Muay Thai fighters are notorious for having “shins of steel” and use their shins simultaneously as weapons and shields. How do Muay Thai kickboxers develop such strong shins?
Physiology of cortical remodeling: Wolff’s law states that bone tissue will adapt to stress placed on it. In the case of Muay Thai repetitive stress from kicking and checking will cause microtrauma to the tibia.
The microtrauma is similar to what happens to muscle tissue when someone lifts heavy weights but at a much slower rate. When microtrauma occurs osteoblasts/osteoclasts are sent to the site to address the physical stress.
Osteoclasts breakdown the damaged bone tissue while osteoblasts deposit new bone. When the bone mass reforms the bone will have increased density at the site of stress.
How to incorporate in your training: The most important lesson is to stress the bone APPROPRIATELY!
The safest method is repetitively kicking pads/heavy bag as well as drilling/sparring while wearing shinguards. This creates enough of a stimulus for adaption to occur without excessive damage.
If a novice kickboxer kicks a hard tree they may cause macrotrauma / stress bone fractures to the shin.
Banana trees in Thailand are fairly rubbery, so just because you see a famous Thai fighter kick a tree does not mean you should!
Other methods, such as bottle rolling and stick tapping on the shin is not a good idea. The general consensus is to use something that is softer than the bone. Remember your body has to adapt to the stress so stressing the body more than necessary does not mean you will reach your goal faster. Cortical remodeling is a long process.
I have not found any specific studies on pain reduction for muay thai fighters. A common theory is that kickboxers are ‘deadening’ the nerves in the tibia, but more likely it is just an increased pain tolerance from years of training the art and adrenaline from a fight.
Having properly conditioned shins allow you to use your legs more effectively both offensively and defensively.
Dr. Mike Piekarski, DPT
BJJ Brown Belt
Former MMA Fighter