You’re Probably Stretching Wrong

I’ll get right to the point. Every dojo I’ve ever practiced at does stretches, but very few people at any of these dojo ever seem to get very flexible. There’s a good reason for this: most people are stretching wrong. This article is about stretching right.

Just look at the number of people who have been doing Taido for a few years, yet are still stiff and immobile. If we stretch every time we work out, it seems like we should be able to expect anyone doing Taido to be pretty flexible after a year or so. But this is clearly not the case – in fact, very flexible Taido students and instructors are pretty rare. Most of us are stiff and immobile.

I’m not going to dwell on how ridiculous this is.

Excuses

Of course, there are a lot of excuses. Making excuses is always the easiest way to deal with failure and disappointment. I used to be flexible, but now I’m not as flexible. It’s just because I’m older now – it’s natural. I had a really bad groin pull a few years ago, and I never really got my mobility back.

Maybe those are good excuses, but they don’t make me more flexible. And the standard stretching routine we use in Taido warm-ups hasn’t helped either.

I’d like to suggest that, whatever excuses we may like to use, our standard stretching routines are far from the most effective means of improving flexibility and mobility. Perhaps better methods exist that would allow us to see better results – even despite our favorite excuses.

If It Ain’t Broke…

First, I should probably mention a few of the problems with the way most dojo do their stretching. Now, you might be the exception. Your dojo might do everything right. If so, this article is not for you. It is for the other 95% of Taido students in the world. For the rest of us, it will help to look at some mistakes we may be making.

It’s hard to fix a problem we can’t identify, so let’s take a look at what specific issues we have to address in order to improve our flexibility training.

The “standard” Taido warm-up includes joint mobilization and static stretches. It may be preceded by a minute or two of jogging. I first learned this warm-up as a child in Atlanta and have since seen it done in dojo and at tournaments everywhere I’ve done Taido. Everyone does it because it’s the warm-up they learned from their instructors.

There are two major issues with this routine: time and timing.

Not Stretching Long Enough

I just ran through the old warm-up in my dining room, and it took me all of three and a half minutes. Of course, it may take a little longer with a group of people, but let’s just call it “under five minutes,” for convenience. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Well, no, not really. If you are already in great shape, sure, five minutes is enough to prepare for practice. However, most people need to do extra work to build and maintain flexibility. Think about it: five minutes of stretching, two or three times a week. Do you honestly believe that you can improve your abilities with such a pathetically small amount of work?

We’re going to have to devote more time to stretching.

Stretching Cold

The other issue is timing. Most of the stretching in Taido dojo happens at the beginning of practice. It seems like a good idea to include stretching in the warm-up to prepare the body. That’s not incorrect, but it doesn’t do much to improve our flexibility because our bodies aren’t yet warm enough.

To get the most out of stretching, we need to do it when the muscles are warm and relaxed. It even helps if they are tired. After practice is the obvious chance to take advantage of these conditions. There’s nothing wrong with stretching before class to get ready, but if you’re serious about improving your flexibility, you also need to stretch after class.

If you want to get anything out of your stretches, do them at a time when your body is warm and relaxed.

Fix These Two Things

These two issues – time and timing – are the biggest problems with the standard warm-up. Together, they sabotage our potential for flexibility. I’ll be making more detailed suggestions in another article, but in the meantime, you can improve the results of your stretching by simply stretching more after practice.

Warming Up For Taido

A while back, I ran a poll about warm up methods and promised a follow-up article. You are now reading the follow-up article.

I think most people are vaguely aware of the importance of warming up prior to engaging in demanding physical activities. Properly warming up prepares the body to operate beyond its usual ranges – and pushing beyond our comfort zones is necessary in order to improve our skills. Taido being an especially dynamic (and sometimes gymnastic) martial art, we need to make sure that our bodies are ready to handle our jumps, twists, and slides.

I’m not going to worry too much about convincing you of the importance of warming up, because I think it’s pretty obvious. Most Taido practices include some sort of warm-up, and almost anything is certainly better than nothing. However, I want to discus various methods for warming up and give some suggestions for warm-ups specifically geared for Taido students.

Begin with the End in Mind

Before I start listing my recommendations, I want to take a second to outline what I believe a warm-up routine should accomplish. Without having a clear goal, it’s difficult to be sure that we have achieved it. Unfortunately, I get the idea that many students don’t know exactly what they should be getting out of a warm-up. I say this because, in the few moments after the group warm-up in most classes I watch, students tend to stand around instead of continuing to prepare. You can never be too prepared.

So what is achieved by a good warm-up? In essence, the result of a good warm-up is that the body and mind are ready for action. The muscles are warm, loose, and fueled. The joints are lubricated and mobile throughout their ranges of motion. The nervous system is aroused and tuned. The mind is clear and present.

I can think of several indicators of body/mind action-readiness: an elevated pulse (but not “pounding”); full, deep breath (not panting or gasping); just beginning to sweat; no pain/stiffness in joints or muscles; not thinking about work; colors appear bright, sounds are crisp and sharp. There are of course lots of other ways to tell that you are warmed-up, but these are the basic sensations of training preparedness.

I won’t get into the neurophysiology of warming up because it’s not really relevant here. Suffice it to say for now that the above guides address all of the important requirements for activating our best performances. Nutrition, rest, conditioning, and overall health also play a role, but these factors are beyond the scope of what we can hope to compensate for in a warm-up session.

Common Warm-up Errors

I want to start out by mentioning a few bad habits that tend to show up in warm-ups for martial arts practices. These points are not a critique of any particular routine, but cover various warm-ups I’ve seen in various dojo, printed in books and magazines, or posted online. Most of these routines are not necessarily bad, but they tend to be lacking in one aspect or another. Here are a few common mistakes as they come off the top of my head:

Excessive Static Stretching

This is the biggie. Most martial arts warm-ups I’ve witnessed include static stretches. As the name implies, static stretches are any stretching exercises in which the body is held in one position for a period of time. An example of a static stretch routine would be the standard “sit down on the floor and touch your toes,” etc. we have traditionally done in American Taido.

These kinds of stretches are not bad in and of themselves, but they are contraindicated for warming up. For one thing, our muscles cannot stretch to their maximum until they are totally warm (and until the central nervous system is fully activated – the explanation of this can be really complicated, but just take my word for it for now). In many warm-up routines, stretches are preceded by only a few minutes of jogging and calisthenics – this is not nearly enough time to prepare the muscles for static stretching.

For another thing, studies show that static stretches temporarily reduce the elasticity of the muscles. This is a bad thing because, when we kick and move, we need our muscles to gradually slow as they reach the ends of their ranges. Otherwise, we risk pulling muscles and tearing ligature. Several studies have shown that there is a higher incidence of strains and sprains for athletes who performed static stretches in their warm-ups.

In the past, it was believed that any stretching was better than none, but now we have evidence suggesting that what stretches we do and when we do them has an impact on our health and performance. Though our warm-up static stretching is a tradition, it is potentially dangerous. Let’s please drop them from our warm-ups.

So when should we do static stretches? At the end of our practice, when our muscles are as warm and loose as they are ever going to be, and after we have finished moving them quickly at extreme ranges.

Not Enough Dynamic Stretching

Even though static stretches are best reserved for cool-down, we should include some stretching in our warm-ups. Specifically, we should do more dynamic stretching.

Dynamic stretches are stretches in which the muscles being stretched are in continuous motion. Examples are swing kicks, body twists, arm swings, and other movements that quickly stretch and release the muscles.

Dynamic stretching is a perfect match to the dynamic movements required for kicking, jumping, twisting, turning, etc. That are part of Taido techniques. It makes good sense to prepare the body for action by simulating the action you plan to perform. Performing dynamic stretching prior to a Taido practice is akin to slowly turning up the heat on a pot in which you cook a live lobster.

When performing dynamic stretches as part of a a warm-up, it’s important to keep things gentle and relaxed. Don’t start out swinging with full speed and power. Gradually build up to maximal relaxed range of motion over several sets of a few repetitions. This slowly relaxes the muscles and helps to “tune” the nerves that control the muscles’ contraction and relaxation.

By replacing the standard static stretches with dynamic stretches, we can expect to improve our flexibility and reduce injuries like pulled muscles.

Doing Too Much

Sometimes, instructors get the idea in their heads to start off classes with a tough workout to get everyone “really warmed up.” This is generally not a great idea. The purpose of a warm-up is not to make everyone tired, but to prepare them to perform at their best. Doing too much in a warm-up prepares students to be too tired to practice well.

There are several ways to do too much in a warm-up, but the two most popular are to include a lot of strength exercises or endurance work in a warm-up. I’ve even seen instructors subject their students to long sets of fast techniques as a warm-up and call it “cardio.” There are two reasons why this kind of stuff does more harm than good.

One reason is that we learn only what we practice. I learned as a child that half-assed practice made me very good at doing half-assed techniques. By the same token, practicing when we are already tired teaches to perform techniques as if we were tired. When our bodies are fatigued, we can’t move at full speed or power. Fatigue also causes the nervous system to be less efficient, which reduces our reaction time, balance, and overall coordination/agility.

The other reason not to wear yourself out in a warm-up is that different types of practice (for example, strength, endurance, and technical) require different types of muscle recruitment and nervous activity. In general, it’s best to do the most complicated/technical practices earlier in a workout. This is because the nervous system loses efficiency as we become fatigued. Technique/form practice requires a high degree of coordination, focus, and nervous control. As a result, we can perform this kind of practice better when we are fresh.

After technical drills, the next logical step is strength training. This requires less control from the nervous system, but still uses a lot of energy in the muscles. Typically, endurance work should be performed last, because the primary goal in such practice is to keep going – form and power are not as important.

All three types of practice work best when they follow a good warm-up. In a session that includes all three, the best sequence would move from warm-up to technical practice, strength training, and endurance training, followed by a cool-down and stretching.

In any event, the purpose of the warm-up is to prepare us for practice, not to make us too tired to practice well.

Not Enough Joint Focus

Mobility is not solely concerned with our muscles; it also requires the joints to be able to move freely. Specifically, we need to make sure that our full ranges of motion are available to us at any given time. For example, in a typical day, most Americans move their knee and hip joints through only a fraction of their possible ranges – forwards and backwards. However, Taido’s movements require knee and hip movements through all three planes.

In order to adequately prepare our joints for Taido movements, we should try to move each joint through it’s entire range of motion. This loosens up the joint a bit and also helps to lubricate the joint capsule by redistributing the synovial fluid more evenly. This increases mobility and decreases joint pain – both very good things.

Knee, ankle, and hip injuries are epidemic in the martial arts; almost everyone who practices a martial art for any number of years tends to develop them. Performing motions that may help to prevent these injuries as part of our regular warm-ups should be the rule rather than the exception.

Going Through the Motions

One drawback of using a set routine for warm-ups is that it’s really boring. People memorize a set of movements and do them half-assed without paying the least attention to what they are doing.

Warming up is not only for getting your body ready, but a chance to prepare the mind. Focus on each body part as you move it around and be on the lookout for any pains or stiffness which may indicate an injury you need to take account of during your practice session. This is also a good time to remind yourself of your training goals for the session (hint: if you don’t have a goal each session, you are murdering your potential for improvement – even if your goal is simply to memorize a new routine or make it through class without wheezing, you will see more results if you have a clear goal for each practice).

Don’t waste time by warming up the body while leaving your mind someplace else. Since the mind controls the body, you owe it to yourself to bring your brain into your warm-up routine by at least being deliberate and conscious of what your body is doing.

Prescriptions For Taido Warm-Ups

Now that I’ve written about a few problems and explained possible solutions, I’ll recap my thoughts on the ingredients for a quality warm-up.

  • Engage the Brain
  • Engage the Nervous System
  • Engage the Breath
  • Engage the Muscles
  • Engage the Joints

If you’ve done all these things, you should feel aware, loose, and happy – not tired, stiff, or anxious. Even better than the pleasurable and positive feeling of being well warmed-up, all of your body-systems will be ready to perform at their optimum levels, and you’ll be able to push yourself to improve.

Stretching Menu

Since posting the Stretching Challenge, I’ve gotten some good feedback and comments. I really appreciate everyone sharing their own experiences here.

On the challenge post, I embedded a video of me performing and explaining the essential components of my current stretching routine. As I wrote then, all of these movements (and more) are included in Paul Zaichik’s Elastic Steel course, which I am using to regain my flexibility.

Have you been stretching?

The video turned out to be about 25 minutes long. Since it’s not convenient to watch every time you want to stretch, I thought I ‘d post a list of the movements here. You can print this out and slip it in your gym bag or tape it to your TV. Whatever works.

Remember, you don’t have to do exactly what I do on the video. As I mention towards the end, there are five main components you need to shoot for:

  • Joint movement
  • Light stretches
  • Muscle strengthening
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Deep stretching

However you choose to get those in is up to you. Use whatever specific stretches and movement you like or feel best address your own weaknesses. The video is simply an example of the kinds of things I personally plug into the template.

That said, here’s the list of movements I’m doing on the video:

  • Joint Movements
    • neck
    • shoulders, elbows, wrists
    • spine – thoracic and lumbar
    • hips, knees, ankles
  • Shake Out
  • Dynamic Stretches
    • leg swings to front, side, and back
  • Light Stretches
    • lying knee-to-chest
    • wind removing pose
    • spinal rocks to plough pose
    • seated ankle-over-knee
    • 1/2 spinal twist / piriformis stretch
    • adductor stretch to pigeon pose
    • foot dorsiflexor stretch
    • calf stretch on wall and floor
    • abdominal walk-outs
    • upward dog pose
    • downward dog pose
    • child pose to twisted child pose
    • shoulder stretches
    • wrist stretches
    • 1/4 front split / hip flexor lunge
    • inner thigh stretch
    • neck stretches
  • Strength Exercises
    • For the dojo
      • enmei no hokei
      • super-wide kamae and unsoku
    • For home
      • pistol / single-leg squat
      • alternating split (ejidachi) hops
  • Kick Exercises
    • static leg raise-and-hold to front, side, and back
    • extended leg circles in kicking positions
  • Thigh Strengthening
    • adductor lift
    • adductor lift with resistance band
    • adductor stretch with resistance band
    • internal rotation lift
    • external rotation lift
    • external rotation with resistance band
  • Deep Stretches
    • tucked single-leg hamstring stretch
    • hip flexor bounce
    • hip flexor / thigh stretch
    • deeper inner thigh stretch
    • 1/2 side split
    • straddle stretch to side split

Remember, there’s a lot more to the Elastic Steel course than this. That doesn’t mean you can’t make progress on a shorter program, but I do encourage setting aside at least twenty minutes per session. Really try to stretch at least three times each week.

There’s not really much more to add – I did my best to explain the important points on the video. If you have any questions of suggestions, please post them in the comments.

Stretching Challenge

If you haven’t been following Taido/Blog lately (and shame on you if that’s the case), you should read the first two posts in this series before continuing. Here they are:

Those posts really lay the groundwork for what’s to follow, so please read them to make sure that we’re all on the same page. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Inflexibility Insanity

A lot of Taido students and teachers are insane. At least by Einstein’s definition. I’ve often quoted his remark that

doing the same thing twice and expecting different results is definition of insanity.

I think that applies very well to our situation.

The stretching routine most Taido dojo use has been in service for a very long time. It has been taught in Japanese elementary schools for at least fifty years. The thing I notice is that very few Japanese schoolchildren have the kinds of physical abilities I aspire to. Neither do most Taido students.

If I want different results than what most people are getting, I can’t use the same methods they use. To do so would be insane. Many of us have been stretching this way for many years, and we haven’t gotten any more flexible lately.

I wrote that people who have been doing Taido for several years and don’t have fantastic flexibility are ridiculous. Let me be extremely clear about one thing: I include myself in that description.

You see, I recently came to the realization that I am less flexible right now than have been in my entire life. After 25 years of Taido practice, my physical freedom of movement is at its worst, and I’m not happy about it. In fact, it’s embarrassing and makes me feel like a hypocrite in front of my students.

For about a month, I tried to stretch more and stretch harder, but it just didn’t really make much of a difference. I took Einstein to heart and decided to look for a better method.

The Better Method

Actually, I didn’t have to look far. In fact, I’ve been recommending such a method on Taido/Blog for some time. It’s called Elastic Steel, which is a really cheesy name, but it worked really well for me in the past.

I mentioned before two problems with the standard stretching routine. Let me also throw out a third idea. Our usual stretching works on the principle of stretching the hell out of the body’s larger muscles. But what is the large muscles aren’t the problem?

The Central Nervous System allows stronger muscles to release more efficiently than smaller, weaker muscles. What if the thing keeping us stiff is weakness and imbalance in these smaller muscles? If that were the case, we’d get the best results from strengthening these muscles as well as stretching.

Elastic Steel is the best system I have seen for combining strength exercises with stretching in a logical manner that addresses the flexibility needs of martial artists. It was created by a dude named Paul Zaichik, who has some fantastic kicking skills himself. His videos on YouTube clearly demonstrate that he’s the real deal.

I found out about Elastic Steel when I was training in Yokohama a few years ago, and my flexibility and mobility began to improve rapidly. But then I got injured, and then I moved, and then…

Oh, yeah. You don’t want excuses any more than I do. Suffice it to say, I lost that flexibility, and now I plan to get it back.

My Plan

I’m going to do the Elastic Steel course again. This will probably come as no surprise. Still, after reading this far, you may be asking what all this has to do with you.

I’ll tell you.

What All This Has To Do With You

I want you to do this with me. Of course, I don’t expect everyone to go out and buy Elastic Steel (you should buy it, but that’s not really the point here). Instead, I made this video of how I’m applying some of the principles and techniques in the course.

Of course, it wouldn’t be right for me to give away the entire course for free. I left out the “extended length conditioning” and a few advanced protocols. However, this is a good routine that any Taido student can integrate into their weekly routine and begin to see results.

The Challenge

I challenge you to warm up and do this routine (or something similar) three times a week for 20 minutes. Do this for a month and see how you feel.

I’ll be the excuses are already starting to form in your mind: “I’m already flexible enough.” “I don’t need to stretch all that much.” “I can just do a little more of what I’m already doing.” “I don’t need speed or power.”

Let go of that kind of thinking. It’s not making you more flexible, and it’s not making your Taido any better. Remember Einstein, and try changing your methods up for a month. If you don’t like the results, you can always switch back.

Fitting It In

Of course, it won’t be easy. You’ll have to find some way to fit all that extra stretching in.

You can try to work it into your practices. Show up early and do the light stretches before training. Then do the deep stretches later. Better yet, talk to your instructor about doing a one-month trial of some different stretching methods.

Or you can stretch at home on your off nights.

How you get it in isn’t my problem. I’m making this challenge, and I will judge you based on your results.

I’m trying to do the light stretches every morning (most mornings, anyway) and the full routine on my free afternoons. You can do whatever works for you. We’ll have to make a real commitment to see real improvement in our abilities.

The Guarantee

I personally promise that you will see results from this program. I’m so certain that I’m offering a double money-back guarantee. Just return the unused portion of product, and… Seriously, just try it.

What have you got to lose? Excuses.

Let’s Get Going

There is no reason not to try this. There are excuses, but no reasons.

Honestly, what you’re doing now probably isn’t working for you. It probably stopped working years ago. When was the last time you noticed an increase in your flexibility or mobility? If it wasn’t recent, you need to take a hard look at your routine.

In the end, it just comes down to your choice. I can’t make you do this is you don’t want to. Just remember that, if you decide to keep doing the same things you’ve always done, you’re making Einstein cry. Whether or not you can live with that is up to you.

Stretching Update

Just to let you know, I have not forgotten to add the next article. I promised in Why Flexibility is Important in Taido that I would post again soon with some specific recommendations for improving your flexibility, and I am working very hard on getting that done.

The problem I ran into was trying to describe stretches adequately in a written format. I even took a bunch of pictures of each stretch only to realize that they still required a lot of explanation. I decided a couple of days ago to scrap the whole thing and start over – this time with video.

So, right now, I’m working on getting everything set up to take some video in a couple of days. As soon as I do, I’ll get it posted up here so everyone can see how sexy I look rolling around on my kitchen floor.

So anyway, thanks for being patient. I haven’t forgotten about you. It’ll just be a few more days.