reflexes specifically in fighting

Dear Charlie,

I don’t run track, but I fight. I want to know the physiology behind the reflex, what occurs in the body and the brain to counter or simply avoid an incoming punch. Knowing how will help me understand the nature of a reflex and ways to improve my own.


Are you asking for yourself as a fighter, or for an athltete you coach? If for yourself…I wouldn’t be concerned. These things need to be automatic. If you are worrying about how the mind processes the image of the fist comming at your head, you will be feeling the fist before you react to it in any other way.

I have charts of how the body reacts to both an outgoing attack and an incomming attack. It is interesting becuase there is a point where the fighter who is attacking, cannot react to any information, adn visa versa.

Repetition is key. Simulate the incomming attack at slower speeds until you can perform the defense without thinking about it. Then gradually speed it up until you are at full intensity. Recovery principles are the same as with sprinting. You should do a serch both here and in the archive.

I don’t think that there is much you can do to improve “raw” reflexes - that is, how fast a nerve impulse travels through the system. However, what you need to train for is recognition and automatic response. Simple resonses (without a decision) are over 2x faster than complex responses.

I was a nationally ranked competitive fencer up until I couldn’t afford to stay on the circuit (not much money in fencing!) The best fencers (little known fact: fencing is the fastest matrial sport) are able to recognize an incoming threat earlier and more accurately than less skilled fencers and have programmed themselves with “reflexive” automatic responses to counter the threats. The idea is that once the recognition occurs, the response can happen without going through a conscious thought process and therefore can happen that much faster.

How do you do this? It first requires establishing the proper movement mechanics for the response you want, then performing it thousands of times so that the movement is automatic. Then use constrained sparring where your opponent will present the situation to use the movement. Your job is to recognize and react. Then, open it up so that your opponent is allowed to fake the opening or turn it into something else and you must react properly. Finally move on to free sparring and see if you can do it.

My first fencing coach said that it would take 10’s of reps to get the basic movement. 100’s of reps for competency and 1000’s of reps for a champion’s reaction.

Hope this helps!


As an expert in seven different forms of Oriental running and hiding, I havn’t had to master the reflexes you asked about- though I took a pretty good shot to the eye I wasn’t expecting last nite from a certain four year old, who will remain nameless.

I agree with xlr8 regarding fencing. Bruce Lee was a big fan of fencers…(and dancers by the way).

TOO FUNNY about the running and hiding…AND…the 4 year old thing is so true…Re lo: My own experiences in the striking martial arts are like sprinting starts: don’t wait for Ben to go, then YOU go…the ol’ “When the gun go off, the race be over” is so true…same thing with martial arts…you have got to strike first OR if you miss that opportunity, be very quick with a counterstrike and most of all, just keep striking, kicking, kneeing, elbowing, until the lights are out…

I trained for years in martial arts and one of the things that awed me about the Japanese Kyokushin fighters was how they would do the most simple of movements slowly at first and then on to full speed for thousands of reps. Literally one hour straight perfecting a foot sweep. A study in focus and patience. i believe this is how you get extraordinarily proficient. They say the learning process goes from unconcious incompetence to concious incompetence to concious competence and finally unconcious competence. Basically you go from not knowing that you are bad at something to being very good at it without thinking.

RE 4 year old attacks -
gimme a shot in the eye anyday - its the way they kneel on ur groin as they’re attacking that does the damage - the head attack things purely a ruse


That is the same model that we used in fencing and is probably the same used in all of the eastern martial arts as well. And from personal experience I can tell you that it does work. Movements that were awkward, slow and required conscious though as a beginner have been turned into lightning fast automatic reactions that I no longer have to think about.

I find it interesting that model does not appear to be used in sprinting. That is, there seems to be a deliberate effort made to never bring sprinting mechanics to the conscious level (fore-brain) in the fear that you will not be able to transition back to unconscious (hind-brain) once the skill is acquired. Is this an unwarranted fear, or are there differences in the motor characteristics between the skills that would make this not feasible for sprinting?


Also, while it is easy to do something while you are fresh, it is your technique which allows you to exert force (and survive) when you are exhausted. You have to repeatedly and repititiously repeat your repetitions:D

I remember the self-defence course being offered by Monty Python: The ancient secret Welch system of Llapp Gotch. The key to a succesful defence was to, not only get your opponant before he gets you, but to get your opponant before he even thinks of getting you. In fact, with LLapp Gotch you could render your opponant unconscious before he’s even aware of your very existance!

I guess my post was either deleted due to the content (probably not), or lost somehow due to technical difficulties, either way ill try again.
I welcome all of your responses to my post, I have been realizing that in a fight instead of waiting for the opponent to strike, its better to take him down before he has a chance. Alright, but what about when the opponent is equal to your level or better or perhaps your opponent is no better but throws a technique at you that you do not recognize, hopefully you would want your reflexes to kick in and help you when you need them most! My question is how do you improve your reflexes overall if possible, or am i still not understanding your points of view. I understand that constant repetition of movements in response top certain stimuli will improve reflexes, technique, etc. however will this alone do the trick?

“The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action”
“The greatest mistake is to anticapate the outcome of the engagement; you ought no to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or in defeat. Let nature take its course, and your tools will strike at the right moment”

  • Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do

Originally posted by lo
Alright, but what about when the opponent is equal to your level or better or perhaps your opponent is no better but throws a technique at you that you do not recognize, hopefully you would want your reflexes to kick in and help you when you need them most!

Reflexes are by their nature, well…reflexive. What exactly do you expect your reflexes to do to an unknown stimulus? I doubt that you will be able to execute a perfect counter. The best you can hope for is to get out of the way.

Perhaps you are looking at the techniques too specifically. Basically, there are only a few different types of attacks that can be effective against a skilled opponent (not withstanding all the crap you see in the movies.) These can usually be recognized at a general level quite easily.

Even more generally, the most useful thing you can do to “improve” reflexes is to develop the skill of knowing when an attack is going to start. It doesn’t matter what the attack is, if you know when it is starting, then your reflexes (even if they are slow) should give you time to get out of the way (assuming that you are carefully manipulating your fighting distance.)

Note that this “improvement” in reflexes is largely due to the fact that you can recognize and respond faster, not because the nerve impulses are travelling faster or even that your technique is any better.

Most people do not disguise their actions very well and it is easy to take advantage of this. The next piece of information you need is the timing of the attack. If you get this, then you should be able to reflexively establish a counter (based on your practice.) If not, then your reflex should be to get out of the way! Developing these two reflexes in response to initiation and timing will at least keep you out of harms way and give you a good chance to counter in most circumstances. And the best part is that it doesn’t matter at all exactly what technique your opponent is throwing at you, any technique has initiation and timing. If you can recognize the start of the attack and time it out, then you have an opportunity for an effective response!


Notes to lo and Noshe: Noshe, where is that Sean Connery quote from? It is great. lo, if your opponent is “better” than you are technically, you had better “want it” more…also, being “in great shape” helps too. I’m talking fighting shape, not bodybuilding shape or sprinting shape. There are many factors involved in martial arts. Technique is only one. No one technique will win. Be a well rounded martial artist. If you are ONLY a great boxer, you will unfortunately eventually find yourself on the ground. If you are only a great groundfighter, you will probably eventually find yourself getting a lesson in stand up fighting. Learn to be comfortable in all fighting environments. ABC–Attack By Combination…Speed, Surprise, & Violence of Action. Here endeth the lesson…NO, I’m not an expert…But I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.:smiley:

sean connery says that quote in the movie “the rock” to nicolas cage, after nicolas cage has said he’ll do ‘his best’ to find the vx gas rockets.


Thank-you for your comments regarding this thread. The book from which I got the charts is called Budo Theory by Rick Rowell. My books are a mess at the moment and I can’t seem to find it.
From Rick Rowell’s Budo Theory Volume 1

An Introduction to Budo Theory: San sae ari [three methods of using the voice] is a concept of kake goe [using the voice as a weapon] that was first brought forward by the kendo meijin [master] Chiba Shusaku. He defined three different types of shout used in combat.

The first is the shout of confidence. This is when one felt that he totally dominated his opponent spiritually, mentally and physically. This kake goe was done before an attack. You can see the relationship here between kyo [empty or negative] and jitsu [positive. Kyo and jitsu are similar to the Chinese concepts of yin and yang]. The shout serves to create a bigger kyo (in this instance a weakness) in the opponent, both physically and mentally, that can then be exploited.

The second kind of shout postulated was to shout the moment the opponent attacks. This can create a kyo position in the opponent through his hesitation.

The third is when the opponent is overwhelmed by the attack and the shout is timed with the attack. The opponent may try to react but the action is overwhelmed by the movement. It can be seen that kyo and jitsu are important factors in the timing of an attack or counterattack and it can also be seen that they are important in kake goe. Other factors that are related include maai and your kyo-jitsu in relation to your opponent’s movement.

If I may add a bit to the theory of KYO, it is very similar to the “ALL or NOTHING LAW” with human muscles. Each muscle fibre, when it contracts contracts 100%. The amount of fibres recruited determines the force output of the muscle as a whole. Once the muscle contracts, it takes time for it to recharge. It is during this time (which is very very short) that the person is absolutely incapable of contracting the same muscle again. Therefore, with this knowledge, the fighter can learn to attack their opponent during that time. It is not something that can be seen and then reacted to. The timing of the attack during this KYO time, must be practiced so that it just happens. The time is too short for any sort of reaction to take place. You will see it happen all the time with fighters where the person on the outside watching sees the perfect opening, but neither of the fighters take advantage of it. That is because they are both in the KYO position.

Think of a powerlifter. They have 2 motions. One to get the weight up to the shoulders, and then a recharge phase were they seem to just relax, and then another explosion to put the bar over their head. Now, think of at what point they would be most unaware of a punch comming at their face.

I believe being a good “counter” fighter has more to do with rhythm, broken rhythm, timing, tempo, and most importantly being smoooooth rather than just fast reflexes or all out speed.

You actually have a lot more time than you think when countering, slipping, or evading an incoming punch. Most people overreact, lock-up, and stall. Paralysis through analysis.

Also as a fighter you don’t have to slip or avoid the “whole” punch, just most of it.

Just my two cents.

Scott Trowbridge
Tsaile, AZ