from your burger and you're close. Avoid being stuck with only one option, this goes back to your question. There are countless situations that could arise wherein your strong hand is out of the picture. What then? I don't care how good you are if your only good with your right hand. You will betray yourself in real combat. Your stance and your moves will indicate to someone like me your favorite hand, and I will break it should the opportunity arise. What then? As a street fighter the only rule I honor is "there is no such thing as a fair fight."

If you have an advantage take it. If your opponent has a weakness, exploit it. If you only have one option, i.e. your favorite hand, what happens when I break it? You may discover hidden reserves of strength and talent latent in your hitherto unused limb but what do you think the chances are of that happening? Better to train both hands so you'll have something to fall back on. All of which is to say better to have no training than to be a slave to your training. The more you fight or lacking that, spar, the less you do and the more you be? You react less and respond more, you intuit the next move from the one that preceded it. you don't waste time or energy. and formalities disappear.

I am lucky that I have a twin brother who is left handed where as I am right, so I get a lot of experience fighting lefties. I am good at throws but don't really like the ground too much, where as my brother can fight on the ground like nobody that else I've seen, but he doesn't like the long game. Both of us train our weak arms as much as we train any other part, which is to say that I don't train, I practice, I fight and spar. For out and out beginners I suppose that training in the mirror will improve execution, but against what? When you kick the air it doesn't drop down and smack you in the balls or trip you. How can you be sure that that timing and force were correct?

Still I can count the times that I knocked I guy out with my favored hand on my hands, but I couldn't tell you the number of times my left hand and being proficient with it saved my ass.

So yeah train both hands bot not against wood or the air but against a live and reacting opponent. I recommend Bruce Lee's works for further reading especially if you are not at the beginners stage, and fencing and boxing for foot work.

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Very good question. Actually, the situation in Aikido for example is very schizofrenic. The master insisted on that we must train both sides, especially the weaker one - for falls, all the techniques, jo, etc... Which I consider very good.

But when it came to bokken, only right hand had to be dominant! Just because it was a tradition of how to use it. Sorry, left-handed people. I think japanese martial arts have clear priorities: 1) tradition, 2) reason & logic. :-)

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This is partly a difference in large weapon training versus hand-to-hand or small weapon training. With large weapons you tend to focus heavily on one side, since switching is cumbersome. The angles also change more dramatically when the opponent switches hands, so you tend to focus on one direction. Meanwhile, with a small weapon or with hand-to-hand things can be a little more fluid and the angles don't change quite as dramatically. –  David H. Clements Feb 1 '12 at 19:52
    
@DavidH.Clements, this is not valid in aikido because jo is much longer than bokken (I think 130-140cm) and you train both sides equaly. So in aikido it really doesn't make much sense, it's probably only a tradition. –  Tomas Feb 1 '12 at 20:10
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The jo has traditionally been meant to be a (very effective) defense against the japanese sword. Many of the techniques for defense against a sword use the fact that the sword is held in one particular way. Allowing for another bokken grip may force the techniques to change. The flexibility of the jo would allow for this, of course, and the ease of grip switch is great defense against a sword. Oh, and of course, the other traditional reason - since people had the scabbard on the left side, they drew on the right side. Much tradition here indeed. –  Trevoke Feb 2 '12 at 15:04
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Like David H. Clements says in his answer, scientific studies on effectiveness are probably rare, but there is evidence that athletes in general that train a certain movement exclusively on one side (e.g. tennis players or pole vaulters) have a high risk of developing injuries caused by an inbalance in muscle strength. When one side of the body becomes stronger, more strain is being placed on the other side which may lead to lower back or pelvis related problems. Several books have been written on this topic.

However, I'm not sure if this translates to martial arts. Doing a couple of exercises exclusively on one side probably won't lead to a muscle inbalance, but what if you do all exercises on one side only?

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I don't have any evidence I can give you in support either way, but just wanted to contribute what I've learned and what I've been taught, so take it with a grain of salt.

In fight or flight, life safety situations, it will be your conditioning and natural reactions that take over, your muscle memory. This will instinctively feature what your body considers the dominate side. Building that conditioning and muscle memory in your dominate side will afford better instinctive reactions featuring it.

But your training should never exclusively focus on one side, you should train with your less dominate side at least 1/4 to 1/3 of the time. Your strengthening your other muscles, conditioning them and building new neural pathways. Take for example the left handed people that were taught to use their right hand to write with.

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My #1 strategy when I was sparring with people with far better striking ability than me was to take a southpaw stance, even though I'm right handed. The stance confused them, so they ended up just doing single punches, which was a lot easier for me to deal with than combinations.

If you only train one side, it means your training partners all stand with that side, and when you fight someone with a different stance, you'll have no experience in dealing with it. Now technically this means it's not that you need to train both sides, but you need a decent split of training partners who use each side themselves, but that's not likely to happen because left-handed people make up only a small percentage of the population. Realistically, you're only going to have training partners who train both sides if you train both sides as well.

I couldn't say whether 2 or 3 is the best option, just that 1 is the worst option. Fighting isn't playing guitar, if you injure your hand, you'll just not be playing guitar, but in a fight you might not have a choice. In terms of interpreting 3 in different ways, I wouldn't want to train only to the point of keeping my dominant side in line with my supporting side. That might end up being an 80/20 split, which is a pretty significant time expenditure to get to only 20% of my dominant side's potential on both sides. A 60/40 split though could still make sense, as you're working to get both sides as good as you can without excessively holding back your dominant side.

Another thing I've noticed is that due to muscle imbalances I naturally go to a different stance for right or left side forward, and the different stances leave me better suited to different techniques (spinning back fist is a decent option for me in orthodox, but not in southpaw). Obviously that's something I'm working to correct, I'd rather be able to choose whichever technique is best for the situation and the stance I'm in, but it is something to consider as well when you're switching stances - are they perfectly symmetrical or are there differences other than which side you have forward?

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I practiced osotogari on the right side (my dominant) for years. I practiced the form, I drilled, I went for it in sparring. While it got smoother, and over time I was able to catch novice players with it, I never got the kind of return on investment that I got from practicing other techniques.

When I started prioritizing left-side osotogari in my drilling, forms practice, and randori, I discovered that for osotogari, my left side is dominant. I was hammering people over and over. My footwork was snappier. I was finding openings I didn't see before, and I was able to exploit the ones I saw in a way that my right side never could.

So personally, I practice both sides on every technique until it starts to click. If after a time I find that I'm dramatically better at it on one particular side, then I focus my drilling on my best side. The accomplished grappler Marcelo Garcia describes a similar approach in prioritizing his own training.

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I'd like to think that I fall in the category 'established martial artists' as a former two-time world heavyweight champion Tae Kwon Do.

As I started practicing TKD I found it easy to pick up on techniques with my dominant side and it was very tempting to practice only that side or at least favor it in training. But after a few small successes in sparring I found that not only I could adapt quickly to my opponents, because of their limited versatility - but they could as well.

Moreover I started to develop a trait, which I think helped me to develop as a martial artist as well as a person, and that is to continuously look for your weaknesses, accept them (!) and improve upon them. Because of that I used to start each drill with my weaker side, until years later it would really depend on the technique which leg/hand would really be dominant.

Other examples of this trait are: always look for the toughest opponent to train/spar with, visit other gyms with different sports (i.e. go outside your comfort zone) and expose yourself to forces greater than your own (maybe this is why Kyokushinkai will stand under a frosty waterfall or I choose to take body shots from sparring partners that outweigh me by 40-50 lbs).

Most of the top fighters I've been fighting over the years had great technique on both legs at least and whilst training with other top level fighters (on the squad for example) we used to make fun of eachother's 'chocolate leg' as an incentive for them to train it.

So my advice would be - challenge yourself and make than challenge so great that other people's challenges will pale in comparison. The hardest part then becomes training - not the fight....

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I am going to give a slightly different answer than the others.

Most of the empty-handed techniques in my kung fu style can be practiced both sides. Most of the weapon-based techniques should be practiced on one side only, but the forms and techniques always include some parts on both sides (e.g., your fan is always in your right hand but your right foot is sometimes in front, sometimes in the back, etc.). According to my sifu, it just isn't worth it to develop your other side with a weapon (most people will never achieve the dexterity of their strong side). That excludes double weapons (double swords, double daggers) or double-sided weapons (our staff has a bigger side, but I believe the traditional karate staff has the same diameter on both ends).

If you practice martial arts to condition your body, practicing on both sides is important to prevent injuries. If you practice martial arts to defend your life (that is, you live 100 years ago), practicing both sides is a trade-off that may not always be worth it. If you have practiced the same technique on the right side a thousand times and your opponent has practiced the same technique 500 times on both sides, you'll have the upper hand if you manage to perform the technique on your good side. Moreover, most styles have techniques that start on various sides and stances so you should always be able to find a technique that will suit your particular situation, even if you practiced only one side of each technique.

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I try to train my left side only, because it's going to give me an edge if I ever need to.

If you're right handed and you don't train your left side because you think training the right side is enough, try brushing your teeth with your left hand.

Now, I don't train for self defense. Hadn't needed to defend myself without a weapon* for forty years, don't expect to need to in the next forty years. I train for the sake of training, and for the occasional Randori. And for those situations I think it's essential to train your weak side.

(last weapons used: M203, HAWK anti aircraft missiles platoon :))

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I'm afraid I can't give either of your desired answers (scientific study or statement from an eminent authority); I think that various answers above have covered those bases.

I know that as I learn Taiji, I have found that when I practice on my non-dominant side it reveals weaknesses in the technique on my dominant side. Transitions that are easy and natural on my dominant side require thought and effort on my non-dominant side. That in turn forces me to think about the underlying meaning of the stance and the transition between stances.

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You should practice both sides to develop neural connections faster.

There is one notable exception, specifically: things that target the meridians as understood in Chinese Medicine. The body is MOSTLY symmetrical (there are a few exceptions) with respect to these meridians, so working one side is OK, but working both sides would disrupt the energy symmetrically in the body, and that could lead to Bad Things(tm). Some examples - tiredness, vomiting, dizziness, fevers.. It depends on what is worked.

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protected by David H. Clements Jun 25 '12 at 14:52

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