Sparring is a training activity frequently used in boxing, mixed martial arts and just about every martial art style or system. While there are many different approaches to martial arts sparring, generally all of them follow a predefined set of rules and unique customs. For example, in karate, practitioners will first bow to each other before they begin to fight. Muay Thai fighters will perform pre-fight rituals such as kneeling, praying and even dancing called Wai Kru Ram Muay. Then there are Western boxers, on the other hand, who will usually tap gloves right when the bell rings.

Despite its popularity and universally accepted customs, sparring will have different meanings to different people, schools and styles. For example, some people think it means dancing around a training partner and delivering light strikes to anatomical targets below his neck line. Then there are other practitioners who view it as an extremely intense form of combat training where you unload power punches and strive to knock out your training partner.

In my Contemporary Fighting Arts self defense system, I have defined sparring as a form of combat training where both participants fight each other using a variety of free form controlled techniques in order to develop specific combat attributes. These controlled techniques may include both offense and defense movements (such as punches, strikes, kicks, etc) as well as grappling and ground fighting techniques, like those found in submission fighting.

“One of the key elements that distinguish martial arts sparring from other contact drills is its free form nature.”


Sparring should not be confused with full contact role playing drills that are practiced in reality based self defense. Full contact role playing scenarios like ground pounding or simulated street fighting are completely different and specifically designed for real world self defense training. In many ways, sparring is like playing a game of physical chess where street fighting is like experiencing a car wreck.

Unfortunately, many martial artists think their sparring skills are a good indicator of their ability to protect themselves in a real world self defense situation. Well, nothing can be further from the truth. While sparring does have its place in self defense, it has nothing to do with a real street fight. Sparring is simply a training methodology. Its a means to and end and not an end in itself. It should never be used as a litmus test for self defense or street fighting competency.

“It’s a means to an end and not an end in itself.”


So what are the benefits of adding sparring to your current martial arts program? Well, just about every martial artist will agree that it’s probably one of the best training exercise you can perform. Essentially, it sharpens and develops many fighting attributes while completely conditioning your body for sport combat fighting as well as self defense.

More importantly, martial arts sparring teaches you the importance of timing and judgment of distance in relation to your offensive and defensive techniques. It also conditions your body to withstand the impact of blows and kicks. However, don’t be mislead. Never forget that sparring does not represent the violent dynamics and real dangers of a vicious street fight. It is nothing more than a training methodology used to develop combative attributes and rhythm. The practitioner can pace himself during the workout and then rejuvenate himself with rest periods. In the streets, however, anything goes; there are no rules, nothing is sacred. Rhythm is destroyed. And there is no rest! It is a question of simple survival.

Nevertheless, sparring is a valid and beneficial form of training that should be included in any martial arts program. Here are just a a few benefits that come with regular training:

  • improved muscular endurance
  • improves your awareness of probable reaction dynamics
  • improved cardio conditioning
  • improved reaction time 
  • combat attribute development
  • improved combat conditioning
  • improved stamina and endurance
  • promotes mental conditioning
  • improves a fighter’s self confidence

“It’s likened to a game of physical chess. In order to do well you have to be analytical and smart.”


Essentially, there are dozens of different ways to perform sparring. It seems like just about every martial arts school has a unique style or variation. However, to cut down on the confusion, I will list a few popular sparring styles that are practiced in both boxing and martial arts schools. They include:

  • Point contact 
  • Full contact 
  • Ground 
  • Weapon 

There are also sub categories of sparring like:

  • Stand-up exclusive 
  • Ground fighting exclusive (also called “rolling”)
  • Handicapped 
  • Isolated tool 


For our purposes, I am only going to focus exclusively on full contact martial arts sparring which is an important component of mixed martial arts and reality based self defense training. Keep in mind that it’s important to integrate this training methodology at the proper time. Never begin full contact training until you have acquired some of the following skills and techniques:

  • You must have a strong foundation of both offensive and defensive techniques that can be applied quickly under stressful conditions.
  • You must possess the ability to control the force and power of your striking, punching and kicking techniques.
  • You must possess the fundamental attributes of fighting, including: speed, timing, coordination, accuracy, balance and non telegraphic movement, etc. 
  • You need to have a safe attitude toward training.

“Sparring is the best training exercise for a martial artist.”

Learn more about CFA’s sparring techniques


There are a variety of full contact techniques that I teach in my Contemporary Fighting Arts (CFA) system of self defense. These unique methods can add a twist to your current style of fighting and can be added to your current training program:

  • Bait and smash 
  • Steam roller
  • Cover and crush
  • Stick and move 
  • Blitz and disengage
  • Counter fighting exclusive

To learn more about these unique martial arts techniques, please see my sparring dvd program.

“Prematurely engaging in sparring exercises is dangerous and counter productive.”


Here are just a few tips and suggestions that you should consider before you put the gloves on.

Don’t panic when you get hit – If and when you get hit in a sparring sessions, stay in control of the situation and don’t panic. Keep both hands up, stay mobile, and remain defensively alert. Maintain proper breathing and don’t allow any negative thoughts to contaminate your mind. Stay focused at the task at hand and continue to look for openings in your training partner’s defenses.

Expect to get hit when training – If you think you are going to spar with a training partner and never get hit you are going to be in for a big surprise. Sparring requires you to hit your training partner and get hit in return. It’s simply the nature of this type of training.

Always wear a mouthpiece when training – Always wear a mouthpiece when you spar with a partner. The mouthpiece is a durable rubber protector used to cover one’s teeth. There are two types that can be used: single and double. The mouthpiece is a vital piece of safety equipment that can help prevent the following injuries:

  • Broken jaw – the mouthpiece helps prevent a broken jaw by bracing it together when you are hit on the chin.
  • Getting your teeth knocked out
  • Biting your tongue or lips

Invest in a good pair of boxing gloves – Top quality boxing gloves are a necessity for full contact sparring. In fact, you will not be able to completely benefit from your workout sessions if you’re not using top quality gloves. The ideal boxing glove is one that provides comfort, protection, and durability. Depending on your training objective, the glove weight can range from ten to sixteen ounces. Never use karate style gloves when practicing full contact training. These rubberized foam gloves are not designed for moderate and powerful punches. Here are some other important features to be aware of when purchasing a pair of boxing gloves:

The boxing glove should be composed of multi-layered foam padding.The glove should have a curved or attached thumb that will prevent thumb and eye injuries.The glove should have a sufficient palm grip that provides comfort and fist stabilization.The glove should be double-stitched to ensure durability.The entire glove should be constructed of top quality leather to increase its durability.The glove’s design should permit quick opening for defensive purposes. The glove should be fairly easy to slip-on and off.

“The ideal boxing glove is one that provides comfort, protection and durability.”

Don’t forget to wear headgear when training – Head gear is designed to protect your head against kicks, punches and strikes during intense full contact sessions. Generally headgear is constructed of shock absorbing foam covered by durable leather. Headgear comes in different sizes and styles.

When purchasing headgear remember that it is important that it fits just right. If it is too tight, it can interfere with blood circulation. If it is too loose, it can twist over your face and seriously obstruct your vision. Since headgear comes in different sizes; for reasons of hygiene, a fighter should not share headgear. Make certain that you purchase your own. Here are some important features you should look for when purchasing sparring headgear:

Offers adequate protection without losing visibilityHas a padded chin to protect your jaw lineIs of solid construction but light weightHas top quality leather constructionHas an adjustable buckle or strap to facilitate proper fitHas a rugged design which will provide years of useHas a rear safety pad in case of accidental knock downHas built-in cheek and nose protectorsCan easily be cleaned and disinfected after use

Invest in a good clock or timer – A clock or timer is an important piece of training equipment that can significantly enhance your workout. A clock or timer can be used for lots of different training objective, including:

  • It is an accurate tool to measure your current level of fitness and conditioning
  • It can be used to monitor your progress in your training
  • It can be used to test the speed of your techniques (i.e. drawing and speed shooting, punching and striking speed, escaping speed and threat assessment speed.
  • The clock can add a bit of healthy competition to your training routine. 
  • When selecting a clock for your training, make certain that the numbers are clear and visible and that the clock has a second hand. 

Never forget the ultimate goal of sparring – People often get caught up in the competition or contest of sparring and lose touch with its true value. Remember, your goal is not to “win” or beat your training partner but rather to learn by experience while simultaneously improve your fighting skills.

“The goal is to learn and not to win. Leave your ego at the door before you don your gloves.”


Students always ask me, what is “the best way to improve sparring technique.” The answer is to spar! That’s right! The only way to improve your skills and techniques is through lots of practice and repetition. However, there additional things that you can do in your training to enhance your martial arts sparring. Many include the use of martial arts equipment along with different forms of exercise. They include: