When training you will want to try various methods that can improve your skills and knowledge over time. In this article we will discuss many different ideas that can help you achieve increased understanding and insights into the various skills you study. Try to incorporate these considerations into your training over time as each will aid you as you advance.
Do Not Pursue Rank
Everyone who has been in the martial arts for some period of time has entertained the idea of becoming a black belt. Sometimes this becomes the focus of a person’s endeavors. They establish a goal to become a black belt and then set out to accomplish their goal. Sometimes they will even change schools or their martial arts style so they can find an easier path to their goal.
While having such a goal is commendable, it may also be an example of incorrect thinking. Your goal on any given day should be to learn as much as you can about the subjects at hand. The best students are universally those who strive for knowledge and not for rank. The rank always follows the knowledge. In Tensoku Ryu it is never the other way around.
We encourage you to seek the next rank with gusto and vigor. But that means staying focused on the material you are learning and mastering it to the best of your abilities. You want these new skills to become a part of who you are as a person so that they can be called upon instantaneously when required.
To be a black belt with no such skills indicates that you a) have wasted a tremendous amount of money, and b) are no better off than anyone else should a conflict occur. A black belt does not guarantee your success in a conflict situation. Only your skills and abilities matter. Your belt color is irrelevant. Do not pursue rank. Pursue knowledge instead.
Do Movements Extremely Slowly
When learning a new movement it seems to be a fundamental goal of everyone to demonstrate their ability to do the movement very quickly and with great intensity. There seems to be a perception that one can only demonstrate that the skill has been mastered if one can do it with great vigor.
There is some limited truth to this perception. Doing something very fast and very well are the hallmarks of someone who is proficient at a given skill. But how do you get to be so fast and so accurate? Well, in part, by doing the movement very slowly.
When you do something very fast you are seldom able to improve upon the skill. Your subconscious takes over and “muscle memory” causes your body to move in ways that you perhaps do not consciously intend. If you habitually make an error, but continue to practice at full speed then you will consistently make this same error – even when you wish to avoid it.
Instead, slow the movement down dramatically. Perhaps perform the movement at one-tenth its normal speed (when possible – it is a bit hard to jump at 1/10 normal speed). This does two fundamental things. Firstly, it allows your conscious mind to control your actions thereby slowly reprogramming your subconscious mind to perform the movement as desired. Secondly, and more importantly, it allows you to slow down and enjoy the scenery.
There is a lot going on in any movement, and doing it slowly will allow you to feel subtle shifts in your stances and posture and how you are moving your center. It will also allow you to notice the placement of your guard and the track your strikes take on their way to a target as well as where these strikes are placed upon their return. You will, over time, notice many small things that will make the movement faster, more precise, and much more effective. These are things you would never notice at full speed. This level of training is essential for those who wish to master a given skill.
Even if you are very accomplished at a given skill it is still quite beneficial to perform it slowly with some frequency. It helps you to spot any additional improvements and helps you confirm that you are doing each aspect of the movement correctly. This is not just a training method to be used when you are first learning a new skill. Employ it regularly for every skill you practice.
It is essential that you be able to move quickly. This not only refers to your strikes and kicks, but to everything you do. You should be able to move into and out of stances very quickly. You should be able to perform stepping patterns with great speed, skill, and balance.
Not all movements should or need to be performed quickly. But for those that require quickness you will want to be as fast as possible. So how does one learn to be fast?
Like everything else in the martial arts this is a learned skill. Very few people are naturally fast. It take conscious effort to improve your speed.
One method that can be employed is to first go very slowly to ensure the skill is as efficient and as precise as possible. Practice the skill this way often so that you can spot, remove, and correct any extraneous or inefficient movements. These excess movements cost you time and slow you down. Be rid of them as early as possible.
After you have groomed your skill to make it efficient you can now work on development of speed. Do the skill at a moderate speed where you are certain you will do the skill accurately. Now increase your speed by 10% and do it at this speed until the movement again feels comfortable and accurate. Now increase your speed another 10% and repeat the process. Continue this cycle until you are going as fast as you think possible. Now go for that next 10%.
If at any point in this process your skill’s accuracy seems to degrade then slow down 10% and practice it until it is again fast and accurate. Now press forward to increase your speed again.
Another area of speed improvement involves rotational deliveries. This might best be exhibited by thinking of a Mawashi Geri. The entire body swings around to deliver this kick toward angle 1. If your head is not directly over your pedestal leg then your head will be forced to move along a relatively large circular path. This takes time – time that you may not have. Try keeping the head and pedestal leg in perfect vertical alignment so that they are pivot points of your rotation. Your rotation will be faster and require less energy.
This same concept should be examined for any movement that is circular in nature. Eliminating excess circular movement is essential for improving the speed of these movements.
Learning to be fast is a practiced skill. If you feel you are not as fast as others or as quick as you wish to be then consult with your instructor about how you might improve your speed. You may also wish to examine the basic laws of physics and the ways in which your current movement patterns cause you to be slower than you might be otherwise.
We will explore speed and efficiency of movement in much more detail when you have attained your Blue Belt ranking. So do not fret too much if you are not yet as fast as you wish to be. There will be further improvements in the future.
Over time your body will adapt to anything you do and will then consider it to be routine. This is why it is important to not fall into a routine when exercising. It is best to work on strength building one time and then cardio development the next. You should also consider changing the type of strength building and cardio exercises you do each time.
You may also wish to do some other form of exercise each week. Martial arts related exercises are pretty good, but you can improve your fitness level by doing another type of exercise each week as well. Perhaps add running, swimming, or a sport like soccer or basketball to the mix. Break into these additional programs slowly. Your marital arts training won’t give you much of an advantage in a new exercise program that requires muscles to be used in a different manner. If you don’t begin a new exercise program cautiously then you may well experience a sprain, strain, or other injury that may impede your progress in the martial arts. As with anything new, start slowly until you become accustomed to the new motions and physical requirements.
Adding variety to exercises has another significant connotation that we should explore. Students around the Orange and Purple belt levels have acquired a good deal of knowledge, information, and skills that they can and should practice regularly. However, students at these levels often fall into set patterns of exercise. A student may feel they are very good at performing a certain set of kicks or a specific kata. They will practice these movements because they feel good doing them and it shows others how capable the student has become.
It is hard to argue with these motivations. A person feels good doing something at which they have become expert. But this behavior can become a trap. This is because you may fall into the habit of repeatedly doing the things you are already good at, but fail to practice those skills in which you are somehow lacking. This means you will likely not improve in the areas where improvement is most needed.
As a potential guideline try practicing skills that still challenge you perhaps 75% of the time and use the remaining 25% of the time to practice those skills with which you feel most comfortable. This affords you the challenges of perfecting still-developing skills and the rewards of performing skills with which you are very confident. Over time you are likely to find that you have perfected new skills that can now be moved into the 25% category.
If you go to a martial arts tournament and observe the competitors you will see all sorts of facial expressions. You will see anticipation, fear, anger, intensity, worry, and compassion expressed in these faces. Usually these are raw human emotions and you cannot fault people for having these emotions. In fact it is good to see that people are emotionally invested in their training and development.
But often you will see people, in the midst of their competition, have very pronounced facial expressions. This shows either their internal emotions or their hope that they can push themselves to higher performance by revving up their emotional engines. In either case this is something the competitors may wish to eventually avoid.
Using facial muscles requires energy. It may seem like a minute amount, but it is energy you could better use elsewhere in the middle of a tournament or conflict. In either case you will want to conserve as much energy as possible and eliminating facial expressions, especially unnecessary facial expressions, is one area in which this can be readily accomplished.
But facial expression do more than waste energy. They tell a potential opponent how you are feeling at the moment. No matter what your expression may be, whether it is an expression of confidence, fear, hostility, anger, or disgust, your opponent will be able to use this against you. Why would you want to provide them with such a road map?
Unintentional facial expressions can also be dangerous. I recall that when I was at about the Orange Belt level I had developed a habit of wrinkling up my cheek muscles and sticking out my tongue when I did something that required focus or extra effort. I was warned that this could easily lead to a severed tongue (and wasted energy) if I were to do this is in an actual combat situation. Since this reaction was completely involuntary it did take me some time (and some repeated admonishments from my instructors) before I was able to overcome this behavior pattern. Thankfully I have long since abandoned that behavior.
I remember a discussion with another very experienced marital arts instructor who said that he teaches his students to always smile. He felt this was the best way to mask their intentions and to perhaps put a potential opponent off guard. He insisted that his students replace the traditional martial arts scowl with a bright and effervescent smile.
This makes good sense, if you are the type of person who likes to smile. If not, this may seem forced, and of course, smiling takes some energy (though perhaps less energy than frowning or scowling).
What is clear is that scrunching up your face as you kick, block, strike, or perform some skill does very little to improve the quality or effectiveness of your efforts. Try to notice when you are making such unnecessary expressions and seek to avoid them. And pay attention to your instructors if they mention that you are making such motions involuntarily (especially that really bad tongue thing).
Being physically fit has a great many benefits. They are far too numerous to list in detail here. There are copious amounts of information on the Internet, in fitness magazines, and in medical journals about the benefits of remaining fit throughout your lifetime. We will discuss a few that are particularly relevant to the martial arts.
When you are physically fit then your bearing and posture change. If your core muscles are strong you will stand more erect and appear more confident. If your shoulder and neck muscles are strong people will instinctively know you are physically capable. If you have good cardio development then your skin will be healthier and it will be obvious to others that you are in good physical condition. This naturally lessons the chances that someone would be foolish enough to attack you.
If you have a sound cardio vascular and respiratory system you can readily undergo exertion for much longer than a typical person. This may allow you to outlast or outrun a potential adversary. If you can run someone around in circles long enough you may be able to exhaust them and avoid further conflict.
Undergoing regular physical activity helps to improve your overall mood and outlook on life. It will make you feel happier, more productive, and less stressful. It will also enable you to feel more relaxed and the physical benefits of exercise make you feel better about your appearance. All of these lead you to feel more confident.
The martial arts are good for overall conditioning, but as we have mentioned before, you should consider other forms as exercise as well so that you have a well-rounded fitness program. As you age your fitness needs and interests will change, but remaining active and fit throughout your entire life is important. Tensoku Ryu is designed so that individuals well into their 80’s and 90’s can derive continued benefits from their studies.
Some people are naturally intense, others, not so much. In a physical conflict you will want to exhibit substantial intensity. Without it you are not likely to prevail.
Intensity is normally associated with speed and power. But it is much more. It is much more a reflection of attitude than anything else. Speed and power are manifestations of intensity, but intensity is derived from your intent, need, and attitude.
If you find that you have difficulty being intense during training then you will probably not be intense during a conflict. You will behave in a conflict much like you behave when you train. As a result, you will want to work on generating intensity while you train. You can sometimes use speed and power to provide you with the feedback you need to generate intensity. Sometimes just trying to act intense can foster intensity; but this is not always the case.
Like most skills in the martial arts, good intensity is a product of mental training. You can work on increased intensity by defining a very specific goal and then working solely to achieve that goal. A common exercise for this is breaking wooden boards. I’m not a huge advocate of this training method (too many splinters around bare feet and too many broken boards to be discarded), but this suggests the type of skill that can lead to improved intensity. There are artificial reusable breakaway boards available on the market that simulate the characteristics of a wood board, but without the splinters and overflowing trash cans. These can help you build the focus and establish the goals necessary to improve your intensity.
Working with a cooperative training partner can also be very beneficial. If you explain to your partner that you wish to work on improving your level of intensity they may be able to provide suggestions as you practice together. Working with a variety of different partners over time may offer you a variety of different suggestions or with a common thread on which you might subsequently focus.
While it is important to be able to derive or display intensity during a conflict it is possible to have too much intensity. Extreme intensity can cause you to be less precise than required, over reach, over-exert yourself, create a void between yourself and the opponent, or become unobservant. None of these are good, and you are likely to do them all if you are more intense than required during a conflict.
If you are naturally very intense then you may need to focus on controlling this intensity. Try to focus on drills and practices that help you overcome the anxiety of dealing with an attacker. Train your mind to realize that controlled actions are better than overtly spontaneous and disorderly movements.
If you have very controlled and precise movements but are still extremely intense then remember two things. 1) In Tensoku Ryu we do not wish to do more harm to an opponent than necessary, and 2) the legal system will prosecute you if they feel you have injured someone unnecessarily.
In the final analysis you want to be able to exhibit the precise amount of intensity required in a situation. You do not want too little and you do not want too much. Each situation is different and you will want to have the ability to dial up or dial down the level of intensity so it is appropriate for the current circumstance. Realize that the amount of intensity required may change throughout a conflict.
As you go through your training you will experience a series of plateaus. There are various plateau types that you will encounter so we will discuss some of these plateaus and their associated benefits and concerns. Let’s take a look at some of the more common plateaus you may experience.
It is very common for students to feel that they are not progressing and that they should perhaps simply stop trying. This is only natural. Everyone has second thoughts and doubts about everything they do. Presidents experience it; movie stars experience it; martial artists experience it. This is a Tenacity Plateau. With enough tenacity you will overcome it and move on to greater achievement. If you succumb to it, you will eventually stop whatever it is that you are doing. We encourage you to recognize this for what it is; simply a temporary lack of motivation or sense of positive direction. It almost always occurs about midway through the material for a new belt. You are excited when you receive a new belt and attack the new material with gusto. When you are getting near your next belt you put in extra focus and energy to ensure you overcome that hurdle. It is in the middle where your attention and motivation levels can wane. That is the point at which you need to recognize what is happening to you and realize that it will soon pass.
There are a couple of Confidence Plateaus that occur around the Blue Belt and Black Belt (Shodan) levels. Some students begin to feel they are a very capable martial artist and perhaps do not need to learn a great deal more about the martial arts. While this could be true, it is also true that these students still have much more to learn. You should never feel confident that you know enough. Your knowledge and insights about what you already know shift and change with ongoing experience, allowing you to become increasing more capable over time. What you know at any point along the way is only a trifle compared to what you will know in a few more years.
A Preference Plateau occurs when you become very accomplished at performing a specific skill. You feel good about performing this skill and practice it whenever you get the opportunity. It feels great to do something that flows out of you with almost no conscious thought. Unfortunately, you need to abandon this skill and move on. No amount of practice will yield a perceptible improvement in this skill. Meanwhile other skills have gone wanting for attention. You need to recognize when you have achieved such a plateau and focus your attention on those areas in which you are less confident or capable. Those are the areas where you need to spend your practice time.
You will also encounter numerous Knowledge Plateaus. These are different than Confidence Plateaus, although both are generally associated with knowledge. With a Knowledge Plateau you will feel that you have mastered a certain concept, skill, or technique. You may have even stopped practicing these skills routinely because you feel they represent a Preference Plateau. This is about the time when your instructor will say something like, “I see you are really good at doing XYZ. Have you ever considered how you would use that same concept when you are laying on the ground?” Suddenly you will realize that there is much more to this skill than you first thought. You have, through no fault of your own, found that your current knowledge about that skill has reached a plateau. There are higher levels you can achieve if you think about that skill from a different perspective or with a different problem in mind. It is the role of your instructor to always challenge your knowledge so you are constantly discovering Knowledge Plateaus and struggling to climb up to that next plateau.
Upper Body Strength
Upper body strength is important because it is quite useful for manipulating and controlling an opponent. When you eventually study grappling you will find it of significant benefit there as well. If you haven’t already, start working on developing a strong core and upper body. Even if you do not have access to a gym, simple push ups, pull-ups, and even handstands can do a lot to build your upper body muscles.
Leg strength is equally important. Your legs afford you stability, balance, and transitional capabilities. Stances are an effective way to build leg muscles. Kiba Dachi and Soft Bow stances work well on leg strength and endurance. Squats, calf raises, running stairs, swimming and biking can also be effective. Just ensure you do not put undue stress on your knee joint during any of these exercises.
Biking, running, swimming, sparring, and kicking are all good at improving your stamina. You will need good stamina in the future so it is important to begin this type of training now. Even simple things like jumping jacks, walking up stairs, and speed walking can be good ways to get started. Don’t stress your body unnecessarily, but as your stamina improves (slowly) you will be able to increase the intensity, duration, and types of exercises you do on a regular basis.
All of the above exercise can lead to sore muscles. They are a part of staying physically fit. But having a muscle that is sore from fatigue is different than having a muscle that is sore from injury. A sharp muscle pain usually means you have suffered some form of muscle pull or tendon injury. You may need to consult a doctor or at least limit the amount that you use that muscle until the pain subsides. If the pain persists you should see a doctor to ensure something else is not going on or to seek advice about how to promote proper healing.
If a muscle is sore from fatigue then you may want to give it a day or two off so it can regenerate and strengthen. Try working on other muscle groups for a couple of days until the sore muscle begins to feel a little better.
If the muscle is very sore from fatigue then you may have done too much in a short period of time. Consider easing off on the amount that you exercise in a given session until the muscle has strengthened sufficiently to handle the stress you have been giving it.
Breathing is, of course, something you have done your entire life. You would think you would be pretty good at it by now. You probably aren’t.
If you pause right now and take a shallow breath you will probably feel your chest swell gently. As you exhale, your chest will fall. This is how nearly everyone breathes. It is perhaps not always the best approach.
Shallow breathes like these represent the vast majority of inhalations and exhalations. When you are sitting in the car, watching TV, or browsing the Internet it is likely this is how you are breathing. This breathing method utilizes perhaps a third of your lung capacity.
Breathing in this manner uses the intercostal muscles in your ribs to expand and contract the chest, allowing your lungs to fill with and then exhaust air. Your diaphragm is not used much when you breathe in this manner. This breathing method is commonly referred to as “chest breathing” because your chest muscles are the primary means of moving air into and out of your lungs.
Stomach (or abdominal) breathing however uses the intercostal muscles minimally and relies much more on the diaphragm to expand and contract the lungs. When you inhale using the diaphragm it expands downward and into your abdomen causing your stomach and other abdominal organs to be pushed out of the way. They typically move down and forward so that your stomach appears to expand and contract rather than your chest. In fact the chest will move relatively little when you breathe in this manner.
Abdominal breathing uses your lung capacity more fully, allowing a greater exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Try to inhale and exhale fully using only your intercostal muscles. Now try the same exercise but this time try to use only your diaphragm. You should notice a fairly dramatic difference.
Most martial art styles will tell you that the proper way to breathe is by using your diaphragm instead of your intercostal muscles. In truth, you will probably always breathe with both, to varying degrees. If you don’t focus on how you breathe then you will likely rely primarily on your intercostal muscles. If you focus on breathing then you may rely more on your diaphragm.
When you are exerting yourself then it is probably best to breathe with your diaphragm. The air exchange rate is much greater. But the downside is that the breathe cycle is much longer. Your body will tell you to take in short quick breathes. This may be hard to ignore, but you should be aware that deeper and more relaxed abdominal breathing will exchange more carbon dioxide and oxygen and will likely allow your body to recover more quickly than will fast and shallow chest breathing. This is difficult to do when you’ve just done 200 kicks, but the more you can practice this type of breathing the more you will be able to rely on it when you need it most.
It is time to speak a little about your use of energy. Using energy requires your body to pump more blood and oxygen to fuel these movements. If you use a lot of energy you will begin to exhaust your quick energy sources. Panting, elevated perspiration levels, and increased heart rate are the result. Very soon you will begin to tire.
In a conflict you would ideally like your opponent to be the one expending all of this energy. You want to minimize the energy that you must expend. This will allow you greater energy reserves and ensure that you remain in better control of both your body and the situation.
There are several ways in which you may think about conserving energy. Here are just a few that are relevant for your current level of training.
- Avoid excessive movements. Do not block, strike, kick, or move around more than is required. Keep the size and extent of your movements to a minimum. You do not need to have a block that moves more than six inches or so. If your block is moving two feet in its travel trajectory then you are blocking with much more energy than is necessary. The same applies to a punch. It is seldom necessary for a punch to travel more than eight to ten inches. This may seem ineffectual to you at first, but there are a great many reasons why this is exactly how you should learn to punch. One significant reason is that this requires much less energy.
- Make your opponent run around in large circles. Move yourself in small tight circles that require very little movement. Use your feet and center rotations to move rather than utilizing large stepping motions with your legs. Think of yourself as being at the center of a circle. Ensure your opponent is moving somewhere out along the circumference of the circle. You will use little energy and your opponent will expend much more.
- Use abdominal breathing to provide ample amounts of oxygen and to remove carbon dioxide from your system. This will make movements more efficient resulting in less energy use. You will also not tire as readily.
- Remain relaxed. While this may not seem possible when you contemplate a physical conflict, remaining in a relaxed state allows you to move more quickly while also consuming much less energy. Muscle that are tense require blood flow and the associated nutrients, oxygen, and waste product removals it affords. These consumption-levels drop substantially if the muscle is in a relaxed state. Only add tension when it is specifically called for to protect yourself, change your position, escape, or strike at your opponent. Specifically you will want to relax your shoulders and neck, keep your knees slightly flexed but not taught, and avoid using facial expressions (except where they offer a strategic advantage). When practicing look for areas that are currently unnecessarily tensed and consciously relax them. Notice and relax as often as possible.
Lack of Stretch Limits Movement
As you undoubtedly have discovered by now the extent and elevation of your kicks are often limited by your body’s ability to stretch. Having said that, it is not necessary that you be able to deliver every kick to someone’s head.
But any limitation to your stretch will eventually lead to some limitation in your ability to move fluidly. Everyone experiences these limitation. You can, however, find ways to reduce such limitations. One common method is to simply strive to increase your range of movement a little at a time. If you are kicking but find a particular kick can only be delivered to the waist level, keep kicking at waist level. Periodically try to kick one inch higher. Don’t force it, let it happen when it feels like you will be able to do it successfully (often after you’ve done several lower kicks). Once you can kick repeatedly at this newer level then increase your range by another inch. Over many months you will have substantially increased your elevation for this kick.
But there are other stretches that are equally important. Nearly every major muscle in the body should be stretched periodically. The stretching need not, and probably should not, be an aggressive act. A slow and gentle stretch is all that is required to improve range of motion and to help your muscles, tendons, and ligaments stay in good shape.
Use stretches not only to lengthen and strengthen our muscles, but also to help you reduce the risk of injury that may result from sudden and expansive movements. These are the types of movements you might experience if you are suddenly in a violent conflict. If you have limited movement then this is the time when you will potentially exceed your limits and cause injury to muscles or connective tissues. Pulled muscles, hyperextended joints, and torn or stretched ligaments or tendons may result. By stretching you can help reduce the risk of these injuries occurring in the middle of a physical confrontation.
It used to be a common recommendation that you should stretch out before a strenuous workout. Nearly every health organization, martial arts studio, and physical training regimen promoted the notion that stretching before a workout was the best way to prevent an injury. That has all changed now.
Now the recommendation is that you should stretch after your body has warmed up, usually after you have exercised. This allows your muscles and other tissues to be more pliable and therefore better able to stretch. It also allows your muscles to return to a normal length after repeated contractions have caused them to shorten somewhat. Stretching after exercise also offers you an opportunity to cool down and return to a more relaxed state.
It is not necessary to do an exhaustive stretching routine. Stretch the muscles you have used the most or to help limber up any areas that have been tight during the day. Hold a stretch for about thirty seconds and then move on. Excessive stretching is not much better than insufficient stretching.