Muscle Memory & Confusion for Building Technical Ability & Strength

My last two posts addressed Muscle Memory and Its Role in Self-Defense, as well as 4 Factors that Affect Muscle Memory Development. This week, I’ll be discussing how muscle memory and muscle confusion work into martial arts training regimes to build technique and strength.

Warm-ups are not only used to get the body warm to prevent injury. They also help develop body movements, and strengthen the body, to help students improve their performance of the techniques learned in class. To this end, I try to work in movements that relate to the techniques I plan to teach later in the class to develop both strength and technique.

If I’m running a ground defense class, I’ll use shrimping, bridging and rolling and/or turtling as part of our warm-up. These movements not only develop strength, they develop the students’ technique in movements that apply directly to ground defense. By having these drills, students get to work on their muscle memory as they warm up and build strength. (*Be sure to check out all the ground defense drills I teach in my new ground defense book!)

Here is a video of me doing these drills:

These are just examples from my ground warm-up, but these principles can be applied to any other aspect of martial arts training. If you’re working punches, try doing punching with hand weights or resistance bands as part of your strength training. If you’re working on kicks, try doing isometric leg training by going through the movements of your kicks slowly and holding your leg out in the extended position. If you’re working on throws, try throwing a heavy bag or weighted throwing dummy. Breakfall training also strengthens the body and prepares you for being thrown. If you’re going to be sparring or you’ll be taking hits to the body for some other reason, do a medicine ball ab toss to strengthen the muscles you use to absorb hits(see video below).

Muscle Confusion for Further Development

After a while, students get very comfortable doing strength training exercises like the ones shown above. And that’s good because if it’s in their muscle memory, they’re more likely to use it on the street when it counts. That being said, if students are to continue to develop their muscle strength/endurance, they can’t just keep doing the same strength training drills all the time. Muscle memory makes people more efficient at doing the movements, using less efforts for the same results. This is a hindrance for muscular development. That’s why I like to switch things up and do movements that are not natural and are not trained often. This leads to “muscle confusion”. When the muscles aren’t use to a movement, they tend to exert themselves much more so to make the action happen. This in turn helps develop muscle strength and endurance.

Below is a video of another drill I like to throw in to my ground defense warm-up. I uses the same core muscles that are important on the ground, but using movements that are counter-intuitive to the way the body naturally moves. Basically, you swing your arms and legs in opposite directions while lifting your hips, causing you to move across the floor. Even if you don’t manage to move much, it’s still a great ab workout. The embedded version is a little cut off, see the full size version here).

How about you? Do you have any special exercises in your pocket that you like to use to develop your skills (or confuse your muscles)? Please share them in the comments. 🙂

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “Muscle Memory & Confusion for Building Technical Ability & Strength

  1. Good point, I think in every facet of training, you can take a technique and integrate into a workout. This is a perfect example of leveraging ground technique into a class

  2. We usually do push-ups with the hands near the body, knuckles on the mat and in quick succession. This should help with punching, especially the WC straight punch. We also incorporate the ground drills you've shown, aswell as the four corner drill which you may know from BJJ. In kali there's an exercise that consists of hitting thaipads with an iron bar for a certain number of reps: great for arm strength and for reinforcing the striking motion. This is basically the method the Romans used to train their soldiers: they did drills against a pole (gladius/short sword and pilum or throwing spear) and with a partner with heavier practice weapons so that in actual combat the arms felt like a feather. Excellent training method, basically the same as punching with weights or bands. What weight do you recommend for punching? I usually use 1,5kg but I'm not sure whether that yields the best results: too light and it won't do much, too heavy and you'll get slow and might even damage the elbow. Naturally weighted punching should be done slower and more controlled than the actual thing. I recently injured my elbow (hyperextension) so I'm laying off it for now, I'm going to see a doctor soon to get a prescription for some physical therapy.

    Good post,


  3. I forgot the uchi-komi method from judo for throwing; you off-balance and enter for 9 times, the tenth you throw. This saves times and reinforces the motion in the most important stages of the throw: off-balancing and entering. In knife defense we use kali methods of drilling (very similar to the ones you showed on your blog once): the same attack with defense practiced for 3 minutes as fast as possible with as much reps as possible. The key to winning a fight (whether real or simulated in the form of sparring) is being quicker than the opponent and this is done by reacting subconsciously to any move he makes or opening he presents. This is indeed achieved through the perfectly natural process of muscle memory (some people claim high level masters possess some sort of clairvoyance that allows them to predict the opponent's actions but this is clearly bull: they've just practiced more and are thus better able to tell from small, subtile signs what he's going to do next) and more efficient training (drills, combining strength, endurance & technique training) will translate in quicker progression and higher chances of coming out on top in a real altercation. Training methods are everything and part of the quality of a teacher is determined by his capacity of coming up with new drills, thus optimalizing the effect of training-time. I think my sensei does a pretty good job at this and he's constantly researching the subject, coming up with new ways of making his students learn faster.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Jiu-jitsu Sensei
Martial Arts Blog