Muscle has Memory

Professor Jerry Kunzman

Have you ever watched a Master in any martial art with wonderment and awe at their lightning fast and perfect response to an attack? Have you ever wondered how they do that? How long do you have to train to be that fast and perfect?

When you start your martial art training (in any system), you are looking at hundreds of techniques you will need to “master”. Your Sensei or instructor will demonstrate and maybe even explain a technique, and then tell you to go practice it. How many repetitions can you do before they stop you and introduce another technique to practice?

Think about what you have to do for each technique when you are first learning it. What is the proper response to this particular form of attack? Is my body posture correct? Is my hand position correct? Have I broken my opponent’s balance (i.e. strength) properly? Is my ki flowing in the right direction? All of this takes time to think through, so at first you can only do a few repetitions before moving on to the next technique to learn. But over time (months to years) and many more repetitions later, you will get faster and smoother. But no matter how fast and smooth you become, you have still not “mastered” the technique as long as your brain is involved. Thinking takes precious time!

To really master a technique requires thousands of repetitions; not to make the thinking process faster but to train your muscles to react automatically without instruction from your brain. Muscle has memory. For any memory to persist, it has to be firmly embedded, in this case, in muscle. There are two major types of skeletal muscle fibers: slow and fast twitch fibers. The slow twitch fibers are responsible for endurance actions such as distance running. The fast twitch fibers are responsible for instant responses like blocking a punch without thinking about it. It’s these fast twitch fibers that you want to train to react without waiting to be told to by the brain. But reaching the fast twitch fiber memory is more difficult than training the major slow twitch fibers. And that takes repetition; thousands of times!

So how long do you have to train, or how many repetitions does it take to master just one technique? I tell my students “Here is how you do it. Now repeat 10,000 times”. And they think I’m kidding. Suppose you train 3 times per week for 50 weeks per year (unlikely) and you could do 20 repetitions each time (also unlikely given the hundreds of other techniques you also need to practice). In 1 year, you would have done 3000 repetitions. To reach 10,000, you would need more than 3 years of practice for just one technique! That’s what it takes to become a “Master” of just one art. That’s why it takes more than 50 years of practice to become a “Master” of your martial art. You need to train your fast muscle fibers to remember (through repetition) in order to react instantly to a physical threat without thought.

Now go practice more. You are falling behind the curve. Make your Sensei proud!

Professor Jerry Kunzman is a Kudan, Zen Budokai Ju Jitsu Sandan, Kodokan Judo Nidan, Kodenkan Ju Jitsu (now Danzan Ryu) Shodan, kyokushin Karate

Back to Kiai Echo 2016 Issue 2