14

This question admittedly contains a generalisation. There may well be traditional martial arts (especially particular schools/branches) that do seek to evolve and improve.

However, it seems fair to argue that if a martial art sincerely aims to develop and provide an effective range of fighting skills, then it would make sense for that martial art to incorporate aspects of other martial arts that contribute to or improve upon the style's existing body of knowledge.

Another way of looking at it is to ask why more traditional forms have not over time gradually moved more towards a contemporary multidisciplinary approach, such as those of MMA/Krav Maga. Even a very pragmatic style such as Goju-Ryu could benefit from incorporating the best elements of other styles, and many of the weapons elements of many traditions seem particularly redundant now.

Granted, there may be aspects of martial arts which are distinct from combat application and which are deemed important, such as tradition, identity and sport, but these would appear to be secondary to any serious martial art's aim of providing a effective skill set, especially as globalisation and information technology now facilitate awareness of alternate techniques so effectively.

Perhaps efficacy is simply not the primary driver any more. Perhaps business considerations come in to play. Perhaps this phenomenon is a result of the fact we now live in a much safer society; one in which martial arts are more important as a recreation than as a necessary survival tool. Perhaps pride is a factor.

Why are traditional martial arts apparently so reluctant to evolve?

EDIT: There have been some great responses to this question. It's been pointed out that my use of the word 'efficacy' is vague, because efficacy is so context-dependent. I agree. I was attempting to use 'efficacy' to describe 'real-fight' application; surely the original motivator behind the development of most early martial arts. There are clearly other motivators behind martial art design and practice and it is also clear that the original motivations give way to new ones as society changes and combat application fades relative to notions such as tradition, identity, sport, business and health. I look forward to more answers.

22
  • Can you give a couple of examples from Krav/MMA that you consider to be "contemporary" and that have not been originally sourced or adapted from a traditional style?
    – slugster
    Aug 31 at 13:00
  • 1
    @Slugster. It's not that the discreet techniques are contemporary, but that certain combinations of techniques results in contemporary styles, such as MMA and Krav Maga. (Some techniques are certainly more recent than others, but recency is irrelevant of course to efficacy). Aug 31 at 13:16
  • The hybrid approach is not uniquely modern. Styles that are today traditional were developed contemporaneously hybrid.
    – mattm
    Aug 31 at 14:42
  • 3
    To be honest I'm being picky about the examples you selected to represent contemporary/modern - they both have a curriculum based largely on bludgeoning, and they're both got a significantly different use case to traditional martial arts (MMA for the ring/octagon, Krav for special forces and/or unskilled/untrained people who need some skills). Arguably neither of those two brought anything new to the table, other than borrowing heavily from multiple different arts. This is a great discussion point BTW, might have to continue in a chat room at some point.
    – slugster
    Aug 31 at 23:20
  • 3
    Slightly tongue-in-cheek answer (and thus a comment, not an answer): "Why Are Traditional Martial Arts Apparently So Reluctant to Evolve?" – Because they wouldn't be "traditional" if they were evolving. Sep 1 at 17:29
29

I suspect that the primary answer lies between that they genuinely deemphasize pitched fighting, and that it's guided by rulesets.

Not every martial art is about fighting, or defending yourself

For most modern countries today, the odds of actually getting into a fight are pretty low. Even if you do get into a fight, it generally comes down to two people taking a couple of swings at each other, and doesn't result in serious injury. In terms of other forms of assault, often it's as dangerous to fight back as to yield. When the guy with a knife wants your wallet, it's overall cheaper to hand over the wallet than to risk getting cut even once where even if you're not badly injured, you're probably looking at losing more money in medical treatment than you would by handing over the wallet. And reacting to someone throwing a sloppy hook in a bar by aggressively attacking back is likely to lead to charges and/or more people joining in, maybe brandishing improvised weapons since you've now made yourself a threat.

Thus, many martial arts really aren't about fighting, but rather about culture, discipline, and general fitness. Heck, just teaching people how to fall probably saves more lives than teaching them how to throw a punch, because all of us are going to fall at some point, but few of us will ever be in a position where we're in a serious fight.

Rulesets / Strictures

Why hasn't MMA evolved to include use of weapons and guns? It is, after all, more efficient, so it puzzles me as to why they are so reluctant to evolve...

I know, kind of a silly way to state it, but martial arts generally involve rules. Sometimes, it's cultural (if a culture feels that feet are inherently dirty, there may be a bias against kicking because it introduces disrespectful behavior into a gentlemanly fight). Sometimes, it's practical (Capoeira deemphasizes closed-hand strikes because most people using it were laborers who made their living with their hands, so broken bones from hitting someone's skull wrong could take them out of work for some time). Sometimes, it's to protect both parties from injury so that careers aren't shortened (various forms of MMA introduce rules about kicking people on the ground, angles of elbows, whether elbows can be used, targeting joints, etc). And sometimes, it's an intentional stricture to make a given martial art unique (why don't they allow grappling in boxing? Or punching in Greco-Roman wrestling? And why are both sports so opposed to a good bite?).

Sometimes, yes, they're just resistant to change

Lastly, sometimes it simply is because people don't want to change. They've been doing it this way for tens or hundreds or thousands of years, and it was effective then, so they're going to keep doing it this way. Introducing new techniques might improve the style, but then again, it might water it down, or introduce new flaws in what is otherwise a unified style.

3
  • "(Capoeira deemphasizes closed-hand strikes because most people using it were laborers who made their living with their hands, so broken bones from hitting someone's skull wrong could take them out of work for some time" I thought it was because it was developed by slaves, and they had to work out a way to fight without looking like they were training fighting techniques.
    – nick012000
    Sep 2 at 13:02
  • @nick012000: :) Capoeira is half legends sure to it's quasi-legal status for much of its history. Sep 2 at 13:09
  • 2
    "it's overall cheaper to hand over the wallet than to risk getting cut even once where even if you're not badly injured, you're probably looking at losing more money in medical treatment than you would by handing over the wallet" -- the failure that is the US health system condensed into one single sentence written about a basically random topic. absolutely <3'ing it! and meanwhile in russia, people are throwing themselves in front of cars for the insurance money they might GET from having been injured. oh, it's 2021 already, by the way!
    – Sixtyfive
    Sep 2 at 14:12
10

I suspect there's a lot of instructors that are more concerned about the techniques of their art, rather than flooding their students with ever increasing amount of styles. This makes sense that they don't want to overwhelm their student as well as not wanting to water down their art with other techniques. Macaco Branco goes into that nicely, so I'll try not to duplicate their answer.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
-Bruce Lee

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/bruce_lee_413509

What Bruce Lee is saying here is that someone who knows many different techniques may not have as much skill in each of those techniques, so is more hesitant or has to think too hard about what skill they want to use. Whereas someone who has fewer techniques has what is called "muscle memory" where their reflexes take over to perform a response that's quicker and can be stronger than one done after conscious thought.

Training specific muscles in the legs, arms, etc. for different styles is also important. People in the gym might wonder why their biceps don't get larger when they do a bunch of pushups. Well, that's because the pushups are dealing with triceps, not the biceps. The same thing can happen with kicks, punches, throws, and everything else. A low roundhouse kick uses fewer ab, glute, and thigh muscles than a high kick. If you don't train the correct muscles enough, you won't get a strong, or even accurate, kick. So training 10,000 different kinds of kicks doesn't train any muscles specifically for any kick, but training in 1 kick 10,000 times gets those muscles stretched and toned correctly for that 1 kick. (You also need more than just muscle strength, but also tendon and ligament strength and flexibility, which also get trained as you train the muscles.)

Counter example

Yes, we see movies where Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or whomever switches styles during a fight to make it more entertaining, but that's generally not how fights work. Sure, a fighter might change their style to better match an opponent, such as focusing more on legs, arms, groundwork, or whatever, but they generally don't change up their style just to fool around.

Where that last bit changes is in MMA, literally Mixed Martial Arts, where a fighter is expected to know multiple martial arts so they can seamlessly use whatever techniques, holds, moves, kicks, etc. are necessary without sticking to a single style of fighting at any one time.

It's also been a fairly time honored tradition to be able to train in more than one martial arts master at a time. Some traditions may require approval of the masters/trainers involved, but it's fairly common. And that's also not adding new techniques to an existing martial art.

Bringing it back to Bruce Lee, he developed Jeet Kun Do to be flexible and accommodate multiple fighting styles and incorporate new styles as they are found useful. By the same token, it's not a traditional martial art, so doesn't really relate to your question.

Generally speaking

Most people choose a martial art for the traditional moves of the technique, not because they want to learn "all the new moves". Then again, if they wanted to do that, they'd probably join something like Jeet Kun Do, kickboxing, or even Tae Bo (sigh). But generally people like the flowery movements of Kung Fu (or specific movements of Tiger, Dragon, Mantis, Monkey, Drunken, etc.), or they want something a little more compact like Karate. Maybe they want something a little more airborne like Tae Kwon Do, or really airborne like Capoeira. Or they want something more practical like Krav Maga or more to throw people around like Judo.

So what I'm saying is that there's no really good reason to incorporate new moves into a traditional martial art when you can just "go down the street" and learn a new technique at a different school. People like the traditional constraints of the traditional arts, so why change them? And if you don't like traditional constraints, there's several non-traditional martial arts to choose from that'll get people what they want.

Some people attribute this next quote to Abe Lincoln, but it was actually said by a fifteenth-century monk and poet, John Lydgate.

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

https://www.praxity.com/insights/blogs/posts/2018/september/pleasing-all-the-people-all-the-time/

1
  • People--outside of movies and tournaments--don't fight in "styles*. They move, strike, grapple etc., but there's no time to think "Oh, this guy is a $THING, I have to counter with $STYLE". You try that you're at best beaten.
    – Petro
    Sep 2 at 15:42
5

This is a bit like asking whether a physicist wouldn't only be able to become a better scientist and understand more of the bigger picture if they would do chemistry, biology, geology, etc. as well. The truth is: even if possible, they wouldn't necessarily. And it certainly would take an insane amount of effort.

Why there is some truth to what you are saying

Many martial arts claim that they teach great fighting skills and can provide an answer to each threat. Yet, they either focus on only one or some aspects of fighting and omit the rest, or they do only train very specific skills: in some karate styles, you can get very good at kata, or in taekwondo, where you get very good at high kicks, or boxing, where you get very good at...well...boxing. Aikido trains a lot of feeling for forces and how to redirect them, but seldom how to do that against resisting opponents. All of them train how to get really good at some skills that are important for a well-rounded fighter, yet they, for themselves, are not producing well-rounded fighters.

Why do they do that?

There are, in my opinion, two cases: either the martial art is content in perfecting the skills they teach, or the practitioners are delusional/deceptive. There are people who really believe what they train is a great martial art training superior skills for fighting while they do train choreography or cooperation. Why should they think they should change anything? On the other hand, there are arts like judo who train throws and other stuff because that's what judo is about, after all, knowing full well that self-defense applications have to be trained separately. Does that make judo obsolete? No, it presents separate ends and allows people to train fighting skills without having to worry about bruised legs and broken noses. And they evolve the techniques and training methods that work best for throwing.

Why your premises are flawed

You seem to assume that you can just train "MMA" or "Krav Maga" and become a very good fighter. Or, at least, that there are always other arts which can contribute knowledge or methods which improve the martial artists at what they do. That is, truth be told, not the case. If I want to be the best in a particular fighting phase (striking, infight, clinch, ground), I learn from those who do that best. And look at related arts what they can contribute, maybe. But no coach will be the best coach for all of these aspects of weaponless fight. And that's not even taking in weapons, technical, psychological, and physical optimisation. The best MMA fighters have trained to top levels in traditional martial arts, particularly those who train their game full contact and do sparring. MMA is not a martial art. It is a marketing label used by schools to fill their courses, business considerations par excellence. Krav Maga is also not a martial art. It is a self-defense system that is made for military training and, if not watered down, trains a lot of stuff you get into jail for in most countries if used in civil self-defense situations. Also, they often invite and train with specialists for particular aspects of fighting.

Why hybrids are not evolution

Traditional martial arts do also cross-pollute with techniques and methods, eg. wrestling, judo, and bjj, insofar as they are similar. Hybrids, on the other hand, are always born out of an interest separate from the arts they take their techniques and training methods from. Most of them out of merchandise reasons: do your own brand, make your own money. Hapkido was born because Koreans wanted to have a Korean hybrid. German Ju Jutsu was born because they wanted a modern system for police forces. Krav Maga was born because Israelis wanted something similar (but from Israel) for their military and police forces. They did not evolve, they were conceived for a particular reason. And that reason is what they try to realise as well as possible. Therefore, they "evolve" in the same sense as traditional martial arts do: If there are people out there who do things inherent to what they do as well, but better, they will probably be open to it.

Summary

Martial arts can and do evolve in whatever they do, for better or worse. If they do not fall prey to self-deception, most martial art practitioners are well-aware that they do not train for every aspect of self-defense. That is simply not their goal. Even MMA fighters lack important tactical and psychological skills and will not be able to handle weapons, because that is simply not part of their training. Does that mean it only evolves if MMA adds this? Hardly. Similarly, martial arts do not gain anything inherently valuable by adding other stuff which does not contribute to their end.

5
  • Some good points. I suggested we "ask why more traditional forms have not over time gradually moved more towards a contemporary multidisciplinary approach, such as those of MMA/Krav Maga". There is nothing in my question which assumes MMA/Krav Maga train you become a complete fighter, or that they are necessarily superior, only that they represent examples where relatively recent (and effective) hybridisation is evident. My claim is that many styles seem static and could benefit from "aspects of other martial arts that contribute to or improve upon the style's existing body of knowledge" Sep 2 at 5:24
  • 1
    @Futilitarian But your examples are off. There is transfer of knowledge between styles where it makes sense, eg. from judo to bjj in throws and bjj to judo in groundwork. But MMA has nothing to offer which would improve karateka in karate sparring, judo in throws, or bjj in groundwork. They already are the best in what they do. Hybrids are always an outcome of third interests: In MMA it was originally about cross-style promotional fights and then became a ruleset for style-open fights, for Krav Maga it was maximally simple yet effective self-defense training. Ends lead to methods Sep 2 at 10:08
  • @Frutilitarian also added a section on hybrids and evolution. Sep 2 at 12:50
  • Thanks. There seems to be confusion here, and maybe its my fault. The question is concerned (amongst other things) with precisely the issue of why any style, including Karate, Judo or BJJ, would limit its techniques merely to maintain a tradition, including a sparring tradition. Why not change/expand the notion of karate/Judo/BJJ? I'm in no way denying there are a range of reasonable answers to this question. I asked it because these answers are interesting and will likely provide insight into how the role of martial arts in society has changed and diversified. Sep 2 at 13:19
  • Also... a chat was started on this question if you want to spar about it a bit more : ) Enter the ring here. Sep 2 at 13:31
3

In addition to the great answers given, I want to provide another angle:

It's About Philosophy!

Philosophy behind the martial arts include ideas about how fighting "works" and what the main goals of "fighting" are. If a move runs counter to the founding philosophy, it does not get incorporated.

"Ignore basic principles of our approach when evaluating the effectiveness of techniques" is a good way to not have a martial art. "Kill the enemy ASAP" (a.k.a. "effectiveness") may also not be part of the core philosophy.

Example: HEMA

This is an easy one to explain. Historic European Martial Arts, or HEMA. A technique has to be both "Historic" and "European" to qualify for consideration. Therefore, new techniques may only arise in HEMA if it is a more "historic," "European" technique.

There has been a lot of growth over the past 30 years or so concerning 'techniques', so that old and new versions of a 'technique' are fundamentally different. (Also, within HEMA itself there are different philosophies! Perhaps Italian vs German Longsword is the most well known.)

Example: Tai Chi

Moving away to an "open hand" martial art: Tai Chi. It has a rich background of philosophy which I am totally not prepared to summarize here, but they clearly have things they will and will not do as it runs counter to its core philosophy.

Per @Dale, some modern practitioners are willing to adopt techniques as long as done "with proper body structure and movement." Maybe another martial art is willing to do something that is improper by this Tai Chi standard, and it is 'more effective' (however you measure that- ends a fight more quickly? Induces "flow" more quickly?).

In any case, the underlying philosophy within a martial art leads them to exclude new techniques and tools without regard to their effectiveness.

5
  • Your comment on tai chi - it depends on your teacher. I trained with a teacher (directly taught by the Chen lineage) who said tai chi was, at it's very core, about proper body structure and movement. You can do any technique from any martial art as "tai chi" if you do it with the proper principles - nothing was out of bounds due to philosophical reasons. "Modern" "tai chi" probably is a lot more watered-down and harmonious.
    – Dale
    Sep 1 at 20:57
  • @Dale I would be so bold as to say, then, that no new techniques without "proper body structure and movement" would be adopted even if it was "more effective". I don't use quotes here to be snarky, just to emphasize that applying philosophy is a subjective thing and everyone does it differently. Your mileage may vary!
    – PipperChip
    Sep 1 at 21:40
  • 2
    Well, also thinking more about it, if the original spirit of OP's question is a traditional art adopting new ideas, then Tai chi certainly does NOT. Individual teachers may embrace the reality of other techniques but the "core curriculum" of Tai chi hasn't changed to my limited knowledge. Also to your point, while we did discuss using Tai chi ideas in ground fighting, the emphasis was on avoiding going to the ground - perhaps because if you fell down on an ancient battlefield you were toast? - whereas many martial arts purposely go to the ground to end the fight. I concede your point!
    – Dale
    Sep 1 at 22:17
  • @Dale This isn't here or there, but the the reluctance to go to ground is interesting! It appears in HEMA, too! In armed combat this makes sense- you cannot defend yourself there. But open-hand combat? The more you know!
    – PipperChip
    Sep 2 at 12:39
  • well, the system involved spear, straight sword (jian), falchion (dao), staves of different lengths, and maybe more I don't know about, in addition to empty-hand combat. It's possible the weapon and non-weapon philosophy is the same. It was noteworthy to me because other arts I've practiced have all taught breakfalls day one, and in Chen taiji we never practiced breakfalls of any type, but rather solidity at all times. I never trained long enough to spar, or even get taken down in a technique application, so I never needed to fall, at least in training.
    – Dale
    Sep 3 at 6:57
2

It's the hardest thing to do. My teacher was celebrated, but said their technique was the product of 3 generations. That chain seems to be a rare thing, because I don't think anyone in my generation will exceed that generation just prior, BUT, I do think we have the knowledge, expertise, and experience as a community to maintain the arts for another generation and hopefully, train students who will exceed us.

The generation that inspired the prominence of the arts that I now teach was a product of great masters coming together to exchange information, such as Yang, Fu and Sun and many others. But it takes a lifetime of dedication and research (train, think, test, repeat ad infinitum) to feel confident about making changes to what worked in previous generations.

My teacher closed all the openings in the Tai Chi sword form, but most still do it the old way—they didn't pay close enough attention.

But MMA has forced me to adapt how I do core advanced forms. Among all of those who trained at my school, in my generation, only a handful can do the advanced leg work (sweeps and grappling). I have now re-emphasized those techniques, so that people I teach will be expected to be able to do them.

Those that can do the real thing become even more reticent about changing what they were taught. But it doesn't mean we can't continue to research, and adapt, and even advance the arts, where possible.

Jackie Chan has correctly called the old style of training "child abuse", and we can't do that anymore, and we're still adjusting. That generation has recognized that a single student will not be able to transmit the complete art, so masters have been simplifying, or, as in the old day, having enough lifetime students that each can master at least one aspect.

I'm happy if I can at least preserve the advances of my own teacher in the few domains I've focused on, because they are sufficient for my needs in the current generation, in regard to the total spectrum of contemporary arts.

These arts have been around for a long time, and it's ultimately an evolutionary process. Bruce Lee could even be viewed as the guy who got the ball rolling on mixed martial arts.

We're all one big family in the arts, regardless of school or style or origin. We all learn from each other.

1
  • 4
    To explicate a point—you don't produce Jackie Chan & the seven little fortunes, or Jet Li & Donnie Yen by letting the kids have a childhood. Jackie essentially sold to an opera school and beaten—Jet and Donnie only got whacked. Bruce Lee, I don't know his pre Ip history, but whoever his first teachers were were probably not gentle. And those are only the most famous practitioners—all masters from their and previous generations experienced the same, which is why people wanted to study with them—"whole life, one thing." This new era is something the Chinese arts are still grappling with.
    – DukeZhou
    Sep 4 at 2:51
1

Looking at this from a logical perspective, rather than a martial arts perspective: they cannot. If someone wants to blend (picking things out of thin air that don't necessarily make sense) karate and judo to make a more effective fighting style, that style will no longer be karate, or judo. The people who don't join his or her dojo to learn judate will continue practicing karate or judo. So there will be blended "modern" martial arts, but there will also be other people continuing to practice the traditional ones. For what you suggest to happen, all the (millions of?) people around the world practicing karate, as part of many different organizations as well as independent practitioners, would have to all decide to change what karate is together. That just isn't how people work.

Secondly, your assumption that "a martial art sincerely aims to develop and provide an effective range of fighting skills" may not be entirely accurate, or at least complete. Perhaps that is not a goal, or only one of many objectives and not the most important one.

1
  • 1
    Re. your second paragraph, that's why I prefaced it with the word, "if". I explicitly acknowledge other goals/objectives in my question. Your claim that millions of people would all have to decide to change what karate is together needs justification. There are already many, many different schools of karate that approach karate in diverse ways, including some that employ grappling and throws. I do agree someone teaching under the name 'Kyokushin' for example, may have to leave the organisation if they wish to alter it any substantial way. Sep 3 at 4:21
1

Some reasons why I only train Judo:

Goals

I'm 0-0 in MMA, and will be the rest of my life. I train for fun, and on the off-chance that I ever get attacked.

Age

Recovery is more difficult the older we get, so MMA classes and MMA conditioning are out for me. MMA is a sport for young people while Judo is a lifetime sport. Plenty of people in their 40s/50s/60s practice regularly.

Injuries

Striking arts and bone to bone contact result in breaks/injury. Zero percent change I break my leg checking a kick when I simply don't participate in arts with contact.

CTE

No thanks. I do not and will not concede to taking blows to my head.

It's Hard

I'm far from bored in my training. There's literally a lifetime of improvements to be made to my technique.

Techniques were already filtered

40 throws were chosen because Kano tested whether each person could throw the other with the technique. Anything relying on strength was removed. Don't need new techniques when you have sharp basic techniques and chain your attacks together. (Why do boxers still throw jab/cross combination? Cause it works).

MMA Rules don't evolve

Fighters could grab their opponents and sit down to drive their opponents head into the mat when the opponent shoots for their legs. It's 100% illegal to do this, and so no one sees any holes using wrestling in MMA. Telling traditional schools to evolve while sticking hard to these rules is nonsense.

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