If you have ever seen Muay Thai fighters in action, one of the first things you notice is how hard they are able to kick. They are often labeled as having iron hard shins. Students regularly ask how they can condition their shins for Muay Thai. Shin conditioning is extremely important in Muay Thai and MMA as well. Kicking and blocking requires the use of your shins, and they need to be able to take the impact.
Shins are naturally sensitive, so you are not a whimp or abnormal if you shins hurt when you first begin practicing Muay Thai. They are supposed to. Most likely it means you are do something right – practicing. Through conditioning you can make the bone stronger and dull the pain sensation. However, it critical to perform the kicks properly, because conditioning will not help technique. Improper technique can result in injury and some real pain.
Muay Thai Shin Conditioning Myths
You do not run before you can walk, and stronger shins will come in time. I think its best to first expose the myths and then to list the actual conditioning techniques.
Kicking Banana Trees
This myth offers a colorful story to mystique of Muay Thai: use some special ointment and enter the jungle at night to train on a full moon by kicking a banana tree. This is a persistent myth that is often touted. In theory it is possible that this would strengthen your shins, but most likely it would cause injury even though this “tree” has a more plant like trunk. I am sure there have been many in history that kicked banana trees for shin conditioning, but it is unlikely that it was ever practiced regularly for trainers.
Also if someone was going to attempt kicking trees (which we definitely do not recommend) they should already have conditioned iron shins. So unless you are Buakaw, stay away from attempting this.
Beating Your Shins
The idea of hitting your shins with hard objects, or rolling something over them, or kicking lamp posts is ridiculous and dangerous. Many have fallen victim to this myth, and some have even claimed to have benefited from it. The idea behind this theory is that a fighter conditions their shins by rolling hard objects, such as an iron rod or dense wooden pole, against their tibia bone. It is like taking a rolling pin to your shin and rolling it out like cookie dough.
A variation of this is to take a hard object and repeatedly strike it against your shins to develop Iron Shins. It’s controversial and many fighters believe it does nothing more than deaden nerves. It does nothing to improve technique or strength.
Techniques to Condition Your Shins
When you repeatedly impact your shin your body will be forced to adapt. It will first deadening nerve sensations. Your shins will begin to experience less pain when you kick. The second thing that will happen is you will actually change your bone density. Your body responds to the impacts by building up the inside of your hollow shin bone. It will develop micro-fissures that will then heal by hard calcium deposits, forming a kind of callus. This is a apart of what is known as Wolff’s Law.
Wolff’s Law is the scientific theory that supports the idea of bone conditioning. Human bones are like hollow tubes. When a bone breaks, calcium fills in the break and makes the bone denser. It’s a lot like how you can make a muscle larger and denser from working out. When you work out your muscles, you create micro-tears in your muscle fibers and then the muscles get slightly bigger after they repair. So, when Muay Thai fighters condition their shins, they don’t completely break their shin bones, they just create micro-fractures that fill in and become denser.
Train Hard – Train Smart
Many Thai fighters start training between 8 and 12 years old, and begin competing professionally between ages 16 and 22. They will spend around 6 hours a day kicking heavy bags, pads, and other modern equipment. After years of this type of training they will have conditioned their shins like iron as would be expected from that type of dedication.
Pad Work: For those that didn’t start at any early age, you can condition your shins by starting to kick pads. Yes you can do this still at 30. You can do this at 40. Unless you have a bone condition, then you are fine. You may experience minor bruising for the first week, but your body will heal itself. You can relieve any discomfort with ice after practice if you need it. This will quickly go away as you condition your shins before you know it.
Heavy Bag: Next you are ready to start kicking away at the heavy bag. You need to make sure you have a quality heavy bag or you risk injury. A quality bag is NOT filled with sand since it is much more dense and will cause injury to your shins. Beware of poor quality heavy bags that settle and have all the packing at the bottom. If you strike the bottom portion of a bag like this, you’ll find it too hard. After switching to the heavy bag you may experience some bruising and discomfort again. Your shins will continue to condition.
As mentioned above, you can reduce nerve sensation but pain is more of a mental aspect. Your shins will gradually become harder, and you will not feel the sensations of pain on contact that you did when you first started. This is because you also developed mental conditioning. The nerves in your shins are generally not going to actually die. Some scar tissue may develop that makes them less sensitive, but by regularly practicing you begin to believe in what you are doing. You will deliver a kick and your mind will learn that this action is not causing major harm and will stop overacting by sending extreme pain signals to the brain. You impact became stronger, yet your body has adapted.
If you follow the recommended techniques to conditioning your shins, rather than damaging with short cut myths, you should not need to deal with any recovery time. There is no short cut, ritual, or ointments to getting tough shins. You must put in the time kicking pads and heavy bags if you want hard conditioned shins. In the end there is always some pain from shin on shin contact and as the old saying goes: No Pain – No Gain!