This question stemmed from a conversation I had the other day, and I thought I'd pose it on stack exchange to see what others thought.

Nowadays, in most competition formats, if not all, the fight is always one vs. one.

A handful of schools still incorporate training to fight against multiple attackers, usually in a structured format such that it is still generally a one v. one match at any given time (for safety?).

Is there anything in particular that can be gained from these type of drills that can't be gained from fighting against a single opponent?

What are those benefits, and what makes it difficult to train without using multiple attackers? Is this benefit specific to a particular style of martial arts, or is it universal? What elements are universal that lead to successfully defending against multiple attackers?

I would be interested in any research that may also look into this type of training and any conclusions it draws, if anyone is aware of any such studies.

7 Answers 7


Sequential Partnered Drills

As you mention, drills where you're not actually facing multiple opponents simultaneously, but rather sequentially. The value in this is both endurance training and the issues of having to adjust to different, fresh opponents.

Of course, this is not the same as dealing with multiple opponents simultaneously, and so, the value you get is not the same as multiple opponents. Most of the time, I've seen schools do this either out of an issue of size and space, or because there's too much variety in skill levels for safe control.

True Multiple Opponents

Many schools focused on combative aspects do this training and it's a world of difference between single partner and multiple opponents.

  • Time - you don't have time to "pick apart" opponents when it's a group
  • Movement - you have to constantly find a way to not be rushed at the same time
  • Grappling - you want things you can do that keep you mobile, not tied up on the ground
  • Awareness - you have to pay a lot of attention to your terrain and where everyone is

Even if you find yourself in a situation where it's 4 vs. 4 or something, nothing guarantees everyone is going to pair up 1:1 in a fight. So these skills become critical. Here's a video where they took some MMA fighters through Marine hand to hand training - starting at 3:50 is where you can see an exercise where they end up doing not so great because the Marines double team, take down one, then go to the next.

For the people who are being the "multiple opponents" they end up learning some useful skills as well:

  • How to find an opening when an opponent is distracted
  • How to maneuver around bodies to get to a target
  • Attack options when you literally have extra sets of hands

The difficulty in training these things comes from a few factors:

Agreed Intensity

Depending on the skill level and what you're aiming to do, you want to set an agreement of intensity for this particular exercise. For example, it may make sense to stick to dealing with multiple opponents only doing 1 or 2 types of striking attacks. It might make sense to train for takedowns, etc.

The reason this is important is that if there's no boundaries set initially, maybe one person goes for a hard takedown/throw, the other person wasn't expecting it to get that serious, and they start going aggressive out of ego/stress response and it gets everyone going harder than they should until someone gets hurt.

As the skill levels go up, you can increase intensity, with communication being #1.

Skilled Restraint

The other part is that because multiple opponent training is more unpredictable - for everyone involved, the single person or the group, it becomes very weird in terms of finding yourself in angles of attack or defense you didn't expect - which means your techniques are going to be stressed in weird ways.

Which also means if you're doing something that is more likely to cause accidental injury (takedowns, grapples, locks, some weapons, etc.) you want more control in this exercise on a technical stand point.

Training for a world where hurts count

This is true of a lot of training, but especially multiple opponents. Part of setting intensity is figuring out "when do we accept an attack/technique counts, even if it's being held back on for the sake of safety?"

If I'm hitting an opponent multiple times in the neck with a rubber knife, and he's pretending it has no effect, and continues to grapple me, while other opponents run up on me at the same time, what have we trained for? He's trained for a world where he's magically invincible, and I've trained for a world where knives to the neck don't work. And the problem is, these may be options that are exactly what you'd be doing in a multiple opponent situation.

So it's useful to say "These techniques can be used this far, and if this happens to you, you should give and consider it successful."

This is not to be mistaken with the schools that drill and assume all techniques instantly work ("Then you punch him, and then he falls down. GUARANTEED."), but it's critical because what happens when you DON'T have this is that your training falls into near full contact or grappling, because everything else "doesn't count" and you find yourself reducing safety AND not training some of the more useful options at all.

  • Interesting point on attackers learning to take advantage of moments of weakness, among other 'skills'
    – rcheuk
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 19:51
  • As it stands, I think your answer is the most complete, so I've marked it as the correct one. Thanks for contributing.
    – rcheuk
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 20:02

Is there anything in particular that can be gained from these type of drills that can't be gained from fighting against a single opponent?


There are two ways I could take your question, so I will address them both:

Drill A

If you're talking about a drill where one person stands in the middle of the circle, and attackers come one at a time, the purpose of that drill is to train reaction time. In the beginning, the attacks are highly structured, and so are the defenses (one step sparring). As students gain competency, more variables are added and restrictions are removed. I can see why you'd question the validity of doing this versus single person sparring. By forcing you to turn and face the threat, then deal with it, the drill teaches you to react quickly to a suddenly appearing attacker.

Drill B

If you're talking about a drill where one person sets up in the middle of attackers, and each of them come at him at once, the purpose of the drill is to teach you, at escalating levels of intensity, to deal with two or more aggressors. You will have to use footwork, body positioning, and awareness that you would not have to use in single opponent sparring. This is training you to track multiple bodies moving around you, and to know when to react and whom to react to. There is a vast difference in blocking an attack from an aggressor when you know he is alone, versus blocking an attack when there might be a simultaneous attack coming at your head from behind. You will learn to try to keep bodies between you and the remaining attackers.

See this related answer

In the above answer, I point out that a lot of martial arts possess this kind of drill, and there is a link to a Kenpo example. The Kenpo example is closer to the first response I gave, but the Kali example I give is closer to my second response.

  • 1
    I'm not completely sold on the first point you bring up, as there are ways to train reaction time without the need for multiple attackers, imo. I do agree with your second point though, and what you bring up seems to be a common element among different martial arts.
    – rcheuk
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 12:15
  • There's going to be overlap in the skill sets that various martial arts drills train. Even if there is overlap, variety helps keep training interesting, which keeps you training. In the case of the first drill I mentioned, I don't know any better way to teach turning to face an attacker and quickly reacting. You may be able to increase reaction time in other ways without doing that particular drill, but nothing is as good as training to react in that specific way as that drill is. Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 12:34

Is there anything in particular that can be gained from these type of drills that can't be gained from fighting against a single opponent?

The drills are just stepping stones to many-on-one free-sparring, so the important thing is what skills are needed against many opponents that won't necessarily be cultivated efficiently in one-on-one sparring.

What are those benefits, and what makes it difficult to train without using multiple attackers? Is this benefit specific to a particular style of martial arts, or is it universal? What elements are universal that lead to successfully defending against multiple attackers?

The crucial elements are awareness/peripheral-vision, distancing/closing, footwork/movement, utilisation of opponent position, defensive positioning and technique, and decisive offensive abilities. The requirements for all of these are much stricter in a multiple-opponent situation than for one-on-one.

For example, a common tactic is to feint towards opponents on one side - hopefully causing them to dig in with a strongly defensive focus, and causing the opponents on the opposite side of you to start thinking about chasing after you and to rush forwards without their minds on defence, then actually move into these latter approaching opponents so you engage them before they're expecting it and hopefully can time your strikes to land before they can prepare their own or adjust their defence. The opponents you engage were more likely to rush forwards with a greater focus on offence than a single opponent would be, because they'll be keen to take advantage of any blind-side advantage or chance to attack your back, and they want to reach you before you press an attack against the other side and potentially reduce their numbers and advantage. So, the balance of priorities is different - the thresholds shifted. You will often want to attack very decisively and often while continuing to move through or minimally around the opponent(s) you directly engage, getting to the "outside" of any arc or circle of opponents, then if you retreat and circle you may be able to draw them into a line momentarily so you can attack the closest opponent without any danger from the others, and indeed if you drive that closest opponent backwards it may frustrate the others attempts to get to you. Whether the attack is a punch to the face, a twist of the neck, a joint lock or throw, a stomp on the side of the knee, a headbutt etc. - doesn't matter as much as being able to deliver it while maintaining a favourable overall movement and defensive/offensive capability relative to the nearby opponents. If you have more time holding an opponent in a technique, you need to be able to watch and manoeuvre while doing so. Being able to counter-attack decisively - ideally as an opponent is attempting to hit you, is more important than in one-on-one fighting where a solid counterattack just after defending is often good enough. Techniques that wear the opponent down gradually - like a thigh kick to a well conditioned opponent - are at best buying a moment's time in many-on-one situations, so the emphasis needs to be on attacks that can drop or incapacitate an opponent. It's very important to be able to close the gap while covering the opponents angle of attack and trapping their limbs while leaving yourself an opening for that decisive attack. With one-on-one, it's often practical to sit back and fight defensively, waiting for an opponent to attack or make a mistake, but you have to learn to make things happen for many-on-one fighting.

As with most things, it's hard to develop a realistic practical ability to do this for real if you don't practice something similar regularly... as with all martial arts practice you have to make some compromises to ensure safety, but it'll get you closer than ignoring many-on-one practice.

Why do some styles not practice this, and what aren't there competitions? Well, it's hard to fit into a sports context. Some styles accept they have practical limits to what they're doing, and aren't pursuing total realism, and are comfortable with that (e.g. kyokushin doesn't allow punches to the head, or joint locks, throws or chokes - it's not trying to be totally realistic - just to develop a framework for developing fighting spirit and a few sound techniques that will often be enough in less-demanding real-life scenarios). For competition, you'd need to have a far better fighter against two or more relatively weak or inexperienced opponents to make it close - it's hard to do so without the latter risking getting hurt, even if they overcome the former, and nobody feels like they're getting a great measure of their own level or improvement.

  • hmm. your post got me wondering how "team fights" would look... i.e. 2v2, 3v3, and if such would be possible for competition format.
    – rcheuk
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 19:58
  • 1
    @harmlessdragon: my old school used to practice 2v2, 3v3 - sometimes more - not for competition but just in-class sparring... doing it more competitively is again a bit dangerous - one thing with multi-opponent sparring is that people get hit from all sorts of angles and in places they'd normally protect better given a single opponent in a known position, with less chance that they're vaguely prepared for it, and often in the middle of their own movement or attack, so injuries happen very easily. Still, it's more credible than 1-vs-many competitions.
    – Tony D
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 2:41
  • Yes, I agree that any combination more than 1v1 would be difficult in a competition format. If it ever were to happen, it would have to be heavily regulated. Though...I suppose it's a situation the military deals with. They just use different weapons. But some of the strategies involved would probably be similar. I was just thinking out loud. I don't really see such a competition format arising because it would be difficult to regulate. Like any competition where safety is concerned, I think that would be addressed by certain restrictions. Though it may end up less a fight and more a 'game'.
    – rcheuk
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 14:21

As has already been mentioned, fighting in a group is difficult, since the dynamics are different in comparison to a 1:1 fight. I'd like to point out that the multiple-opponent fight also has some challenges for the attacker. Faced with a hostile group, trained to fight in a coordinated, coherent manner is very different from fighting a group of people used to/trained to fight 1:1. I'm not saying that the incoherent group won't evolve into tactics that enable them to overpower you, but your chances are somewhat different.

Also mentioned is situational awareness, which I'd like to pose a theories on;

In a one-opponent sparring match/fight, you can (in theory) focus only on your opponent. But in a multiple-opponent match you have to be aware (at least peripherally) of where your opponents are situated. We call it "Zanshin". i know that this is not a direct answer to your question, but my suggestion is that there is a mindset which you have to adapt, which is easily overlooked if you "blind" yourself to your surroundings when fighting/sparring

Have a look at this youtube video, where some MMa fighters are outnumbered by trained marines teaming up on them...


The first time I did (Aikido) randori and had three people charge me from across the mats was a particularly eye opening experience. Some of the lessons learned fairly quickly during those drills were:

  1. Watch the lines of attack. You have to keep track of where everyone is going and at what angle they can attack you from (hopefully not from behind)

  2. Stay mobile. The ideal is to be moving in a such a way to have the attackers blocking each other. However you need to keep moving in order to have that happen.

  3. Favor techniques that allow to engage or disengage quickly. Any techniques that will put one of the attackers on the ground and/or in the way of the other attackers is to be encouraged. You may not have time to pin.

  • 2
    Haha, I do enjoy (Aikido) randoris...and agree with all your points.
    – rcheuk
    Commented Jul 18, 2015 at 15:31

An unexpected benefit of many-on-one fighting exercises is that it teaches you to remain alert to your surroundings and teaches you to recognise where the openings in your defense are. You may never realise that your back is a giant juicy target if you only ever spar against one other opponent. But when facing more than one opponent, you learn to guard yourself better.

Another benefit from learning to be aware of your surroundings is that it also flows into competition sparring where you are more used to keeping an eye on the out-of-bounds line. There's no point in scoring 10 points with the most amazing combos ever if you're outside the "ring" at the time and none of them count.

In short, many-on-one sparring teaches you to protect things that you normally wouldn't even be conscious of and forces you to look at the big(ger) picture. It's not the only thing it teaches you, but those are probably the most practically useful benefits.

  • upvote for the relation to competition out-of-bounds
    – rcheuk
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 19:54

Fighting multiple attackers is always bad, so I need to point a few things out. First of all, in a real world fight, u are going to have a lot of people coming at you at once, so u need to train in how to throw strikes so that the strikes (punches, kicks etc) have the maximum effect on the maximum amount of people. Otherwise, you will get your butt kicked.

  • 4
    Maybe you could elaborate on how you throw strikes so that they have the maximum effect on the maximum amount of people?
    – Tussles
    Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 2:11
  • As far as I knew, the maximum amount of a people a single strike could affect was one person per strike. Unless you're talking about knocking people into other people? Which is a good idea, but hardly reliable. Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 20:47

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