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.
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:
- too much hip turn diverts power and momentum away from the target,
- 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!)
- the foot pivot prevents turning the body in the other direction (i.e. for the next technique in combination), and
- 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.
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.