Most martial arts seem to have staged pre defined series of moves as part of their practice routines. Karate with its Katas, Taekwondo with the Poomsaes etc.

When push comes to shove and the fight is real, details like which part of the leg to kick with etc. change and it becomes different.

I want to understand what exactly traditional teachers say about the usefulness of these exercises.

  • I disagree that this is a duplicate question. What are the purpose, and how do you use are different questions. I'll update my answer in "what are the purposes of martial arts forms" with some how to use information. Mar 9, 2016 at 15:20

4 Answers 4


Traditional teachers of different style say many different things, of which, some have more, or less validity.

Here's some things I've heard said about forms in general:

  • It teaches you how to relax into all of the positions/movements for most efficient energy use
  • The movements specifically work to stretch/strengthen various muscles in a given order
  • The movements build chi/ki/magical power
  • Forms build muscle memory for you
  • Forms are long chain movements that were put together to make it easy for non-literate people to remember and transmit the movements.
  • Forms are several small combos put together - you may not use the 20 moves in a form, but you'll probably use 2-3 in sequence, and probably a few different sequences within the form as a whole.

The last two seem very relevant and true in my experience, and I think of forms less as an immediate tool for combat and more as a development exercise - just as much as you don't do pushups or punch like drills on a speed bag in a fight, those are still useful practices to do.

I do know that many of the folks reputed as masters, and two of the skillful teachers I've managed to work with, swear by forms. My personal guess is, though, that need a good amount of hands on time with live partners to ingrain the understanding of reach, timing, force, and balance against another person before doing the form can really give you much of whatever they're getting from it.


Kata is sparring.

Due to the facts that:

  • kata are a static sequence of moves
  • for most junior members (and even some senior members) sparring is a free form unplanned sequence of moves (for new people it tends to be totally random)

it can take many years to get your head around this concept. Gradually the two start to merge, so that when you are sparring you are executing a constant sequence of kata moves (in a sequence that fits what's happening), and your kata practice becomes a mental sparring session as you perform the moves.

How can kata be sparring?
Many instructors teach kata as just a memory aide or a conditioning exercise, and indeed they are both of those, but they're also more.
Take one of the most basic moves - a stomach level reverse punch (gyaka zuki chudan): why is it in any particular kata multiple times? It's because along with the moves adjacent to it it becomes part of an attack. Mastery of a kata means being familiar with the multitude of different attacks and permutations buried in the kata.
Exactly what the attacks are hitting will depend on what position your opponent is in when you start. To borrow a programming term, attacks from kata are mostly deterministic - if all the inputs are the same then the output is 100% predictable and the same every time. As I mentioned in a previous answer on the subject, if the opponent starts in a certain position and I execute a specific sequence of movements then I will know exactly where his head and body are at the end, this allows me to progress on to the next sequence of moves should I need it.

  • I think I understand. My concern is that none of these actually have an intelligent opponent. And that's a huge variable to neglect when you're learning. Isn't it? Your point about learning a larger attack sequence is perfectly sound though and not something I had considered earlier. Jun 3, 2014 at 6:44
  • 1
    An "intelligent opponent" is a bit of a red herring. It does take some practice to go from practicing kata against thin air to being able to apply it to a real person, that's part of the "many years" I mentioned above. Also while practicing kata you should be visualising what you are doing to the opponent. It takes years and practice, practice, practice... but if you are taught properly then it can be achieved quicker (the shame of it is that many people in more commercial schools can go a lifetime without learning any of this).
    – slugster
    Jun 3, 2014 at 7:03

Many people/masters/schools have different views on what Katas is and is for. Below would be my views on Kata

What KATA is.

It is basically a set of moves a practitioners could do on their own, as well as with another partner.

What KATA is for.

This question is very subjective depending on the school / master. From my point of view, KATA in its essence teaches proper structure,form, footwork, proper utilization of power and leverage and etc. By perfecting your KATA, you could generate the maximum effectiveness of your art.

For example, i feel that my punches tend to be weak and tend to leave me unstable after delivering a solid blow. By perfecting the KATA, i am able to understand the principles and reason why it is weak, thus allowing me to make corrections, and after many many times of repetition, it overwrites my previous form or bad habits.

There are also many hidden moves & principles in a KATA and it is usually difficult to identify unless pointed out by someone else.


Many practitioners find that by perfecting KATAs alone would make them a complete fighter. They often neglect the physical conditioning part of training. By lifting weights to make you stronger & faster, sprinting to increase speed & stamina, meditation to increase focus and etc. These are all as important as KATAs and should be trained equally.

In the beginning , you might be able to get away with sloppy stance, sloppy punches or kicks just by being strong or fast, but as you progress and meet more experienced practitioners who are as strong and as fast as you are, you wouldn't be able to rely on physicality alone.


I think that, as a concept, kata are highly useful. It teaches students to chain moves, to not hit once and then pause to figure out what to do next. It gets you thinking about how your body shifts weight from block to punch and teaches combinations that are synergistic, such as using an inside block and capitalizing on the opened defense with a reverse punch, or chaining a roundhouse kick with a spinning heel kick. The odds of doing the movement during sparring in exactly the same way you do it in kata is small, but your muscle memory has you headed in the right direction and more likely to have an alternate plan if you see your opponent is prepared for what you started doing.

That said, you should always know why you are doing the movements. The term in Karate is bunkai and it's the difference between thinking "OK, for the next move, I put my hands on my hips and waggle them" and "I am being pulled into a bearhug. I am striking their forearms and shifting my center of balance down and to the side to break their hold". And, of course, you never want to become predictable in your movements, but that's where training multiple kata is necessary.

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