Flexibility and Stretching in a Martial Art

Flexibility and stretching - Improve your flexion through correct stretching and goal determination...

Flexibility and the stretching which make it possible are physical attribute of any martial art.

However not every martial art needs high flexion, and those which need do not necessarily want the flexibility at the same location or the same kind (we will examine these aspects below).

This, as always, is decided upon in the theory stage of the martial art.

Stretching is a tool/drill which makes flexion possible. The way in which it is integrated in our training is decided upon in the "system and method" stage of the martial art.

What is flexibility and what does stretching achieve?

Flexibility is the ability to use the full range of motion of a certain joint or a series of joints, with out creating or causing injury. The range of motion is determined by the muscles which are connected to the tendons which connect to the bones which connect in the joint (sorry for that quick anatomy overview…).

In simple words – the longer our muscles are around a certain joint – the more flexible they are – the more range of motion we attain.

From the definition we can understand that a person can be flexible in his arms and shoulders while being un-flexible in his legs.

There are two more components in the “flexibility equation” the first being the ligaments. The ligaments themselves are also elastic (unlike the tendons, which do not stretch at all), and are subject for change. The second connective tissue is the “fascial sheathes” these connect and bind the different muscle groups…

However, the most significant factor in our flexibility and the most capable of being influenced is by far the muscle.

Stretching – is an action we perform in order to lengthen the muscle and its connective tissues. When the muscle fibers reach their full length (for a specific training session) the next to lengthen are the connecting tissues. The longer the muscle lengthen the more muscle fibers are involved in the process.

What kinds of flexibilities are there and how do they affect the stretching we perform?

According to Kruz there are three kinds of flexions:

• Dynamic or kinetic – achieving the wanted range of motion, with movement and dynamic power. This is especially useful in kicking, somersaulting and such…

• Static active – the ability to assume and maintain an extended position while the other muscles work or contract, for instance when holding a leg up in kick. This is used in martial arts and competition such as Wushu and Tai-chi.

• Static passive – the ability to assume and maintain an extended position not only using the other muscles; for example a split which is stretched with the help of our own weight, pulling our body towards our toes while pulling them....

This is generally used in preparation or as a first stage for the “dynamic”, but especially for the “static active”.

Maneuvering out of a joint lock or being able to withstand it can result from either one of the three, depending on what stage of the lock we were or are in.

Usually however, maneuvering out of a joint lock results from “dynamic” abilities and withstanding is due to “static-passive” skills.

In accordance there are 6 types of stretchings:

1. Ballistic stretching – was popular in the past, but has been proven un-useful.

It attempts to stretch by using a “bouncing” motion not allowing the muscle to relax and adjust, thus working against the "stretch reflex" (a reflex which contracts the muscle in cases of sudden motions to prevent injuries...), thus causing tears, injuries, and shortening due to trauma.

2. Dynamic stretching – Moving the body parts in a slowly growing range of motion, but not forcing or jerking the limb into it like ballistic stretching does.

Good examples are leg swings which grow in range and can also grow in speed the more comfortable, relaxed and able we feel.

These are great for improving “dynamic” flexion and are a great warm up.

3. Active stretching – is one way to improve “active–static” flexion. We simply take what we want to achieve, for instance holding a high kick; and hold the position between 10-15 second.

This generally accomplishes two major attributes which support the flexion – first of all it strengthens the muscles which hold the leg up, and trains the muscle coordination - working with each other instead of against.

4. Static/Passive stretching – when assuming and staying in a stretched position while using something to assist – our hand, a bar, a partner…

It’s normally used after a workout and or when recovering from injuries. It is the most common way to achieve static active/passive flexion.

5. Isometric Stretching – is a type of static stretching, but it involves using the contraction of the muscle to stretch with out applying motion.

For instance, when trying to push the wall with our heal in the air. As we try to push the wall (which of course can not move) we create an "isometric stretching" effect for the calf muscle. Another example is to have a partner hold our leg up high and then try to force it down, stretching the ham string as a result.

This is considered one of the best and quickest ways to achieve results, because of its strong effect it is not recommended for children and adolescents, as it can meddle with their bone development.

It is important to remember that the muscle must reach it's full motion range (at that specific time) before contracting (starting the isometric stretch).

This stretching method stretches and strengthens at the same time.

6. PNF Stretching – this technique is in fact a continuation of the isometric technique, in that it combines more than one isometric stretch.

For example – while laying on our back our partner raises our leg to our full passive flexion with a passive stretch, we then try to lower the leg against his resistance (isometric…). Then we rest 20 seconds, while he takes the leg up to its new limitation and again.

All the tips and rules for isometric workouts apply here as well (They are listed in “important stretching tips” just below).

Why do we need high flexibility?

1. For performing a physical feat – for instance, kicking to the head, maintaining a low stance resisting or escaping ajoint lock or a submission hold, ext…

2. Prevention of injuries – In case we do a movement we did not mean to do, trip, fall, get a joint stuck… Having flexibility can help make sure that an unexpected movement or motion does not lead to injury.

3. General physical well being – improves blood flow, stability, coordination and more…

Over-Flexibility

Over flexibility can cause injury just as much as insufficient can. It is the case when the muscles have not been strengthened as much as they have been flexed. This causes loss of stability in the joints and the potential tearing of the ligaments and tendons.

We can reach over flexion if we don't train according to a balanced program, which balances and coordinates the amount of stretching and strengthening exercises - (listed below are some important stretchingtips).

Over-Stretching

It is the stage in which instead of enhancing the range of movement we accomplish the opposite.

Over stretching can cause fatigue of the muscle (the tissue which surrounds it) and cause tears which result in scars, which limit the motion and the ability to stretch and gain flexibility.

When trying to stretch the muscle past its limits. We end up stretching our ligament and tendons whom are not designed to stretch (tendons are not meant to stretch at all and the ligaments only about 6%). This can cause instability of the joint and result in injury.

“Post training day muscle soreness” can be caused by over-stretching just as mush as from the lack of stretching after the workout.

The connection between flexibility and strength:

Usually when building muscle their size grows, which can lead to the muscle mass "physically" limiting the range of motion.

Nevertheless, this is probably the only "reason" why strength training and flexile training should not go together – according to the majority of studies condacted through the years, they actually enhance one another.

When performing strengthening exercises it is important to work the whole muscle range; our nerve system remembers the movement done most frequently and strongly – thus contributing even more to loss of flexion.

However, sometimes short range muscle strengthening drills are essential – in this case it is even more important to stretch right after.

For more information about stretching:

sportsmedicine.about.com

Important stretching tips:

• Going into a static stretch should be slow and easy (to avoid the stretch reflex going into affect and shortening the muscle).

• Going out of the static stretch should also be slow and easy (to allow the muscle to stay in its stretched position without causing a “rubber band effect”.

• A static stretch should be held between 20-50 seconds, and 10 seconds for people whose bones are still growing. There should be between 2-5 repetitions with 15-30 seconds rest in between.

• We should keep breathing normally and if possible deeply when holding the static stretch. One way which is recommended is stretching when exhaling and holding the stretch while inhaling.

• We should not hold the stretched position at a painful area, but rather just before it starts. If we maintain the painful position we will scar the muscle and create the opposite effect.

• It is better to relax the muscles which “neighbor” the stretched muscle (the “synergists” muscle) before beginning the actual intended stretch; for instance when stretching the calf keeping the leg straight and not bent in order to relax the hamstring muscle.

• Make sure our muscles our warm before stretching.

• Stretch with clothing which won’t limit the range of movement and motion.

• Drink a lot of water.

• Stretch using “static-passive stretching” right after a strength workout, it will give better elongate (flexile) results and actually help the muscle grow and strengthen as well; not to speak about improving post training soreness.

• Dynamic stretching is best before strengthening drills.

• To avoid over flexion – once we have achieved the full length of the muscle intended we should leave it and only maintain it after it shortens (due to time and especially strengthening drills).

• When performing dynamic stretching sets of no more then 8-10 repetitions, or less if we feel our muscles tired.

• Isometric stretching-

1. Should be performed when the muscles are warm.

2. Should be performed ideally every 36 hours and not less than 24 hours.

3. The contraction of the muscle is between 7-15 seconds

4. 20 seconds rest between each set.

• We can massage our muscles before and after a stretch to improve blood flow and relaxation.

• Try to isolate as much as possible the muscle being stretched – for instance it is better to stretch one calf at a time than both, and it is better to only stretch the hamstring than stretch the hamstring and the calf at the same time. This allows us to better control the stretch.

• The better our leverage on the stretch the more control we have over it – the better the stretch.

• Working with a partner offers great isolation and usually great leverage.

• Some stretches are risky in that they can cause injury to other body parts. We shouldn't put unnecessary tension and strain on the back disks and that we don’t over twist and bend a joint.

• It is important to stretch the supporting muscles of the area focused upon before we “go to work” on it… from that perspective:

- Arms should be stretched before the chest

- Calves before hamstrings

- Shins before quadriceps

- The upper and lower back and afterwards the sides should be stretched at the beginning

- And so on…

Conclusions

Flexibility is a necessary component of physical conditioning in any martial art as it helps develop muscle tissue, stability and is an important element for preventing injuries.

However, not in every martial art it is needed as much and in the same manner. Stretching as the tool in which we attain this attribute can be very useful if done correctly, but can be equally as damaging if done improperly.

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