Intensity – “You can train hard or you can train long, but you can’t do both” – Arther Jones

Intensity is the single most important factor when it comes to training for speed, power and strength. I’m sure your instructor has mentioned at some point it is far more beneficial to practice 10 times perfectly than 1000 times incorrectly. Apart from training the neuromuscular system to perform inaccurate movements, it is actually impossible to train a punch for example, 1000 times with 100% intensity and nor is it necessary in order to acquire optimal results!

Without going deep into the physiology of muscular contraction, to develop maximal power is purely an anaerobic activity and can only be sustained for 10-15 seconds at best; not only can it be sustained for brief periods but most importantly to stimulate growth, which is the key physiological adaptation to increase speed and power, should be performed at maximal (100%) and supra-maximal (100% +) intensities and such that taken to a the point of momentary failure where further speed, power or correct form can no longer be maintained.

This range is of course dependent on the metabolic capacity of the muscle and how hard you work to drain it of its energy stores. Going beyond this point negates the primary aim of developing power and becomes a heavy duty endurance activity at best, leading to maintenance of the right muscular endurance structure or muscular deterioration through alterations towards slower ability muscle fibres, which are much more suited to heavy endurance functions.

This is not to say that training for shorter periods but more often is of benefit either. When it comes to high intensity training, repeated high intensity bouts are detrimental. It is important to note that every training session of either high intensity or endurance is an inroad to your body’s reserves. Therefore, training at a high intensity for long periods and too frequently can lead to over training reducing the body’s recovery ability; immune system, weaken joints, bones and tendons.

There is a growing amount of research into training frequency and recovery ability, showing that gains in strength, speed and power can be obtained from as little as one session a week and maximal and supra-maximal training sessions can set recovery time back up to 2 weeks or more. Marathon runners, for example, after competition can take months to fully recover from the demands placed upon the neuromuscular and endocrine systems.

Although these extremes have been observed is important to note that not everybody reacts the same to the effects of training. Just like some people can withstand greater amounts of UV radiation before acquiring a sun tan (which can easily be predicted by the colour of one’s skin from fair through to black), or one’s immune system with some people hardly ever ill and others ill after watching another person sneeze. It is down to the practitioner to evaluate what is optimal for them by consistently observing progression from their training. When progression has stopped training is either too frequent or not frequently enough.

WingChun is of course a dynamic art and therefore requires constant and diligent practice. If we were to train with full intensity with every training session in order to fully absorb all the information acquired during lessons, it would most certainly leave one tired and unmotivated not to mention impractical to engage in a number of sessions each week.

In order help assist us the answer lies simply in separating the training between recalling information and training for power. Since training for speed and power can be done once (twice at the most) per week the remaining time can be focused on developing neuromuscular recall.

Developing “muscle memory” is an endurance activity, requiring simply the repetition of correct movements. To develop a new motor pattern can take between 300-500 repetitions, of which do not require to be performed with full intensity, so performing movements often at anytime is the key.

On an interesting note using imagery can also be a useful and powerful tool for developing neuromuscular function. Research and meta-analysis has shown that using visualisation techniques can greatly increase cognitive and neuromuscular recall, having a sequentially greater effect on performance than no visualisation between training sessions. In short this is due to the mind not being able to tell the difference between reality and what is created by thought, thus developing neuromuscular pathways regardless of actual physical activity.

It is somewhat impractical to train 7 days a week not only with the physical demands of training but also simply with fitting it into our increasingly busy lives. Therefore training optimally becomes even more important in order to achieve the most we can with little time we have.

Martial arts is not an endurance game, in the unfortunate situation of conflict it can be and most likely will be, all over in seconds. Thus training for the core functions of speed and power should be the main aim of any practitioner, with optimal gains acquired through high intensity, short duration sessions.