Training Secrets of the Preying Mantis
By Jane Hallander freelance writer.
Copyright 1993, Rainbow Publications, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.

We know it as one of nature's greatest hunters, a creature that seizes its prey with its spined forelegs, then eats its victims alive.

It's only an insect, yet some of the larger varieties can occasionally catch and eat small birds and lizards. If you haven't guessed by now, this voracious hunter is the praying mantis, an insect that is sometimes known by its more appropriate moniker: the preying mantis.

When resting or waiting for a meal, a praying mantis assumes a meditative position, with its head and body held upright and its quick front legs folded as if in prayer. However, that picture is deceptive, since the mantis is ready to lash out at any suitable victim that wanders too close. This habitual praying stance leads to the source of the insect's name, derived from a Greek word meaning prophet or soothsayer.

Due to its large appetite (which gives the female mantis her nasty habit of eating the male during or after mating), the praying mantis is one of the animal kingdom's most efficient fighters: It can often rend a much larger foe in a matter of seconds. That skill has also made it the model for one of the Chinese martial arts' most effective fighting systems—appropriately named tong long, or praying mantis kung fu.

To strengthen their stances, praying mantis practitioners place heavy logs or railroad ties on their thighs (1). When they have mastered this, they strengthen their upper body by balancing another railroad tie on their forearms (2).

Like their insect model, praying mantis kung fu stylists are unrelenting attackers. There is no such thing as retreat among mantis practitioners. They attack relentlessly, until the battle is finished-usually with the mantis practitioner the victor. However, ask a mantis stylist and he will tell you that praying mantis stylists are not aggressors. Like the insect, they wait until their opponent comes to them, then counterattack. Since the counterattack is always strong and unyielding, a good description of praying mantis techniques is aggressive defense.

Three hand techniques, each mimicking the insect's grabbing and catching front legs, characterize praying mantis kung fu fighting strategies. Briefly, those three techniques are the hooking hand (called diu) position that resembles an insect's claw; lao, the grappling or grabbing technique that gives the mantis practitioner control over his opponent; and cai, an unbalancing downward jerk that pulls the opponent into range for a variety of other mantis strikes.

Although each mantis style uses the three characteristic hand techniques, there are several slightly different versions of praying mantis kung fu, with seven-star praying mantis being the most popular. However, not far behind are six-harmony and eight steps praying mantis. Eight-steps mantis differs from seven-star with its eight types of moving footwork.

Praying mantis stylists improve their grip by tossing (1) a sandbag back and forth. Grabbing the heavy bag helps develop finger strength (2).

Eight steps praying mantis instructor Kamyar Shadan of San Francisco teaches traditional praying mantis kung fu, as learned from his own teacher, James Sun, now residing in Taiwan.

"Since we practice an aggressive fighting art," Shadan says, "mantis stylists are prepared to continue until the opponent is beaten. This means we need superior physical conditioning, including both endurance and static training."

While seven-star mantis depends primarily on its monkey footwork (a type of footwork that stresses the agility and mobility of a primate, but is not necessarily designed to make the practitioner look like a monkey stylist), eight-steps mantis uses eight different types of footwork. These include kneeling, square, crane, and twist stances. The mantis practitioner often changes back and forth from stance to stance several times during a fighting confrontation. The variety of footwork and hand movements used during a single combination of techniques requires a fit cardiovascular system and strong legs.

Mantis hand techniques, such as the grabbing and pulling motions, also demand special arm, wrist and finger conditioning-conditioning that goes beyond the wrist and finger push-ups most people associate with hand strengthening. Shadan has specific exercises that combine arm and hand development with actual cardiovascular conditioning.

Like everyone else, praying mantis stylists use endurance exercises to expand their ability. They also use them to realize their inabilities and limitations, and to reach new training plateaus.

Even something static, like horse stance training, can be used to strengthen the body tremendously. Mantis practitioners go far beyond the ordinary stand for-l0-minutes-or-longer-in-a-low-square-horse-stance type of stance training. Eight steps praying mantis enthusiasts go one step further. While they do stand for long time periods in low horse stances, they do it with a heavy log resting across their thighs. Of course, their thighs must be parallel to the ground for the log to stay in place.

As if that were not enough, Shadan and his students add another log to rest atop their outstretched arms as they pass the time in low stationary stances.

According to Shadan, horse stance training with logs added for extra weight ensures the mantis practitioner has correct body position. It's difficult to lean forward or backward or stick the buttocks out with a heavy weight threatening to pull you off-balance at any moment. On the external side, stance training with weights builds endurance and strength in the legs and arms. It gives you weight or resistance training and isometric exercise at the same time.

From an internal standpoint, this kind of stance training develops internal organ strength-especially kidney strength-and improved blood circulation. Besides standing in low horse stances with heavy weights, serious mantis students also practice single-leg development, where they raise one leg as high as possible, while leaning back away from the raised leg. Single leg training enables mantis stylists to be completely stable on one leg with the other raised, as in a crane stance. Since all the body's weight is balanced over one leg, single-leg training also develops strength in the stationary leg. Mantis stylists alternate standing for as long as possible from one leg to the other, ensuring that both legs develop equally.

Shadan considers mantis endurance training to be part of the natural progression toward martial arts expertise.

"When you first start eight steps praying mantis," he explains, "you need special endurance training before you can understand and develop the ability to correctly perform the footwork. In our system, we say that 'endurance gives you stability, flexibility and efficiency.' "

Endurance training doesn't overlook mantis hand techniques, the calling card of praying mantis kung fu. Traditional eight steps praying mantis training includes sandbag workouts. Heavy, sand-filled square bags are tossed back and forth between mantis stylists. The requirement is that they catch them with, their fingertips. Seems easy enough, until you think about tossing this bag back and forth for 30 minutes. The bag is heavy-weighing up to 20 pounds-and is not an easy thing to grab. Besides developing incredibly strong fingers, mantis bag-tossing serves as unique upper-body free-weight training. However, unlike weight training, there's no possibility of developing tense, bulky muscles. The constant animation involved with throwing the bag keeps arm muscles flexible and resilient.

Practicing long techniques can help build cardiovascular endurance. To achieve this, praying mantis practitioners might run through a form like the one found in frames 1-5.

Other endurance workouts for the arms include punching continuously and as fast as possible, always trying to better previous speed-punching records. According to Sun, 300 or more punches per minute is not uncommon for advanced students.

Even mantis sparring practice is geared toward better endurance. Eight steps mantis fighting principles dictate that the fighter use a large variety of continuous techniques, ensuring that the opponent is defeated. Each technique may be accompanied by different footwork, making the mantis stylist use a variety of muscles with each action. Put six or eight different techniques together in a fast-moving scenario and you get a good total-body endurance workout.

No matter how good your technique expertise, if your body isn't physically up to the demands placed on it, you will never reach your potential in martial arts. Praying mantis endurance training promotes both fitness and martial arts expertise.

About the author: Jane Hallander is a Corte Madera, California-based martial artist and freelance writer. She contributes frequently to Karate/Kung Fu Illustrated.

By Jane Hallander freelance writer.
Copyright 1993, Rainbow Publications, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.