The Pyramid of Skills

With all the styles that are being openly taught now, and the great trend for MMA and cross training, Students can be like a kid in a candy store about what styles they want to take. A striking style, a grappling style, a traditional or modern style, of course part of this choice will be somewhat dictated by what is available and training goals. But if you live in a larger city with a lot of choice and you are looking for practical self-defence what should you train in?
The phrase ‘no style has all the answers’ is used a lot and is as true today as it ever has been. Beyond that we can also say no teacher has all the answers, take 2 or three teachers in one style and of course you are going to find differences in them. So we should sometimes not be looking at picking a style but also picking a teach within a style.
In my opinion there is an order that things should be trained and training should focus on some skills more than others. I refer to this as the ‘pyramid of skills’ which can be broken down as follows

At the base of the pyramid we should have striking; this is the foundation and also covers the most area. Meaning not only should it be the first thing that you study but should also be the biggest part of what you do. Read any interview by some of the leading self-protection experts in the wold and most, if not all of them, advocate developing very powerful striking ability. However, it is not just about hitting hard, although that would be the base of the level, but also about distancing, timing, grabbing and pulling limbs, and other support skills. In short everything that you need to be able to deliver hard strikes punches, knife hands, kicks, head butts, to your opponent

Now a lot of people never move off the first level of the pyramid and certainly there are many good fighters out there who have only trained in striking. But to become a more well-rounded martial artist and develop skills you need to continue to build on those skills. With that we can move on to the next level of the pyramid

Grappling, again this is a very large part of the pyramid and a very large topic; we can break it down to stand up grappling/clinch fighting and groundwork. Although for self-protection we don’t need the depth of knowledge of an MMA competitor, by that I mean we don’t need to know how to tap people out on the ground. For self-defence however we do need some skills, to throw and attack from the clinch and to get up from the ground. The strong strikes that you have trained in the first part of the pyramid can also be integrated into the skills you learn here.

At this point in the pyramid there is a divide, the striking and the grappling side of the arts are huge and in themselves make very complete and competent martial artists. However, to then go on to say that those two huge skill areas are the only things of any value in the arts, does a great disservice to a great number of teachers and other skill within the martial arts.

The final two sections of the pyramid are given over to some ‘higher skills’. I use the term ‘higher skills’ not to imply that people that know these skills are in anyway superior to the ones that don’t. But more because for these skills to employed effectively a practitioner needs a good solid grounding in the two lower sets of skills. You may also notice that because this is a pyramid, not a tower, the area taken up by these last two sections is considerably smaller than the previous two. Meaning that there should be less emphasis on these skills.

The next section on the pyramid is for joint manipulation, whereas during the grappling section and possible even the striking section there is some overlap in to limb control, this area would be looking deeper into things like wrist locks and finger locks etc. strangely when people go to self-defence courses it is mainly techniques form this section that are taught, maybe because they make the teacher look good and complex so people think they are getting value for money. It is due to this complexity that puts joint manipulation in to the higher section. Unless you have the distancing and timing skill of striking and the close in range holds etc. of grappling you will find it very difficult to apply any sort of locking or small joint breaking technique. Also without the training in the other two sections you may find yourself at a loss as to what to do after you have the lock. A lock in itself is not usually a fight stopper but can be used to place your opponent in a position for some follow up attacks.

The last part or the pyramid and therefore the top and the smallest part is point striking. Whether you believe in pressure points or not the fact is you have to be a very skilled martial artist to hit a single point or a number of points in sequence during any sort of a fight. You would need all the skill from the previous levels of the pyramid to apply point striking. The distancing, timing, body control, small joint control and grasping techniques would all come into play. Without them you would be resigned to demonstrating your point striking ability on compliant, non-active opponents i.e. your students or friends. Something that I am sure you have all seen

So there you have it where the main skills fit in as I see it. Of course you don’t have to fully complete a section before moving on to the rest as there is always some overlap. You also, as mentioned in the article, don’t have to go all the way to the top of the pyramid. But if you are working on some of the skills in the upper levels of the pyramid you should be asking yourself if you could make it work in a real situation, and have you built yourself a good enough foundation in your own personal martial art.


2 thoughts on “The Pyramid of Skills

  1. richard conceicao

    interesting and useful discussion. i have always considered the pp stuff as a sub art. if you can’t with accuracy and power what use are they. With regard to your efforts here, it is good to see another effort for intelligent and useful discussion of these arts. if i ever figure out how to do it i will put a link on my website.


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