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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.