Monday, February 7, 2011

6 Ways to Improve a Fighter's Reflexes

Photo by Gabriel Villena Fernandez via Wikimedia Commons
You've got to watch them - be quick or be dead,
Snake-eyes in Heaven, the beast in your head!
Be quick!
Or be dead!
Be quick!
Or be dead!

~ Iron Maiden


So many martial artists and fighters spend so much time building strength and muscular speed, perfecting flashy, complicated techniques, and improving their cardio.

But how many spend any real time improving their Reflex Speed?

Having a high reflex speed can mean the difference between a mediocre martial artists and a world class warrior.

In the street, fast reflexes can mean the difference between life and death. You don't want to be the slow one - you don't want to be dead.

What is 'Reflex Speed'?

In his article "Cat-like Reflex Training Methods", Mark Sais states there are 3 aspects of Reflex Speed:

1. Reaction Time - This is the perception of an attack, or rather the interval between stimulus and the beginning of response.

 2. Response Time - This is the time it takes to choose an appropriate response to the initiation of the actual movement.

 3. Movement Speed - Quite simply how quick your counter punch is or how fast your body moves getting out of the way of trouble, ect.

It doesn't get more straightforward than that.

Training each of those three aspects is vital to you as a martial artist or fighter. You might have the fastest hands or  the quickest kicks but if it takes you a millisecond too long to perceive an attack or you have too many techniques bouncing around in your head to choose the appropriate response, then you're going to get your ass handed to you - and that would suck.

So, let's get into the good stuff and talk about the tools and drills you will be using to improve your reaction speed.

Tools and Drills -

 1. Reflex Ball Drops - You'll need to obtain one of those reflex balls things. It'll set you back about $10 but it's worth it. Reflex Ball Drops are pretty simple to do. Start off in an athletic stance (I just use a regular "fighting stance") and hold the ball out in front of you at chest level. Drop the ball and allow it to hit the ground. As soon as it bounces go after it and try to catch it.

The Reflex Ball is built in such a way that it makes anticipating the direction the ball will bounce very difficult. Your ultimate goal is to be able to catch ball after only the initial bounce. In the beginning, though, you can count it as a success if you manage to just touch the ball.

To make the drill more difficult drop the ball from head height or have a partner stand several feet away and drop it. Have Fun.

 2. Tennis Ball Toss and Partner Throws - A Tennis ball actually pretty useful (aside from the sport). One simple way you can use it is to simply throw it to yourself. Just toss it up and catch it. You can vary the difficulty by tossing with one hand and catching with the other, throwing it up and away and running to catch it, or even tossing it up with your eyes closed and opening your eyes to catch the ball.

Another way to use Tennis Balls is to have a partner throw a few at you while you try to dodge, duck, and block them. Alternatively you can also work on punching and kicking them (though I have found this less useful).

You'll want to have quite a few handy so it may be best to just grab a bag of them. Target and Wal-Mart both sell bags of 10-20 tennis balls pretty cheap.

 3. Maize Bag - This is such a useful yet under-utilized training tool. A Maize Bag is simply a small, filled bag suspended at head height from the ceiling with either a length of rope or chain. The purpose of the tool is to help improve the fighter's sense of distance and reactions - especially good for teaching the skills needed to slip punches.
All you need to do is push the maize bag and it will swing like a pendulum. Stand in a fighting stance in the path of its swing. As the Maize Bag gets close you "slip" to the left or right and allow the bag to pass by you.

Over time, as you get better, you can work on more advanced drills with the bag. Here's a good video showing stuff you can do with a Maize Bag.

Now, you can buy a Maize Bag. Or you can just make one out of an old sock, some sand, and a length of rope or chain. Hang the tool at head height.

 4. The Double End Bag - Another under-utilized tool for martial artists and fighters. The Double End Bag is my personal favorite for improving distancing, timing, and reflex speed.

The bag is suspended between two cords (one attached to the floor and the other attached to the ceiling). When you strike the bag it'll bounce around quickly. This action gives you a few options. If you want to work on accuracy, reflexes, and timing for strikes you can attempt successive strikes as the bag is rapidly moving around. You can also work on dodging the bag as it moves towards you. I've found a combination of both works best and is how most fighters prefer to use the Double End Bag.

Here's a cool clip of some Double End Bag work.

 5. Focus Mitts - There are all kinds of ways you can structure your focus mitt sessions. But when I'm I'm working to improve reflex speed I like the following drill:

Your partner will hold the mitts so that they face their body. At random intervals your partner will hold out the mitts and yell a number. The mitt position and number indicate the appropriate strike or combo you will deliver (jab, cross, hook, uppercut, ect...). Both of you should be very mobile and active. Your partner should string together combos. Mix it up and work hard.

Check out this clip that demonstrates a similar method to the one I use.

 6. Sparring Drills - By itself sparring is very useful for improving reflex speed. However, sometimes it is necessary to focus on and isolate specific aspects of one's "fight game" in order to really improve. Improving reflex speed is one of those reasons.

You can work on your defensive reflex speed by having your partner throw nothing but attacks while you focus on defending. You can isolate even further by having your sparring partner throw nothing but jabs or jab/cross combos at you while you defend. Determine what you need to work on and do that.

Your offensive reflexes can be honed by focusing on how to recognize and react to specific situations and openings. Have you sparring partner randomly create an opening which you must react to or throw a specific combo which you must counter attack.

 When to Train to Improve Your Reflexes -

Like everything else, different training methods to improve reflex speed fall on a continuum that moves from general drills to drills that are more specific to martial arts and combat sports.

Each of these drills are important to you. You'll notice that the first few drills (the ones that tend to fall more to the "General" side of the training continuum) can be done solo. This is great because you don't need to find a training partner - yet you can still work on improving a skill that will improve your fighting.

The last two drills are more "Specific" to the martial arts and combat sports. As such they offer you, as a martial artist or fighter, much more "bang for your buck". If you can, you need to spend as much time as possible with these drills.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to when you should use these drills in your training program. However, I do have some suggestions you might find helpful:
  • Reflex Ball Drops seem to work best for me at the beginning of a workout. I really like to do them right after my warm-up (actually I consider them part of my warm-up).
  • The Tennis Ball Toss is really an anytime drill. I use it when I'm bored (like when I'm sitting in front of my computer trying think of awesome content for this blog ;) ). Sometimes if I don't feel up to a regular workout but I want some active rest I'll go outside and throw the ball around and get a bit more into it.
  • Tennis Ball Partner Throws are, again, great for active rest days with your training partner. Also, they're great ways to settle disputes and can give you a reason to make bets.
  • The Maize Bag is a perfect tool to help you better utilize rest periods between rounds and sets - much better than posing in front of the mirror.
  • The Double End Bag, Focus Mitt Drills, and Sparring Drills should be regular parts of training. Throw them in when and where ever you want.
If you devote the time to really training these drills you should see results in as little as two weeks. As I stated earlier, it is very important for you as a martial artist to devote time to improving your reflexes. Now get out there and do some training!

Train Hard,
Josh Skinner (donjitsu2)

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