I am currently leading the Martial Arts club at my university (mostly Jing-Wu Kung-Fu training). Since it is difficult to get a regular group, I am thinking whether I should stick to basic Kung-Fu exercises (that people find not so interesting, and they don't understand their value, but will help build their foundations), or change to new exercises (which might raise their interest, but they will not be skilled enough to do the exercise properly).

I usually do a mixture of both, however I am more interested in the philosophy of such exercises. Maybe a certified trainer could help.

We usually train twice a week, but since everyone has a lot of academics to handle, a regular group of people is not yet formed. I am not a certified instructor, we just gather for fun but I would like to make the most out of our time (exercise-wise).

5 Answers 5


Ok, what I think you need cannot be expressed purely in comments, so I have to write an answer...

Regarding the main question

First of all, both is important. As long as you have the feeling they (or some/most of them) lack foundations, you have to train foundations.

In training science, it is common knowledge that if you have mistakes in your foundational skills, you have to unlearn and relearn the whole technique. That's painful, it is boring, but it is important, because the patterns otherwise only go deeper into habit and the mistakes become even harder to get rid of. A good argument can therefore be "If you don't do it now, it only gets harder."

Normally, the idea is that you lay good foundations and then step by step add elements to it, may it be speed, resistance, combinations, partner's movement, etc. By that, you train, deepen and embed the foundations as well. Variability does not necessarily mean that you train different things - you may just as well think of different ways, e.g. with the help of using a movement as part of a game, or by using balls or weights. They must not even recognise it as training the exact same thing. Be inventive!

That means as far as possible, stick to repetition through new exercises!

But as this has limits, you will have to deal with the problem of people getting bored or annoyed by certain basic stuff.

How to deal with that

Two thoughts on that:

  1. Especially when only training once or twice a week due to time constraints, an intermediate or advanced would not feel good when doing just the same stuff as a beginner. My solution always has been to show the beginners basic stuff, concentrate on only the most important points, let them start, and show some more elaborate stuff for the others. This does not have to be a totally different technique, just e.g. more details and explanations irrelevant for learning a first crude idea of a technique, i.e. more sophisticated points to look at. Or higher speed. Or more movement involved. Having to be attentive to other points basically makes it a new exercise.
  2. It is always highly problematic telling an intermediate or advanced that they do something badly or plainout wrong. Especially when they have a higher grade or can simply beat you up easily because of their strength/weight/attitude/whatever.

The latter point can be dealt with in different ways. One way for me has always been playing the dumbass. Like "Oh I thought this and that would be better, because of X?" Obviously works some times, but cannot be the only means. The best method turned out to be thinking of ways to validate my point. Like, when you have the feeling that a certain way would be better, let them train it, correct them, and have something at hand to test the success/difference. This may be a partner saying it had much more power, it may be a sandbag swinging much more, in the case of throws in Judo it was throwing someone the first time with ease instead of using strength, etc.

That way, it is not you telling them something they might simply reject, it is reality telling them you are right. And it deepens the trust in your abilities. And it enables them to see progress. I use this method for all my students, from four year-old white belts adoring you just because you care to over forty year-old black belts highly sceptical and probably grown up in basically a different art. And it works for all of them, because it is something defining their reality that cannot be ignored.

Main problem: Experience

First, to keep a group running, in 99.9% (the rest being high level competitors) it does not have to offer high quality training (though it helps), it has to be fun with cool people. It has to be a diverse training, it has to include some socials. Think of how you could train certain things you want to see conceiled as a game or partnerwork. Think of and organise socials. This it what keeps people coming. Uniform drills do not.

The second thing is you yourself. There is nothing wrong in feeling insecure in front of higher graded or stronger people or a bunch of kids. It is normal. And the confidence is something that comes with time teaching, with experiencing and coping with a great variety of problems of all sorts. If I would be asked to train a high level competition Judo team for one lesson in some days, I would shit my pants. I never did this. I know what to do, I know what to look for, but I would feel insecure as this isn't something I've done before. Give yourself time to become experienced. If you know many ways to train each technique and have seen almost every possible mistake and learned ways to deal with them (individually, not every solution works for everyone!), you become way more relaxed and develop an aura of confidence automatically. Sometimes I get told I have to lead the session the moment I arrive - and can make up interesting sessions for the group within minutes. That's not magic, that's experience.

You should really write down what you want to achieve, what is important for each technique (and level of experience ;) ), and a detailed plan for each session, if possible several weeks ahead. You will also have time to make up new methods of training. You will be able to think about what and how to say it. And you know how long you will train it (rule of thumb: about five, never more than ten minutes the same exact thing with the same partner - forms excluded). That way, you have something to test against reality and become more realistic.

Speaking of becoming more realistic, another part of getting experienced is how to set the bar. By this I mean that I always had very high expectations. Working with children and understanding limits of learning helped me lowering them. I guess one hard lesson every instructor has to learn is that most students do never achieve a high standard, especially not with 1-2 sessions a week. If the worst mistakes are out of the way, it is an achievement until middle grades. Tell them each time you see something getting better, only correct one mistake at a time (worst first!), and praise individually (I cannot stress this sentence enough!).

Additionally, it helps to widen your horizon if time allows. Attend seminars and trainings of other groups. Look into how they do things. It enables you to gain confidence about how it is right to be done over time.

  • 2
    This is a great answer with real wisdom. But a point for context about differences between judo and kung fu training I have seen: judo training is focused around techniques, like a particular throw. Kung fu training can focus on details like stepping in a particular way, and that can be the whole lesson.
    – mattm
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 23:58
  • 1
    @mattm: That is one point I considered as well. The nearest I experienced myself is Karate forms (both kata and kihon) that I myself can repeat over and over again as long as I get corrected. But my take would indeed be that a particular stance or step is just a technique. It is something you can learn in a basic way and then start to build upon with speed, movement, embedding it in a game/partnerwork or combine it with some other stuff the students already know etc. I would argue that although important in some sense to do a whole session only one thing, it makes no sense in this setting. Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 0:09

I would continue to do both. But make sure you explain why the boring stuff is essential to the interesting stuff. It should be all linked so that you can explain the more complex techniques via the basic exercises: this is how systems are built form the simple to the complex. Your teaching time should be to the point, illustrative (funny at times), and as short as possible. The latter is very important: keep your babbling to a minimum. Movement is best learn by mimicking.

It is as well better to do the complex things slowly to make sure you can do it. Nothing wrong with taking your time. The speed comes from all those basic exercises which suddenly do not seem boring at all.

I always say to new comers that the secrets of Aikido are all revealed in the first twenty minutes of a two hours class. But that it takes years to finally get that it is important. ☺

Outside of the class, build social activities around the groups. Newbies mostly stick to groups not because of the art, but because of the people. Meet in a pub afterwards, go for meals, go see the latest martial arts movie together, etc… That is what tends to keep groups alive and running.

Thanks to Philip Klöcking for very helpful comments about teaching times and socialising which were added with to this answer with his consent.


Both is a good idea. I want to expand on Sardathrion's answer by suggesting, that if time allows, look at doing a selection of basic exercises that culminate in the interesting within the training session.

Within the context of aikido this would be 3-4 basic movements that, when put together, make the basis of a technique.

  • This is indeed how I and all good teachers I was ever taught by do it: from basics to hard stuff. Note that this approach is just good education and is not limited to martial arts. Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 11:46

The Conflict

The basic conflict is between two things:

  1. Fundamental exercises are the foundation for long-term development.
  2. Students can get bored or otherwise lose motivation, and leave/quit.

There may also be business considerations. In a university setting, this may be availability of practice space based on head count. In a normal martial arts school situation, this is tuition.

This is not a new problem.

Teaching Approaches

Here are two extreme instructor approaches:

  1. Force students to do fundamental exercises until they are ready to move on.

    Pro: This minimizes the student's time to fighting proficiency and maximizes the instructor's time.


    1. For this approach to work, there needs to be strong motivation on the part of the student (there are numerous stories of feats of discipline required for students to be accepted by teachers) and faith that the instructor's teaching abilities will lead to skill.
    2. The instructor must also be able and willing to evaluate when the student is ready to progress.
    3. It can be very difficult to mix beginners with non-beginners.
  2. Show students more than they are really prepared for.

    Pro: Maintains student interest. Students get a taste of the finished product before reaching it.


    1. Students may overestimate their abilities and never invest the necessary time in fundamentals to achieve proficiency/mastery.
    2. It takes extra time for the body to catch up to where the mind thinks it is.

There are of course hybrid approaches. Some material may still need strict prerequisites, while other material may not.

General Philosophy

It is the teacher's responsibility to lead the student and show them the right doors to go through. It is the student's responsibility to go through them.

Not all students will succeed/excel. It's the teacher's job to provide students with the correct framework, but ultimately the students must put in the work (kung fu). This applies regardless of the specific teaching approach. The tragedy is the students who put in hard work into a shoddy framework and come away with nothing useful.


I met one well-respected kung fu teacher who was born and trained in Asia, who learned under the fundamentals-first approach. Upon relocating to the United States, this teacher felt students were not willing to endure this same approach, and adapted to teaching more advanced material without requiring the same mastery of the fundamentals.

You can only train the students you have, not the ones you wish you had. In the era of electronics, I think the fundamentals-only approach is unrealistic due to shortened attention spans and the total duration of training in martial arts. Emphasize fundamentals as much as you can, but accept that you may need to adjust to each student's attitude.

  • Great answer! Would argue that as long as it is not training at least 15 hours a week and three hours a session (something very common in Asia, even for university sports!), the fundamentals-first approach is not working well, though. Warm-up, stretching...normally, you end up with effectively one hour per session even if not sparring at all. And the time between sessions is too long as well. But this may be just my feeling. Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 0:29

The folks I train with are often sporadic, we're only getting to meet once or twice a month. So, I try to operate on "branching exercises" - or starting with a core idea and showing a few things that build off of it in different ways.

The core idea ends up being the fundamental we work on the most during the training session, while the branching variations become the variety that entertain people, even though for most people only 2-3 of those will stick with them.

This also changes people's sense of accomplishment - if I only remember 4 moves out of 28 move set, it feels very hard and intimidating, I haven't accomplished "one thing". If I remember 3 combos of 3 moves each, which all start on the same 1-2 moves, I feel like I've learned 3 discrete chunks. (even if there's 5 other variations I can't remember at all...)

The nice thing is that when you next train together, you can see what parts stuck well with them and work from there. It helps you see what things are easier for the group you're working with to understand, which in turn, helps you teach them the next part easier as well.

Now, if part of what you're trying to do is train up some conditioning (such as a low stance), you can set up all of your variations from a core of a low stance step or movement and put a drill or two that directly uses that movement. This allows people to focus externally on "doing something" rather than just focusing on the experience of conditioning or basic training.

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