Resistance Training and Sparring in Self-Defense

Sparring is elemental part of any self-defense training. It divides opinions both in form and methodology. Sparring or resistance training in general might be scary and usually it is. This might make it unpleasant and that’s why some leave it be. This doesn’t need to be so. In this blog, I will discuss the resistance training and sparring and share some ideas on how to take these to everyday training safely, while building the fighter character and form.

Why not to do sparring..

” Oh, we don’t do sparring because the techniques are deadly…”. This is an often-heard phrase from some self -defense methods and styles as to why they don’t do resistance training aka sparring. For a fact, there is no self -defense or combat sport nor martial arts that doesn’t have “deadly techniques”. The real question is: what kind of sparring or resistance training we should have and how to implement it to training as to see how we can implement them to real-life scenarios.

Why we need “sparring”

If we are training self- defense, we’ll have to understand the dynamics of violence. In the physical aspect of violence, there is the rhythm, timing, power, and speed coming together in the form of an intention to do us bodily harm. In the psychological aspect there is an overwhelming amount of stress, fear, aggression, loss of fine motor-skills, tunnel vision, yelling, shouting etc. giving us a great deal of emotions. Nothing is neat, clean, and clinical. Should we survive all this, the third key part of violent encounters is the aftermath. This is at least psychological but may also be physical and legal. Dealing with all of this is a skill and it needs to be trained as a skill: deliberately and specifically, so that once all the aspects have been covered repeatedly, we’ll have what it takes to survive the situations.

Sparring isn’t only for the physical capabilities, we also need sparring for psychological training needs. As one my mentors, coach Tony Blauer puts it: If you’re not scared even just a little bit in self-defense training, you haven’t really trained referring to the individuals ability to cope with fear. With sparring, aka resistance training, we are also “vaccinating” ourselves and trainees against violent encounters, term another great man, Lt.Col. Dave Grossman introduced to me in one of his seminars some 20 years ago. Knowing all this, it is not a question whether we need sparring but how do we define sparring and take it to our everyday training.

What we mean by “sparring”

Before we’ll go off beating people and ourselves senseless, we do have to define what we mean by” sparring”. Is it like boxing or kick boxing or MMA? Or is it like grappling and so? Have you not sparred if there are no bruises and missing teeth? Or is it something that is to be gradually introduced to us? Like in everything we study and learn, there are many ways to get the know-how.

During the years, I’ve come to conclusion that sparring is dynamic contact training where neither one, or anyone (in context of several attackers), knows the exact end result. The dynamic contact approach opens a much larger variety of sparring exercises than narrowing it down to just, perhaps more traditional perspective of, one-on-one boxing-type of drills. Let’s look at various approaches to educating and training sparring.

Directly to the deep end of pool - approach

Back in the day when I was taking my first steps to the martial arts and self -defense, it was very common that at first, we trained the technique and in the end of the training it was:” Put the gloves on and let’s go”. Well, that very seldom led to a success since the technique wasn’t trained in resistance/sparring mode and rhythm. The rhythm was different. Instead of typical 1-2 (e.g punch-recoil- punch) rhythm, all of the sudden there was 1:1 (slip-attack) or 1:1.5 (slip-block-attack) type of rhythm in place plus the natural psychological stress and fear of getting hurt, leading to not so optimal body positions. Flinching wasn’t part of the technical exercise and all of the sudden there was flinching (even though we didn’t really understand the concept then) and we were not using it to our benefit. Naturally the one who was a) more aggressive or b) more experienced and c) psychologically ready, won. Learnings? Well, I did learn how to get hit and eventually how to give those hits.

Later on, in the military, first as a soldier and later as an instructor, this format was used to build “sisu”, a Finnish term of guts and determination and will to keep on fighting even you don’t have any odds left. In the military, the mission is and was much clearer, but time resources are more limited than in normal group training. When we have time, we can take more gradual approach.  One doesn’t train a good and controlled guard dog by beating it so that it only acts based on fear and aggression. So let’s use this approach wisely.

Gradual resistance with active attacker drilling

Once I got introduced to krav maga, some 25 years ago, where the rhythms 1:1 (slip and counter) and 1:1,5 (slip, block, and counter) meant to break into the attackers rhythm are in the DNA of the system, things got easier. Still there were the psychological issues to be handled such as implementing the natural startle – flinch reaction to the drills deliberately that were depending on the coach or instructor. Once we started building the Krav Maga Finland -style in 2014 we noticed this but didn’t have ability to name it right then but natural reactions and body position dependent reaction models were identified. Pioneer of implementing startle -flinch and managing fear in Self – Defense is Coach Tony Blauer. If you are interested in understanding more about this, do check out Coach Blauer’s astonishing work on the subject at

Anyway, the first steps were made once the sparring, or resistance training, was taken into technical training as part of it. We started making it a two- way contact drill (a traditional krav maga attack-counter-attack- drill but without a full pre-script). At first with specific attacks and variety of solutions to these attacks, aka basic techniques. Once this works, we’ll add the challenge by attacker doing something “unannounced”. Fake and attack, attack, attack until the attacker has completed his/her mission or the attack is stopped. This leads to adapting basic techniques in new environment and reveals potential fundamental faults there might be. This is where we came up with the “active attacker”- method.

Active attacker-method means that once the attacker starts his/her action and sees how the defender reacts to it, he/she alters his/her action reactively. No more punching and leaving the hand pointing straight out, no more kicking, and not continuing the motion etc. Even if there is a specific type of attacks to be used, there is immediate resistance. Naturally these attacks need to be something that we already have basic models to deal with. Using natural responses to go deeper becomes easy. This method can be used from the first self -defense lesson as to point out that while defending, we’ll need to move and adapt according to the situation.

Adding pressure by gradual contact

One key element that we’ll need to get used to is to getting hit. This is also what we are afraid of even though it is the “bodily earth-quake” we need to get accustomed to. Anyone who’s gotten hit to the head with a boxing glove or similar can relate to the feeling that “No it didn’t hurt” at the moment (unless you break your nose or other bones immediately), but the part of waiting for the hit is scarier. So, we should customize ourselves to be shaken by a hit and react to that accordingly. By the way, the same goes being thrown and taken to the ground. 

An easy exercise to do this is a strike-for-strike exercise where we are exchanging strikes using boxing gloves with a partner targeted to our elbow-level and hit back with the same hand we got punched at. We’ll learn quickly what balance means and also get more confident. Speed and power are gradual and we can start adding responses on top of these.

Another way to train attacking to targets with minimal stress of getting hit back and gradually add resistance. In recent years, I have found out that this method leads to quicker and better results. Once the person is having fun “punching around” and then dealing with problems (counter attacks and defending movement of the “target”) they get better results. Should they start fearing of getting hurt, we’ll need to take a step back and go back to “punching around” game.

Taking parts from competitive contact sports to self- defense training

Self – defense is a contact “sport” but not a Competitive Contact Sport. This is a significant difference we’ll need to Consider when we are doing resistance training. A traditional way of sparring is to train boxing, kick boxing, muay thai, grappling and MMA type of sparring and it’s all great but, If we start doing competitive sport specific sparring, we will become better at that: moving around the opponent, picking points rather than saving our lives. In self-defense situation we need more of a hit and run approach. Now taking the kick and boxing type of sparring to self-defense, we can use a training rhythm were every time we’ve gotten out of the situation with one attacker, new one appears, making our rounds with each opponent quite short but the session can be longer. It is also easier to cut the exercise should there be too many unsuccessful encounters and analyze what went wrong. It is not 1 against multiple attackers at this point and must not be turned into that. This is still technical, not tactical training. One must repeat the basics each time but the angle of the attack and the attack it self changes. Should there be enough time to get out, one should get out.

Few examples:

  1. Fight starts with one turning around and there is an immediate full speed attack that continues until victory or defeat. This can take 2 seconds or as long as it takes. Should it be more than a minute, let’s add another fighter to the game, targeting whoever is winning at that point.
  2. At round three we shall bring in the” plus 1” person with a weapon of some sort, wielding a knife, stabbing, pushing and shoving while the initial attacker keeps on pounding etc. And again, the same rule: should it take more than a minute, let’s add additional” players”.
  3. We can start from different body positions, on our knees, laying on stomach, laying on back, sitting in a car or bar or wherever. Self-Defense sparring can start anywhere!

Let’s do it slow – let’s not

One of the key mistakes we tend to make is try at first to make the fighting slow and continuous. Now this is an art of highly trained individuals who can make all the movements with precision and live with the situation. They can adapt their natural flinching to defenses and attacks. If an unexperienced person tries to make things slow and there is a sudden movement that startles them, they will react naturally and all the slow is gone and the exercise loses its’ point.

Another effect is that, If we try to do this slow as a two-way exercise, we shall just have people standing there and miss out on everything that is important in a fight: moving out of the line of fire and using effective strikes to stop the attacker’s movement. Based on my experience in learning, coaching, and teaching we must not do slow fighting as a training form in the beginning, but we can do normal attacking and add defending in there to get the person better to move forward as described earlier.

To train the techniques in slow and precise movements is a good exercise and part of any skill-training but to do slow fighting takes a lot of skill. The pressure is on the word fighting, meaning that one must be attacking all the time in this sort of an exercise.

After Action Analysis- Cognition leads to learning

Studies have shown repeatedly that learning takes place after stress. We can speed this up by having “after action” talks, how did it feel, what was hard and what were the successes. We can use video footage to pinpoint technical flaws and then separate those as to our deliberate practice subjects. In my experience, once we get this as an integral part of our training, learning results are great!


Without resistance training there is no real self-defense training. We must do it. Going full speed immediately is not necessarily the best solution. Building up the character, equipping trainees with attack-tools as well as reaction-based deliberate practice, and learning how to use the flinching to our best interest are all important factors. In self-defense the sparring sessions can eventually be targeted to be fast and furious and when using sparring tools from the combat sports, there must be specific target to these. But the skill to do this must be built first.

Just like” learning to run process”, we’ll need to take a step-by-step approach to sparring:

  1. Weaponize the flinch, pls check Coach Tony Blauer’s, excellent, cutting-edge material any coach and especially self-defense coach, needs to understand.
  2. Train the tools needed in sparring, getting to the use of the body force, hitting, kicking, blocking IN THE FLINCHING POSITION from any direction (the response changes).
  3. Get used to the hits: easy way to do this is for example using boxing gloves and hitting the trainees glove covered hand that is tightly against his/her head. Add the speed and pressure as you go forward.
  4. Deliberately create fight like pieces of battle into training that all follow” move and fire” tactics, not standing around tactic.
  5. Attack drills: teach the trainee to attack and let them win, we want to create fighters, not losers and this gets done by encouraging not suppressing the trainees. Add resistance accordingly. 

Let’s remember!

We Fight how we train, “We never rise to the challenge but sink to level of our training” (Lt.Col Dave Grossman). Should we not have resistance training as part of everyday training, we will not be able to perform it in real-life event.

As we want to get good at defending ourselves, we must pressure test it, analyze where the limits are now and then push those limits further away with skill-training.

General skill-training tip: If we never fail, we will not become better. Fail smart!

Have fun training and be safe!