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.

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8 thoughts on “You’re Probably Stretching Wrong”

  1. As far as I know, stretching in taido is not about getting more flexible.. At the start of training it’s about avoiding injuries (muscle pulls) and at the end of training it’s about improving recovery.. It’s hard to combine such stretching into taido that it would improve flexibility, because after class muscles are usually too warm and at the start of class doing effective stretching (longer static stretches, isometrics or stuff like that) causes higher risk of injury in following training… And is flexibility really that useful, as we don’t kick high..? It would be nice to be able to do splits, but I don’t see much use in that.

  2. Hey Juha, and thanks for chiming in.

    To me the point of stretching is to increase flexibility. As an instructor, I think most students begin Taido lacking the necessary flexibility and mobility to perform the techniques properly. This means they have to become flexible through stretching and other exercise. Most students can’t do hangetsuate when they start out either, but that’s OK – we teach them and make them practice. Same thing with stretching and flexibility,

    You can stretch for a variety of reasons. As I wrote above, stretching as preparation is not incorrect – it serves that goal well enough, but it doesn’t nothing to improve upon the our existing capabilities.

    I may be a very strange person, but I feel like the biggest reason to practice Taido is to improve myself. It’s fun too, but I can have fun masturbating. Taido makes me better. To get better at Taido, I feel it’s important to improve my physical attributes as well as my skills.

    Taido is composed of taiki, doko, and seigyo. Maybe you just want to learn all the techniques and try to perform them with your current level of flexibility and strength. That’s doko. You can use seigyo to discover ways to apply the techniques.

    But taiki is about the body and it’s capabilities and use. We tend to think of taiki as just breathing, but it includes everything to do with the physical body. As we practice doko and seigyo, we need to work on building our strength, stamina, and mobility. We should eat good foods and remain healthy so we are always prepared to perform our best.

    I don’t believe that stretching after class will make you injury prone. In any event, I’m not recommending isometric stretches. They are useful in some cases, but they aren’t for everyone.

    The thing about all the research that’s been done on stretching is that it’s mostly contradictory and inconclusive. We can’t just accept everything that comes out of some university study. We have to use our own experience.

    I’ve never stretched so much that my muscles were too weak to perform the next day. In theory, you could stretch too much one day and then try to do demanding movements without warming up the next day and hurt yourself. But this is not going to be what most people experience. For most people, they will just feel looser and more relaxed.

    I’m going to address why flexibility is important (including the whole split-and-high-kick issue) in the next article.

    Again, thanks.

  3. As you probably will comment on this in the next article, this comment might be unnessecary. On the other hand, writing is more fun when you get feedback.

    For me as a swede (it’s a cold country ;) ), under five minutes of warm-up seems as a VERY short period of time to be able to perform well during at least the first part of training. For kids and teenagers this might work, but for me, closing in on my thirties it takes at least 15 minutes before I’m warm enough to function optimally. Unfortunately, the “shock-starts” that was a good way of starting training in my early twenties is not really a god warm-up anymore. Believe me, I’ve tried! It takes forever, sometimes almost the whole training session, to recover from it.

    Of course you can use taido or taido exercises also for continuing the warm-up after the first five minutes, but it’s crucial that you as an instructor are aware that different warm-up routines may be required for different ages, or at least the tempo of these routines.

    Regarding the stretching I would say that I totally concurr with you Andy. Stretching should be performed after training (but it’s nothing wrong with some stretching in the end of warm-up to loosen up the muscles a bit). For a period of time, stretching in the end of the training sessions was neglected in our dojo, simply because we thought other exercises were more important. It didn’t take long to get quite stiff! Now, we’ve started stretching (again) the last five-ten minutes of the sessions, and I’ve got more flexible again.

    One other thing regarding stretching: it’s very easy to forget the upper body! The legs most people know to and how to stretch, but tend to forget about the hip, back, chest, shoulders etc. In taido it’s important to be flexible in these part of the body too, to be able to perform good sotai (especially sengi and nengi), to be able to be creative in e.g. jissen etc.

    Thanks for an interesting article, looking forward to next!
    Hope to see you in Hiroshima in August.

    1. Hannes:

      You’re so right about warm-ups being more important as we age. Instructors should always be aware of the different levels and needs of students in a particular class.

      Also about the upper body – very easy to forget, very important.

      It sounds like your experience with this is pretty similar to mine. I haven’t been diligent about stretching lately, and I’ve lost a lot of mobility. Getting it back is a big priority in my training right now (along with about 100 other things I’m not satisfied with…). I was pretty sure at least a few other folks out there were in the same boat.

      Thanks for your comments – they help a lot.

      I’m putting the finishing touches on the next post, so it should be up within a couple of days.

  4. I agree both with Hannes and Andy

    To be able really make all taido techniques correct way (or even kamae) muscles needs to in balance. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has too stiff back of the thighs. If thighs are stiff it easily makes pelvis/knee position/angle wrong etc. Neck problems are part of wrong same thing: back is wrong position and chin comes “forward”. Breast muscles are too tight and they pull shoulders to wrong position etc. You name it.

    My opinion is that stretching is not only about how high we can kick, but it makes your life better. If you stretch and muscles are in balance your body bearing is better and you avoid back, neck and even knee pains.

    We have had 2 sessions with physiotherapist who is also professional dancer and certified pilates instructor. And she said (after seeing for example part of tentai no hokei) that if our body “maintenance” would be better we would be much faster in our movements. (Simply we don’t use or even know how to use all our muscles). She said that we have good “ground force”, but the body maintenance should be much better. She was shocked when she noticed that we can not all get our hands together in back of our back (you know when the other hand comes from down and other from up, and one should be able to take grip). So now next time she will have 2 day session for us to get us adopt inside Taido trainings proper streching sessions.

    In her training sessions we have not had actual warm up, but with actual same stretching movement muscle was warmed up; one just first short time and not so deep stretch and then repeating again and again making the stretch deeper and longer all the time.

    She fully convinced me why it is important to stretch.

    (We have learn by the way that in beginning by stretching we merely “teach” our body where are our tight places and each stretch can be only 5 to 7 sec. But after training there can be longer from 30 to 1 minute stretches.)

    1. Elisa, thanks for your comments.

      You are so right about the need to keep the body in balance – this requires flexibility and strength. It’s so easy to get muscle imbalances when you do some things often but neglect others. There are many examples: tight chest and weak back, as you mentioned. They all combine to make our movements more difficult and our techniques weaker.

      Consulting professionals in sports training and therapy is a very good idea. I try to do this often too. If possible, you should make a video of your next training with her. I would love to see some of what she does with you guys, even if it’s not in English.

      I definitely agree with that last bit about light stretching in the beginning to take notice and then really stretching out later – that’s part of the system I’ll be describing in one of the next articles.

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience with this.

  5. “I don’t believe that stretching after class will make you injury prone.”

    I didn’t mean it would.. Just that after class stretching isn’t probably effective. People have told me that stretching that aims to increase flexibility should be done couple of hours after class, starting with light warm up.. I’m too lazy for such.

    I have done quite a bit of stretching and I still do, but I’m not sure that it helps that much.. It just maintains the basic flexibility, but I don’t see any improvements in stretches, I’m still as far away from being able to do splits than I was last year, of five years ago.

  6. Probably isn’t effective for what? It sounds like you haven’t done enough of it to find out.

    “I’m still as far away from being able to do splits than I was last year, of five years ago.”

    You are not alone in this. In fact, I know a lot of people who hit flexibility plateaus and never move past them. I suggest taking this a a clue that you need to change your approach.

    True, you could just keep doing what you’re doing and not improving. It’s “good enough.” Maybe.

    Or you could make some changes to the way you stretch in a trial basis. Make a commitment to do more focused flexibility work for one month and see what happens.

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