Types of Sparring in Martial Arts and How to Use Them


If one is to learn to defend oneself against violence, one must first master the violence against which one is to defend oneself.”

The above sums up a common philosophy in self-defense, but what does it mean for your training?

It means that if you want to be prepared for everything, you need to practice everything. The best stand up striking game in the world will be meaningless if you’re bear-hugged over the arms, or choked from behind, and no amount of grappling-training will prepare you for how to avoid being hit by a combination, after you’ve taken a hard hit to the eye.

It means that to be prepared for a self-defense situation, in which anything can happen, you need to develop a familiarity with strikes, kicks, elbows, knees, head-butts, tackles, joint-locks and joint-manipulations, pressure points, strangulations, throws, takedowns, ground-techniques, and so on.

Remember that even an opponent who hasn’t trained a day in his life, or even knows the word “strangulation” or “joint-manipulation” knows things like “if you apply enough pressure to the throat, it makes it impossible to breathe”, and “if you over-extend a joint enough, eventually it breaks”.

This is enough knowledge to do serious damage, and even if your opponent isn’t looking to break your arm, chances are you’re going to end up in a situation where he sees an opportunity to, and then you need to handle it.

For this reason, among others, most martial arts-systems practice basics, meaning single techniques, or combinations of techniques, practiced individually or with a partner. Some systems also practice sets of related techniques in longer forms, either individually or with a partner.

Andrew Raynor Dover NH

So What Does Sparring Add To It All?

Well, turning our eyes back to the quote opening this article…

If one is to learn to defend oneself against violence, one must first master the violence against which one is to defend oneself.”

… we may have a reason to ask ourselves “What violence do I wish to be able to defend myself against?”

Part of the answer is of course that we are not aiming to defend ourselves against pre-determined, organised attacks, but against chaotic, unregulated violence, with a fully resisting opponent.

For some thoughts on the appropriate level of resistance in training, see this interview with Matt Daquino.

To this end, among others, we have sparring.

Each art, style, school and often even instructor have different ideas on what should be included in sparring and, perhaps most importantly, how it should be practiced. More on that in another article.

The main types of sparring can be divided into:


Commonly performed with thicker gloves, and sometimes also even with head-gear and/or vests, contact sparring (including both semi-contact and full-contact) is perhaps most associated with the different disciplines of boxing. It’s usually performed at mid-range, just outside or just inside the opponent’s striking-range.

Contact sparring is used to practice attacking dynamically without losing defenses or balance, to practice footwork, to practice defending against an opponent who attacks unpredictably, and much more.

For a very detailed and qualitative instruction on mid-range footwork, check out Frank Sands’ series linked here.

Transitioning & Positioning Sparring

Usually practiced bare-handed or with light gloves, well inside an opponent’s range, and perhaps most associated with Wing Chun, transitioning and positioning sparring is perhaps mainly used to practice creating and exploiting openings at close range, and to practice principles for close range impact-defense.

For more on the principles for close range impact-defense, see the article linked here.

Free Sparring

Perhaps the type of sparring that varies the most between schools, in terms of what is allowed, which equipment is used, at what pace it is practiced, and so on.

At its most free, it combines all other types of sparring, and every technique in the system, and is used to practice using all techniques against an opponent who fights back, how to take a fight between the different distances, learning to stay in your comfort-zone, and learning to handle yourself outside of it, also taking the fight from impact to grappling, and back again, as well as avoiding how to be taken to the ground, and how to escape it.

For some tips on how to stay on your feet in a fight, check out this series, by Jerry Wetzel:

Andrew Raynor Dover NH

Andrew Raynor

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