I've had this article on my mind for quite awhile. Several titles came to mind as I was putting it together..."Slow Down to Get Faster", "Black Belt Speed in 6 Months", and "Become Faster Sooner". I usually resort to brevity, so I picked the last one, email me if you like one of the others and I might change it. So here we go.
Speed, if you've got it, you're probably one of those type that can't wait to go too class a couple of times a week, especially after a stressful day at work. There's nothing like other students being in awe of your speed, or you outscoring nearly everyone in the room during sparring. If you hear them say, I couldn't tell what was coming at me, it was like a blur, or you're constantly tagging most of them before they can figure out what's coming and where to block, you're on the fun side. However if you lack speed and you're constantly on the other end of that, you may always feel inferior to those around you, out of place, like you're their own personal punching bag (light/pulled non-bruising contact of course), not getting any faster or better, and if you keep experiencing that long enough without addressing it, something inside most of you will make you quit. Compare it to playing a game with a friend and you never win, after awhile it's just not fun nor worth doing anymore.
There's quite literally a Yin and Yang going on while most instructors have students go through their basics and drills, regarding building speed, and sadly most instructors either don't realize that, or they're to lazy to address it. The instructor mindset is quite different than most students. Look at it like this, an instructor is quite often someone who decided early-on in their martial arts training "I'm never going to quit doing this, no matter what". However the mindset of most students is "I'll try this, see if I like it, and if I don't, I'll quit". There's a saying in life that applies to the martial arts..."whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right". What many instructors don't realize, and likely don't care about, is the mental battle constantly going on in the minds of those who are "trying it", and guess what, that's usually the majority of their students. Those students aren't all-in, and if the instructor isn't inspiring and a motivator, and the "try" types aren't seeing noticeable results and improvement every few weeks, they'll be gone sooner than an instructor can fix it. One of the goals of any instructor should be converting a high percentage of the "try" types into "stay" types, however most don't care. If they spent more time doing that (proactive student retention) they could spend less time and dollars (pay-per-click Google AdWords at $5/click, some spend $500-$1000/month on that) on student acquisition.
Now for the good news, if you're at one of those schools that's not teaching speed the right way, and doesn't care too, you can see massive improvements in weeks, and without your instructor being around every second. The time frame for that transformation is entirely up to you. So take a little T.R.I.P. with me and I'll introduce you to what I call "The Rapid Improvement Plan".
The standard daily classroom workout in most schools has a student doing 10 basics of each punch and kick on each limb. Now if that's the only type of workout you're doing, that my friends is a very slow way of acquiring impressive speed, meaning about 18-36 months, depending on your body type and athleticism. Furthermore, there are certain key things related to you and your muscles being in an ideal state, that I've found to be essential too building speed sooner, and to that end, the classroom environment may actually be slowing some of you down. Compare it do driving down the road with one foot on the brake and the other on the gas.
I've been fortunate to watch many instructors teach and only one was doing part of what I'm about to explain.
Most schools not only overlook the speed principles I'm about to mention, but the way most of them teach, you're not doing enough repetitions in an ideal physical state, to gain speed in a shorter period of time. Simply put, for the effort you're putting forth in class, and even more critically, the way you're doing it, it's like many of you are taking two steps forward and one step back. And in your instructors defense, the group classroom environment doesn't really afford the luxury of addressing too many things on an individual basis, or individual pace, regarding each person being in an ideal state. The time constraints, staying on-schedule for that days curriculum, and overall group setting, offer little chance of it happening.
To build speed in a short amount of time, there's many components that need to happen, based on the technique/strike you're working on, however several are common to almost all of them, and must be happening in harmony.
1. Being fully oxygenated (your lungs and muscles) - controlled breathing, exhale on each exertion/strike, take 2-3 slow deep breaths afterwards
2. Body and muscles being loose and completely relaxed - shake out the tightness after a couple of kicks, stretch, do leg raises periodically
3. The ongoing focus of mentally believing and physically demanding from yourself, that the next repetition will be faster than the previous one.
4. Lots of repetitions with 1-3 happening on each
Here's one of the ways I did it many decades ago...
1. Wait a few seconds after doing each kick, before doing the next one, let your internal batteries (lungs & muscles) get back to 100%. If you need to, use that time to breath deeply, stretch whatever tightened up (and it will), and shakeout muscle tension. Maybe do a couple of front & side leg raises too.
2. Sometimes after doing 5 of my toughest and most energy draining kick, I'd pause about 30 seconds, then do 10-20 hand techniques, wait 30 seconds to recharge, then do 5 of those tough kicks on the opposite leg, pause/breathe slowly 30 seconds, then do 10-20 hand techniques, and keep rotating through that cycle, doing 2x-4x the reps of that tough kick versus the others. I found that I needed to make sure I didn't completely exhaust the muscles in my legs, to get through about 5 different types of kicks on each leg. Find what works for you when you're getting winded and your legs are tiring, be it breathing time, stretching time, or switching from lower body to upper body techniques. Don't let your legs or lungs fully exhaust until you're on your very last set of kicks (of the 5 types or however many types you're working on). Also keep changing the order of the kicks you're working on.
After a couple of weeks the lung and muscle issues should become less apparent, and you'll find you're able to do more-and-more kicks without taking as long or as many breaks. Now if that doesn't seem to be getting better, then you probably have some uncommon issue/s related to the components of that kick, or kicking in general, that are making the kick more difficult for you than it should be, and that needs to be evaluated and addressed. Maybe flexibility issues, lack of core strength, base leg balance/strength issues, control/strength issues with your kicking leg, chambering/retraction issues, base leg rotation issues, or some other aspect of that kick which needs help. There are certain exercises and drills to work on for many of those issues (a different article/s).
Try this the next time you're in class. When the instructor is barking out repetitions of a kick every half second or full second, and you're trying to keep-up, doing each one as fast as you can, and probably a little sloppy or slow (hint), count how many kicks go by before you feel like one or more of the following are happening to you...
1. That kick wasn't my best
2. The muscles in my legs are getting tired and/or I wasn't able to control the kick
3. I'm breathing too heavy
4. I feel tense now, I'm struggling to keep-up, and feel like I'm forcing myself and body to maintain the instructors count/pace
5. My kicks are slowing down
Whenever any of those are happening, you are not in an ideal state for that next kick to be as good, clean, fast, and powerful as the first one. So how does one overcome that? Well you really can't in many classes, because of the instructors count/pace. However if you're at home, simply take 3-10 seconds (or maybe longer) between each kick, doing them at your pace, until you feel like you can do the next one without 1-5 effecting it. The goal is getting those internal batteries (lungs & leg muscles) fully recharged, or as close as you can to 100%. When you do that, and lots of repetitions that way, plus strictly following 1-4 in that first list here, you're on a much quicker path to gaining speed.
I'll put it to you this way, in a classroom setting most beginner-to-intermediate students experience one or more of those things on that 1-5 chart, usually somewhere around kicks #2-5. Attempting to solely build speed that way in the classroom, is a very slow process (feet on the gas & brakes) that for some could take years. Funny thing, most students will quit way before then, and you know why, because their only attempt to build speed was in the classroom, and thus they saw practically no significant increase in their speed/ability in a few months. Rarely will people stick around for something very long if they're not seeing improvement, it's just human nature.
For the next kick to have the potential of being faster than the previous one, our muscles need to be relaxed, they shouldn't be exhausted, and they (along with your lungs, very important) need to be as oxygenated as possible. Tensing your muscles as your trying to build speed, especially if your legs are tired and you have to force the next kick, or kicking for speed when your lungs are exhausted, is like simultaneously putting your foot on the gas and the brakes. There's speed drills, there's power drills, there's endurance drills, there's timing drills, there's agility drills, there's targeting drills, quick response targeting drills, moving target drills, there's combo drills, supported non-stop kicking drills, chambering/retraction drills, base leg strength/balance drills, leg up-and-hold drills, adjustable ankle weight drills (huge benefits), surgical tubing resistance drills, isometric resistance partner drills, non-telegraphing drills, even more drills than those, and there's always a drill you could be cycling back through and probably hadn't done in awhile. The way most instructors make students kick in class is more of an endurance drill, barking out the next repetition when 80-90% of the class is out of breath, doing 50%-70% of their reps that way, and that's not a drill made to acquire noticeable speed anytime soon!
Another problem is instructors constantly insisting students do all their practice kicks at their maximum flexibility. When you're doing them all that way, all the time, once again you're putting your feet on the brakes and the gas. Why? Because your maximum flexibility is a point at which your muscles become tense, and whenever there's muscle tension, there is no maximum speed, there's reduced speed. For speed drills to be the most effective, your kicks should be practiced at a non-tension height.
So why does your instructor make you do reps in a less than ideal state?
1. Barking out those quick count reps every half-to-full second is building endurance. That will eventually lead to speed, but for many it's a long slow way of getting there, and most of you will quit before it happens. In essence, you're wanting to see results before your instructor wants to deliver them, and sometimes that's intentional (making your stick around longer for more $$), and sometimes they only know or want to teach the way they were.
2. He's making you tired on purpose, which makes you feel like you did something worthwhile, so that you leave feeling a little better about yourself. However once that short term feeling wears off reality sets in, and you realize you're not any faster than you were a few days ago, weeks ago, or maybe even months ago.
3. His style is to always do the reps fast so he can see if you can do the technique correctly under pressure. If that's the case, he's overlooking how winded you are, the tension in your muscles, if you're exhaling during the kick and inhaling after (versus holding your breath), or breathing at the wrong times, if your muscles are relaxed and oxygenated, and whether or not you're building up lactic acid in your muscles. In short, he doesn't care what's going on with you, and I've actually heard more than one instructor say "I'm not paid to care about them".
The point I'm making is this...Good things start and come from the classroom, great things come from what you did at home! And when it comes to making noticeable speed improvements in a short time, doing most of your reps at your pace and in your ideal state, will get you there faster than if you're doing most of them when you're lungs and muscles can't keep up.
If you want to become faster sooner, home workouts are where and how it happens!
There's a lot of wisdom on my quotes page, and many of them were put in specific order for good reason. Here's a few that are definitely appropriate for this article...
Remember, practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
Doing 10 properly executed kicks is infinitely more valuable than doing 100 poorly executed kicks.
Everything you do, if not in a relaxed state will be done at a lesser level than you are proficient.
Speed is what separates the great from everyone else, and if you want speed now, it's quite literally up to you, not your instructor. One of the easiest and least disruptive ways of acquiring it, without having to take more classes, is making it happen from home and/or work. Fit in an extra 5-20 kicks and punches, whenever and where ever you can, hopefully multiple times throughout the day/evening. Take an estimate of the number of repetitions you're doing of each punch and kick during each class, times your average number of classes per week, multiply it by a factor of 3, 6 or 8. Create a weekly schedule that spreads out those reps, implement it, then do each rep correctly using 1-4 in the first list above. Doing it that way will deliver huge results in just a few weeks. Should that seem overwhelming, start doing it with just 3 main kicks and 3 main punches, or just work on the most difficult kick you'd like to be great at. I've done this, I've taught my students to do it, and I've seen in more than just myself, the payoff in just a few weeks. I've had students who in 2 months from when they started, were doing kicks as fast as blue belts from other schools. And 6 months from when they started, doing kicks as fast as other school's black belts, and that's no joke. This article is how they did it.
When you're at home, set a recurring alarm so you get-up and knock out some reps. During breaks and lunchtime at work, I often go into the stairwell in my building and use the inclined rails to stretch. Then I do some hip circles, front & side leg raises, then I hold on to the rail and do some rapid fire non-stop speed kicks. That's more of the advanced version, once you can do a lot of kicks without breathing or muscle exhaustion issues. Don't worry, you'll eventually get there, and don't do those rapid fire kicks until you can fire off 10 the other way without breathing or muscle issues. Find a place to do some reps, be it your office, cubicle, restroom, kitchen area, or an area that's not being used. Find creative places and ways to do some individual reps throughout your day. The maintenance plan of doing rapid fire non-stop kicks (while holding onto something) becomes your reward, and something to look forward too, because eventually you'll get to where you can do 10 non-stop front leg roundhouse kicks in 5 seconds or less. That's 10 seconds total for both legs, and how many times a day could you do something that quick and easy, 3, 6, 8 or more?
I suspect 90-95% of students in most schools aren't doing any reps at home or work, and if you keep putting in more reps than they are, and you're doing them the right way, you will become faster than they are, and when your speed improves the real fun begins. I've taught my own students these type of home workouts, and variations of them, and I've seen the result over-and-over again. The creation of incredible speed in a short time happens outside the classroom. Reps done the right way, and in the right amount, will produce enhanced speed sooner than you think. And now you know why Mann's Martial Arts was created as a 2 day a week school and dominated the adult tournament scene.