Can You Learn Martial Arts Online?

Can You Learn Martial Arts Online?

In 2011 I started a series about learning martial arts online.  I say started but I really only produced one article.  I want to close the loop on this because I feel like I didn’t provide any useful additional information.  Grand plans aside, I want to start with a review of my experience with Phil Elmore’s Liu Seong Combat Applications.

My experience with traditional martial arts is not as extensive as others but I’m far from a beginner.  I hold a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and have experience in a very traditional form of karate.  All total, I have about 8 years of martial arts experience. However, I wanted to transfer my knowledge of these martial arts to practical self-defense.

Phil Elmore
Phil Elmore

For this experiment, I turned to Phil Elmore. Phil is a writer and a long-time martialist.  I was his guinea pig for online self-defense classes he offered via Skype.  Phil is very personable and has more knowledge of martial arts and self-defense in his little toe than I will ever hope to have.  I’d been following him online for about a year when he announced the availability of lessons.  I knew that I could trust his experience and expertise.  Furthermore, Phil is continuing his education, not in one martial art but in many disciplines of self-defense.

Phil agreed to take me on as a student but wouldn’t take my money.  He was still developing his curriculum and we agreed to “meet” online via Skype for the lessons.  I found some space in my basement and we began lessons on a regular basis.

Phil mentioned a number of times that my previous experience was a positive. Although I had some bad habits I needed to undo, my ability to grasp a technique and apply it was a huge benefit.  The lack of tactile input from an instructor was difficult at first but we managed to find a way to gauge my application of a technique while still being an entire state apart.

He took me through numerous techniques including punching, low kicks, and knife techniques over a period of about 5 weeks.  Phil is a great teacher.  He was able to demonstrate and explain a technique so that I could learn and execute it with increasing confidence even though he could not physically help me position my hands or adjust my stance.

This is actually where I think things breakdown when it comes to self-defense and martial arts taught online.  The inability to physically interact with your instructor is a huge negative.  This isn’t Phil’s fault.  Part of the learning process of a martial art or self-defense system is tactile feedback.  Feeling the pressure from a joint-lock or precisely placed punch goes a long way when learning a technique. It’s a limitation that can be overcome by an experienced martial artist but probably not by a novice.

You can learn stances, punches, kicks, and forms online but you cannot learn the practical application of a technique unless you have someone to help you apply what you’ve learned.  Learning self-defense online is a great way to expand your knowledge but I highly recommend that you seek out in-person lessons as well.

I would be very wary of any system that allows you to earn any advanced rank (especially a black belt) with only online instruction.  Sure, you can learn to move like the instructor on the other end but practical application requires interaction. Being able to demonstrate a technique under pressure is much different than going through the motions.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discouraging the use of online courses.  They can be a great way to learn the basics of a system or even get some individualized instruction but it’s no substitute for in-person classes.  If you’re an experienced martial artist who wants to expand his or her toolbox, online courses can be a good supplement but not your primary training method.