For years I had done the traditional approach to stretching in martial arts training. This consisted of a general warm up followed by static stretching, which then moved onto kicks, punches and whatever else was being taught in the session. Using this approach I was not able to perform high kicks for over fifteen years. I had always struggled with my suppleness and in looking for a solution to my problem lots of instructors told me that I just simply do not stretch enough. As a result I did very long sessions of stretching followed by kicking. However, I was not able to kick higher and over time I had increased pain in my muscles and joints. The effect of this was that my ability to kick actually decreased as often after sessions I had developed micro injuries and pains in my muscles that were taking a long time to heal. I had then been told by my doctor that my hips are in fact ‘closed’ and so I would never be able to kick high and so I dropped my strenuous stretching regime and went back to doing enough stretching to maintain mobility.
After a few months of lighter stretching I realised that I was actually able to kick higher and more freely. On discovering this I started to analyse my body’s response to different forms of stretching such as dynamic, static, forced, isometric etc. From my studies came the clear view that for my body structure, the traditional methods of stretching were not suitable. Having changed my programme of stretching for a few years I can now freely kick higher than my own head height. My closed hips do not allow me to kick perfectly, but at least I know that there are other ways to improve my flexibility. Now I do five sessions of stretching a week and no longer suffer with muscle or joint pains.
Most of the martial arts training sessions that I have seen/experienced run with the same traditional model: aerobic warm up, stretching, technical then cool down. In my opinion an aspect of this cycle that is incorrect is when instructors use static stretching techniques directly after the aerobic warm up, which I believe should be used only as cool down exercises. By doing these static stretches we stretch our muscles to their maximum, which causes micro tears. This then limits our muscles’ abilities to perform rapid contractions, but we then move onto dynamic techniques such as kicks. Consequently performing static stretching first can actually have a detrimental effect on our performance. As our muscles already have micro tears at this point, performing repetitive rapid contractions can cause further damage on overstretched muscles. Our trainee might not feel this damage, but with time it can accumulate and result in injury.
Our muscles respond to the micro damages in our muscle fibre by creating scarring. This scarring makes our muscles less flexible, which is why some people experience muscle tightness after intensive training and the process of stretching the muscles has to be repeated again to counteract the tightness.
In my experience it is much more efficient to use dynamic stretching as part of a warm up prior to training as this prepares our muscles to perform dynamic contractions without overstretching our muscles first. Doing dynamic instead of static stretching also helps to maintain our aerobic effort and so our body does not cool down prior to executing techniques.
For beginners we can also achieve suppleness quicker by stretching only one side of the body (unilateral) at a time. This is because when we stretch both sides of the body (bilateral) (e.g. both legs) at the same time, our nervous system responds quicker to protect our muscles from overstretching and so limits our progression. Stretching only one side at a time allows us to stretch further, but is also more representative of fighting where we only kick with one leg at a time (usually!).
All of my students are now training this way and we can all see the beneficial results, especially for those people who have been struggling with their kicks, who now love to kick to the head! As a bonus we also have not had any muscle injuries. Static stretching in our club is done only as a cool down but is used on every session.
Combining these two methods of dynamic and static stretching in this order produces better results than the more traditional setup. It is also the recommended method of stretching by experts.
I am aware that there are other methods of stretching that are effective for others as we are all different, but on the basis of my body responses over nearly 20 years, I can recommend this method as it is certainly beneficial to me and my student s.
Thanks for reading.