One of the major problems with developing skill in any physical pursuit is the Law of Diminishing Returns. The law of diminishing returns is a classic economic concept which states that, assuming all other variables remain fixed, as more investment is made into an area the overall return on that investment increases at a declining rate.
What does this mean for our martial arts training? Well,the better you get at a technique, position or strategy the time and effort you have to put into that technique, position or strategy to continue to get better increases dramatically.
There are four main stages of skill acquisition/motor program development (some would argue there are 3 stages but that really isn’t pertinent here) which I have defined as ‘new’, ‘established’, ‘integrated’ and ‘autonomous’. I have deliberately not used the terminology typically employed by motor learning researchers as it is not particularly meaningful.
New skills are skills with which the athlete is unfamiliar. Execution at this stage is entirely performed as a number of conscious steps and is often slow and fragmented. Typically skills remain ‘new’ throughout the first few exposures.
An established skill is ‘known’ but execution is still limited to a number of explicit conscious steps. Usually during this stage the athlete begins to develop the timing of each movement within the skill.
A skill is at the integrated stage once the athlete is comfortable deploying it in a ‘game’ type situation. The execution of the skill is now split between explicit conscious steps and unconscious fluid movement.
An autonomous skill is executed as a continuous, fluid action.
When a skill is in the new stage of learning the ideal number of repetitions per session to learn or improve this skill is around 30. Beyond this little further improvement can be made to the emerging motor pattern and the probability of error increases dramatically. For new skills these 30 repetitions should be broken up into blocks of around 5 as at this point neuromuscular control begins to significantly degrade and the athlete becomes incapable of performing optimal movement. Short rests – ie. letting your partner do their reps or receiving feedback/instruction – between sets are an easy way around this problem.
Learning, or to be more precise skill acquisition, during this stage is strong and rapid. Beyond this point the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty solidly and the amount of work rises dramatically and inversely to rate of improvement.
For the athlete who wants to continue to improve at this point – and hopefully that’s everyone who is reading this article – there are two main options available.
1. Do Reps and Lots of Them. (Let the Law of Diminishing Returns use you)
This is the most commonly employed answer to the problem that Law of Diminishing Returns presents: Do more.
While as a skill progresses through the stages of learning more repetitions can be performed before neuromuscular fatigue makes optimal execution an issue this is still an incredibly time consuming route to take. Multiple sets of 20+ repetitions per session are necessary for even small improvements and results in little return for lots of work.
This becomes even more problematic when you consider the sheer number of skills you are required to practice in modern martial arts, particularly in BJJ and MMA.
Yet this is still what the majority of martial arts schools spend the majority of their time doing. Fortunately there’s a smarter way.
2. Do the Same but Different (Use the Law of Diminishing Returns)
The key phrase in the Law of Diminishing Returns is the one that is most frequently overlooked: “assuming all other variables remain fixed”. The key to holding off the negative effects of the law in your training is the planned and systematic manipulation of variables within the techniques.
Essentially you need to find ways to make skills that are at the established stage or beyond different enough to register as ‘new’ again while remaining similar enough that continued improvements can be made.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to use a progression that makes use of the motor skill differences between your dominant side (ie. your preferred side) and your complimentary side (ie. your ‘bad‘ side). Working your complimentary side ticks our two main boxes – it’s the exact same technique so it’s similar enough for continued improvement but it’s being done ‘backwards’ so it’s different enough that it registers as ‘new’.
Here’s the basic progression I use:
New skills -
Learn on dominant side only.
Established skills -
Add in complimentary side. Alternate sets but not reps. Start with dominant side.
Integrated skills -
Alternate reps. Start with dominant side.
Automated skills -
Combine with another automated skill. For example, Triangle Choke from Guard to Kimura. You can follow the above progression for autonomous skill combinations for the most bang for your buck.
Armbar from Guard
5 sets of 5 reps on my dominant side only.
5 sets of 6 reps alternating sets between my dominant side and complimentary side.
5 sets of 6 reps alternating reps between my dominant side and complimentary side.
5 sets of 5 reps of Armbar to Omaplata on my dominant side only.
Time investment per skill – Comparatively low.
Skill development – Comparatively high.
The above ideas don’t just apply to unresisted repetitions. For best results the majority of your reps should take place in isolated, progressive resistance drills.
To take advantage of this training you have to plan. If you work both sides from day 1 not only will you learn slower you’ve left yourself no where to go.
Sometimes you won’t have the luxury of getting good on your dominant side before learning your complimentary side. When learning any kind of offense you should be fine but it’s rare that defensively you get to choose which side you’re attacked.