The Myth of Filipino Kali Attribute Development

The Myth of Filipino Kali Attribute Development

(Picture Above: “Hey Magellan, check out my improved attributes.” said Lapu Lapu, NEVER)

I’ve been teaching Filipino martial arts through Bayani Warrior ( these past two years. The Filipino fighting arts have found a distinct place in the American martial arts scene. When I first began my Filipino Kali training as a teenager, I was told that Filipino Kali is essential to study because it improves one’s “attributes” for fighting, which include footwork, timing, speed, reaction time, and coordination. While Filipino Kali practitioners certainly do possess heightened combative attributes such as these, I personally believe that training in the Filipino martial arts for the sake of developing attributes is misleading. In this article, I intend to explain the purpose of the Filipino martial arts and it’s relation to the topic of “attribute development”.

The Filipino fighting arts are perceived and received differently in the USA than they are in the Philippines. Here in the United States, the Filipino martial arts are largely viewed as an “add-on” system. In other words, the Filipino fighting arts of Kali, Arnis, and Escrima are often viewed as a martial arts style designed to “compliment” one’s current martial art style…which is oftentimes an empty hand system (Muay Thai, Kenpo, Kung Fu, Boxing, etc.) that lacks a weapons component. Many people from empty hand martial arts systems gravitate towards Kali for two primary reasons: 

1) They want to have some type of combative skill set with the weapon.

2) They want to improve their combative attributes (timing, footwork, speed, coordination, etc.) 

Since the American culture often frowns upon individuals carrying and fighting with sticks and blades, the vast majority of Americans (even those who train in Kali) never think that they will have to actually fight with a stick or a blade in a real fight. As a result, many Americans who train in Kali often train in the Filipino martial arts for the sake of developing attributes which are, as they are told, designed to improve their empty hand skills.

My personal journey with Kali knows this point all too well. I began my Kali training at twelve years old in my home-state of New Jersey. When I first began my training, my teacher told me that the reason why one should train in Kali is because it develops combative attributes. While techniques are important, they mean nothing if they do not possess the attributes (footwork, timing, speed, etc.) to back them up, and he told me that Kali was the ultimate way to develop combative attributes which would aid your empty hand skills. I began to learn flow drill after flow drill and sparred with rubber knives countless times. These days became the beginning of my Kali journey. When I was thirteen years old, my family and I moved to Southeast Asia due to my mother’s career path. We lived in Bangkok, Thailand and we would go to Manila, Philippines quite often throughout the year to visit family. Of course, every time I stayed in Manila, I sought out to train in Kali. I remember going to one of my first Kali instructors in the Philippines and demonstrating what I learned in the USA. He asked me why I trained that way, and I told him “Because it develops fighting attributes.” He told me, “Attributes? You should just learn how to fight with the weapon instead!”

It was then I realized that Filipino Kali was NOT an add-on art. After all, it was never designed to be an add-on art to supplement one’s empty hand skills, and none of the old masters trained in Kali because they felt it would improve their coordination. Rather, it was designed to be the art that you fought and killed on the battlefield with. 

While it is true that Kali can improve one’s reflexes, timing, footwork, and coordination, it’s important to note that all of these improved attributes are simply a by-product to training in Kali, and should NOT be the main reason why one trains in the Filipino fighting arts. If one is to train in the Filipino fighting arts, it is important for them to understand that they must approach Kali with the same earnestness and the same intent that they would studying any other martial art. Kali is NOT a style of drills to function as an add-on to your current martial art. Rather, it is a combative art designed for the purpose of self-preservation.

Attributes DO NOT improve fighting skill. However, developing fighting skills CAN improve one’s attributes.

Now, it is important to note that as with anything in life, there is a right and a wrong way to do things. A lot of people train Kali flow drills (Hubud, Sinawali, Sumbrada) constantly…thinking that they are improving their combative attributes. While these drills do improve attributes, these attributes do not always crossover functionally to a live weapons exchange. This is for two reasons:

1) The Flow Drill is being trained improperly. To understand why, check out the following video. (Make sure to click the link on the video for Part 2 when you are done).

2) They spend more time doing flow drills than actually sparring or fighting with their weapons in a realistic and proper setting. 

We need to remember that attributes are not always universal. For example, while the coordination and footwork needed to be a dancer can help improve the coordination and footwork needed to become a good fighter…it doesn’t necessarily mean that the fighter can expect to be a better fighter by learning how to dance. The fighter gets better at fighting by well…fighting. Attributes are good, but developing actual functional fighting skill is more important and will in turn actually improve your attributes. 

Now, I am not saying all you need to do is fight or spar to develop realistic fighting skill. However, what I am saying is that there are more functional and realistic ways to develop fighting skill that actually translates to a real fight AND can improve your attributes as well. Yes, Flow Drills when done right can develop these skills, but as the following Atienza Eskrima video shows, there are also other functional ways to improve your fighting skills and in turn, your attributes, at the same time:

In conclusion, while it is true that training in Kali can improve attributes such as coordination, timing, and speed, one should not view the Filipino martial arts as simply an add-on art to supplement your empty hand skills. Rather, one must view the Filipino martial arts as they were designed to be: effective combative methods for protecting your land, your family, and yourself. Attribute development does not come just from drills, but from realistic training with the weapon. 

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