What does it mean to be flexible?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
1: capable of being flexed: pliant
2: yielding to influence: tractable
3: characterized by a ready capability to adapt to new, different, or changing requirements
So, looking at the first definition from the perspective of a martial artist, it is obvious that our bodies need to be capable of being flexed. Virtually every movement that we perform either begins or ends with one or multiple joints being flexed. The second definition, “yielding to influence” can have a number of different meanings but, as it pertains to physical flexibility, we may view it as yielding to, deflecting or absorbing energy. The last definition actually describes a primary character trait of martial artists as a whole. It also describes what our bodies must do as we perform the techniques and movements we so enjoy, ie, round kick/hook kick combo.
Therefore, in order to proficiently perform our art, we must possess some level of flexibility, especially if we want to avoid injury.
“..researchers at the New Jersey Medical School recently tested the flexibility of connective tissues and muscles in the legs and hips of 200 college athletes before their competitive seasons began. Then, the researchers monitored the athletes for injury for several months (Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, vol 77, pp 1139-1143, 1996).
As it turned out, in male athletes the risk of injury decreased as flexibility increased. In fact, for each additional point on the ligament-flexibility scale (the researchers graded flexibility on a 10-point scale), the chances of injury declined by about 15 per cent. In addition, for each one-point increase in muscle tightness, the risk of injury climbed by over 20 per cent.”
As you can see, flexibility is extremely important in mitigating injury.
Some people are naturally more flexible than others. This is due to a variety of factors as there are a number of influences on flexibility (Age, gender, activity level, etc). If you are a person who is naturally flexible – Great! However, those of us who aren’t should adopt the habit of stretching regularly to gain the many benefits that stretching provides.
Benefits of Stretching
Overall Fitness – Increased flexibility improves posture, decreases energy used for everyday tasks, allows you to breath more deeply and naturally and therefore helps decrease various stresses throughout the day.
Improved Body Awareness – Stretching creates a distinct sensation in a specific group of muscles. By being mindful of these sensations and muscles, you will develop a greater understanding of how your body works and which muscles are used for various movements/techniques.
Increased Energy – Stretching regularly helps to improve circulation in the muscles, supplying them with needed nutrition and removing harmful waste products.
Focus – Depending on the method you use to increase your flexibility, stretching can be a very meditative activity. Stretching, when combined with deep, controlled breathing, helps to relax the body and can be used to relax the mind as well.
Stress Relief – Stiff necks, sore back, hunched shoulders and headaches are all manifestations of stress. Stretching these problem areas help to bring about an overall reduction in stress levels.
The benefits of stretching for the average person are great. However, if you are a martial artist who wants to reach peak performance, regular stretching is essential.
Methods of Stretching
Static Stretching – Static stretching is the process of lengthening (stretching) the target muscle or group of muscles and then holding it as the muscle relaxes. This is the safest method of stretching and is recommended for those who are just beginning a stretching routine or are recovering from an injury. While performing static stretching, stretches should be held for at least 20 seconds in order for the muscle to relax.
Passive Stretching – Passive stretching (sometimes called partner stretching) is very similar to static stretching except that, instead of you making the effort to stretch, a partner or other device provides the stretch for you. While commonly used for rehabilitation, stretching with a partner does provide an increased level of risk since the partner can not feel the level of stretch they are pushing you to. Always communicate any uncomfortable sensation with your partner and do not allow them to push you to the point of pain.
Active Stretching – Active stretching is performed without any aid. An example of active stretching would be to slowly raise your leg into the final position of a roundhouse kick. This helps to develop flexibility in motion (not achievable with the previous two methods) while at the same time targeting the specific muscles utilized in the technique. Assisted active stretching provide greater gains by having a partner or other aid (towel, elastic band) help you stretch farther once you have reached your max without assistance.
Ballistic Stretching – No longer a recommended means of increasing flexibility, ballistic stretching can be similar to static stretching except that deeper stretches are obtained by bouncing against the targeted muscle. Still commonly seen by people new to stretching, this method of stretching has a high risk of injury due to muscle tears and strains.
Dynamic Stretching – Dynamic stretching utilizes movements that begin very slow and progress to near full speed executions to increase flexibility. Essentially, begin with active stretching and slowly increase the speed of your technique. A good warm-up is recommened to reduce the risk of injury.
PNF Stretching – Proprioceptive Neuromusclar Facilitation (PNF) stretching falls into one of two methods: contract-relax (CR) or contract-relax agonist contract (CRAC). The CR method involved stretching the target muscle, then contracting the targeted muscled gradually for a period of 4-6 seconds, then relaxing and stretching the muscle further. The idea is that the relaxation of the contracted muscle allows for a greater stretch than was originally possible. The CRAC method is similar, except that after the relaxation of the contracted muscle, the opposing muscle (ie, hamstrings/quads) is then contracted for 4-6 seconds followed by a further relaxation into the final stretched position.
Aided Stretching – Stretching machines, bars and cable and pulley set ups are all types of aided stretching devices. These can be beneficial as part of an overall stretching routine but are usually too limited to suffice on their own. Ensure that the aids are working properly and that you are informed on how to use them properly.
Which Stretching Method is Right for You?
With all of these choices, it may be difficult to decide which method(s) is best for you. Here is a quick synopsis of what we have covered to help you decide:
Static stretching is an effective stretching method that is suitable for both beginners and experienced martial artists. However, it does not stretch muscles through their full range of motion and therefore should be supplemented with other types of stretching. Passive (partner) stretching can ensure that a stretch is being obtained but at the risk of injury if the partner careless. Active stretching works a muscle or muscle group through a full range of sport specific movements and is great to use as a warm up to dynamic stretching. PNF Stretching, like static stretching, is considered to be very effective at increasing flexibility.
So, to increase overall flexibility, static stretching or PNF stretching are the most effective methods. However, due to their limited nature, it may be a good idea to add dynamic stretching in order to increase flexibility for those specific techniques that we use in our martial arts.
Very few martial arts classes devote enough time to stretching. Also, most classes begin with a light stretching routine, followed by warm up/basics and then the main body of the class. Unfortunately, this is incorrect on a couple of levels. First off, stretching cold muscles gives very little benefit and actually can significantly increase the risk of injury. It is always recommended to first warm up by performing some light, simple exercises (light jogging, jump rope, jumping jacks, etc) prior to stretching. Additionally, stretching for flexibility should usually occur after the cardio or strength portion of a workout. At any rate, if your goal is to increase flexibility, you are probably going to have to begin a personal stretching routine.
When creating a comprehensive stretching routine, it is important to make sure that all parts of the body are covered.
What muscles should you stretch?
– Neck – Shoulders
– Upper Back – Chest
– Arms – Wrists
– Lower Back – Hip/Buttocks
– Groin – Hamstrings
– Quads – Calves
– Ankles – Feet
A sample stretching program:
Neck Rotations – 8-12 rotations each direction
Shoulder Stretch – 20-30 seconds, 2-3 reps
Wrist Flex – 8-10 times, each direction
Finger Stretches – 10-12 times
Standing Quad Stretch – 20-30 seconds, 2-4 reps
Calf Stretch – 20-30 seconds, 2-4 reps
Foot/Toe Stretches – 20-30 seconds, 2-4 reps
Butterfly Stretch – 20-30 seconds, 2-4 reps
Seated Torso Twist – 20-30 seconds, 2-4 reps
Seated Toe Touch – 20-30 seconds, 2-4 reps
Ankle Rotations – 8-12 rotations
Lying Trunk Rotations – 20-30 seconds, 2-4 reps
Lying Hip/Glut Stretch – 6-8, each side
Lying Reach Stretch – 20-30 seconds, 3-5 reps
These exercises will provide a good complete-body stretch and should take approximately 15-20 minutes to perform. Keep in mind that it may be necessary to supplement or add additional exercises in order to stretch specific muscles used in various martial arts techniques. The book “Ultimate Flexibility: A Complete Guide to Stretching for Martial Arts” is a great resource that covers almost 200 flexibility exercises (with photos) and much more. It also has a number of stretching routines for various types of training (MMA, kicking, weapons, etc).
Final Stretching Tips
– If you are stretching to increase flexibility (rather than simply maintain), make goals!
– Consider making a training record to track your goals and progress.
– If it hurts, Stop! Stretching should be uncomfortable, but not painful.
– Do a light warm-up before stretching and begin stretching with large muscles/groups first
– If you are going to do a strength or cardio workout, save your stretching until after.
– Ensure that you are stretching all areas of the body
– Stretch joints/muscles in every direction they move (ie, stretch shoulders forward, backwards, up, down and in a circular motion)
– Stretch often! Moderate stretching can be done every day but save the intense stretches for every other day.
– Focus on relaxing into the stretch for a better and more effective routine.
– If you are injured, back off on that part of the body. Light stretching can help to maintain flexibility, but don’t make it worse.
– Try to find a stretching partner. You can encourage each other and it helps to pass the time.