What Makes Good Pad-Work?

Anyone who’s ever done any level of Muay Thai training will probably have experienced that same old, robotic style of pad-work, during which the trainer tells you every strike to throw.  ‘One, two, kick!’ Previously, that was the only kind of pad-work I’d ever had, so it didn’t bother me because I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until I began training with Master Toddy that I realised how much more there was to it.

Here, the trainers won’t tell you what to throw in pad-work. In fact, they almost avoid using words altogether. Instead, they simply hold the pads in various places and allow you to find the target with whatever works for you, or let you throw whatever you want while they move the pads to receive it. This ‘freestyle’ kind of pad-work forces you to use your own initiative, which makes you better-prepared to fight. I have never understood the use in a trainer barking the word ‘block’ before throwing a kick at you. No one’s going to tell you that in sparring and certainly not in a fight, you will have to work that out for yourself. Reducing or even omitting the use of verbal commands forces you to use your eyes more, so you will be more likely to block effectively when you fight. This kind of pad-work conditions both your body and mind for fighting, because instead of following the trainer and waiting for cues and commands, you are fighting your own fight every time you train. It also means that the trainers have no opportunity to be lazy. They have to be constantly on top of their game, with fast reflexes and super-sharp eyes in order to see what is coming and make sure the pad is there to receive it.

Master Toddy 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 of Master Toddy’s 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 pad-work. One trainer in particular, who has 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 really frustrating. You know that feeling when the pads are never in the right place and 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 am eating my words.

There has been many a time when Master Toddy has shouted at me for following a pad-holder and allowing them to direct me. He’ll say, ‘that’s not your style, that’s not what I’ve taught you, don’t let anyone change you’. 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 pad-holder, 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’. As a result, there have been a couple of times where I’ve punched a trainer in the face, or kicked an elbow. That’s always awkward, but my training has undoubtedly been better for it. Just yesterday, Master Toddy 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 I think is crucial for good training is that the trainer is always fighting you back. A person 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 pad-work, and I can see how that is helping me to over-come that issue.

Everyone will have their own preference of pad-work, and a fighter will usually find one particular trainer who they prefer to work with. However, it is also beneficial to work with trainers who use different styles. Within one gym, you will normally find a mishmash of different ones. For example, 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, whereas another trainer constantly charges towards me, forcing me to side-step and counter and constantly have my feet ready. The fact that he is double my weight makes it even more challenging for me. One of the other trainers prefers me to hit hard and fast and work my cardio as hard as he can. He is 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 usually prefer to work with the first one, 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 will have to go up against opponents with various different styles, so it’s important for me incorporate those into my training so that I may be able to deal with them.

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 thing that seems to be an 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 half-way. What’s the use in that? These 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, for example 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, but these are the things that make me stronger. With those kind of training techniques, it’s more of a love-hate relationship. It’s no fun when you’re getting your arse kicked, but you feel awesome when you learn how to overcome it and start to see your gradual progression.

The idea of perfect pad-holding might be 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. I also realise that as someone who only hits pads rather than holds them, it’s very easy to criticize a trainer, when I would probably make a horrible pad-holder. I often wonder what it would be like to go back to the UK and perhaps train in a gym where students and fighters have to hold pads for each other. That idea is somewhat frightening to me. I often wonder if I’ve been spoiled by training out here for so long!

I’d like to get some videos uploaded to illustrate some of my points, so I will try and do that soon. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear some other opinions on what makes good pad-work, or if anyone has any similar annoyances to mine! As usual, all opinions are welcome.

5 thoughts on “What Makes Good Pad-Work?

  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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