Training high impact martial arts while maintaining low injury rate

Image courtesy and Copyright Duncan Grisby 2010

Martial arts are mostly designed and conceived as fighting systems.  Fighting is about hurting other people so it is about delivering intense blows to another person; anybody training realistically risks hurting or getting hurt during sessions.  Some styles like Judo were in fact conceived to reduce the risk of injuries by removing the most dangerous techniques from its ancestor: Ju Jitsu.  Other styles limit the teaching and practicing of dangerous techniques to advanced students or simply avoid full contact training or sparring.  Realistically speaking training with a certain level of contact and impact is necessary for anyone competing at full but also light contact level.

Training “full on” and maintaining a safe training environment creates a dilemma that troubles many martial arts clubs and some of them take one position in the spectrum of the impact vs. safety curve: some on the safe and sometimes unrealistic, particularly for those who want to use martial arts for self defence while others take it to an extreme and have a very high number of injuries some times serious ones.  Kickboxing and many other styles that are practiced wearing pads offer the advantage of covering some of the “weapons” like fists and feet so that they ensure a safer training practice.  In my experience of over 3 decades of training Kickboxing and other martial arts I definitely seen many incidents but, considering that we spend several hours per week kicking and punching each other, often at full power, the number of serious damages is negligible.  In the over 13 years I have been running CARISMA, my club in Cambridge, I can remember very few (3-4) broken noses, a few broken or cracked ribs (less then 10), a couple of swollen feet.  We obviously have the occasional, once per month or less, black eye and regular bruises, mostly on the arms when people receive attacks and block with their guard.  All in all I am sure we are safer than most football or rugby club.

Some Kickboxing clubs spend most of their times hitting focusing mitts and Thai pads; that a great way of practicing power while minimising the risk of injuries.  Personally I am a strong believer in one-2-one training combining attack and defence techniques and combinations that emulate the sparring environment.  I find that pad work is mostly conditioning body and mind to simply face a passive opponent that invites you to hit a target.  The pair training also helps improving defence reflexes together with blocking and parrying skills.

In my experience a proven formula to ensure a safe full contact training environment is to teach people to actively block the attacks they are subject to by using active blocks and parries rather than passively accepting blows on their guard.  This last strategy is taught as the last resource that people should use when in extreme difficulty.  When teaching blocks to beginners we always start from the technique with bare hands to show the exact mechanical movement involved and how to minimize the impact on one’s body while deflecting as much and possible the forces rather than absorbing them onto his/her own body.  Then, when gloves are worn, they add extra safety to the whole situation and further minimise the risk of bruises and scratches.  Many thousand repetitions later all movements become instinctive and automatic and they can work even at full speed and power.  Sparring obviously increases the risk of incidents and injuries but, once more, if students have very clear ideas about precise blocking the whole process becomes as safe as it can be although never 100% incident free.

Another great lesson from Bill Wallace

The combination of Bill Wallace’s words together with some of the scenes makes this video from 1991 a great lesson about martial arts, its phylosophy of training and how we can improve even after many years of training.  I agree completely with these concepts and that’s why I am still training with the same, sometimes more, passion than when I started.  Enjoy and comment please:

Kickboxer – Van Damme

Copyright of its author, all rights reservedLast night I was browsing various TV channels and I bumped into Kickboxer a movie produced in 1989 with the main character played by a young and f it Jean Claude Van Damme.  I remember seeing this movie at the cinema when it was released (yes, I am that old) and I often refer to it when I explain certain techniques, not necessarily for the quality of the scenes but mostly to describe how things should not be done.

The story is pretty simple: Van Damme’s older brother (in the movie) is an undefeated national champion of full contact kickboxing and somebody suggests he should go and change the Thai champion.  He goes and accepts to fight Thai Boxing rules (that obviously allow elbow and knee strikes that he cannot handle) and he gets not only defeated but his back gets broken and has to be on a wheel chair.  Van Damme’s character decides to avenge his brother by learning kickboxing under a famous local master and at end, as it happens in any respectable American production the good wins, the bad gets beaten and humiliated and so on…

My reason to write this post is to point out a few features that suggest watching the movie while a few comments about how the director could have done a better job.

Van Damme has a typical Karate posture and style, with a low (shall I say inexistent?) guard and a very pumped up attitude for single killer punches  rather than good, classical combinations of boxing techniques: he doesn’t (at least in this movie) looks very much of a kickboxer.  At the same time his fitness and technique, at least in performing certain kicks (like at the end of the fight when, out of the ring kicks Tong Po in the face with a perfect side kick and then, with the same leg he kicks round kick in the face of the organiser) is just great.  What is very annoying is the continuous cut and re sampling of scenes that try to amplify the prowess of the various techniques.

In movies people can be kicked and punched for hours without much damage or even running out of breath and this is no different but, ok, perhaps I am a bit too strict on these things.

As a conclusion I can say that this is a decent martial arts movie, if you ignore the awful non combat scenes and plot it shows some good techniques and, as it happened last night, when I bump into it I tend to watch at least some parts of it.

My toughts about Tae Kwon Do

Finding a Tae Kwon Do class is usually very easy, in most places and for this reason I have practiced Tae Kwon Do (TKD) in a number of locations around the world (UK, Indonesia, Antilles, Spain) and I was lucky enough to train several times with some top experts, exchanging, apart from punches and kicks, opinions and ideas about the pros and cons of this art.


TKD is a traditional, striking martial art based on kicks and punches although the focus is mainly on the formers.  By traditional I mean having a structured format for the class, naming techniques in the original language and a strict code of conduct and discipline about addressing the master and interacting with fellow students.  TKD practitioners use a white Gi similar to the use used by other martial art although the top is usually a V-neck shirt rather than a traditional jacket.  Seen from the outside TKD manifest itself with two opponents facing each other and attacking body or the head with either kicks or punches with the aim of scoring or eventually knocking down the opponent.  TKD originated in South Korea where it happens to be the national sport and it is one of the most popular martial arts in the world: it was also the second Eastern martial art to become an Olympic sport after Judo.  TKD is represented in many different styles and it is organised world wide in a number of different associations that all practice styles that are all slightly different from each other.  The two main associations are WTF and ITF.  TKD is also often referred as the Korean Karate: this is a wrong definition because the two arts are substantially different although the original definition of Kara Te (in Japanese translated as empty hand, intending to fight without weapons) can be applied to TKD as well.


Martial arts are usually not invented from scratch but defined by a person that, after studying and practicing other styles, puts together some aspects of those and give to the new art/style a new name, identity, set of rules and etiquette.  TKD followed exactly this route by being a merge of several ancient arts from Korea and the neighbouring countries, with a strong influence from Karate.  The person considered being the father and highly respected founder of TKD was General Choi Hong Hi who was an experienced martial artist from South Korea: he had the opportunity of studying Karate while living in Japan during the Japanese occupation of South Korea and he defined TKD in the late 50es. General Choi also founded ITF in 1966.

What I like about TKD

Practicing TKD develops some of best, fastest and most powerful kicking techniques and if you fight experts of TKD be careful about their legs: that’s where most if not all of their attacks are likely to come from.  TKD training aims at developing a great level of flexibility for the legs and most drills are meant to combine kicks from both the front and rear legs in very fast sequences.  TKD also encourages using many jumping kicks to achieve higher target and, again, allowing attacks from a broader range of angles.  All kicks are practiced at full contact so each strike is very powerful.

What I don’t like about TKD

In my opinion kicks are fantastic weapons and deliver lot of damage: at the same time punches must have a role in a fight because when the distance is too short it’s important to have means of attacking and defending against hand strikes.  The fact that even in Olympic competitions it is allowed to kick the head at full power with but just light contact with punches the whole style develops with rather poor guard. Assuming that kicks will solve all situations most TKD practitioners put little emphasis on a proper guard that protects the head from punches.  Given the level of leg flexibility expected by high kicks, TKD is most suitable for people that are naturally flexible and start training at a young age: in my experience I never met anyone that achieved a decent level of proficiency in TKD when starting in their thirties or forties.  Last by not least: in a self defence situation high kicks are always a dangerous option to go for and they cannot be used when you attacker is already close to you.  Therefore the applicability of TKD in a self defence situation is lower than many other styles available.


I think TKD is an excellent martial art that teaches powerful techniques: I find it incomplete due to poor hand strikes repertoire.  I would suggest it as a good first martial art, particular for children and young people because it instils discipline and respect while I would rule out beginners in their thirties and above for the reasons I explained above.

Stretching for kicks#2

High kicks have an arguable use in self defence although they display excellent athletic performance and look great.  In combat sports, particularly in full contact ones, many people have adopted techniques that limit kicks level to the waist and below.

Bill “superfoot” Wallace retired in the early eighties as undefeated world champion in the middle weight of full contact kickboxing: his combat strategy was always based on fantastic kicking techniques that often caught by surprise his opponents and knock them KO.  Wallace was not just good and superfast in kicking but he could shoot double of triple kicks with a single leg, using these techniques in the same way most boxers faint punching techniques.

In this video he shows some stretching for kicks, one of his legendary training exercises to help improving the central split particularly useful for round, side and hook kick.  Please enjoy the view and leave a comment: