What are the Filipino Martial Arts? – by Chris Caban

History of Filipino Martial Arts

The history of the fighting arts of the Philippines is a long and contentious one.  Before the coming of the Spanish, very little written records were kept about Filipino Martial Arts.  This has been a thorn in the side of modern historians and martial artists alike.  What we do know is that the pre-Spanish Filipinos were a tribal bunch with many varied languages and regional customs.  Some lived in the mountainous, pine-covered highlands while others lived in mangroves or on boats altogether.  There have been records kept by Chinese traders and also travelers from Indonesia and Malaysia, but they spoke more of trade and not structured fighting systems.  So I will give you a quick breakdown of the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA for short) as it was taught to me in 1998, with some updates I have found in my own research.

What’s in a name?

The Filipino Martial Arts can be broken down into three major groups: Arnis, Escrima, and Kali.  These names reflect the systems of Stick and Knife fighting. There are also several empty-hand arts in the FMA world, but we will not explore them at this point.


As was taught to me, Arnis is a Spanish word for a ‘harness’ or gauntlet.  Supposedly the Spanish saw the indigenous people training with sticks while wearing leather gloves and dubbed their activity “Arnis.”  The systems that use the term Arnis are usually based in the Luzon area or the Northern Philippines.


This is a direct translation from Spanish, meaning “to fence,” or fencing with a blunt object, like a stick.  The history I was taught said that the locals in the Visayan or Central Philippines were taught to sword fight by the Friars and Spanish Governors to defend the Spanish outposts from raiding Muslim Moros.  Styles and systems bearing the name Escrima are usually from the Visayan or Central Philippines.

Kali or Kalis:

This name is a point of argument from many in the Martial Arts world as it is not really documented as to where it originated.  Some claim it is the mother art of Arnis and Escrima, but that cannot be verified.  The systems named Kali are usually associated with Blade fighting and claim a Moro heritage from the southern islands of the Philippines near Mindinao.

So that may not be totally correct historically, but it was how I was taught by my primary instructor.  What I have seen from my 17 years in FMA is a lot of overlapping techniques that all seem to be based on using a stick and footwork in fencing like fashion.  There are many other techniques to be observed and some systems look nothing like others from the same region. The main point of connection is the use of weapons for personal defense.

Training in the Filipino Martial Arts: Why You Should

There are a wealth of training ranges in the Filipino Martial Arts. Differing from say Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, FMA uses an extreme long range, long, middle, close, and even extreme close range fighting.  Kali groups like the Atlanta Kali Group also integrate grappling into the curriculum.  With self-defense in mind, we teach our students to use not only common weapons like sticks, knives, knees, and elbows but also bandanas, rope, forearms and shoulders.  Within the training session, a student will explore training with weapons and empty hands.  We also focus on Boxing and Muay Thai as primary supplements to our curriculum.  Knowing how to box is essential to modern self-defense and we take Western Boxing to a whole new level with limb strikes, destructions and takedowns.  The training in FMA will also boost a student’s coordination to new levels.  All of our classes start with at least 10 minutes of footwork training. Then we practice with one or two sticks, weaving them in patterns that boost  the offense or defense of the student.  We also do a good bit of sparring.  Sparring helps the student learn to move and react to stressful situations without freezing up or just running away.  Kali is a great confidence booster and can help even skilled martial artists build new skill sets and strategies.

Our Filipino Martial Arts classes are taught at the Sandy Springs Location Thursday from 7:30 p.m and Sunday from 11:00 a.m.