By Mitchell Saba
Take this article for what it is, layman’s advice. All I know about stretching I have learned from reading and trail and error, no formal courses, no certificates, just personal experience and written material. With that said, read on at your own risk (I had to say that;).
Why do we stretch? The answer is simple, to increase our flexibility. Flexibility is important for many reasons. In karate it increases our abilities, speed and accuracy. Flexibility is good for muscle health and helps to reduce the likelihood of injury. There is no “quick” way to increase your flexibility, the only path is by regular stretching using the proper techniques. Using the proper techniques, anyone can improve their flexibility though the amount of time can vary from person to person due to our unique physical make-ups.
Flexibility is extremely important to karate training. Most people think of kicks when we talk about flexibility. While this is true, it is equally important to stretch your upper body after a workout. Chest and shoulder muscles can tighten up and restrict your movements and reduce your speed. Flexibility in your lower body is important for more then just kicks. Your stance will improve as you increase your flexibility. This is almost more important then kicks since your stance is your foundation. As you begin to assess your flexibility you will find that one side of your body seems more flexible then the other. This is normal as your non-dominant side (mine is the left) is typically more flexible. This is why it is typically easier to kick with your non-dominant leg. The one area that most forget about when training is the back/spin. This is very important in karate training since your power flows through your back to the point of attack. If your back is tight then its ability to twist will limit the amount of torque your body can provide.
Increased flexibility also decreases the amount of energy you need to expend as you train. Moving tight, inflexible muscles requires significant effort and energy that reduces the amount of available power. Generally speaking being flexible improves the fluidity of your movements, increases your speed and power, and reduces the amount of energy you expend, all important for your karate training.
Now that you understand the benefits of and reasons for stretching it is time to look at ways to improve your stretches. There are three types of body tissue that need to be stretched to gain flexibility, they are; muscles, joint capsules/ligaments, and nerves. The last usually surprises most people. In this next section we will look at examples of how to stretch these three types of body tissue.
Lower Torso/Groin Stretch
In the example to the left, we use our leg and hip. This is a classic lunge stretch. The lunge is a muscular stretch that helps the flexor muscle. The lunge is performed by placing one foot forward and one foot back. The knee of the back leg is dropped to the floor, you lean forward keeping your body upright. You should be able to feel a certain amount of “give” with this stretch through the front of your hip.
This stretch is performed while lying on your back with the soles of your feet together and knees stretched apart stretches your adductor muscles but is mainly a hip capsule and ligamentous stretch. You will feel this stretch much more then the previous stretch. This is because there is les elasticity in the hip capsules and ligaments. Because of this it is much harder to increase your flexibility. Notice the word harder, not impossible is used here, give it time and you will increase your flexibility.
In the example to the left, we sit with one leg out straight and reaching forward to touch our toes. If you are not flexible you WILL feel this stretch! This stretch is both a muscle and nerve stretch. Bending the knee slightly takes the nerve off the stretch and makes it purely a muscle stretch. With the leg straight you can feel the nerve stretching by the tightness in the back of your knee, not in the center of your hamstring muscle.
When you are stretching it is important to remember that nerves are more elastic then ligaments but less elastic then muscles. Nerves take a long time to stretch. Many researchers say it is a bad idea to aggressively stretch the sciatic nerve before exercising as it can upset the nerve signal to the muscle leading to a loss of muscle control. There are indications that this loss of control can lead to hamstring strain or more serious injury. The logical solution to this is to aggressively stretch the nerve AFTER exercising. This is also wise because muscles are very warm but cooling and stretching is more effective.
It is important to remember to breath properly while you stretch. If you tense as you attempt to stretch your efforts will have little effect. When you tense your muscles constrict, not the result you want. Breath into your stretch and relax your muscles completely. Stretch a little before any workout but save the bulk of your stretching efforts for after your workout. Your muscles WILL NOT gain in length (stretch) unless they are warm and elastic. Aerobic exercise is typically best before stretching because it maximizes your blood flow and muscle temperature. Stretching is as much a mental activity as it is physical.
Stretching Cheat Sheet
- Breath into the muscle you are stretching, focused and relaxed;
- Move in a slow and controlled fashion with a strong stretch just short of painful;
- Listen to your body, slowly take up muscle slack (10-20 seconds);
- Once there is no more slack available hold the stretch for 10 more seconds, and;
- Slowly release the stretch, continuing to breath, relax, then shake off the muscle.
The order in which we stretch our muscles can be very important. The muscles in our bodies are tied together and pull and push against one another. The back is the best example of this. If our back is very tight we can feel muscle pull (non-elasticity) from simply reaching for a pen. These same muscles are tied into our legs. Bending forward or stretching your hamstring could be made difficult if your back is not properly stretched first. There are numerous interdependencies like this, to many for this article. Below is a suggested list for an optimal order for stretching. Don’t stop here, if you are interested pickup some books and read about anatomy, muscles, etc. Anything you do will benefit your karate but more importantly your life.
Optimal Stretching Order
- Lower back
- Gluteal muscles and hip joints
- Hip flexors