The post is available in French at Sur Les Pas de Mars.
The Time It Takes to Learn An Art
By Jonathan Bluestein
Ask ten different teachers how much time it takes to learn their traditional martial art, and you would likely get 10 different answers. But is the answer so complex? In this article I would attempt to demonstrate that it is not, and discuss a few myths relating to the time which is actually required to learn a martial art.
Firstly, we ought to define the question. It is usually asked by complete novices when they first inquire for classes in a given school. The question can easily be misunderstood, because everyone has a different sense of what it means to “learn” an art. The novice is most often trying to ask a completely different question, which is – how much time is it going to take me to defend myself? Others might take it as simply asking about learning the entire curriculum of an art. Wherein the person asking is thought of as pretentious, it might be understood as him asking of the time it takes to master an art. As you can see, these are three different questions. I wish to focus here on the one relating to learning the actual full curriculum of an art, which is where things get interesting. Of mastery I shall write later. Concerning basic self-defense – this level of skill needs to be achieved within 1.5 years of practice, preferably less, in most martial arts.
The supposedly oldschool approach I was exposed to when I just started traditional martial arts was that it can and should take one several decades to learn the curriculum. I respectfully disagree. This conception is based on a modern method of teaching – that of few and short weekly classes, in a group setting. Yet historically, all that have mastered the traditional arts (with no exception) received a very healthy dose of private or semi-private instruction. They also trained a lot more. This changes things considerably.
I remember back in the day, when I was training in Western Boxing, my coach believed that most boxers require about 4 years of dedicated training, including much personal instruction, before he would feel it was safe and responsible of him to send them off to fight professionally in the ring (they would, of course, have countless amateur fights and sparring matches by that time). Many coaches would claim that this could be done in even less time. Why was his take on training, however, so markedly different to that of many traditional martial arts teacher?... That I found out only years later.
Now, in my opinion, it ought not take one more than 4-7 years (for mature adults) to fully learn the curriculum of a traditional art. The lower end of the scale (closer to 4 years) is for arts which contain relatively less ‘material’ to study – are more focused and concise in their principles (such as Wing Chun or Pigua Zhang), or for special cases of extra-talented individuals or those with extensive prior experience in training other arts. The longer time frame (closer to 7 years) is relevant mostly to extra-extensive systems, such as various lineages of Bagua Zhang, and perhaps systems which intentionally spend more time on the basics (various branches of Taiji Quan). Therefore, on average, 5.5 years (4+7 / 2) to learn a system fully. Get on the ins and outs of it all. Figure out how all most techniques are put to use. Nail down the body mechanics. I have studied the greater portion of my Xing Yi Quan system, over 95% of it, within 5 years, even though (and probably because) the instruction I received was very traditional. How did I achieve this, and why should this be the norm?
That shall now be explained.
In the studying of the arts, I would count the following parameters as probably the most important:
- Quality instruction.
- Time spent with the teacher.
- Time spent training alone or with other people, with teacher not present.
- (note I did not list ‘Talent’ – in the long term, it matters much less than people think)
Let us assume one has managed to find a good teacher (and has the proper mindset for learning the art). That makes for 50% of ‘quality instruction’. But what else is vital is for the instruction to be personal and hands on. The traditional arts were created to be taught to family members and close friends and associates (within one’s village or clan). They were not created as mass-marketing products. Their entire essence relies on a transmission which is handed meticulously and with great care and attention given to the finest details.
The way in which I was taught and that in which I teach demands that the student will know the proper alignment of each body part in every movement down to accuracy of less than a single centimeter. Though fighting is messy and chaotic, in training the practitioner should reach near perfection in performance, especially with regard to angles and body alignment. This cannot be learnt properly in a large group setting. The student has to either learn in a group consisting of five people or less (not including the teacher), or supplement his larger classes with many private ones.
Also, while instructing, the teacher has to help the student by providing a direct and almost limitless access to his own body. The student has to touch the teacher’s body with his palms on spots relevant to what is being taught, and also change palm positions while doing so. The student needs to be able to applying techniques learned on the teacher – first cooperatively, and later with the teacher providing reasonable resistance. The teacher ought to be able to demonstrate everything being taught on resisting students, too. The student needs to feel the pain and other physical and mental sensations brought upon by various techniques, without overdoing it and within reasonable limits. Without all of these things there could not manifest an effective transmission of an art from one generation to the next. Successful teachers and skilled martial artists can be produced otherwise, but they shall pass on would not truly resemble the art of their forbearers.
The more, the better? Certainly not in the martial arts.
Yet this alone will not do. To learn a complete system within the 4-7 years time frame, one needs to spend enough time actually training and going over what one has learnt; also testing things, of course. What would I consider a good time? In my opinion, at least 16 monthly hours of quality time (personal instruction) with one’s teacher (only 4 hours a week), and 84 monthly hours of personal training by oneself or with partners, without the teacher present (an average of 3 hours a day). A total of 100 monthly hours. .
How much time are we talking about here? Perhaps not as much as you might have considered before. The time frame of 5.5 years (4-7 years average) would yield 6600 hours of total training time, and only about 800 of them with one’s teacher! That is not a lot. Interestingly enough, about 8 years of 100 monthly hours will get one very near to the famous 10,000 hour golden number, which is often claimed to be the number of training hours required for one achieve world-class skill at a given profession, sport, art, etc. Therefore, it is possible that by that time (8 years), it is reasonable to assume that one should be able to achieve a decent level of ‘mastery’ (though mastery, of course, has many levels in-itself, and complete mastery can last a lifetime).
In the picture: My grand-teacher, master Zhou Jingxuan, teaching a young student in the traditional manner.
So to sum things up – by receiving 4 weekly hours of quality instruction and training another 3 hours a day on average, one can learn a traditional martial art’s full curriculum in 4-7 years (note how it nicely coincides with the time it takes to earn a Phd). But what about the ‘average Joe of martial arts schools’? You know – the guy who walks in the gym for a total of 6 hours a week, trains in a group of 15-40 people, and gets no further instruction. How much time would it take such a person to learn the same amount of material?
At 6 weekly hours (and I am being generous here with the average Joes), or 288 yearly hours, one would take nearly 23 years (!!) to attain the same number of training hours (6600) that a person training more rigorously, and in the traditional method, has accumulated in 5.5 years. In addition to that, this person has received a fraction of the teacher’s attention, challenging further his ability to grasp deeply the fundamentals and deeper aspects of one’s art. It is no wonder then, that it is nowadays said that an art takes decades to learn!
What can this all teach us?
Martial arts are not a race, and not everyone has the time to train 3 hours a day, or the funds or opportunity to get personal quality instruction. For the average Joe, the 23 year learning curve will do just fine, because he or she is not interested in becoming extremely proficient in a short time – they come to learn something and have fun. As mentioned before, the onset of self-defense skills should be rather quick in most schools, and health-wise martial arts provide a contribution from day one. Time should then not be a big issue.
What is important is to stress that the traditional arts were not originally intended to be a decades-long path to success. They were created by people with an interest in quick results, no less than the sports coaches of our time. The arts they practiced needed to work, and one had to get good at them. But they were taught in the context of a family, or a tightly-knit society, in which quality instruction and time to train were abundant commodities. In this kind of setting, even a person who begins training at the ages of 25-35 will be a healthy and strong young man or woman when he or she reaches a deep level of understanding of their art. Let alone when people are taught from a younger age.
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Shifu Jonathan Bluestein is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. If you liked this article, please ‘like’ the page of shifu Bluestein’s book on Facebook:
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