Specific Training

A while back I put my thoughts down on what I considered to be the most beneficial way to approach physical training. The piece was called “The Hierarchy of Training” and it was designed to apply time management principles in a fitness world that is now saturated with accessible information and fast-developing trends. At the top of that hierarchy I named something I call “Specific Training”. This form of training provides the essence of learning and physical progress.

Specific training has a lot of different interpretations across the martial arts world. For me, specific training is defined in the same way as it is in many Brazilian jiu jitsu schools. This is a form of restrictive pressure testing intended to develop a specific tactic or technique. You would begin with a student being shown a technique[i]. The student practices the technique carefully against a compliant training partner. It is important that the partner does not resist, but at the same time is not over-compliant. Once both partners are satisfied with the execution of the technique, you apply a small degree of pressure. The early stages of this should develop into a type of simplistic drill. If this is being done correctly a student trying to apply the technique under “50%”[ii] pressure should still be achieving their goal, but with a good deal of difficulty. After this level of pressure the training partner should be trying incrementally harder to prevent the person practicing the technique from being successful. To give you an idea, a person applying “60%” pressure should be using around the same sort of contact and force as he was at “50%”, but making a conscious effort to prevent his partner from succeeding. If the person training the technique is unsuccessful at this stage then there is little point in him progressing any further.

If we were to measure this in combat sport levels of intensity I would say that “80%” to “99%” is anything from a light spar to a full-on competitive spar. After that it’s a genuine competition. Self-defence versus sport arguments to one side, I think this presents a pretty clear idea of how to gauge training intensity.


In general terms specific training is simply training for an unambiguous purpose. If you want to get good at self-defence then you need to train specifically self-defence. If you want to get good at a certain technique or tactic then you need to train that technique or tactic in context. You will note that I consider this restrictive pressure testing to be higher in importance than even all-out pressure testing or sparring. I believe this to be the case whatever you objectives. In simple terms, this is because you learn more. To use an analogy, a bodybuilder understands he needs to cultivate different sections of his body and specific muscle groups to increase their size. Compound movements and exercises are generally a secondary concern[iii] for the bodybuilder. If he needs to gain or maintain size on his bicep he needs to train this muscle group in a restrictive fashion, often tackling a weight that is just above the level he can manage and training the muscle to the point of failure. Likewise the best way to improve a single technique or tactic is to isolate it and train it to failure.[iv]This is how you really get to “own” what you have learnt. Being able to use something against a fully resistant opponent or enemy is one thing, being able to do it against a fully resistant opponent or enemy who knows this is what you are going to do is something else!

Of course, there must be an integration procedure and this should follow as soon as possible – perhaps in the same training session. And although I prioritize this form of training above all others, it is worth remembering that this is a method contained within the process of cross-training. I don’t see styles so much as individual movements and universal principles. For example, a core exercise in my teaching method is something we call Strategy One versus Strategy Two. Strategy One focuses only on striking, evasion, pushing and anti-grappling tactics. A person who practices this strategy in a pressure test is restricted to these ranges and often paired with someone who is restricted to Strategy Two, closing distance, covering and grappling tactics. This particular exercise has many different benefits which I won’t go into here, but from a physical application perspective we see that it forces individuals to find different ways to apply their tactics. Once a grappler gobbles up someone’s distance and has achieved a clinch or ground position his opponent usually has to resort to grappling tactics of his own. However, when you take this away he now has to create new opportunities to use other non-grappling tactics. If done correctly this helps promote the “I am not playing your game” attitude.

In self-defence this is obviously very desirable, as the typical civilian defender does not want to spend more than is absolutely necessary in grappling range with a violent adversary. Although not a restriction, the Strategy One student is also instructed to keep going after a specific target such as the head. Obviously if any other targets present themselves they are told attack or remove them in order to access this primary one. The Strategy Two student often wears a full head cage for safety reasons and also to emphasize the importance of this target.


In MMA we have seen the progress made by those who learnt how not to allow others to dictate the range of fighting. Initially it was the Brazilian jiu jitsukas who spent decades practicing a very efficient form of Strategy Two training, where they could close the distance on any typically trained or untrained fighter in another discipline and take them to the ground where they were masters. Then wrestlers very effectively learnt how to exploit their defences against takedowns from standing up or how to form a base on the ground that would not allow them to be swept – the notorious “ground ‘n pound”.  Finally the striker, who was initially at a loss, learnt that by understand the other two ranges effectively he could defend the takedown and find other opportunities to strike – the notorious “sprawl ‘n brawl”. With in-class cages becoming standard in many MMA classes my prediction is that the stage of efficient fighters will probably be those who can utilize this aspect to their advantage. There is also a vast scope of exploration in striking from the guard position an area of combat that Royce Gracie only hinted at during the low rules days of the early Ultimate Fighting Championships.


Specific training also defines the clarification part of my C.S.I. approach to teaching – Clarification, Scepticism and Individuality. The objective in specific training is always very clear. Just by giving different opponents different objectives, the whole training dynamic becomes different than the usual “to and fro” game of dominance we see. In a sporting context we can see this in what Brazilian jiu jitsu calls guard-passing – one fighter’s objective is to get back past the fighter’s legs and pin him; the other fighters objective is to get a sweep (turning an opponent) or to secure a submission hold. In self-defence pressure testing these set objectives help reinforce the importance of escape over domination. So, some restrictive training might involve a student starting from a grounded position where his objective is to fight to get to his feet and flee. Another exercise might have him facing multiple assailants who he has to fight or evade so he can reach a designated safe zone.


In conclusion my advice for anyone who is training in combative skill is to train specifically first. Set some time aside from your normal class work with a partner who is willing to work within set parameters, gradually testing your skill at a certain technique, tactic or range. A great by-product from this type of training is that you will find yourself developing some great support skills in the form of better all round movement and a more focused direction in your training. 


[i] Taking this a stage further, the technique should be initially “quarried” from another pressure test or at least from witnessing it being applied in a case study. Although technique quarrying is a big part of my approach to teaching, time does not always permit this natural selection process to take place. Ideally students discover primal grappling and striking methods when put under fight pressure. These techniques are then isolated using the specific training method.

[ii] Scare quotes are there to show that this isn’t a measurable percentage. Obviously trying to apply percentages in this type of activity is anything but an exact science. Use it as a rough guide in line with common sense.

[iii] I appreciate that compound movements are also used a lot in bodybuilding in addition to isolated exercises, but it is within the isolation work, particularly through methods like pre-exhaustion, that the bodybuilder gets the most out of his routines. Please do not confuse my analogy in this instance. We are not training as bodybuilders. Compound exercises and movements, as discussed in the third level of my Hierarchy of Training, are considered to be far superior for developing power, speed and strength for combative students than isolation exercises.

[iv] Geoff Thompson once told me an interesting thing about a training method adopted in judo that was the complete opposite to this approach. In order to explore other areas of their fight game and to address certain weaknesses judoka students were encouraged to give up their favourite throw when they practiced randori (sparring).  

(c) Jamie Clubb. Copyright 2011

Photography by Sonia Audhali and Phil Shirley

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