As martial artists, we are made aware of the importance of stretching
before every training session. Some of the major reasons for stretching
include preventing injury and warming up the muscles. However, a
misconception about stretching needs to be identified.
Flexibility is an important aspect of physical fitness. Increasing the range of motion in our joints can greatly improve the ease and comfort in which certain activities are performed; two factors you will want working for you while sparring. Where the misconception comes in is that after performing a warm-up stretch, an uninformed student might assume that he/she has also just performed flexibility training. This is, however, mostly untrue. Good flexibility requires flexibility-specific exercises to be performed for adequate durations. While a warm-up stretch is a great method to prepare for exercise and injury prevention, it should not be deemed sufficient for flexibility training. So what additional work is required to build flexibility?
Flexibility training is to be performed in addition to strength and cardiovascular training, and like other forms of training, it requires a warm-up. Light stretches and some movement should be done to prepare muscles for flexibility exercises.
How often? Flexibility training should be done at least 3 days a week – every day if possible.
Which type? The type of exercises done should be stretches which target the specific range of motion that needs to be worked on.
How long? The duration of each exercise depends on the type of stretch:
Refers to the range of motion in a joint while it is held in a stationary position. Example: Splits
Each new static stretch should be performed as 1 set of 5 reps. Each rep should be held for 15 – 60 seconds, with 30 seconds of rest in between.
Note: Static stretching can be performed in two ways:
Active: The person stretching moves himself/herself into the stretching position and holds the stretch.
Passive: Involves the use of an external force to push the stretch. This external force could be another person (partner stretching), a wall or bar, the force of gravity, or the force of a different set of muscles (using your arms to lift a leg being stretched). The key factor in passive stretching is that the muscles being stretched are relaxed while the external force is being applied.
Both methods should be considered and implemented in a stretching routine.
Refers to the range of motion in a joint while it is engaged in movement. Example: High-kicks
Each dynamic stretch is to be performed in 3 sets of 30 seconds of continuous motion each. Rest for 1 minute in between each set.
Limitations of the warm-up
As you can see, if we attempted to train flexibility during our warm-up period, we would end up going way over the 15 minute warm-up period. This is why warm-ups are designed to simply prepare you for exercise, and any additional flexibility training should be incorporated into your workout or done outside of class. As you can see above, training one muscle for improved flexibility can take over 5 minutes. This is why proper organization is important when improved flexibility is desired. So don’t get confused when you aren’t able to touch the back of your head with the palms of your feet after 4 years of warm-ups, because they have very limited contribution to flexibility, as their aim is elsewhere. Take your flexibility into your own hands and either:
1) Use the suggested outline above to devise your own flexibility routine
2) Ask an instructor for advice on flexibility training so that you can be sure that you are doing it properly
Some other important factors to consider when stretching:
• Do NOT stretch to the point of pain. The stretch should be held just prior to the point where it hurts.
• Be careful when stretching injured muscles. Do not use dynamic stretches on recently injured muscles.
• Dynamic stretches should not be pushed to the extreme range of motion right off the bat. Start gently and increase the intensity throughout the set.
• Stretch from the outside in. Start at the fingers/toes and work toward the torso.
• It’s important to save all dynamic stretching until after the corresponding static stretch.
- For example, high kicks (a dynamic stretch) should only be done after a static stretch which uses the same range of motion, such as touching your toes.
Interesting point identified by the American College of Sports Medicine
When you first perform a stretch, one of the factors that contributes to the efficiency of your flexibility training is muscle tension. Muscle tension is greatest during the initial repetition of a stretch. The reason why up to 5 repetitions of 15 seconds each are recommended is because as a stretch is held, muscle tension decreases during the stretch, allowing the muscle to relax and stretch further than it could initially. The greatest decrease in muscle tension occurs during the first 15 seconds of a stretch. Each successive repetition also experiences less initial tension than the previous repetition, which is why sets of up to 5 repetitions are recommended. The most efficient benefits per amount of time stretching is cited to be after 4 repetitions have been performed. At this point the initial tension is reduced enough to make optimal progress toward an increase in the range of motion.
As a martial arts student, your flexibility is a very important aspect of your training! Hopefully this blog clarifies any misconceptions you have about flexibility training versus warm-up stretching. We hope this encourages you to adopt new flexibility training practices at home or in the dojo between classes.