Muscle Memory

The goal with all martial arts practices is to get to a point where your body reacts without you even thinking about it. It is through the process of practicing that we achieve muscle memory. As you progress through the ranks, your muscle memory will improve, and will transform your motions from “gross motor” into “fine motor”. In this day and age, however, many people are looking for a quick fix and expect their martial arts trainings to follow the same quick wins mentality as everything else. Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic pill you can take that will make you a martial arts expert overnight. It takes years of dedication and practice to become even relatively good at it.

This being said, it doesn’t take a lifetime to be able to be proficient enough to defend yourself. Gross motor skills can be readily attained with a little practice. But how much practice is enough?

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To keep up with the demand of the instant on culture, there has sprung up a unique culture within the martial arts – “McDojos”  – way too many schools out there that just churn out black belts at a rate that would make your head spin. Does your school have more black belts than under belts? Are there a ton of youths with black belts? Can you just pay for a test and get promoted even fumbling the materials? Does your curriculum only take less than a year to complete (on average not an outlier)? If so, you might be at a McDojo. On the other hand, you may be at a school where your instructor has a 45th degree in some martial arts they and has no lineage to any other instructor that knows about them, and only has certificates from “unknown” and “closed” institutions. In which case you may be studying under a Bullshido Artist. That’s not to say that their style isn’t valid – Bruce Lee created his Jeet Kun Do. Ed Parker created his American Kenpo. But their styles have stood the test of time – and their students were successful both in the school and without.

Another issue plaguing the industry is that even a lot of competitors on the circuits are “competition” black belts – many tournaments require you to have achieved a “black belt” to compete, and many of the fighters are good natural fighters (so their school gave them a black belt), but haven’t studied long in a martial art – they become great tournament fighters. Unfortunately, this practice has only served to really weaken the prestige of the black belt. On the other hand, you have many schools who train a lot of students, but never send their students to tournaments – and therefore, the quality of students can’t be readily judged against other similar schools. There are federations out there that rank individuals through a standard procedure (IKKA, JKA, WTF, etc…) but even these are not bullet proof. Just because you didn’t do well on a single test day one day a year shouldn’t penalize you for perfect performances otherwise.

The more practice you get against different opponents, the better a chance you have of being successful in a self-defense situation. Sparring and practicing at your home school are great, but entering tournaments against other schools is even better as it widens your exposure to proper form, as well as differing skills in opponents.

Keys to Improving your Self Defense

Practice

The reason practice keeps coming, and will continue to come up is because practice, practice, and more practice are required to get you to that fabled realm of muscle memory. In the future, there may be ways of beaming it into your brain, there may be more efficient training methods, but for now it all comes down to practice, practice, practice. Even if you only ever “go through the motions”, the more you practice, the closer you will get to where you need to be. One way that helps speed up this process is utilizing the slow tension technique as your practice. Fatiguing the muscles through a specific range of motions gets the muscle used to the motion, and allows you to perform more slow tension movements before you become fatigued. Traditional Tai Chi (the one where they also teach fighting), utilizes this to a great extent – you see a lot of practitioners going through the very slow, deliberate, and controlled motions. However, in traditional tai chi, you also see those same motions accelerated to a very high degree, and trust me, their muscle memory on those fighters is fierce.

Next time you visit an established school (e.g. a school that has been around for a bunch of years and has a cadre of upper ranked black belts trained through the system), take a chance to watch a white belt (getting ready to test for their next belt) perform their basic form. Then watch a first degree black belt perform the same basic form. Ideally there should be a night and day difference between the fresh white belt and the senior black belt. In the ideal world, the black belt will be the pinnacle of perfection, and their performance will be as perfect as it could ever be. Next ask a second degree to perform the form. Even though the black belt form was perfect, there should be something just a little “more perfect” in the second degree. As you go up in rank, the same distinction should appear. One of the reasons many schools institute a time in rank period for their black belts is that it takes a lot of additional practice and perfection to take a perfected form, and make it even better. The muscle memory gets better, the motions more fluid, and the actions even more refined. Going from double perfection to triple perfection and beyond adds up. But again, it all comes back to the practice, the more you practice, the faster you get to where you need to be.

Partners

Practicing alone is only the start of the journey. You should aim to practice, at a minimum, with at least 10 different partners for all your self-defense movements per belt level. Different partners are going to attack and react differently, as well as attacking them, you will feel how they perform the motions and how you react differently for different movements. Sparring is also a great way to improve your self defense skills, and gives you an opportunity to attack and defend in a more open arena.

One thing I see a lot, when people practice with the same partners over and over again, the partners get into the habit of reacting a certain way, or they let go of the grab, or not follow all the way through with the attack because they know what is going to occur. By mixing up the partners you practice with, you are more likely to have the technique applied closer to a “realistic” self defense scenario.  However, for many remote students, finding a partner to practice with can be very challenging – you can try looking at the local schools to see if they will allow you train, craigslist is also a good resource, but most likely is finding a friend or relative to train with through the process. If you can only find one partner to practice with, try practicing blindfolded, slow tension exercises, as well as surprise gauntlet attacks. If you absolutely can not find someone to practice with (even if you have to pay a stranger off the street), you can always utilize trees or other standing objects to practice range and distance drills.

Performance

The final tip for practicing, is performing your material in a group setting. This can be at your local dojo, with your partners in your home gym, or at a tournament where other practitioners of your style are performing. The goal with this is not to win or lose (you should always strive to win), but rather, to get live, feedback and comparisons of your performance against others. With the advent of the internet, there are lots of resources to see how to perform, and you can always set up a session via Skype or send recorded video for feedback here. However, there is a lot to be gained via attendance at seminars, and being forced to perform your material in a performance situation.

I can practice day in and day out, but if I don’t set up sessions for testing performance, I really don’t have a standardized way to measure my progress. The added pressure of being in a testing or performance situation, will make your mind do strange things. It is through these sessions that the instruction can see if the material has become part of the muscle memory or is still being “thought out”. Think about learning another language. Usually you will start off by taking basic lessons, but once you get to the graduate level courses, the instructor usually has you do impromptu dialogues, or give speeches in the target language. In these events, they are assessing if you are actually “thinking” in the learned language, rather than “translating” as you go along. The same applies to your martial arts skill. As you practice and become more and more proficient, you will eventually reach a point where the muscle memory takes over, and the likelihood of making a mistake in the performance decreases the further along you go down the martial arts pathways.

To sum everything up

Consistent body motions over a long period of time lead to the muscles developing a memory of the motion, going from initial gross motor skills to fine motor skills as you progress. The more practice you put in, the more your muscles remember what to do, and the better your chances are when you get into a self defense situation.

Keep up the good work and let me know if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.

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