When it comes to developing a complete Muay Thai game, sparring is an essential element of Muay Thai. Sparring not only improves your offensive and defensive timing, it can also build physical and mental toughness.
Different types of sparring work on different aspects of your game. Technical sparring can help you develop your timing and technique, while hard sparring can help prepare you for a fight.
In my last article I talked about the importance of technical sparring for your Muay Thai development. If you haven’t read that article I suggest you read that one first, before continuing on.
This article will cover the importance of Hard Sparring (Yes, hard sparring) in Muay Thai. While technical sparring is ideal for people of all levels, hard sparring is an important part of fight preparation for people who lack experience.
What Is Hard Sparring
Firstly, hard sparring is not an excuse to try and hurt your sparring partner. It does not give you the green light to go wild and try to knock someone out.
Whether you are technical sparring or hard sparring, it is important that you are always in control of your techniques. Every time you strike you should be in a good position after you land your strike. Hay makers and uncontrolled strikes are only going to teach you bad habits and potential hurt your training partners.
Hard sparring involves throwing your strikes that are around 70-80% of your power (your trainer will let you know if you are going too hard). Techniques that can hurt your sparring partners like head kicks and teeps to the face should be thrown with absolute control (not full force). If you are throwing hard punches you should be using heavier sparring gloves (16-18oz) to reduce the impact on your sparring partner.
Body kicks, low kicks, knees to the body (only experienced fighters should throw knees), and body punches can be thrown with more power. This is how you will condition your body to take punches and kicks in preparation for a fight.
Question: Why Don’t Thai Fighters in Thailand Spar Hard?
Short answer: Because they fight every 3-4 weeks and already have lots of ring experience.
If you already have lots of ring experience and are fighting regularly, you don’t need to spar hard. Hard sparring will increase your chance of injury before a fight and will put unnecessary wear and tear on your body.
Thai fighters will clinch and Boxing spar very hard before a fight, but they usually focus on technical sparring when it comes to Muay Thai. This ensures they go into their fight without any nagging injuries.
General Sparring Guidelines:
- Only Spar Hard With A Trainer Supervising – When people go hard in sparring, sometimes tempers can flare and guys can get out of control. Having a trainer watching you spar will ensure that you don’t lose your control as you spar.
- Don’t Throw Hard Kicks/Teeps To The Head – Head kicks can be damaging if you land them flush. You do not want to knock your sparring partner out while you are sparring. When you throw head kicks make sure you stop the kick right before you make impact on your opponent. If your partner is blocking the head kicks then you can kick harder.
- Always Maintain Good Technique/Form (Don’t Go Wild) – If you can’t keep your techniques under control, you shouldn’t be sparring hard. People who are swinging for the fences are only developing bad habits. If you use sloppy tactics against a good fighter, they will exploit your openings.
- Use Sparring Gloves (16-18oz) – To ensure you don’t hurt your sparring partner with your punches, make sure you are using gloves that have enough padding. If you do manage to land a hard shot on your sparring partner, always step back and allow them to recover. The goal is to improve, not hurt your partner.
- Only Spar Hard With Someone Close in Size – If you are sparring a guy who is 45 lbs (20kg) lighter than you, don’t spar hard. Being a lot bigger than someone is an unfair advantage unless there is a big difference in skill between two fighters. If you are working with a lighter sparring partner, turn down your power.
- Spar To The Level Of Your Sparring Partner – If your sparring partner wants to spar soft, go soft. If he wants to try and kill you, then feel free to return the favor. You should only spar as hard as your sparring partner. Let them dictate how hard you want to spar so you avoid being that “guy” who tries to bash everyone.
- Wear Proper Protection – Don’t spar hard without the proper sparring equipment. I’ve seen a guy have his orbital bone broken in sparring because he his opponent was using 10oz gloves and going 100%. When you are sparring hard you need to wear the right protection so you are protected. If you are worried about head injuries you can wear head gear as well.
- Don’t Spar Hard 10 Days Before A Fight – The last thing you need going into a fight is having a sore leg or a bruised rib during your fight. You need to give yourself at least 10 days before a fight so you have time to fully recover. If you are fighting on a regular basis, your focus should be on conditioning and staying healthy, not sparring hard.
Now that we have defined hard sparring and talked about some basic rules to follow, it is important to understand the benefits of hard sparring.
The Benefits of Hard Sparring
The best way for any athlete to prepare for competition is to try and simulate the environment of the competition. This is why tennis players have practice matches that are simulated at game speed and boxers spar 100% when they are preparing for a fight. The closer you can emulate your competitive environment, the better prepared you will be.
By trying to simulate some of the factors you will experience in a real fight, your mind will be more prepared to deal with that environment. If an inexperienced fighter never spars hard leading up to a fight, they will be in shock when they get hit hard for the first time.
Here are 5 specific advantages that are sparring can provide:
#1. It Teaches You The Importance of Defense
When you first start training Muay Thai, the first thing you will learn is to keep your hands up. As you continue to develop, this fundamental principle will be drilled into your brain (hopefully) by your trainers.
While you might understand in “theory” why it is important to keep your hands up, the only way you will really learn the importance of keeping your guard up is by experiencing what happens when you don’t.
Pain is often the best way to learn. If you drop your hands and get hit in the face, your brain will associate pain every time you drop your hands. If you are technical sparring and get hit in the face, there will be very little pain. This means you are more likely to make the same mistake again in the future.
This is a similar to telling a kid not to touch the HOT stove. You can tell the kid all day long not to touch the stove, but the best way for him to learn not to touch the stove is to let him touch the stove. When the kid burns his hand on the stove, he will never touch a hot stove again.
While technical sparring is great for developing your offensive and defensive timing, you will not get any feedback (from pain) when you make a mistake. If your opponent throws a head kick and it lands, it won’t hurt. You might think to yourself, “that would have hurt if he threw it hard,” but you will not learn from actual pain.
Hard sparring solves this problem by giving your direct feedback to your brain every time you get hit. Whenever you get “rocked” or hit hard, you will LEARN the hard way to keep your hands up or risk getting rocked again.
Sometimes the only way to learn to keep your hands up is to get hit hard a few times so you realize the importance of keeping your guard up.
#2. It Builds Toughness
When you spar hard you will hit and be hit. After a good 5+ rounds of sparring hard, your body will be sore the things few days. This will teach you how to take a hard kick or a punch.
When your body is used to taking hard shots, you will start to toughen up over time and be able to take harder and harder shots. This is how some fighters are able to absorb a lot of damage and not look phased in a fight.
After you take enough shots in sparring, you will learn to deal with the pain and won’t let it affect you. If you compare yourself when you first started training Muay Thai to today’s version of you, you will have drastic improvements in your pain tolerance.
#3. It Helps Develop Your Sparring Cardio
If you are not used to sparring you will find yourself gassed out after a few minutes. You can be in the best shape in the world, but sparring conditioning is a different feeling than hitting the bag or pads.
Why is sparring cardio different than hitting pads?
In addition to throwing kicks and punches, sparring requires you to actively defend and attack against a moving opponent. Because there is the increased risk of getting hit, you will have a higher level of stress. The increased stress will increase your heart rate, which will gas you out much faster.
Learning how to control your breathing and pace yourself in sparring will help you be able to last longer and conserve your energy.
#4. Realistic Speed and Faster Timing
While technical sparring is great for developing basic timing, kicks that are thrown faster are much harder to block. If you are only used to seeing slow kicks coming at you, you might have delayed reaction when someone kicks you with full power.
Harder sparring allows you to develop faster reactions on offense and defense, which can improve your overall timing. Being used to a faster pace, will help prepare you for a situation when someone is trying to knock you out.
In addition to seeing faster punches and kicks coming at you, it will also teach you to block properly. When you first get hit with a hard body kick, it may throw you off balance when you block. Being used to absorbing the impact of hard strikes is another skill that hard sparring teaches.
#5. It Prepares You For The Ring
Whenever you are sparring at a higher intensity, you will feel a higher level of stress. One small mistake and you might get hit with a shot that hurts. This will increase your adrenaline levels and will cause your heart rate to increase.
This is as close as most people will come to experiencing what it feels like being inside of the ring. If you can learn to relax when someone is hitting you hard, this can translate to the ring.
Hard sparring will teach you how to manage your stress levels when you have someone hitting you with power. Even if they aren’t trying to knock you out, it will teach you how to relax and maintain calm in the face of danger.
Understanding the Risks of Hard Sparring
One of the side effects of hard sparring is you are far more likely to end up sore the next day. While this can help you condition your body to take strikes, you are also going to take more impact to the head (use sparring gloves and head gear to minimize damage).
For people who only train for fitness reasons, hard sparring is not necessary. Given the increased power behind the strikes, you are more likely to get hurt in hard sparring than any other time in training.
This being said, I have been training for many years and I have only suffered a few minor injuries from hard sparring (nothing serious) and I have sparred with guys who go 110%.
If you have good technique, control, and are comfortable sparring, you will not be phased by a bit of added power from your partner.
You should understand the risk associated with sparring hard, but don’t let it scare you away from hard sparring. There are many benefits that can be gained from hard sparring under the right circumstances.
An Example Of How You Should NOT Spar
The following video showcases how you should NOT spar in Muay Thai. Besides the fact that neither guy is wearing shin pads, the fighter in Blue looks like it is his first sparring session. These guys are sparring to hurt each other, not sparring to improve.
If your sparring session every looks like something in that video, stop sparring and go back to working on your technique.
When Should You Spar Hard?
Now before you go out and try to smash your next sparring partner, it is important to understand that there is a time and a place for everything. Hard sparring is only beneficial if you can spar with control and do not lose your technique.
People who start freaking out and swinging for the fences, should stop right away. Sparring is designed to help you improve and it shouldn’t be a slug fest.
Beginners are often guilty of sparring too hard because they don’t know any better. That is why it is important to have a good coach who can guide you throw the different levels of sparring.
Here are some situations when sparring hard is acceptable
- You are preparing for a fight – If you are preparing for a fight hard sparring is going to be an important part of getting you ready. If you don’t know what it feels like to get hit with a hard kick or punch, you will be in for a shock when you enter the ring.
- You are sparring with someone your level (intermediate/advanced) – Only spar hard with guys who know what they are doing. If you are a beginner and your sparring partner is new, work on improving your technique and don’t use any power.
- You are sparring with a gym bully/douchebag – Sometimes you will run into people who go around beating up on beginners and people who can’t defend themselves. If you encounter a gym bully or someone who picks on other people, feel free to spar hard with him.
- You are sparring a Russian (Someone from Eastern Europe) – From my experience anyone from Russia is going to spar at a hard pace, regardless of who they are up against. If your sparring partner is Russian (Eastern European), expect them to go hard. Usually the Thai trainers will match you up accordingly so you don’t have to spar (fight) these guys if you don’t have experience.
Here are situations when you should NOT spar Hard
- You are a beginner or sparring a beginner (inexperienced partner) – Anytime you are sparring with a beginner you should ALWAYS work on technical sparring. It is important for beginners (people inexperienced) to focus on getting comfortable and improving their timing. Hard sparring will have no benefit to people who don’t have sparring experience.
- You are angry – Sparring is not a place for you to vent your angry and try and hurt people around you. If you ever find yourself angry when you spar you should drop your gloves and take a walk
- You have no control – If you aren’t able to control your technique, then don’t’ spar hard. Being able to know when you can land a hard kick on your opponent, and when you should hold back a strike is important.
- You have a BIG size advantage – If you outweigh your sparring partner by 20-30+ pounds, you should not be sparring hard with that person. There is nothing to be gained from sparring someone who is much bigger and throws with a LOT more power. That is a recipe for getting a concussion/injured
- You are fighting within 10 days – Having adequate rest to make sure you feel 100% is important before a fight. Don’t make the mistake of sparring hard too close before your fight date.
One of the toughest fighters I know is an Australian fighter named Dane Sky. Dane is the type of fighter that looks like he enjoys pain. He can take a massive hit and smile at his opponent right after. In 40 fights against some of the best opponents in his weight class, he has only be dropped once in his career.
What was Dane’s Secret to being so tough?
His trainer would make him spar hard and smash him before every fight.
Dane developed his toughness over the years from his trainer who used to go hard on him whenever he was preparing for a fight. Leading up to every fight his trainer would push him to the point of tears after every training session.
Dane credited this hard sparring/training to helping him develop a level of toughness that he never had when he first started training.
If you plan on fighting, hard sparring can help you prepare for an opponent who is going to be hitting you hard. It will prepare you for the rigors of a fight and condition your body to be hit.
You can often tell how well someone will do in their first Muay Thai fight by how they react in sparring. If someone is flinching and scared of being hit hard in sparring, they will do the same thing in the ring.
Ingraining good sparring habits is important because those habits will carry over to the ring. Being used to taking hard shots will ensure that you are comfortable having someone hit you with power.
Hard sparring is the best way to simulate a fight situation, without being in the ring. Remember, if you can’t spar with good technique or control, focus on technical sparring until you get more experience and improve your overall game.
Need more sparring tips? Check out these other articles below:
- The Importance of Technical Sparring for Muay Thai Development
- 12 Sparring Tips for Muay Thai Beginners
- 10 Types of People You Find Sparring in Thailand
- 5 Muay Thai Sparring Tips That Will Make You Better
Want to Learn More? If you enjoyed reading this article make sure you check out my book called Muay Thai Strategy. There is an entire chapter that is dedicated to sparring and how it will improve your overall game.