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Sticky Hands Theory and Practice


Recently I have been teaching sticky hands a lot, particularly on courses. This is not because I prefer Wu Shu (Kung Fu) to Jiu Jutsu but it is because I believe that sensitivity training can complement Jiu Jutsu.. Given the positive feedback from the last course I want to continue, for a while at least, to develop an understanding of the basic principles of sticky hands within the ryu. This article should help at least with the theory, and maybe with your practice of sticky hands training. 

What do you mean "sticky hands"?

There are a number of varieties of "sticky hands" training. By far the best known is Wing Chun's chi sao, from which Bruce Lee derived Jeet Kun Do's trapping hands. The basic Wing Chun chi sau principle is in keeping constant contact with your opponent's arms and through multiple short-range movements to deflect attacks and then strike hard, straight and fast. This is objectified in the wooden dummy training in which arms and shins are repeatedly struck against the "limbs" of the dummy to toughen them externally and to increase the rapidity of movement. The trapping approach of jeet kun do is similarly hard and fast but is practiced at a slightly longer range and with the idea of trapping your opponents arms in a position where they cannot strike and you can. This form of sticky hands is particularly useful in locking and throwing arts such as Jiu Jutsu and Aiki Jutsu

At the other end of the spectrum is the version of sticky hands found in Tai Chi. This goes by the name of tui shou , or "push hands" (I believe this name to be a Mandarin version of chi sao which is Cantonese, the translations are different because of the different emphasis placed on this training in the different arts). Tai Chi "push hands" is the middle ground between fighting and the Tai Chi form work. In practice partners try to unbalance each other using a combination of the fundamental eight Tai Chi movements. Tui shou is a relaxed, internal form of sticky hands, in which the emphasis is on "listening" and "responding" rather than striking and blocking. 

The version of sticky hands that I teach falls in between these two camps with an ever-evolving tendency towards applications of Tai Chi push hands and an emphasis on Jiu Jutsu. I was first introduced to sticky hands through a student of Shaolin Fist, which is a hard, external style of Wu shu with emphasis on conditioning and external (rather than internal) power. I was immensely impressed by his ability to know my movements almost before I did. Since then I have dabbled in Wing Chun chi sao and more recently in Tai Chi's tui shou, always with an eye to enhance my Jiu Jutsu. With out a doubt, in my opinion, the most useful and effective method it that of tui shou, unfortunately it takes years of constant practice to become proficient. But then if it were easy to develop those skills required for good stick y hands, we would all have done it already. 


The key to good sticky hands lies in the following four concepts: Match (adhere); Listen; Understand; Neutralise. There is a certain similarity between good sticky hands and good communication. In order to communicate with sensitivity we may first match the representation systems or physical movements of the person with whom we wish to communicate, we then listen carefully to what is being said in order to develop (at least a belief in) a shared understanding. You might like to think of sticky hands training as a physical manifestation of good communication, of "reading the signs", with the little addition of  the concept of neutralisation (which you would only want to use in a situation where one party was communicating aggressively). Let's take each concept in turn.

Matching: (also sticking or adhering). Imagine you have a bird sitting on the palm of your hand. If the bird wants to fly away it must push on your palm to provide an initial impetus to initiate flight. As it pushes down, move your hand down, follow the bird's movement and power to prevent it from flying away. This is the principle of matching. As your opponent draws away her hand follow with yours, maintaining light contact and preventing her from launching a new attack. If she pushes forwards yield, again maintaining light contact. Matching is the first stage of sticky hands training, and it is from this matching or sticking that it gets its name. 

Listening: Once you are able to match you opponent's movements with your whole body, then you are ready to develop the ability to listen to their power. Listening is done with the sense of touch, not the ears, and perhaps it would be better labeled as "sensitivity". After extensive practice you should be able to feel the slightest movement of your opponent and eventually you should be able to anticipate their movements even before they move. Listening is the most important aspect of sticky hands, as it is in communication. 

Understanding: Listening is passive. If we listen, we must make an attempt to develop an understanding. In sticky hands too, you must first listen to the movements of your opponent and then interpret or understand your opponent's action and direction of power. Understanding is inextricably tied with response, you must understand the movement and then respond to it. In tui shou there are four basic guidelines for "understanding". If the enemy moves fast, you move fast; If the enemy moves slow, you move slow; If the enemy does not move, you do not move; and finally if the enemy moves slightly, you move first. 

Neutralising: When your opponent's movements are understood and anticipated, then you can move them off balance and neutralise their attack with counterattack or locking. This is similar to the way Aikido uses the principle of harmony to unbalance and disorientate an attacker without causing them harm. In sticky hands of course, the intention is actually to cause as much damage as possible…. 

Beyond these overarching principles there are six goals of sticky hands training, which should help in your practice.

· Maintain continuous contact with your opponents arms. 
· Control your natural instinct to stiffen your muscles when you feel resistance. Resist with internal energy rather than external power.
· Relax
· Move your limbs, waist and spine in an integrated and unified manner.
· Change instantaneously from defence to attack, where half a movement is defence and half is attack.
· Remain well rooted. Your head should be light, your waist should be supple and your legs should be stable. All of your power comes through your legs into your waist and projects from the limbs. 

The essence of sticky hands is in the four concepts and six principles above. As you practice keep these concepts and principles in your (unconscious) mind and know that if you do you will become more and more sensitised to the minute movements of your opponent in a way that will allow you to understand and neutralise her attacks. 


Now that we understand the essence of sticky hands we need to have some way of objectifying the principles in practice. Unlike many elements of martial arts, sticky hands takes an enormous amount of practice to become even slightly proficient. The development of internal power and corporeal sensitivity is not at all easy. Nevertheless the following exercises should help you on your way. 

Single-hand adherence

Stand opposite your partner, toe-to-toe, and both raise your right hands until they connect at the back of the wrist at around chest level. Rotate your hands clockwise or anticlockwise keeping your wrists in constant contact. As you rotate your arm shift your weight from the front leg in attack to the back leg in defence. Begin initially with your feet in a static position and then as you become more proficient move around your partner moving your arm in a more random pattern. Now do it without actually touching.

Double-hand listening

In this scenario you stand opposite your partner in riding stance with both hands touching. This time the inside of your right hand touches the outside of their left and vice versa. Rotate your hands in a random pattern and wait for your partner's attack (which may be a push or a pull). As soon as you sense it (without moving your feet) move off of the line and give a little shove to off -balance your partner. Alternatively you may like to attack, if you do remember to remain relaxed, even in attack, so that your partner cannot sense your movements. Now do this exercise with your eyes closed. At all times your movements should be slow, rhythmical and relaxed. 

Double hand sparring

This time stand as you were in the single hand exercise, but with both hands touching. Slowly at first, rotate your hands and begin the process of attack and defence. Allowed attacks are push, palm strike to the chest, pull (try to pull without grabbing!) and slap to the forehead (no punching, you are too close range and it may be very dangerous). Remain relaxed and listen for your partner's movements, understand the way they move and neutralise their attacks. At this point, and as you become more proficient. You can begin to harmonise, and use locks and off-balancing as neutralisation techniques. Gradually pick up the pace and begin to move around. Remember the principles of sticky hands and remember that this is an exercise. Now close your eyes or turn off the light and do it. 

You will develop your own techniques and tricks of the trade, which will carry you through so far 9as they have done me) but after you reach a certain standard there will be no substitute for constant practice. This sort of sensitivity does not grow on its own, you have to teach yourself to listen and understand. You may find that some meditation or NLP will be able to help you enhance your sensitivity, I would recommend that you build one or the other (or both) into your training program.

In conclusion

If you can do sticky hands well then your Jiu Jutsu and Aiki Jutsu will be 100 times better than it already is. Just imagine how your randori would be if you could sense your opponent's movements before it occurred, or indeed your tatami waza. Haven't you always wondered how on earth you are going to lock up and throw an assailant who is jabbing at you? With sticky hands it is simple, step in adhere, listen, understand and neutralise. 

Sticky hands training can also enhance your internal power. Jiu Jutsu is essentially an external martial art, relying on muscle power and alignment to perform techniques. If you are able to develop a complementary inner power then you can shift from external to internal at will and will have many more resources to draw on to defeat your opponent. 

I like sticky hands, I am not as good as it as I would like because I don't practice enough, but the little that I do know helps me in my Jiu Jutsu training and teaching in ways that I never thought possible. I hope that you will continue to enjoy learning what I know about sticky hands and I know that if you do you will bring into your Jiu Jutsu, and indeed your life, valuable skills and understandings.

Shidoshi Adam Vile


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