I’d planned to write this post a few months ago. With the start of the year, we had been getting a lot of new members coming into Jax Muay Thai. As we chatted about the JMT curriculum and choice of classes, I found myself verbalizing my thoughts on the keys to progress in martial arts training. I had followed these concepts myself for decades, but had neglected them more recently. It was only through voicing them out loud that the ideas started percolating again. As usual I was struck by what Sir Winston Churchill once said: “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”
With our doors closed during the pandemic, the switch to online classes for two months, and the current reopening guidelines, these Keys to Progress in Martial Arts seem even more relevant.
Note: These Keys to Progress are based on my 33 years of training, teaching and learning martial arts from people way smarter than myself.
I believe the first key to getting good at martial arts is frequency of focused practice. It’s all about mindful repetitions. Note the words “focused” and “mindful”!
Pavel Tsatsouline, renowned Russian strength coach, refers to this practice as “Greasing the Groove”: Performing a movement or exercise, not to total fatigue, but in a highly concentrated manner, to develop the neural pathways necessary to perform that movement more efficiently and exhibit more strength and power in that movement.
I can still remember when my then-8-year-old daughter asked the famous Thai fighter Lamsongkram Chuwattana the key to improving her round kick. He was staying with us for a week, and it was amazing to watch a martial artist of his caliber up close. “Five hundred kicks each leg every day before morning training, and 500 each leg before afternoon training,” is what he told her. Lam had been doing those kicks daily from the age of six. He had to complete the 1000 kicks before he was even allowed to hit the pads with a trainer or do any other partner work. No wonder his kicks now appear effortless.
My recommendation to new students at our gym is this: Attend a minimum of three classes a week either at the gym or online. If you can attend more, that’s great! Each instructor will teach each week’s theme slightly differently. You’ll learn techniques and principles during class, while having your form corrected by the instructor and discovering some new training concepts. However—and this is important—it is not during class that the real improvements occur!
In class, your focus is divided. You’re focused on the instructor and what they’re demonstrating or saying. You’re focused on what your partner is doing. You’re focused on the new techniques, or changes that you should make to existing technique. And many of you are still focused on the feelings of frustration, awkwardness, embarrassment, etc. that come with learning something new or being corrected.
Only through practicing the movements on your own can you begin to master them. It takes that solo repetition to develop those neural pathways of the movement before you can bring in strength and power. In other words, muscle memory. Concentration without distraction, even for short amounts of time, is the first step in the journey. And in order to implement Key No. 1 effectively, the student must develop Key No. 2 as follows.
2.) Develop good training habits for long-term growth
The short hours of class are not the time to perfect technique. Take what you learn in class and absorb it the best you can, but also know you’re not going to perfect it. Write it in your training journal after class. Run through it in your head or shadow box it. When you get home from class you should review what you learned. Repeat before you go to bed and I can almost guarantee you’ll dream of it.
Repeat the next morning as you brush your teeth, even if you just visualize it and make small movements in your bathroom. Practice for 1-2 minutes throughout the next day. Then, if you can, come into the gym during Open Mat time and practice what you learned the day before on the heavy bag or with a friend who understands the training process. (But do not practice with someone who’s not willing to let you just go through the movements without resistance!) If possible ask one of your coaches to critique your form. Then go away and rep those modifications again and again.
Bruce Lee is arguably one of the greatest martial artists in living memory. His daily planners reveal a lot about his training philosophy. In one exerpt he notes “waiting at LAX for flight to Hong Kong 1000 punches right arm, 1000 punches left arm.”
Often it’s useful to break movements down into smaller components. For example, a Long Straight Knee involves many elements, starting from the step, then the drive forward through the ball of the supporting foot, to the lifting of the knee and thrust of the hips, to the head position, hand position and shoulder movement. You can practice just the step and weight shift to the ball of the foot in isolation, or just the chin-down-shoulder-pullback. You can practice a small movement like a weight-shift-to-ground-push throughout the day without getting the strange looks you’d get if you practiced the entire straight knee in public. Get creative with practicing individual movements in stealth mode; your overall skill will improve exponentially and no one will be the wiser! Before you know it, you will embark on Key No. 3.
3.) Start to make the technique truly your own.
It is during the focused time of solo practice that you start to make the technique truly your own.
As you work reps into the course of your day, you will begin to gain insight into the nuances of the technique. As you warm up, you start to flow through the movement more. And, as you tire, you realize that you were “muscling it,” holding tension in your body where it wasn’t needed. You gradually learn to relax and then tense only when necessary. Your movement becomes more efficient and your mental state becomes more focused as well.
We all have many different reasons and goals for practicing martial arts. But try not to think of your practice how you would think of a workout class like a bootcamp or a gym workout. Something that potentially takes 2-3 hours out of your day, with travel to the gym, changing, exercising, showering and changing, then traveling again. You do need to come to class regularly to grow, but your martial arts practice can be broken into a few minutes here or a few minutes there throughout the day. And remember that it’s better to spend two focused minutes practicing than 30 minutes unfocused.
At JMT we pride ourselves on our family atmosphere and teamwork. We believe that it takes a village to raise a warrior. But it’s also true that each person’s journey in the martial arts is very much a solitary one. Once you embrace your individual path, you find that you can practice or train anywhere and pretty much anytime. Martial arts becomes a meaningful part of your life rather than just something you do three times a week in class. I wish you luck on your own personal journey.