Refine Your Skills with Partner Training

What are some common ways to refine a skill or technique?

  1. Start slow with fundamentals

  2. Break the material into chunks

  3. Repetition

  4. Find the Sweet Spot

Last month, we released a video on one of our training requirements: a checklist for Shaolin 1st Level Fighting Forms. (Note: Rather than being a tutorial, the video is more of a checklist for students with experience training the drill.)

Fighting Forms are 2-person bare hand or weapon exercises designed to train specific techniques. They appear throughout the YMAA Shaolin and Taiji Curricula, indicating their importance in our learning system. One could regard certain Taiji Pushing Hands patterns (such as Double Pushing Hands with Six Options, Peng Lu Ji An, Taiji Symbol, and Cai Lie Zhou Kao) to be extended Fighting Forms, considering the number of techniques involved.

The number of possible Fighting Forms is infinite. At higher levels in the Shaolin curriculum, students are required to deepen their understanding by creating their own.

“But I’m just starting out. How do I train them?”

1) Start slow with fundamentals

...and continue revisiting fundamentals throughout your practice. They are called “fundamentals” for a reason!

First, practice slowly on your own. For example, for Shaolin 1st Level Fighting Forms:

  • Blocks

  • Punches and chambering

  • Rocking stances

  • Turning the waist & torso

  • Using your entire body

Next, practice slowly with a partner.

2) Break the material into chunks

Most Shaolin Fighting Forms are short enough. Certain Pushing Hands patterns are short (each of the Double Pushing Hands with Six Options), while others should be broken down further. For example, for Peng Lu Ji An: Peng to Lu, neutralize Lu, Lu to Ji, Ji to An, An to Peng

3) Repetition

That’s what Fighting Forms are! A few techniques repeated over and over.

RRR: Repetition builds reaction (voluntary responses) and reflexes (involuntary responses).

4) Find the Sweet Spot

In “The Little Book of Talent,” Danial Coyle talks about the Sweet Spot between your Comfort Zone and Survival Zone. Sweet Spot description:

  • Sensations: Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. Fully engaged in an intense struggle, nearly unreachable goal.

  • Percentage of Successful Attempts: 50-80%

Training within your Sweet Spot provides a balance between comfort and challenge.

Instant Feedback

Did you neutralize well or not? A prime benefit of partner drills is the instant feedback on your form.

Oftentimes, we need to be given a specific impetus to train a particular counter technique. We can’t practice blocking low if the punch is too high. (Technically, you can but with other consequences.) If we never pluck, our partner won’t learn how to escape them. If our partner doesn’t execute a takedown well, we could develop a false sense of proper neutralization.

Key components to partner practice: mutual respect for one another and the willingness to offer constructive feedback.

Don’t be afraid to let your partner know if he should punch lower, keep his elbow pointed down, or wait until you start executing Rollback before he “neutralizes” something that hasn’t yet happened. The nature of patterns is that we know what’s coming next and it’s important to react instead of anticipating. We sometimes refer to this as “being psychic.”

The more you train, the more you develop an eye for details and the feeling. You learn to recognize your own deficiencies and then the deficiencies in others. Communication and analysis can lead to more efficient training. In an age of being time-obsessed, efficiency is especially vital.

Partner Motivation

What better motivation is there to block a punch aimed at you? Aside from the obvious, good partners can also provide mental and emotional encouragement when you’re not up to the task. We all go through periods of gloom. Sometimes we’re distracted by a non-training situation and a partner can help you focus on the task at hand.

Within the drill, partners can feed you enough of a challenge so you both learn and improve. Ideally, you motivate each other to raise your training spirits and manifest the flavor of the martial arts style.

You’ve trained for a while. Now, you’d like to get checked and eventually test.

Ask your instructor and fellow students for feedback. How well do you have the basic mechanics? What about the feeling? Determining whether you are ready is a learning process in itself.

Another tool that may help is a checklist for self evaluations. While there are no YMAA official checklists, this is our guideline and basic criteria for the Shaolin 1st Level Fighting Forms.

Shaolin 1st Level Fighting Forms Checklist:

Basic criteria:

  • Rocking stances

  • Twist waist and turn torso

  • Shoulders down

  • Elbows down while blocking

  • Correct targets

  • Block past body

  • Chamber at waist or shoulder/armpit

  • Proper hand forms for blocks and punches (Note: Michelle's right middle and ring fingers are tensed downward in the low repel in Fighting Form #5. (They got nervous, what can I say). Keep the last 3 fingers relaxed and safe from Qin Na locks.)


  • Better connection of entire body, intention coming from center

  • Faster speed while maintaining good technique

  • Smoother intercepting

  • More intention in blocks and punches

The bare hand Fighting Forms are known as Panshou (AKA Qiao Shou), which means "Connecting Hands" or "Bridging Hands."

Special thanks to/shot at: YMAA Andover (Andover, MA)

A very special thanks to my volunteers!

Suggestions Welcome!

If there’s a video topic you’d like us to cover, let us know!

Browse our library for a list of other partner drills: Shaolin & Taijiquan