Martial Arts Flexibility
Doing stretches correctly will increase your flexibility but if they are done incorrectly you can actually cause more harm than good. It is important to remember that a large portion of injuries experienced in martial arts are caused by flexibility issues, mostly because the person does not have flexible muscles or fails to stretch the muscles properly before carrying out techniques.
So to get more flexible we need to learn how to do stretches correctly. The fundamental point regarding stretching techniques is that they can be either dynamic (involving motion) or static (those that involve no motion). The six main types of stretching which incorporate these are listed and discussed below.
Improving Flexibility for Martial Arts
First lets start by examining the different methods of stretching.
Passive (or relaxed) Stretching
Here you attempt to use the momentum of your weight to stretch beyond your normal comfort zone. Ballistic stretching involves bouncing to the end of your natural stretch and using the momentum of your weight to force you beyond your normal range of motion. An example of ballistic stretching is when you bounce up and down on your toes by bending your knees and stretching your hamstrings, then using the stretch to bounce back upright. In general Ballistic stretching is not considered helpful and may actually decrease your flexibility by not allowing your muscles to stretch into or relax in the stretched position.
This involves moving your body and limbs while gradually increasing both the speed and range of each movement. By skirting along the edge of your limits you use the warming of the muscles to gradually and gently increase the range of those movements. Dynamic stretching should only be used until the muscle starts to become tired. Tired or overworked muscles won't be able to maintain the maximum stretch and the result will be less flexibility.
A martial artist when carrying out dynamic stretching to increase flexibility might perform techniques such as kicking, starting a low kick height, working up to a much higher height with every kick. This is illustrated in the picture (right).
This type involves assuming a pose and then holding it through nothing but the strength of your muscles. True active stretching poses can usually be help for only 8 to 10 seconds. The tension of the muscles working to hold the pose allows them to stretch. Active stretching is common in many Yoga poses.
Also called relaxed or static stretching this involves assuming a pose then holding it with the help of some other part of the body, the aid of a partner or some other apparatus. In terms of a martial artist using this sort of flexibility training, the picture may help. The martial artist may begin the stretch a muscle by moving their limb either with some apparatus or with their own bodily force, however upon holding the position of stretching the muscle, the actual muscle being stretched is relaxed.
Slow relaxed stretching such as this can be useful in releasing pain in injured muscles and is also very good as a cooling down after a work-out to avoid muscle fatigue and soreness.
This type of stretching is also a static stretch in that it doesn't involve actual movement. Rather it uses the flexing of muscles to stretch and lengthen them. This type of stretch is one of the quicker ways to increase flexibility and strength of the flexed muscles.
A common way to perform isometric exercises is to manually apply resistance using your own limbs.
An example would be holding onto your toes as you attempt to bend your foot forward using your calf muscle. Or pushing against a wall even though you know you can't move it. Another good example is when you place the palms of your hands together and push creating flexing and stretching of your arm and chest muscles.
To do this type of stretching make sure that you have first used dynamic stretching to loosen the group of muscles that you are wanting to work. Then assume whatever position will allow you to create resistance on the chosen muscle. Flex the muscle for 7 to 15 seconds then relax it for at least 20 seconds.
Realize that a full set of isometric stretching creates a big demand on the muscles you are working so should not be done more than once a day.
This is currently considered the fastest most effective way to increase flexibility. PNF is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. It is actually not a way of stretching in itself but rather a way to combine passive and isometric stretching together in order to achieve maximum benefit. PNF was originally designed to help stroke victims but also works just as well for anyone else trying to increase their mobility.
Here is one way to use PNF. This technique is called hold-relax. In this technique you first passively stretch the muscle you want to work then isometrically contract the muscle for 7 to 15 seconds, relax for a couple seconds then passively stretch the muscle just a little further than your first stretch. This final passive stretch should be held for 15 to 20 seconds after which you release, pause for a few seconds and continue.
PNF stretching is a way to quickly strengthen and increase the flexibility of your muscles.
How often should I stretch for martial arts?
The answer to this varies from person to person depending on how far you wish to push yourself and also how far you need to push yourself. Remember, every time you undergo a stretching session, very small tears in the fibres of your muscles occur - they are so small that you probably will not feel them however it is important that you allow your muscles to recover. Unless you feel your muscle is in pain then it should be safe to stretch almost every day. However it is important not to stretch every single day to allow that redevelopment of your muscle fibres.
If you are a martial artist looking to have excellent flexibility, you should be looking at undergoing a stretching session twice a day, almost every day. Whilst this may sound like a lot of work , the more supple you become, the less time you need to dedicate to each session. People with excellent flexibility need only spend 5 mins per session. It is the frequency, regularity and efficiency of each session which directly afffects your flexibility.
Some martial arts flexibility videos
If you have never done stretches before it is a good idea to seek out the help of someone who has the experience to show you the correct way to do them.
When improving flexibility for martial arts it is important that you learn how to remain in touch with your body. The last thing that you want to do is cause an injury by stretching incorrectly. It is important to remember that when you pull a muscle or rip muscle tissue it can take months before you can get back to where you were before the injury.
Learning the correct way to stretch and then making it a part of both getting ready for your practice and the cooling off after a practice will ensure that you take care of yourself and can enjoy you chosen martial art for years to come. Remember to listen to your body and take note of how it feels. Any pain from your muscles while stretching is a message from your body to your brain to tell you to stop what you are doing, under no circumstances should you stretch muscles which are painful. There is a difference between pain and uncomfortableness, learn this difference and do not over stretch yourself, ever.