I feel like I just opened up a can of worms. Well, let’s let them all out, then. To properly answer this question, I would like for you to take into account two variables: the martial art style being learned, and the goal for learning this martial art. These answers can range from a stay-at-home mom wanting to finally reach black belt in shotokan karate (because she had to stop at blue in college), to a police officer wanting to increase his personal knowledge of self-defense for true on-the-job application with krav maga. And everything in-between.
So, let’s break this down. Many critics would immediately claim that all martial arts are combative in nature, and thus need hands-on sparring practice in order for the style to be properly learned and mastered. This is not entirely true, with some martial arts teetering more on the “arts” side, or even “movement arts” side of the spectrum. We can see this with the rise in martial arts demonstrations, tricking, tournament competitions, and movement arts like tai chi or qi gong for health revitalization.
Otherwise, most martial arts are learned most effectively with some hands-on practice with a good training partner, a class, or in live experiences. A live training partner is reactive, dynamic, and can help you to practice many different possible outcomes. Feeling actual resistance to your strikes, bobbing, moving, bouncing, footwork, strength, and flow can arise with a live partner.
But what if you do not have a training partner to practice and learn with at home? Many people have the desire to learn martial arts in an effective and realistic manner, but also work full time, have a family, and many other responsibilities. You might live in a rural area, far from a martial arts school, work odd hours, or not have a school nearby that teaches the art that you would like to learn. This does not mean you should give up.
Here are my recommendations for learning martial arts at home without a partner:
- Find a qualified home study course or online martial arts program. One that has comprehensive video instruction (with multiple angles, breakdown, drills, and opportunities for home learning) and that has some sort of instructor interaction. If you are going to be learning on your own, you will need a guided system, and definitely a qualified black belt that can check your progress, give you feedback, and corrections.
- When training along with the videos, book, or your own regimen, be as self-aware as possible. Having a large body-size mirror in your training space will do a world of good in this department, as you can more easily check your alignment, hands and feet placement, stance, etc.
- Setup a great home “garage dojo.” By utilizing the right equipment, you can get proper resistance when practicing your strikes or you can even simulate attacks for blocking and reaction training. For striking practice, either get a hanging bag, a free-standing bag (like a wavemaster), or a B.O.B (a realistic body opponent bag).
- Be inventive with your training equipment. Do everything you can to create dynamic training situations. To work your blocks and counter-attacks, you could get a small recoil punching bag, or hang an old duffel bag from your ceiling. Any idea that you have for creating movement, and then forcing yourself to block without knowing in advance which strike is coming. If you are a real craftsman, you can probably come up with some interesting training apparatuses.
- Ask a family member to help. You might not have the “ideal” training partner to practice with, but that doesn’t mean your family cannot help. Ask your spouse to lay some attacks on you, and have some fun with it. Ask your son, daughter, aunt, cousin, or whoever, to pick up a pair of mitts and help you to practice for a few minutes. Just make it fun and guess what, you might have someone in your family that wants to train with you consistently!
- Go take a guest class, a private lesson, or attend a seminar. You might not be able to attend a martial arts school full time, but chances are, you can find a way to attend a class or schedule a private lesson once every few months, or at least a few times a year. Look for a school that is within driving distance, or make a trip to your association’s yearly training summit. Even just an hour of hands-on application of training, and feedback from a live instructor or partner will go a very, very long way in your overall growth and progression.
- Become involved in an online discussion board or martial arts community. If you are an enrolled online student, your online martial arts school should have some sort of forum for you to take part in. This allows you to ask compelling questions, get great ideas, and hear success stories from other students like yourself, who train with grit and self-reliance on a weekly basis.
- Film yourself for a critical review. Setup your phone on a smart-phone tripod mount, have some hold it, or just lean it against something, and film yourself. Watch yourself demonstrating the techniques or drill, and then compare this to your instructor or the videos that you are learning from. Take detailed notes, and use these in your following training sessions. If you can, send this video to your grading instructor so that they can give you advice and corrections.
- Don’t give up, consistency is the key. And not just training consistently, but consistent improvement and the desire to make yourself better. If you start out by doing 10 push-ups in your warm up, doing a ½ mile run, and 30 crunches; then a month later you should have doubled this! You can stay consistent by setting up a training schedule. 2-3 times a week for 45 minutes is a good place to start. Ask that your family respect your time, and that it is a chance for you to focus on yourself, learn something new, and get away from the normal pressures, stress, and tasks of daily life. They will soon realize that the martial arts training is helping to transform you into a new person, one who is more chiseled, focused, and capable.
- Keep a training journal. Make sure and log every training session in an online journal or a written journal. Put down the date, how long you trained, and a brief description of what you did. Along with any emotions or takeaways that you have from the journey. This will help you to keep track of your constant progress, so that you are truly getting better, and not just repeating the same thing over and over again.
What if you are learning a self-defense or fighting art? Such as Krav Maga, Muay Thai Kickboxing, or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Arts such as these can be worked some solo, but to truly ingrain and practice the techniques, you will need a training partner. Having a good training partner makes a world of difference (that might be an entirely different post). With a martial art like Krav Maga, you can practice combatives solo, and get repetitions and embed the defensive techniques into your muscle-memory. But, you will need to find a good training partner to work with, even if you just meet up once a week for some intense reality drills.
In conclusion, I ask that you heavily consider the martial art that you are learning, and why you are learning it. If you are in the military, clearly, you need live hands-on practice; as your life depends on it. If you want to use martial arts as a form of purposeful fitness, and learn something along the way, perhaps solo training could work for you. If you want to grade and earn rank, solo practice, instructor support, and some form of live practice could be a good combination. With so many new tools in the internet, books, DVDs, training equipment, and a great deal of will-power and self-observation, you have the power in your hands to make great progress at home in your martial arts journey.