The Benefits of Training with People Your Own Size (or Smaller) in the Martial Arts

Last night I stayed late after class working with two women on their ground grappling skills. After a little submission technique review, we took turns grappling with each other. One of my students thanked me after class, saying that she found it really educational to grapple with me because it helps her to learn because I move in a way that makes sense to her. This is an important thing to remember when it comes to martial arts training and teaching.

Being a self-defense oriented instructor, we often emphasize the merits of training with people who are bigger than us. After all, we are much more likely to be attacked by someone bigger than ourselves on the streets, especially if you’re a woman. That being said, there are a number of benefits to training with people that are the same size as us too. Here are a few I came up with:

1. It develops foundation skills. When students first learn a new technique in the martial arts, especially if they’re a beginner, you are still learning the very basic elements that make the techniques easier, like body mechanics, stance & structure, balance breaking, etc. You haven’t developed the body sense to understand what adjustments you need to make to get things to work. If you’re working with someone much bigger than you, it is harder to “feel” those elements and develop your sense for them. You may have to have those elements spot on to get even a semblance of a working sense of them. When you working with someone closer to your own size or smaller than you, as you slip in and out of proper form, you’ll start to see when the technique works and when it doesn’t helping you to improve through trial and error. This is a concept I covered in my blog post Why Small People Have More Trouble When Starting a Martial Art.

2. It helps instil confidence. If newer students only work with people who are much bigger than them, they usually find that they have to struggle more to get techniques to work, particularly before they have developed a good sense of foundation skills. Sometimes this causes frustration that leads them to believe that their chosen martial art just doesn’t work for them or that they’re just not good enough to make it work. Working with people the same size can help keep them from getting overly frustrated, which in term may keep them training long enough to get the foundation skills they need to be more successful working with larger partners.

3. It helps students learn by example. Bigger people move very differently from smaller people. This is most apparent when you watch people do live training, like sparring or grappling. Smaller people often use speed, agility, and/or flexibility to greater advantage than larger people. But when a smaller student only trains with bigger people, lacking experience or know-how of how to best use their own attributes, they often end up trying to fight their battles with the same kind of tactics their partners use because that’s what they see and experience more. When you grapple or spar with someone closer to your own size, particularly if they’re more experienced than you, you’ll be exposed to styles of movement that you can learn to emulate by osmosis. You can also ask pointed questions about the way they approach various situations to help improve your own understanding of what you can do with your body type.

Of course, martial artists shouldn’t ONLY work with partners that are their own size, unless you’re focused primarily on competition and won’t ever be facing people outside your weight category. If you’re training in a martial art for the purpose of self-defense, you should work with a variety of people of all shapes and sizes, as you never know what kind of attacker you’ll face. So if you always avoid working with the 230-lb behemoth at your dojo, you’re missing out on the opportunity to figure out what sorts of tactics you would have to employ to fight someone like him off.

What are things like at your own dojo? Do students tend to only work with people their own size or does everyone work with everyone? I’m always curious what things are like at other schools.

Comments (8)

8 thoughts on “The Benefits of Training with People Your Own Size (or Smaller) in the Martial Arts

  1. I am 5’4″,115 pounds, and there aren’t very many people in our regular Jiu-Jitsu class who are my size. I have grappled with everyone there, and we’re good about mixing things up and rolling with a variety of people. Luckily we also have a women’s class that is finally gaining a few students, so now I’ve been able to roll with more people closer to my size, which is definitely a different experience.

    I always seek to help the new smaller people when they start, especially the women, because I think it makes them a little more comfortable to be faced with me than with some hulk!

    1. It’s great to hear that your women’s class is taking off. So many BJJ schools have no women at all, let alone enough to start a women’s only class. Sounds like you have a great attitude that will helps lots of women find their feet when it comes to grappling. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. I may be an outlier in this, but I am *much* more comfortable training with larger, stronger, more skilled ukes. I’ve been in real fights (rarely), and I know I am capable of causing damage if I need to. I’m not 100% confident that I’ll never overdo it and damage someone by accident in training. Intellectually, I realize that my control is good and this is unlikely, but on an emotional level, it’s easier for me to focus and commit to a technique if I’m working with someone who outclasses me enough to make me feel I have a pretty wide margin for error.

    1. You are definitely not an outlier. I have always maintained that it’s important to work with all sizes of people. This article was written to show that there are indeed some benefits to working with smaller people, but from a self-defense point of view you absolutely have to work with bigger people at some point to know that your skills are going to hold up when it counts. In fact, my next article is going to be about the counter point, the benefits of working with people that are bigger/stronger than you. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  3. From a pedagogical point of view it would make sense to let smaller train with others their size in order to gain confidence before pairing them up with larger individuals. Still in the end if your techniques and skills are to work against larger people at some point you’re actually going to have to train with them. Perfection of technique or skills gained working with someone your own size will serve you well later on.

    I think your smaller students are lucky with you as a role-model since it’s a sure sign the techniques work for the underdog, but only if they become second nature and are executed with speed, power and precision. Being a man of a somewhat larger size (I’m 1.91m tall and weigh about 85 kilo, too lazy to convert these figures to feet and pounds, lol) I often forget it’s not so easy for women and smaller guys to get to grips with what we do. Thanks for reminding me.

  4. Just found your blog and am really enjoying reading through your posts!

    I’m an Aikido instructor in North Carolina. In our dojo, everyone trains with everyone — tall and small, light and heavy. One night each week, we have kids aged 10-12 in the adult class for an hour and make sure they work with the adults not just each other. We teach that you have something to learn from every partner and what works with one may not work with another. When you find something works with everyone regardless of size, you’re probably doing the technique more correctly than when you can only make it work on smaller folks or longer-armed folks or lighter people, etc.

    As for teaching, I am a woman of average size — 5’6″. Our head instructor is 6’4″. I’ve had to develop a very different Aikido for myself over the years than my instructor’s. Our students enjoy having instruction from both of us, as well as our other black belts, because they get to see different approaches and understandings of the same moves. I’m usually able to help people closer to my size when other instructors struggle to figure out how to adapt a technique for a smaller person. And I appreciate being able to tell the 6’4″ students (of which we have more than one!!)to ask the head instructor for advice!!

    Regarding women’s classes, we don’t have enough women in our dojo to sustain one, unfortunately; but, I have been to two Women’s Aikido Seminars in the past few years, instructing in the second one, and have LOVED them. So completely different practicing with all women. I love the men in my dojo and wouldn’t trade my school for anything — but the chance to train with just women now and then is really wonderful. Hoping for another one soon!

    Thanks for your great insights!


    1. Hello Charlene! It’s nice to hear from other women martial artists out there. There aren’t a ton of us out there, so it’s nice to have connections, especially with other instructors like yourself. It sounds like your dojo is pretty awesome and it’s great to hear people having a good experience with more traditional martial arts like Aikido (which I have a lot of respect for). Keep up the training and stay in touch! 🙂

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