Martial arts studios, gyms, dojos, academies—whatever you want to call them—have suffered like most other in-person businesses during the pandemic. Many gyms have shut down entirely, while others lucky enough to retain a certain number of students have migrated much of their classes online, forging a new kind of training regimen for our virus-stricken environment. But does training in your chosen style by yourself, with your movements only visible to an instructor through a sliver of computer or tablet screen, really help you improve?
A lot depends on what you’d like to get from your training, but there are still certain benefits one can reap even without the presence of a sparring partner.
Training online is different
It’s necessary to preface this by noting the obvious: training martial arts over Zoom or FaceTime is not the same as training in a room with a group of friends and an in-person instructor. You can’t spar with anyone, and there isn’t much in terms of a tactile experience like pads to hit or a person in front of you to practice on.
Another disadvantage, according to Oscar Arana, a ten-year student of Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is that bad habits you develop may go unnoticed by an instructor.
“If you can’t train with people, you may as well just be doing any other Zoom workout,” he says. Perhaps worst of all, without an instructor in the room to keep you in check, he says it’s possible “you’d just be drilling bad habits.” Instructors often give concrete instruction regarding technique in these classes, it’s just that their bandwidth is often stretched with multiple students logged on to the same session. Everyone completes the task at the same time, giving the instructor a limited lens of who might need more feedback.
It’s also harder for some students to find the motivation to attend classes at home, especially when they’re already comfortably lounging in sweat pants. Jack Crosbie, a Muay Thai student in Brooklyn, tried going to his gym’s Zoom classes but stopped after just two sessions. “I didn’t dislike them,” he says, “but it was harder to motivate myself to go” when classes were online.
Teaching online also makes it difficult to demonstrate techniques that require participation from two people. Jody Wexler, who teaches and trains Taekwondo online, tells Lifehacker that this is “the main drawback.”
Some martial arts require physical contact – especially takedowns, wrist/arm techniques and sparring. Those are very hard to learn and teach remotely.
Some martial arts cater to online training better than others
In my personal experience, I’ve found it difficult to train my favored martial art, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, in an online format. BJJ is a grappling sport that emphasizes a lot of sparring, drilling certain moves, and experimenting with new techniques. To that end, it requires a lot of close, physical contact with other people—which is something you clearly want to avoid during a pandemic.
The one BJJ class I did over Zoom involved training with an imaginary partner, symbolized by a pillow on my living room floor. The rest of the class followed routine drills that I can do on my own, since I don’t really need instruction on the basics after a decade of training.
This isn’t entirely true for other martial arts, per se. When it comes to striking sports like boxing, a whole universe of technique exists surrounding body mechanics such as footwork, head movement, and feints. These are things you can more easily work on over Zoom, even if the usual caveats apply. Crosbie says that in the two classes he attended, “there were exercises we’d do that focused much more on form that were helpful.”
It isn’t just layman practitioners who use video conferencing tools, either. Patrício “Pitbull” Freire, who currently holds the Lightweight and Featherweight championship in Bellator MMA, has long consulted Zoom and FaceTime when sharing techniques with teammates in different countries. He tells Lifehacker that he and his brother Patricky Freire, who also competes in Bellator, think their Zooming-habits have given them a leg up in the pandemic era:
Patricky and I have been Zooming and FaceTiming with Captain Eric Albarracin, who lives in another country, in order to keep evolving our MMA for years now. During this special time in history, everyone is starting to train via video meetings, so we feel we have an experience advantage is this new era.
But most people don’t have the experience and knowledge of a seasoned MMA fighter, who’s undoubtedly training with other athletes in person, regardless of the pandemic. When it comes to the benefits of training remotely for the average practitioner, the benefits are a bit more related to scheduling as opposed to pure fight strategy.
It can be good for maintaining community and your schedule
One of the main benefits of training at a gym is the community you can build. Everyone was dramatically robbed of that community as the pandemic spread globally, but logging on to a video conference can rekindle at least part of that fleeting sense of togetherness. This is true of the Muay Thai classes I’ve done on Zoom where, after class, we all sit down and talk and share jokes. It’s nice spot of levity in an otherwise year-long slog of pandemic madness.
Other people find training online to be conducive to maintaining a less frenetic schedule. Wexler says she enjoys “not having any kind of commute to and from a location—so I can transition from work time to workout time very quickly—and then get on with my night when I’m done with the classes.”
How to get the most out of an online class
Obviously, physical space comes at a premium in many instances, but when you’re able to carve out a sizable portion of space in your home, it helps immensely. If possible, move furniture out of the way and consider buying an exercise mat so you’re not messing up your carpet or scraping your feet on hardwood floors.
And since you need to see what your instructor is doing, it’s best to connect your phone or laptop to a bigger monitor, as well. Wexler recommends screen mirroring your device to a TV, if you can manage it. She actually connects her phone to a projector via Air Play, so her student’s images are even bigger than they would be in the gym.
Having a stable internet connection is key and if the device can be mirrored or plugged in to a TV or projection unit, that’s super helpful. I use my MacBook and AirPlay to a cheap projector that allows me to see everything big – up on the wall.
Training remotely isn’t the same as it is in traditional venues, but there are still ways you can benefit from it.