What Makes Good Padwork?

Anyone who’s ever done any level of Muay Thai training will have experienced the type of padwork where the trainer tells you every strike to throw.  ‘One, two, kick!’ While it certainly has its benefits, it’s not the only way. Recently, I’ve started to enjoy a much more fluid style. 

Freestyle Padwork

Now, my trainers won’t tell me what to throw in padwork. In fact, they almost avoid using words altogether. Instead, they simply hold the pads in various places and allow me to find the target with whatever works, or let me throw whatever I want and move the pads to receive it. This freestyle kind of padwork forces me to think more, and makes me better-prepared to fight. I’ve never understood the use in a trainer shouting the word ‘block’ at a fighter before throwing a kick at them. No one’s going to tell you that in sparring, and certainly not in a fight. You’ll have to work that out for yourself.

Let the Pads Do the Talking

Reducing or even omitting the use of verbal commands forces you to use your eyes more, so you’ll be more likely to block effectively in a fight. This kind of padwork conditions both your body and mind for fighting, because instead of following the trainer and waiting for cues and commands, you’re fighting your own way every time you train. It also means that your trainer has to be constantly on top of their game, with fast reflexes and super-sharp eyes in order to see what is coming and receive it.

The head trainer at my gym always ensures that not only his students are always learning, but his trainers are, too. It’s accurate to say that it’s just as tough to be one his trainers as it is to be one of his fighters! It’s not uncommon for him to interrupt a session to correct the trainer’s technique just as much as my own, and that means that I’m always getting good-quality padwork. One trainer who’s been with us for around nine months, has improved so much during his time here that it’s almost hard to believe. When he first came here, I genuinely hated working with him because his technique was barely there and things didn’t seem to flow, which was frustrating. You know that feeling when nothing seems to land properly? That’s what it was like. Now, he’s actually one of my favourite people to work with, and I’m eating my words.

Take Control

There have been many times when my head trainer has shouted at me for following a padholder and allowing them to direct me. “That’s not your style, that’s not what I’ve taught you, don’t let anyone change you”, he’ll say. He wants me to challenge not only myself but the trainer, too. The way he teaches me means that I have no chance to slack and I can never blame my performance on the padholder, because I should always be in control. That way, I’ll have a better chance at being in control of the fight. He always tells me that if the pad isn’t there, I should throw something anyway. “He’s got to learn, he’s got to be ready”, he says. As a result, there have been a couple of times where I’ve missed a pad or kicked an elbow. That’s always awkward, but my training has undoubtedly been better for it. Just yesterday, the head trainer stopped someone who was holding pads for me to tell them to stop ‘hanging the pads’, meaning that they weren’t always ready. His reasoning for this was that his style meant that I was only throwing the combinations that he wanted me to, but in fact, it should have been me throwing combinations of my choice without waiting for him or allowing him to direct me too much.

As well as the freestyle aspect of padwork, the other thing that is crucial for good training is that the trainer is always fighting you back. A fighter can look like a total bad-ass when they’re hitting pads, but then retreat and crumble under the pressure of being hit, finding it hard to function in a fight. I’ve been there, and it’s something I’m constantly working on. Here, what we do is often more like sparring with pads than just padwork, and I can see how that is helping me to overcome that issue.

Different Styles of Padwork

Everyone will have their own preference of padwork, and a fighter will usually find one particular trainer who they prefer to work with. Often, you’re taken under that trainer’s wing and work with them one-on-one regularly. However, it’s good to work with trainers who use different styles.

Within one gym, you’ll normally find a mishmash of different padwork styles. One of our trainers is very technical, and focuses more on making sure I land everything with clean, sharp technique and good timing, as well as occasionally pummelling me with the pads to ensure my defence stays strong. He teaches me to defend and walk forward.

On the other hand, another trainer constantly charges towards me, forcing me to side-step and counter and constantly have my feet ready. The fact that he’s double my weight makes it even more challenging for me.

Another trainer prefers me to hit hard and fast and work my cardio as hard as he can. He’s the joker of the gym, who likes to catch and throw me at every opportunity, which can be frustrating, but I’m learning to avoid that.

While I certainly have my favourites, each of these trainers challenge me in a different way, and working with all of them helps me to develop a more well-rounded skill set. In fights, I’ll have to face opponents with various different styles, so it’s important for me get variation in my training, too.

Padwork Pet Peeves

While I enjoy working with a variety of trainers, I have some definite pet peeves about it. For example, I can’t stand it when a trainer smashes the pads into my hands, stifling my punches and stopping me from fully extending. I once had a trainer who did this, but then subsequently shouted at me for not making my punches long enough, which was endlessly frustrating. No one is going to deliberately bring their face towards my fist, so I have to work on finding the target effectively myself. As well as being counter-productive, it also poses a risk of injury, as it definitely isn’t good for your wrists.

Another irrational hatred of mine is when a trainer holds the pad for an uppercut, but either leaves the pad too low so that I can’t throw it properly, or in a similar fashion to the one I just mentioned, brings to pad down onto it, stopping me halfway. What’s the use in that?

These gripes may sound silly, but I always feel that they hinder my training rather than help it. There are other things that I hate but I know are good for me, like when I get jabbed in the stomach with the pad before throwing a knee. That’s never enjoyable, but it teaches me to curl my body and set the knee up more effectively. It also gets me annoyed and therefore makes me knee harder, so that can’t be bad. It’s the same feeling when one of my trainers continuously batters me with the pads, forcing me to block effectively, or when he clinches and throws me. These are the things that make me stronger, and wthose kind of training techniques, it’s more of a love-hate relationship. It’s no fun when you’re getting your ass kicked, but you feel awesome when you learn how to overcome it and start to see progression.

The idea of perfect padholding is different for everyone, and while some trainers and techniques may be less enjoyable than others, they all help to build you in the long run. As someone who only hits pads and never holds them, it’s very easy for to criticize padholding technique. Having never been on the other side of the pads, I’d certainly be terrible at it.

I often wonder what it would be like to go back to the UK and train in a gym where students and fighters have to hold pads for each other. That idea is somewhat frightening to me. I think I’ve been spoiled by training in Thailand for so long!

Do you have any preferences, bug bears or tips for padwork? Feel free to share them in the comments!

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5 thoughts on “What Makes Good Padwork?

  1. I def agree with you here! I use to be used to have the robotic pad work too as it was all i knew but after finding awesome pad holders At Sinbi i could never go back to that style of pad work. I feel like maybe im spoiled to as i tried to go back to my old gym in Aus when i came back and i just couldnt as much as i wanted to enjoy pad work. I guess its hard to understand unless you have been spoiled. I dont really have to many hates with pads except the robotic stuff is soooo boring and i dont like it when the pad holder dosnt get into it with you. My pad holder in thailand would fight me at the same time we would have a war on pads everytime it was hard but it was lots of fun too, it was a comp of who could kill each other first. One pad holder i had was really awesome he never said one work the whole time and it was fast paced and we just went full on the whole time. He would catch anything i threw it was so cool it would have been awesome to watch people used to stop and watch us cause the amount of noise we would make haha

  2. I just started at a Muay Thai gym in the US, and one of the things I really appreciate is that the instructors will split the students up into pairs and have them do drills with one holding pads for the other for a round, then switching roles for round 2. Definitely gives me new appreciation for pad-holding being an art in and of itself. One of the biggest reasons I love martial arts is that there’s always the capacity to learn something new, no matter your background or current experience.

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