Kali is a weapons-based martial art from the Philippines and is actually an umbrella term, similar to the term “kung fu”.
In this article, I am going to explain to you what kali is, what does kali training looks like, is kali a good martial art (for self-defense), and whether it is difficult to learn, or not.
What Is Kali?
Kali is just one of several terms used to describe this martial art, the others being arnis and eskrima (escrima). All three of them are actually an umbrella term for what is today known as the national martial art of the Philippines.
They are generally interchangeable terms for all the traditional martial arts of the Philippines (“Filipino Martial Arts”, or FMA), which put the focus on weapon-based fighting with sticks, knives, bladed weapons, and various improvised weapons, as well as “open hand” techniques without weapons, which means that we are dealing with a very specific combination of fighting with and without weapons.
As for the terms themselves, arnis comes from arnés, an Old Spanish word for “armor”. It is said to derive from the armor costumes used in Moro-moro stage plays where actors fought mock battles using wooden swords.
The second term, Eskrima (also spelled Escrima/Eskrima) is a Filipinization of the Spanish word for fencing, esgrima, while the last of them – kali – has a very complex etymology and there is no consensus on how it actually came to be and what it means exactly in this context.
Here is the example of the stick used for Kali:
How Does Kali Training Look Like?
Kali is not just one, but several different styles that have some identical aspects. Most of these styles include hand-to-hand combat, joint locks, grappling, and weapon disarming techniques.
Although in general, the emphasis is put on weapons in these martial arts, some styles put empty hands as the primary focus, while some old school systems do not teach weapons at all.
Kali students start their training by learning to fight with weapons, and only advance to empty-hand training once the stick and knife techniques have been sufficiently mastered; this may take some time.
This is in contrast to most other well-known Oriental martial arts, but it is justified by the principle that bare-handed moves are acquired naturally through the same exercises as the weapon techniques, making muscle memory an important aspect of the teaching.
It is also based on the obvious fact that a trained armed person always has the advantage over a trained unarmed person, and serves to condition students to fight against armed assailants.
Most systems of Kali apply a single set of techniques for the stick, knife, and empty hands, a concept sometimes referred to as motion grouping.
Since the weapon is seen as simply an extension of the body (which is specific for some other Japanese martial arts that use weapons), the same angles and footwork are used either with or without a weapon.
Many styles begin training with two weapons – either a pair of sticks or a stick and a wooden knife.
These styles emphasize having both hands full and never moving them in the same direction, and train practitioners to become ambidextrous; for example, one of the sticks may strike the head while the other goes for the arm.
Such training develops the ability to use both limbs independently, which is a very valuable skills whose benefits you can clearly observe.
Before we continue, I need to mention a core concept and distinct feature of Filipino martial arts – the so-called Live Hand.
Even when a practitioner wields only one weapon, the extra hand is used to control, trap or disarm an opponent’s weapon and to aid in blocking, joint locking, and manipulation of the opponent or other simultaneous motions such as bicep destruction with the live hand.
This is not present in other weapons-based martial arts.
Is Kali a Good Martial Art for Self-Defense?
Now that you’ve seen the basic elements of Kali training, I’d like to tell you whether Kali is good for self-defense.
Although Kali is, like almost every martial art, good for self-defense, and it will certainly help you improve that aspect, Kali is really not the best available martial art to choose. You are going to see the benefits and the downsides in the following paragraphs.
Kali is certainly good when it comes to coordination, as the techniques used in it demand that you anticipate shots from a lot of angles; this is where Kali is better than, for example, boxing, whose punches only go in certain directions.
The other main benefit of Kali is that it prepares you to defend against weapons. In a way, Kali’s self-defense is very similar to Wing Chun, but without certain specific elements.
Whether you use one or two weapons, you’ll always use both hands in Kali, which will certainly prepare you for a lot of potential situations better than some other martial arts.
As far as the downsides go, I can name three of them.
The first of them are ineffective training drills. Namely, a lot of people in Kali like to practice traditional “flow” drills where they coordinate their movements standing in front of each other; this is typical for most Oriental martial arts.
But the problem with that is that there’s no intent to attack in such drills. This is not good because, in a real-life situation, where you have to defend yourself, you will be facing someone who wants to attack you, who wants to hurt you.
The other reason is that there’s no forward or backward movement. A real attacker is going to move, especially towards you, because he wants to hurt you, while you’ll have to avoid that.
The second downside is the ineffective attacks. In Kali sparring or demonstrations, people are usually demonstrating very calm duels using knives.
In a real-life situation, you’ll hardly face someone who is as calm and as skilled as you; you’ll probably be facing a savage who wants to hurt you or cut you.
There is no real duel, no real skills – only you and an aggressive opponent, which is why Kali is not that good when the offense is concerned.
And the last downside is that Kali doesn’t apply any pressure at all. If you want to learn self-defense, you need to apply pressure.
If you don’t train under stress, you won’t perform to your highest potential. You’ll be too relaxed because you are so used to sparring with fake knives that when a real knife attack happens, you won’t know what to do.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Kali?
There is no straightforward answer to this question, because it all depends on how much you train, how fast you learn and how much you invest yourself in the training.
Kali’s basic moves are taught fairly quickly and you’ll learn them in about a month or two months.
But the thing is that Kali is very sophisticated and you’ll need a lot of time to fully and completely master all the details and the moves.
Of course, as time passes, the moves become more complex, so you’ll need more time to do it.
If you are interested in doing some Kali training at home, here are sticks you can buy for your training. Also here are some of the drills you can do at home: