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Non Contact vs Contact Training...What's the best way?

There's a debate amongst many martial artists and combat sport participants concerning the best way to train. Many advocate the almost exclusive use of contact training, whilst others focus their attention the acquisition of technical proficiency without a target. The debate is directed towards what form of training provides the optimal results? Whilst the true answer often lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, this article seeks to provide some idea of the benefits of all types of training. 

It's never best to start with a conclusion, however in my view the training in one singular modality is massively limiting. For optimal development, in whatever endeavour, your body and/or mind should be engaged with a variety of stimulus, that whilst remaining specific in regards to the results desired, each provide an alternative developmental opportunity. 


In professional training, optimal development of individuals is considered to be underpinned by a Training Matrix. Essentially having identified the needs of the specific role, a matrix is designed where the end result (a competent employee) is secured through an approach which categorises and details the array of role specific competencies required. Each competency is then provided a staged approach to skill development and acquisition. Each stage being provided it's own specific training plan, resources, context and activity. The ultimate goal therefore is to provide the individual with all the necessary knowledge, skill and confidence to perform in their and further job role.

There are significant similarities between this approach with professional development and that undertaken by sport coaches. Periodisation is a systematic approach taken to the scheduling of athletic training and development. Typically used in the context of training for competitive sports, this approach looks to the specific attributes each the individual athlete requires to be successful. Once this has been identified, a contextual timescale is applied to the optimal development of these attributes (typically the context being when the competition/competitive season occurs). The athlete then completes an specialised training plan, providing an array of activity and stimulus (at different times periods) in order to facilitate optimal development and capability for that event/season.

To take this one stage further, in specific respect of the martial arts (and combat sport) for optimal development it is necessary to utilise an array of training methods, those which involve contact and those which do not. 


Broadly martial arts/combat sports training can be categorised in one of three ways:

(1) Non Contact - for example, shadow boxing, patterns/forms, line work

(2) Semi Contact - for example isolated sparring, prearranged sparring (1 step), compliant partner or multiple opponent drills

(3) Full Contact - for example free sparring, non compliant partner or multiple opponent drills


At the very heart of many traditional martial arts lie a raft of non contact drills and training methods. Forms, patterns, kata, poomse are central aspects to the practice and technical development within kung fu, karate and Tae Kwon Do. Indeed even within the context of combat sports (boxing, muay thai, mma) no contact drills are widely used to promote technical and specific fitness development. 

The benefits to non contact training are huge, allowing the participant to focus on their specific movement and technique. Non contact training allows for full skill acquisition and development in a uninterrupted environmental context. In this arena the individual can provide their technique 100% focus allowing for a development of coordination, balance and sensitivity of their own body in movement. It allows for rehearsal and repetition of combinations of movements in a way which promotes optimal development and retention of the neuromuscular system. 

Non contact training however does provide a limitation in the context of application. Whilst within the  neuromuscular system the body does not distinguish between non contact and contact training, without a target it is challenging to get a true 'body feel' of the technique being performed. Additionally accuracy, timing and reaction speed are extremely difficult to improve through non contact training. True application of technique can only be found within drills involving others (partner or multiple opponent drills). Power development can only really be measured and felt by striking a surface (pad, bag or body) to allow for full biofeedback. 

Visualisation is further a fundamental aspect of non contact training. Understanding movement and having sound body sensitivity is key, however unless there is a mental imagery to support thus the relative cross over to application and practice is somewhat limited. There are many movements within forms, patterns and kata which without visualisation would seemingly appear to have no applicable practicable benefit. Visualisation is widely utilised in both personal development and sports coaching to assist in the creation of successful performance. Mentally imaging the application of technique being practiced is a way to provide non contact drills greater benefit in respect of their efficacy and successful utilisation. 


This category of training encompasses those drills in which a target (typically partner or partners) are used in a pre-arranged or compliant manner. 

These drills typically involve a prearranged attack vs a predetermined response. Often performed at a slower than normal speed, they provide a great opportunity to develop specific movement patterns and technical flow. These drills are the staple for many combat sports (such as judo and jiu jitsu) where the position in relation to the opponent is key. 

Being prearranged these drills allow for an optimal  

development of competency, coordination and understanding within the specific movements being rehearsed. This semi-contact approach also provides the participant with the opportunity to begin the process of referencing techniques in respect of an opponent, assisting further in the development of timing, focus, correct distancing and accuracy. 

There are however some significant differences between prearranged and free sparring. Irrespective of issues of speed of training, fundamentally a prescribed fixed approach versus a given attack, possibly prevents freedom of movement and fluidity in technique when placed in a 'free' environment. The ability for creative expression and fluid response becomes limited if my rehearsed answer to question A is always response B...if B doesn't work, what then?

Equally in the context of generation of power in technique, semi contact training can provide some limitations as techniques are decelerated so as not to cause injury. The development of physical capability in this manner can serve to limit the individual sensitivity in movement, creating a situation where movements are fundamentally changed (consciously or unconsciously) to limit or even avoid the optimal generation power power in application. A second limitation to semi contact, in the specific context of sparring drills, is in respect of the emotional response. The psychological stress response in the context a known attack, is wholly different to (and less severe) the response to an unknown attack. Practice in an environment which places limits compliance, technique or aggression will move training further away from the 'real life' context. Understanding individual emotional responses is fundamental to efficacy, self-confidence success in context of both competitive and personal defence situations. 


This approach to training provides a close to the 'real-life' context as possible. Here we are concerned with non-compliant drills (partners and multiple opponents), competitive and free sparring.

In this particular modality there is less opportunity for technique development, although we have the ideal context in which we can development timing, accuracy and flow. Full contact training provides a controlled environment for participants to begin to investigate their emotional responses to competitive stress. It provides an arena for the practical delivery of technique, generation of power in technique against a live opponent and investigation as to the successful application and efficacy of techniques.

The primary limitation to full contact training is it's potential for injury. Operating in an environment where technique can be applied with full intention does increase the risk of personal injury. Whilst, in a training context all steps are taken to ensure safety and control is maintained, the very nature of accepting contact training is to accept that you may get hit. This may then cause you damage. That understanding further leads to an emotional response, which whilst it is beneficial to understand, can in dome cases limit performance and inhibit further technical development.

In the context of combat sports, full contact training is required to ensure specific fitness and competitive conditioning is developed. Without competitive sparring it is challenging to gauge how well one may perform as there is no other similar activity which will necessitate the same physical and emotional responses. This being the case all full contact activity should be completed from the perspective of safety, control and technical development of all involved.


The optimal approach to development within the martial arts, should then include training in 3 categories. Technical development without ability to test application is somewhat misleading. Training drills with compliant partners will allow for development of understanding in respect of distance, focus and accuracy, but do little to allow for development of timing and application in regards non-compliancy. 

The ultimate result is therefore to adopt an approach which looks (as in professional development) towards the establishment of training matrices. The roots are always within the non contact arena, facilitating technical development and rehearsal without obstacle. This then is road tested in respect of compliant, possibly prearranged drills where one can investigate flow and application in greater depth. Periodically however we need to look at the pressure test, for both personal defence and/or competition, dropping the level of compliancy and/or increasing the level of contact. Ultimately the optimal training plan is a combination of all modalities, accepting that each has benefits and limitations. It is through the provision of this balance that individual development with the martial arts can be optimised and fully expressed. 

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