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In the martial arts, footwork is using the movement of the feet to avoid attacks and to set up your own attacks. However, some martial artists use footwork to show-off instead of using it for a useful purpose.

Footwork is important

When training for sparring, many martial artists are concerned about their blocking and attacking, but not about their footwork. Footwork allows you to avoid or block attacks and to position yourself to launch your own attacks. Without proper footwork, you may never get an opportunity to use a technique (either offensive or defensive).

According to Newton's laws of motion, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and an object in motion tends to remain in motion. If you fight from a stationary stance, you must overcome your inertia to avoid or attack; however, if you are already moving, you only need to redirect your inertia. If you stand still, you WILL get hit; however, if you move, you MAY get hit.

Proper footwork keeps you moving so you may more easily detect the range of the opponent and his or her weapons. It’s easier to judge the location of an object in three dimensions if you are moving than if you are stationary. Movement improves the depth perception provided by our binocular vision.

When the object of your attention (the opponent) is stationary in front of the background, it is difficult to judge how close the opponent is to you. However, if you, the opponent, or the background is moving, it’s easier to judge the opponent’s location in relation to you and the surroundings.
You cannot effectively use your hands or feet to block or attack until your feet have put you into a position from which you can do so.

Footwork allows you to

  • Evade rather than block. 
  • Attack from angles.
  • Get in quickly, attack, and then get out quickly. 
  • Follow up your initial attacks with more powerful finishing blows. 
  • Vary the range continuously.

Purposes of footwork

Footwork does mean useless bouncing or rapidly shifting stances just for the sake of movement. Every movement should be for a purpose.

Some of these purposes include:
  • Keeping yourself outside opponent's range of attack.
  • Keeping yourself inside your range of attack.
  • Allowing you to block or avoid an attack.
  • Positioning yourself to launch an attack.
  • Providing a stable base for your attack.

Using smooth, natural footwork allows you to:
  • Always maintain stability so you can defend and attack effectively.
  • Get in, strike, and get out quickly; not just stay in range and pound it out with the opponent until one or the other retreats.
  • Avoid making jerky, unnatural movements that draw attention to your movements.
  • Increase the speed and power of your defensive and offensive techniques.
  • Develop range awareness. Range is constantly changing.
  • Actual range is the distance between you and your opponent
  • Effective range varies according to your reaction time and your opponent's reaction time,  and your quickness of movement and your opponent's quickness of movement.
  • Adjust the range and the flow of the fight with the opponent’s movements so the opponent never gets an advantage.
  • Close the gap quickly and smoothly.
  • Attack from angles.
  • Lure opponent into range.
  • Avoid attacks without using your arms, which keeps them free to immediately counterattack.

Keep your guard up

All footwork is initiated from a guard position (fighting stance). There are many guard variations, choose one that is effective for you, lets you move freely, and that you are comfortable using so you are not tense and may react instantly.

Types of footwork

Some of the types of footwork that may be used:
  • Step and slide. The step and slide is used primarily to bridge the gap (close the range). Although it is not normally used with an attack, it is effective in gauging and setting the correct range from which to launch an attack. In the step and slide, the lead foot steps forward about 6 inches and the rear foot slides up to where the lead foot was at.
  • Lunge. The lunge is used for bridging the gap during an attack; it works well with hand attacks. In the lunge, lift the lead leg, push off with the rear foot, and lunge forward with the lead leg.
  • Shuffle. Unlike the previous two steps, the shuffle has only one movement the shuffle, so it permits quick movement. In the shuffle, the lead foot stays flat but with just some light pressure on the toes and the ball of the foot. As you move, the rear leg pushes off, the lead toes dig in and pull forward, and then both feet shuffle forward quickly. It’s a subtle, deceptive motion but it’s powerful since the body mass is being thrown into the attack.
  • Burst. The burst is used for a quick advance while kicking and punching. It is used primarily to deliver a powerful kick, such as a side thrust kick, or to counter an opponent's attack. It is also one of the hardest moves to master because it requires so much coordination. 
  • For a forward burst, the first movement is a forward deep lunge with the lead leg. As you move in, sweep the lead hand upward to create momentum and to distract your opponent and disrupt his or her timing. While sweeping your lead hand upward, swing both your hips forward simultaneously, while dragging your rear foot forward. In that split instant, your weight is heavily on your front foot. At this moment, your rear leg suddenly straightens out to thrust your body forward. The leap should be more horizontal than vertical. Try for distance while keeping your feet close to the floor.
  • For a backward burst, push down on the ball of your lead foot to initiate the motion; this straightens your front knee and shifts your weight to the rear foot. Then the front foot leaves the floor and crosses in front of your rear foot. Just before the front foot lands, your rear leg, with its knee bent and acting like a spring, suddenly straightens to thrust your body backward. You should land on the ball of your lead foot just a moment before your rear foot touches the floor behind it. 
  • Dancing. Dancing is a martial arts term used for constant movement while on the balls of the feet. Is this constant movement necessary?
  • If you are fighting flat-footed and practically motionless, you lose the added spring of the ankle muscles when moving. If your knees are almost straight, you lose the added spring of the leg muscles when moving. However, when on the balls of the feet with the knees bent and you are moving around, everything is pre-chambered for a jump or quick movement, without having to bend the knees first.
  • An object in motion tends to remain in motion and to keep moving in the direction of the motion. An object at rest tends to remain at rest and its inertia tends to keep it at rest and cause the object to resist motion. If you fight from a stationary stance, you must overcome inertia to start moving, which takes time. If you are in a constantly moving stance, to change direction you only need to deflect the direction of the inertia of the movement, not overcome it. Therefore, it is easier and quicker to change the direction of a movement while you are already moving than it is to start moving from a stationary stance.
  • Sidestepping. Sidestepping is merely steeping to the side at various angles to:
  • Frustrate the opponent simply by moving to the side every time an opponent gets set to attack.
  • Avoid blows or kicks.
  • Create openings for a counter attack.
  • Pendulum step. The pendulum step is used primarily to avoid an attack. In the pendulum step, the lead leg is quickly drawn back to where your rear leg is, while simultaneously pulling your rear leg backward. All your weight should be resting on the lead leg at this point, with the rear foot barely touching the floor, and then you perform a lunge step, with a lead side attack. In effect, you are swinging backward and then forward like a pendulum.

Practicing footwork

To practice footwork, use shadowboxing. Shadowboxing teaches you how to relax before you move, how to explode with power and speed when you move, and how to execute attacks while in motion. It alerts you as to which techniques are your assets and which are your liabilities. You can bob and weave, move, kick, punch, and use combinations, while cultivating the coordination necessary to execute all the above types of footwork successfully. It also teaches you how to maintain your balance before, during, and after an attack. Other activities, such as jumping rope and running, can help you train your neuromuscular pathways to better handle your body weight and to enhance your balance.

Don't be a target

Fighters who fight from a stationary stance are called targets. They do not move except when changing stances or stepping, and when they do move, it is relatively slow and deliberate. Stationary fighters generally large and powerful and they hit hard, but they also get hit a lot, so they train to take punishment as well as give it.


Some fighters stand in basically the same spot and shift their weight forward and backward from one foot to the other foot, they are called shifters. While this is better than just standing stationary, it still hampers movement. Also, the movement is predictable and allows the opponent to adjust his or her timing to attack at the optimum moment. When you shift your weight onto one foot, that foot is locked and cannot move until the weight is shifted off it. A shifter’s mass moves primarily back and forth in a straight line using the muscles of both legs. When fighting a shifter, time your attack to fire just as the shifter starts the movement when the shifters' stance will be locked, making defense and counterattack difficult. Shifting can be effective, but it requires endurance and can be over used.


Some fighters move by bouncing forward and backward off both feet at the same time, they are called bouncers. Their feet are never in one position for more than an instant and the fighter is free to move in any direction instantly. A bouncer's mass moves primarily up and down in an arc using the muscles of both legs to make the movement. When fighting a bouncer, time your attack to fire just as the bouncer starts the next movement. The bouncer is now committed to that direction and cannot change it. Bouncing can highly effective, but it requires high endurance to maintain it throughout a fight. To be an effective bouncer you must have explosive, muscular strength in the legs and be in peak physical condition, but it can be worth the effort.

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