05 January 2010

Aliveness: Common Sense or Controversial?

People have asked me about Aliveness via Twitter, and I thought the best post to begin 2010 with is by discussing Aliveness in some detail. But first, here is a video by Matt Thornton.

I think Matt Thornton discusses some very valid points. Before going on any further, I just want to point out that it is not only MMA and bjj that utilise Aliveness. Aliveness can be seen in the best Reality Based Self Defence (RBSD) schools, weapons based martial arts as well as Law Enforcement, high end security and the military training packages. These areas will be discussed in some detail later.

Aliveness is not new. Indeed, introducing Aliveness into training is one of the key achievements of Jigoro Kano and his Judo at a time when such training was rare. Alive training is also a feature of Muay Thai, which has

not really changed much for hundreds of years. Knee sparring, live drilling, free sparring and grappling were common. 

Randori = Aliveness

In Judo, Aliveness is evident. Randori is Alive. It is not static. It is mobile. It is not scripted. It is 'Live'. At any time, one training partner or competitor may move to either side, attempt a better grip, choke or hold or go for a take down. It is worth pointing out that both Judo and Muay Thai, along with it's practitioners, are widely considered the most effective at what they do.

In the book by Renzo and Royler Gracie, "Brazilian Jui Jitsu: Theory and Technique", the authors talk about the genius of Kano in his implementation of Randori, or live sparring. Kano removed strikes and things like eye gouging and hair pulling etc. Once these were removed, two students could now engage 100% in a very live and dynamic manner. Not only did the students have to contend with the techniques, they had to deal with unpredictable movement, defences and counters, set ups, feints and draws. This new Randori was also much more physically and mentally demanding.

Sparring = Aliveness

Today, these foundations form the basis of Aliveness. With the development of training equipment, close to 100% Alive training can be engaged in with strikes these days as well, without the bruising of traditional Muay Thai. This training is very stressful training. It places very realistic (from a self defence as well as combat sport viewpoint), physical and mental stressors on training partners.

Alive training also develops more subtle skills. It teaches things apart from offensive and defensive techniques. It also teaches the importance of position. From a dominant position, many offensive attacks from the opponent is insignificant and at the same time, ones own techniques are more devastating than from a neutral position. These advantages can be found in the clinch when standing, as well as on the ground.

For strike training, facing an opponent who has a much greater reach has its own challenges that can be explored in Alive training. An attacker who has excellent kicks and is difficult to close with, can teach much when facing them in Alive training. These are just some subtleties which benefit those who engage in Alive training.

The Intelligent Cunning Thinking Opponent

It is all about going up against an unpredictable and intelligent opponent with few limitations placed on what they might do. And they are going to resist and defend all of your moves to the best of their ability as well as bait and counter them, use feints, whatever works. It is live. This is very close to conditions faced on the street against a surprise attack. You are not going to know what they will do. Alive training is best practise as it so close to real Low Tech Combat.

Static vs Live
Static and/or scripted training methods are nowhere near as effective as Alive training methods. Training methods such as one or three step sparring, kata and punching a Makiwara for example, does not simulate real conditions close enough to be considered effective.

They are, however, satisfactory methods for building up to more complete Alive training. Many of these more 'traditional' training methods can bridge the gap between learning how to perform a technique such as a round kick or punch and learning how to use it in live free sparring. When we can do that in training, we are prepared as best we can be for the real thing.

Alive training is not only full free sparring. There are an almost limitless number of Alive drills that can be used to develop attributes and appropriate reflexes, as well as focus on just one aspect of Low Tech Combat such as take down defence. 

A Simple Alive Drill

For example, one training partner has gloves on and is to only use punch techniques. The other has a mouth guard in and is to draw an attack from the puncher and shoot in for a take down of whatever type they choose. The punchers end goal, is to sprawl to neutralise the take down. Once a take down has been achieved or neutralised by the sprawl, they stop, stand up, and start again. This simple drill is Alive. It focuses on very specific areas yet at the same time is live and dynamic, both partners are free to move around and need to gauge timing and distance. It is also physically and mentally stressful.

The above drill develops both striking and grappling skills. However it is mostly used to develop the sprawl. Traditionally (I am not sure if that is the best word...), Alive training has been seen to be used by the MMA and bjj community only. With that, some bias against Aliveness is pushed by the Traditional Martial Arts (TMA) community due to the rivalry that exists in elements of both communities. 

Aliveness is 'Best Practise'

This is unfortunate. Alive training methods can, and should, be used in all martial arts and self defence schools. Alive training methods are best practise. They are further along the training continuum from very sterile, beginner stages, through to actual real combat.

The biggest reason most (all?), MMA schools utilise Alive training methods is because it gives results. Money and championship belts are at stake after all. If there were better training methods, the top fight gyms would adopt them and others would follow. But they don't because as of right now, Alive training methods ARE best practise. This is important to accept.

If you or your instructor are NOT using Alive training methods and you or your instructor market one aspect of the gym as providing self defence training of some sort then guess what? Your gym is being negligent! You or your instructor are not adequately preparing students for real attacks found on the streets. And this can easily be changed.

Aliveness Everywhere

No matter what 'style' of martial art you engage in, Alive training can be implemented rather easily. All of the traditional methods can be kept if you so choose. Simple Alive drills can be added in. Describing what these could be is another post altogether, or even book. Use your imagination. Look at what techniques are currently taught. Introduce some simple Alive drills. There are many you could develop. Then reduce the restrictions on these and eventually, safe Alive sparring using the appropriate protective equipment. If you want more information on this matter, Contact me through the form in the header.

Weapons Aliveness
Unarmed martial arts is not the only endeavour to use Alive training methods. The best in weapons based martial arts such as the Dogbrothers and Ray Floro utilise Aliveness to the full. Simple moves are taught using Alive drills, developing skills. Many different areas can be developed in this way. Progression is made to full live free sparring using weapons and equipment especially designed for weapons sparring.

RBSD Aliveness
Martial arts are not the only area where Alive training methods are being used. All of the best Self Defence or RBSD (or whatever you want to call it), systems utilise Alive training methods. Systems such as ISR Matrix, Tony Blauer's S.P.E.A.R. System, FAST Defense and Senshido all heavily focus on Alive training methods. The opponent is what is different, not the training method. 

They are not preparing their students to fight someone in an Octagon, they are training them to be able to deal with attackers on the street or inside their homes. These schools have 'attackers' who do things like real attackers do. They talk, they scream and swear, they push, they punch, they pull a 'knife'. The attacks are different but the Alive training methods are still there. Alive drills are first taught, all the way up to full on, live scenarios. This is the equivalent to live free sparring for someone preparing for the Octagon.

These courses also attract a large number of Law Enforcement officers and security professionals as well, due the skill sets they develop.

Military Aliveness
Aliveness is not that new any more. All of the best training organisations and schools use Alive training. Even the military use Alive training to prepare their soldiers for operations overseas.

They don't just send them to the rifle range and teach them to be a really good shot then send them into combat. That is the equivalent to teaching people one step sparring then sending them to Johannesburg late on a Saturday night. Soldiers are taken through scenarios where they are free to manoeuvre on the ground as they will in combat, often facing live opponents with SIMUNITION who can manoeuvre as well.

Can you see the comparison here? Alive training is best practise.


The below video is the one mentioned below in the comments by Anon. I added it here to add to the information provided here about Aliveness.


It is hoped that this post has shed some light on Aliveness and maybe given some ideas about how to implement some Alive training into your class, course or home sessions. It is everywhere. It really is 'best practise' and everyone engaging in Low Tech Combat training should utilise it. 

So today, in 2010, I wonder... Is Aliveness common sense or is it still controversial?

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  1. Great article. It is vey important for martial artists to practise "alive" drills, especially for self defence for obvious reasons.

    Even if one does not train for self defence, alive drills will help keep the mind sharp and everyone wants to train the mind as well as the body.

  2. Thanks Mark. I also find Alive training is much more enjoyable as well. It is quite fun to do. I also find myself thinking about these training sessions afterwards much more as well. As often, the body reacts and you analyse it later and learn lots from the experience.

  3. You would have been better off posting this vid instead:


    in order to explain to readers exactly what aliveness is.

    Thornton is not the originator of the term "aliveness", it was first used in this sense by Bruce Lee, and as you pointed out, the concept is age-old. On forums and in articles, Thornton has named several RBSD organizations whose training he regards as "alive".

  4. Great video Anon. I added it to the post. Thanks for sharing!

    Aliveness is a very important, actually VITAL, aspect of Low Tech Combat training as Low Tech Combat is alive.

  5. that's all fine and dandy. but 'aliveness' only takes it so far. in the end, it's up the practitioner to apply the skills in a free-form self-defense situation. you mention judo and the things you cannot do in judo. some people think that is a hindrance, hapkido and aikido practitioners specifically. the argument is that because sparring partners can't do everything that can happen on the street, practitioners of randori are developing bad habits and potentially leaving themselves exposed.

    i love judo and i think it's very useful. i also love hapkido and aikido too. i think a blend is best. sparring of judo, self-defense techniques of hapkido and aikido. there is also randori in aikido.

  6. I think you miss the point of Aliveness Anon. Your second and third sentences do not make sense. Aliveness IS about applying skills in a free form self defence situation.

    Practitioners who say things such as Randori limit the techniques used, therefore creating bad habits or it being a hindrance, are false in their logic.

    As the only time you CAN practise all of ones arsenal safely, is with 'dead' drills or static controlled practise. This is far less effective.

    The base that training methods such as Randori and sparring and wrestling create, is just that. A base. From that alive base, in a real encounter, more lethal techniques can be used, as they will most probably be applied from a dominant position.

    Aliveness is not only 'fine and dandy', but essential. It must be the base that everything else is built on.

    And yes, a blend is best. Think beyond styles and think training methods and techniques.

  7. Tradtitional_KaratekaMarch 21, 2011 at 4:50 PM

    Traditional_Karateka ("TK") on "Aliveness: Common Sense or Controversial"

    TK studies a highly physical, forceful style of karate, similar to the most popular Japanese karate style, Shotokan Karate. TK prefers his style over Shotokan, because it incorporates more of the historical influence of the Chinese karates.

    TK has reviewed a couple of the video presentations by Matt Thorton (MT). Matt Thorton, in one video, states that a 'great fighter' is made of four qualities. He says that these are: (i) conditioning, (ii) aggression, (iii) skill, (iv) intelligence. Of these, MT says that (i) & (ii) are by far the most important [conditioning & aggression].

    TK has also listened to some of MT's criticism of traditional martial arts organizations & teachings as 'cults.' TK has personally witnessed narrow thinking [some times extreme] @ traditional martial art schools; and both instructors & students blindly following tradition, rules, etc. And certainly numerous aspects of traditional karate are problematic.

    At my current karate school, TK does certain exercises differently than the instructors & other students might prefer, including avoiding free-sparring whenever possible. Criticism from numerous corners often ensues. Interestingly, some of the criticism comes from those practicing 'dead' training as opposed to TK's concept of MT's 'alive' training.

    TK, however, thinks it banal to throw out the in-depth teachings of thoughful men accumulated over centuries because of the biased & bigoted weakness that is present in the human nature of all of us. The traditional karate answer to the latter is the philosophy, "budo"--be the better person.

    TK certainly sides with MT when he says that your martial art training must be 'alive.' Where TK parts company with MT is where MT labels traditional martial arts training 'dead' because it doesn't adapt the MMA, sports-based training [ENERGY, MOTION, TIMING], or his version of JKD, free-sparring, etc.

    TK will end [this boring, long commentary] by proposing, IN CONTRAST to MT's rating, the qualities that make a great fighter--the traditional martial arts way--are (i) INTELLIGENCE, (ii) CONDITIONING, (iii) SKILL. Aggression is not on the list; in traditional karate, TK will stipulate that Aggression is OK.

    The traditional karate fighter [IMO], who fights based on intelligence, with the conditioning of a strong, unified body under strong mental discipline, & with traditional karate's broad array of martial techniques--will trounce the MT 'alive' figher relying heavily on (i) conditioning, (ii) aggression; then some skill, lastly intelligence.

    MT's approach, like he says, will readily create really good, tough fighters who know how to spar & fight very well. Traditional karate's aim, though, is to produce the fighter who ends the fight quickly & decisively, no matter how physically strong, aggressive, or athletically talented the opponent may be. This fundamaental difference is the CONTROVERSY that TK sees about MT's 'alive' system of martial arts training.


  8. Umm, TK, are your referring to yourself in the third person???

    I will leave 'MT' to defend his own words. I don't like to do that. However, I will say that I have not seen many great fighters who were not very well conditioned and aggressive. With that base, a fighter can be trained. It can be hard to train someone to be aggressive. Many people either have it or they do not.

    Some people call aggressiveness an offensive mindset. Others call it gameness. In all real fighting circles, such a trait is most indicative of a solid fighter with a promising future.

    We are talking about great fighters here, not martial artists or self defence experts. There are some differences I feel.

  9. BJJ its such a awesome martial art, great video im going to try it on my little bro.

    Martial Art Training

  10. Quality post. I was looking around for a further explanation of alive training and this has hit the nail right on the head. What’s also nice is that I didn't realise that I did so much alive training but I hadn't heard of the concept until an hour ago.

    It's so important to learn how to do something within a drill and then learn how to apply those movements into a 'real' situation where you need creatively on your toes. I'd even love to take self-defence alive training a step further and try sparring in places like an empty train carriage or an empty bar - now that would be interesting.

  11. Great article.

    The problem I've seen frequently is the application of aliveness before a trainee has competence in a given skill or scenario. The alive drill becomes sloppy and ineffective, and leads to a lack of confidence in the trainee.

    I've also seen a lot of injuries during aliveness training when a trainee compensates for a lack of skill with speed and force. I've seen pressure testing devolve quickly.

  12. @selfdefenceblog, to take self defence training further, you can incorporate Aliveness into self defence scenarios. It doesn't have to be limited to sparring. In those environment such as a train carriage or bar, you could start off each scenario in a way most likely to happen in real life. Force the students to use words and de-escalation tactics. If that doesn't happen effectively, the 'attacker' goes physical.

    @John, That is very true. A certain amount of competence needs to be attained prior to moving onto proper Alive drills. Thats where repetition comes in to training. Lots of repetition, then begin to introduce aliveness aspects whilst keeping the repetition turning over. As that drill is performed appropriately, more repetition and more aliveness is brought in and so on. Eventually, the student has done LOTS of repetition which should bring the skills up while gradually introducing more and more aliveness aspects into the drills. This is exactly what ISR Matrix do very very well.

  13. Thank you so much ... They are, pound for pound, perhaps the strongest fighters going.
    Toddler Karate Santa Monica

  14. Great input, it's a great primer on "Aliveness". Something that should be mentioned is the training for aliveness. There is more to it than just suiting up and sparring.

    What's unique about SBG's approach was that they isolated drills that were control points. Either getting the control or escaping a control. They worked this until you were able to do this w/out thought. The advantage from this type of drilling, this made you a better grappler, not in the sense of doing 1,000 thounsand armbar, but good at grappling with excellent timing!

    I guess you can say that even though you were working with a resistant partner, you learned and know people's habit and this helped in having that timing to apply towards your technique.

    Gun News Journal


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