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Your Essential Guide To MMA Beginner Sparring Tips & Tricks

MMA sparring tips for beginners in the sport.

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So you want to begin your journey in MMA, but you are not quite sure where to start? Once you start training and feel comfortable you can then move on to the next phase in your development, MMA beginner sparring. But where do I start and what should I do to prepare myself I hear you ask.

MMA sparring for beginners can be made less daunting by doing certain things in advance. Firstly get fitter, second know your skill level and do not try anything too fancy yet. Don’t rush things, you will learn more as you progress and don’t forget to protect yourself at all time

First, you have to find out if there is MMA sparring nearby in your locality.

Having to travel long distances is usually something professional MMA fighters who move between gyms, or travel long distances. All in their quest to at some point become for instance a UFC fighter.

MMA training is something you will have to dedicate yourself to if you want to become really good. It is all about time and effort, the hours you put in, and the hard sparring you will have to do at some point down the line. All with the goal of hopefully one day becoming an MMA professional.

Or, you may just be someone who likes to train a little, more of a hobby and a way to keep fit, it’s all good. Whatever you want to do with your time is your choice, but be aware that training and sparring in MMA will be gruelling, but we wouldn’t want it any other way now would we?

Preparing For My First Gym Session

If at all possible what I would recommend is that you get into some type of shape, even good shape if possible, before you hit the MMA gym. Depending on the gym you finally do decide to attend, it could be quite a shock to the system when you end up doing rope climbs, fireman carries, and battle ropes followed by sparring drills.

In fact, I would honestly say one of the biggest turn-offs for most people I have personally seen quit, is their fitness level. The vast majority of people come from the couch straight to the gym. And the expected levels of fitness are nowhere near where they should or could be.

A student in the MMA training doing a rope climb.
A student doing the rope climb during training.

MMA is a tough sport and it requires tough training. So preparing for your sparring means getting yourself ready both physically and mentally! And while some light training might be what you are hoping for. In reality, it’s really the last thing you should want.

In order for you to grow during your mixed martial arts journey, you need to be pushed in order to break down both physical and mental barriers. A famous quote from Navy Seals says;

“When your mind is telling you that you’re done, that you’re exhausted, that you cannot possibly go any further, you’re only actually 40% done.”

Jesse Itzler “Living With A SEAL.”

Meaning that just when you think you have given it your all, you dig deep, deeper than you have ever gone before and pull out that extra something to finish the fight.

Mental toughness is as much a part of MMA as fighting ability. So as you are beginning your journey. Be prepared to push the envelope and bring yourself to places you never thought you could go.

Always Warm Up Before Training

Now the warm-up can be as intense or easygoing as you like. But the most important aspect of it is the stretching. As you will be put in some pretty strenuous positions, it’s important that you are supple and have a good range of motion.

A line of students warming up before their MMA training begins.
Students warming up during their class.

Many gyms will spend a good 30 – 45 minutes just on the warmup, often incorporating much of the pre-sparring, pre-technique drilling cardio workout. So expect to get a good sweat on even before you start any actual mixed martial arts.

Use this time to prepare for the rest of the class, as the warm-up is often meant to help you push your limits. Using techniques such as;

  • Circuit training including jump boxes, kettlebells, sprints
  • Bodyweight exercises like lunges, squats, wall sits and pushups.
  • Fireman carries, where you carry a team member up and down the matt on your shoulders

All of this and more before you start working some drills which can range from hitting mitts, working on your takedown defence against the wall, and working the double legs takedowns. Familiarising yourself with a range of submissions and overall just preparing for the sparring where you will apply what you have learned.

You Don’t Have To Spar Yet

It’s quite important that you realise you do not have to spar if you do not want to! MMA sparring when you are a beginner can be very daunting and there is a lot to learn. You may very well be more comfortable spending the first few weeks or even months just drilling those techniques.

Then when you believe are finally ready to jump in, do just that! Most MMA gyms will do their sparring on specific nights or at specific times on a night. So you can do your training then sit by and watch the more experienced guys until you feel ready to participate.

Most coaches will have very basic sparring drills for beginners and more complex techniques for their experienced students. You may well be mixed in with people who have been training for significantly longer than you. But you will find that most are happy to help out a fellow student.

The First Sparring Session

The first sparring session in the gym could be one to remember or a total dud. The likelihood is that you have some good teammates who are more experienced than you. They will take the time to help you with your technique.

So say for instance you are doing some standup kickboxing and you keep dropping your hands. A good sparring partner might make you aware of this, but if you keep doing it, they may capitalise and give you a little tap to remind you.

Two guys sparring in the gym on the mats during training.
Two students sparring in the gym.

Honestly, you do not want sparring partners who make life too easy for you. As if you get a false sense of confidence, as I have done. Then some unknown new guy comes to the gym who you do not know and basically schools you.

All because A, is better, but more importantly B, your teammates were not pushing you and opening you up to the inevitability that not everyone will go lightly with you. Keeping your skillset and your experiences on the mats limited.

Know Your Skill Level

If you are in a gym with some professionals or even highly skilled amateurs you need to realise at what level you are at in terms of skills and experience. If you know that there are fighters sparring in the gym who are a lot more skilled than you and quite aggressive, don’t spar with them.

You need to take your time and mature into the training aspect of the sport. If you get put in with some guys who are not known for taking things easy, it could be quite off-putting, especially if it happens more than once.

There will be plenty of time for you to gain the experience you need to eventually stand and roll with the pros in the gym. Use this time to gain the experience necessary to put in a good workout, so that you feel you achieved something after all that hard work.

Some MMA Sparring Tips

The first thing I would say does not get aggressive, please do not get aggressive. Even the person you are competing with again goes too hard. It’s better that you take a seat or you simply choose to not spar with that person in future.

You will meet all kinds of people inside an MMA gym, the quiet ones who seem like they would not hurt a fly, then kick your butt. The big lumps who you think will be the toughest person in the gym, only to find they are a big teddy bear.

The nerd whose mom didn’t make him his favourite lunch for school today. And now he’s looking to take out all of his aggression on you because he thinks no one respects him! So you have to be prepared to face all kinds of people, just like in our daily lives.

Be A Good Sparring Partner

So how do I become a good sparring partner? It’s a great question and one which has a pretty straightforward answer. Be respectful and do not bully your sparring partner, just because you can.

I have experienced it myself, having a coach who would hit me pretty much full power in the face. The reason for this I believe was two-fold. One, he was just a bully and an overly aggressive person by nature. Two, he had an issue with who I was and where I came from.

And so decided to use his experience and status to basically kick my ass badly during sparring. It was not fun and I did not stay at the gym very long. If your own coach is working you over and you are not learning, just pick up your gear and leave!

Working On Your Techniques

Obviously mixed martial arts is a combination of many martial arts. And so you will need to cross-train in each discipline in order to get a better understanding of each. So that you can chain or put together the different disciplines.

This means when you see fighters switching between their striking and grappling. Going from the standup position and taking your opponent to the ground via a takedown.

Below I’ll lay out some of the key aspects of MMA and an overview of the training required to achieve good repeatable results.

Examples Of Sparring Tips For Beginners

Training Takedowns

Takedowns in MMA are all about explosiveness and timing. The idea behind getting a takedown is to bring your opponent to the ground, where you may feel more comfortable or because you are being outstruck on the feet. When you shoot for a takedown you need;

  • To drop your level from upright to squatting height.
  • As you shoot in on your opponent your lead leg should end up between their legs as you bring that knee to the floor.
  • Your hand will clasp around the back of your opponent’s thighs.
  • While your head ends up buried tight to their side just above your waste, not too high as you could end up in a guillotine.
  • The other leg is used to drive forward effectively dragging their legs under you as they fall over, while you end up in the top position.

Training Sprawls

The key to the sprawl in MMA is timing, speed and good hips, with the idea behind the sprawl, which is that you stuff or stop the takedown of your opponent. You do this by;

  • Going from a standing fighting position, knees slightly bent.
  • Thrown both legs behind and under you as though you are going to lie down in the prone position.
  • Your hands should catch the weight of your body and be about shoulder height.
  • This signifies the position you would then be in during sparring. With your opponents under you with their back facing you, in a north-south position, as you control their posture.
  • Heavy hips on top of your opponent make them carry all your weight, stopping their takedown and helping to tire them out.
  • Use the position to get back to your feet or manoeuvre around to their back to go for the, always maintaining a hooked hand under their ribs.

Learning Ground And Pound

Now there are a few ways to train ground and pound, either with a partner, using a grappling dummy or a long punching laid on the ground. In reality training with a partner is the best as they can use different techniques to simulate a real fight.

An MMA fighter uses a grappling dummy during his training session in the gym.
An MMA fighter using a grappling dummy.

Training With A Grappling Dummy

You might have seen these being used more commonly by professional fighters. Grappling dummies simulate a real person and are widely used as part of the training toolkit in MMA gyms.

  • What effectively looks and feels like a human figure with arms and legs.
  • You mount the dummy, knees to each side.
  • Keep the knees tight up to the armpits as you would in a fight.
  • Cover the face with your chest and forearms.
  • Then posture up with your back upright and rain down 3 – 6 elbows (No 12 – 6, meaning straight down as these are illegal).
  • You will usually do these in bursts of 3 minutes sets.

Training With A Punching Bag

Here is some tips for you to simulate being in the mount position. Using a punching bag instead of a grappling dummy, when there’s none available.

  • Get a heavy long punching bag and lay it out on the floor
  • Mount the bag as you did the dummy
  • Keep your knees tight in the bag to simulate controlling your opponent on the ground
  • Same as before, simulate the opponent being under you and you cover their face and mouth with your chest, arms and hands.
  • Use different techniques like cutting elbows from the side, and shoulder butts to the head area
  • These are all great sparring drills for beginners as you work that muscle memory, without having the luxury of a training partner.

Have A Training Partner

In a perfect world, you will have someone with whom you can train your ground and pound. Having a training partner is so much better than training on your own. As a live body can fight back and avoid your attacks, hence making you think more and grow better.

  • Most done from the guard, the training partner holds mitts, usually the bigger ones, close to their upper chest.
  • You will look to posture up and strike the mitts with punches and elbows, but not at 100% power, more like 30% – 50%.
  • The partner may give you some light strikes with the mitts to let you know they are not just passively lying there
  • The bonus of this interaction is you get to feel what having a human, as opposed to an inanimate object under you that does not respond.
Two MMA fighters sparring on the mats working their submissions.
MMA fighters sparring submissions on the ground.

Grappling and Submissions

There are two main schools of grappling in the Western world, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling. There are of course other grappling-based martial arts that continue to have success in MMA. But for the most part, BJJ and wrestling in its many facets are the staples of grappling for MMA.

  • Nowadays most gyms will have stand-alone BJJ or wrestling classes, so try both and see which one suits you best.
  • Grappling is all about conditioning, when you are on the ground don’t overexert yourself.
  • Don’t freak out, stay calm and breathe as normally as possible as you will gas out quickly if you are over-breathing or under breathing.
  • If you are caught in a submission and there’s no way out tap out, there is no shame and it’s all part of the sport. Better to leave the sparring session in one piece to fight another day.

Your Kicking Game

Many of the great MMA fighters of the world train Muay Thai-based standup striking. While we have seen several of the Karate based fighters making inroads into the sport, they are nowhere in number when compared to Muay Thai advocates. With its clinches and knees to the body and legs, Muay Thai is well suited to close-quarter combat inside the MMA cage.

  • Keeping a high guard with your hands protecting your jaw, remember this is a kicking martial art, so be prepared
  • Stay fluid and don’t be flat-footed, stay light on your feet and keep your opponent guessing
  • Using feints or setting up repeating patterns before switching them up and catching them unexpectedly, it’s how the best in the business do it
  • Use your shins to block or as it’s called check kicks, wearing shin pads of course. But blocking kicks is essential if you want to stay in the fight.
  • Now catching kicks is not something most trainers seem to want their fighters to do. It’s all about timing and if you get it wrong you may get a shin in the forearm and in that exchange, shin wins every time.

Working On Your Boxing

As all MMA fights start on the feet, boxing sparring is another key aspect of the sport. Many great MMA fighters were first and foremost boxers who adapted their skills to the sport of MMA. So it is of the utmost importance that you get some quality boxing sparring.

  • Boxing for MMA is different from what we might call traditional boxing. The distances are different and the use of head movement is also quite different.
  • MMA fighters cannot dip their heads down or lean too much in any one direction for fear of kicks and takedowns.
  • In boxing, you have much bigger gloves which can help defend the head. MMA gloves are much smaller and you need to be aware of this, even when MMA sparring.
Two MMA fighters were boxing during their sparring inside the gym.
Two fighters are boxing during a training session.

Chaining Techniques Together

When you have worked on the basics of the sport you will be able to begin working on chaining each of the disciplines together into seamless movements. Punches into takedowns, takedowns into grappling and grappling into submissions and ground and pound.

You will hear it again and again when watching a live mixed martial arts fight. Fighters such as Georges St-Pierre or Frankie Edgar and their ability to chain together techniques. In other words, seamlessly flow from one to another. This ability to flow and not have gaps in your techniques often separates the good from the great fighters.

Have The Right Gear

Having the gear for training in MMA could be the difference between you having a lot of fun or a really bad night in the gym. The whole point of MMA training gear is to help protect your body and minimise any damage. So don’t skimp on the essentials when it comes time to spar.

So when you finally get around to buying your sparring gear, make sure it’s good quality. That means boxing gloves, MMA sparring gloves, headgear, shin pads and of course that all-important groin cup.

Trust me, when I say that if you do decide to go for that cheaper set of shin pads or that budget gum shield. Only when you are in the middle of the training, will you discover how wrong a decision you have made. But hopefully, it won’t require you to lose some teeth or worse.

Final Thoughts

When all is said and done and you being your journey and dive into sparring in MMA. You will have done everything in your power to prepare yourself for the road ahead. There may be some bumps along the way, but it will all be worth it in the end.

Learning a sport such as MMA will not only give you better health. But you will also gain confidence in yourself and what you can achieve. It’s going to be a fun yet testing one, but savour it and enjoy the ride.