Strong Side Forward

Updated from the original article,
THE COMPLETE FIGHTER: Program Helps Martial Artists Achieve Equal Rights — And Lefts,
published in Black Belt magazine, July, 1989, pp.34-37.

Martial artists have for years been taught to train so they will be able to execute any technique equally from either the left or right sides of their bodies. Countless hours have been dedicated to achieving this equality. Yet, despite this, the overwhelming majority of martial artists who train for equality in technique execution never achieve it.

For all their efforts, martial artists all have techniques and moves they use only when in a left lead, and those they use only from the right. Seldom, if ever, are those techniques the same. The vast majority of right-handed fighters, fighting from a left lead, use predominantly their right hand and leg. From a right lead they also use, almost exclusively, their right hand and leg. The techniques will differ, depending on the lead used, but they still use primarily the right hand and leg.

Typically, a right-handed fighter, when in a left lead, uses his left to block, cover, fake, or flick out a quick jab. Seldom does he use it for a serious strike. This disuse of the left is also true when in a right lead. Unless specifically trained to execute a certain movement or strike, the left hand usually gets little serious use. The fighter has not become multi-dimensional (able to effectively use both sides of his body), but is actually one-dimensional (using only one side, albeit from either lead). Training for equality in both sides, then, simply has not worked. Why?

The Problem
The problem is physiological in nature. It involves the complex union of the mind's conscious interaction with the physical capabilities of the body. The primary physical obstacle is the brain itself. You see, each side of the body is controlled by the opposite side of the brain. When learning, for example, to execute a kick with the right leg, a neural circuit is established through the left hemisphere of the brain. Likewise, learning to execute a left-leg kick establishes a nerve path through the brain's right hemisphere. The nerve paths are not identical, for although both hemispheres work together, they actually perform different functions and do practically everything differently. Each side is capable of producing nearly identical physical motions, but the neural mechanism controlling these motions is different.

Compounding the problems posed by the brain's hemispherical differences is the body's lack of real symmetry. Olympic trainers, using computer-aided video analysis, observed that runners do not take the same stride with both legs. Nor are their torso and arm movements symmetrical. Further, athletes trained to achieve equal strides and symmetry in movement showed significant performance reductions.

This is because the length, mass, and thickness of practically every muscle on the right side is different from those on the left. Those differences affect how you stand, walk and move, as well as your balance, coordination, and a multitude of other factors. While physical execution of kicks performed with both left and right legs may look identical to the casual observer, they are, from the nerve paths through the brain right down to the very muscles they trigger, quite different.

The problem is not in expecting a right-handed individual's left side to perform a given movement or technique; the problem comes when we expect the results to equal those produced by the right. Learning to execute the same kicks with the same degree of skill on one side as the other is as difficult as learning to write with the left land as well as you can with the right. With few exceptions, those actions cannot be identical.

While physical execution
of kicks performed with
both left and right legs
may look identical to the
casual observer, they are,
from the nerve paths
through the brain
right down to the very
muscles they trigger,
quite different.
This physical phenomenon is compounded by our natural predisposition to left- or right-side dominance. Everyone is born with one of the brain's hemispheres dominant. That dominance is what makes us left- or right-handed. Not only are we born with it, but we yield to it, reinforcing it every day of our lives. Given this natural predisposition, the right-handed individual naturally learns right-sided functions more easily since they require less conscious thought and effort.

In the normal learning process, we move from a level of conscious thought and effort to one of subconscious reflex. Mastery over a given task (operating on the level of subconscious reflex) is directly related to the amount of conscious effort previously poured into learning that task. For example, how easily can you remove a screw with the screwdriver held in your left hand (or right hand if you are left-handed)? You can likely manage the task, but not without considerable effort. The left-handed maneuver requires substantially more conscious thought than one performed by the dominant right hand. Moreover, practicing a task of that complexity equally with either hand does not remove the natural preference for performing it with the dominant hand. That requires practicing the task ONLY with the left hand. Only by consciously establishing a preference for the left can the subconscious' dominance by the right be overcome.

Although the practice has largely been abandoned, there was a time when children born left-handed were made to write and eat using their right hand. Over time, constant use of their right hand in these functions overcame their natural preference for their dominant left hand. Gradually, these left-handed individuals grew comfortable using their right hand, eventually preferring it to their dominant left. The change from that which was natural to that which was not came about NOT from practicing both sides equally, but from training ONLY the side desired, thus developing a conscious preference for its use that was strong enough to overcome the inborn preference for the dominant hand. The majority of those so trained eventually became ambidextrous, capable of eating and writing, for example, with either hand. If that practice is successful for a complex task like writing, surely it works in learning to kick and punch.

The Solution
The solution to this problem of technical equality is to train the fighter, not in a general perform-the-same-functions-equally-from-both-sides method, but in a movement-specific fashion. By "movement-specific," I mean that each side is trained to perform only specific tasks or movements — tasks the opposite side is not normally called on to do. Following this method, the fighter working out of a left lead trains his left (leading) hand, for example, for eye flicks (for self-defense) or backfist strikes (for competition), while his right (rear) hand practices only reverse punches. The leading left hand does not practice reverse punches, nor does the back right hand practice backfists.

To make this work, the fighter must initially be made to train and fight in one lead all the time. If, for example, he begins training in a right lead, he should perform his reverse punch only with his rear left hand; never his right. Being prohibited from practicing his reverse punch with his right forces the fighter to develop a conscious preference for his left reverse punch which eventually overcomes his body's inborn preference for the right. Although this approach will work for everyone, it is most effective when applied to beginners, since they have not already developed a reinforced (by training) preference for right-hand punches.

Only after the fighter reaches a level of confidence and preference for using the (previously "unnatural") left reverse punch, should he be allowed to practice the same punch from the left lead. He should have little difficulty learning it with his right and, more importantly, should not experience the confidence problems associated with learning the same strikes in the opposite order. Remember, it will take time to accomplish this new preference (for the left reverse punch over the right), so the fighter should not switch to the right reverse punch too soon. The fighter must still practice the left reverse punch twice as much as the right because it takes time to fully overcome a lifetime of preference for, reliance upon, and dominance by the natural right side. If left-handed, use the same procedure, but reverse the functions.

Western boxers or
Eastern martial arts
train to fight primarily
from a left lead;
they also train
expecting to face
opponents who also
fight in a left lead.
I say "reverse the functions" because although I advocate strong side forward, I overwhelmingly advocate right-side forward, even for southpaws (left-handers). "Reverse the functions" means developing the forward right hand to execute strong lead hand strikes (this is the challenge for the southpaw) and training the rear left hand to deliver equally powerful rear hand strikes (something easily — naturally — done by the left-handed fighter). I am convinced of this because I know that fighting out of a right lead frustrates most opponents — especially trained opponents. Trained opponents — be they Western boxers or Eastern martial arts practitioners — train to fight primarily from a left lead; they also train expecting to face opponents who also fight in a left lead. For this reason I prefer right-side forward for everyone.1

This "single-lead" theory is not new. Many top martial artists have advocated it for years. Joe Lewis, for example, prefers fighting from predominantly one lead. He uses this example. Take two fighters. Have them train the same number of hours, expending the same number of calories. Fighter number one trains using the "single-lead" method; fighter number two trains both sides equally. Square off those two fighters and, regardless which lead fighter number two assumes, fighter number one has the advantage because he has spent 50 percent more time training in his one lead than his opponent has in either of his.

Noted left-lead-only champion Bill Wallace agrees. When questioned about his being a "one-sided" fighter, Wallace counters that ...

When most people practice karate, they practice left side and they practice right side. Even if they're better on one side, they still work both sides. Now I'm for that, but when you're fighting, you have a preference for one side or the other. So why not concentrate on that one side and make it much better? Why be mediocre on two sides when you can be very good on one side?
Lewis supports single-lead training because it enables the fighter to make more effective use of valuable and often-limited training time. Wallace concurs for much the same reason, although neither advocates one lead over another. There are those, however, who do.
Al Dacascos photo    
Given a choice of which lead to train in, noted martial artist Al Dacascos,2 as well as the late Bruce Lee, believed the fighter should train with his strong side forward.

Says Dacascos: "In nature, the fighting strengths of most animals are kept up front. The snake, tiger, wolf, crane, etc., all have their weapons up front." For most of us that is the right side.

Having one's weapons up front places them in a position where they can quickly be brought into action. Being up front, these lead-hand/foot strikes are much quicker than those coming from the back hand or foot. Moreover, because they are from the naturally stronger side, they pack more power than those from the more orthodox left, weak-side forward position.

Training strong-side forward does not mean training only the weapons of the strong (leading) side. It means we start with the strong side forward; begin training those weapons for lead-hand/foot strikes. Then train the weaker rear-hand and foot to execute strikes with the same confidence and power as their partners up front. We simply do not train those rear weapons to do the same things as the forward weapons. Soon enough that once weaker left becomes as effective as the right.

But what if your strong side is disabled? Using a right-lead fighter as an example, you find that the fighter trained in the strong-side-forward, single-lead method actually becomes as capable as most "whole" single-lead fighters, because his once weaker side is no longer weak; it is an equal complement to the opposite side.
In fairness, we can ask the same question of the fighter who trains both sides equally. Like it or not, he still has a favorite, "strong" side. Whether placed up front or kept back, he still favors one side. What happens if his strong side becomes disabled? Is the disabled side put up front or kept back? There are too many variables involved for the question to be answered simply, but at the very least, the strong-side-forward (single-lead) fighter is no worse off than the both-sides-equal (dual-lead) fighter.3

Single-lead training makes sense for several reasons. First, because it makes efficient use of what is, for most martial artists, limited training time. Further, choosing a lead that places the dominant, strong-side forward provides an excellent platform from which to develop different but equally powerful strikes that can be delivered from the otherwise less-dominate often under-utilized "weak" side. Moreover, given the number of top martial artists who have come to the same conclusion, single-lead, strong-side-forward training deserves more than just casual consideration.

Realistically though, will such a method of training ever catch on in the martial arts? I think not — but for us, that's a good thing. I'll explain why that's a good thing in a moment, but to explain why it will not likely catch on, we must first be clear on the difference between single-lead, asymmetrical training (see Footnote 1) and strong-side forward. Of the two training methods, single-lead is the only one that COULD ever catch on. This is because it would not require changing from the traditional left lead fighting stance to a strong-side forward, right-lead stance. I said "COULD" because 99% of martial arts teachers still believe in training both sides equally (e.g. 500 side kicks with the right leg, followed by 500 side kicks with the left leg, supposedly enabling the student to fight equally well from either lead). With so many teachers following the "way it has always been done," it is unlikely that single-lead, asymmetrical training will ever really take hold. If that left-lead training method is unlikely to occur, does anyone really believe that [predominantly] right-lead, strong-side forward training will ever be adopted en masse? Don't hold your breath.

As stated earlier, one of the most influential names in modern martial arts, Bruce Lee, strongly advocated strong-side forward, but observe classes in any JKD school today and do you know what you'll see? The overwhelming percentage of the time, empty hand training is done in the traditional left lead. Why is that? Simply put, because practically all martial arts teachers teach from the traditional left-lead, and if they don't/can't change, then their students are not likely to change.

In fairness, the problem reaches well beyond the martial arts. Look at sports: baseball and golf, just to name two. Strong-side forward could be very effectively incorporated into these and other sports, except for the fact that no one teaches it that way — or is likely to do so for that matter — meaning it will never be. However, the fact remains in baseball and golf, batting and golf's driving swing would be much, MUCH more powerful if they were taught strong-side forward. That's because the leading arm (the one nearest the ball) actually provides the bulk of the power used to propel and drive the ball.

 Golfer's swing
The power arm in golfer's swing is his lead arm — NOT his rear arm.
The same is true for the batter in baseball.

Baseball instruction begins at a very early age for many players. So does golf. If coaches in these sports started their students with their strong sides forward, over time (granted, a few years), you would start seeing more "out of the park" home runs and drives in their respective games. But, alas, that's even less likely to happen than for modern computer keyboards in the United States to move from the old inefficient QWERTY 4 keyboard layout to something like the Dvorak Keyboard 5. The change to a more efficient keyboard layout has not happened because of the difficulty such a change would involve. The old layout is so engrained that practically no one wants to struggle through such a long and painful transition for better keyboard. You see, change is difficult. And changes that will only produce the promised benefits over a long period of time are almost impossible to make, be they in keyboards, baseball, golf, or the martial arts.

The greatest hurdle to overcome with these kinds of changes is that it would be a score of years before anyone started seeing the expected improvements. Moreover, it would be years before those still practicing the old-school methods (batting a baseball, driving a golf ball, or typing on the ubiquitous keyboard), retired, so you would have an extended period where people necessarily practiced both old and new methods. All those factors contribute significantly to why strong-side forward training will never become popular in the martial arts. Which brings us to why I said, "for us, that's a good thing."

Advantage Lefties

For myself and other strong-side forward practitioners, non-acceptance of strong-side forward training by the overwhelming majority of fighters in the world is a good thing. Why? Because it gives those of us who do, a significant advantage. Consider fencing (sport-side of sword fighting).

In fencing, what makes left-handers successful? Fencing is a sport where the very best practitioners don't think; they react. Constant practice is required in order to develop such an instinctual approach. The scarcity of left-handers (fencers who fight in a left lead, with swords in their left hands) means that right-handers have relatively little chance to practice against left-handers and fail, therefore, to develop the needed edge. Conversely, left-handers practice against right-handers all the time, giving them the opportunity to develop higher skills against them. All that is equally true in boxing, for example.
Any boxer will tell you, fighting a left-hander is extremely frustrating. If the southpaw is as skilled as his right-handed opponent, then the left-hander has a significant advantage. As a martial artist who practices right-hand forward, I have the same advantage, plus one: Unlike the southpaw, my right hand is my strong hand. As long as right-hand, strong-side forward training remains difficult to teach the masses, and as long as it remains in the hands of less than 13 percent 6 of the population, then those of us who have made the decision and effort to train this way, will continue to have a significant advantage. And when it comes to self-defense, I will take any advantage I can get.


  1. We call this sort of left- or right-side forward training single-lead, asymmetrical training — not to be confused with the training both sides equally method (e.g. Practicing 500 left leg kicks and 500 identical right-leg kicks).
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  2. Al Dacascos was my first significant teacher in martial arts, and it was he who got me immediately into strong-side forward training. He shared many principles we still practice in our school. He was a VERY significant teacher in my martial arts career.
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  3. One workable solution to the training both sides equally problem was reportedly suggested by Dan Inosanto, and is that instead of training both sides equally (or even strong-side forward), he has engrained a suite of reflexes and movements that work well for him when he is in a left lead, and a completely different suite that work equally well for him when in a right, strong-side forward position. Sounds like a pretty good solution to me.
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  4. The QWERTY keyboard layout was developed by Christopher Sholes in 1868 and was designed to slow down the typist so that the slow-moving mechanical arms of the typewriter would not become locked when keys were typed too quickly. The keyboard layout takes its name from the first six letters on the first alphabetic row of the keyboard.
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  5. The Dvorak keyboard layout was developed by Dr. August Dvorak in 1936.
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  6. World wide, left-handers range from as low as 3.4 percent of the population to as high as 27 percent. The average is generally accepted to be around 13 percent.
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Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.