Going through the motions, on the pull, going nowhere

I really like to see positive innovation in training and teaching. I particularly like seeing exercises that help students develop the ability to move beyond single techniques, beyond combinations, into the ability to make seamless transitions to appropriate techniques. But sometimes I see things that while fun and popular appear to me to actually be detrimental to development.

I am fond of hitting impact equipment. Whether it is pads held by a partner, a makiwara, a heavy bag, a tyre affixed to a wall or a partner wearing appropriate equipment I appreciate the opportunity to develop my delivery of force into a target. It’s hard work, it’s (sometimes painful) fun, it relates to my skill set, and it gives good feedback.

Pads can be used in lots of ways. It’s unsafe to practice preemptive headshots full power against a real person’s head. The only equipment I’ve seen that effectively removes the risk of long term brain or spine injury to the receiver is currently so unrealistic as a target that I find a rounded Thai pad (or head mitt) a far better alternative (which doesn’t stop some groups from using less effective head wear for high contact training). Often a pad can be utilised as a safe contact medium instead of a glove, being swung on the hand towards your head, while its companion replicates a realistic target (such as head or ribs) that you can counter strike full power – allowing trainees to practice appropriate footwork, shielding and striking while developing their reaction speed. A pad can simply be held to provide a static or mobile target for force delivery practice. This is good training so long as both pad holder and striker understand their roles and the benefits each can bring.

A trend that I find disturbing is a halfway house of pad use. You may have seen some videos of these. There are lots of people in different martial arts doing them. They seem to be in fashion right now. They look fun, they look cool, but are they actually doing anything useful? Are they actually merely training bad habits?

The halfway house drills I refer to attempt to combine pad striking with grappling and striking on the part of the pad holder. In the (exceedingly rare) good ones the drill includes realistic movement, appropriate pad placement (it’s where the target would actually be, generally up against the body for any body shot) and the pad is hit full power with an appropriate tactic. The majority of drills I’ve seen brushing my social media feeds don’t meet these criteria.  In most cases the pad may be incorrectly placed (giving inappropriate tactile stimuli and distancing), the pad is held in a way to encourage a standing person to punch a prone target (that’s a whole other post on those issues), the grappling position is incorrect due to the pad on the hand/arm, or the pad isn’t hit with anything like appropriate force – it’s pulled in a manner that makes the value of its presence pointless. Sometimes all these boxes are ticked and my language becomes colourful.

The net result of a lot of these poorly constructed drills are people who are spending time training to hit things that are in the wrong place and move incorrectly when hit (creating further incorrect follow up stimuli), or training with incorrect tactile grappling stimuli for the skills they are rehearsing, or not actually really hitting the pads. It may be fun but it’s not productive training. These drills are going nowhere. They aren’t enhancing striking ability, they aren’t enhancing grappling ability, and they aren’t enhancing the ability to seamlessly combine the two.

It is better to soft/slow hit through a real person in a real hands on position with real tactile and visual stimuli than practise soft hitting through a pad (which by being held is giving you false stimuli) or hitting a pad hard but held an incorrect position with inconsistent or non existent stimuli that your partner could provide if they weren’t holding the pads. Imperfect practice will lead to poorer quality technique. Do the mechanics with the correct stimuli and resistance on a real person, develop the force delivery mechanics with independent pad work.

Does this mean that you can’t integrate pad work with grappling? No, it can be possible, but you need to be absolutely clear as to what the objectives of the exercise are, what compromises are being made, whether you are actively training bad habits, whether the objectives are actually being met, and whether the exercise is more efficient than independent training. Always analyse everything you observe, anything you innovate, and keep applying critical filters. It might be brilliant for someone else because of the paucity of their other methods, it may look cool but be inferior to what you already do and detrimental to your development. It might have been great five years ago but rendered not only redundant but also harmful alongside exercises developed since. You determine how you practise and you determine the skills you develop. Apply critical filters.




  1. Heine Pedersen · · Reply

    Hi John, nice article, and I agree that you should always be conscious about what the purpose of your drills are. But I think all drills have built in flaws, otherwise it would be very dangerous to practice, as each strike should have the potential to invalidate the opponent.

    I go by the theory that as all drills have flaws built into them (to be safe) it is important to practice the drill in as many different ways as possible, each focusing on one or more elements and accepting flaws on others. For instance I always try to practice the same drill in the following ways:
    – Free flowing without an opponent – great for practicing full force and fluidity in movements, but has the flaws that there is no opponent and nothing to hit or react to.
    – Slowly with an opponent, hitting through the target, but as the movements are slow, the risk of injury is very low. This has the flaws that the timing will be off, and you don’t have the real feeling of hitting, also you don’t get the real feeling of moving at high speed.
    – Pad work of the actual striking parts, so not the entire drill. This has the benefit of being able to hit full force on a target, while being completely safe for the pad holder. The flaw is that it doesn’t include an active, aggressive opponent, and only practices part of the drill.
    – Pad work simulating the entire drill as much and as well as possible. This has the benefit of having an aggressive opponent, going through the entire drill. The drawbacks (as you also mention) is that the pad will often be in the way when grappling, and it will often have to be positioned in a slightly unrealistic way, so it is safe for the pad holder.
    – Wearing head and trunk protection and fingerless gloves and having the attacker increase in intensity as the defender gets confident in the drill, but never having the defender striking the attacker at full force as it will still cause damage.

    Do you have any other ways of practicing your drills, or do you see that the exercises I described has drawbacks that are so large, that they shouldn’t be practiced.

    I would really like to see some of the examples you mention from Social Media, and you take on why that particular drill is ineffective and leading to bad habits, and maybe even how it could be improved so it would be beneficial.

    Sorry for the long post, but I think this is a really important area for practicing practical martial arts.



    1. Hi Heine

      All training is a compromise. We have to be aware of that. We also have to understand those compromises and make a decision as to whether they are necessary or whether in doing a particular drill the compromises made are actually detrimental to skill development and the drill itself is unnecessary because when doing it ‘pulled’ without pads hitting and grappling a partner we are getting all the right positions, feedback and tactile stimuli, and when doing padwork we are actually practicing proper power delivery. My point was that sometimes the compromises made are unnecessary because the drill itself is unnecessary and indeed harmful because of the incorrect positions it gives.

      I think that there are many videos to choose from, but doing so would be a personal attack on a lot of (often reputable) people. So having made the point I would rather people introspected their own training.

      All the best


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: