Brain Saving Sparring

My wife forwarded this video to me, showing an apparent impact conditioning drill. Now, it’s pretty obvious this is the dumbest idea ever. This kind of deliberate repeated trauma to the brain causes damage, and you can only accumulate so much brain trauma in a lifetime, so don’t waste it with this kind of stupidity.

Stupid is as Stupid Does


Although standing there, giving away free shots with your hands down may seem pretty far removed from the activities seen in most gyms, I’d like to turn your attention to your heavy sparring sessions. There you might not see the same frequency of head shots in one session, but accumulate those over the weeks, months and years, and combine with the shots taken in competition, and you can have a significant amount of trauma.

It’s Not Tough, It’s Dumb

Welterweight MMA fighter Johny Hendricks has said that in preparation for his slugfest UFC 171 title fight against Robbie Lawler, “…I don’t know how many knockouts you get in your lifetime. I don’t know how many times you can get dazed in your lifetime. But I want to save those for the important moments. And that’s in the Octagon.” In fact both Hendricks and Robbie Lawler, who famously went toe-to-toe for the full distance in their UFC 171 title fight, both said that they don’t take big hits in training.

Just because you’re not knocked out, it doesn’t mean you’re ok. In reality, every ‘bell ringer’ in training is a concussion. Although one concussion isn’t serious, the effect of multiple concussions is being researched around the globe. You have a finite number of shots to the head that you can take before that biological material in your skull begins to suffer the consequences. Don’t waste those shots in a pointless battering in the gym.

Sparring should be technical for timing, range and defensive reactivity. Full power and speed should be developed on the pads and punchbags. Here’s a video of a couple of the best Thais in the world sparring together, you’ll notice it’s very controlled — no ego involved — just playing to get sharp.

Pakorn sparring with Saenchai

I find it’s usually those that don’t compete in the ring that feel the need to go over-the-top during gym sparring. They seem to have to prove themselves against team mates rather than in the ring against an equally prepared opponent. Hard sparring has a place, especially for those not competing as often as the Thais, but it’s massively overdone in the west in my opinion. Even hard sparring shouldn’t mean full blown head shots – heavy shots taken to the rest of the body, fine, but brain tissue is different. UK Muay Thai legend Damien Trainor sums it up nicely, “You don’t need to win in sparring.”

Head Guards Don’t Stop Concussions

You’re brain floats around inside your skull, suspended in cerebral fluid. When you’re head snaps back from a blow, your brain tries to remain stationary but crashes into the inside of the skull on the same side as the blow. When the head stops again, the brain keeps going and then smashes into the other inner-side of the skull. Kind of like you shaking an aerosol can of spray paint to mix the paint — your brain is the mixing ball inside, the can is your skull. Another scenario is rotation of the skull, which causes shearing of the delicate brain tissue. Either one  causes damage.

In reality, a head guard doesn’t stop your brain smashing into the inside of your skull, it just minimises external surface cuts and bruising. If you wrap that aerosol paint can in a towel and shake it, the mixing ball still smashes into the inside of the can. And a head guard actually adds to the mass of your skull that’s hitting into your brain! You also take more head shots when wearing a head guard, because you can’t see as well, and your head’s now a bigger target too. So don’t go heavy with the head-contact while wearing a head guard thinking you’re safe, ‘cos you ain’t.

Training to Improve Your Chin

If you want to improve your ‘chin’, your ability to take head shots, build a stronger neck with supplemental exercises, and focus on seeing the shots coming in training. If you see it coming and can anticipate the impact with a strong neck, you’ll be much harder to knock out. If you minimise the movement of your head when it’s hit because the strength of your activated neck absorbs the blow, the brain sees less trauma — if you wack that aerosol paint can, but it doesn’t move, the mixing ball won’t rattle. Drill keeping a visual ‘target lock’ on your opponent’s chest at all times, minimise blinking, don’t turn way, keep your chin tucked, shoulders shrugged and hands up. Simply taking punches to the head won’t help — ever.

 Quality Wins Again

Don’t sabotage yourself and your team-mates with excess amounts of overly heavy sparring. You need to rack up high quality (movement) sessions, and you can’t move well if you’re banged up. (Perfect) repetition is the mother of (good) skill, if you can no longer move correctly (due to injury) you’ll anchor bad habits. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of quality over quantity in all your training, be it in the weights room or the Muay Thai gym. And respect your brain tissue and everyone else’s, save the big shots for competition and have a long healthy career, both inside and outside the ring.

2 Comments

  1. K May 15, 2015 at 9:30 am - Reply

    Good article, my only comment is regarding the head guard. When hit, the head guard compresses, which reduces the impact to the skull, reducing the impact of the brain against the skull. So in this respect, it does help, but, as you point out, not being able to see as well potentially increases the number of blows to the head, which may mean that the total lbs of force applied to the head (cumulatively) isn’t any better.

    • DonHeatrick May 15, 2015 at 1:35 pm - Reply

      Thank you, and good point Kev – the head guard will increase the time for the punch force to transmit to the skull/surface tissue, and ultimately to the brain too. But this is a more significant effect for the skull/skin rather than the brain suspended independently in fluid. Another factor with the head guard, is that the displacement of the head remains similar, which is also a significant factor affecting any resulting brain trauma. It’s interesting stuff. I kept things simple, but you are absolutely right! Thanks for contributing. :)

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