Cross training in the martial arts is a topic of much debate and, unfortunately, conflict (debate and conflict always go hand in hand).
With the explosion of MMA over the past two decades, cross training is now very common in some disciplines. This is both a blessing and a curse.
But should you cross train? If so, in what styles? How much should you train in each? What could go wrong?
MMA, advertising, and legitimate cross training
When MMA burst on the scene years ago, many dojos (clubs, gyms, kwoons, dojang, whatever you wanna call them) started advertising MMA classes to bring new students in. No qualms here, we all have to make ends meet!
Where this becomes interesting is the definition of MMA.
Originally, MMA simply meant a contest with mixed rules to allow different styles to compete with each other. All of a sudden every dojo also had MMA on offer. All you had to do was throw in some striking, takedowns and grappling and you had MMA. If you had Karate on Tuesday and Judo on Wednesday at the same YMCA, you would see MMA advertisements. And again – that’s fair. The definition of MMA was fairly loose and very literal. Mixed Martial Arts meant exactly that – mixing martial arts. Mixing ANY martial arts.
Today MMA is a distinct fighting style. As such simply putting styles together doesn’t always fit the description of MMA anymore. You may do different styles and mix them together, but it doesn’t ‘look’ like MMA unless it’s done in a specific way.
One distinct benefit from this is that people started looking outside their styles for solutions to problems that were now made ‘public knowledge’. Strikers had to learn to deal with grapplers. Wrestlers had to learn how to throw kicks, etc.
This created a great opportunity to branch out and learn new things and see the benefits of having multiple skill sets.
But simply training in different styles is not always enough.
Legitimate cross training (and this is where MMA excels) is not about learning different skill sets but about integrating them successfully and seamlessly.
Let’s go to dinner!
First thing’s first. Why should you cross-train at all?
Imagine that you love pizza. You eat pizza every day. But sometimes you decide you’re gonna try some sushi instead. Maybe you’ll decide to split your meal between sushi and pizzas, or maybe you’ll realise that sushi is not for you and will only make you appreciate your pizza more. Either way, by opening yourself up to the experience of trying something new and out of your comfort zone, you win. But don’t only do it once! Next time try a burger. Or Thai food. Or Falafel. You may find another one that you like, or you may just go back to pizza.
The important thing is to keep trying in order to enjoy your food, whatever it is you decide to eat.
If you have only trained in one system and you love it, good for you. I know schools that are so dedicated to one style that they will not entertain the notion of renting out space in their dojo to another style, even on days they are closed! That’s fair. But even if you are absolutely against training in anything else, sometimes simply doing a class in something else will help you appreciate your style more.
Alternatively, you may find another style that you absolutely love. You may learn cool new things, or you may see your own style in a new light and have a deeper understanding now that you have outside experiences.
The important thing is just to keep your meals balanced!
Falling Into the Pit
I’ve been cross training since I started training. As such, I’ve made a ton of mistakes, and I’d like to share them with you in the hope that it helps you make better decisions.
- First Thing’s First – When I started training I did Karate, Fencing, and Krav Maga at the same time. I found that my footwork was a complete mess. I didn’t have a solid enough understanding of one way of moving but rather tried to learn 3 different ways of moving at the same time. The result? I looked like I was trying to move in 3 different ways at the same time. It was a weird and uncomfortable way of trying to have a wide stance and a narrow stance at the same time and moving in linear and circular patterns at the same time. I didn’t have enough experience to understand weight distribution, balance and range to try and put them into 3 different contexts.I then decide to focus, and become dedicated to one mode and context of fighting – standing up, and for self-defence.
Fast-forward 10 years, and I’m doing Muay Thai, Kyokushin and Boxing at the same time. I now have that experience and understanding and as a result, I can switch between them quite well. Conclusion? If you are going to cross train, I highly recommend that you get a base in one system before trying others. You need to understand the basics, the kihon, in order to be able to experiment with them.
- Know thyself – I primarily train for self-defence. That is the most important thing for me, and everything I do in training is viewed through that lens. I assess everything based on whether I could, based on my experience, knowledge, and understanding, use it in self-defence. One of my favourite martial arts is BJJ, which in my opinion is not the most effective self-defence solution. It ignores too many of the realities of real-world conflict such as multiple attackers and weapons. I also get too comfortable staying on the ground, and the system is one that allows for a lot of time to make decisions – things which in self-defence theory are considered terrible habits. All of these things can make me a worse practitioner when looking at my overall goal. That being said, I do think it makes me a better overall martial artist. And in addition, it also helps me develop skills and attributes that can be used within my training goal and ultimately bring me towards that goal. It adds to my data bank and makes my OODA loop or 3Ps cycle quicker. More on those things here.And that is the important lesson here; when you cross train, always keep in mind what it is you are training for. Take what is useful for you, absorb as much as you can, listen to the rules and follow the ways the system is practiced… then take what is useful to you and learn how to apply it in your context. You can read more about this here, here and here.
- Big fish, small pond – I remember the first time I rolled at another club. I had been training in BJJ for a little while, and while I was a white belt I wasn’t a complete noob. I had no doubt that I’ll be just fine. After all, I usually did ok against the other people in my school. No surprise, I got cleaned up. The way these guys moved was totally different to what I was used to. They had a different way of putting pressure, and the work rate and pace were much harder (for better and worse). I loved it! Since then, I’ve been using cross training with other schools as testing grounds. I’ll go somewhere and see how I go. If there one thing that gives me grief, I’ll take it back and try and find a solution, then go again. I’ve since done the same with striking as well. These have been some of the steepest learning curves I’ve experienced.The problem is that cross training with other schools is often frowned upon. But to me, that in itself is an indication of whether I want to train somewhere.
- Spinning the plates – we only have so many hours a day we can train. Sometimes the hardest problem is to find the balance of how much time to spend on each skill set. This is a tough one to answer, especially when looking at the fact that while your overall goals may indicate one pathway, you may really love doing something else – like my self-defence and BJJ example.The question that I ask myself with this is what do I want to be an expert in? I LOVE striking, and boxing specifically. My focus is on self-defence and I try and work my boxing around that. I also really love grappling and weapons training, but it’s not as much of a passion. I try and allocate my time accordingly. While I do striking every day, I grapple or do weapons once or twice per week.My focus has also shifted to how I can use these to my advantage. Very often I see people who have just started training, especially in combat sports, get into the grind of trying to be an amazing striker AND grappler AND wrestler. They often burn out or get injured.
So let’s take this full circle and go back to MMA. If you are an excellent striker going into MMA, you will need to learn some wrestling and ground fighting – I think we can all agree about that. But does that mean you have to be a BJJ black belt? Heck no! Your training needs to have enough in it to allow you to stop takedowns or get back up on your feet so you can play your game. Finding the balance between what you love, what you’re good at and what you’re training for can be extremely difficult. You also need to accept that it’s a dynamic or shifting balance, and it will change with time, as you will. You can read more about this here.
Tipping the scales
I believe cross training is not only beneficial but also crucial. It opens up a world of opportunities that can help you find new passions and adventures, make new friends and, ultimately, become a much better martial artist and more open-minded individual. It keeps us humble and helps to keep the ego in check (more on this here).
But it can also lead to frustration and confusion, and hinder your progress, when not done correctly.
You need to reflect often, and here’s a great tool to do this with.
Know what it is you are training for, then get a base, then venture out. This may take some experimentation. Train with different styles and different schools. Be aware of your overall training balance. When you do this, you will tip the scales in your favor.
Stay Safe, stay tuned.
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