Martial Arts Shin Conditioning 101: How to Toughen Your Shins For Combat
You're new to shin conditioning? You came to the right place. We are going to give you some technical background on your shins, plus let you in on a few techniques that are sure to toughen up those MMA or Muay Thai twigs!
First, get some Battle Balm® pain relief cream! It will be your best friend during the toughening routine, especially for the initial stages. Why? Because what you're doing is creating small amounts of trauma and injury to the shins to force your bones to respond by gaining strength and density. Battle Balm® is the best damage control injury and trauma balm for your body! We'll talk again about it later and how to incorporate it into your training regimen.
The main concept to shin strengthening is repetitive stimulation (or kicking practice). You need to stress your shin bones (or tibia bones, or tibias...) to make your body respond appropriately by building bone density. Higher bone density equals stronger bones. One day of shin conditioning won't cut it. You have to strike your shins consistently for about a year before you see some serious results. Your hard work will pay off big time and your new steel shins will be the talk of the town!
There's a lot of myths going around when it comes to creating strong shins. We'll touch on the science a bit, and then move into the practical aspects of how to train properly.
Let's try to understand the important components of shin conditioning.
The more times you hit something hard, the more times you're going to feel it. There's no two ways about it, unless you've got some neurological (nerve) damage. If you stubbed your toe 10 times, the 11th time is not going to feel any more pleasant. So don't think that you will feel less sensation once your shins have hit the heavy bag for the ten thousandth time. Unless you're dead, you'll still feel pain. It's just that your brain will have adapted to handle it differently.
To make things easy, let's say that pain is made up of two parts: sensation at the site of injury (the shins), and the brain response to the pain. What you are doing by kicking the proverbial banana tree a thousand times a day, is sending sensations to the brain to get it to respond "less loudly" to the pain. The first time you kick the banana tree, you're cursing your mother-in-law because the brain response is so large towards the potentially harmful strike. But the ten thousandth time you kick the banana tree, your brain doesn't see the strike as so harmful, and thus, responds by turning down the pain volume. You feel less pain because your brain has adapted (by increasing your pain threshold), but the sensation is still the same. Got it?
Bones are pretty cool. They remodel, or regenerate (yes, like Wolverine in X-Men) completely about every 17 weeks (according to Wikipedia.) Call it cortical remodeling, bone remodeling, or ossification. Yes, you get a new skeleton 3 times a year. What does that mean? Your bones will adapt and increase or decrease its structure depending on what environmental stresses are there. If you perform impact activities that require strong bones, your body will build you strong bones. See Wolff's Law. If you only perform activities that require little bone strength, your body will slowly turn your bones back to jell-o. So by kicking a banana tree every day, you're stimulating your bones to strengthen in response to the stress of striking something hard! And it will take about 4 months for your entire shin to fully adapt to being struck at that level of impact!
Skin/muscles/blood vessels will also adapt to kicking stresses placed on it. Repeated contact of an object on your skin will thicken the skin and you may build a large callous. Just look at your feet from training barefoot for so many years! The callouses grow to protect your skin like patches of armor. Your muscles and blood vessels will also adapt from hitting your shins. It's hard to say exactly what will happen to each person, but we can say that your muscles and superficial blood vessels will toughen up to handle the impact if they are in the way of your techniques.
When we say stress, we mean good stress and bad stress. The good stress we'll talk about is stress from striking your banana tree with your shin. You want this stress, so it's good. (We're trying to simplify ideas here.) Repeated striking stimulates the bones to respond by strengthening and adding density. Just like working out with weights builds muscle, the impact of repeated striking on the shins will build bone. That's just how the body works. Humans are made to adapt when given enough training, time, rest, and nutrients. Period.
The bad stress is almost as important to think about as the good stress. Here's why. Bad stress causes your body to release hormones that are geared towards self-preservation. With too much bad stress, your body will be focused on releasing hormones that keep you alive and free from danger, rather than releasing hormones to build bone density. We're sorry, but your shin strength is very low on the body's priority list.
Reducing bad stress is key to putting your body on the right path to nurture healthy bone development. Ways to reduce bad stress are: keeping emotions in check, getting adequate food and rest, remove yourself from life-threatening situations, reducing worry and anxiety, etc.
The best way to build your body's calcium supply for strong bones is to eat dark green vegetables and dairy products. These foods are high in calcium, a key component to strong bones. Another thing you want to do is cut out carbonated soft drinks. Those things pull calcium out of the bones. The mechanism has to do with blood pH and the chemical composition of soft drinks that we won't go into here. Stop smoking and drinking! Those are bad for bones too! There are a ton of other do's and don'ts not listed here, so do some homework to find out more.
Take care of your shins. Repeated impact on your shins stresses all of the soft tissue in the lower leg. This means bones as well as muscles, tendons, ligament, blood vessels, nerves, skin and fascia. So don't forget about taking care of these other parts of your leg! We recommend using Battle Balm® to assist your training plan. Massage Battle Balm® into your shins and calves before training to stimulate circulation, increase pain threshold, warm up the calves, and reduce swelling. Massage is an excellent way to enhance blood flow to your lower legs. Without good blood flow, your body cannot heal or strengthen itself. Blood is what carries nutrients to your bones and muscles! Massage is one of the most important ways to boost your bone building abilities during this conditioning period. Acupuncture is also an excellent way to boost circulation and healing from the trauma of shin conditioning!
There has been confusion as to what are the best methods to building steel shins. We will say that it takes effort, time, and enough striking power to stimulate bone development in your body. Some of the myths of training are listed below.
Will rolling a wooden dowel or a heavy weight on my shins condition them to be stronger? No. The impact of striking and the vibration associated with impact is the stimulus your body requires to lay down a higher density bone material. Rolling things over your shins will probably only toughen your skin (which may make your skin less sensitive to being struck).
Can I speed up the process of making my shins stronger? Not a whole lot. The life cycle of the bone cellular unit is what dictates the rapidity of the bone growth and is the limiting factor. Sure, it varies slightly in each person due to genetics, age, and lifestyle. But, you can improve what you've got to a certain extent. Put yourself in the best scenario possible by eating right, exercising, and getting proper rest and nutrients your body needs.
Is there going to be more calcium deposits on my shins? No. The idea of building up calcium deposits on the tibia is incorrect. During bone remodeling, the bone matrix rebuilds itself with more minerals in the bone. It doesn't happen on top of the bone! With continued stress on the bones from striking, the bones will eventually rebuild with more density and strength.
Will I get nerve damage from shin conditioning? Most likely, no. With proper kicking technique and a solid training plan, you should manage to keep your nerves safe from harm and out of the way of damage. This question needs a more complex answer if you are breaking your bones and doing serious lower leg damage during your training sessions. If in doubt, find a good teacher and study from him/her.
My shins feel numb and I can't lift my toes after kicking the bag. Are you sure there's no nerve damage? Most likely, no. There is a greater possibility that the muscles (anterior tibialis, especially) are beat up and that's why they are numb, tingly and it's hard to lift your foot. Remember, you're smashing your shin and muscles against a hard surface repeatedly. Inflammation of the muscles and soreness can temporarily compress the nerve and blood supply of the lower leg and mimic nerve damage. Take a couple weeks off, stretch and see if it gets better. More about this will come in our next segment on shin conditioning.
If I miss a week of training, will I lose all my progress? No, but if you miss 4 months of training, you'll be taking a huge step backwards. Remember, if your bones aren't being stimulated to develop, your body will try to return to the way it was before. Building strong shins takes time, effort, and consistency. The more you slack off, the more your bones will too.
Let's get down to business. We will assume that you're a beginner to shin conditioning, so we'll start there. Also, we were just kidding about the banana tree. We're an environmentally friendly tree hugging/kissing/loving company, so we'd rather you hit a heavy bag instead! Below is a quick and easy way to start conditioning your shins safely and effectively. The focus is on stressing your shins just enough to build density, but not too much so that you're injured. The goal is to train at least 5 days a week.
Here's what you'll need: heavy bag (or similar), shin guards, your shins. The heavy bag can be any density, really. You will have to gauge your striking power to accommodate a hard heavy bag appropriately.
WEEKS 1-4: Put on your shin guards. Strike the heavy bag using the anterior part of the tibia. Repeat until muscles are sore or tibias feel tender. You should stop before you see welts, bruising, or swelling. If you see these things right away, you're kicking too hard. Stop training and massage Battle Balm® into injured area three times daily until it heals. Start training again, but with reduced kicking power. Any shin pain that lasts longer than 24 hours means you need to reduce the number of strikes or the power of your kicks.
Do two days of striking. Rest a day. Do three days of striking. Rest a day. That's your week.
WHY: Striking with the shin guards will protect your legs in case you have too much striking force and not enough shin strength. It will protect your legs from a very hard kicking bag. It will also keep your baby butt soft shins from tearing after a few misdirected kicks to the bag. (Applying Battle Balm® to your legs before training will help prevent nicks, scrapes, and cuts.) The act of striking with shin guards will impart a larger vibrational stress and smaller impact stress to the bones. The chance of fracture in the initial training stages will be greatly reduced. (You can't train with a broken leg, right?) These stresses will be enough to get your body to jumpstart its bone building!
WEEKS 5-8: You probably have much more kicking stamina now. Plus, your technique is gaining swiftness and accuracy. Do 90% of your kicking practice on the heavy bag with shin guards ON. The last 10%, you will perform without pads. Find a soft spot on the heavy bag to test out before giving it a nice kick. In fact, you should only kick hard enough to sting your shins a little every time. It will make your shins red and tender by the end, but you should not strike hard enough to cause bruising, welts, or swelling. Those injuries will only delay your training. Once again, if you are injuring yourself, then you need to curb your kicking power. You will feel your confidence in your shins grow as you see that you've made some good progress.
Do two days of striking. Rest a day. Do two days of striking. Rest two days. That's your week. Don't forget to massage your entire lower leg and rub Battle Balm® into your shins on your off days.
WHY: Expending 90% of your energy kicking before you take off the pads will help keep you from striking the heavy bag with too much power! So, we're protecting you and your shins by thinking ahead! (Applying Battle Balm® to your legs before training will help prevent nicks, scrapes, and cuts. Applying Battle Balm® after training will aid in your recovery!)
WEEKS 9-12: Your shins are probably feeling stronger and you're willing to really lay into the heavy bag. (You are probably eating more too! Building bone density requires lots of calories, proteins, and calcium!) Here, you should shift your heavy bag training to the first 50% of kicking with shin guards and the last 50% of kicking with no shin guards. By now, it should take a few hits before your shins start to get red and/or tender. You still want to maintain a safe striking power while working the heavy bag and stop if you get a bruise, welt, swelling, or any cut from contact. You may be able to make full power kicks for a short while before your shins begin to hurt and that is good.
You can start training twice a day and you may want to, especially if your shins lose the redness and stinging sensation pretty quickly after you are done training. Either way, if you decide to do two-a-days, you can always do a 50%/50% in the morning and then wear your shin guards for the whole evening striking session to keep from overtraining your shins. We know your shins feel like steel, but try not to get too far ahead of yourself.
There could be a lot of variability to your training days and rest days at this point. Some of you will be able to kick the heavy bag twice a day every single day of the week. Others will still need a rest day. It depends on the person, the bag, the power of the strikes, etc. Just remember, you don't want to strike the bag so hard that it takes more than 24 hours to fully recover! The good news is that you will know your body better that we will and you can plan out your week. Just try not to take more than a day off after training, if you can help it.
WHY: Training is beginning to take shape in this phase. Your shins are feeling really powerful and mentally, you feel like you can kick over a tree. But, keep in perspective that your bones haven't gone through a complete regenerative cycle yet. Pay attention to your legs and try to push them to the point just before injury can occur. Use Battle Balm® only when you need the pain relief and try only to use it after your training session is over.
WEEKS 13-17: Here is the last phase of training for conditioning your shins. It's time to start kicking the heavy bag without shin guards. Basically, you will train your shins during a session until just before you think bruising, laceration, or welting injury will occur. It should take plenty of full power striking before you need to stop. Take breaks during your session, if you need to, for recovery.
Train for five days. Take two days off per week and space them out where you think it works best for you.
WHY: This completes the first cycle of bone remodeling. WIth adequate training, the stresses placed on the tibia have caused your bones to increase its density. Although this is just the first regenerative cycle, your bones will continue the remodeling and make the shins stronger in the next cycle. Training must continue for strength and density gains to occur. The stresses placed on the tibia have to increase in order for bone density to keep increasing.
You've made it through your first bone remodeling/regeneration sequence! If you're trying to build more bone density, you'll need to: use harder heavy bags (and other targets), try longer kicking sessions, increase frequency of kicking sessions per day.
Now that you've got the hang of what it takes to steel your shins, stay on top of your training. Be both persistent and consistent. Increase the length of time you spend kicking as well as the intensity of the kicks, and you should see some really incredible results at the end of the first year! Gradually increase the stresses you put on your shins to minimize injury timeouts, and you'll be well on your way to a pair of solid, strong shins! Now go kick something!
NOTE: If you choose not to incorporate Battle Balm® in your training, please avoid alcohol based topical balms, liniments, rubs, etc. in your shin conditioning. The alcohol dries skin and will weaken bones, rather than strengthen them. (Ingesting alcohol is worse on your bones than topical application, but neither are conducive to building strong bones.) Check your product labels. We hope you found our article interesting!
Oh, if you're using Namman MuayTM (or similar liniment) and looking for a serious alternative, Demon Strength Battle Balm® is your answer!