Many years ago (1995 to be exact), I started taking a martial art called Wing Chun Kung Fu. Some of you may know this as the martial art where Bruce Lee got his beginning. Wing Chun has a reputation as being a martial art that is “faster” than most because its techniques are less telegraphed: a practitioner punches or kicks from wherever their hand or foot may be without drawing back first.
I had been participating in martial arts training for about six months when a friend asked me to demonstrate my punches in the air. As I did this for him, he started laughing.
“I thought wing chun is supposed to be so fast!” he guffawed. “YOUR punches aren’t fast! How are you ever going to win a fight?”
His statement bothered me, to the point where I started to research every method out there on how to increase punching speed. Then in the late 1990’s I met Sifu Yip Ching, son of Yip Man (who, of course, is the guy who taught Bruce Lee). He was in his seventies, I was in my early twenties, and yet I could not hit this man for the life of me. With him being older and slower, I could not understand it.
Then it hit me all at once: speed does not matter as much as people would like to believe.
When a person engages in martial arts training, what they are learning to do is “lead the dance” in a fight. It might be obvious at first, but over time you will start to read the way the human body moves. After all, there are only so many maneuvers it can execute. No matter how many opponents you face, whether they are on the street, in a bar, or in a cage match, they all have the same limbs. In time, a martial artist will pick up on where an opponent is going the SECOND they try to go there. If a person knows where their enemy is going, then they can react in a way where they get there first. This is what gives an illusion of superior speed to the layperson.
The speed at which you can move the muscles in your arms and legs does not matter. However, there is one muscle whose speed does affect how you will fight. Does anyone know what muscle it is?
The brain…and here’s why.
When you are in a fight, you naturally want to look at your opponent. Your eyes pick up on their movement. What you see goes to your brain, where you compute what the attack is and how to counter it. The brain then sends out signals to the appropriate muscles to execute your counter attack. It sounds like this process takes a while, and in the meantime your opponent has enough opportunity to hit you a dozen times. This is indeed a problem faced by new martial artists. However, as they practice over time, students will learn to minimize and possibly eliminate this signal delay.
The point of this article is not to dismiss speed entirely. After all, it can help increase the damage done by your punches and kicks. This is reflected in the following physics equation:
Force = mass x acceleration
Unless you eat like a maniac or invent some pill that makes you spring up six inches in height, you cannot control your mass. However, you CAN work on developing acceleration.
In summary: to be fair to the speed junkies, speed CAN help out in your martial arts training by increasing the force of your blows. However, it is not the “be all, end all” determining factor into whether or not you will have the ability to handle yourself in a fight.