In the martial arts, awareness and timing are generally more important than speed. I’ve been outmaneuvered too many times by masters moving at a fairly “casual” speed to believe otherwise.
However, speed is important and should be improved if it can be done without neglecting higher priority attributes. If you are fast enough to execute a technique before an attacker can respond or counter, you have a clear advantage. Speed makes it easier to gain initiative, generate power, and reposition yourself relative to an attacker.
Significant resources have been put behind research in this area for professional athletes so there’s a great deal of information available for those interested in deeper exploration in this area. While there are many valid strategies, at Ikazuchi Dojo, we focus on three key methods to cultivate speed without compromising movement quality.
1. Movement Efficiency
We believe developing movement efficiency is the greatest driver of speed improvements for beginning and intermediate level martial artists. There are generally many small areas of optimization that when looked at collectively, can have a significant positive impact on one’s speed.
Linear Distance Optimization
In our experience, this is an area of huge unlocked potential. As an example, if one is performing an atemi / strike (that’s not prioritizing power delivery) and cocks back a hand by 3 inches at the beginning of a strike, that adds 6 inches (round trip) of additional movement without purpose. Assuming an average distance from hand to target of 24 inches, we can get a 25% speed gain by just cleaning up the movement. It’s usually much easier to optimize this than it is to increase performance of fast twitch muscle fibers by 25%.
Coordinated, Simultaneous Action
Take a look at the video below. You’ll see three examples of movements that contain multiple actions coordinated to execute as many as possible in parallel.
- Hijishime: Establishing contact, moving offline, kuzushi, tenkan, throwing, and pinning are all synchronized to execute as many actions as possible in parallel. The technique uses the smallest possible movements to accomplish each objective. The uke is taken from her attack stance to a prone, securely pinned position in 700 milliseconds.
- Knife Attack: With a flurry of overlapping and precisely orchestrated movements, Jeff parries, checks and disables Josh’s weapon hand, cuts twice, moves offline, and finishes with a thrust. All in 600 milliseconds.
- Nodotsuki: Frightening to an uke, Matsuoka Sensei covers, enters, and connects with a nodotsuki in 300 milliseconds. This is the average duration of a human eye blink. He pulls back before throwing in this example, but when he commits to the throw, it is devastating.
- Slow motion training: Shadow train on your own or grab a practice partner. Practice your movements in slow motion and carefully scrutinize your movement paths. Become aware of any unnecessary or wasted motions and remove them from your movement patterns.
- Video analysis: Use a smartphone camera to video a few techniques or movements. Review them frame by frame and see if there are any wasted movements or actions executed in serial (one after another) that instead could be performed simultaneously.
- Instructor guidance: Instructors can contribute to the development of students’ speed by highlighting movement inefficiencies. This can give beginning and intermediate students a path to follow when seeking improvement in this area.
2. Selective Muscle Control
Movement is caused by the contraction of one or more muscles. In most cases, muscles are in antagonistic pairs, in which one muscle when engaged, inhibits the movement of its opposing / paired muscle. One example is the bicep and tricep. One must relax and expand for the other to contract and enable movement.
If there’s tension in an antagonistic muscle, it’s like stepping on the accelerator in a car while the emergency brake is engaged. Synergist muscles can also be recruited to focus and optimize another muscle’s movement. Developing the body awareness to selectively engage or disengage muscle groups will allow you to reach the full potential of your muscular speed. More importantly, building this capability will positively impact other critical areas such as body structure, balance, and mobility.
Here’s an example of a basic muscle awareness and control exercise.
- This hand flex test is one example of an assessment tool and training exercise that can be used to build awareness and selective control of muscles in the arm and hand. Exercises like this, with immediate feedback loops, are excellent training tools.
- Cross training in any movement practice that cultivates body awareness results in huge gains in this area. We’ve had the opportunity to train yogis, tai chi practitioners, gymnasts, and climbers. Almost all seasoned practitioners in those arts have been able to immediately embody specific muscular states across with only verbal instruction as a cue.
3. Fast Twitch Fiber Development
Just as one can train muscles for strength, one can also train muscles for flexibility, endurance, or speed. In terms of training time to benefit ratio, we’ve found this to be the least effective method for building the kind of speed a martial artist needs. However, it is a valid way to build speed and can be added into one’s development after the high-yield gains have been made from movement efficiency and selective muscle control.
- Go slow to go fast: Although somewhat counterintuitive, moving as fast as possible through lots of repetitions is not always the most effective way to train fast-twitch (type 2) muscle fibers. Before movements are practiced at full speed, they should be executed slowly with awareness of how the body behaves. Gradually increase speed only when a movement is smooth and precise. Moving at full speed in an uncontrolled manner builds bad movement patterns and increases injury risk. Research has also shown that short, high-intensity isometric training (like holding a challenging yoga balance pose) is very effective at stimulating the growth of fast twitch muscle fibers.
- Observe and Measure. In aikido, we don’t compete against others, but we do compete against ourselves. With the spirit of agatsu (self-victory) you can measure your speed and progress over time. Apple’s newer iPhones can record at 240fps. Video yourself doing some strikes, deflections, or sword cuts and set a benchmark. Work to optimize and improve your movements and remeasure in a few months. If you do this, please let us know what you find. We’d love to collect and discuss any data the community may produce.
- Cross-training: There are many great articles outlining strategies to develop fast twitch muscle fibers for a range of applications. Advanced martial artist may be well served by seeing what high-performers are doing in other areas and thinking about how to adapt various methods to best suit their art and their own bodies. Junior practitioners can seek guidance from their instructors.
At Ikazuchi Dojo, we don’t emphasize speed optimization for most beginners. For the particular focus of our dojo, we place a higher priority on cultivating body structure, ukemi, and technical precision and fluency. However, there comes a time for most martial artists to explore speed development. If this is your time or you’re guiding others through it, we hope you’ll gain some value from this information and that you’ll share your experiences with us in return.