Maija Soderholm recently posted here, questioning the value of prearranged training sequences. There’s a good bit of discussion in the comments, and then in her follow up post, here. I responded with a few comments in those posts, but figured the topic would also be good for another post on this blog.
There were references in the comments of Maija’s first post to Matt Thornton’s concept of “aliveness”. In the early 90’s, prior to MMA becoming popular, Matt railed against common traditional martial arts practice, which was (and still is very often) dominated by prearranged solo and partner drills, with very little sparring. Matt’s point was and still is that fighting is alive. There is real motion, timing, and resistance. Your opponent will be uncooperative. Prearranged pattern training on the other hand is dead. Matt started calling prearranged patterns “dead patterns”, and the name stuck for many people.
I agree with Maija and Matt’s thoughts on the negative aspects of dead patterns. Real fighting is random, not at all prearranged, and your opponent will be completely uncooperative. In prearranged training, most of that is missing entirely. Maija also made a great point that prearranged training prearranges success, which must be fought for in reality.
Back when Matt was all over martial arts forums arguing for aliveness and against dead patterns, I was on the other side on the dead pattern issue. I agreed with him on aliveness, but disagreed that dead patterns were useless. Some of that disagreement was due to my misunderstanding of what he was talking about. Because prearranged patterns are “dead”, lots of fantasy techniques and unrealistic training ends up being spawned from them. Sombrada (a common prearranged stick pattern) is a good example. The idea to put a series of realistic attacks and counter attacks into a pattern, to drill for repetitions, doesn’t sound so bad on the surface. I didn’t think it was. But I wasn’t aware how most people were doing that pattern, as this was before YouTube, and no one in my area was doing it. I learned sombrada at a seminar in 1993, very quickly, and unknowingly ended up doing it in a way that most people didn’t. I made a video around 2000 to send to a couple of other instructors. I posted it to YouTube in 2008:
I no longer train or teach sombrada. But the above video still demonstrates the difference between using functional techniques inside of a dead pattern vs. non-functional techniques. There is a very important and significant difference.
But if you can get the same benefits from random training and sparring as you can from prearranged, dead patterns, then why train such patterns at all?
Every Training Method Has Weaknesses
At least for training that involves striking, every training method has weaknesses. Grappling/wrestling is a bit different. You can train the majority of grappling techniques safely, and stop locks or chokes just before they cause damage. Some people do argue that stopping an arm bar, for example, before you break your partner’s arm, or letting go of a choke when your partner taps out, will cause you not to finish the technique in reality. My view is that that argument is BS, but that’s beyond the scope of this particular post. In grappling, prearranged patterns offer nothing that you can’t get from random, alive training.
In sparring that focuses on or includes striking however, you can’t train with full intensity without being injured. So you limit the techniques that can be used, you limit the speed and power, you limit the follow through, and/or you wear protective training gear. Each of those components that are one degree removed from real fighting, creates a weak link in the chain. So you use other training methods to compensate. You train full power striking on a heavy bag or on focus mitts, to compensate for the lack of power development in sparring, for example. In stick fighting, you may strike a tire as fast and hard as you can.
But what about being on the receiving end of full speed and power techniques, without safety gear, and without the need to limit techniques or “pull punches”? You don’t get that from sparring, and you don’t get it from striking a bag or tire.
Prearranged training does have serious weaknesses, but it also has at least one serious strength. It allows you and your partner to practice at 100% intensity, at 100% speed and power, with very little chance of injury. Such training can take place for any duration. You can train a single boxing jab against an evasion, catch, or cover, over and over again. You can train a single stick attack against a single block or evasion, over and over again. And you can do it at 100% intensity. You can also string attacks and counter attacks together in a repeating pattern. But they must be realistic techniques done at a realistic range.
The Downsides of Random, Low Intensity Training
As bad as the downsides of prearranged training are, random, alive training can be equally bad. At low levels of speed and power, a great many techniques can work that would absolutely fail in reality. There is a major difference between 50% or even 70% intensity and 100% intensity. At lower levels of intensity, practitioners aren’t required to move the way they must at higher levels. Strikes don’t knock people down or back. Combinations that wouldn’t be possible due to the dynamic movement that occurs under real, full pressure, become possible. Fantasy recoveries and counter attacks become possible. And practitioners don’t realize these techniques would fail under pressure.
At lower levels of speed and power, balance is also different. You can strike from positions you couldn’t have otherwise. You have unrealistic amounts of time to attack, evade, and counterattack.
But none of that means random training at less than 100% is automatically bad. It does have weaknesses. And those weaknesses can spawn fantasy techniques and ideas, just as they can in prearranged training.
The Power of Prearranged, Full Intensity Training
Prearranged training allows you to safely train at 100% intensity, at 100% speed and power. And the benefit of experiencing your partner coming at you with all the speed and power he can muster is extreme. The benefit of doing that type of training on a regular basis is even greater. It gets you accustomed to a full speed and power attack, as most real attacks will be. In fact, if you and your partners train at 100% intensity regularly, your speed and power will be so much greater than that of the average attacker, that an average attack will feel weak and much easier to deal with.
Maija mentioned a drill she’s done that allows the use of full speed and power + random attacks, where once practitioners are good enough, person 1 attacks person 2 with full power, single, random machete angles. Person 2 only blocks. This kind of partially prearranged training would likely provide much of the benefit of entirely prearranged training. And you can add on to such drills. In the random flow video below for example (I got the idea from Maija), we’re adding certain types of counters to somewhat random attacks, where the attacker and defender’s motions are partially prearranged. We’re not going at 100% in the video, but there’s no reason we couldn’t.
So there is a way to train at full intensity with random elements. However, I see additional benefits to doing prearranged drills of longer duration, if they’re composed of realistic, functional techniques. Stringing together a series of attacks and counter attacks increases the time at which you’ll be continuously training at 100% intensity. And in my experience, the increased duration makes a big difference. It develops the ability to attack at 100% for an extended period, and to defend against full intensity attacks for an extended period. When there are random elements, there are artificial breaks in the action, and the duration is short.
In addition to increases in the use of and defense against full intensity techniques, training such prearranged drills ingrains/conditions techniques like no other training method I’ve used. I’m not exactly sure why, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that to do such drills with full intensity you cannot think about the techniques you’re doing. That’s also true for random flowing and sparring, and for short durations in high intensity training with random elements. But training as hard and fast as you can without thought, for an extended duration, seems to produce even stronger conditioned responses in myself and those I’ve taught.
For about my first 10 years of practice, I trained and taught full intensity, prearranged drills. For the next 5 years or so, I abandoned them for the most part. I quit doing them in my own private training, and only did them with a few older students who wanted to keep them up. The reason I abandoned them, was because I felt they were too unrealistic due to their prearranged nature, and I saw no short term benefit in teaching them. Students who spent time doing random drills and sparring quickly outpaced students who spent more time on prearranged drills.
But after years of giving these drills up, I noticed that both myself and my students were missing something. We were missing the higher level skills and reactions that come from regular full intensity training. (It may also be possible to get this type of intensity from fighting competitively. However, most of my students were not interested in doing so, and neither was I. And, you can do full intensity training much more frequently than real fighting without the corresponding injuries.) When I added this training method back to my practice, I very quickly noticed my skills increasing.
Diversity Is Best
If a practitioner could only either choose all random training or all prearranged training, I’d choose random training easily. Fights are random. Attacks are not prearranged. Random, alive training with progressive resistance and uncooperative partners is the key to developing functional skills. But no one is limited to a single training method. Because every training method has weaknesses, it’s ideal to use a diversity of methods to compensate for the shortcomings of each one individually. All training should be functional. All training should have an understood purpose. Prearranged, dead pattern training fits well in the mix, as a way to supercharge your speed and power, and get you accustomed to dealing with full intensity attacks, regularly.