Strength & Power.
Aerobic baseline conditioning.
Additional Anaerobic conditioning if recovery allows.
martial arts training
When people think about strength and conditioning for combat sports they think of, well… they think of Rocky.
But if you get them to focus on real world boxing, people typically think of the lean, lithe bodies of lightweight champions like Manny Pacquiao and Vasyl Lomachenko or the stocky muscular physiques of heavyweights like Mike Tyson and Jack Dempsey. However, when talking about great boxing physiques few people think of Tyson Fury. At the time of writing Fury is the WBC heavyweight champion and undisputedly one of the greatest boxers of all time but the Gypsy King’s physical appearance is more what people associate with a divorced dad trying to pull himself together than an elite athlete at the top of his game. This is brought up not to take a crack at Fury’s appearance but, rather, to highlight the important point that strength and conditioning is about developing fitness and fitness is the efficient ability to perform a specific task. If we are talking about fitness it’s important not to get distracted by aesthetics. We are interested in how well we do the task not how good we look doing it.
So, if your current focus is on developing your sport specific fitness, it’s fortunate that combat sports have lots of options for improving your fitness while also developing your skills. Pad work, Partner work, Shadow work, Speed drills and Sparring can all easily be tweaked to focus on developing your conditioning.
Notice that things like running, push ups, squats and burpees are entirely absent from this list. Remember that you are a martial artist first and foremost so the majority of your time should be spent practicing your martial art. It isn’t that these exercises are without value, it’s just that they are not directly related to the activity to which are trying to specifically condition ourselves. Specific strength and conditioning is built on the mats and general strength and conditioning is built in the weights room.
While the best kind of strength and conditioning for a specific task is always the task itself, if you want to maximise your training and performance, some time in the weight room is invaluable for developing high end strength and power. Unfortunately, in the martial arts community, strength and conditioning has a strong tendency to morph into conditioning and conditioning. Don’t misunderstand me – conditioning is very important in any competitive combat sport but it is often emphasised to the point where other vital qualities are diminished. As a general rule 80 to 90% of your time training for a martial art should be spent actively doing the martial art. So, if we are only going to spend 10% to 20% of our training time developing our general physical qualities, we need to prioritise:
When programming strength & conditioning the question should not be “how much can I do?” but rather “what can I recover from and still make progress?” If your S & C training interferes with your sport specific training you should re-examine your priorities. It is your capacity to recover, rather than your capacity to work, that determines the volume, intensity and density of your strength & conditioning training.
As for how to determine the actual nuts and bolts of a program designed to complement martial arts practice the very best way would be to hire a strength coach who understands the demands, listen carefully to what they recommend and then – this is the important part – actually go do it.
Failing that, here are some general guidelines.
First a combat athlete needs to be strong… for a combat athlete . A combat athlete doesn’t need to be strong when compared to a powerlifter or a gymnast; they need to be strong according to the needs of their art. This means strength training with a particular emphasis on developing your power to weight ratio, power endurance and mid section stability. Exercise selection should centre on large, multi joint movements that allow a focus on tension and speed over pump and burn.
Depending on your schedule and personal recovery capabilities you should be looking to program strength training somewhere between two and five sessions per week. Ideally your weekly volume should be around the same regardless of how many sessions you perform. More frequent training means shorter sessions with reduced volume and less frequent training should result in longer sessions with greater volume.
Next, we should address our aerobic baseline conditioning. Aerobic baseline conditioning is essentially your non specific cardio vascular fitness and it plays an important roll in your ability to recover both between rounds and after more intense bursts of energy. Aerobic training needs to follow the Goldilocks rule – not too easy and not too hard, it’s got to be “just right.” Go too hard and you end up working your anaerobic energy systems but go too easy and you won’t get a training effect at all.
To determine your ideal heart rate zone for aerobic training use the following formula:
Max Heart Rate
180 minus your age – if you’re hitting this you need to ease up.
Minimum Heart Rate
160 minus your age – if you’re hitting this you need to get back to work.
Because aerobic baseline conditioning is non-specific we are not limited in how we achieve our goal heart rate. So while you can simply go running I would encourage you to explore alternatives with fewer downsides and more secondary benefits; kettlebell swings, prowler work, rucking, belt squat marches and hot yoga are all excellent options. You’ll need to do 1 to 3 sessions per week and each session should be between 20 and 90 minutes long.
Incidentally, using these numbers keeps workouts repeatable and repeatable is probably the most important key to longevity in training and competition.
Finally we look at additional anaerobic conditioning. This is usually where most fighters’ strength and conditioning training starts and ends; hammering the Glycolytic energy pathway, bathing their muscles in lactic acid, puking on the floor and then wondering why their skill training isn’t going very well. Anaerobic conditioning training is an important part of any program which aims to maximise your combat sport performance – just not in the volume typically seen. Most people who train regularly only really need one anaerobic conditioning focused workout per fortnight; maybe one per week if they have excellent recovery or are in a period of lessened activity. Anaerobic conditioning is also far more specific in effect when compared to training for general strength, power and aerobic conditioning and so more care needs to be taken in exercise selection in order to get the most benefit. When in doubt go for simple, multi joint exercises that emphasise either hip drive or upper body push/pull along the X/Y axis. Also, remember that this additional anaerobic conditioning should be the first thing to go if you’re having trouble recovering or if it’s negatively impacting your sport performance.
So put together what does this all look like? An amateur athlete aiming to get the most out of their training would have a schedule along the lines of the following:
Martial Arts practice four to six days a week.
Strength practice two to five days a week.
Aerobic baseline conditioning one to three days a week.
Anaerobic conditioning once a fortnight.
It might not be as cool as the training montage you’ll see in a Rocky film but a montage only lasts 30 seconds. Training like this will last you a life time.
Setting a personal challenge is a fun and adaptable method of focusing skill development to a specific area without moving away from the greater task.
There are three key steps to successfully creating a personal challenge:
Set a challenge.
Set a time frame.
Set a Challenge
A good personal challenge can be anything that narrows your focus during sparring without taking away from the general focus of that sparring session. Some of the most effective challenges that I have tried in the past include:
Only attack submissions from certain positions (eg. You can only attack from mount).
Limit yourself to certain categories of submissions (eg. armlocks only).
Don’t get scored on at all.
Score first in every match.
Score a point every thirty seconds (great for cardio).
Set a Time Frame
Your challenge should have a clearly defined start and end.
Strange as it seems time frames that run longer than one week but less than three months aren’t particularly useful. Challenges that focus on behavioural habit setting (ie. score first, score every 30 seconds) are best done over shorter periods and undertaken frequently throughout the year. Regular re-exposure to the stimulus is key in circumstances where behaviour over technical skill is being trained.
Challenges that focus on developing particular skills (ie. armlocks only, attack from mount only) are best performed in blocks of three months. Generally speaking it takes around eight weeks of regular practice to develop a new level of competence in a skill and an additional two to four weeks to consolidate those gains.
Stakes create accountability and accountability is the difference between a concrete goal and just wishful thinking.
Stakes can be as simple as telling people who are to call you out if they see you doing anything different but remember that consequences work better than rewards so plan accordingly. It is far more effective to know that you will have to buy your training partner lunch if you fail than to get a free lunch if you succeed.
Appropriate stakes make a huge difference to how likely you are to finish a challenge or complete a goal. Without stakes the average rate of success is around 33%, whereas the average success rate with stakes is just over 72%.
When it comes to learning techniques and developing skill most people massively overestimate what they can achieve in 5 weeks and massively underestimate what they can achieve in 5 years. This largely comes from a misconception of what it is to be skilful, a lack of patience with the process and fundamentally failing to know what that process should be.
First, we should understand the difference between techniques and skills:
Techniques are specific, explicit and discrete.
Skills are general, implicit and open.
Techniques are not skills but you can become more skilful in the application of your technique. For example, an armbar from closed guard is a technique; Performing armbars from guard is a skill.
Gaining proficiency in a technique can take anywhere up to eight weeks but becoming skilful in the application of that technique is an ongoing and arguably never ending process.
The process that begins with gaining proficiency and continues into long term skill development has three primary phrases – Accumulation, Intensification and Transformation.
Accumulation is the period that is focused gaining proficiency with the technique and, as such, you should mostly be concerned with getting your reps in, learning the primary mechanics of the technique and how to apply them in a live environment. Effective training strategies for this stage include getting in some extra repetitions before and after classes, frequently attempting to “hit the move” in sparring and, most obviously, receiving formal instruction on the technique from a knowledgeable coach.
Intensification is the phase that will take you beyond being merely proficient in a technique to being truly skilful in its application. Here you will develop a series of heuristics and begin to move towards the ability to apply the technique intuitively. This stage should be characterised by lots of specific sparring focused around different aspects of the technique and regular troubleshooting sessions with coaches and training partners.
Transformation is the stage where the technique is almost fully autonomous in execution and adjustments to timing, speed, power, angle, balance and leverage are all made completely intuitively. Your training at this phase is more focused on transferring the new skill acquired by developing this technique to other areas of your game and exploring/exploiting the reactions of your opponents in their attempt to deal with your new skill.
Sadly many people tend to stop at the accumulation phase and prize developing a surface level understanding of a multitude of techniques over developing true skill.
It should also be noted that skill in a given domain is frequently acquired without learning any distinct techniques but techniques cannot be effective without skill.
Note taking is one of the most effective yet underused tools available to a martial artist or athlete to convert diverse and excessive information into precise action and follow-up.
It is – by far – my most frequently recommended exercise to improve skill development outside of physical training. As a note taking tragic, I am happy just to see someone taking notes but there are a few best practices you can employ to really turbo charge the effects.
First, notes to aid recall of information (like online instruction or a lecture) should be made at the time the information is received or immediately after. For best effect, this should be reviewed the next day and reviewed and refined seven days later or once the module of study is complete.
Notes to consolidate physical practice (like a jiu jitsu class) should ideally be made the day after training and then reviewed and refined seven days later.
Second, I recommend having two types of note books – a general, day to day book that gets used for scribbling down notes on the first pass and other, topic specific notebooks to record that information once it has been reviewed, condensed and consolidated.
Your daily notebook can be as organised or as disorganised as you prefer. This book is more about having a place to collect information and thoughts.
Topic specific notebooks should be clearly organised. These books are for the clear and concise breakdown of information and should be formatted in a way that makes that easy to do.
Leave a page or two so you will be able to create a table of contents. Every time you make a new entry to your notebook simply title and/or number it and then add a corresponding reference to your contents page.
When making the notes themselves, write the key points and topics on the left hand page and the minor details and explanatory notes on the right. Try to keep everything to short bullet points rather than make long hand, journaling style entries; the goal of this form of note taking is to condense information into small, easily manageable chunks.
Making notes is about imposing structure on information for increased retention and better understanding – not developing rote recitation of someone else’s description or phrases.
The act of note taking is what provides the primary benefit. You might never refer back to your notes once the review period is concluded and there would be little difference in utility between yourself and someone who refers back to their notes frequently.
After any BJJ training session it’s pretty common to hear people talking about having had a good or bad day of training.
In any difficult long term pursuit – such as learning music or a martial art – you will experience an ebb and flow to the perceived quality of your training. Annoyingly, the most effective training strategies are also the most frustrating as they force you to continually butt up against the limit of your abilities and face failure over and over. And while I often have to gently let beginning athletes know that they are simply not yet good enough to be disappointed by their performance, the better you get the more aware you become of the gulf between the ideal execution and your performance. All of this adds up over time to athletes facing a training existence in which there is more perceived failure (uncomfortable growth) than perceived success (comfortable attainment).
This makes it extremely important that athletes do not attach a moral component to quality of their training. It is vital for continued long term development that you realise that there are no “good” or “bad” training days – there are just training days.
When you think of training days as good or bad it creates two distinct problems. First, it makes it difficult to reflect on training sessions and instead encourages you to label a training session as “good” or “bad” and simply leave it at that. Reflecting on training sessions is a key part of skill acquisition as it helps you determine which elements of your performance worked well and which need extra attention. Second, as effective training is essentially an uncomfortable experience it is easy to chalk up more days as being “bad” and become disillusioned.
It’s an easy trap to fall into – just last week I was having a Jiu Jitsu training session where I was almost completely failing to perform on any level. I was forgetting to grip fight properly, barely remembered to pummel my legs to defend guard passes and managed my breathing so badly I ended up with a spasming diaphragm. Afterwards I was angry and disappointed with myself – I thought I had not only wasted my own time but my training partners’ time as well.
I had had a “bad” training session.
However, when I was able to catch that thought and free myself from it the session was transformed from a “bad” one to an informative one. I realised I had to take my age more into account when training (turns out that warming up, cooling down completely and then jumping straight into hard rolling is no longer easy for me) and I had a genuine insight into a grip fighting strategy. Also, my training partners didn’t care in the slightest that I was performing poorly and were more concerned with my health than anything else.
The way you perceive your training will change over time but if you can discipline yourself to look at each session from an educational stand point your development will be better for it. One of the best ways to do this is to practice reframing any “bad” session with the Why How Then method.
Ask yourself why you feel the way you do about the training session
Try determine how this was happening.
Then think about what you can do about it.
When going through this exercise it’s important to keep things technical and not to make any judgments about yourself or your skills.
For example –
Why am I feeling angry about my last training session?
CORRECT – My guard kept getting passed.
INCORRECT – Cause I suck.
How was my guard getting passed?
CORRECT – My opponents were able to easily grab my pants and Toreando pass.
INCORRECT – Cause my guard sucks.
Then what can I do to stop my pants getting grabbed?
CORRECT – I can control my opponent’s sleeves earlier in the match. Failing that I could establish a far cross collar grip to better control distance.
INCORRECT – Nothing. My guard sucks, my jiu jitsu sucks and I suck. (Begin eating ice cream straight from the tub while weeping).
Achieving a high skill of development is a long term process of repeated knowledge acquisition, application and review. Labelling particular training sessions as “good” or “bad” adds nothing to this process and can actively detract from it. Treat every session as a step forward towards your goal and it is more likely to be the case.
Whether it’s for Boxing, Kickboxing or MMA sparring should be one of the most important and enjoyable aspects of training. Unfortunately it is also easily the most incorrectly applied. Learning how to spar should not be a survival of the fittest situation. Ideally, learning how to spar should be fun, safe and accessible to anyone willing to put in the work.
In this article I cover some general concepts to apply to your training and then the exact progression I use to take anyone from zero sparring experience all the way to full Performance Sparring rounds.
Do Not Mistake Training For Competing Or Competing For Fighting.
The purpose of training is to improve.
The purpose of competition is to win.
The purpose of fighting is to survive or protect.
Sparring is a part of training therefore the primary purpose of sparring is to improve your own and your training partner’s skills. You should be able to move and act deliberately – If you are going so hard that you can’t think, then you can’t learn.
Over time the intensity at which you can train while remaining deliberate will increase. What is a high level of intensity for you today should become a low level in the future.
80% Speed And 20% Power.
Sparring with heavy levels of contact – or “hard sparring” – is often equated as being superior to sparring in a more controlled fashion. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you spar with moderate or light levels of contact you are able register your mistakes without being unduly punished for them. This enables you to spar more creatively, take risks you might otherwise shy away from and work on parts of your game that would otherwise take years to develop. It also allows you to spar more often as the recovery between sessions takes significantly less time.
It is important to note that I am not advocating non contact sparring. There is a world of difference between practicing striking your training partner with control and practicing missing your training partner.
So while regular hard sparring is terrible for developing your skills and, more importantly, your health you don’t want the first time you get hit hard to be during a bout or in a self defence situation. This is where acclimatisation drills come in. Specific acclimatisation drills are an excellent method of introducing high levels of force to your training. These drills are significantly safer than participating in hard sparring matches and allow athletes to progress at their own level. They come in many forms but the most common is to have two athletes perform tennis match style sparring (see below) with a set combination of punches that the receiving athlete defends and can then ask their partner to deliver next combo with more, less or the same amount of force.
Performance Sparring vs Sparring For Development.
In a Performance Sparring session you are practicing using all of your techniques, tactics and strategies to put in the best performance possible. When sparring for development you are practicing a specific technique, tactic or strategy in order to further develop that skill.
Both types of training are very important to perform regularly. Generally speaking, an athlete should spend about 75% of their sparring time sparring for development and 25% sparring for performance. If they are preparing for a bout this should gradually move towards a 75% emphasis on performance sparring over the course of the fight camp.
Most important of all is to come into every round with a clear purpose in mind and then hold yourself accountable to that intent.
Work At Your Partner’s Level.
Working at your partner’s level is an excellent way of ensuring your sparring match is a positive training experience for both you and your training partner. As previously stated, training is not about winning but about improving so if you can learn to spar in such a way that you can improve regardless of the skill or athleticism of you partner you will have found the key to life long learning.
When training with someone with more experience than you attack as skilfully as you can and prepare to work on your defence.
When training with someone with less experience than you attempt your least developed techniques. Allow your partner to attack and endeavour to counter.
When training with someone who has similar experience to you spar as best you can focusing on proper body mechanics, techniques and strategies.
Listen To Your Coach.
Learning to act on the instructions your coach or your corner is giving you is something that takes time and practice. You can start by trying to keep in mind the directions and advice your coach and senior training partners have given you. Watch and study them as much as possible when trying to improve and advance. Take advantage of their experience. Where you are, they have been.
Give Your Training Partner Everything.
Give your best effort to your partner throughout the entire sparring match. As mentioned previously, this doesn’t mean you should go as hard as you can but instead means you should be putting forward genuine and sincere effort for the entire round. Whether there are three minutes or three seconds remaining in the round you should be working and you should never give up a match half way through because you are disheartened or tired.
This is almost like playing a one on one game of tag. The goal is to tag your opponent on the front or side of their shoulders without getting tagged in return. Both athletes must maintain a good fighting stance throughout except that their arms should hang loosely down by their waist. Athletes defend themselves purely through footwork or body movement – no catching or deflecting with their arms.
Tennis Match Sparring
In a game of tennis two players take turns hitting a ball back and forth and tennis match sparring works much the same way. In this sparring game two athletes go strike for strike or combo for combo, back and forth through out the round and it’s not permitted to attack while it is your training partner’s turn. Emphasise movement, angles and proper distancing throughout.
Tennis Match Sparring With Counters
This is identical to the previous stage of progression except that during your opponent’s turn to attack you may attempt a single counter strike.
Both athletes can attack at any time but either the type of strikes or the available targets are restricted. For example you might run with jabs only or body shots only. The possibilities for this stage of progression is pretty much limited only by your imagination.
All strikes and strategies permitted.
While this is by no means a comprehensive list it does include each of the major milestones that an athlete must progress through in order to be a safe and skilful sparring partner.
Starting to train in Mixed Martial Arts can feel really daunting. There is so much to learn that it can be hard to know where to start or what is important. A good MMA coach can provide guidance on how you should approach your training and on what skills to prioritise. Unfortunately, MMA is still a relatively young sport and good coaches are rare. As a result many athletes find themselves in a position where they are able to receive excellent coaching within a single discipline but, when it comes to MMA, they are essentially training themselves.
In this scenario it is very easy to end up chasing your tail and do lots of work without achieving anything at all. So here are six core skills and drills that any aspiring fighter needs to include as a regular part of their MMA training.
Develop A Consistent Structure.
The skill set of Modern Mixed Martial Arts is primarily made up of three distinct facets – stand up, clinch and ground. Each facet has a primary discipline which is then blended with the primary disciplines of the other facets to construct a complete MMA game. Stand up is typically comprised of Boxing or Kickboxing, clinch is Wrestling or Judo and ground is BJJ, Sambo or Collegiate/Folk style wrestling.
One of the problems with this approach is that each of these disciplines teaches a stance, structure and approach to footwork that is completely different from the next. Their structure is optimised for the specific rule set of their discipline and not the specific rule set of MMA. Most obvious is the difference between grappling and striking based martial arts in lead hand preference. Grappling arts usually advocate power side forward where as striking arts advocate having your power side to the rear.
One of the best things an aspiring MMA athlete can do is develop a consistent structure. Choose a lead side and stick with it; choose a core structure and stick with it; yes, your performance in the individual disciplines could lag a little but your overall performance in MMA will go up.
Learn How To Use The Cage
The cage has been referred to as the 4th discipline and that may be under valuing just how important knowledge of how to use the cage both offensively and defensively may be. Part stand up, part clinch and part ground work the dynamics of the fight change radically whenever it is brought into play. Athletes who know how to work the cage have a significant advantage over those who don’t.
At a minimum learn and regularly practice the following:
How to properly pin an opponent against the cage.
How to escape those pins.
The takedowns which are most effective and how the cage changes how they are performed.
How to both turn off and walk your shoulders up the cage.
Learn How To Stand Up.
A strategy made famous by Chuck Liddell and further refined by the likes of Cain Valesquez and Georges St Pierre the ability to stand up and bring the fight back to its feet is crucial in modern mixed martial arts. While it is obvious why an athlete who prefers to stand and exchange strikes would need to be able to bring a fight back up from the ground this skill is also vital for grappling orientated fighters who have ended up on the ground on their opponent’s terms and not their own. If you can dictate where and how a fight takes place you have a significant advantage over your opponent.
This skill is much more than being able to execute the technical stand up as taught in most Jiu Jitsu academies. Although that is important, I strongly recommend researching collegiate and folk style wrestling techniques for returning to a standing position if your school does not already teach them.
Learn How To Use Half Guard Properly.
Half guard may well be the most commonly occurring ground position in MMA. The combination of high levels of athleticism, no material to grab, comparatively short rounds and the merging of disciplines creates a situation where both top and bottom positions are difficult to maintain in a grappling situation. As such half guard, which can be thought of as a position between positions, becomes increasingly important.
On top you need to be able deny your opponent the chance to fully re-guard or stand up while working to pass or strike. Ideally this is done without resorting to “lay and pray” tactics as under most modern rule sets this will result in a stand up.
Underneath it is even more vital to understand the dynamics. You should know how to protect your head, deny the pass and come up either behind or on top of your opponent.
Understand The Dynamics Of Ground & Pound.
Effective striking on the ground is much more than simply pounding away at a downed opponent. At its best it is the sophisticated merging of grappling and striking technique on the floor. At its worst it’s an invitation to be quickly submitted.Research and practice gripping strategies that maximise both your ability to hit your opponent and advance positionally. You also need to remember that the ability to strike in a grounded situation is in no way limited to top position and learn where, when and how you can strike from underneath.
If you have a coach or training partner who knows how to effectively hold focus mitts whilst fighting off their back or working in your guard this is incredibly valuable and quite rare. Treasure them and train with them as much as possible.
Regularly Combine Disciplines But Limit The Scope.
In the majority of MMA schools sparring tends to take place within the full MMA context of stand up, clinch and ground or else is limited entirely to within a specific discipline (eg. a boxing or freestyle wrestling match). However, modern Mixed Martial Arts skill is primarily about the interplay between modalities – how grappling and striking change and influence each other.
So, while it is important to fully isolate and integrate the disciplines, limited combinations lead to more focused skill and game plan development. When putting these combinations together make sure they make sense and don’t incentivise bad habits when put back into the full MMA context.
As a starting point we find the following combinations are particularly effective:
Jiu Jitsu with strikes from certain positions.
Boxing with shots but no clinch.
Wrestling with strikes off the collar tie.
While there is obviously much more to learn in order to be a successful MMA athlete, the above are keys skills for every fighter regardless of style. Make sure that you address them all regularly and your game will flourish.
MMA fighters, boxers and Nak Muay all shadow box as a regular part of their training. Nearly all striking based martial arts make some form of shadow boxing a standard part of their classes.
What is shadow boxing?
Why should I do it?
What’s the best way to shadow box?
What is Shadow Boxing?
Shadow boxing is a popular exercise with fighters and athletes who participate in a martial art whose primary focus is striking. It is essentially the act of sparring with an imaginary opponent and, while it is often seen as merely a warm up, shadow boxing is an effective and versatile method for improving your striking ability.
Why should I Shadow Box?
Done properly shadow boxing allows you to work on techniques and correct errors in a realistic manner without the external pressure of an opponent or training partner. It is also excellent for specific mental preparation and the rehearsal of game plans. Regular practice leads to dramatic improvements in form, footwork and flow and results in the development of the lethal grace exhibited by top boxers and kickboxers.
How to Shadow Box
There’s more to shadow boxing than just punching and kicking into the air. Shadow boxing is a form of deliberate practice for your striking art and as such it needs to be purposeful, systematic and mindful.
One of the best things about shadow boxing is its versatility – you can do it anywhere, anytime and for practically any purpose related to developing your striking game. For example it can be used to simulate sparring, work on a specific technique, develop a combo, refine a movement or even to correct an error. It doesn’t particularly matter what your purpose is; the key is to come into your shadow boxing practice with a clear goal in mind.
As you start your practice make sure to be progressive and build towards your primary training purpose of the session. Start the round by checking that your stance and structure are correct, then begin to move around ensuring that you are using the correct footwork and then spend a few moments getting comfortable with all of this before you even think about throwing a punch or beginning to work on your goal.
No matter how specific a goal you are training towards, you should always be mindful that your are also trying to simulate the energy and actions of the “real thing” as closely as possible. This means keeping your movements realistic and remembering that you are training to perform against another human being and not some kind of meat based punching bag. A genuine opponent will move, a genuine opponent will defend your attacks and a genuine opponent will make attacks of their own and your shadow work should reflect this reality.
That said, because there actually isn’t an opponent there trying to hit you in the face, shadow boxing should be a 100% stress free environment. This is your chance to practice perfection. Make sure your stance, structure, movement and strikes are as spot on as possible. Your focus should be on achieving flow over speed and power.
Shadow Boxing with Weights
This is one of the most harmful things you can do in your boxing practice – it doesn’t work, it increases the risk of injury, it makes you slow and it screws up the specific motor pattern that you are trying to develop.
Adding a vertical load (gravity on dumbbell) to a horizontal movement (punching forward) means the resistance doesn’t even load the movement you are trying to strengthen. To do this, you are loading the most distal point of your limb and then violently extending that limb away from you. This creates huge amounts of stress in your wrist, elbow and shoulder joints, increasing your chances of developing bursitis, arthritis and more. If that wasn’t enough, when you load an explosive action and movement speed drops by 10% or more it will have a negative impact on the execution of the unloaded movement meaning you now move slower and punch worse. All in all, this method will not help you.
Do not do this.
Not Moving Enough
It’s pretty common for athletes new to shadow boxing – or who have not been properly coached in how to shadow box – to stand dead still or move directly forwards and backwards like they are on train tracks. Remember that you are simulating a sparring match or a fight and these both take place in a 360 degree environment.
Moving Without Purpose
On the other end of the spectrum is the athlete who takes six steps for every one that is necessary. It’s important to move but it’s more important for your movements to have purpose. Your movement should be to set up an angle to attack, evade a specific incoming strike or even to circle off before re-engaging. You should not be moving just to be moving.
Dr. Jigoro Kano is well known as a philosopher, educational reformer and, most famously, the founder of Kodokan Judo. His ideas and concepts completely revolutionised the martial arts landscape and form the basis for the way many modern martial arts train. While Kano had many innovations, four in particular changed the world.
1. Limited Technical Selection
When it comes to the techniques that make up the core of Judo’s curriculum, Kano was more akin to a curator than to an inventor.
Over the years he been trained in a variety of styles of Jiu Jitsu and was proficient enough that he received the manuscripts and secret scrolls for two of them. Additionally he was recognised as someone working to preserve the history, traditions and skills of Jiu Jitsu. As such, a number of other Jiu Jitsu instructors had entrusted him with the scrolls and manuscripts of their schools in the hope that Kano might be able to preserve those as well. By the time Kano was establishing the formal syllabus for the Kodokan, he had accrued knowledge of a broad selection of Jiu Jitsu techniques and had access to a wider selection still.
While he was heavily influenced by the throwing techniques of the Kito Ryu, Kano drew on all these systems when determining what would be in the Kodokan curriculum. He eliminated from consideration any techniques overly reliant on strength, flexibility or psychology, and any techniques he deemed too likely to injure someone.
To ensure that his system would be cohesive, of the remaining he only kept those techniques that worked well together. These he grouped and ordered into an efficient learning progression.
This one stroke of genius not only made Judo safer and more effective than the traditional Jiu Jitsu schools, it also made it possible for the average student to develop an understanding of the entire core syllabus.
2. Emphasis on Ukemi
Kano placed great importance on ukemi or the ability to take a fall without being hurt. Previous to this Jiu Jitsu students were mostly just expected to work out how to fall as they went along. His emphasis on safety resulted in an explosion of technical development and refinement unknown prior to the meiji era.
Kano’s insight was two fold.
First, by removing the most dangerous techniques and limiting the risks associated with being thrown, Kano increased the combative effectiveness of Jiu Jitsu by making it possible to regularly train at, or near to, full force on an uncooperative training partner. Second, Kano realised that a safer training environment would result in more people being able and willing to train more often. This greatly increased the potential talent pool available to the Kokadan. Kano had at his disposal a large number of martial athletes and technical academics to help him propagate and refine his art.
3. Kuzushi & Sei-ryoku Zen-you
Kuzushi is the theory and practice of breaking an opponent’s balance. Someone who’s balance has been broken has limited strength and offensive options and is exceptionally vulnerable to attack.
Sei-ryoku Zen-you loosely translates as “minimum effort, maximum efficiency”.
Taken together the concepts of Kuzushi and Sei-ryoku Zen-you significantly advanced how martial arts in general, and the grappling arts in particular, are trained and performed.
While not a new concept at the time when Kano made kuzushi one of the fundamental underpinnings of all judo he radically altered the martial arts landscape. By insisting that Kuzushi be a part of every technique and that each technique be efficiently executed, Kano emphasised the technical aspect of Judo over athleticism and physicality. This is the norm for martial arts now but previous to Kano many schools insisted that their practitioners develop extraordinary levels of strength or conditioning to simply be able to practice the art. Kano flipped this dynamic on its head and made improved athleticism a result rather than a requirement of training Judo.
4. Plan for the Successful Resolution of Combat
Before Kano most martial arts – and Jiu Jitsu in particular – lacked overall strategy. Most styles were essentially a collection of tricks and techniques to defeat opponents in specific situations but lacked the means to ensure those situations would arise. This lack of direction greatly diminished the average martial artist’s combat effectiveness and could easily be the difference between victory and defeat.
Kano provided the following roadmap to victory for his students:
Close the gap and clinch with your opponent.
Throw your opponent.
If necessary follow up with a pin, strangulation or joint lock to incapacitate them.
It might not seem like much, but this simple plan eliminated much of the uncertainty and chaos that occurs in a fight. It gave Judoka of the day an enormous advantage allowing them to overcome physically and technically superior, but less strategically directed, opponents.
In 1886 Tokyo Metropolitan Police held a Judo vs Jiu Jitsu tournament in order to determine which was the superior fighting style and become the official training style for the Tokyo police academy. It was to be competition which pitted the best fighters from across multiple schools of Jiu Jitsu against students of Kodokan Judo. Across the 15 matches the Kodokan Judoka won all but two which ended in a draw. This led to widespread acceptance of Judo and it became recognised that Kano had created training methods that were superior to those traditionally used in Japan.
Judo has gone on the become the progenitor of many other fighting styles – most notably Sambo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – and many of these innovations and training methods are still in use today.
Walk into any gym that teaches some kind of functional striking art and in a very short amount time you are likely to see some pad work. Pad work is an excellent form of training as it allows a coach to share and sharpen the specific style of a fighter while maintaining a realistic fight dynamic. Pad work is also the single best specific conditioning tool for boxing, kickboxing and the striking elements of MMA because a coach can control the intensity of each round in a way that is not possible during partner work or sparring.
Pad work is so important that many professional Muay Thai and boxing gyms have coaches whose only job is to train athletes with the pads. However, outside the gyms whose focus is primarily on competitive athletes, it is far more common that the role of pad holder will be filled by you and your training partners than exclusively by a coach. This can often present a few challenges because, while most gyms will at least teach their clients how to hold and hit the pads safely, very few teach their clients how to hold and hit the pads in a way which will maximise the training benefits for themselves and their partners.
So, assuming that you know at least enough about pad work to keep you and your training partner safe, here are ten tips to help you improve your pad work.
How To Get The Most Out Of Hitting The Pads.
Treat the pad holder like you would treat a sparring partner.
Move with energy. Cut angles. Work feints and fakes. One of the primary advantages of padwork is that it can closely mimic the dynamics of a fight or sparring match while also allowing an athlete to work on specific skills and strategies with full force and energy.
Be aware of range.
Skilful striking is all about distance control and knowing where you are relative to your opponent and surroundings so don’t just attempt to stand in the pocket and bang away. Generally speaking you should have to take one small step in order to get close enough to hit the pads and, unless the pad holder moves away, no more. The pads do not get “more hit” by getting closer and closer to them.
Work at a speed which allows you to correctly execute everything with good form. It’s not uncommon for enthusiastic beginners to accidentally punch their own fist in their haste so it’s important to realise that it’s not a race to hit the pads. The pad holder won’t take them away if you don’t complete the combination within one Nano second of it being called.
Don’t let the pad holder rest.
Practice keeping the pressure on. Whenever they circle off to break or reset stick to them like glue. This all comes back to training the way you want to fight.
Properly done, pad work is one of the most demanding types of training as someone else is literally calling 100% of the shots. Remember you are training because you want to be – Smile and have fun.
How To Be A Better Pad Holder.
Act and move like a fighter.
Nothing kills the energy and the usefulness of a training session faster than a pad holder who plods and strolls about. A lacklustre trainer builds a lacklustre athlete.
Check your partner’s range constantly.
Frequently put out “range finder” style jabs and teeps to help train your partner’s distance awareness.
Don’t mirror your partner. Set the pace.
Remember that you are the one calling the shots so make sure to cut and move rather than just follow your partner around. Call for combinations when you want them and not just when your partner is ready. Opportunities don’t wait and pad work should reflect this.
Don’t let your partner rest.
Whenever your partner tries to back off or is slow to follow you be sure to push them immediately.
Keep it fun and keep it real.
Pad work is hard work for both you and your partner so be sure to keep things enjoyable too. Just don’t fall into the trap of calling for more and more elaborate combinations – 16 point combos look impressive but are completely unrealistic. Think combinations of 3 to 6 strikes with one or two phases and you won’t go far wrong.