I love sparring but really worried about CTE from repeated head strikes and been thinking a lot about how to reduce risk.

I am trying to just lightly tag partners with head strikes. This is working to some extent - but it does inhibit the speed of my punches as it is hard to punch fast but also pull it with enough accuracy not to cause damage.

I saw a video with Ramsey Dewey where he mentioned that in light contact sparring he adopts an unclenched fist within his gloves for strikes. So these aren't palm strikes or anything - he is literally doing normal hooks and jabs but with an unclenched fist.

This sounds like quite an appealing way of approaching sparring if it is safe. It would automatically inhibit the fighters from hitting too hard - but needs less conscious effort than trying to pull punches at the last second.

What do experts think? Good way to spar? Safe enough for the hands? Likely to help reduce CTE?

Obviously you need to practice proper punching as well - anything on pads or bags you would want to go full force.

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    this is a very tricky area without long and expensive studies. As for pulling punches - practice practice practice - its not about punching slower, its about knowing your distance - being relaxed just allows you to move faster
    – Collett89
    Feb 22, 2019 at 15:03
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    No Andrew - those questions refer to CTE in martial arts. I am very engaged with that question - but here i am asking very specifically about using unclenched fists in sparring... how safe it is for the strikers hands and how helpful it may be to reduce trauma. I don't want the thread to get sidetracked on other CTE issues about head gear / how frequent it is etc.
    – doccy
    Feb 22, 2019 at 16:14
  • Ok, fair enough, comment deleted.
    – Andrew Jay
    Feb 22, 2019 at 20:20

1 Answer 1


Deliberately avoiding CTE issue - I will let someone else find/do the studies

Looking at your own sparring - learn your distance!

If you are sparring light/touch contact then yes you need to control techniques (not just to the head). This does not mean attacking slower - you want to still move at full speed - just retract the hand/foot at the point of impact.

Practice your techniques to a target - keep them full speed - but edge yourself closer over time - start so that your technique finishes an inch or so away - then 1cm - then 5mm - then touching (but not hurting you or the target).

This is important for all aspects of striking martial arts - training safely in sparring / making decent contact on the bags/pads without pushing them (you can push me all day - a good strike will kill me). Self defence - its the technique that you are practising on the pads - or the technique you use in sparring but an inch or two closer - those techniques should be the same (otherwise why practise something on the pad at all?).

unclenched fists

You will hurt your hands if you strike like this - but being relaxed through the movement will allow you to move faster - tighten up on the finish to form a weapon (and to protect your hand from damage). In light/touch contact sparring it is fine to not clench at all - you aren't aiming to hit hard - but its a bad habit if you are doing the MA for self defence - so that is up to you

  • Thanks, great comment. I know i have a lot of work to do on pulling my punches better - this will come with experience. I am specifically wondering here if adopting an unclenched fist policy for light sparring will be safe for my hands and safer for my opponents.
    – doccy
    Feb 22, 2019 at 16:43
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    Not clinching your fist in light sparring practice is actually pretty common in boxing and MMA. The gloves they use protect your hands enough without having to form a solid fist. There's not a lot of examples where boxers didn't clinch their fists when they needed to in a real fight, so it's hard to argue this creates a bad habit. On the contrary, it allows you to practice more safely. You and your partner get injured less, so you have more time to train. This is actually a big concern in MMA, where going heavy used to be standard practice. People got worse, so now the tide is turning on that. Feb 22, 2019 at 19:10

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