One of the things that my Sensei used to tell me back in the day, when I was still living on his side of the country is that when you reach a certain level of experience in the martial arts, “once a Sensei, always a Sensei.” I never paid that much heed except that when I take the time to look back over the past decade since closing my dojo, I recognize a number of times where I’ve fallen into the instructor’s role without trying.
Even in my current role of training with my local school of Kempo, I often find myself providing a certain level of coaching and instruction to some of the younger and lower-ranked students. It’s almost a pull or an instinct. But like anyone else who passes on information they may have, I’m not always as clear as I should be.
I’ve written a number of times about how it’s important to stop doing the same thing over and over and to change it up, challenge yourself and go outside your comfort zone in order to progress. The problem is, some folks have taken that message as a meaning that performing repetitive actions such as forms and drills have no value and should be avoided. Not only is this false, but there is an important discernment to be made between repeating specific actions in order to build one’s muscle memory or learn something, and always staying at the same level by repeating the exact same actions. Allow me to explain…
Let’s say that you want to learn a new type of kick… Chances are that the person teaching you will start by having you observe him or her do this kick before having you join in and practice it a number of times before letting you practice the kick on your own. Even once you’re on your own, you’ll need to continue repeating the technique until it becomes comfortable, familiar and you can claim at least some level of proficiency with it. This is a called “muscle memory” and not only is it a good thing, it’s a vital part of the martial arts. And the only way to achieve it, is through repetition.
Muscle memory is an integral part of the martial arts because, let’s be honest, an attack generally won’t come with a warning. So setting yourself up, stretching and being ready to respond never happens. Ever. Sure, we stretch and get ready before a class, but that’s a controlled environment intended for your learning. Your body needs to be able to respond to a potential attack on it’s own without you needing time to put thought into what you’re going to do. If you take time to think about it, chances are the attack has already happened. So repetition for muscle memory is good.
Now, let’s once again assume that you intend on doing… let’s say a light dumbbell workout. You line up a pair of 25-pound dumbbells, because they’re the ones you’ve always used. You take a few moments to stretch, followed by 25 jumping jacks to get your heart rate going. Then you fall into 3 sets of 10 reps of bicep curls, butterfly curls, shoulder presses and weighted squats. You do this exact same workout, every Saturday morning at 9 am. You never increase the weights, never change up the exercises and always repeat the exact same workout. Any exercise is better than no exercise of course, and I’m only using this as an example but this is the bad kind of repetition.
Do you see the difference? The problem is that if you repeat this exact same workout EVERY time you do it, there will be no growth, no progression and no advancement in your fitness. Muscle memory holds no value for fitness workouts, so you need to be able to change it up. Maybe the following week sees you increase your weight. Perhaps you’ll lighten the weights and do sets of a cardio-style dumbbell circuit. Maybe you’ll do that same workout but add 30 minutes of jogging or cycling in the mix. Whatever. As long as you’re building on the base you’ve already established.
In case my explanation was a little too long in the tooth (as it often is), the point of today’s post can be summarized as follows… Long-term repetition for the purposes of learning and/or improving a technique and develop muscle memory: GOOD. Remaining stagnant by constantly repeating the exact same workout without ever challenging yourself or allowing growth: BAD.
Martial arts is actually a very slow-moving creature and it takes years to properly learn techniques. I’ve been doing karate for 31 years and I’m still learning, so that should give you an idea. But while you’re busy learning all the good stuff, keep pushing your body to grow and progress, increase your weights (safely) and keep your fitness fresh and fun by trying new workouts! You’re more likely to stick with it, that way.☯