Approaching The Dummy Mentally And Physically

The Dragon's List is honored to reproduce this article by Master Ron Heimberger with permission. For additional information about Master Ron Heimberger and Wing Chun please visit


Level One (absorption of the techniques and one-pointedness)

In the early stages of Wing Chun training, there is a tension between concentration on the techniques of the first three boxing forms and distracting thoughts. The main distractions are desires; ill will, despair, anger, laziness, agitation; doubt or skepticism. Sometimes a combination thereof. If practiced properly beforehand in the Siu Lim Tao, Chun Kiu, and Biu Gee a student will not find this to be of great consequence when beginning Wooden Dummy training. Then there will be a noticeable quickening of understanding. It is at this moment that the mental attributes, such as one-pointedness and bliss, that will mature into full absorption of understanding will come into dominance. Each has been present from previous lessons and stages of Wing Chun training in different degrees, but when they come, all at once they have special power. This is the first noteworthy mental attainment in Wooden Dummy training.

This stage is like a child not yet able to stand steadily but always trying to do so. The mental factors of full absorption are not strong at level one; the mind fluctuates between them and the usual wandering thoughts. The student is still open to these senses and remains aware of surrounding stimuli and feelings.

Level Two (transformation)

In some respects the Wooden Dummy training is like training all three boxing forms at once, like training some of the forms, but then again like no other form you've ever practiced before. After the first phase "absorption of the techniques" and "one-pointedness" is learned throughout the first three boxing forms, the Wooden Dummy exercises begin with the second phase called "transforming." By continually focusing and training on the Wooden Dummy there comes the first moment marking a total break with normal consciousness, this process dissolves differences between things so that they appear to flow into one another as if they are one.

This phase is like a puzzle which cannot be solved by logic. Its "solution" lies in "transcending thought" by liberating the practitioner's mind from the snare of technique. While working on a specific section of the Wooden Dummy, the practitioner keeps it constantly in mind, no matter what is going on, when other matters intrude on the mind, the practitioner immediately lets them go and returns to the section of movement at hand. As the practitioner discovers that the rational mind is unable to fully solve the movements, a feverish pitch of concentration is reached from which arises a supreme frustration. As this happens, what once was thought to be an easily understandable section reduces to barely understandable bits and fragments of technique. When the practitioners logical mind finally gives-up in exhaustion, the moment of "realization" then comes. Thought ceases and the practitioner enters a state of "fixation." The Wooden Dummy section will now reveal all its secrets.

Grandmaster Ip Man utilized the Wooden Dummy for his more advanced students. He saw as the aim of the Wooden Dummy as not to render the mind inactive but quieting and unifying it in the midst of activity. Consequently, his students practiced Wooden Dummy techniques until they developed a "mental strength" arising from "one-pointedness" and "transformation." These two phases together set the stage for mastery, opening students eyes so that they may see the true nature of technique. For example when students practice the Wooden Dummy, they transform mental, and physical abilities. When there is "absolute unity with the dummy, unthinking absorption in the movement becomes penetration." At this point, "inside and outside merge into a single unity." With this experience, transformation can take place, where the student will "see each thing just as it truly is." This "seeing" experience transforms and strengthens the practitioner's spirit and helps extend his awakening beyond sessions of the Wooden Dummy per se. Transformation develops and cultivates until finally it shapes all the rest of the practitioner's daily life.

Then after gaining some control over the mind via one-pointedness and transformational exercises like concentrating on the task and hand or exhausting rational mind with dummy work, the student then practices more than one section at a time, in which the student enters fully into every action with total attention and clear awareness. This corresponds to "bare attention" which has been described as: In what is seen there must be just the seen; In what is sensed there must be just the sensed; In what is thought there must be just the thought.

Level 3 (Conviction)

There are many things that may happen during this level of Wooden Dummy practice, some of which may be experienced, some in the path of insight, yet be warned that visions and intense sensations may arise when the ability to concentrate develops to a point within reach of Wooden Dummy mastery. It is at this level that the practitioner experiences deep serenity and believes that the final phase has been reached. This phase must be broken through. The final drive on the quest for mastery lies in the practitioner's efforts on the one hand by a painfully felt inner bondage--a frustration, a fear, or both--and on the other by the "conviction" that through the Wooden Dummy one can gain liberation in fighting and life itself.

Level 4 (No Mind)

Finally the "conviction" phase must also be overcome. Grandmaster Ip Man stressed the need to practice, and practice further until Wing Chun permeates the practitioner's whole life. Such fullness means a state of mind stilled beyond any need for further practice. In this final state of "no mind" stimuli comes into the practitioner's awareness and is received with nonreaction. This nonreaction., does not mean mental dullness, but a brilliantly clear mind in which details of all phenomenon can be seen, yet without analysis or attachment. This final stage sometimes called "letting go of ego" means a posture of mindfulness built into the practitioner's consciousness as a full awareness devoid of self-consciousness.



Many practitioners stop far short of realizing their potential because they feel they don't fit some stereotyped notion of what a martial artist should be. Or they make the mistake of trying to cram themselves into an ill-fitting mold, so they lose their greatest ally, the natural practitioner within. For Wooden Dummy training is best and most enjoyable when you use it to express -- not suppress -- yourself. Wooden Dummy training affords Wing Chun to shine in real combat not rule limiting sport bouts, or sparring with friends. There is a mushrooming effect: The more of yourself you can put into Wooden Dummy training, the more satisfying it will be.

Without the dimension of personal expression Wooden Dummy training becomes mere movement and the Wooden Dummy withers into empty husks of technique. Lamenting the present overemphasis on technical skill. During Wooden Dummy training, your instructor is there not only to provide models you can imitate, but to help you discover those sides of yourself you want to express. In a similar way, the great practitioners who capture our imaginations should inspire us to search out in ourselves those individual attributes that make Wing Chun a satisfying and full experience.

If you wish to make the most of your Wing Chun ability, you cannot afford to sacrifice Wooden Dummy training by slavishly pursuing an ideal body form or a movement idiom that happens to be prized by current society. Remember Wing Chun was formed for battle fields of old, much tougher than today's "mean-streets." Of course, if you are seeking a job in the movies, you will have to consider whether you have the right equipment for the practitioner; but if you want become a polished Wing Chun practitioner, whatever you've got is all you need. Indeed, it is the greatest thing you have to offer. "Style is character," proclaims novelist Joan Didion. Style is an act of courage.

This doesn't mean that you don't also need skill and technique. Becoming a master is a reward which cannot be come by in an easy way. As any veteran Wing Chun practitioner will tell you, learning Wing Chun is a never-ending process of struggle and growth. But whether you are training primarily for your own growth or to achieve pugilistic excellence, the Wooden Dummy is the "spirit-freeing" foundation of Wing Chun that is enjoyable and good. If you begin with what you know about yourself, and things learned in the first three forms, then build on this with the aid of the Wooden Dummy, you'll get the best possible results from your efforts.


The range of movement at the joints of the body (shoulders, spinal vertebrae, hips, ankles, feet) is determined by three things: the bony architecture of the joints; the length of the ligaments, those wiry bonds of connective tissue between our bones which stabilize joints by limiting their movement; and the amount of flexibility in the muscles and tendons (tendons are extensions of our muscles -- rough, fibrous cords that connect muscle to bone) Although practitioners who are loose in one joint tend to be loose in others, flexibility can vary throughout the body. It is possible to have a perfect kick and yet have limited back mobility, or to have loose ankles and tight hips.

Tendons and, to a slightly lesser degree, ligaments are relatively inelastic in adults, and thus can be stretched very little through training. But muscle tissue is highly adaptive to dynamic Wooden Dummy exercise. Muscles can be gradually lengthened up to one and a half times their former length with regular Wooden Dummy practice. Students often don't know how much joint maneuverability they have until they are able to add flexibility to their muscles fully. Students increase their power, have better footwork and better technique than they're aware of, but can't utilize these capabilities because stiff muscles interfere. A student that appears hopelessly rigid can improve by a systematic program of chi sau training combined with Wooden Dummy exercises which strengthen the muscles and bones of the body.

Flexibility has a great deal to do with the ability to let go in the body. Muscular tension always inhibits movement and emotional tension adds to physical tension. If you are tight, breathing deeply and making a conscious effort to relax are terribly important when involved on the Wooden Dummy. This permits pour muscles and joints to open to their maximum range. Gritting your teeth, holding your breath, and attacking the problem with force only makes matters worse by causing the muscles to grab and tighten up even more. Correct posture also facilitates flexibility by taking the strain off overworked muscles and freeing them to extend fully.

Yee Chi Kim Yeung Ma (the stance), the capacity to rotate the legs inward in the hip socket is, like other joint actions, dependent on the individual skeletal construction (in this case, the architecture of the pelvis and the way in which the thighbone fits into the hip socket), the length of the ligaments in the hip joint capsule, and the strength and power of the adductor muscles of the legs. Though adults cannot significantly alter their native bone structure, skill in using the amount of rotation they have can be vastly improved with good technique.


The pages of Wing Chun history are filled with accounts of practitioners who learned to capitalize on what they could do rather than be limited by what they couldn't change. Imagine if Ip Man had spent all his time working out with weights, desperately trying to make himself into the athletic sort of martial artist you see in the movies. He probably would have quit long before his prime. Instead Ip Man became great by cultivating his quick, powerful way of moving. In Wing Chun he used his physical peculiarities -- a light, unmuscular build -- to master the style for which he is famous.

What makes a good practitioner is not trying to be someone you're not. You don't become good by wishing you had bigger muscles or a lower center of gravity, or that you were ten years younger or ten pounds lighter. Forcing your leg four inches higher than it will go won't make you special either. What makes you a good practitioner is being yourself, but more so. Just as no two people have the same handwriting or gait, no two practitioners look or move alike. Underneath all you do ticks an individual style that makes you the inimitable person -- and practitioner -- you are. The form and structure of your body, how you move, your sense of timing, your feelings and your experiences are the raw materials with which you have to work. However limiting it may seem sometimes, this is your lump of clay, ready to be kneaded and shaped into movement. Success depends to a great extent on how effectively you know the Wooden Dummy and how it applies to your unique qualities of body, mind, and spirit.

Discovering your body type on the Wooden Dummy determines how movement works for you. It makes some things easier to do and some things harder. A knowledge of your physical make-up -- information that unfolds gradually through feedback from the Wooden Dummy, and teachers, self-observation and experience -- should therefore help direct you to a high level of competency and training methods that are best suited to you.

The whole idea behind Wooden Dummy training is to discover and develop your own unique capacity. To be truly useful, any technique must be built upon principles of simplicity and practicality -- not on what you deem necessary. Training based on unrealistic goals is a waste of time. It will produce weak or inconsistent results and, worse, may ultimately cause injury by forcing the body too far. Probably every student beginning Wooden Dummy training, for example, has tried stepping too quickly in hopes of achieving more power and quicker reflexes -- only to learn, sometimes years later, that this is an exercise in futility. Moreover, distorting your back and straining your knees or ankles in order to shift from one side to the other, are dangerous ways of compensating for a poor stance, and they can't sustain that kind of punishment. It is far better to start out with both feet turned-in to a about a thirty degree angle.

Once you've established good postural alignment and are strong enough to hold that amount of rotation firmly from the top of the legs, you can gradually extend it to your maximum capacity on the Wooden Dummy. If you're like most practitioners, you still may not feel very powerful, but what you do attain will be sturdy, and in time will be much more powerful than what incorrect movement supports now.

Before you start complaining about your bad luck, remember that there is usually a strength related to every physical weakness and a weakness tied to every strength. One of the most unnerving--and inspiring things about studying the Wooden Dummy is watching others work in class. The less you know about your own body the more likely you are to be impressed by your classmates real or imagined physical endowments. Don't be so quick to envy practitioners who can apply perfect power without loosing balance. They have to work harder than their quick footed classmates to move around the dummy with their lower center of gravity. Nature often compensates a weak characteristic with another stronger one. For instance, people with tight hips frequently have supple backs. Many practitioners with meager hand-work have great foot-work.

Remember too, that good training will help you make the fullest use of your particular body build. Once you know what they are and how to work with them, your given physical features can be improved. As we'll see in this book, power and technique can be dramatically increased with regular Wooden Dummy work. Speed, coordination and overall motor efficiency come with the proper kind of practice.

It's risky to generalize about body types because every body is put together--and thus works--differently. Most people are a mixture of physical traits. Not only are we loose in some places and tight in others, or powerful in some ways and weak in others, but our skeletal proportions can vary from one part of the body to another. We can have a long trunk and short legs, or vice versa. Hence, the analysis that follows is meant only as a window to the inner workings and capabilities of your body.

Body Proportion

The size and weight of your bones and muscles affect your kung fu too. There is little you can do about your basic build except exploit its best features and where possible try to mitigate its shortcomings through good training. Most people are varying degrees of these two extremes:

Long and lean, happens to be the body type that is currently in vogue. But it does present some problems. The farther the limbs extend from the center of the body, the less control the practitioner has over them: and unless there is a strong Wooden Dummy background, it is usually harder for long-legged, long-torsoed practitioners to pull themselves together to move fast.

A compact build, with a short trunk and limbs, has other advantages. Strength and speed come more naturally to practitioners with this kind of physique. Because of their close-knit body construction, these types hold themselves together well and thus can shift and punch with ease: but they may have a tendency to develop bulky muscles. People with short, powerful muscles need to be especially careful to maintain stretch along with strength to avoid the loss of power.

Sex-linked physical features

Despite the controversy over sex roles that has erupted in our times, for hundreds of thousands of years in most human societies the men have traditionally been the hunters and warriors and the women have been the cultivators and homemakers. Both sexes have evolved certain adaptive biological features. Thus far in our evolution at least, the male physique is built for strength, speed and maximum force, while the female body is primarily equipped for the flexibility and steady, slow-burning energy needed for childbearing and caring for a household.

Physically the male pelvis is cone shaped, broader at the top and narrow toward the bottom where the legs attach. This design raises the center of gravity in the body and is a more efficient construction," compact and powerful, and made for running and jumping. The female version is bowl shaped--wider and shallower--to accommodate a fetus, and inherent in its structure is more freedom of movement in the legs and hips which lowers the center of gravity.

Such design motifs repeat themselves throughout the body. Except for a brief interval before puberty when girls mature faster than boys and surpass them in strength, men have larger, tighter skeletons and bulkier muscles, due in part to male hormones called androgens. Men have considerably more muscle cells at their disposal than women.

Of course there is a great deal of individual variation in both sexes, and there are plenty of exceptions to prove the rule. Nagging doubts remain as to just how many of our reputedly sex-linked anatomical differences are caused by physical and social conditioning. The influence of exercise on muscle development, for example, is still not clear. Exercise has been shown by at least one researcher to increase the DNA and protein content of muscles in experimental animals. As female athletes compete and develop, they challenge the old definitions of their physical potential. Similarly, the tendency that male practitioners have toward weak knee ligaments and stiff hips may be due in part to the late start that many of them get in training. This makes it harder to acquire joint flexibility and may cause them to physically force technique because of straining at the knee.

However the Wooden Dummy teaches both sexes to lock the entire body in as a whole and lower the center of gravity. Beginners on the Wooden Dummy discover that they are stiff in the hips and knees. It is not surprising, then, that advanced Wooden Dummy practitioners, with their acquired pliancy, facility for balance, and ability to support one part of the body with other parts in harmony became powerful fighters.

Physical Limitations

Many physical limitations can be overcome with good training, which usually entails both remolding the body through daily conditioning and expanding the practitioners notion of what he or she can do.

Say for example, that you are having trouble with stepping. Every time step you think about how tight your muscles are and how your joints refuse to bend. In keeping with that mental image of yourself fighting to do a step, you brace yourself by holding your body rigidly and, with grim determination, you try to force the muscles. They, of course, only jam up more and reinforce your image of yourself with a short, tight step. In addition, faulty posture may be causing you to grab and tense your muscles just to stand up on your feet. A good teacher will correct your stance so that each body part is carrying the proper workload and the muscles are free to stretch fully. The instructor will give you feedback on how far your body can go. The instructor will also give you a clear picture of what you should be aiming for by demonstrating the technique with the right muscular feeling and rhythm. Eventually the tone and performance of your muscles will change in response to working them differently, and your physical range will grow along with your mental understanding of the movement. Once they are working well, most practitioners discover that they have greater physical capabilities than they thought possible. But it takes time to learn to work with your body. Give yourself the time to explore.

Slumps often lead us to make mistaken assumptions about our limitations. Nobody knows exactly what causes these temporary setbacks, but they affect all Wing Chun practitioners. During a slump progress levels off. There may be no noticeable improvement in your Wooden Dummy training for several weeks, and you may even backslide into old problems. This is sometimes due to an information overload: You may need more time to assimilate new concepts and experiences. Sometimes the body isn't ready for change and needs to make connections or develop strength; or your Wooden Dummy becomes stale because you need a change of pace. In the latter case, taking a short break from the Wooden Dummy is often the best tonic. Try working on the other forms, increase your knowledge of them. The best thing about slumps is that after they've blown over you'll usually find that some new lights have turned on for you.

But the day will come when you'll know that your step won't go any further, your punch won't go any faster, and your kick won't land any harder; to defy these structural limits is to invite injury. So at the same time that you are forging ahead, be realistic. Understand not only what you are capable of but what you really need in order to accomplish the Wooden Dummy techniques. Your enjoyment of the Wooden Dummy and quality as a Wing Chun practitioner are by no means determined by how many punches you can do in one second. Too many times a beginning Wooden Dummy practitioner thinks that the most interesting thing about the dummy is technical skill. They don't realize that the most interesting thing to watch is themselves and that technique is only exciting when it is given meaning by a complete Wooden Dummy practitioner.


Master Ron Heimberger is a direct disciple of Grandmaster Ip Ching and one of only three masters in the United States fully certified by the Grandmaster himself. As author, instructional program developer, teacher, and researcher, Master Heimberger travels nationally conducting seminars for martial artists, military personnel, law enforcement agencies and youth organizations. He is recognized in national and international circles as an expert in Wing Chun as it is the only martial art he has ever done and currently presides as Advisor to the Yip Ching Wing Chun Athletic Association and President of the Wing Chun Kung Fu Council, an organization designed to promote honor and integrity, maintaining the highest quality.