Basics of Kali Filipino Martial Arts


If you really want to “stick it” to an assailant, Filipino martial arts are for you. Kali is a western name given to traditional Filipino stick-based martial arts, but in its native Philippines, it’s more likely to be called Arnis or Escrima. Beginners are taught with sticks, which can be thought of as extensions of the hands because the moves have much the same effect with or without weapons. This is a unique approach among Asian martial arts because the majority of them teach empty-handed combat before weaponry.


  • The Philippines were settled by the Malays in a series of migrations starting around 200 B.C., and they brought fighting styles and numerous weapons with them including long knives. In 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan invaded a Philippine island after his expedition around South America, where he crossed what is now called the Magellan Strait. He was met by Tribal Chieftain Raja LapuLapu and his men, who were armed with sticks hardened in fire. In the bloody battle that followed, LapuLapu killed Magellan with a stick, and the victory prompted the development of Filipino fighting arts that used sticks, swords and knives. Eventually these tribal fighting arts spread throughout the populated area of the Philippines, although Spanish control forced them into secrecy for over 400 years.


  • Kali came out of hiding in the early 1900s when peace ruled and many Filipinos immigrated to Hawaii. Despite its violent beginning, today Kali is primarily practiced for self defense and is focused on empowering anyone with the ability to effectively defend himself or herself against attacks. In the Philippines, it’s also popular among law enforcement officers. The techniques taught in Kali are meant to be adaptable for open-hand defense, weapon attacks and even multiple attackers. Reflexive drills are also practiced with the intention of enhancing hand-eye coordination, and like most martial arts, practicing Kali can help relieve stress.

Key Elements

  • There are three key elements to learning Kali: fluidity, rhythm and timing. Rather than sharp or sudden motions, there’s a slow, flowing transition from one movement to another. A common form of sparring is called “one for one,” where each strike is blocked and immediately followed with a counter strike, which is then, in turn, blocked — and this pattern can continue for some time. Both the physical and spiritual aspects of the art are emphasized, along with a deep focus on respect. Continuing the old tradition of secrecy, students are only allowed to share their knowledge during public performances.


  • Beginning students are taught 12 basic offensive strikes and then 12 defensive blocks against stick and knife attacks. These foundational skills need to be mastered before moving on to double sticks, long sticks and staffs, which are two-handed sticks. Actual bladed weapons are generally introduced much later. Versatility is important, and all parts of the stick are used — the body, butt end and tip — depending on the range of attack. When practicing with a partner, it’s important not to actually hit the other person or knock the weapons from their hands like you would in a real combat situation. Instead, coordination and proper control of the sticks are keys to success.

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