Please note that this article is not intended to criticise individual instructors, but rather a comment against the current system of education and qualifications in pad work. I love training and teaching pad work routines. Using pads is an integral part of martial arts training and brings great benefits. It is a great way to improve fitness, coordination, strength and self-confidence. My issue with Boxercise and other similar systems is the time it takes to become a qualified instructor. Being able to hold pads and being able to punch pads are two sets of skills and to become skilful in anything takes time. To be able to effectively teach these skills requires experience as well as knowledge of teaching in either a 1-2-1 or group situations.
In browsing through social media I have noticed a surge of instructors offering pad work. From the images and videos I have seen it appears as though they have very little experience of how to hold pads safely. Seeing the way that they hold these pads raises the question in my mind why are they teaching? It turns out that in order to qualify as a pad work instructor typically only requires a one day course – that is why they are teaching. However, being able to obtain an instructing qualification quickly extends beyond the realm of pad work. When I did my PT qualification we received 4 hours of kettlebell training. After this we were assessed on what we had learnt and having passed this assessment all of the participants on my course were qualified in kettlebell instruction. I found this slightly surprising and so I spoke with my classmates about their confidence in teaching kettlebells. Most of them said that they did not wish to teach kettlebells because they had no prior experience and did not feel that the training they had received was enough for them to feel confident in teaching others correctly.
In my opinion this system of having just a 4-8 hour course to train instructors will sooner or later result in injury. Recent studies suggest that the shortest time it takes to learn a new skill 20 hours (for example: https://first20hours.com/) with more traditional views suggesting it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Certainly in the case of martial arts I think 10,000 hours is more realistic – I am not aware of anyone who has been able to proficiently learn a martial art in 20 hours! Even the fast learning systems implemented in organisations such as the Army to fast track soldiers to be combat ready takes 140 hours.
As an example of the types of areas covered by these 1 day instructors courses please find below an extract from the Boxercise website of the topics covered in 1 day:
“Punches – learn and practise the eight fundamental punches ensuring correct & safe technique. Learn the importance of good footwork and stance.
Group Work Section including instructing skills & Boxercise Aerobics
Boxing Equipment Discussion and good practise recommendations. Class format and design.
Padwork – Learn all the relevant safety and coaching points for using the focus pads. Also learn how to coach every punching fault so you are prepared for when it occurs in a real world situation.
Assessment – Working in pairs you will be assessed on your ability to coach, teach and instruct a novice puncher and demonstrate all punches safely and effectively. Pass mark 70%.
Class Examples of four different styles of Boxercise class, including bootcamp style.
The Boxercise Instructor Course includes footwork drills 1-17 for the Boxercise Footwork Training System.”
This is a lot to learn in one day, especially when you consider that you then have to be able to teach someone else. I have been practicing martial arts for nearly 20 years and have been on both sides, as the puncher and as the pad holder. Based on my experience I would definitely say that to be proficient at either takes more than a day.
Instructors often post pictures from their training sessions and from these you can notice basic mistakes such as holding the pads too high or too wide. From this you can deduce that the holder does not have sufficient tension in their arms to prevent injury. It is also not very realistic for the person who punches – unless they are fighting with a very tall person with two heads. Another common mistake I have noticed is the pad holder doing all of the work, smashing the gloves of their client. This may sound and feel stronger for the client, but it does nothing for his/her fitness.
Here are some points to avoid when holding pads:
- Pads at the wrong height
Holding the pads very high causes a lot of stress on the shoulders as muscles are not able to provide support to the arm when receiving a punch in this position. This is also bad for the person punching as they do not learn realistic targeting. The pad holder should keep the pads at an appropriate height for the target such as the head or body in relation to their build.
- Pads at the wrong width
Holding the pads in an unrealistic position where the pads are too wide apart can cause the person who is punching to overstretch and slows down their technique. In the same way that holding the pads too high causes stress on the shoulders, holding them too wide does as well. The pads should be held within your own shoulder width at the appropriate target position (head or body).
- Relaxed arms
Keeping your arms relaxed is dangerous for both the pad holder and puncher. The puncher does not get any feedback about their technique and risks hyper extension whilst executing a punch due to lack of resistance. Conversely, without tension in their arms the pad holder does not have much control over their muscles in order to protect their joints when receiving a punch, which might easily lead to injury.
Many instructors hit the punch of their client with the pad in order to make it sound and feel more powerful. By doing this we create a false distance for the target and cause unnecessary impact on the joints of both the holder and puncher. This behaviour teaches the puncher to shorten their technique and therefore they cannot develop full power. There should be a very slight movement towards the punch just before contact so that your joints can prepare for receiving the impact, but this movement should be minimal.
It is not enough to just ask the client to punch with a particular combination. You have to actively monitor and correct his/her technique throughout the workout. For example giving tips on footwork, striking technique and body mechanics. The instructor should be looking to spot errors at all times, but in order to do this he/she needs experience in punching and body mechanics.
In summary good pad holding helps to:
- Prevent injury to the pad holder and puncher
- Establish the correct distance for each technique
- Enforce the use of proper body mechanics
- Improve punching skill
- Support a smooth transition between punches
Upper cut punch
Tension to receive punch
All of this takes time and practice. As with other manual skills, our brain and muscles need time to develop neuromuscular patterns. In my opinion a few hours on a course does not provide enough time to attain these skills and in this article I have only touched on the basics. There is a lot more to consider in pad work such as punching technique, structure, moving, progression and use of different types of pads. It is such a vast topic that it is not surprising that great pad holders are paid top money for their instruction. They spend years developing their approaches.
If you want to learn how to hold pads correctly I would recommend visiting a boxing gym or martial arts club where the use of pads is embedded in their system of training. Alternatively find a pad work instructor with demonstrable experience.
About the author: Les Bubka is an experienced martial artist, personal trainer and therapist who specialises in posture, mobility and Karate. Les works with a wide variety of clients including martial artists and athletes as well as those suffering with postural dysfunction or those who wish to improve their fitness and wellbeing. Our club provides classes in Guildford area. Contact via email firstname.lastname@example.org