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.

Poll Results: How Flexible Are You?

Overall, the consensus is,

I can move pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement.

It looks like most Taidoka are pretty comfortable with their current levels of flexibility, but recognize that they could benefit from more (or more effective) stretching. Here’s how the results for each response broke down:

How Flexible Are You?

  • 52% – I can move pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement.
  • 33% – I can touch my toes, but that’s about it.
  • 11% – Full splits, baby.
  • 4% – I can’t see or touch my toes.

This is about what I had expected.

52% of those who responded are pretty mobile. We can do most of our techniques without difficulty. We can get around the court pretty quickly and almost always get our legs in the general direction they need to go in order to kick. That’s good, but we can do better.

33% say they can touch their toes, but this is where their contortionist tricks end. That’s too bad, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. With consistent stretching, these people can be moving faster and stronger within a couple of months.

4% can’t see or touch their toes. Hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere, right? Seriously, most people don’t begin Taido already having the ability to do all the movements. that’s why we train. Hang in there and work on your flexibility, and I promise everything else in Taido will start to open up for you as well.

11% report being able to do a full split. This may actually be a little high. I know for a fact that the number of Japanese Taidoka who can do a full split is less than 10%. This has historically been the case in America as well, though things could have changed over the past couple of years. What about you guys in Australia and Europe? Can one in ten students really do a full split? If so, you’re doing something right. Keep it up!

For the rest of us, there’s nothing that says we have to be content with our current abilities. If we were, there would be nothing to train for anyway. In other articles, I’ve given you some ideas for increasing flexibility for Taido. Let’s put that knowledge to good use.

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.

Why Flexibility is Important in Taido

In my last article (You’re Probably Stretching Wrong), I wrote that the standard 5 minute warm-up stretch is inadequate for building flexibility. That’s no big deal – we can just stretch for longer.

How much stretching are we talking about here anyway? I’ll suggest 15 to 20 minutes, at least three times a week.

Why Spend Time Stretching?

Some people may think that fifteen to twenty minutes is a lot of time to stretch. I’ve heard people say that there isn’t enough time during practice to devote much time to stretching (and I guess it sounds like a lot of time if your dojo’s training only lasts 45 minutes…). Wouldn’t that time be better spent on practicing techniques?

I say no, and the reason is this: flexibility improves your techniques. So does strength.

Building strength and flexibility should be priorities. If your body is too stiff or weak to do a technique properly, you gain very little by practicing it. Poor practice makes you very good at poor technique. In essence, you memorize a technique you cannot perform. It would be better to invest some effort up front in developing the physical capability to perform the technique correctly.

To me, this seems like very simple logic, but perhaps I should illustrate the technical compromises that result from poor flexibility before moving on.

Compromise

I used to be able to drop into splits effortlessly and do any kick over my head. Now maybe you don’t think those things are important, but I think they are.

Imagine I can raise my extended leg to about waist-height. If I throw a front kick with that leg, I can reach about chest-height without too much apparent strain. Head-height is the upper limit of my range. As my kick nears that limit, it loses speed and power.

Also think about this: how can I kick higher than I can raise my leg? Doesn’t that seem strange. We can all do this because our bodies can compensate for lack of flexibility in various ways. Perhaps a different muscle gives some extra slack. Maybe we can turn or twist a certain way that allows us to kick a few inches higher. These are compromises.

Compromising your technique is the best way to reduce your effectiveness. For example, most people can raise their legs at an angle higher than they can raise them straight ahead. As a result, many students perform front kicks by turning their hips and pivoting their bottom feet. This is bad for at least four reasons:

  1. too much hip turn diverts power and momentum away from the target,
  2. the hip turn also causes the kicking foot to strike at an angle contrary to the momentum of the kick (let’s have fun with broken toes!)
  3. the foot pivot prevents turning the body in the other direction (i.e. for the next technique in combination), and
  4. all of this turning puts you off the line to your target and gives your opponent a clearer path to your weak side.

Those are just a few examples from one (very) common technical compromise caused by poor flexibility. I chose front kicks because they are simple to visualize and perform. Now imagine how many compromises you make with a more complex kick like shajogeri or senjogeri.

Being able to kick above your head or do a split is not about high kicks and splits. It’s about being able to do your normal skills without compromise.

Creativity

Flexibility provides greater and easier range of motion, which translates to more possibilities for creative movement.

If you can put your leg over year head, you’ll be able to put it somewhere lower in much less time and with much less effort. How many times have you found yourself in a strange position and wanting to perform a certain technique, but couldn’t do so without struggling? It happens to me more often than I like to admit. The problem may be lack of strength, but it’s more likely lack of flexibility.

I say this because a flexible body requires less strength to move. The muscles resist less, and we can move more quickly. This helps in creating crazy combinations in jissen.

Just Do It (Right)

Or maybe you aren’t concerned with making interesting combinations. Maybe you don’t like being creative. That’s cool. You should still at least be interested in doing the technique correctly.

Correct body use affords greater accuracy, speed, and power in all of our movements. Flexibility allows uncompromised performance, which translates to more effective punches and kicks. It’s extremely practical to devote a reasonable amount of time to stretching, because it will pay off by making everything else easier.

Think of it this way: every single Taido instructor in the world will agree that basics are important. Physical attributes (like strength and flexibility) are more basic than skills (like techniques), because you can only move within your body’s capabilities. Flexibility is one of the most basic things you can practice, so taking it seriously will benefit all of our complex movements.

You Need To Improve Your Flexibility

Yes, you. Greater flexibility will speed up your unsoku. It will improve your unshin and tengi. It will speed up your kicks and increase power. It will allow you to stay more relaxed when moving and possibly reduce your reaction time (due to decreased residual muscle tension).

And yes, you’ll also be able to kick over your head and do splits between two chairs like Bill Wallace. There are just so many reasons to stretch.

If you aren’t convinced by now, I don’t know what to write. Seriously, spending more time on flexibility can only help you in Taido. It will improve your techniques, speed, and power. It will make it easier to move creatively. It will make Bryan happy. Jesus will love you more.

Three Times a Week?

Minimum – if you want better results, stretch every day. Our bodies adapt to stress, but they return to equilibrium (the prior set-point) without repeated stimulus. Stretching once will make you more flexible for a few hours. The next day, you’ll be right back where you started.

To really improve your flexibility, you’re going to need to stretch at least three times a week. This makes sure we stretch again before our muscles have a chance to totally reset. Frequent repetition also conditions the the central nervous system to relax and release a little more each time.

Of course, most students probably don’t practice three or more times a week. I suggest stretching at home – you don’t even have to put on your uniform. You already stretch during training, so stretching at home on days you don’t train multiplies your stretching several-fold. It will also multiply your results.

I’m Not Convinced

That’s cool. Some people really don’t want to stretch for whatever reason. They’ll say “high kicks don’t work in real life” or something. Of course, most of the stuff we practice in Taido wouldn’t work for self-defense anyway. If you don’t want to do splits, that’s cool – nobody is trying to force you to wear tights or do any other unmanly stuff.

But to me, this all just sounds like a cop out. You can’t do something, so you say it’s not important. Sour grapes. That’s even worse than making excuses. Why would you not want to improve your abilities?

I think most people who do Taido are trying to improve themselves in some way. We all have goals: get a black belt, win a tournament, lose some weight, spend some time every week challenging ourselves. All of those are valid, and all of them can be served with greater flexibility.

Still, if you don’t want to stretch, don’t. It’s your call. But know this: all of the people I know in Taido who can move the way I want to move are really flexible. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that all of the really good guys are also really flexible? It just seems like something worth developing.

What To Do

Go ahead and get started stretching three times a week or more. Warm up and then stretch for fifteen to twenty minutes. If possible, do this later in the evening.

Pay attention to where you are stiff and where you can move freely. Take note of any pain. Experiment with the exercise order – some muscles release after their neighbors are stretched (for example, stretching your calves loosens the hamstrings – try it). Remember not to fight yourself – just relax into the stretch with a deep exhale.

I’ll be posting again with a routine that has worked really well for me in the past. Right now, just building the habit is the most important thing. Get stretching, and I’ll give you some additional pointers soon.