Solo training, paired drilling and live sparring

There are lots of different ways to train in the martial arts. Different systems and indeed different teachers will weight their training along diverging lines according to their training aims, the student to coach ratio and the type of students they have. No matter how long we train, whichever way we turn, the roots of our progress lie in our attention to basic principles and the level of our understanding as to why we train in the manner we do. After writing a blog post on the subject of speed in training (here) I was asked about my thoughts on the relative merits of solo training, paired drilling and live sparring. All of these are useful forms of training, but in the majority of martial arts a focus on one alone will not develop as skilled or able a practitioner as the appropriate use of all three. The knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of each method should be understood.


Solo Training

Solo training can take many different forms. In this instance I am referring to training away from class or training partners rather than drilling techniques ‘solo’ in class. With this in mind the training can involve making contact on a striking surface, with all the benefits I described here, or nothing more than yourself and an empty space in which you can move. There are considerable benefits to training impact techniques solo against a bag, in particular the ability to go at your own pace and focus on elements in isolation, and not having one person neglecting their skillset by holding a pad (though being the pad holder can develop other useful skills – of which more later). Solo training is extremely valuable, and I would be the first to say that of all my training hours at least 70% have been solo, but it should never be seen as a replacement for any form of paired training, rather a complement to it. A practitioner needs to already have a good skill level to gain anywhere near the same amount of benefit from solo training as from paired training.


Correct biomechanics – ‘perfect practice’

Facilitates injury recovery

Allows more time for high quality visualisation during techniques or drills

Means of maintaining or refining skill without a training partner

Can improve power generation and striking technique without ‘wasting’ a training partner’s time

Can improve applied strength and balance


No external pressure

Very little feedback / resistance (in non impact work)

Limited value for techniques that rely on tactile feel (such as grappling) unless practitioner is extremely advanced and can utilize their memory to enhance rehearsal

Does not work reaction time

Limited value for training appropriate timing

Danger of rehearsing and ingraining poor technique, particularly in new students


Paired Drilling

Paired drilling is the form of training that makes up the majority of the classes that I teach. It can take the form of trainees attacking each other with pre-set techniques and defending with previously learned drills (with varying degrees of flexibility on either side according to speed and experience) or practicing power generation against partner-held moving or static pads, or even against an armoured partner, the benefit of which I have discussed previously here. The training can be done at a variety of different speeds depending on the desired outcome and format of the class. Depending on the system being trained, paired training can bring disadvantages as well as advantages. As an example, in self defence orientated systems students may often spend time drilling a less desirable technique such as a telegraphed haymaker for their partner rather than a less telegraphed pre-emptive straight palm strike or jab to the head, though a skilled coach can find ways to mitigate this. While a person is holding and moving pads for their partner to hit they are obviously not working their physical skills, which can be seen as a disadvantage, so it should be stressed that in doing so they are working their strength and stamina, often practicing maintaining their guard, developing a combative mind-set by standing fast against their partner’s attacks, and learning more about how both to use a technique and defend against it by observing their partner’s telegraphs and overall biomechanics.


Immediate feedback – pad work / pre-arranged combative drills

Controlled predictability allowing for technique learning, introspection, observation, coaching and refinement

Develops distancing and timing appropriate for the activity being trained

Excellent for developing reaction speed

Can improve both aerobic and anaerobic fitness

Can improve confidence

So long as students are not complacent can allow fast training with a high degree of safety


Often benefits one person’s physical technique more than another, especially in self defence training and pad work

Can be inappropriate for a student with injuries or medical problems


Live Sparring

In theory live sparring may be what the majority of martial artists aspire to. If you are training for the competitive arena, or for self defence, the ability to execute techniques with precision at full speed under the pressure created by unpredictability is surely one of the most important aims of any trainee. There are many advantages of training this way, both psychological and physical.

Training unpredictably brings with it the danger of being hit – and the natural fear in many people of pain or injury. This in turn puts an element of pressure in the performance that cannot be matched in other forms of training (unless students are engaged in drilling where they have to be hit). Successful selection and performance of techniques under the conditions of live sparring builds real confidence appropriate to the arena being trained.

In physical terms, only unpredictable training can assess the accuracy of a student’s ability to read body movements and spot the telegraphs of techniques in time for threat avoidance, and put their reaction time and speed of movement to a real test – whether in attack or defence.

The disadvantages of live sparring are linked to its role within the training regime. When a person moves fast and are under pressure, or even if the live sparring is done slowly and they are simply having to improvise in reaction to an unexpected event, they tend to make mistakes: non optimal postures, over-extension, greater telegraphing, not enough torso or hip rotation to give a technique as much power as it could have. How well a person performs in live sparring is dependant upon a number of factors, but two very simple ones are:

  • how familiar they are with working under those conditions,
  • how skilled is their existing technique.

Regular live sparring will address the first factor, but spending too much time in live training is likely to be detrimental to the second, since the more you rehearse a technique sub optimally – the more likely you are to perform that way consistently: practice does not make perfect: only perfect practice makes perfect.


Only real test of practicable ability

Develops anaerobic fitness

Excellent for developing reaction speed

Develops distancing and timing appropriate for the activity being trained

Places students under psychological stress.


Over use will reinforce poor technique

Generally does not allow for refinement as fine motor skills will be inaccessible if placed under real pressure

Can only be sustained for short periods of time.



 Just like judging a system by how many students it has, how many techniques it has or how fast they are training, something impressive and useful as live sparring can be a false indicator of the quality of training. A predominant focus on unpredictable training does not necessarily develop skilled students, and while a lot of paired drilling or solo training may be less visually impressive, it can not only be technically and physically demanding, but also be a reliable way to develop a high level of skill.   Too much of any type of training has the potential to be detrimental. Ideally training should be balanced, with different emphases on different methods according to the health and level of the student, but both students and coaches should know what they are aiming to achieve with each training method when they do employ it.



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