How to Stretch Your Limits in Martial Arts


When talking about martial arts basics, it’s necessary to discuss the two essential elements that set the stage for main­taining interest in them and excelling at them, namely flexi­bility and strength. For women, what’s especially important to remember is that to excel in the martial arts, you don’t have to be a human rubber band or a female version of The Terminator.

Certainly, developing flexibility and strength is important to your basics training. The stronger your techniques, the cleaner they’ll look. The more flexible your legs, for instance, the lower your stances will be and thus the more attractive your forms will be.

The key to enjoying your training is to determine the level of flexibility and strength you’re capable of, and comfortable with, attaining. For instance, no matter how much I train, I still can’t do a full split—and truthfully, I’m not particularly interested in attaining that ability. I can’t even lean forward to touch my toes without bending my knees, much less put my palms to the floor as several of my classmates can. And no matter how many push-ups I do (and I can’t do many), bulk is not what comes to my mind when I pose my biceps before the bathroom mirror.

A certain level of flexibility is, however, essential to the martial arts for three reasons:

  • It helps prevent injuries by decreasing the tension on muscles;
  • it reduces muscle soreness; and
  • it will make your moves more dramatic, and in most martial arts styles, aesthetics, or how your moves look, count as much as effectiveness, or what your moves are intended to achieve.

The way to increase your level of flexibility is through warm-ups and stretching, which almost seem to be the same thing, but are not. Warm-ups raise the temperature of your muscles, decreasing the chance they’ll be stressed and injured, and increasing their responsiveness, as well as the blood flow to the muscles. Warming up for martial arts practice is particularly important because many of the moves involve changing direction quickly, which can aggravate and tear tight muscles.

How do you know when you’re warmed up? You’ll actu­ally feel warm, and your muscles will feel relaxed. And, a good warm-up session will increase your motivation. Walking is a great warm-up, but you proba­bly won’t have room enough in your school to do it. I’ve found that a great way to warm up is by jumping lightly up and down in one place, twisting the lower half of my body while keeping my arms bent as though I was running. Even jumping jacks are a great way to warm up.

Once students are warmed up, they can begin stretching. Done slowly and deliberately, stretching promotes flexibility. Before a workout, it reduces your chances of being injured; after a workout, if 11 relax your muscles and reduce muscle soreness. A good instructor always ends a class with stretch­ing, especially after a particularly tough session. That’s because he knows that after vigorous exercise, students’ muscles will be slightly injured. If left alone, the muscles will gradually shorten and tighten with time, limiting flexibility and increasing the chances of injuring the muscles. Stretching after a workout enables students to maintain their flexibility. Instructors also understand that not only is stretching good for students, it’s good for business. After all, students with pulled muscles may not work out, and with no students there’s no school.

Stretching properly to avoid pulled muscles requires a little time and patience. You should also remember to:

  • Hold still while stretching (in other words, don’t bounce).
  • Hold each stretch for at least fifteen seconds, and pre­ferably for thirty seconds.
  • Stop as soon as you feel pain. At that point your muscle

A torn muscle is just that—a muscle whose fibers have been torn apart. Ideally, you want your muscles to be able to contract and stretch without tearing. Muscles that aren’t stretched and warmed up will stay contracted most of the time. If they are then forcibly stretched beyond their limit, they will tear. In addition to warming up and stretching, new students shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of learning to relax their muscles to prevent them from tearing. This is why breathing exercises prior to class are so important.

Unfortunately, even among many fitness-conscious enthusiasts, stretching out before working out is given short shrift. They’re either too busy, or in their zeal to get their workout over with, they sprint over the gym’s warm-up mats and land in the Lifecycle seat eager to pedal their way to good health.

Even at my local YMCA, there are only two mats available for stretching, and they’re tucked away neatly and unobtrusively in two corners of the room in such a way that you can enter the room and never see them unless you turn your head sharply to the right or left. About half the people, upon entering the room, head straight for the machines.

But ten minutes of stretching can save days of discomfort. In fact, after you get into the habit of stretching, you’ll gain a renewed appreciation for those who practice the stretching art of yoga, which is far from the lightweight workout many associate with it. (Who knows? You might even decide to supplement your martial arts training by practicing yoga in a group setting or at home on your own.)

The secret to stretching is time. The more you give it, the more you’ll get out of it. Even though most martial arts schools will begin every class with warm-ups followed by stretching, it pays to fill the time prior to the official start of class with your own warm-ups and stretches. (And chances are you’ll arrive early for class, since most instructors, unless given a good reason, expect their students to be punctual.)

It’s not easy to get yourself into this routine. More often than not, the period prior to the official start of class looks something like this: Students mill around the training floor either staring into space or, if they can get away with it, talk­ing with their fellow classmates. Then there are the students who make themselves comfortable on the floor and halfheart­edly stretch out. They might make feeble attempts to touch their toes, or they might lie on their back and try to stretch their back thigh muscles by raising their legs, one at a time, toward the ceiling while pulling them toward their head. While these exercises are common and effective, they’ve got to be done with effort. In an effort to get the most out of their stretches, some students stretch only from a standing position, thus resisting the lure of the floor.

What also stops students from warming up before class is the idea that they might overexert themselves. You’ll see this a lot, even during class—a general reluctance by students to push themselves for fear that they’ll be too tired to make it through class or they won’t perform up to their potential because they wore themselves out earlier. Don’t let yourself fall into this trap. For one thing, you won’t overexert yourself doing warm-ups and stretching exercises; you’ll only invigo­rate yourself. Also, a good instructor keeps his finger on the pulse of the class and knows when it has been overworked.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to discipline yourself to warm up and stretch out, especially after you begin learning blocks, strikes, kicks, and other techniques pertinent to your style. Your first inclination when you get on the floor will be to prac­tice those moves. But theyTl feel and look a lot better if you warm up and stretch out beforehand. The best way I’ve found to discipline myself to thoroughly warm up and stretch out is to start—where else?—at the top. Here are some top-down suggestions:

Neck: Warm up with neck rolls, slowly rolling one way, then the other. Then stretch your neck muscles by turning your head side to side, and then by touching your right ear to your right shoulder and vice versa. Finally, point your chin up and down.

Shoulders: Warm up by rotating your shoulders forward and then backward. Then, with your hands clenched behind your head, pull one arm until your elbow is pointing toward the ceiling. Then switch to the other arm. Now, lock your hands behind your back and raise them while bending over.

Arms: Warm up by rotating your arms forward, then backward. Now rotate your wrists forward, then backward. Stretch your wrists by bending your fingers backward toward the top of your wrist. Hold one hand up with the palm facing your chest, go around the back of the hand with the other hand, grab the meaty part of the hand, which is located just beneath the thumb, then twist the hand until the palm points sideways. Repeat with the other hand. Next, hold your arms out in front of you with your hands made into fists, then shoot your fingers straight out. Repeat this as many times as you can.

Torso: Warm up by placing your hands on your hips, then rotate your hips clockwise, then counterclockwise. To stretch, push one hip to the right side, then to the left.

Legs: There’s nothing worse than sore leg muscles because they’re probably the most-used muscles in the martial arts. Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, bend over and, without bouncing, reach for your toes. Hold for at least fifteen seconds, and repeat ten times. Then stand with one side of you facing a wall, placing one hand on it for support. Bend your leg, pull it to your chest, and hold. Then swing it to the side, keeping it bent as if you were going to throw a kick. But instead, grab your shin, pull it toward your body, and hold. Finally, grab your ankle and hold the bent leg behind you. Switch sides and do this with the other leg.

Some of the best leg stretches are done with a partner. With one person standing with her back against a wall, the other student slowly lifts her partner’s leg, stopping intermit­tently to allow the muscle to stretch. The leg is then lowered slowly back down. You can also do this exercise with the leg being lifted to the side.

Feet: Yes, even these need to be warmed up and stretched. Standing with feet shoulder-width apart and hands on hips, rock back and forth on your feet (this also stretches the shin muscles). After that, rotate your foot at the ankle. Then point it up and down. Do the same for the other foot.

At this point in your training, you needn’t concern yourself with other students’ stretching techniques—unless, that is, you have a question, which you can bring to a high-ranking student. Occasionally, a high-ranking student will approach you to help with your stretches or to show you how to stretch properly. This is how a well-run school operates: High-ranking students assist low-ranking students, constructive criticism is offered, and no one is made to feel inferior. So don’t rush through your stretching exercises or push yourself to the point of pulled muscles. Go slow, don’t bounce as you stretch, and pay attention to all your muscles, even the ones we haven’t specifically gone over.

If you do pull a muscle, or incur some other minor injury, tell your instructor. He should advise you to avoid stressing the muscle until it has healed. If you injure your wrist, for example, you might do sit-ups while the rest of the class does push-ups. If it’s your knee thaf s injured, you might do side bends when the rest of the class is instructed to do knee bends. In any case, don’t try to ignore an injury out of fear of being branded a difficult student. In the same vein, if you have a bad back or sensitive knees, avoid stressing these areas. Chances are you’re studying a martial art for pleasure and enjoyment, not to prove that you have a high threshold for pain.

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About the Author: Cody Riffel is a regular contributor to MegaHowTo. She likes to write on variety of topics, whatever interests her. She also likes to share what she learns over the Internet and her day-to-day life.

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