Muay Thai kickboxing is known as “the way of eight limbs” for a reason. No, you aren’t transmuting into a spider. As a Muay Thai practitioner, you’re taught to fight with your fists, elbows, knees, and shins in a brutal, no-holds-barred martial art designed to take your opponent down as quickly as possible.
Striking anything at full combat force with your bare bones is going to hurt not just your target, but you as well. After all, boxing gloves are meant to protect your hands as well as blunt the force of your blow against the opponent’s head or body.
Since you are unlikely to be wearing Muay Thai shin guards in a match situation, you need to condition your shins to deliver the strongest kicks possible and be able to withstand the punishment of blocking return strikes or simply absorbing energy. If your shins are out of commission after one or two kicks, you will not be able to move effectively and will likely lose the fight.
As with many martial arts, the majority of your training will be conditioning and repetition. Conditioning your body hones it to peak performance. Repetition engrains the movements and responses into your procedural memory so you can think about what you plan to do in a fight without getting bogged down by the technical details of how to do it.
Shin conditioning will improve your performance by increasing your bone density and muscle mass, adding to the momentum of your blows. It will also desensitize but not completely deaden your pain receptors, lessening your natural propensity to pull strikes for your safety. You can expect to spend quality time with an ice pack.
The Shin Conditioning Process
Your body is a remarkable biological machine. Given the proper nutrients, exercise, and rest, it can condition itself in almost any way you want within its limitations. It adapts to injury: every time an injury happens, the body heals itself in such a way that it’s harder to receive that same injury. It’s the basic idea behind how exercise improves muscles.
Bones are constantly being broken down and reforming. Cells called osteoclasts to break down old bone, while osteoblasts create new bone tissue from calcium, magnesium, and various proteins.
Striking hard surfaces with any bone will create microfractures. These are invisibly small fractures in the bone that the body recognizes as weak points and prioritizes for repair.
When microfractures occur, the body recognizes it as a problem and creates calcium deposits on top of the damaged bone tissue, The process of fusing the two layers together and strengthening the bone is called ossification, not to be confused with calcification.
Muscles work on the exact same principle. Working a muscle to its limit creates slight tears in the tissue, which manifest themselves as soreness after exercise. The body uses the extra protein you hopefully consumed after your workout to rebuild the torn muscles and strengthen them.
The body has to have time and nutrition in order to heal. Attempting to progress too quickly can cause more harm than good. Patience and hard work are the keys to progress.
Benefits of Muay Thai Shin Conditioning
- Increased density of tibia and fibula
- Stronger muscles
- Less hesitation when kicking
- Desensitization of nerve endings
- Improved form
Shin Conditioning Workouts
A good shin conditioning regimen combines different types of exercise to strengthen your legs in various ways. Ideally, your training should consist of heavy bag work, sparring, bone conditioning, diet, weight training, and recovery. We’ll look at each of these in turn.
Heavy Bag Training
Traditional Muay Thai training involves kicking things like bamboo and banana trees. Sounds hardcore and manly, right? Well, first you should start with something that has a bit of flexibility. Otherwise, your martial arts career will ignominiously end with broken legs that refuse to heal.
The humble heavy bag is your best friend when starting with solo training drills. It will give your legs plenty of conditioning.
Muay Thai heavy bags consist of leather or canvas filled with varying weights of filler. When picking the weight for your bag, you want it to be heavy enough to provide enough resistance to simulate kicking a solid object but enough flexibility to disperse the momentum of your leg so the Third Law of Motion doesn’t snap your bone like a matchstick.
A rubber mulch-composite fill works best. Avoid using sand. Sand settles and hardens, especially if it gets wet, then it’s like hitting cement.
First, some safety advice. Make sure the support for your bag is strong. If the chain comes off the hook or breaks, the bag could fly off and hit you or someone else or cause serious damage depending on how hard you kicked it. Periodically inspect the bag for rips and tears. If it shows signs of weakness, replace it.
Take the bag down and roll it out to redistribute the filling because otherwise, it tends to settle toward the bottom.
Make contact with the bag using the inner and outer muscles of your shin rather than the bone. The tibia and fibula are long bones and susceptible to breaks. The muscle is a bit more malleable.
Make sure you have proper form when doing heavy bag training. Keep your body square and rotate your off-arm and torso to provide extra power to your blows rather than just relying on leg power. Keep your dominant hand up to block strikes to the head. Beginners should have an instructor standing by to correct technical errors because mistakes otherwise become embedded in muscle memory and are much harder to unlearn.
You need to do at least a hundred kicks to the bag every training day at a minimum. Only through repeated stress will your shin conditioning improve.
Shin conditioning also requires a healthy dose of free sparring and technical drills. Obviously, you need a partner for this training method.
You should start out using light shin guards for protection. If you’re a beginner student, you should stick to prearranged forms and drills to learn specific counters. As you gain more control and confidence, move to free sparring with partial contact and eventually to not using shin guards at all when you’re comfortable. By sparring, you gain the opportunity to hone your fighting reflexes, improve your cardiovascular endurance, and practice blocking kicks with your shin as well as gain valuable insight into what it feels like to use proper form.
When sparring, focus on improving your fundamentals. Keep relaxed when moving or attacking until the moment of impact because tense muscles rob your body of power it could otherwise generate. You then tire out sooner and aren’t able to benefit as much from training. Absolutely fundamental is breath control. Exhale with your strikes, tensing your abdomen as you do. Tensing your abdominal muscles lessens the impact of a body blow.
In Muay Thai, you have six basic techniques: jabs, crosses, hooks, knees, roundhouse kicks, and push kicks. Since you’re focusing on shin conditioning, you’re going to be using a lot of roundhouse kicks, but don’t change your name to Chuck Norris just yet. Improve the form and technique of your roundhouse kick by not going at 100 percent power. Maintain economy of motion and conserve strength; also, maintaining control lessens your likelihood of injuring your training partner.
One simple drill to try for shin conditioning while sparring is to exchange roundhouse kicks, keeping the kick aimed no higher than the waist. Kick and have your partner block with his own shin. Switch to the other leg, and then repeat with you and your partner switching roles. Vary your speed and height enough to keep it interesting, but not so much that it throws off timing.
Pad work involves your partner holding kick pads or focus mitts at various locations for you to practice your kicks. The focus mitt is useful because it allows the person to catch your blow and counter with a high-line punch, forcing you to focus on evasion. Light footwork makes you harder to hit.
If you want a real challenge, have your partner hold the pads and shift them at random intervals, representing the changing openings that appear in a fight. Part of shin conditioning is building up the explosive power to launch lightning-fast roundhouse kicks. Also, it makes you think and act more quickly. This is a more advanced exercise, but worth trying.
Strength Training with Weights
So far, we’ve talked about heavy bag work to somewhat desensitize the nerves and sparring o hone technique and speed. Now you need to focus on developing raw muscle strength with weights. Body weight exercises work too, but they only get you so far.
The main muscle in your shin is the tibialis anterior, running from your kneecap to your ankle. It may not look as good as the calf muscle when fully developed, but is necessary for your Muay Thai conditioning.
The best weighted exercises for your tibialis anterior are toe raises. If you have access to a gym with a machine you can use that, but if you prefer free weights it’s equally as possible. To do a toe raise with dumbbells, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
Hold the dumbbells in a relaxed position at your sides. Use your calves and shin muscles to raise yourself to tiptoe position over two seconds, hold it for three seconds, then lower on a count of two. Rest for one second, then repeat. Do as many reps of this exercise as you can. Start with 5 pounds in each hand, gradually working your way up. Ask your instructor for hints or advice.
Calf raises work the same way, but for the muscle on the rear of the leg. It wraps around to the front, connecting just under the kneecap, and can be used to absorb impact as well. Calf raises involve the opposite motion of toe raises. Rather than pushing up onto your toes, you keep your feet flat on the ground and lift your toes, flexing your calf muscles.
To do this exercise with a free weight, it with your legs extended fully and grip a dumbbell between your feet, allowing it to pull them to full extension. Pull your toes upward, lifting the dumbbell in the process.
Even without specifically working the shin muscles, weight training can increase bone density. Barbell squats and lunges work virtually all major muscle groups in your legs. When you do squats, keep your knees and feet aligned to reduce the risk of injury. The same goes for lunges when you step forward onto one leg.
Increase Bone Density
Now we come to an exercise you may have seen in movies: rolling a metal tube along your shin. It doesn’t have to be metal, it just has to be sufficiently hard. This may not seem like a big deal, but it gets surprisingly painful after a few minutes. The idea behind this practice is to compress the shin bone.
Compressing the bone makes it denser. It’s important to roll the tube along the shin evenly to get uniform coverage. As you strengthen bone and muscle, any point at which the bone is weaker than the rest poses a risk of fracture.
Allow for Recovery
Your body cannot get stronger if it doesn’t have time to rest. During the recovery phase of any workout, muscles take protein and synthesize them into stronger muscle tissue to repair the tears.
For the first day after you take blows on the shin, ice it down to reduce the swelling. You can also take a cold spoon or your fingers and press the fluid away from the bruise in one direction. Be warned, doing this will hurt quite a bit so you may want a mouth guard to bite while you work.
Next, you should focus on keeping heat applied to the area. Heat draws blood to the surface of the skin through vasodilation, a process that promotes healing.
While your shin is healing don’t use it in training. You shouldn’t stop training but focus more on the other weapons in your arsenal. In Muay Thai something is almost always going to be hurting or sore. Wear a shin pad to cover your shin if you plan on sparring, which we don’t recommend on a damaged leg. Hurting an already damaged leg means it will never heal. You can also apply tiger balm to the affected areas.
Maintain a Fighter’s Diet
Your body needs enough calories and protein to heal and build muscle and bone. Too few calories cause the body to burn its fat reserves and then muscle. Proteins form the building blocks of tissue. As for how many calories you need per day, 3,000 is a good estimate if you’re doing heavy training.
Some good sources of protein include lean meats, legumes, leafy green vegetables, yogurt, and low-fat milk. Aim to consume one gram of protein per pound of body weight. Water is also vital; you need at least eight glasses of it per day. Alternatively, you can drink sports drinks that keep your electrolytes replenished during a tough, sweaty workout.
Shin Conditioning Equipment
For shin conditioning equipment, you don’t need much. A heavy bag, shin pads, kick pads, and focus mitts will fulfill most of your needs as far as specialized equipment. For recovery, you can pick up an ice pack, heating pad, and tiger balm at your local pharmacy.
Training Without a Heavy Bag
If you don’t have a gym membership or a place at home to hang a heavy bag, don’t worry. You can use alternatives like a free-standing bag. In some ways, the free-standing bag is better. It allows more room to move around without the bag swinging at you. It also is weighted to the ground by water, sand, or some other filler. The other methods of shin conditioning still apply.
What to Watch Out For in Shin Conditioning
Muay Thai shin conditioning can cause difficult-to-heal injuries to the bones, muscles, and connective tissue. If you notice any of the following effects, stop training and see a doctor for further instructions.
- Persistent stabbing pains along the bone
- Soreness or pain that persists even with rest
- Difficulty walking
- Odd gait or pain when walking up and down stairs
- Frequent popping or cracking sounds in the knee joints
- Knotted bone surface that persists even after icing
- Bruises that don’t go away
If you experience any of these symptoms, stop training and get to a doctor for further evaluation. You may be at risk for permanent damage.
As long as you practice safety and follow the guidelines of a qualified instructor, you should be able to condition your shins effectively without risk of injury. It’s ultimately your body. If you feel seriously uncomfortable with a practice or method, don’t do it. Finally, parents should avoid having their children train in Muay Thai or other martial art too early, because developing bones are not as resilient to hardening and conditioning as a fully-grown adult’s bones are.