Bruce Lee’s Contact Reflex Training

Cross Arm Chi Sao

Once the practitioner has achieved a certain degree of proficiency from the other chi sao exercises (including lop sao exercise), he will move on to cross arm chi sao.  As with all chi sao exercises, cross arm chi sao is a drill – the contact sensitivity garnered from these drills will be what carries over into “the street”.  However, of all the chi sao exercises, the cross arm drills take the practitioner closest to actual combat.  This is because it trains the footwork necessary to bridge the gap between contact distance and exchange distance.

Contact distance is the range at which one can only achieve contact with the extremities of the opponent’s limbs.  At this distance, one may be able to block, but cannot reach the opponent with the counter attack.  The objective from this distance is to get to the range where one can block and counter simultaneously, ie: exchange distance.  Again, it is the footwork that will allow the practitioner to successfully accomplish this objective.

The term “cross arm” refers to the contact relationship the practitioner has with the opponent at the onset of the exercise.  To begin, the practitioner will start from a forward stance position, with the forward arm making contact with the opponent’s forward arm at the wrist area.  If the contact relationship is either right arm to right arm or left arm to left, the arms will form an “X” (ie: cross) at the point of intersection (if the arms meet right to left or left to right – in Wing Chun – this relationship is called ‘parallel’; but that’s another drill).

We will now examine the cross arm chi sao drills from two primary perspectives:  first offensive, then defensive.

The drill commences the instant the two practitioners make contact in this cross arm position.  Offensively, the objective is to sense any fluctuation in the opponent’s energy.  (Are they too tense?  Are they pushing down, or to the side?  Is there a lack of forward energy in their arm?)  If an opening is sensed, then the practitioner should immediately execute an attack.

There are two obstacles that may interfere with this objective, however.  One is the opponent’s lead arm and the second is the opponent’s rear arm.  Therefore, one must first eliminate the opponent’s lead arm from the equation (by using a pak sao or lop sao, for example) and simultaneously step forward to the blind side (outside of the lead arm) and counter attack (arriving at exchange distance).  This forces the opponent to block with the rear hand or get hit!

The practitioner will identify the force applied in the opponent’s (rear hand) block, redirect or release this force, then execute another attack.  This process may continue until the practitioner achieves a clear advantage – trapping up the opponent’s arms and disrupting his balance.

When the practitioner successfully forces the opponent to block with the rear hand, the opponent will usually have to reach across his body to defend.  If this occurs, the opponent most likely will have crossed his own arms in the process.  This is an ideal situation for the practitioner.  If the opponent crosses his arms, one should immediately pin the arms at the centre of the “X”.  If both arms are trapped, this leaves the opponent completely vulnerable to the practitioner’s attack.

A quick review:  the contact reflexes are used to first sense an opening, then to determine the nature of the force in the opponent’s defence.  This energy is redirected or released and another attack is initiated.  Whenever possible, force the opponent to cross his own arms and pin them – continuing the offensive.

On the defensive front, the first objective is quite simple:  block!  Because the opponent’s objective is to shut down the lead arm first, the practitioner should ideally counter the attempted trap and strike with his lead arm.  If the lead arm defence is successful, this will free up the practitioner’s rear hand to immediately counter attack, thereby putting the opponent on the defensive.

Even if the opponent manages to get past the lead arm and forces the practitioner to block with the rear hand, the practitioner’s objective is still the same:  put the opponent on the defensive by immediately counter attacking.  Granted, the use of the rear hand to defend is not ideal in this situation, for it does put the opponent one step closer to achieving his objective.  But it’s not over until it’s over.  Even if the opponent reaches the rear hand, the possibility still exists to turn the situation around into the practitioner’s favour.  That’s why the rear hand is so important in the Wing Chun system – it backs up the lead arm in case the primary defence fails.

Thus, the contact reflexes are used defensively to feel the opponent’s attack as it commences.  What one feels combined with what one sees (visual reflexes) will determine the most appropriate defence.  Again, the objective from a blocking situation is to put the opponent back on the defensive.  This, of course, puts the practiitioner on the offensive and the contact reflexes now apply as stated previously.

Perhaps because of its realistic street application, cross arm chi sao was Bruce Lee’s favourite of the chi sao exercises.  He practised it religiously.  In fact, cross arm chi sao was so important to Bruce, he paid direct homage to this exercise in the film “Enter the Dragon”, when he used it in the famous tournament to defeat Han’s ruthless bodyguard.

In conclusion, one final note further expresses the impact of chi sao on Bruce Lee’s martial arts training.  The following excerpt is from “Bruce Lee”  Fighting Spirit – a Biography” by Bruce Thomas.

The most valuable and, I believe, indispensable tool Bruce Lee had for understanding the roots of combat came from his grounding in the practice of stickig hands, chi sao, which develops the awareness that allowed him to flow into spontaneous expression. 

Bruce could say that he was “no style, but all styles” because the reflexes he’d acquired from sticking hands allowed him to automatically match any attack with the appropriate counter.  In this way, his technique was the result of his opponent’s technique.  “You don’t know what I’m going to do,” Bruce would say.  Neither did Bruce – until it happened!

(by Si-Fu Eric Oram, extracted from a 1997 edition of Australasian Blitz Magazine)