In this video Jesse Enkamp talks about a decline in hard sparring in combat sports training.

To me this makes sense. If you are training for a fight you don't want to get injured along the way, just as if you train for self defence you don't want to be injured in training for a relatively unlikely altercation or mugging.

However this seems to be against the conventional wisdom of many more modern martial arts.

Is this new information that should change the way combat sports are trained? If so does it validate traditional arts that engage in 'light sparring' as opposed to full contact?


1 Answer 1


This is two questions. The first question asks if light sparring / play sparring is a better way to train than heavy sparring. And the second question asks whether traditional martial arts had this aspect to training right all along.

As for the first question, this is actually nothing the MMA and sport martial arts community doesn't already know by now. There was a time between about 2005 and 2012 when MMA "fight" gyms would train hard and heavy, making each sparring session into a real fight. The idea was that if you trained hard like this, you'll be better able to deal with it in the ring.

The problem was that people were getting so messed up from training that they couldn't even compete. There was even some discussion about people getting CTE (brain damage) from this heavy sparring all the time. You figure you might have a dozen professional fights in your career, but if you spar heavy every time you train, that adds up to hundreds of fights. So you could accumulate more damage from training than you'd ever get from your professional fight competitions.

Nobody should be doing that. And the folks that did that probably did gain some things from it, but all but the most genetically gifted people weren't able to sustain that level of training and would eventually stop altogether or would leave that gym and go somewhere where they trained lighter.

So many top level UFC fighters said the same thing about this. Georges St. Pierre said this:


I see guys sparring, and they lose a lot of brain cells. I believe the best way to improve is when it’s playful. It’s crazy how many guys I've seen that have left their careers in the gyms because they spar too hard.

Mac Danzig had huge potential after winning The Ultimate Fighter season 6. But he called it quits after he realized he was accumulating brain damage from hard sparring in the gym, not from his actual fights:


After 14 years of training and taking shots like a champ, my brain was finally telling me to chill out. I was never the type of fighter to "train stupid", but sparring was always something I partook in at full throttle. I truly feel that the damage was done in the gym over the past decade, and hundreds of hard sparring sessions have accumulated, leading me to the situation I find myself in now. Certainly, some of my performances throughout the years in which I had fallen short can be directly attributed to the idea that I "left it all in the gym." I would like to serve as an example for the up and coming fighters of the world and hopefully encourage smarter training practices that include less sustained trauma in training camp, leading to a longer, healthier career and better performances in the ring.

So this is not news to anyone these days. But back then between about 2005 and 2012 or so, this was controversial. It took people like GSP and Mac Danzig to speak up before others felt they could say this as well.

Like I said, this kind of hard sparring is only going to work for the most genetically gifted people, not for the majority. And it will only benefit those fighters in their youth. When they get older, they will start to understand just how damaging that training was in their youth.

Beyond getting punched in the head hard and getting accumulated brain damage, there's broken bones, blindness, loss of hearing, organ damage, etc. That doesn't often happen from MMA style sparring. But if you look at the Dog Brothers and what they do, you see that they get broken bones and all kinds of damage from their kind of sparring. In fact, their motto is "Higher Consciousness Through Harder Contact".

But even the Dog Brothers will tell you that their kind of sparring isn't meant to be done repeatedly and frequently. It's more of a once a year kind of thing. And it's done for spiritual reasons (to test themselves) as well as seeing what works and what doesn't.

As for whether traditional martial arts had it right all along, my answer is: Clearly not!

TMA people did horribly against MMA people in the ring. This was put to the test, and TMA decidedly lost that argument. This test is still available to all TMA people. They can sign up for local MMA style fights and see what happens. It's very rare to see a traditional stylist with no MMA training whatsoever do well in MMA style fight competition.

So then you have to ask what is missing from TMA sparring? And I believe the answer is still that TMA doesn't train with pressure and with realistic techniques.

First, light sparring can still involve pressure. It doesn't have to be all light taps and punch pulling like you see in Taekwondo sparring. It can be a jab punch to the face enough to connect and feel it but not to cause damage. You can do some punches to the gut that will hurt, but it's not going to break bones or cause your liver to inflame.

So even during light sparring, you still need to know that if you don't protect yourself, you will get hurt. Not badly hurt, though. That allows you to feel some pressure.

Many TMA styles don't even do sparring at all. So they're not pressure testing at all. But those that do sparring will often not employ enough force to feel the right kind of pressure. The right kind of pressure must involve some fear about getting hurt, not just fear about losing a point.

And then there's realistic technique. So many TMA styles practice "theory". Most of those theories are junk and would never work even at full force.

For example, there are many TMA styles that do finger strikes or single protruding knuckle strikes to pressure points. Some even practice those techniques the majority of the time. And they do spar with those. It's just that when they spar, they're going to just show the strike and not actually connect with it. But we know that when those techniques have been attempted against a struggling opponent in early MMA style competitions, it never worked. In most cases, they weren't able to get close enough to even attempt it. But even when they were able to actually do the technique, it very obviously failed and did absolutely no damage.

Those techniques don't work for real like they should according to their theories. So their theories are just wrong or at least flawed in some way. But they lack any feedback mechanism to correct their theories. That is the basis for why MMA and sport fighting work where TMA often fails. There has to be a way of putting techniques to the test and learning from it.

The only way you figure that out is by trying it against someone who is struggling against you and by increasing the level of force to know that it would work and isn't just theory. But once you do that, you can go back to sparring light. It's just that these techniques still need to be proved through harder sparring or competition.

TMA often doesn't go that far. It stops at theory. So they'll just say trust them, this finger jab or dim mak strike is totally going to work. But will it? How do you know? They say just trust them. Well, has anyone witnessed it working in a real fight? No? Then maybe it's junk. How do you know?

All of the light sparring you do can be playful and fun. You can get better at applying the techniques you know, and you can learn new techniques from discoveries you make this way. But to know whether or not those techniques will actually work, you still have to prove them out with harder sparring or competition. It's just that you don't have to do this proof all of the time, but just enough to know it will work when you increase the force.

So that's the missing element from TMA and why MMA people outclass TMA people in the ring. Light sparring is not enough to prove something will work. But light sparring is enough to allow you to get better.

I do think, however, there are things you can learn from sparring at medium and heavy levels. Just, maybe most of your sparring should be light, then less sparring at medium, and very rarely should you go heavy. If you do need to prove something works, though, you probably do need to go heavy in order to give it a proper test. But once you do that, you don't need to keep on doing that.

Hope that helps.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.