In teaching Karate I see a lot of students struggle with kicking, moving and standing in stances.
Whenever I discuss this with people they say that it is due to a lack of flexibility. Most of them focus their efforts on improving their flexibility. So they stretch and stretch, but without the desired progress. This is often because they have forgotten about mobility. Only through both increased flexibility and mobility can we improve our range of motion, but we cannot do one without the other.
This article will focus on exercises for improving mobility in the ankles and hips with detailed descriptions of the movements that I use as a part of my corrective exercises, which I teach as a personal trainer and therapist (www.lbposture.com).
Flexibility and Mobility
Our ability to move within our range of motion is determined by the physical structures of our body. These structures are the tissues that surround our joints, which allow specific movements. The muscles have to stretch and relax to some degree to allow movement. This has to be accompanied with the ability to use and activate appropriate muscles at the right time and in the right order to adopt a correct position. Different muscles have different jobs to do within the motion of a joint. Some will drive the movement, others will assist or stabilise and whilst others will stop the movement once the joint has reached its end of range of motion.
We can see that flexibility is a highly dynamic action that will require a series of coordinated and sequenced muscular responses. It is about being sufficiently mobile, that is “having freedom of movement”(Collins Dictionary), which needs stability to control the movement of that joint. Increasing the static flexibility of muscles will not see an improvement in these qualities/abilities.
“Joint Integrity must never be compromised for range of motion. The goal of flexibility training is to functionally lengthen and strengthen.” (Vern Gambetta)
For a joint to have a high level of mobility it must have a high level of stability to control the movement within its limits. If the joint has weakness within its range of motion then the body will limit that range of motion with other structures in order to protect itself.
The ability to functionally take advantage of just the right amount of motion at just the right joint in just the right plane in just the right direction at just right time.”(Gary Gray)
The optimum ability of a joint occurs with the right amount of movement and an appropriate amount of stability provided by the joint and muscle tissue.
To improve the range of motion within a joint it is necessary to conduct repetitive and appropriate exercises using the right methodology. It is extremely important to work on strength to control the newly developed range of motion within that joint.
“Repeated movements can be used therapeutically to produce desired increases in joint flexibility, muscle length, and muscle strength, as well as to train specific movement patterns”. (Shirley Sahrmann)
Mobility is the key to performing efficient movements in Karate. Freedom of movement allows you to execute the correct technique with the least amount of effort. In my teaching I use sets of exercises developed by therapists and personal trainers to increase mobility and reduce the probability of injury. Please find below a small selection of exercises. Note that detailed workouts are designed on an individual basis following a postural assessment of movement patterns.
Tightness in a joint is caused by our body trying to protect it. Only once our body feels stable and strong throughout a joint movement will the new range of motion be possible as the body’s protective mechanism switches off and neural over-activation of the surrounding tissues subsides.
Muscle tissue has to be able to control a wide range and type of movements and conditions. Therefore exercises should mimic these factors:
In martial arts we increase the range of motion by working on:
- Static or partially loaded movement – isometric, stable and controlled exercises through full range of movement
- Bodyweight – gravity load from slow to fast movements
- Complexity – combining movements from other parts of the body or changes in planes of motion
- Progression – adding resistance, repetition and reducing rest
Ankle and Foot Mobilisation
- Leg Swings
Stand leaning with your hands against a wall. The back leg is straight (no bend in the knee) and the ankle is nearly at the end of its range of motion, with the heel firmly on the floor. In this position raise the front leg off the ground and swing the leg from side to side in the same fashion as a pendulum (yoko keage). The front leg should be nearly straight with the foot passing through the centre line of the body as far as possible on either side. Continue to swing the leg in a controlled manner, enabling the supporting foot to pronate and supinate, without lifting the heel.
Kneeling on one knee, place the elbow on your front knee and shift your bodyweight forward so as to flex the front ankle. Use the elbow to drive the front knee forward and the calf muscles to return. Try to cover all of the directions of the front ankle’s range of motion (to the left, right, forward and so on), all without lifting the front heel.
Stand with one foot on a raised surface with that leg straight. Lift your hands up over your head and gently drive the arms towards the straight leg whilst at the same time driving the hips towards the supporting leg, which is slightly bent at the knee. Return the hands to centre and repeat again with control.
Stand with one foot on a raised surface. Squat down whilst reaching your arms forward at hip level. Make sure to keep the back straight. Return up and repeat.
- Kneeling Overhead
Kneel on one knee; this will be the side that will be worked. Lift your arms up and gently drive the hip (on the working side) forward and then back. When driving the hip back lower your arms in front of your body to shoulder height. Repeat the forward and backward motion with the arms moving up and down.
- Step to Overdrive
Place one foot on a raised surface with the instep of the foot on the surface. Lower the supporting leg into a squat position whilst raising your arms overhead. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Joint mobility is starting to become more recognised as an integral part of improving body movement and posture. As a result more and more martial artists are becoming aware of its importance. I will be teaching aspects of improving mobility at the Isshindo Kan International seminar that I will be attending in Mrozy, Poland next month.
References: Postural Analysis and Corrective Exercise Manual, Premier Training
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