How to train for MMA

Though this post covers how to train for MMA, it is applicable to all combat sports and to a degree for self-defense. So please keep that in mind as you read the rest.

Before we get into that part, take a look at this video. It features Pat Barry and Coach Greg Nelson, who’s style of teaching I like a lot. Coach Nelson starts talking at 7min40:

Before I get started on the meat of this post, here’s how it came about:

In my Sanshou class, I have a bunch of new students. They’ve only been learning the basic curriculum so far, which includes basic punches, kicks, knee strikes, throws and take downs. The other part they’re learning about is how to train. My lesson plan is such that they learn specific ways of training with their partners so they get the most out of it. This is something they’ll need later on, when they join the more advanced students in class and it’s expected of them to know those things. One of those concepts is knowing the difference between training and fighting.

When you start out, this is usually the most difficult part to understand and watch out for. Simply because you lack the framework to distinguish between both of these. But if you mess things up on that front, you learn the wrong things at the wrong time, resulting in errors that cost you later on. And then you have to re-learn all the basics, which is way harder than learning them the first time. So I pay particular attention to certain errors my students make at that stage of their training. One of these errors is going off-script. Here’s what that means:

The basis of most learning is breaking something down into smaller pieces, make you understand what each piece means and then putting those pieces together again so you understand what the whole means. Training is looking at the pieces. Fighting is looking at all of them together. (I don’t think you can do both at the same time.) This means that when you train, your teacher creates a specific script both you and your partner have to follow. That script describes the roles you have to play and allows you to focus on the specific pieces he wants you to practice. If you don’t stick to the script, then you don’t learn what you should be learning. Or worse, you learn errors.

Case in point:

I was teaching those students to defend against the push kick and they all, without exception, did the classical mistake when learning it: the attackers stopped throwing a correct push kick. They all started pulling the kick, kicking down instead of forward, kicking to the side of the target, etc. They didn’t do this on purpose though, it’s an instinctive reaction because that particular defense pulls you off balance if you kick for real. Regardless the reason, they still went off-script.

In case you’re wondering about that defensive technique, look at the last combo in this old video of mine; I show it in the last combination. In this video, I hold back to avoid injuring my partner as a full-speed defense would launch his head froward as he loses his balance, right into my punch. But you get the idea.

Here’s the thing:

It’s annoying to get thrown off balance like that all the time. You really have to work hard to not fall on your ass and it’s no fun if you do. So a lot of beginners throw a crappy kick instead, one that is inefficient if thrown for real but it’s easier for them to not fall over when they use it.

There are two problems with that:

  • They are ingraining crappy kicking technique.
  • The defense doesn’t work because the kick doesn’t come in as expected. So the defenders start altering their technique to make it work. And then when they spar and a real push kick comes in, their defense doesn’t work either, because the angle is totally different.

So neither one of the partner’s learns anything useful. On the contrary, they’re learning mistakes they will pay for later on. Even after I corrected my students, they still reverted to that mistake after a few minutes. So I had to explain in detail what I just wrote here.

It is instinctive to do this at first but it shows a lack of understanding of the difference between training and fighting:

  • When fighting, you don’t want to fall after a kick. So when you see your opponent going for that defense, it’s OK to try and pull your push kick so you don’t end up on your butt or get countered.
  • In training however, you have to accept that this will happen and throw the push kick correctly. It’s the only way for your partner to learn that defense. It’s also the only way for you to learn how you can try to handle that defense.

The key to getting this right, as I explained to my students, is training at the appropriate speed and power level. This means that you cannot crank it up beyond the point where either you do the kick wrong or your partner can’t handle it anymore. Most of them had to slow down significantly before they kicked correctly again. It was only then that the defender also started ingraining the right defensive technique again. And everybody was back on track to learning and making progress.


After I came home from teaching that class, I saw the Coach Nelson’s video and liked the words of wisdom he offers in it. I wanted to share these with you and give you some comments on them too:

  • Train with somebody who challenges you. Training isn’t fighting. The goal is not to win but to learn. For that, you need somebody who can push you to give it your all. So if you only train with people who aren’t as good as you (because it feels more comfortable than trading blows with somebody who’s better…), you won’t make much progress.
  • If you are better than your partner, don’t try to win. Just because you can beat somebody up in training, doesn’t mean you should. Because neither you, nor your partner learn anything that way. Like Coach Nelson says: despite his skill and experience, Pat Barry didn’t beat up the other students. He just simulated the techniques and held back the power level so he could practice without injuring his partner.
  • Put yourself in a weak position. I routinely leave openings for my students when we spar. Not only to teach them how to spot them but also to force myself to handle situations in which I’m behind the curve. It’s not always fun because I sometimes get tagged hard, but I learn more that way than if I were to simply beat them up all the time. At the same time, I am busy analyzing them and looking for the openings they leave me. Then I pick the most difficult technique I can use to get through that hole. It’s always a challenge for me and it keeps me unpredictable for them: we both learn.
  • No clean breaks. Though there are clean breaks in Sanshou, this isn’t true for MMA. Beginners often forget that and lose their concentration when they land a good shot or get scored upon. Then they drop their hands, walk away, turn their backs, start talking, etc. These are all big mistakes because they teach you to stop fighting when you should still be focused on your opponent. I see this the most when I’m coaching beginners while they’re doing drills: they stop to look at me and listen to what I’m saying instead of listening while continuing with the drill. I then explain to them that if they take their eyes off their partner, he’s allowed to hit them. And if they look at me, then I’m allowed to hit them too. So they suddenly have two opponents instead of one. Usually, this only happens once before they learn to never take their eyes off their partner. By the way, this is one of the key differences between MMA and self-defense: in MMA, you don’t talk when you fight. In self-defense, you need to be able to de-escalate situations, go from verbal Judo to actual fighting and then switch back to talking again (“Call the police!” or “Stay down!” or “Stop fighting me!”) to avoid further violence or to create witnesses.
  • Drill in the cover. One of the most critical errors beginners make is to focus entirely on the punch or kick and forget to cover up while striking. As long as nobody hits them back this isn’t and issue. But as soon as they start sparring and their partner counters, all those holes in their defense are used against them. And by then, it’s too late; they have to go back to square one and re-drill the basics. But this time paying extra attention to tuck the chin in, raise the shoulder, keep the elbow on the ribs, hold the non-striking hand against the cheek, etc.
  • Repetition is the mother of all skill. I couldn’t agree more. The way you get skill in MMA is by relentlessly drilling technique. You train for years on end to ingrain even the smallest details of techniques, training over and over to get everything just right. Not just to have more powerful techniques but more importantly: to keep the highest possible skill level when you get tired or get hurt. Because that’s when you’ll drop down to your true level of skill: when things get tough. When you no longer have the strength or concentration to do the techniques perfectly, what will come out is what you have ingrained. Not what you can do at the best of times, not what you can do when everything goes right. But what you can do when there’s nothing left but the lowest level of your skills. If you train correctly, pursuing that excellence every single session, then that lowest level will still be pretty damn good.

As a parting shot, this little anecdote:

During that class, the beginners were starting to talk a lot. It came to the point where it started to disturb the other students. So I stopped the class and told them about this really good MMA coach named Greg Nelson who has a cool motto for his school: opera non verba. Meaning “deeds, not words.” Some of them look at me funny (guess they didn’t take Latin in school) so I said “less talking, more punching.” and set them back to work. It did the trick.


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