7 Mar 2012

10 basic rules for sparring

Written by: Gianfranco


In this article I'd like to go through some basic rules that should be applied when sparring, which are valid for Boxing, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, and MMA competitions (for the standing striking portion of it).

Now, if after reading the article you think that there are many more considerations to add to the list, is because there are! The game of combat has many layers of sophistication, and I'll probably cover many other aspects in a later article, in which I'll describe some more "advanced rules for sparring".

In the meanwhile, here are what I consider the basic rules of sparring, so make sure to study and apply them when you spar or fight.

The 10 basic rules for sparring

Here's the list, followed by a detailed description of each point.

  1. Keep your chin down
  2. Keep your hands up
  3. Keep your elbows in
  4. Move your head
  5. Stay dynamic
  6. Keep your balance
  7. Never retreat on a straight line
  8. Always strike with a purpose
  9. Think about your defense when you attack
  10. Always monitor the action

1) Keep your chin down

The chin is one of the primary targets that a fighter aim for, and this is because it's the best spot to hit to have you knocked out.

When you fight, never let your chin fly around, singing "hit me, hit me!". You should always have it tackled in. This also forces your head to expose the forehead more than your nose and to cover the throat, which is a very sensitive spot, and at the same time this positions helps to better absorb the shocks to the head section.

Make it an habit to keep your chin down even when you shadow-box or when you work on focus mitts or on the heavy bag, so it'll become a natural position to have when you fight.

2) Keep your hands up

With a few exceptions, your hands have no business to do under your shoulders line. Keeping your hands up will create a defensive structure for your stance, and will allow you to cover, visually and physically, many of your lines of attack from your opponent.

But how high should your hands actually be? The best compromise not to limit your own field of vision and not to expose your lower body target, is to have your hands right below the eyes line, in a way that you will be able to see effortlessly from the top of your hands (actually, your gloves).

Of course, the position should change and adapt to the situation. Your hands can move over to your forehead when covering powerful strikes, for example. But you should always "reset" to the basic position right afterword.

It's no surprise that keeping the hands up is a rule very much respected by beginners, and that's because they're pretty much scared to get hit in the face, so they hide it behind them. What's more surprising, instead, is to see many confident fighters getting knocked out to the ground because at some point and for a short moment during the fight they neglected this basic rule, and got hit on a line that would otherwise be closed if they would have kept their hands up. This happens especially in MMA, where the gloves cover less space than the Boxing ones, and lines of attack get opened up much more easily, if you don't keep a perfect stance at all times.

Of course, in the action of the fight, everyone can get caught with his guard down, but in many occasions, even at higher levels, this is often the result of some sort of laziness in regard of this very basic rule, believe me.

With that in mind, remember not to get too lazy: keep your hands up all the time! Unless you're Mohamed Ali, of course.

3) Keep your elbows in

Your elbows play a fundamental role in defending your body. Maybe you don't know this, but in combat every single rib of your ribs cage is screaming out for your elbows not to get too far from them.

Spreading out the elbows will not only open some lines of attack, but will also weaken the proper body mechanics of your straight punches, which should be executed with the elbow tight in.

4) Move your head

Obviously, you want to move your head when a nice, big punch is about to hit it, but that's not even a rule to respect, that's a self-evident necessity!

Move your head actually means that you want to constantly change its position, whether you're attacking or defending, even when it's not actually being threatening by attacks. Forced by experience, all fighters start to incorporate this habit of not waiting for an attack to come, to actually slip it. As the saying goes, is always better to prevent than to cure, right?

The reason why you want to change the position of your head is that you don't want it to be an easy target for your opponent, so you make it hard to track by constantly move it. Of course, the moving should never be over-exaggerated, otherwise you'll compromise balance, position and stance. Just move your head enough not to have it in the same exact spot, and just enough to keep the motion alive, because as you should know, it is faster to move something that is already "in motion" than doing it when it's still.

5) Stay dynamic

As I just mentioned, keeping something moving, even slightly, will add speed and reaction, and those are attributes that everyone needs in a fight.

Staying dynamic doesn't necessarily mean that you're moving all around playing' Mohamed Ali with your opponent. Staying dynamic means that you want to keep everything in perpetual movement, because that is the essence of fighting.

For example, you should never stay still in front of the opponent, doing nothing, because that is where you turn yourself into a heavy bag, when instead you should be looking to take angles for a convenient position, to get out of range or get into range for an attack.

But just moving your feet is not what this rule is all about. For instance, even if you happen to stand stood, you should still apply this rule by "smooth bouncing" from your stationary position, because in any case, something will happen when you're engaged in a fight, so you better be ready all the time. And the best way to do so, it's to stay dynamic.

6) Keep your balance

This rule will be never stressed enough. Balance is everything when you attack, balance is everything when you defend, balance is everything when you do none of the two. Balance is just everything.

And, balance comes from a perfect stance. Keeping balance, therefor, means keeping a good stance at all times, before an attack, during an attack, after an attack. Same thing, actually, goes for defense.

Knowing how to move comfortably by keeping the fighting stance, will result in having a perfect balance at all times (when your feet move out of stance, you move your off-balance points all around and become vulnerable).

Also, you want to keep your balance when you execute and attack, or when you slip some punches, and that, again, comes from having good form.

7) Never retreat on a straight line

One of the most common reactions when fighting is to retreat backward when the opponent is aggressively advancing toward you while striking.

In reality, there is nothing wrong with moving away from an advancing opponent that is trying to blast you out with strikes, on the contrary, the ability to move out of range and to get into range is one of the most valuable skill that a fighter can have.

Footwork play a fundamental role in the game of fighting, but like anything else, you need to consider how to use it properly, and strategy should be applied in this matter too.

Moving away from an advancing opponent by retreating on a straight line will not stop an opponent from following you. In fact, by doing that, you will only draw the easiest path for him to follow, which is a straight line, and he will have no problem to track you down while keeping the blasting on. In this case, all he has to do is advance forward, and remember, as a general rule, anyone is faster moving forward than moving backward.

If you want to stop the attack of the opponent by moving away from him you have to move at an angle, circle around or combine a short retreating with a sudden circle around (speed variations will make this strategy even more effective). This will break his advancing and it will give him a hard time to track you down.

Remember, retreating on a straight line will only suck him in your path, and with increasing speed and aggressiveness. And you don't want that, do you?

8) Always strike with a purpose

A very common tendency in inexperienced fighters, is to fill the empty moments that a fight can have with meaningless attacks, just because "nothing is happening".

Remember, fighting become a fascinating art when fighters stop swinging and trading punches and kicks around, and turn into chess players instead.

Don't shoot attacks just because nothing is happening for a split moment, or out of fear. Any strike you throw, should have a precise purpose, always, and the purpose may vary. You can execute an attack because an opening was suddenly created, or you can strike to try to create one, or to stop an attack, or to keep the opponent busy while you reset your position or mind, for example.

But all your strikes should always have a precise purpose. Always. The moment you strike just to strike, you're only wasting motion.

9) Think about your defense when you attack

This is one of the most fundamental rules when fighting. And still, try to play some fights with high-level fighters in slow motion, and notice how they all have weaknesses in this matter at some times during the fight.

As I said before, any fighter get caught out of guard at some point, and this happens quiet often while attacking, because that is the moment we become vulnerable since we open up lines of attack in our stance.

Believe me, no matter on what level you play, this will never be stressed enough: think about your defense when you attack!

10) Always monitor the action

It looksI like I can't make a list of rules without having this one in. Well, as it turns out, the reason is because without monitoring the action at all times, chances are you'll find yourself on the ground before you know what happened.

In practical terms, monitoring the action, means to keep your eyes open and on the opponent all the time and your brain lucid and clear.

Some bad habits to be avoided to respect this rule are, for example, blinking when being attacked or loosing sight of the opponent for a split moment. This last example happens more than you think: you bob and weave under a punch without keeping your eyes stuck on the opponent, or you put your head down while you fire a big swing around the opponent's guard, and look at your shoes instead of looking at the source of your problems (your opponent).

Anyway, last but not least of the rules to apply in sparring is, keep your attention on everything all the time. Monitor the action!


Every fighter at some point in their progression develop their own style, but this rules should not be discarded by the fighter's style. These are the basic rules. Without them, chances are you 'll have no game, or worst, you'll go down, and you probably want to minimize that possibility when you fight.

I hope that this article come useful in your training, that it'll enhance your sparring game, and that it'll make you better fighter. Let me know the results…


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  • Gian:

    When you think about it, points 1, 2, 3 and 6, all comes from having a good fighting stance, and keeping it all along!

    8 Mar 2012 Reply to this comment
    • Nabil:

      Nice article Gian!
      I believe the hardest past is to apply all of that “naturally”…;)

      8 Mar 2012
    • Gian:

      Thanks, Nabil!

      As I said, half of them come from having a good fighting stance and good form. I just broke it down into separate aspects to focus on one of them at the time and describe it.

      But all in all, it’s not that hard to apply them if you make it an habit to focus on stance and form in every aspect of the training, not only when sparring. ;-)

      8 Mar 2012
  • daniel:

    I believe shadow boxing is a great way to train for these skills and turn them to natural habits.
    Even better when you can have a big mirror to look at and check your own stance, guard and movements regularly.
    It helps a lot to identify various mistakes, to become aware of them, and to self-correct.

    8 Mar 2012 Reply to this comment
    • Gian:

      You got the point, Daniel!

      8 Mar 2012
    • Nabil:

      Indeed, one has to be very discilplined in every aspects of the training ;) (easier in the sparring coz you basically get punished otherwise…have to do the effort in the rest)

      What I wanted to point is that, even under pressure of real sparring (or competetion), specially trying a specific strategy to hit the opponent, you must keep this fighting discipline, as if it was your natural movment…not easy

      I agree discipline in all training aspects is the only way to reach this level

      8 Mar 2012
    • Gian:

      Nabil, good training will always pay off!

      My job with this article is to give you guys a reference that is written somewhere and that can be consulted whenever you want, because I believe that it makes things easier to register and to keep in mind, having it written somewhere.

      Otherwise, just mentioning the notions at the training, is not always enough for some people.

      I’m glad this list and the descriptions help you all to progress. (Oh, and as a matter of fact, I include myself in the list of people who will find help from this article, even if it’s me who wrote it).

      8 Mar 2012
  • Nabil:

    Amazing training yesterday, thanks Gian!
    Indeed, thanks to this article we have in mind and on printed form, a limited number of rules we have to focus on when doing forms/drills/sparring
    Should add these 10 rules to the member (fighter?) protocol ;)

    9 Mar 2012 Reply to this comment
    • Gian:

      Thanks, Nabil! Yeah, it’s not given to everyone to do a training around an article, but well, we’re special! ;-)

      Otherwise, nothing technical is going into the Member Protocol, it’s not meant to have this kind of information. But the website is here as an information support for cultivating your martial art practice even when at home! How great is that? ;-)

      9 Mar 2012
  • Kali Liège:

    Hi. Quite interesting article. Realy usefull!

    16 Aug 2012 Reply to this comment
    • Gian:

      Thanks, I appreciate!

      20 Aug 2012

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