In the Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee wrote that “the quality of a man’s technique depends on his footwork, for one cannot use his hands or kicks efficiently until his feet have put him in the desired position. If a man is slow on his feet, he will be slow with his punches and kicks. Mobility and speed of footwork precede speed of kicks and punches”. Footwork is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of any martial art. No technique in the world can be made effective without the mobility to get into the right position and range, just as no bomb can be effective without the delivery system to get it to the target. The purpose of footwork is to move into more advantageous positions while preventing the opponent from doing the same. Proper footwork ensures balance, speed, power and control. It simultaneously enables both dangerous offense and elusive defense. Yet, for some reason, footwork receives some of the least detailed instruction of any skill. In this article, we’re going to lay out guidelines for fundamentally sound footwork, discuss drills to develop them, then study examples of outstanding footwork.
The golden rule of footwork is that you must preserve the integrity of your stance. Correct foot alignment and foot spacing must be maintained no matter what direction you’re moving. This means no crossing your feet, no squaring up, no bringing your feet too close together or too far apart, no standing straight up, no removing both feet from the ground at the same time and generally no doing anything that removes you from your starting position any more than is necessary. With this core concept in mind, let’s take a look at some more specific guidelines:
1) Move the foot closest to the direction you’re going first. Super simple, super basic, but everyone does this wrong—especially when pivoting. Regardless of which way you’re stepping, the closer foot moves first while the farther foot is pushing off, then the farther foot adjusts to bring you back to stance as the closer foot does the work. Be careful to maintain the proper width of your stance with each step.
2) Small steps. It’s very tempting to take big steps, especially when trying to move quickly, but this makes you easier to outmaneuver and easier to walk into traps. Bigger steps are more committed and less balanced. Smaller steps are more controlled, ensure you have balance and leverage at all times, and allow you to change directions quickly. For MMA especially this makes your legs harder to kick and to grab for takedowns.
3) Weight on the balls of your feet. This doesn’t mean you need to be up on your toes like a ballerina, it just means that even when your heels are down, your weight shouldn’t be on them. Keeping weight on the balls of your feet keeps your calves engaged so that you’re always ready to push into the ground to either move or attack, in addition to keeping you better balanced.
4) Keep your lead foot pointed at the target at all times. No matter what direction you’re moving, keep that lead foot pointed at the center of your target. This ensures that you’re never giving up an angle and helps prevent you from squaring up, getting too bladed or crossing your feet. Many people are never taught this simple cue but it makes a huge difference in your positioning and thus ability to control distance.
5) When trying to punch and move at the same time, make sure the foot you’re stepping hits the ground at the same time the punch lands. If it doesn’t, you’re losing power and will be off-balance if you miss.
These tips will ensure you’re moving correctly and staying in your stance at all times. Now you need a few drills to put them into action:
1) Place a water bottle on the floor. Circle around it in both directions. That’s it. Sounds stupid, but you have to do it while keeping your lead foot pointed at the bottle the entire time, and without crossing your feet, squaring up, standing straight up, bringing your feet together, widening your stance too much, any of that. Once you can do this, you start adding in fast direction changes, in-out movement, foot feints, and other more advanced techniques.
2) Do a round of bagwork simply focused on moving around the bag. Give it a push then move with it as it swings. Have fun with this. You can do things like push the bag, pivot to get out of the way as it swings towards you, chase it as it swings away, then pivot out again right before it comes back towards you. Be very aware of what distance you’re at—you can choose to stay in close as it swings around to mimic a pressuring infighting game, or you can try to stay far away from the bag to mimic a bull and matador type fight.
3) Get a partner and some pads in the ring, cage, or anywhere with a border. Your partner is going to hold the pads up and walk you down relentlessly. Your goal is to keep pivoting around him so that he can’t push you to the edge of the ring despite constantly coming forward. As he does this, you can either work a preset combination or you can freestyle it. This can also be done as a partner drill at a more advanced level, where both guys wear gloves and he walks forward practicing defense while you circle around and attack.
4) The same thing as 3, but this time the guy coming forward is doing the attacking. The goal is to cut off the cage and push the other guy back. Like 3, it can also be done as a partner drill.
5) Finally, make sure you’re working your footwork during all your shadowboxing. Spend a round or two practicing only your footwork at the beginning of each session. From there, incorporate your footwork into everything you do. It has to be integrated fully into your style for it to be effective.
These drills will allow you to sharpen your footwork technique in ways that will translate directly to fighting ability. You should also supplement this technical training with exercises like jumping rope and ladder drills to improve coordination and agility.
Now that we have a good grasp of how to move correctly, let’s take a look at some examples of great footwork, starting with arguably the most technical boxer alive right now: Lomachenko.
Notice the small steps, the subtle pivots and angle changes, his ability to stay balanced as he shifts weight back and forth while moving, how he moves smoothly and fluidly in all directions and how he keeps his hips and knees engaged.
Here’s Cotto, who never had the fastest feet, using educated footwork to move, punch and defend all at the same time while hitting pads with Freddie Roach.
Pay attention to his strong connection to the ground, the way he’s always lined up and ready to dig his feet in for power and balance. He keeps his center of gravity low as he moves and thus his ability to work his power punches with his angles makes excellent study material.
Now watch Roman Gonzalez work the heavy bag:
And really watch how he works with the movement of the bag. Sometimes he pivots around it as it comes to him, sometimes he intercepts its movement with a punch, sometimes he gives it a push to keep it moving, and the whole time he’s always facing it as it swings around and he steps around it.
Finally, check out this great analysis video made by Lee Wylie:
Fundamental footwork is not only one of the most important skills in fighting; it’s also one of the most fun to train. Move smart, move fast and deliver your bombs to the target.