I want to enroll in a martial arts school in my neighbourhood. The lessons are given by a shaolin monk and the few lessons I followed were really intense and interesting. When I asked if we were going to do sparring exercises, I was told that we were only going to practice on punching bags.

The reasons for this are:

  • sparring is considered 'playing'
  • Kung fu doesn't focus on fighting, but tries to avoid a fight. Only when no other option is available a 'fighter' finishes it with one blow.

These are reasons that I think are valid, but still it seems strange to me, because if you never 'practice a fight', how can you be prepared?

So my question is, can you effectively learn Kung Fu without sparring?

I want to stress that I don't want to learn it to 'kick ass', but that I do want to be able to defend myself when (if ever) needed.

  • If you listen to any of the athletic performance arts none of their answers will Work later on in your old age. So listen to them now only understand you are back to nothing when you reach 88 or older. What the youngsters are saying is that Martial arts is a hoax when you are not in top athletic shape.
    – Logikal
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 23:19

23 Answers 23


Your question isn't what you are really asking. Your question is "Can I learn Kung Fu without sparring", and that answer is yes. Sparring is not 100% necessary to learn any art. You can learn all the kicks, punches, blocks, stances and so forth without ever facing anything more than a heavy bag or possibly a human holding a pad/shield.

What you really want to know is "If I learn without sparring, can I defend myself?", and that answer is maybe. You can be proficient in every technique, have lightning reflexes, and fall apart the first time someone punches/kicks you and you feel the pain of it.

On the other hand, you may be a natural fighter, and that doesn't phase you. You can then apply what you have learned, and come out ahead in the fight.

It is also (very) possible that no, you don't spar at this point. Many styles reserve sparring for higher colored belts, as you develop better control and are less likely to accidentally injure someone. Even so, those same styles often have 1 to 5 step "sparring segments" that you practice with a partner.

Sparring is an effective learning technique, and I think makes you better able to defend yourself. However, you may be able to defend yourself quite capably without ever sparring someone in class. I would much prefer to teach my students sparring than not, but if you really like Kung Fu, then I would talk with your instructor about your concerns.

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    +1 I often use the analogy of learning to fight without fighting someone is like trying to learn how to swim without getting in water. It will be a horrific experience if you get into a real fight - it will feel like being dumped in water for the first time! (Or to quote Bruce Lee "Boards don't hit back" :) )
    – Matt
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 15:23

Can anyone learn martial arts techniques without sparring?

Sure! I mean, you can learn that they exist.

Can you learn how to effectively apply martial arts techniques without sparring?

Oh, no. Gosh no. No, no, no. Nope.

Sparring is how we turn things we know of into things we know how. Until you can do it in sparring it's all a bunch of theory. Not sparring is the real playing: playing pretend.

I mean, I wouldn't teach someone to swim without getting them in the water. I certainly wouldn't trust them in the ocean until they've swam for real. Or try this: tell a pro boxer that sparring is "playing" and then ask to spar.


I had a Trig professor in college who asked us on day one, "What do math and sex have in common?" The answer was, "You cannot learn them through reading about them in books, and you cannot learn them through watching other people do it. You can only learn them through participation."

Martial arts is so varied that one has to first ask, "What do you want to learn or do with martial arts?" Collect trophies, become fit or flexible, discipline, confidence, learn to fight, etc.

Sparring might be essential if one wants to compete, but sparring in a tournament can be very different from the sparring one does when training to fight. I daresay that MMA fighters spar quite differently than most. Sparring can also boost one's discipline and confidence.


It is the same as asking if you can learn a language without having conversations with real people. In a sense, yes, you can learn to read and write that language from books and instruction. But you'll be in for a heck of a big surprise if dropped into a city where people speak that language for real -- everybody will talk so much faster than you imagined when simply reading books, and your accent will be so bad they won't understand you, either.


I think a good analogy is that sparring is to martial arts training as internships/work placement is to job-focused education, in that it gives you a taste of what the "real world" is like. You can learn a lot hitting a bag (just like you can learn a lot in school), but ultimately there is only so much that you can learn there compared to sparring with a thinking opponent (or compared to dealing with office politics or problems with no clear answer).



Are you learning to throw punches and kicks, or are you learning to fight? You always need to spare with someone to learn how to fight. How could a boxer be a champion if he never boxed with anyone?

Martial arts is not just about throwing punches and kicks, it's also about quickly adapting to your opponents move and style. If you never sparred with anyone, you will never know how people fight.


I think that the key to finding an answer (as is often the case) lies within formulating properly the question. Learning "kung fu" by itself is difficult to define, since basically kung fu means simply being highly skilled in something (as compared to wushu which is the actual fighting training).

But, to get closer to your question, how do you actually define "sparring"? This is not a so easy tasks as it would seem at first glance.

Here are just a few example of "sparring" that are used in certain contexts:

a) Simply a pre-arrange practice of certain patterns with a partner (no "free sparring")

b) Free (within rules) full-contact fight

c) Free (within rules) fight with only light contact

d) Free (with no rules) fight with only light contact (hopefully!)

e) Role-play sparring (i.e. one plays the role of the attacker, while the other is only practising how to dodge or block)

So, to answer it is important to define what you exactly mean with sparring, and how your teacher is exactly going to train you and how not. All the different example I made may provide different outcomes, even the most "similar". For instance, b) and c) would seem similar - and probably are what most people define as sparring - but, in my opinion, are very different kind of training. Practising full-contact (or anyway using a lot of power) will probably allow you for much less technical and strategical development, but might "toughen" you by making you accustomed with being hit. You might also consider that your self-confidence (which is an important predictor of the outcomes of a possible fight) might be better developed by using other forms of "sparring" (or even other forms of training altogether)

Other considerations are needed as well. If you want to "protect" yourself and others there are other factors beyond the mere "fighting skill". It has been shown that, regardless of sparring, martial arts training can make you a less likely victim by making you more confident (implying an aggression is probably an act of cowardice), or by being able to deal better with a potentially aggressive situation (without an actual fight happening). This is best learned through "traditional" martial arts styles of training as compared to "modern" competition and sparring focused training.

Also, what are the techniques you are actually using? If you are going to rely on strong punching and kicking, you can learn that quite effectively without most of "sparring". If your preferred style is going to rely on skills like dodging and evasive moves, timing and distancing will play a crucial role, and it will be complicated to learn those without an actual practice.

You must also consider what are you training for and what kind of skills you will learn by sparring. I mean that difficulty you will spar in a way that actually resembles a real street fight. But, again, maybe that would be exactly how you plan your "sparring" session (do you "point fight", or put on all the protections and mimic a full-blown aggression to vital points as well?), so we are back to the definition of what you actually mean by sparring.

As a conclusion, in my opinion some sparring is beneficial (and I generally have my students practice some form of sparring in any martial arts class, compatibly with their goals and skills). I usually try to mix in different form of "sparring" (I personally find role-playing highly useful). That said, many effective alternatives can be found to probably most of "sparring" (visualization, conditioning, psychological change). In the end, it depends on what you actually want to do (what is your final goal), and what you are actually doing (what kind of training are you doing, and what kind of techniques, and so on). I am aware that this answer is not really... an answer! But I hope it will be useful to you by giving you some deeper insight in the concepts you are thinking about!


If you want to learn Kung Fu, you probably want listen to the Shaolin Monk.

If you want to learn how to defend yourself, you'll need to know how to fight, and you need sparring to do so. Sparring practices staying calm and collected in a intense situation. Plus it's fun.

As to whether or not Kung Fu is an effective form of defence, that's another topic.

These are reasons that I think are valid, but still it seems strange to me, because if you never 'practice a fight', how can you be prepared?

You can't. Just like with any other skill, if you want to get good at something you've got to practice it. This is from shaolin.org

"Anyone, master or novice, who has never learnt to spar, will be unable to spar or fight effectively"

Take care and have fun!


Can you learn to play tennis without actually playing tennis?


The short answer, is you will learn a martial art, but will be unable to fight effectively. This is based on personal experience and backed up by a few authors.

This is based on the fact I learned more from boxing and judo (both full contact arts that focused on getting in front of another person) in a few months than I did from 10 years of Karate (and that was with a lot of light contact sparring).

In saying that, there is nothing wrong with continuing with your current practice, but if you do wish to gain experience in what it's like to stand toe to toe with different people, I suggest that boxing and judo are a great place to gain this experience. They are cheap, normally have clubs in every town and are an excellent way to learn timing and what it feels like to get hit. Alternatively, you could pressure test your current skills - Perhaps read "Animal Day" by Geoff Thompson. This is a book about pressure testing the Martial Arts (this means you can figure out what your current techniques will do in a simulated 'real' fight). This can be dangerous so you need to take care and make sure you follow the instructions in the book carefully to build up to "Animal day"

Finally, and as an aside, I found that boxing (at an amateur level anyway) and judo are actually safer than other Martial Arts I tried because they were full contact. This sounds counter intuitive, but I got knocked out in semi contact a few times because we were using very light pads on hard floors and you were trusting the other person to have "control" - which took me years to figure out that it was complete stupidity! we would constantly be told 'control' 'control' which is great, as for 10 years, I learned how to not really hit someone!!!

I did also do some semi contact kickboxing later on, and this was a little better as instead of 'control' it was more about not putting full power in, so you were still expected to hit each other, but as you had better protection it was okay.


I think the previous answers are correct and well thought out.

However, I think the answer is really No on all counts a Martial art is just that if you don't use it as intended you don't really know it. You have to use it in a real world way.

There are many levels of knowledge really, yes you can learn the mechanics of a technique but to break through to real understanding you have to have experience it as it was intended to be used. sparring itself is a basic tool compared to contest, for example.

Also some martial arts require that your technique is sensitive to the situation. i.e the distance you move the amount of force you use the physical space you may find yourself in to execute technique. without real world experience you cannot really know the technique nor explore beyond technique and understand it in context of a martial way for self development and purification.

unfortunately the world is not the matrix...cause I'd love to learn kung fu if i could down load it...


Sparring is not required to be good at Martial Arts, but it can be useful. Sparring offers the ability to see patterns in someone's movement, their punches, and their kicks. Doing that you can see how different people move in different ways. With that you can understand how the human body works and know what someone might do right after that hook kick. It is also a good way to test a new kick or punch you learned, and see how well it works.

Basically, you learn martial arts better through sparring.


No, you can learn the form... But not the applications... In martial arts one of the aspects for complete understanding of art is put in practice what you learned... Is like you try learn to swim without jump to water.


Depending on what style of "kung fu" you want to learn, this may be possible to some extent (at least you might be able to land a surprise punch and run, which isn't the worst survival strategy to be honest), but in some styles it will be outright impossible. For example, in Wing Tsun, being able to apply the Chi Sao ("sticky hands") is one of the most important things, if not the one important thing.

You can kind of train that on the wooden man... somehow, but not really. You do really need another person to get the "correct wiring" for that into your cerebellum. Properly applied Chi Sao defeats the strongest opponent, regardless of what technique he may use. Without proper Chi Sao, the physically stronger person wins.

Someone who isn't physically stronger is unlikely to attack you (unless they're on dope), so if the goal is being able to defend yourself, you must be able to defend against a stronger opponent.


First of all, what do you mean by "learning martial arts"? What level of mastery are you hoping to achieve?

Let me put it this way, if you train with a punching bag for 10 years and learn all the techniques, then can you defend yourself against someone your size on the street? YES, of course? Mathematically speaking, someone will practiced on a punching bag for 3 days > someone who didn't practice at all (all other attribute being equal, of course).

So, the real answer, and the only correct answer is YES. You will "eventually" learn sufficient Martial Arts to defend yourself against the average attacker.

Learning Martial Arts is similar to learning anything in school. What kind of student were you in school? There are exceptional bright people who can read the text book 2 hours before the exam without doing any lab or practice any math problems or even went to class and they can get more than 90% with minimum effort; on the other hand, you have your studied all year around, barely maintain B average students.

What is practice? Think about it for a second... Is it magic to make you stronger? No. What practice is simply encountering situations you do not commonly encounter in the Dojo. What if someone does THIS in a real fight instead of what you expect? Theoretically speaking with enough foresight and intelligence, you can simply know what to do without have to try it and fail a few times. Practice is great because the average human has 100 IQ are generally can't learn fast enough or understand theory thoroughly enough.


I'll answer indirectly. Currently I'm with school. And in WTF there are 2 streams - sport and martial art. Sport concentrates on physical application of the knowledge, while art is developing that knowledge through patterns and other exercises. You are free to pursue either stream (or both) but in either case you're student.

I do not believe that pursuing "martial art" stream makes you any less of a practitioner vs "sport" stream. Going through patterns and drills your body still develops agility and other attributes that specific discipline demands, you only lack "fighting experience" in the end which in fact is not a something most martial arts advocate - all of them mainly focus on avoidance of the conflict and are not designed to be an "offence" weapon. Thus "fighting" comes secondary in most cases (I know that for and that is definitely the case.


I read all of the answers posted and they all are informative. If you would permit me, I would just like to contribute an answer based on my own life's experience.

I learned martial arts without sparring really, because I had an injured hip (permanently, bone crumbling after 1968 motorcycle accident).

I listened to my teacher, a blackbelt in kyokushin (yes, that is a hard contact fighting school, so he was allowing me some privilege), who told me that it took about 10,000 repetitions to learn a kata well. I looked at studies of motor learning also and the whole concept of precise repetition seemed very valuable. So I trained rigorously daily for years, all blocks and strikes, strike training on heavy bag, running for aerobics, occasional speed bag just for check on hand eye coordination, all toning work with and without weights designed around the target strikes (for example, pushups on fists, vary stance, sometimes palm heel, etc.), hand weights and ankle weights in full speed motion practice at times to ramp up speed.

Long story short, I ended up in only a handful of fights (real fights not in the dojo) and they were over quickly, either my frustrating an attacker to the point they made a mistake (by easily blocking all strikes), or by a hard strike that tko or ko'd. Once I was pinned against a wall by a monster who outweighed me by 150 lbs and towered over me, but I still avoided the incoming ham hands with head movement and ended up being pulled off of him, punching him in the head (I did lose some blood from superficial head cuts, but it didn't bother me).

Now, if I had encountered someone with good martial arts training they might have chopped me down pretty quick (unless I surprised them with a good strike or joint manipulation).

So, I would say you can learn effective martial arts without full contact sparring, but not at a level sufficient to compete in your school against high quality martial artists.


Absolutely Not! That is a ridiculous as saying that you can learn to swim without water. Think about it.

But I suppose if one prefers reading about adventure rather than having an adventure, then it might be a good school for them.

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    Hello, welcome to Martial Arts! Please just note if you want to promote or recommend your own product/blog, there are some guidelines in place for doing so. Following them will help you avoid giving the impression that you're spamming. Could you please edit to explicitly state your affiliation? Thanks. (If you're not actually affiliated, it may be worth mentioning that as well.) Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 6:58

When you said ''Shaolin Monk'' I knew the answer you really need to hear.

RUN, do not walk, away from that school. It's as if you said you wanted to go into business with a convicted embezzler... it might work out.

  • And may I ask why? Commented May 9, 2015 at 7:01
  • There are Shaolin monks all over the world. Care to share why you feel they are all frauds?
    – JohnP
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 15:45
  • The question is not about Shaolin monks. Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 10:22

On the shaolin monks: a brief history is that the real Shaolin monastery was disbanded and the teachers took up other professions, such as farming, etc. When Jet Li's break out film on the Shaolin Temple came out (in the 1980s, I think) the Chinese government said, Hm, why don't we re-open the temple as a tourist attraction? And so life followed art, and the temple was re-built, and shaolin teachers were called back. They developed basically two schools, one for demonstration teams that tour around the world, and another as a sort of kickboxing. So if one is claiming to be a shaolin monk nowadays, you must keep in mind that the shaolin temple is not the temple one would imagine, being the same institute unchanged for centuries. Two, you would also need to differentiate whether the 'monk' is a demo guy or a kickboxing guy. Also, the word 'monk' doesn't mean what most assume. Many of the monks were married, others were single and had girlfriends. One funny demo monk was an expert in 'iron crotch.' He attracted the attention of many females fascinated by his demos (his secret is that he could in-draw his testicles, but would still undergo severe 'toughening' of his target area. I don't know if this affected his potency, but it is a case of training to be hit, rather than training to do damage).


Kung fu is about freedom of natural movement and clarity of thought. If you get into a real fight and you start thinking 'i will do kung fu techniques', you will probably be defeated, because while you're busy thinking, your attack will be busy attacking. If on the other hand, through vigorous training, both physical and mental, you move fluidly, appropriately and instinctively, which is what kung fu is about, then the outcome might be more positive for you. Do you need to spar? It definitely has many advantages, but given that kung fu is typically about delivering immense power without effort, to the extent that many moves are lethal, it could be quite difficult to apply it usefully in training with someone you don't really intend in break.


There are people, such as guys who have been in prison 'gladiator schools' with one example: what it takes to knife someone. There is no 'look, here's my knife' and 'now I'm going to attack' .... the knife is hidden until the time to stab. On the other hand, the opposite side of the coin shows you that if you are being attacked with someone with a knife, you don't waste time in 'defending'. One real example from a friend of mine. He was in a third world country, (he's just 5'7" thin, but strong) and attacked by a guy with a knife. My friend caught the knife (he has the scar), killed the guy and cut off his head. Critical note is that he didn't waste much time in 'defending' except for the catching, but in concentrating on killing the guy. And yes, he was overboard in sawing off his head. But he's never had formal training, but he's figured out by now what works. There are people who have never sparred, but would be very deadly in life and death. Some are naturals, and some are semi-naturals who can figure what works for them. Does sparring prepare you for ultimate violence, I think is a critical question, or does it somewhat 'soften' your response ("I'll take the blows and get my own in" may be OK with unarmed, but what about a guy with a weapon? And multiple guys with weapons?")

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    You've given some examples of training without sparring, but I don't think you've offered a clear answer to the question (i.e. can you train effectively without sparring?).
    – Mike P
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 9:57
  • 2
    This is anectdotal crap.
    – JohnP
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 17:13

The answer is YES. Those people who say otherwise will have issues with their weak storyline they are telling you. Those people forgot to tell you that obviously the alleged Martial arts is a con because it won't work for the extreme elderly. This means MMA is B.S. once you are past a point.

The point of self defense is not to be healthy and in tip top shape. Even in the animal kingdom predators only go after the WEAK and not the STRONG and HEALTHY.

The pragmatic people are misusing or do not understand concepts. The idea of self defense is closely related to HOW TO LOSE and without serious injury. That is if a lion and a rabbit fight the rabbit will lose everytime. The best the rabbit can do is to run and escape. A rabbit has no weapons like sharp claws, super kicking power, etc to harm the lion. So this is where how to lose comes in. How do I fight a lion and not get killed? That is what technique is for. Boxers who know how to roll with punches actually get touched but not HURT. Watch boxer James Toney for demonstration. Many martial arts step the direction of the attack to minimize the power of the attack. The art of NOT getting HURT or seriously injured in a fight. This is the point. You will likely lose the fight the longer it goes so escape is usually needed. Throws were invented to project a heavier opponent to make a way to escape. Joint locks were invented to prevent a heavier or stronger opponent from using an arm a certain way. Strikes are of little use to the extremely weak and super elderly. How hard can a 99 year old grandma hit a man 6ft 240 pounds trying to rape her? Strikes without power won't work. Grandma needs to minimize damage immediately. This is what martial arts for self defense ought to focus on. Survive with out serious injury. Falling techniques as in judo or aikido will assist grandma in not getting seriously hurt. Go home safely is another way of saying the purpose of self defense. It is not about killing, injuring, breaking bones, or WINNING a fight.

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