Navy SEAL Training Tip: “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast”

In an article entitled Speed Up Your Productivity By Slowing Down Your Work Habits, Forbes Communications Council member Amanda Brinkman, explains that “when you’re behind by 20 points, you can’t take a 20-point shot. You have to catch up slowly, one basket at a time, two points at a time (or in the case of Stephen Curry, three points at a time).”

When I was training with members of Cincinnati S.W.A.T. in the 1990s, this idea was relayed in the form of an oft-repeated maxim of former Lieutenant John Benner: “take your time… as fast as you can.”

In addition to that, while training building clearing simulations, he would mantrically-repeat “don’t be in a hurry to die.”

The takeaway was that you don’t dilly-dally, but you also don’t rush through the process.

But why? If it is a life and death situation isn’t “rushing” necessary? I mean, “every second counts,” right?

Like most things in life, the answer isn’t quite as black and white as we might imagine. It all starts with deliberate actions. By training slowly, one can find every non-necessary action. But that is just the beginning! When you tense up muscles, they actually move slower than when they are relaxed. Tension and the drive to “muscle-through” a technique or combination, will actually end up costing you time, rather than gaining it for you.

Power and “Strength”

In the Nei Jia “Internal” systems of Kung Fu – which focus on relaxation, structure, releasing of ones center of gravity into striking points through that relaxation and structural alignment – there is a clear distinction made between “qi” (energy) and “li” (muscular force). Similarly, you may hear talk of “yi” or intentionality in strikes. In martial arts there is commonly an emphasis on what is typically called Li in Chinese (力). This is the power generated by force. In Taiji, however, this kind of power is typically used by teachers as a pejorative – meaning power generated by muscular tension.

This definition is far from how the term is commonly used, even in relation to martial arts. When used in the Nei Jia Internal Martial Arts systems, li can positively be understood in relationship to using (功) Kung “skill.” Anyone can see the connection between the characters, which show connections much in the same way that Semitic languages have tri-consonantal roots, which indicate connection between terms, which otherwise might seem unrelated.

Thus, what we are talking about here is a concept that can be understood in two different ways: two different types of li… one through muscular tension and one that is pure strength derived from development of skill. Kung (功) Fu (夫) is a refined effective and efficient usage of the body, as a tool, a lever in some cases, an object to focus to various points and drop one’s center of gravity through in others. This, combined with strategy of engagement, gives us a true tactical advantage. No super powers are required.

At the same time, this is far from beginner stuff. I like to say that these principles are akin to martial “graduate school.” In general, li is not actually what we are looking for. Typical Wai Jia external li will result from and in muscular tension. This will impede our ability to relax and issue power – fa jin.

Furthermore, there is a concept in this “Internal Family” of Kung Fu systems of a force called peng jin. I could translate this for you, but as anyone who has seen the humorous “bad translation” signs that pepper airports in China knows, literal translations into English rarely convey the original ideas (and are often laughable).

What peng jin actually means and what it refers to is a type of focused expansive and connected energy. It is easier to show a person and let them feel what is meant by peng jin than to describe it in writing (this, of course, is why one shouldn’t try to learn martial arts from reading alone).

“Stupid Force”

The Nei Jia distinguish between two types of li and caution against what we call “clumsy power” – zhuo li – or “stupid force” as I have heard it translated. This zhou li describes body movements that obstruct one another. For example, if the forearm presses forward, but the upper arm is too weak and simultaneously squeezes back into the shoulder so that this movement virtually thwarts the overall pressing action.

In partner training there is also what is called “resisting force” – kang li. This kang li can be perceived as a direct conflict and opposition of forces, or “force on force.” Thus, although clumsy and resisting forces are to be avoided, this should in no way lead to a general weakness. As in the example just mentioned sometimes weak intersections of the body even result in clumsy force because it prevents a natural movement flow of all limbs.

So what is the type of li that we want? The type of li that we want to embody is so elusive that, as mentioned, it is often not even called li, but is instead juxtaposed to it as just pure yi or intention – focus of the mind, hardening and focusing of intent in the technique or even point of contact, rather than the physical flexing of muscles.


In Newtonian Physics, power is made up of two characteristics: Force and Velocity. This “Force” can be looked at as “Strength” or li, but when we see the relationship to velocity or speed here, in generating power, it becomes apparent that there is something a little more subtle going on here.

Bruce Lee said, “Everything you do, if not in a relaxed state, will be done at a lesser level than your proficien[cy]. Thus, the tensed expert marksman will aim at a level less than their student.” One of the most important teachings he tried to pass on was that your body must be relaxed, and that you must “be like water.” It is no mystery where he got this idea: whether from the pages of the Tao Te Ching, or the Yang style Taijiquan, which was his first martial art.

To be powerful and explosive as an athlete you need to be able to produce large amounts of force, as well as move at high velocities. But for your body to actually convert that strength into explosive power, you need to be able to move quickly and improve your velocity or speed. Developing your speed is done by including velocity-based training, plyometrics, or high-speed movements into your training.

Most people make the mistake of spending large quantities of time lifting heavy weights (80-100% of our 1 repetition maximum lift). This leads to them missing out on the huge performance gains that could be had from lifting light loads. While lifting heavy is by no means a bad thing, spending too much time focusing on strength training will only help your speed and power development to a certain point. This is largely why some of the strongest athletes in the world would never win a 100m sprint. Their training style simply does not lend itself to maximum speed and velocity development.

In martial arts, we have a goal like any other discipline. Our goal is, as I often summarize when teaching the Nei Jia systems, is found in the maxim: “you depart first, but I am first to arrive.”

To develop your speed or velocity there are a few simple principles to follow. Lifting lighter loads (usually 30-70% of your 1RM) as fast as you can, is a great way to teach your nervous system to move fast.

Let us return to John Benner’s “take your time… as fast as you can” maxim.

This part about moving “as fast as you can” is especially important. Research shows that going into training with the intent or yi to move as fast as possible actually leads to greater force development. As the intent is what causes your nervous system to fire rapidly. If you’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in strength training, this still doesn’t necessarily transition to faster movements. Certainly there are exercises such as plyometrics, Olympic lifting, and sprinting, which will have a tremendous effect on improving speed development. But just as focusing on the intention or yi of being fast is important, so is our intention of smoothness. In order to develop that smoothness, we must practice slowly. 

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

Crawl. Walk. Run.

The Navy SEALs approach each training period with a “crawl, walk, run” progression. This is yet another thing that we can and should incorporate into our training. As with the slow is smooth idea, we must first practice any techniques at a crawling pace.

I try to follow this when teaching new techniques. Instead of showing students in Krav class a new technique or combination, then expecting them to plow through it, I instruct the proper stepping-footwork, coordination and correlation of weigh-shifts or steps with strikes, correlated with waist-based slipping evasion. Once these mechanics are understood and being executed correctly, then we step it up and work through the smooth aspect, which corresponds to “walking.”

Finally, only in the last part of the training session or formal class, we increase to a “run.”

When people see Taijiquan (“Tai Chi”) practices slowly, their assumption is – wrongly – that it is unrelated to martial arts and really more of a meditation than a martial arts. But as the saying goes: two things can be true.

I can tell you that at the Chen Village and whenever I have trained with my instructors in the Chen family (from different lines) there or here, we do the first form – Yi Lu – slowly, but that is about it. Even then, Chen style is a mixture of yin and yang – slowness and explosive fast movements – but always executed smoothly! The second form – Er Lu – also known as “Cannon Fist” or Pao Chui, is done at a much faster pace, over all. Still, smoothness cultivated routine.

Like a child, you must crawl before you walk and walk before you run. The crawl stage of training is where you learn the fundamental theory and basic skills. Training the fundamentals will allow you to build a foundation to move faster and go deeper into the training. Without the foundation, you could veer off track and get unbalanced, or fall off altogether out of frustration. This stage can take as long as you need and will depend upon your level of skill and time restraints when you start—some of my students spend just a few weeks getting up to speed on the basics while others take up to a year. Embrace your process and enjoy learning the new skills.

The final stage of development is about performing at your peak in a flow of unconscious competence. Remember, mastery is not about working hard until you arrive at some mystical destination where you get knighted and sit at the round table. The ancients called it the Tao or “the Way” because it points the way or path for your journey – it provides a strategy, tactics, tools, and motivation.

In Krav Maga class, in particular, I emphasize this point to students. In the Nei Jia Kung Fu systems it is less necessary to point out – it is a known methodological approach to such systems. Often, a new Krav student will show signs of skepticism on their faces when I explain this approach, until I explain that “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” is a maxim of the Navy SEALs. Indeed, even one of my long-time students and close friends tells me that this was their approach in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. Somehow, this lends modern combat credibility to the methodology that simply listening to one’s teacher often doesn’t do to the modern Western mind. However we get to that point of respecting and implementing this methodology, the point is we need to heed and apply these principles rather than rush through, and half-learn – using speed to mask lack of balance, shallow rooting and poor technique.

Looking to find out more about the martial concept of “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” and how to apply it to martial arts?   Give us a call at 937-254-7035 to schedule a time for you to come in and start trying classes out! Also, don’t forget to add TAMA Martial Arts and Kali America on Facebook. Check out Kali America’s OFFICIAL website and follow us on Instagram!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top