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Sparring protective equipment


Probably the single most important piece of equipment that helped make taekwondo popular around the world was the foam equipment implemented in the early 1970s. Before then, accidental contact while sparring often resulted in some type of injury, usually minor. The equipment has now allowed everyone to spar in relative safety.

Safety equipment is any padded, stuffed, or solid sportswear that protects a person from incurring injury and it also protects the person from inflicting injury. The degree of physical contact desired or the fighting style determines the amount and type of protective wear used. Master Jhoon Rhee, considered the father of American taekwondo, is the man most people credit with introducing foam safety equipment (his Safe-T-Punch/Kick pads and helmet) to martial arts tournaments in the 1970s.
Although safety equipment is now used worldwide, there is still controversy about its use.

Types of protection

  • Head protector. A padded helmet to protect the head from strikes. Some helmets protect the boney parts of the head but not the face, some helmets offer protection for the cheekbones, and some protect the entire face with a cage.
  • Face protector. A metal or plastic cage that protects the face. It may be freestanding or used in conjunction with a head protector.
  • Safety glasses. Prescription or plain sports glasses or empty sports frames that protect the eyes from damage.
  • Mouthpiece. A rubber or plastic device that is placed over the upper or upper and lower teeth. It protects the teeth and holds the jaw in a locked position, enabling it to withstand blows.
  • Chest protector. A hard or semi-hard pad used to protect the fighter's front torso from injury.
  • Hand protectors. Pads or gloves that cover the hands (either partial or complete, with various depths of padding) to protect them while striking and protect the opponent from strikes.
  • Hand bandages. Long, cotton straps that are wrapped around the fighter's wrists and knuckles to compress them in a tight union, so the hand becomes a solid striking unit. They also help prevent wrist sprains and knuckle dislocations. They are usually worn in combination with hand protectors.
  • Elbow protectors. Pads that cover the elbows to protect them from strikes and while striking.
  • Forearm protectors. Pads that cover the forearms to protect them from strikes and while striking.
  • Groin cup. A hard, plastic cup that protects the groin from attacks.
  • Knee protectors. Pads that cover the knees to protect them from strikes and while striking.
  • Shin protectors. Pads that cover the shins to protect them from strikes and while striking.
  • Foot protectors. Footpads that protect the upper foot but leave the sole of the foot uncovered for better floor grip. They protect the feet during striking and protects the opponent from strikes.

Hand protectors

Crude hand protectors for use in fighting have been around for centuries. Modern hand protectors were available before the foam ones were created, but they were relatively expensive, heavy, awkward to use, absorbed perspiration, and offered little protection. Some were just variations of boxing gloves.

Even in boxing, the wearing of gloves while sparring is a modern convention. Prior to 1866, when the Marquis of Queensbury Rules made the wearing of gloves mandatory, boxers fought bare-knuckled. Gloves, or “mufflers” as they were called, were used only in training, not in an actual match.
One might think that bare-knuckled fighting would be brutal to the hands, but this is not the case.

Advantages and disadvantages of hand protection

Today, a common injury among young boxers is called the “boxer’s fracture,” in which the outer two knuckles and sometimes the outer metacarpals of the hand are broken from the impact of an unprotected punch. The danger, however, is significantly reduced through the biomechanics of throwing a bare-fisted punch. Punching in old-style boxing was based primarily upon linear action, which emulated the thrust of a sword. When a blow was thrown, a vertical fist was used, rather than today’s horizontal fist that is used in taekwondo as well as boxing. Some martial art styles still use the vertical punch as their primary punching method.

A vertical fist is thrown with the back of the hand facing away from the body, whereas a horizontal fist is thrown with the back of the hand facing upward. This is important due to the skeletal alignment of the arm when throwing a punch. With a vertical fist, the entire arm is extended in one line from the shoulder through to the fist. The elbow is tucked beneath the arm as opposed to jutting out, and the wrist is kept completely straight. This changes the angle at which the fist connects with the target and maximizes the striking surface by using the whole fist and not just a few knuckles. Even when throwing a “rounding blow,” an ancestor of today’s hook, the vertical fist was used, either normally or inverted (in which the hook is thrown with the thumb facing down, elevating the elbow).

Punching with a vertical fist does two things: there fewer places for the arm to lose energy (as in a bent elbow or wrist) and there is more protection for the arm. The result is that more kinetic energy is realized as force and it is distributed evenly across the fist. This protects the hand more than if the force was concentrated in one area, while still providing a powerful blow.

However, the benefits of punching with a vertical fist are neutralized when wearing gloves. Since the hand is protected, linear blows may be replaced by more circular blows, such as the “corkscrew” jab and the hook. These blows can be thrown with more power because they have the increased energy of momentum behind them. Since fighters do not need to worry much about breaking their fists, they can afford to punch with increased power.

In addition, gloves, due to their size, act as small shields around the hands that may be used to block incoming blows. With the hands held close to the body, it is easy to tuck and cover. Gloves also make getting through with linear punches more difficult, which works to the defender’s advantage when blocking shots to the stomach or sides with the elbows, forearms, and biceps.

Before the use of hand protectors, the guards of martial arts fighters were more extended than today. Since the fighters could not rely on the extra protection gloves provide, they needed to block many blows farther away from their bodies. Combatants needed time to react and block since they had little protection close in. Therefore, the fighting range was considerably longer than today, being fought just outside the range where each opponent could hit the other without moving.

Advantages of safety equipment

  • Offers protection or at least the illusion of protection. People want to do dangerous things, but without the inherent risk. If a commercial martial arts school is to succeed, it must offer what the public wants. So, they offer watered-down combat with safety protection to lessen the risk of serious injury.
  • Allows for realistic fighting training. Realistic fighting situations can only be simulated without serious injury by using protective equipment. Safety equipment helps martial artists come as close to real fighting as possible without doing it. It allows them to test techniques, improve skills, sharpen reflexes, and condition themselves to take blows. Being able to withstand a blow is just as important as being able to land one.
  • Builds endurance. While the excessive weight of safety equipment will fatigue and slow a fighter, proper training can lessen the problem. With enough training, an individual can build the endurance and strength to move almost effortlessly. The weight of the protective gear will become negligible. When equipment is removed, reflexes, speed, and general fighting performance will increase. However, now mistakes will hurt.
  • Promotes practice. When the risk of injury is lessened, students can train on more days and for longer periods of time. 
  • Pain is still real to protected fighters. Equipment creates a barrier strong enough to absorb much of a blow, but it will not cancel its full effect so there is still some pain. However, protected fighters may unleash full power, believing that their partner is relatively safe, which can lead to more serious injuries and injuries that may not manifest until years later.

Disadvantages of safety equipment

  • A false sense of security. A fighter may feel more daring and become more reckless while wearing safety equipment because he or she feels well protected, causing bad habits such as reckless charging, low guarding, sluggish punching, and wide stances. 
  • Poor control. Safety equipment tends to lead to less control. Before the use of safety equipment, each punch or kick was executed with precise control. Accidents happened, but serious injuries were rare.
  • Less pain. Pain is a good teacher. When you do the wrong thing and it hurts, you tend to not do the wrong thing again. When you drop your guard and get hit, it hurts, so you learn not to drop your guard. When safety equipment reduces or prevents the pain, you don’t think about keeping your guard up.
  • Slower reaction time. No matter how lightweight the safety equipment is, it still adds weight that slows movements to some extent. The extra weight requires more energy to move it, which affects endurance. Safety equipment lessens a fighter's fear of injury, which means less fear, less anxiety, and thus less adrenaline that is needed to give the fighter more energy.
  • Limited techniques. Some types of hand protectors limit a fighter's hand techniques, such as the loss of grabbing, thrusting, poking, and chopping techniques. Elbow, knee, and chest guards create friction and do not allow easy, natural flow. Helmets and face guards may decrease peripheral vision. 
  • Improper/poor techniques. Protective gear can lead to improper execution of techniques. Good form is often forgotten, and quality is lost. Fighters become so preoccupied with landing any type of blow that they forget everything they have learned. Instead of controlled fighter's, they become showmen.
  • Unrealistic situations. Sparring with protective equipment does not create a realistic fighting situation; it trains you to spar rather than to fight. Sparring in the controlled environment of a gym with full safety equipment makes fighting more of a game than actual combat. Fighters get used to fighting with protective gear and hesitate to fight without it.
  • Extra baggage. Protective gear is considered unnecessary by some practitioners because the originators of the martial arts became masters without it.
  • Whiplash. Many times, sparring rules prohibit face contact but do permit contact to the helmet. With the helmet covering the hard bones of the skull and foam pads protecting the fragile bones of the hands and feet, there is less risk of injury to the hands and feet. With the protection, the skull itself would not receive much damage from a hand or foot strike. While some of the shock from a head strike is absorbed by the foam, this is negated by the foam becoming a primary target. Since the face is not a legal target, the foam protecting the forehead becomes a primary target. A strike to the forehead snaps the neck backward more than a strike to any other part of the head. This makes the wearer susceptible to a whiplash injury to the neck or damage to the brain. Even if one strike does no apparent damage, the accumulative effect of many strikes over a period may cause an injury.
  • Neck twist. Another problem with protective equipment is friction. If a bare fist hits with a glancing blow to the head, it bounces off the skull with minimal damage. If both the head and fist are protected by safety equipment and a fist hits the head with a glancing blow, the foam on both the head and fist will flex, increasing the area of the strike. While this may decrease the force of the blow, the friction between the head and fist protectors will cause them to grip each other and quickly snap the head around, which increases the chance of injury to the neck or brain.


Ruzicki, T. (2003). From Bare-Knuckles to Modern Boxing. How Gloves have changed the Art of Pugilism.

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