Don’t Sweat It, Rep It

One of the very most common concerns that I hear from some self-defense students is that they feel that they may not be able to remember and therefore perform the appropriate “move” or self-defense technique if they found themselves in a real fight. I think this is a natural concern that probably all self-defense students feel at some point and the usual culprit is simply trying to cover too much material too fast. Furthermore, too much “trial and error” training, which I’ll explain a little later, can also retard your progress and confidence even though many current instructors think that it speeds up learning and performance.

Therefore, I tell them not to worry, if you do enough repetitions not only will you remember the move, you literally will not be able to forget it or turn it off, it will have become “second nature”. Things that are ingrained in us like that are literally stored in a different part of the brain; a part of the brain that can be accessed without conscious thought-it becomes “muscle memory” and a reflex.

 I think most people understand this old idea about “practice makes perfect” but if we are going to have a more scientific approach to self-defense and our training we should have more evidence and facts so we can better “quantify” or measure and evaluate our progress.  Thus, the question becomes: “how much practice do we need to ingrain a self defense skill to the level that it will fully function in a real life situation”? There are different ways to measure training but it’s not always that simple when we are talking about fairly complex applied skill sets; however, two of the simplest methods are tracking how many hours you train or counting how many repetitions you do.  When it comes to relatively gross-motor self-defense skills counting the number of practice performances or “repetitions” is a very simple and very valuable way to track and measure progress. This seemingly over simplistic process is in fact a great example of our evidence based approach to self-defense and our basic scientific criteria of being “observable”, “testable” and “repeatable”.

Like so many things in the world of self-defense I have read all kinds of completely unsupported and wacky claims about how many repetitions it takes to master a skill.  For example, one source I read years ago claimed that it took hundreds of thousands of repetitions to “master” a specific technique.  Don’t worry, like so much else that is purported by a “pseudo-profession” and people who want to be regarded as “experts” just make this kind of shit up. The evidence-based reality of “motor-skill learning” is a lot more manageable. I studied a little of this in university when taking a kinesiology course and I have come across references to various studies over the years so there are no mysteries to this basic idea. The scientific consensus seems to be around 3000 repetitions for simple gross motor movements. More complex movements might be more in the range of 3000-5000 repetitions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about “mastery” here, because “mastery” is a fairly unscientific term since we don’t have an agreed on definition. What, after all, is a “martial arts master” exactly?  I have come across a few people over my years in the martial arts who called themselves “master”. Some were actually far more obese than the average sedentary layperson. The reason for this state of pathetic portliness is one of those defining characteristics of a pseudo-professional-lots of “masters” apparently don’t see a need to work out (they probably have not seen their feet in many years either but that is another topic.) Hence, I for one have a difficult time excepting the idea that one can be as “master” of something one does not actually do. Therefore, we only need to concern ourselves with a testable threshold where a “motor skill” or self-defense technique has been embedded into the brain to the level of unconscious performance.

There is and always has been a lot of esoterica and mumbo-jumbo in the martial arts world. At lot of people believe or want you to believe that you can’t learn to defend yourself unless you go to a certain country or train with a certain instructor. Or that you need this kind of belt or have to do some specific kind of job in order to be able to learn to defend yourself or the people you care about. Remember, these  kinds of things are external considerations but learning to “fight” like anything else, begins with an internal process. This kind of  external thinking misses the most fundamental facts about motor skill learning, you don’t need anything special only repetitions and a brain to store them in.  Your brain, my brain, it is all the same you don’t need to be born a Ninja or be a secret agent, you just need a human brain, the exact same type of brain the Ninja and secret agent were born with.

However, it does take the requisite number of repetitions and the problem is people often give up long before they have done the reps, for one reason or another. The math is really simple but also inescapable.  If you do 50 reps (assuming good reps) of a move or technique in a training session, three times a week that equals 150 reps per week or 600 reps per month. In 5 months you will have done 3000 reps and definitely have that move down-it will be yours. The simple and powerful philosophy is that if you do enough repetitions of a technique you will know as much about this technique as anyone else in the world, regardless of what country you are in, who your instructor is or what “belt” you are. That is the power of concentrated practice and repetition, everything else is a bonus.

Don’t worry, long before that you will feel that you have it down, but that can be part of the problem since once it starts feeling natural,(which can happen with as little as a few hundred reps) people feel they don’t need the practice anymore or it is now too “boring”.  This is simply the classic problem with learning any new skill; you have to have the time and patience to see it through. When it comes to martial arts or self-defense training there is so much possible material to learn or explore that people often just want to be entertained by constantly being shown new moves. This may be more interesting but it   is also a big mistake.  I have seen the “oh I know that” syndrome lead to embarrassment with just a little “pressure testing” and as for “boring”, I have had to point out to many people that they will indeed probably find being beaten up in the school yard or parking lot far more “exciting”-the choice is yours. Be that as it may, if you find your training enjoyable then of course it is easier to stay with and this is a very important topic in itself that we can explore another time. However, the point I want to emphasize here is if you have simple, concrete and achievable numerical goals then the process will also be a lot easier to complete.

Therefore, I strongly recommend that you track your reps. If you do sets of 10 reps at a time it is pretty easy to keep track of your sets.  This really is important because it is so easy for people to grossly overestimate the amount of reps being done in a session. Track and record your sets so you know exactly where you are in your training, this will undeniably help you to reach your goals since you have specific targets to strive for instead of nebulous general goals like “get good at this defense”.  You now have concrete numbers that will tell you specifically how deeply ingrained this particular technique is. Feel free to have some fun, learn different stuff that you enjoy but have at least one target technique that you systematically train and track and therefore leave time for in every training session. Check out my post on “Speed self-defense” to understand how this fits together with accelerated progress.

Here is a simple way to remember and think about the methodology:

-It takes the first 1000 reps to be able to do the technique perfectly in training.

-It takes the second 1000 reps to be able to do the technique well in competition.

-and it takes the third 1000 reps to be able to make the technique work in a real self-defense situation.

Furthermore, we must now also introduce the idea of the quality of the reps or practice. If you practice something incorrectly a lot, you will actually get good at doing it wrong. This is no joke you can easily get into bad habits through sloppy practice and it can take a lot of extra reps to get out of of these bad habits-ask any coach of any sport. In fact, many coaches take the old saying of “practice makes perfect” and change it to “practice makes permanent”.  Still other say that: “only perfect practice makes perfect”.

 Therefore, especially at the beginning it is critical that you go very slow and use an actual “check list” (mental or otherwise) to remember the steps. This may seem like a strange way to learn something so fundamentally fast and physical as unarmed combat but the slower you go the faster you will improve. Move at a methodical pace where you can literally stop and check each step before going onto the next. Know in advance what you are checking for with each rep; is you’re back straight? Check.  Is your elbow in the right spot? Check. Are your legs wide enough? Check. At first just check one or two things then as you remember them without thinking about them add a couple more details until your body can remember all of them without your brain having to think about it. This is how you slowly integrate all the details that make up most Brazilian Jiu-jitsu techniques.

Like the old saying goes: “how do you eat an elephant?” The answer is “one bite at a time.”   For the first few hundred reps it must be done this way and then slowly increase your speed. You must not try to rush through the reps trying to get more of them done, at first you must go slow enough that your brain and muscles “feel” what they are doing; you cannot rush this first phase, which is purely a learning phase. How slow is slow enough? Slow enough that you cannot possibly make any mistakes and can see or feel them as you do. Remember the old training axiom:

-“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”.

People often assume that because we are practicing something related to fighting, and since fighting is hard and fast we must practice hard and fast.  You see this is where the common sense I talked about begins to break down. For example, let’s look at learning to drive a car.  Driving a car is something most of us take for granted, but statistically it is very, very dangerous far more dangerous than all kinds of fighting.  Since driving a car is dangerous and fast that means we should learn to drive that way!? If I told you that, you would rightly think I was nuts. Do you remember when you learned to drive or more importantly, how?  Slowly and very carefully I’ll bet, that is how everything must be learned it’s no different. Carefully lay the foundations of that skill so that no mistakes creep in.  Learning a skill can be a little different from applying that skill, but you must learn it before you worry about applying it.

Therefore, do not try to be fast, strong or jerky. Just relax and flow through the reps, it is well documented that the optimal learning state is when the brain and body are relaxed.  Try to have some fun and enjoy the process, it’s another stupid misconception that because self defense is a serious subject that it has to be practiced in some serious overly structured or stressful “boot camp” way. Tension in your mind or muscles blocks a lot of the information trying to get through to your brain.  It couldn’t matter less, where you are, what you wear, in doors, outdoors, none of this external distraction much matters.  Only the number and quality of your reps is important. Of course we are talking about the “learning” or skill acquisition phase, which is the longest and most important part. After and only after you have completely internalized a skill you can begin to add external influence like stress and surprise that would be present in the actual encounter. I often refer to this kind of training as “pressure testing” or “hard training”. This is another important topic that we will be looking at in greater detail later but for now it is vitally important that you understand that these are two very different phases of the learning process.

 In fact, one of the reasons that authentic Brazilian Jiu-jitsu produces such excellent results in the realm of real world self-defense is because of its structured and tested approach to skill acquisition and application. This is yet another topic that we can delve into later but just understand that there are at least four basic and related phases of BJJ learning and training.

In authentic Brazilian Jiu-jitsu structured learning,firstly, you learn to move and use your body in an efficient and natural way. In other words, you learn to become “physically literate”. This is done through movement drills and body exercises. Secondly, you learn the art and science of Jiu-jitsu by studying leverage and the specific techniques of attack and defense. This is a critical  phase and is what we have been primarily discussing in this post. Thirdly, and only after developing some technical knowledge and skills you must learn to apply these skills in a live spontaneous way against a resisting opponent. This is called “randori” in Japanese or “rolling” as it is often Anglicized into.

However, we should also understand that to get the most out of “rolling” it should be done in a relaxed way not only for optimal learning but in order to learn to conserve energy and use the least amount of strength to perform your techniques; this is “maximum efficiency” and the heart of Jiu-jitsu and so could be described as “soft” training. Nevertheless, randori is just that-training- and is not “fighting” or a substitute for the last phase. Fourthly, we have what I call “hard training” because it is harder on the body physically and psychologically and is meant to replicate the realities of actual street combat or MMA matches through harder contact.  Strikes are used as well as other real world situations and conditions in order to be able to apply Jiu-jitsu skills under real life conditions which is the ultimate goal of authentic Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. At its most grueling, this kind of training leaves no time for thought or hesitation and the skills will have become automatic in an observable, testable and repeatable way. Being carefully and progressively prepared for this kind of training is the ultimate confidence builder and eliminates any doubts the student might have had about not remembering the techniques or being able to perform under real world pressures and it all begins with slow relaxed repetitions.

It is important to understand this systematic approach to learning Brazilian Jiu-jitsu self-defense and even more so to understand what each phase of training is actually for and how one builds on the other and prepares you for the next. Now days, much of what passes for BJJ training is based almost entirely on sport training which at its worst can be just athletic or even crude “rolling” .  The other training modes are neglected or not used so Brazilian Jiu-jitsu diminishes as a real world self-defense system. This once highly refined, tested and proven method of training and skill progression has often been replaced by this crude over emphasis on sport “rolling”.  Any “instructor” can demonstrate a technique or two then tell his students to “roll” in order to avoid having to do the demanding and detailed work of systematic technical instructing on a multi-phase individual level. The new simpler paradigm is- the more the student “rolls” the faster he/she will become proficient. At its worst, this means the student is basically left to train himself through trial and error and except for a few “naturals” is grossly inefficient and generally a disaster for the student’s technical progress and confidence.

It may be a difficult idea to get our heads around but “fighting” does not make us better fighters on some really important levels, if it did then “street fighters” who have brawled all their lives would at some point spontaneously develop boxing or MMA skills, they don’t they just get more accustomed to brawling.  Just like if you throw children into the water none of them will ever spontaneously and intuitively develop smooth swimming, it just doesn’t and can’t happen. They may resort to some kind of cruder survival instinct like a “dog paddle” but they cannot learn to swim without systematic practice.  The skill has to be acquired independently before it can be applied. Remember:  “Learning is not fighting and fighting is not learning”. This is particularly true of self-defense techniques since you are ultimately going to have to apply your skill set against a live, fully resisting adversary trying to impose his will on you.   To paraphrase Moshi Feldenkrais’ excellent analogy: “First you must learn to shoot and then you learn to hunt.”


  • Nevada Natalia Bolster

    That make so much sense. Especially when something is really new to you it makes it a lot easier in the long run to become skilled at the moves if you learned to do them correctly from the start.