The Ultimate Empty-Hand Exercise

The ‘Ultimate Empty Hand Exercise’ carries the Chinese martial concept of practicing forms on "sunken pillars" to its logical extreme.

Practicing forms on ‘sunken pillars’ also creates a greater awareness of balance, flow, and ‘driving a ground’--the process by which the martial art practitioner learns to manipulate his balance-mental and physical-to enhance stability, power and knowledge of the martial art itself.

Robert W. SmIth, in his book Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing, noted that the Chinese boxer (or martial artist) believed there were three levels of achievement in the martial arts. The first level corresponds to physical control-controlling the body. The second level is exercising full control of one's energy (chi or ki), The third level of attainment was mastery and control at thought-the mental level.

Frequently martial artists become enmeshed in the first level of martial achievement-mastery of the physical Unfortunately, this sometimes means that the artists fail to understand the complexities of the second and third levels. They remained ensnared in the realm of the physical.

The Ultimate Empty-Hand Exercise can help the martial artist free himself from this trap. It is a simple training aid Intended to give martial artists a new perspective on their forms. Moreover, by modifying the Chinese martial art concept of forms training on ‘sunken pillars,’ the exercise serves to work the martial artist on all three levels at once. Thus, while executing physical technique, the martial artist also exercises areas of mental awareness-such as awareness of balance, ‘flow’ and the concept of ‘empty' and ‘full’-a total exercise with applications in the martial cuts ranging from the physical to the conceptual.

The first step in using this training exercise is to select an appropriate form. For example. a practitioner of a Japanese karate style might select one of the basic instructional kata, such as one of the Heian kata. (An Okinawan stylist, on the other hand, might select a form from among the Pinan kata. Needless to say, one must first team the form and its applications-though certainly one does not need the polish of a forms competitor to implement the traIning exercise. Knowledge of the form and the ability to separate the form into sections for study and use are the major prerequisites,

What follows next constItutes the core of the exercise. In many Chinese styles of martial arts, form training is performed on ‘sunken pillars’--generally stumps set into the ground. The Ultimate Empty Hand Exercise carries this concept to a logical extreme.

Instead of sunken pillars, place four cinderblocks in a square, with the blocks approximately shoulder width apart. Assume the begInning position on the blocks and begin to execute the form.

Once the exercise is commenced, certain vItal points will emerge. The first concerns balance. Greater balance is required on cinderblocks: not only must the practitioner control his body, he must control the body of the cinderblocks. This is sometimes referred to as ‘driving a ground,’ denoting the ability of the practitioner to ‘sink’ his awareness, literally feeling the ground through the blocks using the feel and the mind.

Moreover, to acquire stability, the body weight must be driven straight down. If there is any degree of thrust, reverse thrust will occur, the blocks wIll wobble, balance will be lost, the practitioner will fall from the blocks.

The exercise also has practical applications in terms of generating Power for effective strikes. To effectively strike someone, the arm must move forward with the least amount of muscular tension. The muscles lighten only on impact This is often referred to as the ‘Ioose-tight’ method, or the ‘empty-full’ method. It generates effective ‘hard’ internal power-and it forms the core of physical technique for many "hard' styles of the martial art. (One recalls the Zen maxim of ‘emptying one's cup’ before It can be filled.)

The exercise thus reinforces basic form and technique while enlarging the practitioner's awareness. Moreover, the practitioner also learns a great deal about the results of striking an opponent and the effect this has on the practitioner’s own body. Stability is always stressed. Failing to maintain a ‘driven ground’ when striking leads to the practitioner falling from the cinder blocks,

Finally, the last Intention of the Ultimate Empty Hand exercise is to provide stimulus to martial artists In examining their forms. It is hoped that the form will be treated like a new house, with the martial artist exploring the form, room by room. Thus the form remains always new and vital-the the artist extending his knowledge and exploring further, making room for self-expression within his Art.

In terms of the Three Levels of achievement pursued by the Chinese Boxer, it is to be hoped that the exercise is a valued training aid In deepening the understanding of the first-the physical-level, while leading the practitioner to strive further, for the second and third levels of martial awareness.

And finally, the author hopes that martial artists will examine their art for the possibilities of further creation: synthesizing new knowledge from the old. It is the ultimate in self-expression-and that is art.

The end result of the exercise is to raise concentration and awareness. Mistakes are easily observed-and felt The martial artist might also consider trying forms outside of his style for increasing his personal knowledge and awareness.

For example, by adding more bricks (and by consulting either a good training manual or an instructor) one can attempt ‘Walking the Pa Kua Chang Circle.’ Or one can apply the concept of the exercise to Tai Chi forms, Every time the exercise is performed, different points of applications can be examined. This can lead to attempting exercises such as Wing Chun's ‘Sticking Hands’ (Chi Sau) or Tai Chi's ‘pushing hands’ exercise.

The author demonstrates a segment fomr a form (Pinan 4) adapting the traditional embusen for execution upon cinderblocks, modifying the Chinese concept of ‘sunken pillars.’

The exercise physically develops the mental concept of ‘driving a ground’--this refers to the stylist’s awareness of manipulating his physical and mental balance.

For example, if balance is not driven perfectly down on the cinderblocks, the blocks will have an opposite reaction, to body weight--blocks and practitioner will tumble down.

By learning the physical side of ‘driving a ground,’ the martial artist can also perfect the concept of relaxation/tension in delivering a strike: the offheard concept of ‘empty/full.’

‘Empty/full’ applies to keeping an arm or leg  relaxed in a strike until the limb reaches full extension, when tension is called for.

This allows the martial artist to explore insights arising from the effect of executing full powered techniques  and the effects these techniques have on the balance of the executor of the technique.

The exercise works the martial artist on three levels: control of the body; control of the mind; control of the spirit.

While the author here demonstrates a basic Karate form for the article, the exercise can be adapted to other styles.

One can do such things as ‘Walking the Circle’ from Pa Kua, Pushing Hands from Tai Chi, Chi Sau from Wing Chun,and so on, to increase the artist’s knowledge.


Often, martial artists will lose themselves in the ‘hard’ side of an art. Reliance on muscular tension and exertion can be detrimental to the body as a whole-and yo one's practice of an art. The UItimate Empty Hand exercise is designed so that practitioners of Arts like Karate can be reintroduced to concepts of ‘softness--while still maintaining the power and practicality of their art.(In the book, Shintaido: A New Art of Movement and Life Expression, by Hiroyuki Aoki, a section In chapter two is entitled, ‘Meeting with Master Shigeru Egami.’ In this section, Mr. Egami, one of Funaikoshi Gichin's original students, is credited with certain remarks concerning holistic body movement versus movement focused from one part of the body, as well as the advantages of executing ‘soft’ and natural movement with no surplus tension in the shoulders. One statement is, in itself, quite interesting: “Why did karate become so hard and stiff? It used to be much softer.”

The length of time required to attain ‘mastery’ among ‘soft’ style arts can be quite long The cinderblocks, however, can be utilized by artists of any style or tradition. Its

effectiveness as a training method lies as much in the conceptual realm as in the physical. It offers the artist a chance to experience directly the practical applicatlon and consequences of many martial arts concepts--concepts that may be difficult to grasp when transmitted orally. Such things as keeping ‘the cup empty’ will become clear to an individual his first time on the blocks. He will discover, in relation to the ‘empty cup’ principle, that muscular tension during the execution of techniques disrupts balance and lessens power--and the lesson will be reinforced if he should tumble from the blocks.

Monster Martial Arts