The first part of this series discussed the technique of Iron Fist. The concepts and principles of Muay Thai shin conditioning are similar. But there are a few important things to know before attempting this practice. You may have seen Jean Claude Van Damme break a tree in half in the movie Kickboxer. But if you tried this you would likely break your shin in half instead.
The first thing to know is that banana trees are not actually trees, but rubbery, flexible plants. So kicking a normal tree would absolutely be a mistake. And while banana trees were a good substitute for equipment in the past, they developed Thai pads by using the soft wood of the plant for safer practice.
Modern Thai pads are based on the same properties which can help shin conditioning progress much more evenly. It is true that Buakaw Banchamek utterly destroyed a banana tree on camera, but he is a Muay Thai legend. He had rock hard shins before that poor tree had the displeasure of making his acquaintance.
In Iron Fist article, the idea is to progress gradually, strengthening your bones and tissues without damaging them too much. This is because bruising the skin, bones, and muscle stimulates the rebuilding process. But if they don’t heal them properly, scarring or compound fractures can occur. The same idea applies to Muay Thai conditioning – you are looking to gradually strengthen your shins, not damage them.
Kick pads and heavy bag work help achieve this goal. As they are softer than a banana tree and thus require more repetition to strengthen the shins. This causes a more gradual – safer – progression and better technique. After all, the purpose of strengthening your shins is to use them to hit a target which is most likely not an unsuspecting and stationary banana tree. The key is a lot of patience and a lot of repetition.
Along the same lines, a lot of sparring will help to condition the shins and technique simultaneously. Hitting a moving target will improve aim and add variety to the muscles and bones. Again, remember to practice always without going to the point of injury and your persistence will eventually pay off.
Just as with Iron Fist, microfractures will cause the bone remodel with a stronger structure. The skin and muscle will thicken over the bone as well, but there are also a few key differences to Iron Fist. For example, there is a muscle that covers the shin which you can feel coming forward when you lift your toe.
Running and doing weighted calf raises, squats, and lunges will strengthen this muscle as well as increase the bone density of your legs. Many Muay Thai practitioners also roll bamboo or iron rods on their shins after conditioning to further compress the bone and attempt to deaden the nerves.
This is because they can apply pressure evenly and in a controlled manner to lightly bruise the bone and tissues and induce hardening. Controlled, even hardening is the key, because the shin is a very long bone and any difference in uniformity will cause a weak spot where a fracture could occur. This is also why they should avoid breaking the skin, because scars will make the skin covering the bone uneven.
The most important step is to take care of your shins before and after training. For bumps and soft spots along the shin, ice can reduce swelling, but kickboxers especially rely on hot water. Soak a towel in very hot water and press the knot or bruise in one direction. This will drain the fluid and bring blood to the surface to help healing.
Muay Thai fighters also use tiger balm, Thai oil, or dit da jow before, during, and after shin conditioning. Dit da jow could be made from any number of traditional recipes. Tiger balm comes in a hot or a cold formula. Both are good for reducing pain and swelling.
Thai oil (or Thai liniment) is made from methyl salicylate, menthol, and alcohol. These ingredients are very effective at reducing pain and swelling. They help bring blood to the surface of the skin to heal bruises more quickly. Just as with any martial art where the goal is to harden the body, it is very important not to continue on with training if your shins are not fully healed.
Not only will it make existing injuries heal slowly, it can cause much more severe problems. Microfractures in the bones can heal into a denser bone structure, but if they don’t have the opportunity to do so they are merely a point of weakness where a compound fracture can occur.
It is also important to train under the guidance of experts and the help of a doctor in the case of injuries. There is no quick way to have shins as hard as steel. Training harder could actually make you weaker if you are doing it incorrectly. But, if you are committed to gradual progression through persistence, repetition, and hard work, your determination will pay off. So, take care of your shins and don’t be so hard on those banana trees.