There are a ton of different reaction time training methods and an ever-increasing crop of reaction training devices… And for fighters, they’re NOT all created equal.

Some methods really only function as warm-up or movement activities, whereas others can develop Saenchai-like reflexes in the ring!

by Don Heatrick

Which reaction time training methods will make you a better fighter the quickest, and why?

Whether it’s throwing and catching tennis balls, punching top-to-bottom balls or boxing bars, hitting reaction lights or even evading striking robots… There are many methods vying for your attention when seeking to improve your fighter reactions.

And the truth is, some methods carry over into your fight performance while others don’t at all!

Understanding what fighter reaction time training is and isn’t is key to picking the most appropriate methods to boost your fight reactions…

We’ll begin with an example from a parallel universe to Muay Thai… Table Tennis!

Desmond ‘lightening man’ Douglas was considered to have the fastest reactions in table tennis… But when his reactions were tested, he was slower than the entire England squad, including the juniors. He was even slower than the team manager!

So how could he react so quickly during a table tennis match?

He spent his first five years of development playing in a small hall, with no room to back up… He had to play standing flush to the table without retreating, effectively playing speed table tennis!

By doing so, he developed great skill in predicting where the ball was going to go based on movement cues from his opponent. He anticipated where to move to before the ball got there.

In reality, the reaction time consists of three main steps…

The first is the Stimulus – sensing or detecting a cue to act, either visual, auditory (your hearing), or kinesthetic (your sense of touch or feeling) 

Second is Decision making – choosing what action will you take based on the cue 

And finally your Response – Starting and finishing your movement.

Reaction Time Training in three steps

Here we see this in action with Nong-O…

First a visual stimulus – Nong-O recognises the postural cue for an incoming head kick 

Next comes the decision – from all his potentially trained responses, what should he do? In an instant, being in an elusive mode, he feels both his range and the balance of his centre of gravity lend themselves to a lay back evasion

Then he responds, depending on his body’s ability to start and finish the movement quickly enough.

Reaction Time Training Stimulus
Reaction Time Training Decision
Reaction Time Training Response

And in fact, this complete response time can be expanded on and divided into two phases…

The first phase is the Reaction Time – which is the cognitive processing going on in the brain… noticing a cue, recognising the pattern and interpreting it, deciding what action to take.

The second phase is the Movement Time – the physiological acceleration of the body or extremity through the coordinated pattern of movement. Which will depend on the fighter’s athletic ability. 

 And this is largely how we can picture training for a rapid response too…

(Cognitive) Reaction training and (Physiological) movement training.

Reaction Time Training Movement Time and Response Time

In the example of table tennis legend Desmond Douglas, his cognitive reaction time was incredible, while his physiological movement time was certainly below average.

His brain training was excellent, while his body training wasn’t!

Reaction time is incredibly skill dependent.

You need to develop the ‘eye’ to recognise subtle postural cues from your opponent, to read their body language and anticipate what they will do before waiting for them to complete their movement.

Desmond Douglas can recognise and predict the ball path from a backhand return but wouldn’t spot an incoming round kick to the head!

The more sport specific your reaction training, the better it will carry over into your sport.

If the stimulus you’re reacting to isn’t essentially visually cued by movements of your opponent’s hips and shoulder girdle, or kinaesthetically cued from shifts in balance and physical contact while in the clinch, then it isn’t going to finetune your reaction time as a fighter.

And the further the stimulus is from these, the less you can expect your “spider senses” to help you out in a fight!

That’s why you don’t see even world class fighters, like stamp fairtex, fairing very well when training with striking robots.

The stimulus just isn’t sport specific enough.

Training with tools like these will improve the physiological movement part of your response time, but not the cognitive reaction time.

Although with practice, you’ll get better at reacting to the robot, that reaction won’t help you recognise the relevant postural cues from your opponent in a fight…

And as we’ve seen with table tennis legend Desmond Douglas, recognising and predicting what’s going to happen is a huge part of developing a fast response time.

As a fighter, unless you’re reacting to an opponent’s movement, then I wouldn’t call it true reaction training for fighters.

In fact, all reaction time training falls on a spectrum of Muay Thai specificity, making it either more of a movement drill, or more of a fight specific reaction drill.

Muay Thai Specific Reaction Time Training

Reaction Time Training specificity of response decision making and response

Muay Thai Specific Stimulus

Beginning with the stimulus for your reaction… Although you may listen out for calls from your corner team, or determine the effectiveness of our strikes by the sound of a strike landing with force, or hearing with wind being knocked out of your opponent… Audible cues are less specific to fast reactions.

Kinesthetic cues, for example feeling either your own, or your opponent’s balance shift in the clinch are more specific for rapid reactions in a fight.

And by far the most Muay Thai specific cue is visually recognising postural changes in your opponent.

Muay Thai Specific Decision Making

When it comes to decision making after the stimulus, training can present a completely closed drill response – where you’re reacting to a known stimulus and simply following a predetermined sequence or action…

Or at the other extreme, an open response – where the stimulus is unknown and your response selection is open for interpretation too!

Muay Thai Specific Response

And finally, the physical response can involve a general movement, like sprinting to touch the wall, or a Muay Thai specific movement like Nong-O’s lay back.

How the training drill fits the general-to-specific continuum on each of these discrete aspects of reaction time will determine how well it transfers into a real-time reaction in the ring.

But you don’t have to only perform highly sport specific training to see any value, rather there are a spectrum of methods that have different uses at different stages of training.

Think building blocks

Reaction time training is the ability to respond quickly to a required stimulus. If a fighter hasn’t yet built the movement pattern required to react, then that’s best isolated and practised first.

Then begin practising a closed skill drill, where the stimulus is known, and the response is known.

Gradually transitioning to higher degrees of open skill drills with unknown, random cues and open responses.

Fighters can use shadow boxing or using punch bags to build quality repetition of the prerequisite Muay Thai specific movement skills.

Tools like jump ropes, agility ladders, hurdles, kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells further overload movement patterns as building blocks toward stable, robust fight specific movement patterns too.

And general drills serve as great activation and movement preparation exercises as you move through your warm up for a Muay Thai session.

Regardless of how sport specific your drills are, it’s also worth pointing out that distributed practice in small doses is more effective than mass practice for skill learning.

Now let’s now consider visual cues in more detail, as these also fall on a spectrum of general to Muay Thai specific.

Reaction Time Training visual specificity

Fighter Reaction Time Training?

Reacting to a flashing light isn’t a very sport specific stimulus, but it can be programmed to produce either a closed drill (known sequence), or an open drill (random sequence) for more general decision making.

Reacting to punch a reflex ball, attached to your hat with an elastic strap, again isn’t a very sport specific stimulus (it looks nothing like the body language of a moving opponent), but offers a more sport specific punching action. And (depending on how well-practised you are) an open, random stimulus. That said, it’s still more of a hand-eye coordination or movement drill than a fight specific reaction drill.

As we’ve seen already, striking robots don’t offer a very sport specific stimulus or cue. But the evasive movement and attacking counter is more sport specific.

Reaction Time Training lights reflex ball strike robot

A pad holder offering targets and hitting back is getting far more Muay Thai specific. And the level of specificity depends on how you mix the closed and open skilled elements.

Predetermined pad work combinations are really developing your coordination and movement ability instead of your reactions. Whereas freestyle pad work offering random targets, with your pad holder hitting you back, REALLY trains your reactions.

Incidentally, pad holding for others is a great way for you to also train your visual recognition of postural cues, directly from an opponent as they throw different strikes at different targets. This develops your ability to read body language and anticipate incoming strikes.

And finally, of course a real opponent provides the most sport specific visual cue. With the most specific being fight-paced sparring, and ultimately fighting itself.

Now let’s take a moment to pass a critical eye over some other drills many fighters could call reaction time training, and weigh up their merit in view of our understanding of what reaction training really is…

Reaction Time Training Boxing Bar

On the face of it, a Boxing Bar could seem a very functional visual, open drill stimulus for training boxing reactions. However, with a little practice, visual hand-eye coordination is not even needed!

Although using sport specific movements, this quickly becomes a rhythm and timing drill based on audible and kinaesthetic cues. And the same can be said of top-to-bottom balls and speedballs too. I’d even place jumping rope at the extremely “general” end of this spectrum too.

Reaction Time Training Noodles

Using noodles in defensive and striking drills is more specific to developing reactions than a striking robot, because you at least get to observe your partner’s shoulder girdle and hips to anticipate what’s coming, but the relative movement of the incoming strike or the target presented isn’t very specific at all.

Summing Up

Remember the brain is a prediction device, and it needs practice to interpret your opponent’s movement and predict the most likely outcome. If you don’t feed this mainly visual stimulus, you’ll severely hamper your reaction time – which is a huge part of your overall response time.

The more Muay Thai specific the stimulus, the better this will translate into a rapid cognitive reaction time in the ring.

The more Muay Thai specific the movement, the better this will translate into a rapid movement time in the ring.

Also, the better the athletic ability of the fighter, the shorter the movement time.

The trainable athletic qualities – coordination, mobility, stability, strength, power, speed and endurance – all matter, and are the foundation to Muay Thai skilled movement.

And these qualities are often optimally developed using targeted supplemental strength and conditioning training alongside your Muay Thai training.

It also bears saying that fatigue significantly increases reaction time too! So athletic ability also impacts reaction time as well as movement time.

There are many moving parts to optimally developing your fighter’s reactions.

A good understanding of what affects a fighter’s response time, and how to design training to work on key elements within it, will help you 80/20 your training, and focus on things that will make you a faster reacting fighter.

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Don Heatrick

Founder of Heatrick Strength and Conditioning

Don Heatrick is a family man from the UK, former mechanical design engineer, European Muay Thai silver medallist, former pro Thai boxer (ranked 4th in UK while aged 40-years), a Muay Thai coach, podcast host, and the go-to expert on Muay Thai performance training with over 25 years of coaching experience.

Don helps ambitious fighters and coaches take their game to the next level by bridging the gap between Strength & Conditioning, Performance Science, and Muay Thai.

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