Basic Footwork drills


These are just the basic drills that you can do for footwork. By footwork I mean how to use your feet in motion so that you may stay in balance, root as needed (can't be fast and root) and have as many of your weapons available as possible. When people start moving and trying to do techniques at a faster pace, it is easy to be so uncoordinated as to be completely ineffective. Yes, footwork can render the best technique unusable. The stance work and partner exercises will go a long way to helping, but there need to be solo and partner drills for moving. That is what this section contains. Footwork is not rocket science. It is actually really simple but takes a lot of practice to get it fluid and smooth. It must be to the point that your feet do what they need to without much conscious effort. If you have to really concentrate on your feet to do these they won't do you much good. Make it automatic. If you are looking for the advanced footwork drills, start here. In a nutshell here is how you can move

Ways to move

There are two basic modes of travel. Walking (ayumi ashi) where one foot passes the other. Walking is, you know, walking:
What you don't walk in circles sometimes? Ok, this is a specialized drill called walking the circle. But it really is just walking. In this I keep my hands on my centerline and in the last frame twist to face the center – which is where my opponent actually would be.

The other method of locomotion is shuffling, where the feet do not pass each other.
Tsugi ashi or step + drag Step with the leg into
the direction of travel
Shift weight slightly and
drag the other foot
Ready for another.
Click here for a movie of tsugi ashi. When shuffling, you have two options, either step then drag the leg up (this is what is usually meant by the phrase tsugi ashi or "thrusting step" and we will call this step+drag. The other option drag the trailing foot then step (cleverly called drag+step), called okuri ashi or "trailing step". The difference is which foot you care to load.
Okuri ashi or drag + step Drag rear leg into the
direction of travel
Step with the lead leg
Click here for a movie of okuri ashi. Remember that you cannot, for instance, strike without root. so step+drag means that the side of leading foot can fire a punch or the opposite leg can kick, sweep etc. With drag+step, the roles are reversed and the trailing foot is now loaded for action. Also, if you must retreat, i.e. move backwards, shuffling is the better way to do it rather than walking. Sometimes this holds for advancing too. Of course, you should not retreat unless you have a plan on what to do, since you are far less efficient at retreating than he is at advancing. The default movement should be evasion to 1 o'clock or 11 o'clock.

As a comment, the two standard sweeps of de ashi barai and okuri ashi barai are intended to counter someone who is shuffling in resp. tsugi ashi or okuri ashi. Other sweeps are intended for intercepting someone who is walking, pivoting, etc. Sweeps are to be used in motion, never statically. An easy way to do this is to practice your footwork drills while your partner sweeps you. You get to move naturally as does he.

Pivots and twists

Another fundamental movement is pivoting, which is walking with a change in the axis of the hips. This is often subsumed under the classical heading of kaiten (literally 'circle' since you move along an arc), although this is not quite correct. There are two version of it and they are very different. The first, called twisting has the feet not moving. You rise onto the balls of your feet and twist your hips so your hara (center of gravity, about where your belt knot is) points into another direction. Key point is that your feet stay on the ground. You then regain your root. The other version, called pivoting actually moves one leg while keeping the other as the center of rotation. in which one foot, the pivot foot, remains in location and the other foot, the sweeping foot, moves to a new location. The pivot foot is the center of rotation and the heel of that foot comes off slightly the floor, so that the pivot is on the ball of the foot. This prevents the knee from suffering torsion, since the pivot actually occurs at the hip -- if you stay flat-footed your knee will undergo torque. You may move the sweeping foot to the front or rear, called a front or rear pivot, resp. Key for pivot is that is a type of walking with a change in hip angle, i.e., you are one-legged during a pivot and a biped during a twist!!! Pivots are excellent for quick movements offline (again speed cancels root), but don't expect to get much power. Stylistically we usually prefer to replace a pivot by a step + twist or twist+step if we need power.

Now we won't be confusing just like everyone else. Most folks lump twists and pivots together. People don't make as big a distinction as they should, but we will try to. If you cannot separate these, you will find that many techniques simply lose all power mysteriously in the middle of their execution because you pivot where you should twist.

Pivots may occur up to and including a full 360 degrees. twists can go also go to a maximum of 360 degrees if you start in a kosa dachi and end in one. The 180 degree twist is especially useful. You pivot or twist when you need to change orientation or look around. You should practice scanning (looking around, without a body twist) at the very least with every pivot, and you should actually look, don't just wag your head. This is again aimed at assessing multiple attackers and the area. In such cases remember that you are looking for the biggest threat and that might not be the person closest to you.

Variations for footwork

All footwork drills should start by having your hands covering your center line and doing the appropriate palm changes so that the side that leads has that hand forward. It is crucial that after you get comfortable moving, you then run through your footwork drills using various hand techniques (escapes, te kagami, etc., etc.) so that you get used to having your upper and lower body independent. Your feet eventually should being doing whatever they have to all by themselves. You want to smarten your periphery.

In application, you will never use more than a couple or three steps of one of these drills, since setting up a pattern gives your attacker all he needs to know to find you. The objective of drills is, of course, to give you the ability to do these smoothly and therefore switch seamlessly between them. Once you have these down, practice combinations, alternating footwork drills every few steps.

Always practice scanning the area in your drills. That is to say, look around and try to be aware. You have to incorporate this so it is completely automatic. The footwork is made to keep you in motion so that multiple attackers can't hem you in. It is easy, either from solo practice or lots of practice with a single partner, to forget this fact. The old boxer's saying that "It's the one you never see that puts you away" is accurate. All the evasive footwork in the world won't help you if you don't observe your environment.

Practice altering the step size and rhythm. These should be practiced as lunges too and mix it up. You can never have enough controlled chaos in training. You should also consider practicing these plyometrically, that is to say, if you lunge, then at the instance your leg is loaded with your weight, explosively reverse direction. This will build enormous speed and power.

Another great drill by yourself is to do ukemi as part of this. That is to say, select a footwork drill and at some point, have a roll, side fall, etc. whatever you like. This gets you used to moving and falling while in motion. Believe me, every time I've had to roll, it was because I was out of control (bike accident, tripping and such). Being able to roll-out while in motion should be taught in public schools as a matter of safety. This is a rolling drill, rather than a footwork drill, but this is a proper place to include it.

You can also have partners hold up sticks (jo, bokken, baseball bat or whatever) at shoulder height and practice your footwork moving around them. Alternately, your partner can spruce this up by trying to tag you, either with hands, feet or other household items as you move to retain position. Be sure the partner does them high, medium and low. This is good bobbing and weaving practice. Start out just with lazy swats since there will be a lot going on. Eventually, these will metamorphize into strikes, grabs and kicks.

Other partner drills with all of these can easily be done. One person lead and the other mirror the movements, maintaining constant distance. This can be done not merely with the partners facing each other, but maintaining an angle (so the follower, for instance, wants to stay on a given 45 degree line to the leader at all times). Boxer's use what they call the "triangle theory" of movement: You and your opponent always form vertices of an equilateral triangle. If the opponent moves, then you are to move to the appropriate new vertex. This makes a nice drill too, with the leader moving as desired and the follower maintaining the triangle. The leader or follower can also add tags using hands and feet to make the other bob and weave while in motion. Start slowly, since the leader has and advantage, but eventually this can be quite fast too.

Playing tag is an excellent addition. That is to say, as you shadow or evade he should try to grab or swat you initially and eventually ramp it up to strikes. The bad guy should try to telegraph so that you will get practice at reading the body. People who do not have years of training telegraph badly and not being able to pick up on it while in motion might mean you walk into a full power strike. That would probably end the altercation right there and not in your favor, I should stress...

Walking drills

8 direction drill Run around into the eight directions, walking a couple of steps, then reverse (walk backwards) to the starting point. You should start out twisting into the direction then moving. You can also vary this by always facing forward, so that the rear directions have you initially walking backwards.

Zig zag.
You will be moving in a zig-zag pattern while you partner moves in a straight line. Have your partner hold out both hands straight at shoulder height. As he walks backwards, you should move on either side of him with a walking pattern just like walking in a front stance. Also practice being close enough that you must bob under his arms. Another version of this has your partner just holding one hand out and shuffling. Practice forward and back. Do not lust bend over! Maintain good posture since being off-balance will leave you very vulnerable to counter attack.

Walking the circle. Click here for a movie. (This movie shows walking the circle with palm changes and a few S turns through the middle of the circle.) This actually comes from a groovy Chinese martial art called ba gua (also written p'a k'ua by some). Ba gua is famous for its fluid and evasive footwork, and this is their core drill. The system makes a good complement to jujutsu and one of my first teachers was very good at it. You should walk, that is to say, stride as you normally do down the street (heel-toe walking). To move at an angle, point your toes in the direction you want to go. The eight directions move from the center of the circle, while this drill gets you to move on the perimeter. If you do both types of drills, you should have pretty much all possibilities covered.

Walking the circle is a deceptively simple drill that has an enormous payback, so you should practice this one a lot. I do it most days of the week for at least a bit. Mark off a circle who radius is your height. Walk along the perimeter for several minutes, being sure that you are in balance. You may switch direction by simply pivoting 180 degrees. Practice these pivots. Moving in a straight line with root is never a problem with a little practice, but as soon as some curvature enters the picture, people lose root. A circle has constant curvature and therefore this simple drill lets you practice rooting along a curved path. You can even do pushing exercises with a partner as well if you get so inspired.

A very good and simple variation of this is to walk half the circle then cut an S-shaped path through the middle (ok, ba gua started out as a bunch of Taoist monks walking in a circle for meditation and this really is tracing a yin-yang symbol on the ground). The movie above shows this. If you started walking, say, clockwise initially, this move will have you walking counter-clockwise from your starting point. When you get back to the point on the circle opposite from the start, repeat cutting through the middle of the circle and you will be at your point of origin with the original orientation. This does several things. It

All in all, a superb drill. One other benefit of walking the circle (or doing any of the other drills on the circle) is that you have a definite intent of going someplace. Practicing getting from point A to B with your footwork is a good goal and closely follows practice.

Philosophical/pedagogical digression: Jujutsu has a pretty well worked out system of teaching footwork for moving from the center of the circle to the edge, which mimics most evasive movements against linear attacks. Most advanced counter techniques though move along a circular path -- i.e., along the circumference of the circle. The pedagogy there is less clear cut, but the net effect is strikingly similar ba' gua. Ba' gua's circle drill is a very convenient way to practice this and gives an excellent paradigm for getting the requisite independence of hands ond feet. However, I hasten to point out that this is a single footwork drill that has been adapated for our use and has virtually nothing else to do with ba 'gua, which is a vast and difficult art.

Shuffling drills

8 direction drill Shuffle into 8 directions, then back to the starting point. Be sure you leave nothing behind at the starting point of the shuffle (the bad guy is trying to get to exactly where you were, and anything there is a target). Another easy variation is to move and fire a strike (low kick, punch, palm heel, whatever) exactly where you were. Practice both the step+drag and drag+step and note what techniques you have available depending on which leg is loaded. Another variation is to shuffle a couple of steps, then pivot and run through various pivots, twists and shuffles with various permutations of the eight directions.

On the circle You can also practice shuffling along the perimeter of a circle, just like walking the circle. Be sure to face into the circle and to the outside rather than just facing in the direction of travel. This gets you to practice shuffling laterally along a curve, for those cases where you can't afford to take your eyes off of something.

Pivoting drills

There are a few drills for pivoting and twisting. These are not rocket science. A lot of people underestimate their utility though. The most common way to fall down in a fight is to duck something (you will do this reflexively), causing a change in the angle of the hips. Normally the body is not used to this and lacking a sense for it, will try to locomote in a compromised position, which can cause you to lose balance and fall. Having the basic body sense to simply complete the pivot and restore balance will do much to prevent losing balance, but it must be practiced diligently for a while.  

8 direction drill. Pivot into each direction, You do this in any of the following ways (practice them all).

For turning practice, step into a direction and turning 180 degrees to face your starting point, Reverse the motion.

The line drill.This actually works both twists and pivots. This is lateral, so that if you were using it, your opponent would be at 3 or 9 o'clock. Face your opponent by looking over your shoulder, say starting at 9 o'clock. Pivot three times 180 degrees to look at 3 o'clock and back again. The three pivots now have you facing to 3 o'clock. Shuffle away a couple of steps on the line and now perform 3 inside pivots, shuffle away a couple of steps and perform three outside pivots. You are now back at the starting point.
The first pass through the triangle drill.

Triangle drill. Click here for a movie. Mark out an equialteral triangle. Step at the vertices. In the pictures, I've put weights on the floor to show where the triangle vertices are. Be sure to bring your feet together on the movement. After each pivot, do a quick turn to scan the area. You can also just do this as a speed drill omitting the turns to see how fast you can pivot. Remember that while this is loads of fun, you are leaving out the important component of scanning to just optimize your speed.
The second pass through the triangle drill.
Once around the triangle will not get you back where you started, meaning that your starting position is to the inside of the triangle. After a circuit, you will facing the outside of the triangle, but a futher circuit will get you back. Repeat on the other side. This gets you to practice 60 degree pivots.

Box drill
Click here for a movie. Very similar to the triangle drill, but have a square. In the picture I have the vertices marked with weights. Unlike the triangle drill you always return to the same starting position with each circuit. Do both sides. This gets you to practice 90 degree pivots.

You could get carried away and do other polygons, but that's not worth the effort or the mental gymnastics. With both the triangle and box drills, you don't need to do them for speed, although that is fun to practice. The big thing is practicing looking around you. Can't emphasize that enough.

Pivots and twists on the circle. This is another fabulous drill. Twists are quite natural on the circle and pivots are excellent too. For the twists, do them without pausing, so you can literally make a twist as soon as the stepping foot touches the floor. This little trick will greatly improve the fluidity of your twists.

The dot drill

In our great tradition of ripping off excellent footwork drill from others we give you the dot drill.  This is a really great footwork drill from the 1940's by Adolph Rupp for his basketball players. Visualize 5 dots, just like on a die:
D          E



A and B are shoulder width apart, as are D and E. C is directly in the middle and the distance from A to D is two shoulder widths (can be a bit more if you like a challenge).

Now, There are several hopping patterns. Choose a few and do each one 5 times. Time yourself and see if you can't best your own time. These are:

  1. (Hourglass) Left foot on A, right on B. Hop so both feet are on C, then hop with legs apart to D and E. Reverse the motion, hopping backwards.
  2. (Hourglass twist) Same as the first one, but when you get to each end, do a 180 degree jump in the air, feet apart. This just keeps you always facing in the direction of travel.
  3. (Figure 8) Feet together do one side then the other: A - C - D  - E - C - B
  4. (Triangle) Feet apart on A+B hop together on C then back. Also together on C then apart on D - E.
  5. (L's) Feet together A - B - E and reverse. Do the other side: B - A - D.
  6. (M's) Feet together A - D - C - E - B. Reverse.
  7. (N's) Feet together A - D - C - B - E
  8. (O's) Feet together A - D - E - B and reverse it.
This is fun and actually counts as cardio training too... You can do many of these one -footed too. Note: for those of us with ankle and/or knee trouble, doing feet together is a very knee safe way to train jumping.