Speed in Training


Those of you that have ever moved house and had to find a new place to train, or advised newcomers to the martial arts on a forum, will be familiar with the need to ‘find somewhere good to train’.  What is often interesting, particularly when reading threads on forums, is finding out how other people believe you can judge a good club.

 There are naturally many different factors that make a martial arts class good or not, no matter what style is practiced.  One aspect that springs to mind is the value often  placed on the intensity of the training experience in a class.   The speed at which students drill within class, and the physical demands placed upon them by this, might seem to be  an integral factor to the intensity and quality of training.  However the implications for each student’s development through the variations that can be made in training speed are so fundamental that they are rarely given even a moment’s thought.

 No matter how long we train, whichever way we turn, the roots of our progress lie in our attention to basic principles, and the level of our understanding as to why we train in the manner we do.

Static Training – Non moving Visualization


Recreates the feel of a movement

Allows injury recovery with reduced performance deterioration


Time and location efficiency (can be done anywhere, any time)


No aerobic/anaerobic benefit

No strength benefit

Limited value for techniques that rely on tactile feel unless practitioner is extremely advanced

Does not work/test timing or reactions.

How slow can you train?  Static visualization is not necessarily a training method associated with being in class, and yet is an extremely valuable method of improving performance.  Muscle memory is a myth, your memory is the result of electrical patterns in the brain – and your brain creates and stores those patterns from the information it receives from the body.  The brain does not distinguish between visualized actions and actual actions, thus mentally rehearsing a drill can strengthen the neural patterns in much the same way as actual physical practice.   One of the greatest advantages of this form of training is that mental rehearsal allows the ‘perfect’ reproduction of a movement.   Watching another person performing when you know the movement they are doing triggers the same patterns in the brain as  actually doing the training.  This is one reason why coaches should encourage injured students to watch lessons for free since it reinforces their existing skill level while making it less likely they will quit (because they are still reminded of what they are missing and remain immersed in the social scene of training).  The greatest disadvantage to visualized training for beginners is not the lack of aerobic/anaerobic load, but its reliance on prior proficiency in the trained skill set.

Slow Speed Training


Ensures skilled technique

Can be used as a strength, balance and flexibility workout

Can be used as part of an injury recovery workout


Limited value for increasing aerobic and aerobic fitness

Limited value for training timing and reaction speed.

 Slow speed training allows trainees to focus on ‘getting the movement right’.  There is a common saying ‘practice makes perfect’, but as American Football Coach Vince Lombardi observed, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”  Training in slow motion allows trainees to perfect the biomechanical movement aspect of a technique, failure to train in this manner will result in far greater time being taken to achieve an equivalent skill level – if it is ever reached at all.

One of the great advantages of slow training is the degree of precision and control it allows over movement.  This is of particular importance for trainees recovering from injury since it allows a technique, strength, balance and flexibility workout while lowering the risk of aggravating the existing problem.

 The disadvantages of slow training are obvious and important.  While slow training can assist in the identification of the minute telegraphs that give away techniques, it does not test the ensuing reaction speed, or work the timing of how early or late to respond to an attack so that the other person cannot recommit.  While you will burn calories during slow training, you will not work your aerobic or anaerobic capacity due to the lack of pressure involved – a disadvantage if you are training for an event where greater efficiency in this regard is essential.  Slow training can be used to perfect technique, and in some respects may be the most beneficial (and safest) way for new students to train, but can be very boring for inexperienced trainees and put them off attending class.

Medium Speed Training


Training can be sustained for long periods

Good for the development of aerobic fitness

Good for maintaining interest.


Training can lack psychological pressure

Sustained practice at this level reduces the opportunity to develop refinement in the execution of techniques

Can reinforce bad technique and hamper skill development.

 Medium speed training is the half way house.  Good for many things, bad for many things, excellent at nothing and terrible at nothing.

 By training at a medium speed students are able to keep going for a long time, thus gaining an aerobic workout.  The pace allows a coach to get the students rehearsing a broad range of techniques or combinations throughout the class, thus reinforcing a large number of neural pathways and stopping the students from becoming bored.  In terms of keeping students training (ie preventing them from quitting) this is very beneficial because from the perspective of the average martial arts student, it ticks a large number of the boxes that match their expectations in training.  For the instructor it seems beneficial because training at this pace allows the class to cover the majority of the techniques they may need to know for their grading syllabus, thus the class can practice and the instructor can assess.

 The downside of this method of training is that as students tend to focus on speed more than precision, if the movement is not already ingrained precisely, the technique performed will be sloppy.  Faults in performance will naturally increase as a student begins to tire.  If this forms the majority of training then what is being rehearsed and drilled into the neural pathways over and over again is likely to be incorrect technique.   Since the speed is not quite full tilt, the benefit of training for things such as timing is reduced.  The greater risk of performing sloppy technique due to fatigue increases the risk of injury.

High Speed Training


Only real test of practicable ability

Develops anaerobic fitness

Excellent for developing reaction speed

Develops distancing and timing appropriate for the activity being trained

Places students under psychological stress.


Over use will reinforce poor technique

Generally does not allow for refinement as fine motor skills will be inaccessible if placed under real pressure

Can only be sustained for short periods of time.

 Full Speed training – the holy grail.  Whether you are training for the competitive arena, or for self defence, the ability to execute techniques with precision at full speed under pressure is surely one of the most important aims of any trainee.

 There are many advantages of training this way, both psychological and physical.

 Training at full speed, whether with or without any form of protection, brings with it the danger of being hit – and the natural fear in many people of pain.  This in turn puts an element of pressure in the performance that cannot be matched in training at any other speed (unless students are engaged in static drills where they have to be hit).  Successful execution of techniques under the conditions of high speed training builds real confidence appropriate to the arena being trained.

 In physical terms, only high speed training can assess the accuracy of students’ abilities in reading body movements and spotting the telegraphs of techniques in time for threat avoidance, and put their reaction time and speed of movement to a real test – whether in attack or defence.

 The disadvantages of high speed training are ultimately linked to the limitations of human performance and the nature of the training regime.  A student cannot work at high speed all the time as they will quickly fatigue.  Real high speed training is the equivalent  of a 100m sprint, something that can only be sustained for seconds rather than minutes.  The obvious answer is to intersperse high speed training with training at other speeds, but there is another issue with working at high speed – technique.  When a person moves fast and are under pressure, they tend to make mistakes – a posture that is not quite optimal, over-extension, greater telegraphing, not enough torso or hip rotation to give a technique as much power as it could have.  How well a person performs under pressure is dependant upon a number of factors, but two very simple ones are:

1. How familiar they are with working under pressure.

2. How good and ingrained is their existing technique.

Repeatedly working under pressure will address factor number one, but spending too much  time working under pressure can be exceptionally detrimental to factor number two, since the more you rehearse a technique sub optimally – the more likely you are to perform that way consistently.  As was said earlier “practice does not make perfect.  Only perfect practice makes perfect.”


 On the face of it the speed of training may determine the visible intensity of training, but in actual fact is often a false indicator of the quality of training.  Consistently fast and hard does not necessarily mean good, and slow training while less visually impressive may be both technically and physically demanding.   Too much of any type of training has the potential to be detrimental.  Ideally training should be balanced, with different emphases on different speeds according to the health and level of the student, but it would be helpful for both students and coaches to know what precisely they are aiming to achieve with each training method when they do employ it.


  1. Very useful, well thought out article. Of course, all these different elements put together makes for very effective training, indeed. With regard to visualization, being able to put the kinesthetic sensations of real experience into your visualizations makes them even more effective.

    I’d also be interested in hearing your comparison of solo training, drills and free-sparring.

    Regarding slow training, it can be used to develop strength isometrically, the way some Karate forms do, or to develop loose flexible actions the way Tai Chi does (and high-level Tai Chi fighters are actually some of the fastest fighters I’ve ever seen, but you don’t see them every often).

    1. Thanks for commenting Jeff. Glad you liked it.

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