I’ve had a few sparring sessions since I’ve started practicing martial arts. Since having those I’ve wondered, how often should I be sparring? It is well known that some sparring sessions can have harmful effects on the brain, depending on how hard you are sparring. But should you limit your sparring sessions, or spar lighter? Is there an optimal amount of sparring sessions one can have? In this post, I am going to discuss some of the research, as well my own experiences in sparring, to answer these questions.
The short answer is, you should limit your hard sparring sessions to once per week at most. However, this does not mean you should spar as if you were in a real fight. Even in hard sparring, you and your training partners should be pulling punches to the head as much as possible. Despite this, you can still spar more often if it is very light, with almost no contact to the face and majority of shots landing to the body. You can probably spar in this lighter manner a few times per week.
The truth is, sparring is a good way to get better at your martial art. Whether it be boxing, kickboxing, or MMA, the best way to prepare for a combat situation is to actually be in that combat situation.
Fighting may seem easy before you start sparring, and you may think you have great ideas of how to hit your opponent without getting hit. However, all those ideas go flying out the window as soon as you get hit in the face.
Why You Should Spar Less Often
However, the problem is that putting yourself in a real combat scenario will oftentimes produce the same negative effects of a real combat scenario. It is now well known that combat sports such as boxing will produce long term brain damage.
But even today, some gyms will encourage their students to spar as if they were in a real fight, overlooking the consequences. So first, I am going to explain the negative effects of professional fighting, and then explain the potentially negative effects of sparring.
Despite MMA being considered safer than Boxing, incidents still happen, such as when João Carvalho passed away 48 hours after a knockout loss.
First, I must note that the available research for the three major striking forms (MMA, kickboxing, and boxing) is very different, as there are two major factors at play here.
First, is that boxing is very limited in its ways to win, which are decision or knockout, versus an MMA match, which can end in submission. A boxing match will also involve a majority of the punches to the head, while in MMA and kickboxing a TKO can be achieved with leg kicks, resulting in less head trauma.
Secondly, boxing is a very old sport, with a very large amount of documented research, while in contrast, MMA is fairly new, with the first UFC tournament being held in 1993.
In professional combat, serious injury is common, with many fighters suffering broken bones and open cuts, as many of you already know. The long term damage takes place in the brain, as each time a punch connects to the head, the brain hits against the walls of the skull, tearing brain tissue and killing brain cells.
Today, boxers have to take mandatory MRI scans before competing, largely due to the death of boxer Steve Watt in 1986. Many boxing rules in place today have been placed as a result of fatal injuries.
Steve Watt (left) in his match against Rocky Kelly, after which Watt unfortunately passed away.
According to a 16 year study in Australia, out of 427 boxing matches recorded, 15.9% of them resulted in a fighter receiving a concussion. The study notes that concussion is the second most common injury (after lacerations) and the most severe of all the recorded injuries.
According to an article titled Research Gaps and Controversies in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, of people with a history of head injuries, 30% develop CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) later in life. Also, it appears that people who have experienced head trauma in the past are at greater risk for continuous impairment due to head trauma.
Although brain related combat sports injuries have become less common due to continuous adapting of new rules, there are still cases of severe and fatal injury in recent times.
Notable examples are boxer Prichard Colón (brain bleeding), amateur kickboxer Dennis Munson Jr. (fatal head injury), MMA fighter João Carvalho (fatal head injury), UFC fighter Krzysztof Soszynski (amnesia), and boxer Magomed Abdusalamov (brain swelling). So obviously, real fighting can cause significant injury. This is the major reason why you should not spar as if you were in a real fight.
Prichard Colón complaining about illegal strikes to the back of the head during his fight with Terrell Williams. He is currently in a vegetative state.
When you decide to start sparring, you should be aware of what you are getting into. By this point, you should be able to know what kind of environment your gym encourages. Is it a gym where pros come in to knock each other out, or is it a gym with light sparring that encourages beginners? I would encourage you to pick a gym where the trainers are most concerned with the well being of the fighters/members.
The trainer overseeing the sparring session may lay out some rules. If they do not, then make sure to be clear with your partner how hard you want to spar before you begin. Make sure your partners also care for your well-being, or that at the least, they aren’t trying to seriously injure you.
If you take a shot that knocks you down, and your partner continues to land heavy shots, then they obviously aren’t a good training partner. If you’re not sure what a good sparring partner looks like, I’ll have some examples in the next section.
The most important rule in sparring is to be safe. If tension is escalating between yourself and a partner, then take a break or switch partners. If a partner goes down, ask them if they are ok, touch gloves, and continue. If a partner needs a time out, then respect their decision. These actions will create a safer environment for sparring, as well as encourage newer students to spar safely.
The Best Way to Spar
Now obviously, there is no one way to spar. The main focus of sparring is to learn as much as you can while limiting as much damage as you can. In this section, I am going to break down methods of sparring used by UFC fighters that range from light to hard. First I am going to start with more of a substitute to sparring used by MMA superstar Conor McGregor.
Conor McGregor throws a light kick while his training partner blocks it.
When training a group of fighters at The Ultimate Fighter gym, McGregor introduces a form of training that teaches the same concepts as sparring does, but with much less damage. The training consists of basically “tapping” your partner with a combination, and then letting them do the same.
The idea is to pick and place shots the same way you would in a real fight, but without using any power. This way you can work on your reactions, combinations, and shot selection as you would in sparring without getting hurt. Or as McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh calls it, “upgrading your software, without damaging your hardware”. I wouldn’t necessarily consider this sparring, as it is very light, but if you want to spar more often, this is a good substitute.
The second example is a video I found on Youtube which shows two Muay Thai fighters engaging in more technical sparring. In it, the two fighters throw shots with decent power behind them, so I would definitely consider this a lighter sparring session. If you watch the video however, you’ll notice that most of their shots are aimed at the body, whether they are punches or kicks.
You can tell that the two fighters respect each other, and that there are some rules in place. A good example of this is around the 2:30 mark, when one of the fighters trips. You’ll notice that the other fighter waits until he regains his footing to continue sparring, versus chasing him down and landing more shots.
When they do throw shots to the head, they are not hard. They usually end up hitting the gloves, and even when the shot lands flush, the fighters are not hurt by them. I will say however, that they are throwing some shots to the head a bit harder than I would like, especially the fighter in blue gloves, as he seems to show less restraint.
Particularly, when the fighter in green gloves is wobbled at around the 3:10 mark. The fighter in blue gloves hits green gloves with an uppercut, which visibly hurts him, but blue continues to fight until green is knocked down. I would say that if your partner shows any sign of damage, you should stop sparring.
Despite this, it is overall a good sparring session. Something to note is that this lighter sparring is common in muay thai, and as such, Thai fighters often compete in hundreds of professional fights, many fighters retiring without serious brain trauma.
Although it was a good overall sparring session, the shots thrown in this sequence are visibly snapping the neck of the fighter on the left.
A noteworthy fighter to mention here is Demetrious Johnson, former UFC champion. He states that when he spars, he spars hard, but never aims towards the head. This is a form of sparring used during boxing training at the gym where I train. Shots can be thrown hard to the body, as body shots almost never cause long term damage.
Another important thing is the gloves being used. You don’t want to use bag gloves when sparring, as the padding is more compact, which allows you to hit harder. This might be good for hitting the heavy bag, but you don’t want to injure your sparring partner due to your gloves. Boxing company Ringside offers some good sparring gloves that are softer than regular gloves, which you can buy on Amazon here.
Now that we have seen good examples of sparring, we should address the use of headgear. There has been debate about whether or not headgear protects the brain during fighting, so I will cover that in the next section.
Should I Use Headgear?
Headgear has been worn in combat sports for many years as a way to protect the head while fighting. Headgear can protect a fighter’s head from cuts, bruises, and superficial damage. But, will headgear protect you from brain trauma? The short answer is no. I must point out however, that the way in which the brain receives damage while getting hit is not well known, and there is not a good, definitive way to compare trauma when wearing headgear versus when not wearing it.
The main cause of brain trauma is the movement of the brain within and against the skull. The problem with headgear is that it will not prevent your brain from moving around when you get hit. Not only that, but the Amateur International Boxing Association found that concussions decreased by 43% when headgear was not worn in a match.
So not only is headgear not preventing brain trauma, it’s actually making it worse. So what should you make of this in regards to sparring?
A computer simulation demonstrates the movement of a fighter’s brain as he gets hit, even while wearing headgear.
Well, as I said before, in an optimal sparring session you should be limiting the number of punches thrown to the head. This means that you should NEVER receive a concussion in sparring, no matter the circumstances.
Wearing headgear can at least give the impression of protection to beginners. This will make them more confident going into a sparring session.
Because of this, I do not see wearing headgear during sparring as a negative thing. Some gyms do require people who spar to wear headgear, and that’s ok, as long as you are not taking hard shots. If you do prefer to wear headgear, I’d recommend using an open-faced guard, versus a closed face.
Open-faced headgear, such as pictured here, will promote good head movement, helping you avoid shots. The one shown here is from Winning, which is also a trusted Boxing brand.
This is because a open-faced guard allows you to feel punches on your nose, without taking the full impact. This is good because it will encourage you to move your head to avoid punches, which closed-face headgear does not do. I would recommend you use a trusted brand, such as Cleto Reyes, which offers a good headgear on Amazon. Cleto Reyes is well known in Boxing for its quality, and that is important when finding the right headgear.
On the other hand, there are advantages to sparring without headgear. For one, sparring without headgear can better prepare you for the experience of a real fight. We also have the evidence I mentioned earlier, regarding the reduced number of concussions after removing headgear.
And lastly, seeing a partner not wearing headgear will remind you to not hit them hard. It is easier to hit someone hard if you have the false belief that their headgear will protect them.
Examples of Bad Sparring
In this section I’m going to link to a few videos that demonstrate bad sparring sessions. I must note, a bad sparring session doesn’t always end in a knockout or serious injury, but it eventually will.
Also, remember that it is easy to get caught in sparring. If someone does get hurt in a sparring session, it doesn’t necessarily mean you were sparring too hard. Just check in with your partner and get them help if they need it. Finally, below are the videos:
Starts okay, but escalates towards the end after Wanderlei receives an axe kick. Bad sparring in boxing. Mayweather’s gym is notorious for their hard sparring. Sparring at Team Alpha Male. Apparently the guy who got knocked down (Julian Wallace) was new and challenging people. He does have a history of anger issues.
Many more examples of bad sparring can be found on youtube. Remember, spar around once per week, while limiting the power in punches to the head, but going hard to the rest of the body. Respect your training partners, help each other when needed, and learn together. Thanks for reading!