A beginning student is throwing side kicks against a kicking shield being held by his training partner. He is well-muscled and looks in good shape, but after throwing twenty kicks he is tired out, breathing hard, and his kick have diminished to lightweight taps against the shield. Forgetting that he currently runs two miles three times each week and spends thirty minutes on a stationary bike another two times per week, he glances over at a skinny student who, now on his fiftieth kick, is kicking easily and powerfully and thinks, “Man, I thought I was in good shape, but my endurance is crap. I’ve gotta improve my cardio.” Such is not the case. In reality it is a matter of skill conditioning rather than physical conditioning. While a person’s level of physical condition may be an integral component in their overall martial art training, martial art training is primarily neural -- how to do the techniques or actions correctly, how to move, etc. “Laying down a neural groove” so to speak.
Skill conditioning is a neurological event that readies you, or betters you in the performance of the task that you need to do. It’s the mechanics; be it a kick, a punch, am immobilization, or a takedown. When we approach a new and unfamiliar task, our body always tends to over-mobilize its forces initially because it doesn’t really know what the activity or event is, with the result that we end up working far too hard and expending much more energy than is actually required. The first time we do it we’re usually exhausted, sore, etc. But then, as our body gets more familiar with it, it says, “Hold on, we didn’t really need to use as many muscles (or much energy) on this, so we won’t put as many of them into it.” So it reduces the amount it puts into it, and you notice your heart’s not beating so hard, your breathing is easy, etc. And eventually your endurance seems better. But what’s really happening is your body is just learning what it needs with regard to certain muscular involvement, metabolic involvement, and what it doesn’t. Your body learns how to economize the more often you do something. In other words, the way you get better at doing something is by doing it. I remember the first time I took my daughter out to practice driving after she had completed driver training. Within ten minutes she was tired out, and even perspiring. Why? It wasn’t that she was out of shape and needed to build her endurance in order to drive. It was because she over-mobilized her resources, and as a result her entire body was in a state of continual tension as she drove. The next time out she was a little more comfortable and relaxed, and the next time even a little more.
One day when I was at home sick with the flu, I decided to go through one of Bruce Lee’s day-timer diaries one time and count up the number of punches he threw in one particular month. (Hey, I was sick and bored, okay?) What I discovered was that in one month he threw a total of 18,250 punches, which comes out to about 600 per day. I think that is a pretty clear-cut example of the idea of skill conditioning at work.
Proper neural training will result in superior skill development. Practice and rehearsal of a skill is what will make you better at that skill. So put your time and energy into specific practice when you train. Make sure that you don’t lay down neuromuscular connections that serve no purpose for what you are doing, or lay down the wrong neuromuscular groove.
Finally, keep in mind that skills are always very specific to the event or the activity that you’re doing. What this means is that bicycling, running, or swimming, will not make you better at doing martial arts. Practicing martial arts will make you better at doing martial arts. So when it comes to your training, remember the old adage, “If you want to learn how to kick, kick.”