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Historical Combat Balance & Power Training by Mark Hatmaker

Footwork is a mainstay of combat sports and martial reality. The feet are the deuce-and-a-halfs that get your munitions to the field of battle.

The feet are your mode of retreat to get out of harm’s way.

Your feet are the two pegs you use to cut angles to better deflect, diminish, evade an attacker’s gambit and apply your own meanness.

Footwork is, was, and will always be vital to matters martial.

But…Just as important is what you can do on your feet while basically standing stock still.

How much heft can you generate from this on-point position?

There is a huge archive of material from the historical record showing how much emphasis was placed on static stances, but this static base was seemingly not the primary focus of static-stance drills.

It seems that static balance in-the-midst-of-power was the treasured attribute. The ability to deliver “Oomph!” while retaining poise.

The historical record presents us with more than a few drills that seek to develop this. We also find a handful of “sporting matches” or complete combat arts based around the attribute of balance and power.

On the Eastern Martial arts side of things, we can find practically entire systems dedicated to balance work, Mei Hu or Plum Blossom Kung Fu and its pole training comes to mind. To those unfamiliar with it, picture a series of shortened telephone posts driven into the ground. The practitioner is then expected to drill and even spar while maneuvering perched atop these precarious fiends. [Any of us who have tackled pole-leaping obstacles in Spartan Races can appreciate the added difficulty of fighting while treacherously aloft.]

I also call your attention to a sport I absolutely love out of Thailand, Muay Tale, [sometimes Muay Talay] or, “sea-boxing.”

Essentially two combatants straddle themselves atop of a naval boom [horizontal post] approximately 5 feet above water or a matted surface and go to town with standard boxing rules until one [often both] plunge into the water. Keep in mind you can still keep firing punches if you lose your balance and spin underneath the boom keeping out of the water with a stout leg-scissors.

[Historian and novelist Paul Wellman creates a similar battle in the form of an apocryphal knife-duel for Jim Bowie on the pirate island of Galvez in his entertaining novel The Iron Mistress.]

Muay Tale and the Jim Bowie related form are worthy additions to your training if for nothing else the fun-factor.

Bringing balance and power training closer to the Western martial arts side of things, we have accounts of “rail” and “trestle” matches of boxing, wrestling, often both [that is, Frontier Rough and Tumble] being conducted atop logs, elevated railroad ties, on the sides of trestle bridges. In short, anywhere odd that you could place two combatants to “go to town.”

Balance and power were coveted attributes in America’s frontier, if anyone has witnessed lumberjacks competing in the springboard chop event you’ll know what I mean. Standing on a 12” wide board, precariously notched into the side of a tree while chopping with full-power. I mean, come on that is POWER & BALANCE!

There are more than a few accounts of American Indians engaging in competitive brawling atop logs in a variation of the legend told of Robin Hood and Little John and their quarterstaff fight on a log-bridge. [FYI: If you dig Robin Hood narratives, Angus Donald has delivered a gorgeous series of novels called The Outlaw Chronicles that gives us a mean and gritty version of the Robin Hood story.]

We find many accounts of old-school boxing coaches tying their fighters’ shoelaces together to get them to find balance and power in their footwork and to reduce over-committed lunges.

We find similar ideas in “tea-tray” training in which 18th-century London fencing masters would have pupils work call and response with foil or epee while perched on a tea-tray to limit their footwork.

It is with all of these historical traditions in mind that I offer the below variations of Combat Balance & Power Exercises culled from Frontier Rough and Tumble accounts. [Dozens more such ideas can be found in our upcoming book Rough& Ready: Old World Strength & Conditioning for Modern Warriors.]



·        Place a 2x4 or 4x4 on the ground in front of a heavy bag.

·        Perch yourself atop it and put in that day’s rounds-find your power in this constricted position.


·        Same idea here but in this case we have elevated that 4x4 to at least 28” above the ground.

·        Not having a bag with this height clearance, I use a frontal rail positioned in front of a tree where I can suspend a heavy bag higher than normal, or in front of the tree-trunk itself where I have positioned a crash pad or wrapped foam in burlap around the trunk.

·        Even if you found “The Baby Rail” to be a piece of cake, elevating the same perch takes some getting used to as the consequences for over-reaching or bag blowback are higher.

·        You will find timidity drops your commitment to power. Your job, keep the work up until you find your power rising back to a respectable level.


·        Place your 4x4 on the ground in front of the heavy bag at a right angle-that is the end of the rail facing the bag.

·        Hit your rounds here.


·        Let’s take it back to the elevation and repeat.

·        Again, you will notice a decline in “Oomph!” as the stakes are, literally, higher.

There are several handfuls more of these unusual training methods in the old Rough and Tumble tradition that we will save for another day. But with the above four ideas in mind for preparatory training and then adding a bit of limited sparring to the rails [Baby or Elevated] you will find when you go through a week or two of this and then take your game back to an unlimited footwork, flat-ground base you will be coking with GAS!

 “You’ll be a rough and bluff fighter, who has fought through the mill and refused to grind fine.”

In other words, a bit more bad-ass on your road to bad-assery.

“Attacking and/or Avoiding the Buckler” that carries the combat moral of the day.

For more on our Rough & Tumble Program see the RAW Crew.]


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