I’ve written a lot about self-defense lately and apparently, this has given the impression to people that I either have something against combat sports (MMA, muay thai, etc.) and don’t train in them myself. Neither of those two statements is correct, on the contrary. I love combat sports, they’re great. I also competed in them when I was younger and still teach them in my classes and to private students. Given the feedback I received, I thought it might be fun to show some of the things I teach to students.
So here’s a basic striking drill for stand-up fighting. Take a look first and then I’ll explain the reasons behind it.
First, a couple of things I have to mention:
- We shot this video on my cellphone, near the end of class. The video quality is OK but not awesome, given that my cellphone isn’t a full-fledged camera. It’s all one take and there’s no editing. That’s also why you see the mistakes I and my student made (he was a little thrown by suddenly having to perform for the camera.) I chose to keep them in there instead of starting over until we did it all exactly right. That way I can point them out to you, because learning to correct the mistakes is an essential part of the drill.
- There should be more footwork. Typically, we move around a lot more when we practice this drill. Doing so would have made it more difficult to shoot the video and we’d also lose the best background we have in the gym. The yellow curtains aren’t great, but they sure are better than a dark brown one or one with lots of visual noise all over the place.
- We don’t do the drill at full speed or power. We reserve that for when we work on the pads. I’ve found that students get injured if I let them cut loose during the drills. So we hold back a little and focus on other things like timing, distancing, technique, etc.
- I’m still nursing a bunch of injuries and am not allowed to do certain things. As a result, the drill isn’t as smooth as it could be. I also have to adapt it a bit to make it work. This is most visible when I throw a right punch: I should be turning into it more. Right now, I can’t do that so I have to pull that punch a bit. But you shouldn’t. The same goes for my arm position in my on-guard stance, the way I block, the way I turn my hips into a kick. There are a bunch of things I should do differently, but right now, I’d only injure myself more by doing them.
- It doesn’t matter how I do each technique. It’s not about punching or kicking in an MMA or muay Thai way. If you do a lead hook or any other technique in a different way, by all means keep doing so. I have reasons for each of my technical choices and you might have other reasons for them. For instance, in the basic version of this drill we don’t drop our weight in the overhand right. I teach level changes later on in a student’s development because otherwise they don’t learn stability first. I also found it slows down a student’s progress in developing the ability to throw fluid/fast combinations if I let him lean or drop his weight from the get go.
What’s in in the drill?
Let’s take a look at the different components now:
- The entry. You have to start out of reach and then step in with the jab, followed by a cross and lead hook.
- The first counter. The partner fires a lead hook as soon as he blocks yours. You block that one and counter with another lead hook followed by an overhand punch (short, medium or long, depending on circumstances).
- The second counter. The partner throws a right hook and you counter with one of your own, followed by a lead uppercut.
- The exit. Immediately after the last technique, you step away to break the distance and deny him another opportunity to attack you.
That’s the basic drill I teach for stand-up fighting. I start off each new student with it, the very first time they come to class. Obviously, they don’t get it right away so we do it in a progressive way:
- First I teach them the fighting stance and basic footwork.
- Then they learn to step in and out with a jab.
- Then they add the right cross.
- Etc. until the exit.
This is highly demanding if they haven’t practiced any martial arts before, but it works well enough if you build it up slowly. There are reasons for the efectiveness of this approach and I’ll get to that later.
The drill with just the punches and counter-punches is the first step. Students have to be proficient with it before we add the variations. There are four basic variations that simply consist of adding a technique at the end of part 2 and 3. After the second punch in that part, the students can do a knee, leg kick, body kick or take down (this last one isn’t shown in the video.) At first, they aren’t allowed to chose the side of that technique. It has to be the side opposite of the last punch (asymmetrical) that they kick or step with. Later on they can do the same side (symmetrical).
A couple of points on those variations:
- You need to make it work. The student has to manage the distance so he is always placed correctly for his next technique. If he messes up, he needs to use footwork or adapt his technique (shorten or lengthen it, change the angle, etc.) to make it work. The goal is to not stop striking until you’re done. If somebody makes a mistake, we try to keep going until the end. That doesn’t always work out, but we try. That way, you teach yourself not to freeze when you mess up in a fight.
- The defender can also make it work. The person defending and countering with single hooks can change the distance on the attacker. We don’t show it in this video to avoid stepping out of the frame, but you can and should practice this. When the defender changes the distance and/or angle after his counter hook, the attacker needs to adjust on the fly. He needs to either shorten/lengthen his technique or use footwork to land decent shots.
- It’s a skill, not a technique. “Making it work”, as described in the previous two bullets, is not a single technique. Meaning, it’s not just one thing you have to do. It’s a truckload of tweaks you need to be able to pull off on the fly if you want to have a decent stand-up fighting game. Doing those tweaks in fractions of seconds is a skill. It takes deliberate practice. That’s why I have my students work against a more or less stationary partner at first, but as soon as possible, the defender starts moving and changing the distance or I add other variations to the drill to make it more difficult. Only then can they learn the skill of adapting techniques on the fly.
- The drill is almost entirely asymmetrical. Every movement is followed by a movement from the opposite side: left jab, right cross, left hook, right block, left hook, etc. This ingrains basic rotational body mechanics to generate solid power in each technique. Only when they can do this correctly are the students allowed to add symmetrical movements in some of the other variations. If you want more information on this and how to train it, check out my Power/Control video.
- The additional techniques don’t matter. I could have added other techniques in the basic variations than those knees and kicks. They aren’t right or wrong per se, they are just my personal preference at this stage of a students development. The knee is for close range, the leg kick for medium range, the body kick for long range and the take down for grappling. I want my students to practice all ranges from those counter punches, which is why I chose those specific techniques as variations.
There are tons of other variations to this basic drill, ones that challenge even advanced students. There is also no end to them: you can keep on finding new ways to add difficulty or focus on a specific aspect of stand-up fighting. There is however a point of diminishing returns, so I usually don’t make too many changes all at ones. What’s more, this is only the first drill I teach. There are 2 other basic ones, not counting the “advanced” ones.
Why does this work?
Stand-up fighting is a complex activity. Doing so effectively is even more difficult. It requires an integration of many physical and psychological components. One of the things these kind of drills can do is introduce students to those components and ingrain best practices. Even more, the drills I use are designed to teach certain things without the student realizing it. It’s only when I point those specifics out to them that they realize it.
Repetition is the key to skill in any activity but it’s not just any kind of repetition: mindlessly doing reps of techniques won’t help you increase your skill. Instead, what you need is concentrated, mentally focused training. The drill has a format that doesn’t allow you anything else. If you aren’t focused enough, you get hit. It’s as simple as that.
For beginners, this is a big deal. If they haven’t fought before, their amygdala will go nuts when a punch flies at their face. Then they jerk their heads back, flail around with their arms and basically do things on instinct that leave them wide open for another attack. By learning the drill one step at a time and slowly increasing the tempo, they become desensitized to the stimulus of that punch racing towards their nose. They learn to handle it with proper technique and by the time they are allowed to speed up, they no longer panic.
The key in making this process work is triggering the higher brain functions during the drill. That’s why the drill is relatively long and at first glance, complex. That’s also why the variations are first done asymmetrical and in a specific sequence when practiced one after the other. I sometimes even sing a Marine Corps cadence while doing the drill (not at that beat though, it’s too slow… :-) ) for added difficulty, which sounds easy enough until you try it.
The drill is also a multipurpose one. There are many aspects that you ingrain with it, all at once:
- Basic footwork: Moving in and out of range with ease.
- Distancing: Recognizing and managing when you are in reach. That’s why the jab is always done with a step forward and the exit needs to be footwork.
- Ingrain basic technique. The students drill the basic punches and kicks thousands of times in the space of a few months of training. I’ve noticed a much accelerated learning process compared to other methods.
- Recognizing ranges. You start by moving into range as the attacker. Then you work at medium range, only to end the drill at close range before you move out again. So you learn to recognize and work in all the ranges of stand-up fighting in a progressive manner, switching form one to the other as necessary.
- Defense in tandem with offense. In the video, you see my student drop his hands a few times when he punches. When I notice that, I just go stand beside him as he does the drill with another student and tap him on the face each time so he knows and feels when he drops his guard.
- Expect resistance. Beginners often overreach when they strike. In this drill they get punished for it because the partner is ready to throw the hook each time. If you lean too far forward, drop your hands or are of balance, it becomes very hard to avoid getting hit. The problem is usually self-correcting…
- Deal with pressure. This is mostly for the defender in the drill; he has to parry and block everything. There’s a lot of pressure on him by the constant attacks but he has to stay cool and defend well.
- Countering and re-countering. Taking back the initiative when somebody gets the first shot(s) in is difficult to get right. The drill teaches this to both the attacker and the defender.
There’s a lot more to it than this but I think you get the point: it’s not just about punching and kicking. That said, you only get all these benefits when you do the drill correctly and not just throw whatever you feel like, in the way you feel like. Which brings us back to intense concentration and focus.
Also, the drill isn’t meant to force you into throwing the exact same sequence all the time when you spar or fight. Once you are competent at it, you have to break out of the drill and learn to use its components when you spar or compete. To do that, I pick components form the drill and then show variations on those components or how to use them in a different context (as an attack instead of a counter, at a different range, with additional techniques, etc.) This makes it all come alive and teaches how to apply it in a free, spontaneous manner. This type of training is perhaps more important than the drill itself.
If you want to do something new in your stand-up fighting training, give this drill a try. With a little bit of effort, you might end up surprised at the results it yields.