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How to Pull a Punch When Sparring

How to Pull a Punch When SparringSparring is a useful training tool. It allows you to work on your reflexes, distance and timing (as outlined in this blog post) , while adding a live element to your martial arts training. That being said, when sparring for training purposes, we never do so at full power and intensity without regard for our partner. There are a number of reasons we try to exercise control.

One reason is safety. If you’re sparring with someone and you get a clear opening, yes, you want to take advantage of it, but you don’t want to knock their block off, potentially knocking them out and causing them injury. Getting hit at all is more than enough feedback for the person to realize their error. Another reason is practicality. If your partner gets injured while sparring then they have to take time off training causing you to lose a training partner (or vice versa if you’re on the receiving end). Also, if the person is fairly new to sparring, they won’t learn as effectively through the “sink or swim” method due to the high levels of stress imposed from being constantly hit. And, of course, sometimes you or your partner are just feeling a bit off physically or mentally and are just not as sharp as you usually are when sparring.

For these reasons, it’s an important to learn how to  pull your punches when sparring, as strange as that sounds. It’s actually harder than it sounds too  because it can be difficult to maintain your speed when sparring while being vigilant about pulling punches. The most skilled students at sparring in my dojo generally have higher levels of skill and experience, and are able to maintain their speed effectively while rarely hitting anyone harder than they mean to.

Here are a few pointers for pulling your punches when sparring:

  • Stay aware. Recognize when your sparring partner gives you an opening that affords you a “money shot.” These opportunities can be intentional on your part, like when you’ve set up an opening by punching low to cause their guard to drop giving you an opening at the head level. Or they can be unintentional, like when your partner anticipates a high shot when in actuality you were punching low, causing them to duck into your punch.
  • Relax your shoulder. When punching, if you keep your shoulder strong and engaged as you punch, the energy transfers through from the rest your body down to your legs and hips. If you see than you’re going to get in a “money shot” on your training partner, you want to stop the energy, however. If you relax your shoulder, you basically cut energy off so that it doesn’t follow up into your punching arm.
  • Don’t follow through. When trying to generate power, you generally want to aim your punch through your target so as to cause the most impact. So if you make contact but want to take the edge off the hit, you should aim retract your arm slightly so you don’t follow the punch all the way through into your target. If your shoulder is relaxed, this can happen naturally, but if you don’t recognize the money shot you’re getting in time, you may be too late to relax your shoulder, so the best you can do at that point is prevent the follow-through.

By using these practices, you and your partners can keep using sparring to work on your reflexes, distance and timing, while taking some of the risk out of the activity as a part of day-to-day training. This is not to say you want to remove all contact. If there is no contact, you won’t get the negative stimulus you need to learn. And of course, some sparring partners can handle higher levels of contact due to skill, conditioning, or size, and don’t require their partner to pull their punches as much. Context is everything. Use the skill as necessary based on the context in which you’re sparring.You also don’t want to ingrain the skill of pulling your punches as your default way of hitting, which could be bad news in a real self-defense context or in a competitive context. This is why working on pads or bags is important to do regularly.

What is the philosophy in your martial arts school when it comes to contact when sparring? Please share in the comments. 🙂

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “How to Pull a Punch When Sparring

  1. It varies and is based on most student’s skill level. Sometimes the newer students are more dangerous because they don’t know their own strength or how to control their force, like you described in your article.

    Some of the more advanced students go at it really hard. 99% of the time it’s been okay.

    But we’ve had one broken jaw (the receiver backed off and dropped his guard, the striker didn’t understand his partner was backing off for a break).

    A broken rib. This was during a grading where the student had to spar against two people. So he pretty much let it fly.

    And a broken nose. The receiver didn’t want to wear head gear. It wasn’t even a strong hit, just the right hit.

    Other than the last one, I’d say the hitter didn’t pull his punches.

    1. Very true what you said about newer students. They are usually the most dangerous people when sparring. Thanks for sharing your stories! 🙂

  2. Sparring is generally quite safe when both (or more) participants are careful and wear gloves, headprotection, a moutpiece, groinprotector and shinguards. When you’re wearing proper protection at least you won’t suffer serious injury (broken nose, teeth…) although a knockout is still possible, especially when both people are moving forward since this doubles the force even if the punch itself is controlled. In our club we go for what my sensei calls ‘skin touch’ for the face (hitting him lightly but correctly with a semi-bent arm so that if you would have followed through you would have gotten him good) and medium force to the body. I don’t really see the need for full power sparring except maybe a few times to feel what it’s like and to see how you react to that kind of pressure. The majority of people can’t afford to walk around with a bruised face all the time and serious blows to the head tend to lead to braindamage so it’s best to avoid that level of contact.

    As a higher level student you should try to remember to go light on a less experienced partner so he doesn’t get punch-shy and give him the opportunity to go on the attack from time to time. It’s easy to get hits in on lower belts but that way they won’t really learn anything and maybe start to detest sparring altogether. I always try to tell them when they’re leaving targets open: only if they keep persisting in a bad habit will I whack them to let them now I wasn’t joking and it’s really necessary to cover up or defend properly. Still better to get hit in training than for real…

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