In line with my honest, no-bullshit review of training equipment for use in making your Wing Chun skills functional, practical and thereby effective for use in the ring or on the street, employing the best headgear for self-defense and full-contact training forms the one of three legs of your “training gear tripod”allowing you to fully do battle, as it were, by allowing you to actually use and apply your Wing Chun in a class setting or training session.
Choosing the best headgear for the different aspects of your Wing Chun practice is essential to effective, efficient and most of all SAFE training and is a decision you should put much thought into since using the wrong headgear during training can lead to concussions, stitches, broken noses or worse. I’m not trying to spook or scare anyone, I’m just addressing the realities of practical and honest, no-bullshit Wing Chun training.
The King of the Court
In his best selling book Combat Conditioning, former national collegiate wrestling champion and world shuaijiao kung fu champion Matt Furey outlines the top 3 exercises he feels are essential for functional fitness for any combat sports, which he calls the Royal Court. I like that term-so I’m stealing it. In my opinion, the right shoes, right gloves and headgear form the “Royal Court” of your Wing Chun training and while the right shoes must come first to provide you the right base, followed by the right gloves to make contact and reinforce that structure, the King of the “Royal Court of Wing Chun” is the right headgear. Why? Simple.
Once the structure has been developed and reinforced, you must, must, MUST become proficient at moving forward in pursuit of your opponent’s centerline. That sense of forward pressure coupled with centerline dominance is what defines our art and makes it such an effective, no-nonsense way to take someone out.
In my training I have found that there are (surprise, surprise) 3 main types of headgear I feel address all asopects of proper and effective Wing Chun training for self-defense and full contact training. How and when you will use each of these 3 types of gear depends on what aspect of your Wing Chun game you are focused on.
3 Kinds of Headgear You Must Use For Proper Training
Traditional Wing Chun sparring allows for face contact straight in. You don’t have to be a Mensa member to see that boxing headgear ain’t where it’s at for this. Many pieces of headgear out there use a wire mesh cage for protection. I do not like this type of gear nor do I recommend it for use. For one, it is quite easy to jam or break a finger in the little holes (ask me how I know this) and also, they hurt! Even with MMA gloves on it cuts through the padding and will leave you a bit gun shy about hitting full-on which defeats the whole purpose.
Also, I have seen and used several types of plexi-glass headgear out there. I dislike these even more than the face cage because at least the cage can withstand impact; I have both worn headgear that has cracked when hit with a hard shot and have cracked a mask or 2 myself. Now worrying about jagged pieces of plastic in your face-that is some scary shit. For light contact sparring no problem but for full contact strikes, no friggin’ way.
In order to protect that pile of Spaghetti-O’s inside your skull from turning into just that, you will need the following types of headgear:
- Face Shield Sparring Headgear (Kuoshu/Lei Tai approved)
- Boxing Headgear with Cross-Face Bar
- A SOLID Motorcycle Helmet (weird, I know, but bear with me)
I will address my reasoning, any pros and cons and proper uses for each piece of headgear below.
ProForce Thunder Vinyl Face Shield
The most immediately applicable and useful piece of headgear for a Wing Chun dude or dudette is a solid Face Shield. With a design that looks like an old 1930’s catcher’s mask, not only is this suited for facial contact for Wing Chun sparring using MMA gloves (which you can find my top picks and recommendations for in my review HERE) but it is snug enough against the head to use while practicing each Wing Chun technique in a realistic and contact-based yet progressively and in a separate manner to fully get the hang of each technique itself.
My preferred choice when engaging in Wing Chun full contact drills or hard traditional Wing Chun sparring is the ProForce Thunder Vinyl Face Shield. The heavy duty reinforced bars are better than mesh because while the bars themselves are thicker (thanks again to the old 1930’s baseball catcher mask cross bar) the surface area is smaller allowing for better vision as well.
As an aside, this headgear is the only approved type of facial protection for both the United States Kuoshu Federation and the World Kuoshu Federation, the top lei-tai (Chinese traditional full contact fighting) organizations in the world. Check out the following clip of this headgear in action. Serious contact, these dudes (and dudettes) don’t play:
- Durable construction
- Better field of vision
- Snug fit on head; no rattling -just get the right size- unlike the foamy point karate gear (ugh.)
- Full contact tournament approved by the world’s top organizations
- Gloves are needed to hit the face
- Palm strikes are a bit tricky but will train you to do them the right way
- Less absorption of hits-this will motivate you to train smarter
BEST USES: Wing Chun sparring, lei tai (traditional full-contact) fighting, Wing Chun techniques done progressively harder and with more intent.
A Funny Story of How I Learned This The Hard Way
One of the first times my Sifu, Philip Ng, came back from Hong Kong for a visit, he wanted to gauge our progress so he had me and one of my senior instructors spar. Like a true bonehead I put on my boxing headgear (actually it’s the one seen in the pic at the top of this post) thinking I’d be fine.
He looked at me and said, “you’re wearing that? Are you sure?”
“Yep, no worries it’ll be fine,” I said. He shrugged and said, “OK. Let’s go.”
Not 10 seconds later I was on one knee with blood gushing from my nose. He then yelled at me for bleeding on the floor and told me to run to the bathroom and get paper towels to clean the mess up. Lesson learned.
Remember, you don’t try to hang a picture by hammering the nail in with a screwdriver, and you don’t engage in full contact Wing Chun sparring with headgear that doesn’t protect your face.
Title Classic Face Protector Headgear
Now that I have just given you all the reasons not to use boxing headgear in your training sessions, let me give you my next recommendation and the second of my essential pieces of headgear for anyone serious about making their Wing Chun skills usable, functional and practical: boxing headgear-WITH a face bar.
A solid piece of boxing headgear is best suited for sparring Chinese sanshou /sanda (Chinese full-contact kickboxing similar to muay thai with throws) or for attribute training where your attacker has a cage on allowing you to attack down their centerline using Wing Chun while they have boxing gloves and throw street punches at you, unpredictably.
I have found that for the best ratio of price to durability, nothing compares to the Title Classic Face Protector Headgear. What makes this such a valuable training tool is the cross bar which allows you to move forward without the fear of eating one straight in (and make no mistake, you will eat ones as you train to move in). This progressive desensitization to taking a bop will then translate into more effective and efficient Wing Chun sparring and training. The two work together to develop different aspects of your overall game.
- Built to last for full-contact training either in boxing or kickboxing
- Very good at cradling the head for absorbing shots,
- Great for bridging the gap in sparring and for building confidence in moving forward to “attack the attack”
- Not the best for Wing Chun sparring proper, as fist either MMA-gloved or ungloved can still fit through
- Needs to air out a bit more if you sweat a lot, since the cloth lining inside can stay moist for awhile. Be sure to take this one out of your gear bag and air out properly when you are done-nothing sucks likke putting on damp gear that smells literally like piss and vinegar
- Visibility is a bit limited at first until you are used to it-I recommend light sparring first to get your bearings
- NO chin protection: be careful and keep your wu sau checking hand up so you don’t eat an uppercut or hook
BEST USES: Kickboxing / sanshou training, boxing, Wing Chun training where you are being attacked with boxing gloves to simulate street punches; your attackers will have face shields on to allow for you to attack them with Wing Chun.
Another Funny Story…
One night I was running late and literally had to throw my gear in the bag to rush to class. I forgot this headgear at home and we were kickboxing that night. Like a moron I put on the ProForce Thunder Face Shield (shown above)and got suited up. One of my instructors, Keith, both a national full-contact sanshou kickboxing champion and national Wing Chun champion, gave me the same look that my sifu Phil gave me when I wore the boxing headgear (without the face bar) to Wing Chun spar…
“You’re wearing that?” he said as he popped his mouthpiece in. Once again, like a moron I said, “yep. It’ll be OK.”
He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “OK. Let’s get to it, then”
We began sparring and about 30 seconds in he parried my jab and hit me with a straight right cross right down the line from his chin to my face.
Sweet Mother of Jesus.
It felt like I had run into a pole. I literally felt the impact in my teeth and all the way down to my heels. I was done sparring for that round and had to take a couple rounds off before I jumped back in. Again, lesson learned. Due to the gloves’ size, there is much heavier impact made with boxing gloves which requires much more absorption in a piece of boxing headgear. Use this headgear and save yourself the pleasure of feeling the full absorption of a shot like this from your teeth to your toes.
SHOEI RF-1200 Motorcycle Helmet
My third and final recommendation to round out this training trifecta is a bit of a curve ball but when you think about it makes all the sense in the world: a motorcycle helmet. If you want the best of both worlds in functional, effective and real-feel training for Wing Chun, you gotta go with a motorcycle helmet.
The SHOEI RF-1200 allows for the straight up nature of Wing Chun training with the absorption of boxing gear in a self-defense scenario.
NOTE: you do NOT want to use this for sparring, only for isolated self defense scenario training (8-20 seconds in duration) to allow you to really “open up” on your attacker.
Why? Motorcycle helmets aren’t built for repeated impact; they are designed to save your noodle from a quick and very forceful collision or crash.
Nevertheless, real world self defense encounters are quick, violent, brutal, sloppy and completely chaotic.
If you are to honestly train Wing Chun for self-defense and personal protection, then your training must address this.
- there is nothing better I have found for impact or making contact than a motorcycle helmet
- the nature of the helmet allows you to truly hit FULL contact, allowing for the ultimate in realism
- the smooth nature of the helmet means no bars or hard plastic against your fist, palm or elbow
- extremely durable
- great for fight-ending techniques like headbutts, knees and elbows that cannot be trained realistically any other way
- COST. Any decent helmet is not going to be cheap.
- Visor may crack after repeated shots
- Need to get the right size otherwise your head feels like it is being squeezed in a vise
BEST USES: self-efense and scenario training using eye gouges, headbutts, knees and elbows
As stated above, when training the biu jee eyejab and even a face smash, this is the only training tool I have found to hit with a quick biu jee and chain punch.
Elbows can be trained full-on as well; your head will get jostled around but it feels a hell of a lot better than with a cage mask or boxing headgear on.
All limitations aside and barring the “unknown” factor of using this type of equipment for self-defense purposes, after 20+ years doing this stuff I can say flat out that for impact, nothing else even comes close to a motorcycle helmet.
Add elbow and knee pads and you’re off to the races, just remember that this kind of training with the helmet should be once every few weeks and then as a supplement to functionalize and reinforce your skills; NOT to replace your Wing Chun training.
A Word of Warning:
LET ME JUST SAY THIS RIGHT NOW: Motorcycle helmets are not made for sparring, fighting or self-defense. If you choose to take this advice you do so at your own risk. I am passing on a training tip that I have found useful when I have used it, fully aware of the dangers and risks to myself when using a helmet for self-defense training, as it is not its’ intended purpose. Keep that in mind.
Now it is up to you to get a GOOD one, not cheap shit. I don’t want just any dinky piece of plastic absorbing elbows, knees, straight punches and the like. Do your homework and make sure you get the BEST one you can.
If you can’t afford it, don’t get it.
Boxing headgear and a face cage are more than enough and inf act many folks don’t progress beyond them and that is totally fine. In interest of being as thorough as possible, I want to present all options for you.
Why Three Types?
Now that I’ve given you the goods so to speak, let me just clarify why I chose the number 3 both in terms of type of gear and variations of each type, because I think it’s important and because that framework in and of itself speaks to my Wing Chun training and the mentality I have developed from it.
Wing Chun as a style and system of martial arts, self-defense and close-quarter fighting is based on both the shape of the triangle and the corresponding number 3: triangular structure in stance and punch, following the shape of a triangle for attack and defense, etc. We as Wing Chun folks tend to align our strategies, technical principles and after awhile, the way we just think about stuff with the number 3. Think about it: a triangle is the strongest structure and it has 3 points so why not stick with a winner?
I’ve noticed that through my training, I tend to fall back to the stability of the number 3 in all things. If there are 10 choices for something, what are the 3 that I essentially need? Good, I’m going with them. See what I mean? Oh, I’ve got 10 things to get done today-OK, what are the 3 things that need to get done the most? Done-I’ve got those first. And so on. That type thinking carries itself well into my actual training, and the equipment I choose.
There are 3 distinct phases or aspects of Wing Chun training – the technical aspect, the sparring aspect and the self-defense aspect. Each aspect requires attention placed on it distinct from the others and that attention requires the utilizing of separate pieces of headgear to bring out the full measure of training for each aspect.
There You Have It, Folks…
In a nutshell, no one piece of headgear has all the answers or does all of the jobs for all phases of training. By following my outline of the “training trifecta” of headgear as listed above, you will adequately address all 3 main areas of your training to ensure that no one aspect of training a combative scenario is left out.
A proper stable of training headgear should address each of the 3 phases of contact training any solid, stable and honest regimen should strive to address:
- Face Protector Headgear – for applying Wing Chun techniques in a full-contact setting
- Boxing Headgear with a Face Bar – for desensitization to contact by taking shots while moving in to apply both Wing Chun theory and technique
- A Solid Motorcycle Helmet – For the truest measure of training both the Wing Chun chain punch and biu jee eyejab, in addition to more “heavy artillery” close-quarters self defense of training of headbutts, knees and elbows.
Now, can you subdivide these even further? Sure. Just as with any other type of equipment-be it gloves, shoes or shin pads (of which detailed reviews and my top, no-bullshit recommendations for each of these categories and much more can be found HERE) we can take this as far down the rabbit hole as you want but to get started, you need something to get you started.
Remember, the operative word in “training gear” is training – so go make use of them and TRAIN.
Train Smart, Stay Safe