Two MMA athletes sparring

Sparring 101: What is Sparring and How to Do It Well

Whether you like it or not, sparring is an essential part of developing as a martial artist. The whole “punch me like this and I’ll do that” method will only get you so far.

For those starting out, sparring is a great way to put your new-found skills into practice. It not only helps develop attributes such as great spacial awareness and footwork – but sparring will teach you what kind of fighter you really are. Do you like to work inside the pocket? Are you a nightmarish counter-striker on the outside? If all you do is whack shin-to-leather nobody will ever know. So, go find out. Maybe you’ll look as cool as these guys.

See sparring as an opportunity to learn. You’re effectively going to be trying to carry out different fighting maneuvers on a moving target, and they’ll be able to give you effective feedback in real-time. It sounds pretty cool when you put it like that, doesn’t it? Use a partner to your advantage and try out new techniques or tactics, safe in the knowledge that if they don’t work the first time – everything will be A-Okay.

See sparring as your laboratory

Try to see yourself sparring like you’re a scientist inside a laboratory – experimenting with equations and perfecting formulas in a controlled environment. Do this and your rate of improvement will sky-rocket. That’s just a fact. Fail to do so, and you run the risk of becoming a stagnant competitor with a very limited game.

Check out this cool video of 2017’s breakout grappling star Craig Jones rolling with the American lapel-wizard Keenan Cornelius – notice how neither guy is afraid to explore a position or even tap. If you spend a good amount of time on the mats you’re gonna tap a lot – it’s just another learning opportunity.

Use it to overcome yourself in bad positions

A great way to get the most from your sparring time is to purposefully put yourself into unfamiliar and weak positions. The Gracie Jiu-Jitsu figurehead and Vale-Tudo legend Rickson Gracie once said, “You have to find comfort in uncomfortable situations. You have to be able to live in your worst nightmare.” and if there’s one thing Rickson knows, it’s fighting.

If you know you suck at defending body shots, get a trusting partner to work your midsection. Keep getting your ass stuck to the mat? Grab a wrestler and look to work to your feet whilst they pin your hips. To become a complete fighter you have to put the work in from all angles – not just the ones you enjoy or you’re naturally good at.

Strengthening weak areas will raise your overall game – so whilst you may think wrestling sucks, being able to scramble to your feet when taken down will put you back in prime position to strike. A good stand-up fighter is one thing, but a good stand-up fighter with an ace wrestling game is a whole other caliber. As they say, control the distance, control the fight.

Jose Aldo Gray Maynard
Former UFC Featherweight Champion, a fearsome striker, working with UFC wrestling standout Gray Maynard. (Photo: Combate.TV)

How hard should you spar?

How hard you should spar is dependent on the scenario. Gone are the days when fighters would routinely strap-up for bloody gym brawls and an un-healthy daily dose of concussions. It’s 2018 and we seem to have learned a thing or two, apparently. Intensity should be varied and cycled to allow room for recovery between sessions and prevent injury.

Heavy hitting has its place but should be used sparingly and intelligently to have the best effect. Muay Thai is a notoriously brutal sport with some of the toughest athletes on the planet under its system – but upon visiting Thailand you may be shocked to see fighters often sparring in a light, almost playful manner, looking to hone technique and precision over brutishness and power.

This is because Thai fighters often fight more frequently than western mixed martial artists say, and look to preserve their body whilst still fine-tuning their deadly anatomical weaponry. SBG Ireland head coach John Kavanagh puts it simply as, “Update the software without damaging the hardware.” and when you say it like that, it makes perfect sense. Here’s a clip of UK Muay Thai star Jordan Watson technical sparring with Chanajon Muay Thai at the YOKKAO Training Centre in Thailand. Notice how both fighters are relaxed and having fun in there.

But, if you’re planning on becoming a competitive fighter, you’ll have to put your rounds in. The best approach to hard sparring is to train with trusted team-mates, ensure you’re in a controlled environment such as an established fighting gym with coaches and wear the proper safety attire. Typically, most gyms will advocate high-intensity rounds once or even twice a week in the lead up to a fight.

Too much and a fighter can become burnt out and gun shy – too little and they run the risk of becoming overwhelmed in the heat of competition. Hard rounds are where you learn how to work under pressure, and develop the necessary mental skills to deal with a fight. If you’ve worked through exhaustion in the gym to land that takedown, when you hit the cage it’ll be second nature. So embrace the grind, look after your team-mates and work intelligently.

Take a look at this short vid featuring top fighters discussing their own sparring methods. Oss.

No self-respecting gym will ever make you spar – it is a personal choice for you to make only.

Here’s a rundown of what you’ll need to spar:


14-16 oz Boxing Gloves

6-8 oz MMA Sparring Gloves

Kickboxing/MMA Style Shin Pads

Hand Wraps


Groin Protection


14-16 oz Boxing Gloves


Groin Protection



Final blow on sparring

Sparring is a great way for you to battle test your skills. It’s the time to try new tactics and get minutes spent in the fray.

While it’s not a fight, it’s an essential part of fighters training. Sparring is where you’ll find out what works and what doesn’t. How you react to certain shots or what situations bring out the best in you.

As you progress you might not feel the need to spar as much. That comes with ring time and knowing what it feels like to be in there for real. But for most fighters, sparring gets them sharp and lets them get a feel for the fight. Taking shots, delivering blows, and fighting through fatigue. The pace your partner sets can be a big part of pushing your conditioning and it’ll help you learn how to control it.

So, go spar and spar well. Be intelligent in your approach and take something new from every session.

Good luck out there Muscle Mindset warriors. Fight smart, train smarter.

[A note about honesty: If you decide to make a purchase after clicking one of the Amazon links above, we will receive a small commission. This helps us keep the site alive and running, but, that doesn’t mean we will direct you to low-quality equipment. Safety and longevity are important and sparring, and you don’t get that from bad gear.]

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