The average student goes to class twice a week. On top of that, a large number of students don’t train on their own between classes. That means if you’re teaching someone in class you’re in charge of 50% of all their training for that week. The average class length is 1 hour, so you need to fit half a week’s worth of knowledge into just 60 minutes.
So the question becomes “how do I get the most out of these 60 minutes?”
Today we’ll look at all the elements of a class and discuss ideas on how to breakdown how much time is spent on each area – with some fun charts and graphs along the way!
This is written from a teaching perspective, but a lot of this applies to training outside of class too. If you’re not an instructor, this post will help you get the most out of your solo training.
Parts of Class
First we’re going to look at the common elements that make up a martial arts class. I’ll be giving my opinions on why they should and should not deserve precious class time. Again, this is all my opinion. Plenty of instructors more experienced than me do this differently!
In here I’m putting all exercises that are not martial arts specific. For example, we’re looking at jumping rope, push ups, sit ups, squats, and stretching. These are all great exercises, and ideal for a warmup, but they apply to fitness in general and not martial arts specifically.
Pros – This is great for warmups and raises the class to a general fitness level.
Cons – This doesn’t necessarily make you better at martial arts since you’re not learning anything. Doing this as a warmup has diminishing returns: having everyone do 25 push ups every class means students will stagnate at 25. If you focus on this, you’re emphasizing fitness over knowledge.
Verdict – Warmups with stretching should be no more than 15 minutes of class and even less for kids.
Intense Cardio Martial Arts
These are intense exercises that are martial arts related. This includes hitting the bag, high intensity padwork, and performance level kata.
Pros – Great workout! These exercises push you to your limit while still being martial arts related.
Cons – Exercise done this way is typically shallow practice as you’re not learning anything new, just blasting out what you already know. Be careful because form can start to slip as fatigue creeps in.
Verdict – No more than 5 minutes at a time, once or twice per class. Training this way makes for a great high energy finale for class but it isn’t sustainable over the whole hour.
Here we’re looking at reviewing and teaching the fundamentals: blocks, kicks, and strikes. Training done this way can be done in the air, on a partner, or with equipment. Unlike intense cardio martial arts, the focus is on quality, not reps and exercise.
Pro – This is the foundation of all martial arts. You can’t do kata or sparring well without proper basics.
Con – There are none. Do this every class.
Verdict – Every. Single. Class.
This includes learning a new kata and refining parts of your current kata. This does not include performing at a higher intensity or reviewing previously learned forms.
Pro – Students always want to learn what’s new. They’re always the most excited after a belt promotion when they get to learn their new belt’s curriculum.
Con – Make sure you encourage students to focus on patience and quality, not learning the “new stuff” as fast as possible.
Verdict – 5-10 minutes every class. Most students should walk away from a class with either a new part of the form to practice, or a refinement to a previous part to work on.
It’s important to review previous forms and make sure students don’t forget their previous knowledge.
Pro – Every form is a black belt form. Each one has principles of self-defense and movement. Forgetting them means learning them was a waste. In elementary school you don’t stop using addition just because you learn multiplication.
Con – Many students will find this boring and be in a rush to get to new material.
Verdict – 5 minutes a few times a month. A great way to do this is to periodically have everyone do the lowest rank form once, then the next form, then the next, and so on. Have students stand back and watch when they no longer know the next form. This “spot check” will tell you if you need to spend more time reviewing.
This is where you practice either kata application or self-defense techniques if your style separates them. Here you’d work on grab defenses and escapes, and punch/kick defenses if your style doesn’t include those in one-step sparring.
Pro – Without the “why,” forms are just dances. This is the depth of knowledge.
Cons – None, this is an essential part of class. If students leave a class without ever doing a technique on a body you’re not training depth of knowledge.
Verdict – 10 minutes every class. This is essential.
One-steps, free sparring, tournament style, etc.
Pro – This is your chance to learn to defend against strikes and practice against a non-cooperative opponent. It’s important to work with someone who is resisting.
Con – This can be time consuming as putting on and taking off safety gear eats up time. This can also intimidate new students.
Verdict – 10 minutes every other to every class.
All aspects of weapons including forms, techniques, sparring, etc
Pros – Weapons are fun, exciting, and a revenue source for the school (if you teach weapons, make sure you sell weapons)!
Cons – Impractical for self-defense (mostly), time consuming. Every minute you teach someone a traditional sword form is a minute you aren’t teaching them how to defend themselves against something they might actually encounter.
Many schools take time to discuss the philosophical/character building aspect of martial arts. This is often glossed over and treated as something that “kinda just happens,” but it reall needs to be explicitly stated from time to time.
Pros – You’re more likely to be use the character building aspects of martial arts in real life than the self-defense aspects. We all need patience and honesty, but we won’t all need to defend against a headlock.
Cons – This is very difficult to make interesting and can sometimes drag the class to a halt.
Verdict – For kids this is essential, a few minutes should be spent on it every class. I used to make the kids workout really hard, then while they were catching their breath we’d go over “the word of the week.” For teens and adults you need to read the room and try to incorporate this into the rest of class.
Personal: Most of my time teaching was when I was a college student. We always spent a couple minutes on a “word of the week” with the younger students. In adult classes, I rarely did because I was uncomfortable talking to people twice my age about concepts like patience and integrity. However, another instructor was really good at it – he would use stretching as a time to lead an informal discussion about the principles in the creed. He would use examples like road rage and job stress to get people talking about how martial arts helped them. I highly recommend you copy him, not me!
Ok, so we went over the different elements of martial arts classes, now we need to figure out how to fit in everything!
Pick One and Focus – Pick one topic or category and devote the entire class to it.
This is what I would call a seminar style approach to teaching. Students will walk away with a really great depth of understanding, but if they’re a typical student and only go to two classes a week this might not be the most efficient use of their time.
Pros – You ensure of quality instruction and an attention to detail.
Cons – This method is largely unsustainable. If you do nothing but kata application today, nothing but sparring tomorrow, and nothing but basics next week, you aren’t repeating anything enough times for it to really sink in. Look at strength training: bodybuilders don’t pick one muscle group, exercise it once, and then wait weeks before exercising it again. They know consistent training is the key to improvement. Martial arts is no different.
A Little Bit of Everything
This is more the “assembly line” approach to class. Everything will be covered in a measured amount. The burden of time management will definitely be felt on this one!
Pros – Everything is covered for at least a few minutes.
Cons – Everything is surface level so the instructor must give concise, clear instructions to make sure the students can learn and improve in the time allotted.
Some schools will rotate their curriculum weekly, monthly, or quarterly. This can involve 100% of the material changing, or just which kata applications you work each week. One school I trained at would pick a different Kung Fu animal form and do nothing but aspects of that form for 3 months at a time.
Pros – The entire class is working on the same thing at the same time making teaching easier. There’s plenty of time to go in-depth as the curriculum is narrow and set. Every class will cover the same thing so you get great repetition.
Cons – This doesn’t work with styles where one form builds upon the next. Additionally, the potential to forget curriculum before it rotates back in is always present.
A week, B week (or A class, B class)
This option allows you to spend double the time on every aspect of class – just half as often. In a month you’re still spending the same amount of time on everything, just in larger and less frequent blocks.
Example 1: A school would teach basics and forms on Mondays and Tuesdays and then do self-defense and sparring on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Example 2: A school would alternate between a week of basics and forms and a week of self-defense and sparring.
Pros – This breakdown gives you more time for everything and ensures all topics are covered.
Cons – This can be a little schedule restrictive. Also, students can skip classes they don’t enjoy (skipping sparring if they’re intimidated or skipping forms if they find them boring).
Having specialty classes on your schedule means you don’t cover certain topics in regular classes, instead saving them for less frequent special classes. For example, a school I previously taught at did not do free sparring in regular class. Instead, students who were a certain rank and up could attend shorter 15-30 minute classes to practice free sparring. These classes were always either right before, or right after the regular classes. Another school I studied at had dedicated (and optional) weapons classes as well.
Pros – This essentially gives you 15 minutes for basics, 15 minutes for kata, and 15 minutes for applications/self-defense. Compared to 5-10 minutes that does free up a lot of time!
Cons – If the specialty classes aren’t required students might not attend. When sparring is optional a lot of students will be intimidated and not want to go to those classes. Making it part of regular class makes it much less scary.
Have a different method for time management? Leave it below in the comments! It’s a very important aspect of martial arts instruction, and martial arts training in general. Most of us don’t get to do this full time, so every minute is precious. You don’t want students mindlessly doing their same form on repeat for 20 minutes while they get bored. Find the time inefficiencies and fill them with something valuable!