Muscle memory

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Instructors in martial arts very often use the term ‘muscle memory’, but they often cannot actually explain what it means.  In this article I will try to explain my views on this topic.

I will begin with some definitions for muscle memory, motor skills and subconscious reactions.

These definitions have been taken from Wikipedia. 

“Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort”

We have two types of motor learning relating to Gross motor skills and Fine motor skills:

“Gross motor skills involve movement of the arms, legs, feet, or entire body. This includes actions such as running, crawling, walking, swimming, and other activities that involve larger muscles”

“Fine motor skills are the small movements that occur in the hands, wrists, fingers, feet, toes, lips and tongue. They are the smaller actions that occur such as picking up objects between the thumb and finger, using a pencil to write carefully, holding a fork and using it to eat, and other small muscle tasks that occur on a daily basis.”

Subconscious reactions:

“Occurring without conscious perception, or with only slight perception, on the part of the individual: said of mental processes and reaction”

As we can see from these definitions our muscles can learn or maybe it is better to say that they can synchronise with the brain to perform tasks, with maximum efficiency.  This learning process increases the speed at which we can execute practiced movements, which is why when we first start to learn how to punch or kick our movements are sluggish and clumsy.  With time and repetition our moves start to become quicker, stronger and more precise.  These moves become more natural and we do not need to concentrate so hard on how to perform them.

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All of this is due to our system of connections between the brain and muscles via a network of nerves.  Our nervous system is a bit like a muscle, when put through training it gets stronger and bigger; our impulses can travel quicker as the amount of connections dedicated to each of the tasks is increased.   In time our brain also learns how to recruit more muscle fibres to support a movement.

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Our brain creates a plan of action which can be performed by our muscles, so we are able to perform defending or attacking combinations.   When we develop muscle memory our ability to perform these tasks improved.



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In the context of martial arts however there is a slight problem with muscle memory.  Whilst it allows us to perform a task quickly and is good for predictable situations in martial arts every situation will be subtly different.  The dynamic nature of fighting makes it difficult to know what will happen next and be able to plan a prescribed response.

That is why it is so important to develop subconscious reactions, where we do not have to choose the right move to block an attack.  Our brain should be trained to switch between tasks without thinking about them.  It is a kind of muscle memory for the brain to spot small signals and to choose the appropriate reaction for our muscles.  A good example of this will be how we automatically protect our eyes.  When an object is travelling at speed towards our eye, we do not think to close our eyelid; it happens much quicker, our hands travel up to catch the object or cover our head without thinking about it.  We are usually able to think about what happened after the event has occurred.  This kind of response is what we are looking for in martial arts.  If we can master our response to stimuli without the involvement of conscious thought we will become better fighters.  This state of mind is called ‘Mushin’, which means an empty mind in Japanese.

Combining an empty mind with muscle memory allows us to easily switch between defence and attack, deciding which technique to use in a split second.

In summary, muscle memory is a combination of brain activity synchronised with muscles via a network of nerves. 

Thanks for your time !

The Outsiders

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Throughout my martial arts journey, I have been lucky enough to meet some extraordinary people, excellent teachers and great friends. Most of them have one thing in common – they are what I call “outsiders”. I will skip mentioning their names as I am sure most of the people who know me will know who I am writing about.

An outsider is a person in martial arts who does not belong to a big organisation, usually by choice. The reason for this is simple; the outsider does not want to have to deal with the politics inherent in a large organisation. In some cases the outsider is driven away from an organisation as he stands up for what he thinks, which sometimes results in a conflict with the leader(s) of an organisation.  This non-compliant behaviour can lead to them being side lined.

I have had the honour to meet many outsiders over the years and I can say that these are the people who have influenced my martial arts the most.

Although outsiders are by definition on the fringes of martial arts that does not stop people in a large organisation from exploiting their knowledge, but in my experience it is often the case that the outsider does not get any credit.  For example a few years ago a group in Poland were accepted into one of the biggest Karate organisations in the world.  This group were advertising themselves as experts in kata bunkai (applications).  However, what was not mentioned was that their top instructors had asked an outsider to teach them about kata and their applications as they were worried about being able to pass their grading in front of a highly ranked Japanese teacher.  After these instructors passed their gradings their ties with the outsider were immediately cut without so much as a thank you or recognition that he had prepared them for their gradings.  This example of where an outsider is essentially used when convenient is not an isolated case and I believe this is because outsiders tend to be devoted to their art and are therefore happy to help wherever they can, without looking for fortune or fame.  I also believe that this situation is not unique to martial arts, but occurs in other sports as well.

For years I have been observing these behaviours and have tried to avoid them with reasonable success.  I have sometimes found myself being dragged into political games, but fortunately for me it did not take too long to notice the situation and act.  Having left these games I have become an outsider myself and I have to say that I am very happy to be in this position as it gives me the flexibility to cooperate with whoever I want, regardless of their affiliations.  I no longer have to comply with nonsensical rules or pay for membership and other fees to make the businessmen happy.  Although it would not be fair to say that being an outsider means that I am completely free from problems.  As larger organisations tend to turn into money making machines they become very introverted and do not want to cooperate with anyone else.  Hopefully this will change in time.  To try and encourage better interaction between organisations our small group of outsiders get together regularly at seminars and deliberately make them open to all that are interested.  At these events we can meet and train with other teachers and hopefully meet likeminded people. 

In a bizarre way most outsiders are naturally attracted to other outsiders, in this way I have made friends around the globe and across the sports and arts, gaining opportunities to train with great people.  Those outsider teachers that I know and cooperate with often do not have to force people to respect them as by their actions they earn respect.  I have seen this pattern repeating in multiple systems such as Karate, Ju jitsu, Kung Fu, Kempo, Aikido and Wrestling.

I have decided to write these few words as for nearly 20 years in martial arts I have seen these situations occurring over and over again causing stress to students and teachers, but not many people seem to express their opinions on this topic.  So, there you go, here is my small opinion. I should add that my opinion about organisations is based on my personal experience and does not apply to all of the associations and groups out there.

This might be controversial to some people who I know but all of us know what we carry inside, maybe some people who will read this will find their inner outsider J

I hope that I will have a chance to meet more outsiders on seminars!

Thanks for reading!

Kano Paradox – art vs sport ?

Which approach in martial arts prepares us for self-defence – traditional or sport?
This question often causes a lot of debate with traditional martial artists explaining that life threatening techniques are more useful in real life situations due to their dangerous nature. Examples of these techniques might be eye gouging, striking the throat or attacking the groin. On the other hand we have combat sport, where the opinion is that sport is better to defend yourself as constantly repeating drills gives rise to an automated response to a dangerous situation. To have a clear view on this matter I would like to have a look at the definition of three aspects:
• Traditional martial art
• Combat sport
• Self-defence
I have repeated these definitions from as I think these descriptions are accurate and nicely written.

“Martial Art: A martial art is exactly what the name suggests – an art. An art is a method of expression through application of creativity, and is typically concerned with aesthetics. As such, martial arts are often concerned with aesthetics, historical traditions, cultural customs and philosophy. These systems will often focus most of their training on one aspect of fighting, though not always. Martial arts can be traditional or modern, and different systems are often mixed into hybrid systems, usually in order to address what the instructors feel is a shortcoming of their original system. These are often termed Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), though this term is now used more for combat sports systems so many adopt the alternative term Hybrid Martial Arts (HMA) to avoid confusion. Martial arts can be thought of as a method of self-perfection rather than necessarily self-protection, though of course all martial arts training will have some real combative merit, and will often be extremely potent systems with which to protect oneself, so they should be respected as such.”


“Combat Sport: A combat sport is, again, exactly what the name suggests. If a system focuses on competition then it is a combat sport. These systems are often characterised by points-based sparring, where points may be awarded according to damage dealt, submission, knockout, etc or on aesthetic grounds, for example. Tournaments are often held on a regular basis, and the more well-known ones are the ones you see on TV and online. If training is focussed solely on fitness with any combative merits being considered secondary then that system could also be considered a combat sport.”


“Self-Defence: Self-Defence is where this topic gets confused on a regular basis, and arguably where it matters a little more pressingly. Self-Defence is a term used for reactive systems that are geared towards dealing with a combative situation by reacting to a physical attack. This includes Reality-Based Self-Defence (RBSD) systems. These systems are not concerned with aesthetics, historical traditions, cultural customs or philosophy.”

Within Traditional martial arts we have lots of ‘mysterious’ moves, deadly techniques which executed properly will give us the advantage over an attacker.  However, as there are so many of these moves there is not enough time to train them all to become a spontaneous response to an attack.  Another problem is that it is not possible to repeatedly train these techniques – I cannot imagine anyone would be willing to join a club where the students regularly test their deadly strikes on one another as we might have more students seriously injured or hospitalised than at training.

Combat sports are different in that there are no fancy movements.  Everything is efficient and has the sole purpose of winning the competition and all of the training structure is dictated by the rules of the game.  Constant repetition of combinations and drills results in the development of muscle memory and subconscious responses. This gives an advantage over an attacker, but the rules of the sport also get imprinted in our brain and this may be a disadvantage.  For example, training in a knockdown fighting system a student may not be in the habit of punching to the head (because this is not allowed in competition) and subsequently is not used to being punched to the head either.  The existence of these rules can result in a student being used to a referee intervening when a foul has been committed.  All of this can work against us in a real life confrontation.

Self-defence teaches very direct techniques to damage an opponent without strict rules. Subconscious responses are a priority and survival is the main goal.   However, from my experience most of these self-defence groups pay less attention to fitness development. Some groups that I have met also promote a psychological setup where their students believe that after two weeks of training they will be able to win in a confrontation or will be able to disarm an attacker with a knife or a gun.  This is unreal and might even put the life of the student at risk.

So which one is better?  There is no definitive answer to this question as it all depends on the individual.

Getting back to the title of this article of Mr Kano and his paradox and leaving self-defence systems aside lets have look how this paradox was created.

Picture from Wikipedia
Picture from Wikipedia

The question of “which is better traditional martial art or combat sport?” was asked to Jigoro Kano (the creator of Judo) as he removed all dangerous techniques from his Judo and focused on sports methods.  In 1886 in Tokyo a Police tournament was organised of “real fighting” where students of Kano were challenged by masters from traditional schools.  Some of the masters were from Yoshin Ryu, a leading school of Ju jutsu.  Of the 16 fights Judo players won 13, proving that Judo is better in a real fight.  This is the Kano Paradox in that Jigoro Kano had managed to create a combat sport that worked better than the traditional ‘deadly arts’ by removing all of the life and health threatening techniques.

As I am doing both an art and a sport, I have views from both sides and like to mix all the benefits and concepts from sports and traditional martial arts.  Prior to starting wrestling my only martial art was Karate and so I had focussed more on the traditional approach to self-defence.  Unfortunately during this period (in my late teens) I was unlucky enough to be involved in a few incidents on the streets of Krakow.  Some I lost and ended up with bruises and a broken nose, but most I won and so I believe that Karate did give me an advantage over my attackers.  Now that I am older and living in a quiet neighbourhood, I have no need to focus only on self-defence and so can enjoy the art of Karate and free sparring in sport.

I would recommend that people just train in whatever programme gives them the most satisfaction, and not to worry about self-defence as I would hope that in reality very few of us are ever attacked.  Any form of sport will give benefits in case of a confrontation as being proficient in sports builds confidence.  This confidence sends a signal to a potential attacker that “I am fit, strong and not a victim”.  In any case, if we are attacked it is likely that our primal instincts will take over, which will use maybe 10% of our skills…  The rest is all down to our gross and fine motor skills under stress.  In this way it all comes down to the individual – some people who have never trained in martial arts/combat sports are excellent fighters when under stress and end up winning on the street whereas we see some great masters and boxing champions being beaten up.

Thank you for reading!

Thoughts on the makiwara


The makiwara is a training tool in Karate used to condition our arms and legs to create powerful blows with the unarmed weapons of our body.

There are divided opinions about the purpose of the makiwara.  Some old masters say that it was just a punishment tool for misbehaving students, others that it was the most important training equipment in the dojo.  My view on this is that the makiwara is a good training tool, but we cannot just rely on this kind of training.  Unfortunately some karateka overdo this type of training, which results in overgrown knuckles and body deformations.

Picture from Martialtalks forum

These big knuckles may look impressive and show devotion to the art of Karate, but in reality it is an injury and is damaging to our body.  Executing repetitive strikes using the knuckles helps to stimulate skin growth causing calluses to develop and cushion the knuckles, however hitting too hard causes damages to the bone in the knuckle joints.  As a result of this damage the body will try to repair itself by producing new bone tissue, but this tends not to grow normally and so the new bone ends up with small pockets (a bit like pumice stone), which is similar to the effect of osteoporosis.  Consequently with every harder punch parts of the new bone are crushed as the pockets collapse, leading to inflammation.  Over time this may result in the movement of the hand being restricted as the fingers are prevented from completing a full range of motion.  Some research also suggests a link between makiwara overtraining and arthritis, although I have not seen any conclusive evidence to support this.

Punching a rigid makiwara (i.e. one that does not flex when hit) can also cause damage to the wrists, elbows, shoulders and spine as the shock wave travels back through our body.  Another unwanted reaction when punching a rigid makiwara is that it can cause whiplash – as a powerful punch is stopped suddenly, the energy of the punch is sent straight back up the arm and into the neck, similar to a car crash.  Teachers often say that makiwara conditioning makes our knuckles or shins tougher or harder, but this is misconception.  In order to actually achieve this we would have to repeatedly break our major bones (not the joints) and even then the bones would only become denser at the points at which they broke.  What makiwara training actually does is to lower our neurological response to pain. This results in our pain barrier getting higher and so we experience less pain when punching.

Let’s focus on the benefits of makiwara training where we have a properly flexible board with a nice training program including resting periods for healing and recovery.  Using a makiwara enforces the proper set up of the body as when punching correctly we will feel powerful, penetrating punches.  The resistance created by our equipment helps us to use accurate body positioning and mechanics.  Through adjusting our stances and muscle tension we can develop a better understanding of our own body, as all of us will have different body positioning for delivering maximum power.  The makiwara is perfect for giving us feedback of our body mechanics.  When all of the components of a punch or kick are done well you can feel that the blow was right, on the other hand if something was out of order your body will be informed about it as the makiwara can be punishing and cause injury to your skin and joints.  Through this training we learn how to be more explosive and get the most of our body mechanics, our makiwara when it flexes mimics human soft tissues and so we learn to “push in” our strikes.

Punching our board also helps to make our joints (tendons, ligaments and muscles) stronger and more effective by overcoming the resistance and providing a shock stimulus.

I recommend makiwara training as part of the art of Karate.  When first starting the use of a makiwara it is always best to do so under the instruction of a good teacher.

Below you can find a video of my makiwara training for hands and legs.  On the clip you can see that my techniques are being executed in a relaxed manner.

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