Why do coaches use pads to train their fighters? What benefits can be gained from training on the pads? The answers to these may seem like common sense but for most combat sports where striking is used, this is still an ever evolving aspect of their training repertoire. This guide to pad work in Martial Arts and Combat Sports has been put together to help give you more insight into not only the many different types of pads used, but also the hugely varied way that coaches work with them during training.
Let us begin!
- Small Focus Pads
- Hook and Jab Pads
- Large Focus Pads
- Boxing Paddles
- Boxing Noodles
- Punch Cushion
- Head Pad
- Thai Pads / Belly Pad
- Leg / Calf Guard
- Kick Shield
- Riot Shield
- Kick Paddles
- Give & Take
Focus pads and their many different variations are some of the most commonly used pads across all martial arts. Although the general public may stereotypically associate them primarily with Boxing, they can be found being used in most striking sports across the world.
Small Focus Pads
These small style focus pads are most commonly used for working on the accuracy, speed and snap of punching techniques. As such, they are most prolific in gyms that coach Boxing, Kickboxing, Muay Thai and MMA.
Their small diameter means that fighters have to develop a much more clean and accurate punching style when using them on a regular basis. A lot of coaches favour this hand sized pad when it comes to working on Boxing or hands only style training sessions. There are some Boxing coaches who will not use anything else.
Hook and Jab Pads
The next step up in size with regards to focus pads are often referred to as Hook and Jab Pads. Their larger diameter and increased padding allow for more sit through on punches. This in turn can often lead to more power based shots being used in training.
Although not needing the same level of accuracy, fighters can feel more comfortable letting their hips go when working punching techniques on these style of pads. The size also allows some coaches and pad holders to use them for adding kicks, knees and elbows into the training session as well.
As you can see, this pad size can come straight or curved. Some coaches argue that the curved pads allow the punch or strike be caught easier on the pad i.e. mimicking the shape of the hand. This in turn can increase the flow and effectiveness of each round using them.
Large Focus Pads
These extra large versions of the focus pads are where this pad steps away from being mainly used within Boxing. For punching techniques, the previous two sizes above are more than adequate.
The size of these allows the holder to be more confident when working more extensively on mixing the ranges and weapons during pad work. These can be seen as a middle ground between the softer focus pad and the harder Thai pad. They can commonly be seen in Kickboxing and coaches typically like to use them more when working with lighter students or juniors.
Although nowhere near as popular as focus pads, Boxing paddles have become more and more popular over the past decade as a solid alternative for use in training.
Some coaches have now switched and use these as their base pad for working Boxing. There are a couple of advantages when using the paddles instead of the focus pads.
Firstly, they place the striking target away from the hand. This means that the pad holder takes less impact from each punch on their hand, elbow or shoulder. For some, this means they are able to work with heavier fighters and big punchers regularly without getting repetitive strain or mobility based injuries.
Secondly, they offer the coach slightly more reach. Couple this with the fact that they can often be moved a little quicker and you have a nice dynamic that can be used to further develop defence, reactions and speed.
When they first appeared on the scene, Boxing sticks (or noodles as they are frequently known) were seen as something of a fad. A lot of gyms and coaches never even bothered to give them a try. However, for those that did, they found an interesting alternative to mix into their pad work training.
The sticks are kind of a mix between small focus pads and Boxing paddles in some respects. Fighters have to be much more accurate when using them and they encourage snap/technique as opposed to just throwing power shots. Similarly to the paddles, they take a lot of the impact away from the pad holders hand, elbow and shoulder.
The punch cushion was developed as a pad to help coaches work on movement, angles and footwork, whilst focusing on power punching. As this pad is thicker, better padded and held using both hands, the coach is able to receive much more powerful shots from their fighter.
Those used to working only with focus pads will take a little adjustment in order to use the punch cushion effectively. The emphasis moves away from accuracy, control and snap and instead favours using hips/body weight to hit through the pad, positional awareness and sitting down into shots.
Again, you may see the odd coach working other techniques on these style of pads i.e. elbows, knees or kicks. However, I personally feel these are best purely for Boxing style training sessions.
Now, you may be forgiven for thinking, what the hell is that? The head pad is a strange beast indeed. The obvious idea behind it is that it perfectly simulates the target, both visually and anatomically.
How does this translate into pad work I hear you ask? Well, it works quite well within certain dynamics. It is not a great pad if you are looking to do lots of Mayweather style Boxing flow or speed drills.
However, it is a great pad when working in combination with a small focus, Boxing paddle or noodle. Why? Just like those pads, its main strength lies within the accuracy, control and snap fighters most focus on when using it.
Unlike the other pads on this list, it is easier to visualise this as the target you would be going for when sparring or fighting. For some, this can make a big difference. Not a widespread pad and there are certainly not may places you can pick one up. However, there a small number of high level coaches who absolutely love it.
Thai Pads / Belly Pad
As the name suggests, these pads use originates in Thailand. What focus pads are to Boxing, Thai pads (and belly pads) are to Muay Thai.
The Thai pads are typically much thicker and denser than focus pads. The holder has them across their whole forearm as opposed to just being held on the hand. As a result, these pads can take a lot more abuse and leave the coach suffering far less than if they were holding focus pads.
These were made to be kicked, kneed and elbowed. The accompanying belly pad you see a lot of Muay Thai coaches use in conjunction with the Thai pads compliments this massively.
Because the Thai pads are a bit more unwieldy to hold when compared to their lighter counterparts, the belly pad is useful as both a fixed body target for the fighter, and as a second layer of protection when absorbing hard hitting knees and kicks for the coach.
Although explosive speed and acceleration is required to deliver shots effectively on these pads. Their successful use is often seen more to do with power, small combinations and solid fundamentals, than it is speed, long choreographed sequences and flow.
Leg / Calf Guards
These pads are not often used on their own. Coaches mainly use them in conjunction with Thai pads and belly pads. Some will use them with focus pads or any mix of the lighter pads mentioned earlier in this post.
What they offer either way though is a fixed pad attached to one or both legs (or calves). This speeds up the flow between striking the head or body and kicking the leg. Good Thai pad holders will often use their Thai pads to motion for low kicks. But, as mentioned above, their unwieldy use makes this a slower process.
These are used by a lot of K-1 Kickboxing fighters as that particular rule set places a lot of emphasis on heavy hands into low kicks. Muay Thai coaches around the world also use them extensively.
The calf guard is a very recent addition to the range of pads available to combat sports enthusiasts. This is a result of a lot fighters in MMA using calf kicks to great success within all levels of competition.
What had been a hugely difficult kick to drill or practice in pad work can now be used effectively when the coach is wearing one. Unlike the leg guard, pad holders only typically wear one on the front calf (as this the only leg that can be attacked in this way during fights or sparring).
The kick shield is one of the most universally used pads across all striking based sports. Although it comes in many different sizes, the concept always remains the same. It is one of the thickest and biggest pads available. As the name suggests, its creation was inspired as a way to drill or train kicks.
The general public would most likely associate kick shields as being mainly used in Martial Arts such as Taekwondo, Karate and Kickboxing. And, they would not be far wrong. However, I don’t think there is a striking sport (that allows kicks) that does not use them within their training at some point.
Kick shields tend to have a variety of different handles and grips (either on the back or sides) to help the holder hold the pad in various ways. Similarly to the Thai pads, the kick shield is not a pad designed for fast, long combination work (although that is not to say you could not use it for this to some extent). Its biggest strength lies in that its surface area is both large and thick enough to absorb the power of even the hardest thrown shots.
These gargantuan pads take kick shields to a whole new level. These huge pads essentially cover the holder from top to bottom and allow the fighter to literally throw whatever they want, whenever they want.
It is definitely not a subtle pad. And, it is not one to really focus on the refinement of new skills etc.
However, it is fun and great for pushing endurance or as way to pressure fighters towards the end of their training or fight camps. Kids love working on these pads as well. Just as with the head pad, there are not many places that make or sell these.
We have already touched upon Boxing paddles earlier on in this post. Kick paddles have actually been around much longer. Primarily used by kick focused Martial Arts such as Taekwondo, these pads have recently become more popular within MMA and Kickboxing gyms.
Sometimes scoffed at by power kickers from arts such as Muay Thai, the paddle when used correctly, offers a different way to train your kicks. In the same way that Boxing paddles place an emphasis on accuracy, control and technique, so as do kick paddles.
The smaller targets offered to the fighter mean that the style of kick utilised has to change from one that would normally be used on a kick shield or Thai pads. Use of the chamber and keeping movement tighter are two stylistic changes the coach can promote through their use.
They also allow fighters to work more on movement, speed, angles and spins. Which are not always as common with the larger pads.
Give & Take
Now, this is a bit of a curveball I am throwing at you here. Give and take drills are what I refer to when two fighters work together with their sparring equipment on i.e. gloves and shin/instep protectors, as opposed to one holding the pads.
Although not classically defined as pad work, that is essentially what each fighter takes it turn to do by offering their gloves as the defined target or blocking when their partner throws a kick or alternate strike.
This concept is hugely popular within Kickboxing. Especially within K-1 styles and European countries such as the Netherlands. The main advantage to give and take drills is that each participant is working during each round. As opposed to pad work where only one person is the focus of the training or workout.
MMA athletes and coaches also use this approach a lot as it allows them to incorporate wrestling, grappling and other more sports specific dynamics into their training.
Pad Work Systems
- Visual Cues
- Audio Cues
- Tactile Cues
How to be a great pad holder
Ok, now that we have looked at the many different types of pads used within different Martial Arts and Combat Sports. Let’s continue with this guide to pad work in Martial Arts by looking at some of the ways these pads are utilised by coaches within training.
You can work all the pads mentioned above with some type of visual cue. What do I mean by this? A visual cue is where you move or position your pad in such a way, your fighter or training partner knows exactly what you want them to throw.
Once a pad holder knows how to hold the pads and how to correctly position the pad for the shots in question, they can start to drill in this manner. A good example of this is with the Jab and Cross on the focus pads.
A basic way to ask visually for the jab is to show the lead pad facing forward at head height towards your fighter. The fighter seeing this then responds with the punch. A coach could then potentially ask for the Jab, Cross in the same way by flashing both pads (in their correct places) at the same time.
Visual cues are highly effective and are great for developing the base line rapport between a coach or pad holder and their fighter. These typically are excellent for building a layer of fundamental techniques, small combination work and set-piece development.
Where these can fall down is when the pad holder wants something that involves a similar looking pad position or a technique/piece of movement that is not primed in the fighter or student.
Names of Techniques
Another very common way to work on the pads is when the pad holder shouts out what they want the fighter to throw before putting the pad(s) in the correct places. Again, you will see this approach across all striking based combat sports.
A coach with Thai pads and a belly bad might say Jab, Cross, which then prompts that response from their fighter. I would say that this is one of the easiest ways for new pad holders to develop their skills. The pad holder must lead so by saying what they want, they frame both their training partners and themselves for what techniques are to be delivered.
Although even the most experienced of coaches will use the names of techniques during pad holding, it is not always seen as the most effective system for working certain aspects of training. Verbally saying the full name of a technique takes time so asking for bigger combinations becomes something of a hindrance during a training round.
Again, this approach can be used easily on any of the pads mentioned within this blog post.
A very common way to cut down on the length of time taken to call for techniques is to use a number system. This can be done in a few different ways. The first is to give each technique its own individual number. This works very well in Boxing due to the reduced number of striking weapons/ranges available i.e. 1 = Jab, 2 = Cross etc.
This type of number system allows for calls to be made quickly, thus making combination work and skill layering a lot easier. Some coaches will use this in conjunction with the names of techniques.
Another way to use the number system is to formulate set strategies or combinations around a certain number. For example, 10 could be used to ask for a Jab followed by an angle change and Right Cross. The options are of course infinite.
Although not quite as common (although some coaches/fighters swear by it), another potential use of audio cues are code words. Code words can be used similar to numbers with regards to asking for set strategies, combinations, footwork patterns or combined variations thereof.
Most gyms and coaches create their own systems and language so it is not uncommon for some to use words not recognised by others when asking for certain things of their fighter. Either way, these code words or alternate systems can be advantageous to develop within pad work training so that fighters have a language they can follow from their corner team whilst competing.
Although it could be argued that tactile cues are also visual ones, the idea with these are to create set responses to certain touches/contact from the pad holder. Typically these are defensive in nature. A common one would be to cover for the body shot and counter with a set punch or combination.
These differentiate only in that there will be times when a fighter is close to an opponent or have their vision blocked, thus drilling set counters from touch reactions as opposed to visual ones.
Pad Work Styles
- Flow Pad Work
- Speed Pad Work
- Power Pad Work
- Pad Work Drills
- Freestyle Pad Work
Moving on from cues in this guide to pad work in Martial Arts, we look at the range of different styles of pad work that coaches and pad man utilise whilst training.
Flow Pad Work
Flow pad work tends to refer to the continued use of strikes or defensive movements within any particular striking change. Floyd Mayweather’s training is a good example of this. His dad (and coach) has drilled Floyd religiously with his system to such an extent, that they can both flow pads now with very little perceived conscious effort or difficulty.
This type of pad work usually does not fixate on speed, power or even strict technique. The idea is to drill repetition of movement and create muscle memory through the correct system of kinetic motion for that individuals sport or discipline.
Speed Pad Work
As the name suggests, this style of pad work is all about trying to help develop the fighter’s striking speed. In Boxing, one way they do this is through what some refer to as shoeshine drills. These drills are typically a short number of fast low uppercuts (delivered from the shoulder for speed) followed by any number of harder hitting shots up top. For example, shoeshine 3 = 3 short uppercuts starting with the right hand, followed by a hard hitting left hook to the head.
Muay Thai fighters tend to use kick drills when looking to develop their explosive speed. These might be body kicks done for speed in 20-30 sec intervals.
There are many examples of how pad holders look to develop speed during pad work. Normally though, these tend to be shorter with regards to time or reps. This is because they are more similar to a sprint than a marathon. As such, no one can maintain that kind of pace for long and there needs to be adequate rest time in between sets.
Power Pad Work
Power is what most fighters (and pad holders to some extent) love working on the pads. There is nothing quite as satisfying as hitting the pads hard when you have a good pad holder.
Novices and those outside of the combat sports make the mistake of thinking power comes purely from tensing the muscles (just as you would when lifting weight). This is not the case. Most power pad work is typically shorter combinations delivered explosively in small bursts. The intensity is higher and the idea is to generate as much power as possible using a combination of good technique, maximum body weight and penetration through the target.
Some drills might simply be the repetition of the same single shot (or just varied single shots) using a pad such as the punch cushion (very common in Boxing). Others might be used in the same vein but with kicks on the kick shield (common in all striking sports that use kicks but very much so in Karate, Taekwondo and Kickboxing).
The most common pads for power work are the combination of Thai pads and belly pad. The thickness and durability of these pads allows for the fighter to hit as hard as they want without risking injury to their pad holder (as long as they are accurate of course!)
Pad Work Drills
One of the many great uses of pad work though (and it does not matter which pads are being used) is through the repetitious use of set drills. These drills can be used to help novice fighters understand how to throw basic combinations such as Jab, Cross.
Drills can be layered so that pad holders can run through multiple skill sets such as changing angle, defending strikes and countering. These drills are used to either isolate a particular skill or dynamic in order to develop it or as a way to help program the fighter with the coaches striking system step by step.
Some coaches love choreographing a multitude of different set drills in order for their fighters to work on alternating skills each training session. These are also the most common way for athletes to work together using the give and take style drills mentioned earlier on in this post.
Freestyle Pad Work
Possibly the ultimate goal of any pad holder/fighter duo is to be able to work at maximum effectiveness throughout every freestyle round they do together on the pads.
What is freestyle pad work? Typically, this is a timed round where the pad holder gives their fighter different techniques, combinations and skills to work on. How this is put together will depend on which pads are being used, the system the coach is using, how the calls are being made, the style of pad work being delivered and the desired outcome of the training session.
Most experienced pad holders have formulated their own particular way of doing freestyle pad work. There is no real right and wrong to this. However, the general consensus is that the better the pad holder, the more they will be simulating what goes on in the fight through out each round and the more creativity they will be able to call upon at any given point.
Pad Work in Martial Arts and Combat Sports
- Boxing Pad Work
- Kickboxing Pad Work
- Muay Thai Pad Work
- MMA Pad Work
- Karate Pad Work
- Taekwondo Pad Work
Pad work in Martial Arts and Combat Sports can often vary massively dependent on the discipline being practised. Add to that the fact that every coach typically formulates their own particular way of using them, and you end up with a multitude of different permutations of pad work being utilised around the world.
Boxing Pad Work
As mentioned in the Pad Work systems and styles sections above, there are many different ways pad holders can look to train their athletes in Boxing. Below are some further examples of Boxing Pad Work in action
Kickboxing Pad Work
As mentioned in the Pad Work systems and styles sections above, there are many different ways pad holders can look to train their athletes in Kickboxing. Below are some further examples of Kickboxing Pad Work in action
Muay Thai Pad Work
As mentioned in the Pad Work systems and styles sections above, there are many different ways pad holders can look to train their athletes in Muay Thai. Below are some further examples of Muay Thai Pad Work in action
MMA Pad Work
As mentioned in the Pad Work systems and styles sections above, there are many different ways pad holders can look to train their athletes in MMA. Below are some further examples of MMA Pad Work in action
Karate Pad Work
As mentioned in the Pad Work systems and styles sections above, there are many different ways pad holders can look to train their athletes in Karate. Below is a further example of Karate Pad Work in action
Taekwondo Pad Work
As mentioned in the Pad Work systems and styles sections above, there are many different ways pad holders can look to train their athletes in Taekwondo. Below is a further example of Taekwondo Pad Work in action
The Art of Pad Holding
Pad holding is an art form all in itself. No coach, athlete or pad man is born with the natural ability to hold pads. It takes time and a lot of practise to get to the levels of those you see in the videos above.
One thing is for sure though, the better the pad holder, the greater the development offered to the fighter or athlete during training.
How can you become a better pad holder?
- Understand your sport
- Learn or develop a system that you want to use as your base
- Practice holding pads with different levels of training partners or athletes
- Study other coaches and pad holders in order to take advantage of their knowledge and experience
- Train on the pads yourself with different coaches and pad holders
If you want any further help beyond this guide to pad work in Martial Arts, there are an abundance of truly outstanding coaches on this site (and the Warrior Collective YouTube channel) for you to learn from when it comes to pad work and pad holding. Go check them out today!
If you enjoy this article then you may well love 7 Great Muay Thai books you NEED to have on your bookshelf or 10 of the Best Dutch Kickboxing Gyms you should visit in 2023 as already featured on this site.
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