A valuable training tool that many traditional karateka choose to abstain from is the punching mitts, or focus mitts. These come in many different styles, from very basic to high-tech, but all of them facilitate the same thing–a way to turn a training partner into a mobile, modular platform for practicing full-speed striking combinations to various targets without injuring that partner. The ability to have moving targets that can simulate openings for practicing combinations is very valuable for both sport fighting and for self defense, but the drills utilized must be kept in context.
Most people who use punching mitts use them for practicing combinations of punches which, given that “punching” is part of their name, makes sense. These are typically the four basic punches of boxing–jab, cross, hook and uppercut. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these techniques, of course, as they are highly effective, and they should certainly be practiced. If you practice boxing, then it makes sense to drill those punches in the context of boxing, as most people do when using punching mitts. The problem then becomes, what if you aren’t practicing boxing? If you practice an art that includes kicks, knees, elbows, alternative hand strikes or takedowns, then the padwork drills need to be able to incorporate those things.
When I work with pads/mitts, I do so with one of two mindsets–sparring and self defense. While they have some cross-over with each other, sparring and self defense are not the same and cannot be trained the same. If you are training for competitive fighting or sparring, then you should work drills that allow you to practice strikes to areas you would attack in the manner in which you would attack them when you spar. The same thing applies to self defense, but while padwork drills for sparring are fairly self explanatory, padwork drills for self defense can be a bit more complicated. The ranges are going to be different, the combinations are going to be different and the way the padholder moves is going to be different.
Using punching mitts for self defense requires your partner to feed attacks to you, such as a shove, a cocked-elbow punch, a haymaker, a wide backfist, an overhand swing, an uppercut, etc., or some combination of attacks such as those. The reality of self defense is that you probably won’t get the first shot in, and if you do, it should be because they were about to initiate an attack. From that attack, you obviously need to receive the attack in some way and counter it in some way. Examples of this could be a simultaneous forearm block and counter punch, a cover-and-crash entry into clinch range, a block-and-evade entry or any number of other defensive tactics. I highly recommend playing with this idea in class to get a feel for actually striking targets during your self defense drills that you may not otherwise strike full-speed and full-power, such as the neck or groin, by using the mitts as surrogate targets. When doing these, remember to work any controlling/trapping techniques, sweeps, throws, takedowns, joint locks or chokes that you would normally include in your self defense drills–your partner having mitts on should not prohibit you from doing these techniques.