The Language of Martial Movement

To understand the relationship between movement, complexes and techniques, it is useful to draw the comparison between martial arts and language. You can apply this paradigm to any martial art. 

BJJ Movement.jpg

Here is the basic model:

Movement = Language

Complexes (kihon & kata) = Words without context

Techniques = Words with context

Technique combinations = Sentences & paragraghs

Kumite/Randori = Conversation

Consider that sparring is the act of engaging in a form of communication with another person. In my opinion, it actually resembles a conversation or debate where speech is replaced by movement. Each participant aims to establish, maintain, and increase advantage over his opponent. There are set-ups, counters, and reversals. There are strategy and tactics in play. Each person responds to the "voice" of the other. This is the "martial language" applied in its most complex form. Those who are fluent in this language have an acute sense of the meaning and significance of each "word" and "sentence" as they observe it.

However, just as a child learning to speak, we cannot jump right into a conversation or even hope to understand what is being said without first going through the process of learning the language piece by piece.


The basis of spoken language is sound. The equivalent in the martial language is movement. Both sound and movement are raw and natural. Respectively, they form the essence of both the spoken and martial languages. With few exceptions, just as every human is capable of vocalizing the same sounds, every human is also capable of performing the same physical movements. These movements are innate. There is no need to teach another person how to make them. As each human develops, he naturally learns how to speak and move his body and gradually becomes more coordinated in doing so. With training, humans are able to achieve very high levels of proficiency in both speech and movement.


Sounds only have meaning when they are combined together in a particular order to form words. Different combinations of sounds yield different words, just as different combinations of movements form different complexes. Complexes are akin to certain types of written words: the ambiguous kind that require context to make sense. To help this make sense let look at this word: "read".  Now, because I just wrote that word with no surrounding context, you have no clue as to whether I meant "read" as in "go read that book" or "read" as in "I just read that book yesterday". Although it looks exactly the same, the word "read" acts differently depending on the context in which it is used. When it appears alone, free of context, it can be interpreted as any one of its potential forms of meaning. The same is true of all complexes in martial arts. They have the structure of techniques without the context. Kihon can be considered as individual complexes and kata can be considered as complexes that are strung together in a specific order. However, they both lack context because they have not been applied to an opponent.

Techniques and Combinations

Complexes become techniques when they acquire context by being applied to an opponent for a specific, intended effect. Techniques share complexes, just like the different forms of "read" all share the same spelling. For example, the same open-hand movement can be used either to parry or to strike: same complex, different techniques. Words with context strung together form sentences and sentences strung together form paragraphs. Similarly, techniques strung together can flow into more and more intricate combinations.

This analogy of language can also be used to illustrate someone's understanding of martial art. 


The newcomer with no experience can form the same sounds (movements) that everyone else can. However, his speech is completely unrefined. He hasn't even learned the basic words yet. The novice with a basic introduction can form basic words (complexes) but lacks understanding of their potential context. An intermediate has several words in his vocabulary and is becoming aware of their potential context (techniques). He can form sentences (combinations). The advanced student has a vast vocabulary and a firm grasp on the relationship between words and context. He can speak in paragraphs and hold intricate conversations (kumite/randori) with others. He is truly fluent. The master has dedicated himself totally to the study of the of the language itself.

I hope this paradigm brings greater understanding to your journey and is useful to you in training.

If you enjoyed this article:




for updates on future articles and content!

Luke Pecor