Filipino Martial Arts: Tradition, Adaptation, and Legacy

Filipino Martial Arts
The Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) encompass a rich tapestry of combat systems developed in the Philippines, embodying centuries of tradition, adaptation, and resilience. This extensive martial arts tradition, encompassing various styles and techniques, has been instrumental in shaping the nation’s history and culture.

A Legacy Rooted in Necessity

The origins of Filipino Martial Arts are deeply tied to the survival instincts of the Filipino people. With over 7,000 islands, the Philippines has a long history of internal tribal conflicts and invasions from foreign conquerors. These constant threats necessitated a robust system of defense, leading to the development of combat techniques designed to protect families, villages, and tribes.

Throughout history, FMA was practiced and taught in secret, particularly during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The Spanish imposed strict measures to control the population, outlawing martial arts and disarming the populace. However, FMA masters and instructors continued to pass on their skills to trusted family members and students, keeping the tradition alive.

FMA is a confluence of various cultural influences, reflecting the Philippines’ geographic proximity to other Asian countries and its history of colonization. The techniques and styles have been shaped by Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Spanish martial arts. As a result, FMA encompasses a wide range of practices, including Arnis, Eskrima, Kali, and more specialized forms such as Sinawali and Pananandata.

The diversity of FMA extends to its weaponry. Practitioners train with various blades, sticks, and flexible weapons, allowing them to adapt to different combat scenarios. This adaptability is a hallmark of FMA, enabling practitioners to use everyday objects as weapons in a pinch. The emphasis on weapons training from the outset is a unique aspect of FMA, with students typically learning to fight with sticks, knives, and swords before progressing to empty-hand techniques.

Blade Culture and Weaponry

The Philippines’ blade culture plays a significant role in FMA. Blades have been integral to Filipino life for both agriculture and warfare. The common use of bolos, a cutting tool similar to a machete, highlights the practical applications of blade techniques in daily life.

This familiarity with blades has contributed to the development of FMA’s distinctive weapons training, where students start with weapons and then transition to empty-hand combat.

Training with weapons involves a variety of tools, from rattan sticks used in practice to dense hardwoods for actual defense. The flexibility of FMA is evident in its approach to weaponry, with practitioners trained to use impact weapons, edged weapons, flexible weapons, and even projectiles.

This wide range of weaponry, along with the adaptability of techniques, underscores the practicality of FMA in real-world situations.

The Live Hand and Unique Techniques

A unique feature of FMA is the “Live Hand,” the practitioner’s off-hand that plays an active role in combat. Unlike other martial arts systems where the off-hand is often hidden to prevent injury, FMA encourages the use of the live hand for trapping, locking, supporting weapon blocks, and disarming.

This approach reflects FMA’s emphasis on practical and efficient techniques, allowing practitioners to maintain control in combat scenarios.

Another key concept in FMA is the use of double weapons, often sticks or a combination of stick and dagger. This ambidextrous training cultivates a high degree of coordination and muscle memory, facilitating a seamless transition from weapons training to empty-hand combat.

The integration of live-hand techniques and double-weapon training creates a dynamic and adaptable fighting style that is distinctive to FMA.

Why is Filipino Martial Arts important in Filipino culture?

FMA is important in Filipino culture for several reasons:

(1) Historical Defense

FMA emerged from the need to defend against invasions and conflicts, providing Filipinos with a combat system that could protect themselves, their families, and their communities. It reflects the resilience and adaptability of the Filipino people in the face of external threats.

(2) Cultural Identity

Arnis, along with other Filipino martial arts like Eskrima and Kali, represents a significant part of the Philippines’ cultural heritage. It encompasses the skills, traditions, and values that have been passed down through generations, contributing to the nation’s unique identity.

(3) Versatility and Adaptability

FMA is known for its flexibility and adaptability, utilizing various weapons and empty-hand techniques. This versatility allows practitioners to tailor the system to their specific needs, mirroring the resourcefulness that has historically characterized Filipino communities.

(4) Preservation of Traditions

FMA is more than just a combat style; it is a way of preserving history and tradition. The practice includes rituals, forms, and techniques that have been passed down through generations. This connects modern practitioners with their ancestors, fostering a sense of continuity and respect for the past.

(5) Community and Brotherhood

Practicing Arnis creates a sense of camaraderie among practitioners. It fosters a community built on mutual respect, discipline, and the shared goal of mastering the art. This sense of brotherhood aligns with the Filipino value of “bayanihan,” emphasizing collective effort and support.

(6) National Recognition

Arnis is the Philippines’ national martial art and sport, officially recognized by the government through Republic Act No. 9850. This recognition underscores its significance to Filipino heritage and promotes its practice and preservation.

In summary, FMA holds a vital place in Filipino culture as a symbol of resilience, a preserver of tradition, and a source of national pride. It serves as a bridge between the past and present, promoting cultural understanding and unity among Filipinos.

FMA Systems and Clubs in Cebu and the Central Visayas

Central Visayas, particularly Cebu, is a significant hub for Filipino Martial Arts (FMA), offering over 30 unique systems or styles. With about 90% of these FMA systems based in Cebu, it has the highest concentration of styles in the Philippines. The other three provinces in the region contain the remaining 10% of FMA systems. This dispersion makes Central Visayas a diverse and rich environment for FMA practice and learning.

Practitioners and enthusiasts from around the globe frequently visit the region to immerse themselves in its rich martial arts culture. They come to experience the variety of FMA systems and learn from various styles of fighting, which often include the use of sticks, knives, and other traditional weapons. The visits provide a valuable opportunity to participate in training camps and tournaments. Participants get to interact with some of the most esteemed practitioners in the world, including renowned masters and legendary Supreme Grand Masters.

These gatherings promote not only skill development but also cultural exchange and camaraderie among FMA practitioners. Visitors to Central Visayas often gain insights into the history and philosophy behind FMA, contributing to a deeper appreciation for the martial arts tradition in the Philippines. Whether they’re beginners or seasoned martial artists, participants find inspiration and knowledge in the vibrant FMA community of Cebu and its surrounding islands.

FMA in Modern Times

In 1972, the Philippine government recognized FMA as a national sport, incorporating it into the physical education curriculum for high school and college students. FMA is also mandatory training for the Philippine military and police force, further cementing its role in national defense. The practicality and efficiency of FMA have garnered international recognition, leading to its inclusion in the combat programs of the U.S. Army, U.S. Marines, and other special forces worldwide.

FMA’s popularity continues to grow, with practitioners around the globe embracing its techniques and philosophies. Renowned masters Professor Remy Presas, Dan Inosanto, and Leo Gaje have played pivotal roles in promoting Filipino Martial Arts (FMA). Their efforts have greatly contributed to the widespread acceptance of FMA in martial arts communities.

Moreover, FMA’s presence in popular culture, with appearances in films like The Bourne Identity and The Book of Eli, has further boosted its visibility.

As Filipino Martial Arts gains more exposure, its combination of tradition, adaptability, and practical techniques ensures that it will remain a respected and influential martial art for generations to come.

Read Also: Unveiling “Limang daan”: Ballet Philippines’ Journey Through 500 Years of Filipina History


Written by Marjo Piedad

Traveler | Foodie | CONTENT EDITOR
📍Cebu, Philippines
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