Shin bruises are the badges of honor that many Muay Thai beginners wear with pride. Truth is, we all know how much they hurt. If you are just starting out in Muay Thai, you will be experiencing a good deal of shin pain. You can’t avoid bruised shins when you start but with proper Muay Thai shin conditioning, they will become harder over time.
Which Part of the Shin to Kick With?
Definitely not directly on the shin bone. The shin bone is one of our bodies’ most sensitive parts and the reason is that there is not much muscle or fats over it to absorb any direct blow.
In order to deliver a safer and more powerful kick, it is best to connect with the front-outer shin muscles (Tibialis anterior and extensor digitorum).
While the foot has a longer range (as is taught in karate), it is weaker and harder to condition. If you slam the top of your foot against a swinging heavy bag, you end up with not only a painful swell but the impact could potentially damage the ankle joint.
Importance of Shin Conditioning for Muay Thai
The roundhouse kick is Muay Thai’s most powerful weapon. As legs have bigger and stronger muscles, a powerful kick is often more devastating than punches when executed with the proper techniques.
In all fairness, it is true that punches are faster and finer movements. However, Muay Thai low kicks to the thighs have been know to reduce many fighters to their knees, as have a strong mid-section kick to the ribs.
Roundhouse kicks are akin to swinging a baseball bat, even with the same degree of power and damage.
Besides its importance as an offensive weapon, the shin is a crucial defense against the opponent’s kicks. Just as you block against punches with your hands, kicks are typically blocked with shins.
Repeated arm blocks against a powerful kicker can really damage the arms. Checking low kicks with shins is the best and most efficient way to avoid thigh damage. At the same time, shin clashes affect both parties, so the one with hardier shins will edge out.
In short, shin conditioning is of paramount importance in Muay Thai.
How do Muay Thai fighters Condition Their Shins?
Shin pain is every beginner’s greatest bane. Conditioning your shins takes time, so patience is the key. Contrary to popular beliefs, you don’t have to kick banana trees or bash up your shins with baseball bats to condition them.
All you need is to diligently kick the heavy bags and the pads, and work on your technique so you are kicking with the correct part of your shins.
Treat your bruises and bumps, let them heal and repeat the process all over. You will be able to kick harder and harder, it’s only a matter of time and determination.
Thai fighters do the same except that they have a head start to the process by starting younger. This is how Muay Thai fighters condition their shins:
Focus on the right technique
Before you start turning up the power. To condition your shin, you have to kick with the right part of the shin.
As highlighted above, this is the front/outer shin area made up of the tibialis anterior and extensor digitorum muscles. And to connect with this area of the shin, you have to twist/rotate your hips sufficiently.
If your form and balance is off, you will sometime misjudge and either kick with your shin bone or the top of your foot. They will both hurt and the instant painful feedback is something you will not forget.
The key to perfect practice is to start slow and gently, and then gradually work your way up on speed and power.
Kick a lot of heavy bags and pads
It may seem intuitive to condition the shins by smashing them against baseball bats or kicking banana trees or lampposts (guilty as charged). The Thais do that, don’t they? No, they do not.
Subjecting your shins to solidly rigid objects can cause serious injury to the muscles and tendons. This can even lead to permanent damage. You want to be dense in the shins, not your head.
There is usually a range of heavy bags with different hardness at a gym. Start by working on softer bags, and gradually build up kicking harder bags and kicking harder.
Pad work is another way to condition the shins. Smashing the pads full force is a great as doing this allow the shin bone to be harden over time.
Run Run Run
Regular running helps to build bone density. Muay Thai fighters run everyday to build endurance but stronger bones is an added benefit of running.
If you are not accustomed to running, start slow on shorter distances and then build up on speed. It takes a few weeks of regular running to see improved stamina but the key is to keep at it.
It is also important to supplement with enough calcium in your diet in order to build bone density.
Spar with thinner shin pads
If you walk away from sparring with shin bruises in spite of wearing shin guards, you can safely assert that they aren’t very good shin guards for protection. However, thin shin pads can be a great tool for shin conditioning as a step away from sparring without shin pads. (See “Best Muay Thai Shin Guards“)
Get sufficient rest and sleep
Take time off when shins are badly bruised up and especially if there are bumps/knots. You may run the risk of aggravating the injuries and may even end up with potential long term damage.
Adequate rest is vital for muscle and bone repair. However, it doesn’t mean that you can skive during this period. It just means that you should avoid training your kicks. There’s lots of other training you can do, such as boxing or strength training.
Meanwhile, treat the lumps and bruises promptly and they should go away fast.
Shin Injury Management
Shin bruises and bumps sustained during Muay Thai training can be easily treated at home to relieve the pain and swelling, as well as speed up recovery.
For the best results, you will need a few things: ice pack, heat pad, Namman Muay (Thai Liniment oil) and appropriate rest. Loading up on protein and calcium can also help to speed up recovery.
(For more on treating shin bruises, see related article: “Beginner Muay Thai Training Injuries”)
How Long Does It Take to Condition Your Shins for Muay Thai?
There is no standard answer to this since we are all built differently. Our training routine differs and the hardness of bags differs from gym to gym too.
Muay Thai fighters in Thailand start training at a young age, kicking the hardest bags and running everyday. By the time they turn professional, they have developed iron shins.
Most people start training Muay Thai in their adulthood. With proper and regular training, it will take a month before they see the positive effects of Muay Thai shin conditioning.
At least another 3-6 months before they develop the right techniques and tough shins to deliver full-power kicks. At this point, shin clashes are still going to hurt.
The main idea here is to keep training regularly and to enjoy the process. Put in the work and you will reap the benefits in time to come.
It takes years to build rock hard shins. Whether you will eventually be able to kick down banana trees or break a baseball bat with your shin is another story.
I remember this line that Kru Must (Namsaknoi “The Emperor” Yudthagarngamtorn) always like to tell us: “the more you fear pain, the more it will hurt”. That’s not to say that you should start whacking your shins with steel rods. But that you should focus on your technique and not on avoiding the pain.
As Master Jiraiya (from the anime Naruto) once said, “Pain allows people to grow.. how you grow is up to you“.
Photographs taken at Yokkao 45 (25 January 2020) courtesy of Nick Soland (www.nicksoland.com).