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For The Sake Of Safety: Hand Sparring Gear And The Loss Of Hand Techniques

By Christopher Caile

Protective equipment on the hands and feet during sparring in karate, taekwondo and in many kung fu styles has it increased safety, but have they also created a new set of problems?

With safety equipment grabbing, pulling in, catching an arm and some blocks, such as a wrist blocks have all been eliminated. With thick glove padding hand techniques are now only blunt instrument hits that emphasis power.

Using safety equipment during sparring has affected a lot of technique – especially those of the hand. The palm strike and bent wrist block have all but disappeared, and grabbing has been virtually eliminated too. Furthermore the knuckles have become so padded in foam or other material that they have become solely instruments of blunt power attacks. In short, is safety equipment turning karate into a power punch and kick art?

Of course sparring was always regulated in the name of safety. Targets were limited and certain techniques were not allowed such as elbow and knee strikes, attacks to the neck, spine or eyes, etc. In many styles the legs were off bounds too. But still, participants had some freedom to utilize many of the grabbing, trapping, sweeping and other techniques – those same techniques found in kata, and which help define the art form.

Before safety equipment was adopted sparring often involved grabbing another at the chest or shoulder and pulling in, pushing, or grabbing an arm to control it or effect a sweep. The variety of techniques was much greater than found today. Since in many karate, taekwondo and kung fu schools sparring is virtually the only person on person fighting practice people get, this reduction in technique can prove to be a limitation.

Without safety equipment sparring used to be much more rough and tumble with fighters exercising many grabbing and catching techniques. At left Mas Oyama is seen catching this author's neck to pull in for a punch during sparring during a photo session for his book, "This Is Karate" (1961 in Tokyo). This type of technique directly translates into self-defense. At right this author demonstrates a self-defense technique against a grab and punch attack (Seido Karate Honbu Seminar 1992).

So, what happens on the street, if and when the martial artist comes face to face with a real threat? Well, the many knife/spear hand attacks, grabs, off-balances, elbows, knees, head butts, groin and kidney strikes and pressure point techniques found in kata, just aren’t practiced. Without practice they become irrelevant, something the mind might be aware of, but not trained into the instinctive and reactive muscle memory of the body. And what has been trained within sparring is further reduced by the limitations imposed by protective equipment.

Remember the original purpose of karate and kung fu was self-defense. This is not to say that sparring should not be safe, or that safety equipment should not be used. But, it does suggest that students should also practice real street self-defense and that effective techniques should not be eliminated just because they don’t belong in sparring.

How many advanced, highly ranked martial artists do you know who would have no idea how to react if someone grabbed their hair and pulled them (hard) forward and down? I can tell you that in self-defense seminar after seminar, those I have tested have been totally befuddled by this and a variety of other street type attacks.

This is not to say that sparring and competition can be very important. They provide valuable experience in one-on-one simulated combat, build confidence and develop coordination, skill and a sense of timing. Safety equipment can also help avoid injury and this is a plus.

But sparring and safety in sparring (use of protective equipment) should not be over emphasized at the expense of kata (with applications) and realistic self-defense training. To be prepared for the street, the martial artist should be trained in defensive and counter techniques and tactics, done without protective equipment, and under supervision.

The more realistic the attack and defense, the more the participants will actually be prepared of a real life assault. This will produce more well rounded karate, taekwondo or kung fu practitioner, one who just might thank his teacher if he is ever actually attacked on the street.

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About The Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes judo, aikido, diato-ryu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International Chi Medicine Association. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

protective equipment in karate, martial arts Safety equipment, karate safety equipment, sparring, kumite, practice fighting, fighting

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