There is no doubt about it, muay thai is a tough sport that requires kicking hard parts of another persons body. In a sport where two unpadded shins often clash bone-on-bone during competition, it leaves students asking the question “how do I condition my shins?”.
Images of Tong Po from the movie “KICKBOXER” starring Jean Claude Van Damme, spring to many old school martial artists’ mind when thinking of fighters with tough shins, but that is just a movie, right?
There are definitely some nak muay (muay thai fighters) in the real world that have extremely tough shins. A quick youtube search will bring up many videos of guys who break baseball bats and bend steel poles by kicking them (caution: searching this may send you down a youtube rabbit hole of strange videos). I absolutely do not recommend anybody trying to copy these guys, including experienced fighters. I highly doubt that kicking steel poles and baseball bats is a common occurrence for most of the guys in these videos, and is probably a rare occasion when done for a crowd or a video. These guys would have also spent YEARS toughening their shins up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them had some seriously bruised shins the next day.
Should I hit my shins with hard objects to toughen them?
Conditioning the shins through the method of hitting it with a hard object is not the best way to condition your shins. A better method is to repetitively kick a heavy bag. If you are new to the sport, even this may be painful. What happens over time is the nerves on the shins start to deaden, and your shin will begin to calcify.
Slamming your shins with a hard object (such as a rolling pin) will just cause haematomas, and all that will do is make it too painful to kick the next day, and you will miss training sessions while you are waiting for your shins to heal.
I remember one of my fighters had an injured shin but she insisted on continuing to kick on it, as she didn’t want it to “lose conditioning”. She was actually correct in thinking her shin will be less conditioned while she waits a few weeks for it to heal, but it is more important that she take the time to let it heal properly and then build the conditioning back up, rather than continuing to kick and never allowing it to heal properly.
What if my shins start to hurt during the fight?
What many muay thai students hoping to fight don’t realise is during a fight your shins will more than likely start to hurt from kicking an opponent’s elbows or shins, but this pain is usuallytolerable (not always) for the duration of the fight and begins to set in once the fight is finished. This is due to the adrenaline levels increasing in your body during a fight. Once this wears off however, you will start to feel all the bumps and bruises that you accumulated throughout your fight, and you can expect to be sore for a few days or weeks afterward.
Everyone’s body is different
I remember Richard Walsh (former trainer of many Australian muay thai legends including John Wayne Parr and Nathan Corbett) telling me about how after a fight Nathan Corbett used to feel very and sore, whereas Danny “DDD” Derdowski (another great Australian fighter from a few years back) used to pull up fine, and it wouldn’t be strange to see him kicking a football around at the park the day after a fight.
So don’t worry if other people take a few days before they can start kicking again but you take a few weeks. This is likely due to their genetics and their post fight recovery routine, rather than having better shin conditioning. You can read more about post fight recovery here.
How should I condition my shins without causing injury?
If you are training correctly, your shins should naturally start to condition themselves. As mentioned earlier, kicking a heavy bag is a fantastic way to deaden the nerves and calcify the shin. Sparring with shin pads on will also help toughen up your shins, but if you spar so hard that you do get some bruising and haematomas hduring the session, be sure to let them recover before you go smashing them into things again. If your shins are particularly bruised from a fight or hard training, wear a shin pad while you kick pads or the bag, and even wear two pads on the sore shin (one on-top of the other) while you spar.
Don’t forget that recovery is very important. If we are causing damage to the bone (which is always happening to a small extent while we train), we want to allow it time to heal properly before we go damaging it again. So getting plenty of sleep is always great, and if you have a particularly hard sparing session, don’t go sparring hard again the very next day.
Usually, the reason someone is wanting to condition their shins is because they don’t know what to expect in their first fight, and they are trying to prepare for the pain to come. So if you are reading this because you are trying to prepare for your first fight, let me attempt to put your mind at ease:
In over a decade of fighting I have never specifically conditioned my shins, and I also don’t know personally of any other professional fighters that spend time specifically just conditioning their shins (unless everyone has been keeping a secret from me all of these years). If you are training hard by sparring, kicking pads and kicking the heavy bag, you can rest easy knowing your shins will most likely be fine in a padded and unpadded fight!
To learn about core conditioning for muay thai visit this article that Ben also wrote: https://www.muaythaibrisbane.com/core-conditioning-for-muay-thai/