CTS / Footwork Friday / Martial Arts

Footwork Friday: Traction

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2016 be better than 2015 for all of you. Now is the time to set some goals for the year, or if you have leftover goals from last year, now is the time to review and rededicate yourself. For me, I’m continuing on with my goal of posting footwork articles on Friday. On the first day of the year, I’m working towards achieving my goals. That bodes well for 2016. Today’s article comes from a discussion I had on our Google Plus page. Yes, surprisingly, Google Plus is still a thing. This discussion came on the heels – pun intended – of my post about matching steps to strikes. It was centered on the planting of the foot when striking. Mr. Richardson’s point was that the student should be on the balls of the feet while I had mine with their heels on the mat. He made some great points, and the discussion got me thinking about the pros and cons of each position.

Footwork Friday Logo

Disclaimer: The footwork discussed below is from Counterpoint Tactical System as I’ve learned it from Master Zach Whitson. Any errors or inconsistencies are mine. The spirit of this series is me studying footwork in more depth. I don’t claim to know everything, and I will make mistakes. But, again, those mistakes are mine. Also, this article is for reference only and should be used as a secondary source only. Please, see a Filipino martial arts instructor if you wish to accurately learn these techniques.


The video that started this discussion:

Footwork Position #1

In that video, the students have their feet set before swinging the stick. This is how I begin teaching movement and striking. Note that it is not the only way to strike, and it’s not the only way that I teach to strike, but it is one way. I teach this because I want the maximum surface area of the foot to engage with the ground. We’ll get more into that later, though. For now, pay attention to Joe’s foot. The force of his weight is spread out over the area of his shoe sole. For the purposes of this article, let’s call this the set position.

Pros Cons
Surface Area Less Mobility
Drive with Heel Slower Reaction

Feet Planted

Footwork Position #2

Mr. Richardson made the point that many martial arts such as Muay Thai stand on their toes. You will find this position of the foot in most sports. In this stance, the force of Joe’s weight is transferred to the ground from the ball of his foot to his toes across the width of the foot. Like the set position, Joe’s weight is equally distributed between his legs. Joe can spring in any direction, and he’s much more mobile than in the set position. Let’s call this the toes position.

Pros Cons
Fast Reaction Time Less Surface Area
Increased Mobility Increased Energy Usage

On Yer Toes


Force due to friction. Click picture for a more detailed explanation.
Equation courtesy of http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu

Friction is the force impeding motion between two surfaces. For footwork, think of friction as traction. There are only two components to frictional force: the coefficient of friction and the normal force. Think of the coefficient of friction as a material property, like the difference between the surface texture of ice and sandpaper. The normal force is a force perpendicular to a surface. In the case of Joe in the pictures above, the normal force is the force he is applying to the floor of the gym. In that case, the force is his weight. By definition, area doesn’t affect the frictional force. So, for similar surfaces, the frictional force is the same. Therefore, in this situation, the toes position is more beneficial to Joe because there isn’t a difference in the frictional force. It’s better for Joe to be on his toes in a more mobile position.

Surface Area

Exceptions to the rule. Click picture for a more detailed explanation. Equation courtesy of http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu

For most cases, the surface area has no affect on the frictional force. As with everything in life, it is not a universal absolute, though. There are times when surface area does affect the frictional force, and when relying on traction for footwork, it’s important to understand what those special cases are. Special cases are dependent upon the surface we’re in contact with. Or, for martial arts purposes, the condition of the ground we’re pushing off against. If the surface area is small enough that the force causes a compaction of the ground, it is possible to change the coefficient of friction. Take the case of tires on snow. Regardless of wide or narrow tires, the normal force, or the weight of the car, is the same, but the pressure on the snow is different. Since loose snow isn’t strong enough to hold the weight of the tire, it will compact. By compacting, it becomes more slippery, which means less friction. The wider tire doesn’t compact as much snow because the force on the tire is spread out over more snow. Thus, it has more traction.

Compacting snow. Click picture for a more detailed explanation. Equation courtesy of http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu

This same idea can apply to footwork. The surface area of Joe’s feet is defined as length times width. See the photo below for the differences in length. The area that distributes Joe’s weight matters depending on the surface. The gym mat is stiff enough that it doesn’t change much when the area of applied force changes. But not all martial arts happen on gym mats or the canvas of the ring. Self defense happens in varying environments, and it’s important to understand how to adapt to changing ground conditions.



Environmental Factors

Self defense happens in non-ideal situations. It’s important to understand environmental factors. For example, the picture below shows the different ground textures in and around the gym that I train at. Gravel, grass, gym mats, asphalt, astroturf, etc., all affect movement differently. For loose gravel, standing on your toes could drive down into rock the instead of keeping it together for traction. This is just an example.

Ground Surface Texture

The photo below this one shows different surface conditions. One is a dry mat, and one is wet road. The water changes the coefficient of friction of the road. Dust, ice, dirt, leaves, etc. change the surface condition. As the surfaces change, so must our footwork to maintain the optimal traction for our footwork.

Weather Conditions


There is no right or wrong technique. Technique is an idea; only application of the technique matters. Neither the toes or the set position is better than the other in abstract; it’s how they’re used. In an ideal environment, students on their toes have more mobility and more reaction time. In an environment with a compromised surface, the set position may provide better traction, which means better footwork. I recommend you try both on various surfaces to determine your own ideas. Practice, explore, and if you disagree with me, let me know why in the comments.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!


3 thoughts on “Footwork Friday: Traction

  1. 🙂 I also like practicing kata (forms) on various surfaces. I remember one time I was having a lot of difficulty with a turn in a kata I was learning – I had a tendency to turn on the heels which we’re not supposed to do in our style of Karate. One day I was practicing wearing sneakers on hard-packed earth in the woods and lo and behold I could NOT turn unless I turned on the balls of my feet. Other surfaces I’ve trained or practiced on: barefoot on tournament mats, barefoot on hard rubber floor, barefoot on hardwood, barefoot on wood aerobics floor (springy), barefoot on dry grass, barefoot on carpet, barefoot on dewy grass, sneakers on dry grass, sneakers on concrete, sneakers on shingle (slight slope and flat), sneakers on sand (slight slope, flat, dry, and wet/packed), and sneakers on dry hard earth with tree roots. I haven’t yet mustered up the courage to practice on a narrow wet trail carved into the side of a steep forested clay bluff. Every single variation brings interesting new dimensions to the forms – especially a slope. One can experiment with starting the form with uphill to one’s left, to one’s right, to one’s front, and to one’s back to see how movements change. It’s a lot of fun to explore 🙂

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