Sparring Against Yourself (Or, Ways to Improve as a Martial Artist from Home)

By Danny Horgan –

The fastest way to get better at nearly every skill is through skill-specific training. In the case of martial arts, this means sparring hard and often. While nothing can fully simulate the chaos of a self-defense situation, hard sparring provides martial artists with real pressure, forcing them to rapidly develop practical fighting skills. It’s the reason why the world’s best boxers and mixed martial artists spar so frequently.

Unfortunately, hard sparring has its consequences, especially in the form of brain trauma. Throwing hands with a training partner will rapidly improve your fighting skills, but you’ll almost certainly pay the price later in life.

So what’s the solution? Nothing can prepare you for fights like hard sparring, but for experienced martial artists who have already felt the pressure of someone trying to take their head off, there are a variety of ways to improve that don’t involve head trauma. And the best part? Many of these training methods can be done at home without the sometimes elusive training partner.

Here are three methods I’ve implemented over the years to “spar against myself” – or, in literal terms, improve as a martial artist without getting whacked in the skull.

3. Downhill Running

All martial arts, regardless of origin, require good bodily structure to work. Without a solid base, martial artists cannot generate power or stay balanced in the face of attacks. One exercise that forces you to improve your structure is running down steep hills – fast.

When you begin running down a big descent, your body will try its hardest to slow you down as a defense mechanism against falling. Your arms will swing out wider in an attempt to maintain balance, your steps will become choppier to avoid a big spill, and – perhaps most importantly – your core muscles will kick into high gear, allowing you to stay centered.

The biggest benefit of hard sparring is that it forces you to adapt to an immediate stressor. Fast downhill running is incredibly stressful (your heart rate will go through the roof), and although its mechanics are different than fighting, it will teach you how to stay relaxed and strong in the face of immediate pressure.

As with anything you do, you’ll want to track your improvement once you begin incorporating downhill running into your routine. The best way to do this is through a free smartphone app called Strava, which tracks your mileage and pace for every run. What’s great about running is that the clock never lies – if you’re improving, you’ll have the times to show for it.

Be careful, though, as downhill running is incredibly stressful on your legs, and overdoing it can lead to a slew of nasty injuries. If you have no background in running, start by logging some miles on flat surfaces before making the transition to downhill training. When you’re ready for the steep descents, remember that with intense exercise, less is often more.

2. Film Analysis

An age-old technique for boxers, analyzing film has oddly been under utilized by martial artists of other disciplines.

In 2016, we have unprecedented access to footage of hundreds of thousands of sport and street fights. There’s no sense in arguing what works and what doesn’t work in fights — everything has already been captured on camera.

In the two years I spent filming Wing Chun Blast, I became absolutely obsessed with film analysis. A typical night for me would be finding clips of the world’s greatest fighters and dissecting every move they made. I watched clips in real time, in slow motion, and frame-by-frame — and then I rewound the clips and did it all again.

I can’t tell you how much analyzing film can help you as a martial artist. You’ll develop stronger connections between your body and your central nervous system. You’ll learn how to rework your training to fit practical fighting scenarios. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll grow to appreciate martial arts more with every video you study.

When analyzing film, the most important thing to remember is that repetition is key. Find a clip of a martial artist you respect applying techniques under real pressure. Watch that clip so many times that you can’t stand to look at it anymore. Repeat the process every day for week, and then find a new video.

1. Anaerobic Exercise

Although NFL players do zero fight-specific training, there isn’t a sane human being on earth who would walk up to a professional linebacker in a bar and pick a fight. Why? NFL players are among the most anaerobically gifted athletes on earth, meaning they are incredibly efficient at applying explosive pressure.

The difference between anaerobic energy and aerobic energy is incredibly complex, but for the sake of this article, let’s establish simple definitions of “anaerobic fighting” and “aerobic fighting”:

Anaerobic fighting involves utilizing explosive energy without the use of oxygen. An example would be a five-second self defense encounter where you have to clear an attacker to make your way to a safe exit.

Aerobic fighting is a slow, measured approach that allows you to conserve your energy through breathing. An example would be a professional MMA fight, where fighters have to compete for multiple rounds.

Self-defense experts always encourage students to end fights quickly. Why? The longer a self-defense situation lasts, the more chance you have of getting stabbed, cold-clocked, or hit with a beer bottle. As a result, you want to use as much anaerobic energy as possible to fend off attackers.

The best way to develop anaerobic energy for fighting is through fast, intense exercise. By practicing explosive movements at full intensity, you’ll teach your body to generate speed and power on a moment’s notice. In a self-defense situation, that’s invaluable.

Some of my favorite anaerobic exercises:

  • Wind sprints
  • Hill bounds
  • Rapid heavy bag punching
  • Fast farmer’s walks and other weighted carries

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