It’s been a while since I wrote a “how-to” guide so here is another one: how to keep your guard up in a fight.
First, a quick explanation: The focus of this guide is combat sports like MMA, muay Thai and boxing. That said, to a degree, you can use the same information for self-defense and traditional martial arts as well. In those, you sometimes have to keep your hands in a specific place, for instance on center-line, chambered at the hip, etc. Some of the ideas I write here will apply there as well, but not all of them. As always, use whatever you can and ignore the rest.
Second, why is it important? Why is there even a need to keep your guard up in a fight? We’ve all seen fighters with low or sloppy guards beat their opponents, right?
True enough, it happens. The most popular example of this is Muhammad Ali, who routinely dropped his hands or just kept them all the way down and still beat his opponents. Here he is in action. Watch the low guard…
Here’s the thing: just because some other fighter can get away with it, doesn’t mean you can.
You’re not Muhammad Ali. Do you have his level of skill? His footwork? His speed? His elusiveness? His experience?
But all these elements are a part of why he didn’t get punished all the time when he didn’t keep his guard up in a fight. However, when he got older and slower, the low guard didn’t work anymore and he started taking beatings in the ring. So no matter how good you are, there comes a time when a sloppy guard will come back to haunt you. The reason why a high guard is important is simple: you get hit more often if you drop your guard, especially if you don’t know you’re dropping it.
As a final point, there are two parts to learning how to keep your guard up in a fight:
- Keep your guard up while you’re in your fighting stance, neither attacking nor defending. This usually means you’re already out of range of your opponent or getting out of range.
- Keeping it up as you do a technique. There are relatively few techniques where you completely drop your hands down from their guard position. When you punch or kick, you typically keep at least one hand high to protect your face. This is also part of keeping your guard up.
Some tips will apply to both aspects, others to just one. Give them all a try and see what works best for you in each case.
Kinds of guards
There are different kinds of guards and they all have their benefits and drawbacks, which I’m not going to debate here. For the purpose of this article, I’ll stick to a basic, versatile on-guard position; hands up, elbows down, close to the body. Here you see Rob Kaman demonstrate it:
This is a pretty standard guard position for ring sports. For MMA, the arms are often more outstretched towards the opponent and for boxing it might also be a little different. But all in all, it’s a good place to start and there are many reasons why this hand position works so well in the ring. If your guard is different from this, that’s fine just as long as you know why you keep your hands at whatever place you want them.
Let’s start on the training tips now.
How to train to keep your guard up in a fight
This is a list of training tips and ideas I’ve used over the last 25 years to teach students how to keep their guard up. Some worked well for certain students but not so much for others. The same applies to you or your students. So you might have to experiment a bit or mix-and-match until you find the one that you can use best.
- Make it a basic rule. The first thing I teach students is the on-guard position. As soon as I get them in it, I tell them the first rule of competitive fighting: everything begins and ends with the on-guard position. This includes keeping your guard up. Then I proceed to show them what happens if they don’t stick to this rule, using the ideas in this list, amongst other things. If you can get a fighter to learn this basic rule from the get-go, it saves time having to correct him on it later.
- Pick up two phones. Some fighters aren’t aware of their hand-position. They don’t have the physical awareness of their body yet to instinctively know what each body part is doing (sounds weird, but it happens a lot) and need some help. I tell them to imagine taking a call on two phones at the same time. I’ve even asked people to take their cellphone and given them mine in the other hand. Then I asked them to pretend there’s a call. Without fault, they all assume a basic on-guard position with their hands high and elbows low. Show them how it looks in the mirror and they’ll have a clear visual to anchor the hand position in their mind.
- Push your fists against your cheeks. This is a little trick that sometimes helps if you keep forgetting to raise your guard: assume your fighting stance, raise your hands but don’t keep them where you normally have them. This time, push your hands or gloves into your cheeks so you actually feel the pressure. You don’t have to tighten up or do this hard, but you need enough pressure to feel they’re there. Then, start training and every time you notice you drop your guard (or your coach tells you), raise your hands and push them back in again.
- Know when your hands are moving and when not. A lot of beginning fighters (but also experienced ones) can’t tell the difference because their hand movement isn’t a conscious act. It just happens automatically. For a couple of training sessions, focus on not moving your hands when you do footwork, when you kick, etc. Then, focus on keeping the back hand stationary as you allow your lead hand to move. Then the opposite. After a while, you’ll have better control of your hands, which will help you keep your guard up in a fight.
- Practice in front of a mirror. Watch how you move, watch how your hands move when you step, punch, kick, etc. As you do that, be conscious of how it feels when you are in a correct guard position and when you aren’t. You need to be able to recognize that you’re dropping your guard by feel alone when you fight.
- Get some punishment for your mistakes. Have a partner tap you in the face every time you drop your guard. It doesn’t have to be a hard hit, just a light tap so you actually feel how you could have been countered by dropping your guard.
- Get a third man to punish you. Work with a partner as before, but now you have a second partner stand to the side and slightly behind you. Each time you drop your hands, he taps you in the face. As he’s standing slightly behind you and you’re focused on the partner in front of you, it’s hard to see his hand come in to tap you. It’s annoying and uncomfortable to know he’s standing there and will hit you when you least expect it, but know that it’s better him than an opponent in the ring or cage. Again, he shouldn’t hit you hard, this is not sparring.
- Emphasize retracting your hands when you punch. Many fighters drop their guard by dropping their striking hand after it lands a shot. Instead of retracting to the on guard position, they drop it down and loop it back up. Often, it doesn’t get back up high enough or it’s just to slow to protect against an incoming counter. Train hard to retract your punch just as fast as you throw it, while simultaneously putting the hand back in its high, guarding position.
- Assisted heavy bag training. Hit the heavy bag as a partner holds it with one hand, a padded escrima stick in his other. If you drop your hands, he hits you with it. Again, not hard, just quickly so he can land the stick through the opening your dropping guard is leaving him. You can also do the same drill with a partner standing to your side and slightly behind you again, just like before. The reason he uses a stick is because it’s quicker for him to reach you, without having to speed up so much he loses control of the impact.
- Pick a spot. If you still have trouble keeping your guard up in a fight after trying all this, here’s one final tip: keep your hands at a specific spot all the time. No hand movement, no feinting, nothing. Just pick a spot to put each hand and keep it there whenever you’re not using that hand to attack or defend. That way, you don’t have to think about it anymore, it becomes a default position through that one reference point . A great example of this is Mauricio “Shogun” Rua‘s guard. For the last several years, he has used a specific on-guard position: his lead hand is extended forward, but his read hand is always high at his temple. Even more, he seems to be using his index finger to the temple as a reference point. You don’t necessarily need tat kind of precision, but if you’re having trouble with your guard, give it a try.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, there are other things you can try to train to keep your guard up in a fight. But these are the tips and ideas I personally have used for decades and they work. It takes practice and effort, but you can get a better guard if you work at it.
When I competed, I usually had a pretty good guard. Simply because I didn’t enjoy being punched and kicked in the face. It sucks. But also because I didn’t want to be that kind of heavyweight: the one who’s all brawn and no brain or technique. I can’t count the number of times this saved me from getting knocked out or having my facial features rearranged into a hideous mess. I’ve seen the same thing with students and other fighters, as well as the price they pay when they don’t keep their guard up. So I believe it’s very much worth it to spend some time on training to keep your guard exactly where you want it.
One last point:
Does this mean you can never drop your hands when you fight?
No, not at all. Hand movement can hide your intent and techniques and set up punches, kicks, takedowns, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong with not being able to keep your guard up when you want or need to. Doing so is a skill, it doesn’t happen by accident. You need to train for it and that’s the whole point of this article.
Good luck with your training!
P.S.: If you liked this guide, check out this page with all my other “How To” guides.
Hugely similar reasoning and ways to practice as in our style of sword training. Point only swords are different, but the concept is the same for Visayan style swords that are used to cut and slice.
Obviously the hand is not held by the ear, but the blade is covering/guarding with the hands and blade retracted back to the body, not held reaching out.
The hands/blade do drop to bait and entice the opponent to enter, and the hands do need to keep moving due to the fact that they are targets, but having a consistent guard makes a great deal of sense when defense matters :-)
I agree. I train Chinese weapons, Jian and Dao mainly, and the position of the guarding hand is somewhat fluid in the on-guard position but pretty detailed when doing techniques. Like you said, it makes a difference. :-)