One question I hear often from new students is how often they should spar and how hard the sparring should be. Like many things, the answer depends on your goals and what combat sport you are practicing. As my school, Integrated Martial Arts, puts an equal focus on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, and MMA the following explanations and examples are used.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Sparring or as it is known in BJJ ‘rolling’ is typically a part of every class. The difference between BJJ rolling and typical sparring in other martial arts is much of BJJ is not based on striking or kicking. It is live practice of the techniques we learn in class like armbars, chokes, positioning, and other joint locks. At my school, Integrated Martial Arts, we roll at the end of every class.
With frequent rolling the intensity or how hard we spar is typically light. The definition of light rolling can be difficult to define though. There are a lot of factors that determine how hard you roll. I like to consider my partner. If I’m paired with the new guy who is still trying to muscle through everything I usually try to work on my technique and negate his or her strength with good positioning. With a more experienced partner I tend to even out my technique and strength because I need to. The margin for error with more advanced partners is smaller, so I try harder. I’m not going one hundred percent, but relative to sparring with a beginner I’m putting more into it. The longer you train, the easier it will be to determine how hard you train during a normal class.
Another factor is how you are feeling. Obviously, if you are sick or injured you should be careful about training at all. Many people prescribe to the idea of training when they are injured, many do not. It really depends on the injury. I’m over 40-years old and it sometimes takes me longer to recover from being ill or just to recover from a specific training session. So, when I’m not feeling great I roll lighter and I ask my partners to go lighter. I might even restrict my rolls to ‘flow rolls’ to work on smoothness and transitions.
For BJJ another thing to think about is whether you are training for a competition or not. If you compete you are going to want to program in some harder rolling sessions. In our program, we have a competition class that is typically higher intensity and is good preparation for tournaments. If you don’t have a specific class like this at your academy, ask your instructor for help in preparing.
Sparring is a huge part of Muay Thai. It’s normal to see every class implement some type of sparring. I know what you’re thinking, sparring everyday sounds dangerous. Typical Muay Thai sparring is not hard sparring, but an exercise in technical sparring. Remember, the goal of sparring is not just to improve your technique, but to improve your partner’s as well. This is done through smart, well executed technique and accuracy. Light sparring where you lower the power of punches and kicks, but maintain speed and timing develops timing, accuracy, and proper technique. Because a lot of sparring in Muay Thai is light it can be done every day.
Hard sparring is also important, but shouldn’t be done frequently. Our philosophy is light sparring every day and no more than once a week hard sparring. Many will avoid it, but putting yourself in a situation where you must rely on your training and reactions developed through light sparring in a more intense situation builds confidence and exposes flaws in technique. It can be very helpful, but should only be done occasionally.
There are several things to think about before you spar. First, how long have you been practicing Muay Thai. If you are new to the sport it might not be a good idea to spar hard too often. Give yourself a few months of light sparring to build technique and good habits. Once you have a few months of training, go for it. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea, it’s your call. The second thing to consider when sparring is your partner. If your partner is super aggressive in a normal class you need to think about how comfortable you are sparring that person, even if it is light. Every different sparring partner is going to bring a different approach to sparring.
In my opinion MMA sparring should be approached the same way as Muay Thai sparring. It should be done frequently, if not every session, but it should mostly be light to develop good technique and timing. The days of MMA athletes hard sparring multiple times a week are over. If you want to stay healthy, keep your training partners healthy, and enjoy yourself it just isn’t a good idea.
The beauty of an MMA class is it combines stand up and ground techniques and is a great place to work on transitions like takedowns, regaining your feet, and a variety of other techniques you may not be exposed to in BJJ or Muay Thai. Doing this while sparring will give you the pressure need to understand how to execute the techniques under duress without being in real danger.
Regardless of the style you’re studying or how often you train the most important thing to consider when sparring is the safety and health of your partner. At my school, we have a rule that says ‘You are not the most important person on the mat. Your training partner is.’ Follow this rule and you should do well.