Soft Style, Hard Style; Which is Better?

On the General Classification of Martial Arts

Martial arts styles are usually grouped together based on their nation of origin- Filipino martial arts or “FMA” like escrima and kali, Chinese martial arts commonly lumped together as “kung fu” in the West, and of course familiar Japanese martial arts like karate, aikido, and traditional jujutsu… This distinction is of particular import to those whose primary concern is the protection and dissemination of tradition in keeping with the culture and heritage thereof.From perhaps a more technical perspective, martial arts may also be classified as “internal” or “external”, “hard” or “soft”, “linear” or “circular” and this is the view of many practitioners whose primary concerns are about execution and application- how a technique or style expresses itself and is used in actual combat.

There is significant overlap of the above terms, as well as variable levels of each, from style to style. Western minds still tend to work in a very Manchaen fashion (where things must be one way OR the other; black/white, manly/womanly, good/bad, with little to no grey are in between) and so tend to struggle with the fact that the world just isn’t that way.Starting with what may be easier to understand, “hard styles” tend to focus on  “external” development -muscle mass, speed, power output- and tends toward linear movement. These are your typical punching and kicking arts – Tae Kwon Do, Muy Thai, and Western pugilism or boxing.

The “soft styles” tend to focus on “internal” development – balance, subtlety, inner peace – and tends toward circular movement. These arts also tend to incorporate more grappling, wrestling and throws. Taijiquan, JuJitsu, and Aikido all exemplify this fairly well.That being said, MOST styles are a mixture of all of these. Even Taiji seeks to express “yin” and “yang” in its movements, and, when applied to actual fighting, there are “hard” strikes and blocks that move along the line of attack just as much as there are circular throws and redirection of offending blows. Wing Chun tends to move in a line, and utilizes great force, even defending by striking at strikes or “defanging the snake” as they would say in the Filipino martial arts, and yet there is still great emphasis on internal power and circular movement.

The “ju” in “jujitsu” and “goju ryu” means “gentle” so some people seem to think that means being “nice” to the opponent and avoiding serious damage if possible. This idea is especially prevalent in aikido, and is completely false. Almost all “soft” styles use vital point striking  and joint manipulation (kyushojitsu, in Japanese or qin na in Chinese) which are not only quite painful but can easily lead to severe injury or death. Aikijujitsu almost always moves in circles, strikes at vital points, and often seeks to destroy limbs as part of its defense.

This is a soft, circular style with a much more external expression than aikido or jujitsu, and actually came first rather than being a combination of the two as the name seems to imply.Qigong is primarily used for the cultivation of internal power, and development of the ability to regulate and move the flow of energy within the body. It helps to promote vitality, flexibility and organ health. It also develops physical strength and flexibility, albeit in a more subtle way than say push-ups or splits. Qigong is used in many esoteric healing practices, not unlike the more well-known Japanese practice of Reiki.

At the same time, Qigong is also the key element of “iron body” practice, an esoteric martial art technique of making the body less vulnerable and more resilient to attack or damage. If you’e heard of “iron fist” “iron palm” or “iron shirt” also known as the “golden bell cover” these are all types of HARD qigong, even though qigong itself is an “internal” art therefore commonly associated with “soft” styles. Like yin and yang, internal flows to external and vice-verse.

Understanding hardness and softness leads not only to deeper comprehension of martial arts, but translates to more effective technique by knowing how to attack and defend with the appropriate energy format. One can move in both circles and lines simultaneously- using a small circle joint lock while moving the body along a line to drive the opponent to the ground, or stepping in a circle to move off the line of attack while countering with a direct linear assault as is common to mantis-style kung fu.

Martial arts is not stagnant, it is an art of motion. Like all things in nature, there is a constant exchange and interplay of forces which spiral around one another in an endless dance.So, when classifying martial arts, or looking for a new style or technique to study, remember not to be too limiting. Don’t put things into boxes and assume complete understanding based on a superficial label. No style is better or worse than any other. It is all about your personal mastery, and how well that art works with you and for you.

Ultimately, all fighters end up cherry-picking techniques and blending them together anyway. Some bodies are more suited to emphasize soft styles, others work better with hard, yet both will employ both to some extent. Internal arts will always enhance external arts, and external work will make your internal power more effective.As always, seek BALANCE in all things…

Regarding Criticism of Traditional Martial Arts, and “Soft Styles” In Particular.

I am constantly seeing people claiming that traditional martial arts do not train you for practical self defense, that none of them deal with the threat of multiple attackers, or that MMA/UFC type styles somehow better prepare you because of their heavier emphasis on ground fighting…

First of all, people need to try and remember that MOST martial arts “styles” were in fact born of things like warfare and revolution. Just because the way they are presented in most schools today is a watered-down, whitewashed, diminished representation of what it was doesn’t warrant bashing the “styles” for being “unrealistic” because it is the teachers that make it so.

There are lots of styles out there with lots of aspects that are either under-publicized, or under-appreciated. More importantly, it isn’t the style so much as how you train it. Most styles can be adapted to real world environments and reality based defensive situations just by approaching them in that way and practicing more reality-based scenarios.

As to the styles themselves; There is a little known kung fu style called Gǒuquán or “dog fist” based (as many kung fu styles are) on the observation of animal behaviors, in this case, dogs. Now, if you go you-tubing all you are going to find is Chinese acrobat performances, like you do for so many other animal styles. These are NOT performances of the actual fighting techniques. It is a problem of cultural context. In Chinese “kung fu” just means “advanced skill from born from diligent, devoted practice” so it is not always a fighting art.

“Dog style kung fu” is not necessarily Gǒuquán, just like having “knife kung fu” could mean you are really good at slicing vegetables OR you are a good knife fighter. I bring this up because Gǒuquán is known for heavy emphasis on ground fighting, takedowns, and joint locks… much like BJJ… only this style was developed by a Shaolin nun who was tired of being harassed, whereas BJJ was born of sport. The takedowns and “locks” found in “dog kung fu” are really designed and intended to destroy the opponent’s limbs rather than bring them to submission as one would do in “the octagon”. So, here we have a traditional martial art with focus both on ground fighting and practical self defense, yet hardly anyone in the West has ever heard of it because it hasn’t found expression in popular sport.

A traditional part of aikido is the “randori” which is an exercise involving multiple attackers coming in from all angles, with completely random attacks, while one person defends for as long as they can. Someone said to me, when I brought up randori, that the “attackers” only use one or two types of attacks, and are obliged to immediately throw themselves upon contact… all I can say, is that is NOT how it was done where I learned aikido, nor would I even remotely consider practicing/teaching in that way.

Proper randori serves many functions- it teaches you to deal with the chaotic energy of combat. It teaches you to keep in the “flow” of combat. It teaches you awareness of space, and how to move your body in space, even without always being able to see or look at what’s going on. I am not saying it is the absolute best in the business of preparing for real combat against multiple attackers, but that is the basic idea and function. So, yeah, traditional martial arts DO teach you to deal with multiple threats, at least sometimes.

Ultimately, it comes down to a lot of denigration and doubt regarding the things that are commonly called “soft style” martial arts, which happens to be primarily what I have trained in and what I teach. They are not “soft” because they are weak, or cause less harm, but rather the manner in which the energy flows and is transmitted. “Hard” styles meet force with force, “soft” styles redirect it. “Hard” styles are also harder on the body, whereas “soft” styles can be practiced by people of any age, will avail you longer than “hard” styles can, and actually contribute considerably to longevity and better health well into old age.

In truth, all styles use both principles to varying degrees. Fundamentally, “softness” is meant to deal with “hardness” and vice-verse.


A subtle part of being able to take a punch is the ability to absorb the blow. Now, you can toughen your abs all you want, but a hard enough punch will still cause significant damage. However, you can learn to cave the body a bit and lift the heels so that the force goes through you rather than just taking it. That is the principle of softness at work, and even boxers can use this, and I know SPETZNAS used to train for this, so that says something for combat effectiveness.

As I have addressed before, people tend to assume “tai chi” has something to do with a mysterious (or imaginary) energy called “chi” (which actually means “breath/vitality”) when, in fact, it is “taiji,” a principle exemplified by the common “yin-yang” symbol (properly called a “taijitu”) which refers to the complementary flow of forces of extreme polarities. Taijiquan is probably considered the “softest” style ever conceived, yet, even this, uses hardness. Quite often in fact. In the beautifully titled movement “parting the wild horse’s mane” is an obvious element of hardness directly following softness, because this is really the fundamental nature of taijiquan- the exchange of energies between polar extremes.

There are many variations of martial application of this movement, but, to give one example; let’s say someone throws a right cross, this is a power punch from the away-side that throws the entire body into the strike by pivoting the rear foot and turning the torso with the punch. The first part of “parting the wild horse’s mane” will receive this punch and pull the opponent off balance, utilizing all that momentum and force they are generating from the pivot. The second part of the movement will utilize that split second in which the opponent is off balance and their full force and body weight are being propelled forward to throw a fist, forearm, or elbow into the opponent while propelling them in the opposite direction.

This back-to-forward and soft-to-hard type of application is quite typical of the combat applications of taijiquan. In case you didn’t catch it, the grabbing and pulling off balance part is the “soft” half, while throwing the elbow into the ribs (or whatever you do) while reversing direction, that’s “hardness.”

Now, because so much of what goes on in “soft styles” is more felt than seen, SOME teachers will have more advanced students train with less advanced ones so that they can “comply” or go with the technique as it is MEANT to be performed so that the lower level student can get a feel for what should be happening. The advanced student can then offer pointers and advise subtle corrections to the less experienced student, and gradually increase the level of resistance offered. -That’s how things were done where I learned and I continue that tradition in my own teaching career.

Perhaps too many students decided they could be teachers before they learned any better, or perhaps the standards were lowered to make classes more “fun” and inclusive. I simply can’t speak for the motives of others, nor do I wish to “bash” other teaching styles, I’m just saying that more responsibility for how various martial arts “styles” are expressed, and how functional or not they are in actual combat, lay with the teachers than with the arts themselves.

As I teach now, I have come to insist on more resistance early on, and we hardly ever practice “planned fights.” When it comes time to teach techniques, I simply ask someone to “come at me” or “advance” and I deal with whatever they throw at me, then break it down and commence practice. I allow for innovation and modification too, but we always test and re-test the efficacy thereof.

Even in drills, like tui shou, it begins with simple, planned movements to get the student used to sensing the opponent. It won’t do to practice even this basic step without properly directed intent, ie moving toward the student as you would if going for a choke or a punch, etc. What many do not realize, though, is that the real practice is completely random and progresses into application of locks and throws. It may begin like a “dance” of sorts, but it quickly becomes less predictable and more combative, or at least it should, in my opinion.

If I learned in this way, and then progressed to teach it in an even LESS compliant fashion than my own teacher, I can’t believe I am the only one who has gone this path.

In the end, I would think that making generalizations about what styles are and are not effective would be avoided by real martial artists, who would know that each teacher will teach in a different way and each student will use it in a different way, even if they learned from the same teacher. This happens because what is more effective for one may be less effective for another. Furthermore, teachers and students may have different goal for study and practice. Ultimately, it falls to the practitioner to seek the knowledge and skills they need, and to strive for efficacy in the aspects they value and which coincide with their training goals.

Basically what I am saying is this; work to progress your own art in whatever manners suits you, and stop judging other styles with which you have little or no experience. Martial arts are physical in nature, so if you want to be able to talk about it, you have to experience it first. If you go into something expecting it to be worthless nonsense, that is all you are going to get. Your mission isn’t to learn, it is just to find enough “evidence” to support your preconceptions and prejudice. Those are easy to find regarding anything. If you approach dramatically different martial arts in earnest, however, you might just slip up and learn something that will make you a more effective fighter, maybe even a more mature, open minded, and well-rounded individual…

Stay humble my friends.

About the Author Rae Heskett

Born intersex, assigned "male" at birth, but her femininity was obvious as she developed. Ergo, Rae is both "intersex" and "transgender" in that her gender does not match that assigned at birth. She identifies as "hijra" or "kathoey" -words from Hindi and Thai languages respectively for "third gender" people. Rae is an author, holistic healer, and martial artist. She teaches and provides services professionally.

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