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Sparring in martial arts

Sparring is a form of practice to train martial artists. The type of sparring varies with different types of martial arts; nonetheless, essentially sparring is educative in nature and thus, focuses heavily on zero or minimum injury.

Different martial arts have different terms for sparring. In Taekwondo it is known as ‘matsogi‘ (ITF style) and ‘kyorugi‘ (WTF style); in Karate it is known as ‘randori‘ (grappling-type sparring) and ‘kumite‘ (striking-type sparring); in Silat, it is called ‘berpencak/bersilat‘; whereas, in BJJ it is commonly known as ‘rolling‘.

Sparring is normally practised among two martial artists, as seen in Taekwondo, Karate, Judo, BJJ, or Fencing. However, more than two martial artists may also participate, as seen in several forms of Aikido, where one aikidoka spars with many attackers, and this type of sparring is usually known as ‘taninzudori/taninzugake‘.

Types of sparring

Sparring are of several types depending upon the martial art and its particular style. Nonetheless, broadly, sparring may be classified as weapon sparring (weapons are used) and empty-hand sparring (no weapons are used). In both the types, protective gear may or may not be worn; however, generally protective gear is worn.

Both weapon sparring and empty-hand sparring may feature the following:
1. full contact sparring
2. light contact sparring
3. no contact sparring
4. step sparring

Range in sparring

Range may be defined as the physical distance between the sparring partners. Range is also known as the ‘distance’ or the ‘gap’ or the ‘space’. Entering and exiting the range/gap/distance/space is significant in sparring.

Range may be classified as:
1. close range (grappling range)
2. medium range (punching range)
3. long range (kicking range)
4. out-of-range (beyond grappling-punching-kicking range)

Dynamic Striking video “MIKE TYSON – How to Fight Low and Close Space”:

Opening in sparring

While sparring, a martial artist may find an opponent having a less guarded area of the body. This less guarded area of the opponent’s body is known as an opening. An opening is used by a martial artist to attack the opponent. Feints can help to create openings.

World Class Boxing Channel video “Two Ways To Create Openings in a Fight | Tricks of the Right Hand Punch”:

Timing in sparring

Since the sparring partners are constantly in motion, the opening presented does not stay for long. Whenever an opening is presented, at that precise time, a martial artist needs to exploit it, and this is known as timing.

Martial Arts Books and Videos from Turtle Press video “6 Ways to Improve your Timing for Martial Arts with Sang H. Kim”:

Footwork in sparring

In order to attack the opening at the correct time, the martial artist can use a striking move like a kick or a punch, or a grappling move like a choke or a submission move. Whichever movement the martial artist does, but to do it the martial artist needs to come in the kicking, or punching, or the grappling range of the opponent. The martial artist can come in the different ranges of the opponent by employing footwork. Range can be shortened or lengthened by footwork. The martial artist can employ footwork to move towards the opponent or to move away from the opponent.

Jesse Enkamp video “HOW TO CONTROL A FIGHT | Karate Footwork — Jesse Enkamp”:

Speed in sparring

To exploit the opening at the correct time, the range needs to be shortened or lengthened by footwork, which in turn, needs to be executed at a slow speed, medium speed, or fast speed, depending on the changing circumstances. Generally, the speed is fast, since the duration of an opening is very short, somewhere between micro-seconds to a second only.

Ando Mierzwa video “How to Increase Your Speed for Martial Arts and Fighting”:

Angle in sparring

Executing defensive or attacking movements away from the centre-line of the opponent is known as an angle. An angle may be of any degrees and is usually executed by a change of a stance or several stances in quick succession. The attacking benefit of angles is to execute a linear, an arc, or a circular movement, which gives greater power; while the defensive benefit of angles is to use the opponent’s force to advantage by deflection, or to dis-balance the opponent.

fightTIPS video “JKD Basics: 5 Ways of Attack in Jeet Kune Do”:

Height in sparring

The height of the attacking/defensive movements, is usually relative to the height of the opponent. A shorter height martial artist usually tends to attack a taller opponent’s lower extremities, with a focus on unbalancing the opponent; and tries a circling footwork in order to enter the grappling range, to execute chokes and other grappling moves. On the other hand, a taller martial artist usually tends to use the legs to advantage, like delivering kicks and with fewer steps is able to close the distance relatively faster.

Andi Nord video “Bruce Lee 1972 Game of Death (last fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)”:

MMAShredded Jeff Chan video “12 Tips to Fighting BIGGER Opponents”:

Feints in sparring

When a martial artist initiates a movement to execute another movement, then that first movement is known as a ‘feint’. Feinting is also known as ‘faking’. For example, a punch may be faked while a kick is delivered. Feinting is purposeful telegraphing of a movement that serves to hide another movement, which is actually executed.

TKDCoach Academy video “How Do We Use Feints & Fakes For Taekwon Do Sparring”:

Intercepting or cutting in sparring

When a martial artist intercepts a defensive move of an opponent with an attacking move; or vice-versa; or simply any move with another counter-move, then it may be termed as ‘intercepting’ or ‘cutting’. Martial arts like Taekwondo, Karate and Jeet Kune Do feature such interceptions.

Rickard Ankarsund video “The Way Of The Intercepting Fist JKD explained by Sigung Ted Wong”:

Combinations in sparring

When more than one move is combined and executed as a single move or a related series of moves, then it may be termed as a ‘combination’. Generally, combinations increase the martial artist’s repertoire and helps in overcoming difficult sparring situations.

Mark Harkess Taekwondo video “2 Kick Combinations | Taekwondo Sparring Drills”:

Strategy in sparring

When a mental plan is created on how to defeat the opponent, then that plan may be termed as a strategy. Few common strategies are:
1. Control the distance, by speedily entering and exiting the range
2. Employ nimble footwork, to exploit openings
3. Move sideways, to capture the blind side of the opponent
4. Strike with force, to end the fight in a single blow
5. Avoid the strengths and attack the weaknesses of the opponent
6. Use surprise, by undertaking an unexpected attack
7. Use direct/indirect moves or counter-moves according to the reactions of the opponent
8. In competitions, use moves that give a greater score. Generally, in Taekwondo competitions, the roundhouse kick, back kick, and axe kick are scored higher than the side kick or the front kick.
9. Explosive movements may be employed provided they are accompanied with correct range, footwork, timing, speed, and power.

Ginger Ninja Trickster video “Taekwondo Sparring | How to Draw an Opponent | Van Roon Tutorial”:

‘Aliveness’ versus ‘Sparring’

In a sparring training session, the aim is to educate, unless it is done in competitions, where victory is an option. However, when there is no competition and sparring is held as a normal training session, but with the sole purpose of winning, then that type of sparring may be termed as ‘alive sparring/training’ or ‘aliveness’. An alive sparring session features mental and physical stresses of an actual combat situation, which increases the levels of exertion of the martial artist. Due to the unpredictability and active resistance of the sparring partners, a sense of spontaneity, fluidity, and survival instincts come into play, which many think makes a better martial artist. Examples of aliveness include Karate/Judo practice of Randori and Muay Thai’s pad work.

AshidaKlown video “MATT THORNTON ALIVENESS – martial arts most important thing Straight blast”:


Sparring is important in any martial art. However, if the fundamental movements like blocks, kicks, punches, footwork and more are not mastered, then sparring is of very little use. A sincere student first observes discipline and masters the fundamental movements, then proceeds to patterns, and thereafter to sparring.

1. Stewart, John (Nov 1980). “Kumite: A Learning Experience” (PDF). Black Belt magazine. pp. 28–34, 91. Available at: https://ultimateactionmovies.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/black-belt-magazine-nov-1980.pdf [Accessed on June 25,2022].

2. Ryder, Matthew (16 March 2014). “Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler: How Safe Sparring May Change Contact Sports”. Bleacher Report. Available at: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1994748-johny-hendricks-vs-robbie-lawler-how-safe-sparring-may-change-contact-sports [Accessed on June 25,2022].

3. Ueshiba, Kisshomaru; Ueshiba, Moriteru (2002). Best Aikido: The Fundamentals (Illustrated Japanese Classics). Kodansha International. ISBN 978-4-7700-2762-7.

4. “Aliveness: Common Sense or Controversial?”. Low Tech Combat 2.0 webzine. January 5, 2010. Archived from the original on October 1, 2010. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20101001231940/http://www.lowtechcombat.com/2010/01/aliveness-common-sense-or-controversial.html [Accessed on June 25,2022].

5. Scot Combs (2006). “‘Aliveness’ in martial arts training” (PDF). Full Circle Martial Arts. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-26. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20110726070937/http://www.fullcirclemartialarts.org/aliveness.pdf [Accessed on June 25,2022].


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