Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Are You Sparring Too Much?

I recently came across an article regarding MMA fighter Jamie Varner and his recent retirement. In it, Varner talks about his concerns that too much sparring can lead to severe head trauma and prematurely end a fighter's career.

The whole article can be read here at Bloody Elbow - good stuff.

This brings up a great point that I've talked about in the past. Namely, brain trauma is a serious concern for those of us involved in full-contact fight sports and we should take steps to prevent it. The effects of brain trauma accumulate over time and can lead to progressively worse issues - slower reaction speeds, impaired memory and speech patterns, changes in personality, impaired motor control, and even dementia.

Not fun stuff.

In previous posts I've talked about ways to prevent brain trauma. One of the suggestions I've put forward is to take it easy on the sparring. Obviously, if you are getting hit too hard by your sparring partner then your risk for brain trauma will go up significantly.

But, even if you're sparring with light contact, could you still be sparring too much?

How much is too much?

In the Blood Elbow article, Varner suggests sparring once a week or once every other week with headgear, 16oz gloves, and a mouth-guard. This is very cautious, reasonable advice. However, I suspect Varner is talking about sparring with a lot harder contact than what I'd suggest.

Personally, I would advise more frequent sparring done at a much lighter contact level. In Muay Thai this is known as "timing sparring" and it is not uncommon to see Thai boxers engaging in such sparring without the use (or need) of protective equipment.

Related: Sparring Like the Thais

The fact of the matter is, there is no consensus regarding the frequency of sparring. We know that brain trauma can occur even when a blow to the head does not cause a concussion. We know that brain trauma accumulates and is made worse by successive blows to the head - again, even if those blows are "sub-concussive". Finally, we know that when a sub-concussive brain injury does occur, it needs a minimum of 5 days worth of recovery time. For an injury that does result in a concussion the recovery time is much longer (1-2 months).

So, the question about how frequently should one spar comes down to a question of how much "contact" to utilize during a sparring session. My advice is more frequent session (3-5 a week) with a much lighter contact level to prevent the chance of brain injury.

We have to remember that sparring is a very effective training method for preparing for a fight. Varner is right that sparring is meant to be a toughness test  - sparring isn't a fight. But, sparring, when done correctly, is one of the only ways to really simulate fighting against a real person - which is what we're all training for.

Harder contact sparring has it's place. Particularly when preparing for a fight. But even then, it should be used sparingly. The Risk vs Reward ratio just isn't worth training hard sparring too much. 

I respect Varner's opinion. He is a very accomplished professional fighter. I just think his level of caution stems more his own medical issues (which have forced him into an early retirement) and the "you've got spar hard to prove you're a badass" culture in the gym where he trained.

So, spar. Spar frequently. But do it with proper protective gear and do it with light contact. Just don't avoid it, because it is a highly useful tool.

Train Hard (and safe),
Josh Skinner

You might also like: 

 3 Quick Tips for Better Sparring


  1. I would recommend hard sparring but with only light blows to the head. I believe it's part of the training to learn how to take beating and hard blows, kicks and even knees and elbows to the body are not that dangerous.

    1. Actually, this is a great alternative as well.