Freestyle pad holding is the pinnacle of skill, but not always the summit of benefit to the hitter
I just released a video on basic Thai pad holding addressing the most common error now in vogue, hitting into the strikes with the pads. Part of the roots of this problem comes from freestyle pad holding, which I’ll analyze in this article. I’ll release a more advanced video later along with perhaps an e-book guide available on this site, but for now here’s an article on different types of pad holders at Muay Thai Pros which I find instructive.
In my mind the key benefit of learning to hit and hold freestyle is a commitment to understanding the rhythm and conventions of your art. I’ll focus on Muay Thai here, but Jeet Kune Do, kali, savate, wing chun, it’s all the same–you must hit the correct angles with somewhat standard timing to do this safely, or the impact will feel ‘off’– weak, bruising–or worse, injure the holder. Another key but understated benefit is you both feel awesome.
First a definition of ‘freestyle pad holding’: in the broadest sense, freestyle means a round where no strikes are called out and few set combos are used. One of the key benefits is it more closely simulates a sparring situation, allowing the hitter to do and react with what feels right. That said,
freestyle pad holding is no more free than free verse is
For the non-poetically minded, this means it’s not at the sole discretion of the hitter. There are conventions that allow us to be productive by signalling a ‘default’ hit or context (i.e. clinch range vs kick range). So if the hitter doesn’t have anything custom in mind, he can hit something the holder is more or less prepared for, even a small combo. This same practicality precludes some combos. For example, hitting a fast overhand right after a left knee can be hard to improvise until the holder had seen it once.
Typically you’ll start from a signal, do 1-3 reps of a default move, and improvise a couple in between as well. In the video link, you see a knee hit from the elbow hold which for the life of me I don’t know how he got the pad there almost in time (the belly pad gives you this freedom)
Let’s go through some of these:
Notice the pad is angled to accommodate a straight punch or uppercut. Maximum flexibility, but you end up altering your jab to deal with it–people will pull away diagonally down or push upwards into it, which is not how you really hit. You can flash the pad, hold it and wait, or push it out as our friend here is doing to force a reaction. You can’t get a Thai pad up for a punch fast enough, so holding for a punch is the default hold when you see forward motion.
Many pad holders will hold for the kick and allow the hitter to apply their own rhythm, possibly doubling or tripling up. But notice this isn’t truly ‘free’. I have yet to see someone kick fast enough where I can’t get the pad there on time, so I tend to hold neutral or for the punch, and then get the pad there when I see the kick coming. This is the most basic timing benefit for the holder: getting the kick hold in place on time.
The elbow hold I most often see set up as above, with the holder or hitter holding both hands up and their partner mirroring. From here, the hitter can hit many elbows, left or right, and the holder reacts, key to developing sensitivity (most important key to improving your striking). Notice that this does not simulate what I would call intelligent sparring, although you can view it as an out-of-range clinch simulation if you like. It’s true you see this in actual Thai fights, but I liken it to a game of chicken, betting you can get there first with more.
Now look at the actual hit, somewhat far away from the actual target to allow for safety and good body mechanics. In fact most hits on the pads tend to be farther out of range to protect the holder:
This is where we get the out of range, hitting the pad into the strike from–in order to accommodate developing another skill set, not for ‘regular’ hitting.
Now for what I find most impressive, the knee holds. They happen lightening fast, and here is where the holder really earns his keep. By the way, don’t ever try this the ‘real way’ without a Belly Protector.
Left hand same as for elbow, but rear hand down. Good for left or right knee. Easy to read the switch left, harder to read for the rear knee–watch for the preparatory dip. This can also be done as a right hold/left punch, allowing the hitter to practice the counter knee. Here’s another video showcasing some of this.
The belly protector allows for switching from anything to knees, kicks or teep without worrying about the holder messing up. Punches are wide and elbows are out of range, which is how the whole package fits together for holder safety. This allows both for improvisation and practicing fakes during freestyle pad holding.
I’ll go over holder striking in another article, so let’s summarize here:
Benefits of freestyle pad holding:
- Force education on conventions
- Simulate sparring in free flow and allow training dangerous tools full power
- Develop rhythm and ‘antagonistic cooperation’
- Allow hitter to work on what they are feeling that day
- Develop reaction timing for both hitter and holder
- Develop ‘eyes’ to read opponent of holder
- It’s just really cool, and demonstrates how awesome you both are
- Limits full speed/power tools to ‘freestyle-ready’ repertoire
- Often doesn’t train true range
- Certain combos must either be done slower or not at all
- Conditioning benefits can be restricted
- Can lack focus (not enough reps of any particular move)
If we apply the technique decision tree, freestyle pad holding develops skill and some combat effectiveness, but is best used to develop certain attributes, such as distancing, reaction, and timing. To develop speed, power, and overwhelming combo rhythm, there are better formats to choose from.
This may be out of reach for many MMA fighters, and there’s no shame in that. You have to do focus on what makes you effective with the trainers you have, but keeping this as a goal either for gradual development, or even after your fighting prime is over, will hopefully keep you pointed in the right direction for lifetime enjoyment and learning.