By Jerzy Łabiński
Karate training is associated by many laymen with the ability to perform splits, high jumping kicks, breaking boards, etc. Although all these elements have their place in martial arts training, every trainee knows that they are not as important in training as it might seem. In this article, I would like to focus on muscle stretching exercises. “Someone who trains martial arts must be able to do the splits.”
Such thinking is typical of many people who know little about martial arts. Experienced karateka know that the ability to perform splits and high kicks over the head is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve a high level of training. Aside from the sporting situation, high kicks just don’t pay off, they’re too risky for the kicker. Besides, if you want to kick high, you don’t have to be able to do the splits, it’s much more important to properly set the spine.
Does all this mean that stretching exercises are unnecessary for us - karateka? They are necessary. The list of benefits of stretching is truly impressive, and the ability to perform high kicks by stretching your muscles is just one of them.
However, we must be aware that the way we often think about stretching our muscles has little to do with what the body expects of us. First of all, some exercises performed decades ago, when martial arts training in Europe was just beginning, are downright harmful. Secondly, different exercises are appropriate to be performed at the beginning of training and others at the end of it. Thirdly, when I talk about muscle stretching, I mean stretching the muscles of the whole body, not just the lower limbs. I have noticed that martial arts practitioners focus on stretching the lower limbs and back, completely ignoring the muscles of the neck, abdomen, and arms. Our body works as a system of interconnected elements. Stretching your muscles will help you not only to kick high, but also will make punches, throws, and locks more effective. Interestingly, proper massage of the sole of the foot will allow for easier stretching of the calf muscles and the back of the thigh. But first things first.
I remember starting shotokan karate training. The instructors recommended standing apart and deepening the bend by pulsating with your hands to the ground. As a young player, I performed this exercise very dynamically with great commitment, wanting to achieve the intended results as soon as possible. In fact, I was able to deepen the bend to some extent, but after years of this type of training, problems with pain in the knees appeared. This form of stretching, called pulse stretching is incorrect and even harmful to our body. On a similar principle, you can perform virtually any stretching exercise, e.g. the straddle split (set your legs apart, dynamically lower your hips towards the floor and lift many times). The problem is that when we get into the stretching position, we stretch the muscles. We should think about relaxing the body at this time. Deepening the stride in pulses sends a message from the muscles to the brain, information that something unnatural is happening to our body. Such movement is not normal for our muscles. In response, the brain sends information to the muscles about the need to tense the muscles. This muscle tension is designed to protect our joints, ligaments and tendons from damage. Therefore, we lead to a situation in which, wanting to make stretching easier, we act against our body and cause the tension of the muscles. We stretch tense muscles, micro-damage to muscle fibres occurs. Scar tissue forms, which over time can lead to overuse injuries to muscles and joints. Consequently, a very popular and widely used method of stretching muscles can do more harm than good.
Another mistake (which is very easy to correct) is to use stretching exercises only at the beginning of the training, or to use the same exercises at the beginning and at the end of the training. Remember that a properly prepared training unit should start with a warm-up, then we have the main part (kihon, kata, kumite) and cool-down at the end. We often forget about this third part. In the article, I would like to focus mainly on the exercises that should be performed in this last part of the training. Why is this separation of warm-up and cool-down stretching exercises so important? Because these two elements of training (warm-up, cool-down) have different functions. The task of warm-up is to prepare the body for increased effort, which will take place in a moment. Doing static stretching exercises at the beginning of your workout is inappropriate. Static exercises consist in taking the right position in the exercise and staying in it for a dozen or so seconds. Maintaining this position allows you to relax and stretch your muscles, but in a static way, and the work that we are about to do in the main part of the training will be dynamic. What use is that we increase muscle flexibility in a static way, if in a moment we will be performing kicks with full dynamics (with speed and strength). Muscles will not be prepared to explosively, rapidly increase their length during, for example, a kick. The place of static stretching exercises is at the end of training (cool-down). At the end of the warm-up, we should use dynamic stretching exercises consisting in swinging the limbs in all biomechanically natural planes. Such exercises are commonly known, they include:
Such a dynamic form of stretching prepares our body for the effort that is to take place in the main part of the training. We increase the range of motion in the joints by increasing the flexibility of the muscles, warming up the muscles. In addition, such exercises are aerobic in nature, raising the heart rate.
As I have already written, static exercises are suitable to be performed at the end of training (cool-down). Let’s remember that training is a process aimed at preparing us for the next training, which will take place in a few days. After finishing a given training unit, we should already think about regenerating our body and preparing for the next training. Muscles after a demanding workout will be tense, stretching exercises of a static nature will help us relax and loosen the muscles. It is such exercises that I would like to focus on in this article.
A common mistake is to focus only on stretching the muscles of the lower limbs. Stretching should be performed by those who practice various martial arts, including those in which kicks are not performed. Stretching should be performed by people practicing various forms of physical activity. The type of stretching exercises should be matched to what techniques prevail in a given martial art, but you cannot limit yourself to stretching only one muscle group. As I mentioned earlier, the body is a system of interconnected elements. By neglecting one of these elements, we will feel discomfort in the others. By neglecting to stretch certain muscle groups, over time we will experience problems in the effectiveness of certain techniques. Let’s discuss such an example. We neglect to stretch the neck muscles. We lead a sedentary lifestyle on a daily basis (office work). Over time, we notice that when performing a mae-geri kick, we lower our head (looking at the floor). The strength and speed of our kick decreases because the spine does not retain its natural curves. Contracted neck muscles make it impossible to maintain proper posture, and although the glutes, thighs and back muscles are properly prepared for this kick, neglected neck muscles make it difficult for us to perform mae-geri properly. This simple example shows how important it is to prepare the whole body comprehensively.
Below are some simple static stretching exercises that should be done at the end of your workout. I tried to choose exercises for different muscle groups, but in fact the selection of exercises is an individual matter.
The most important benefits of muscle stretching are as follows:
increasing the range of motion,
A very important (comprehensive) and commonly used exercise is bending your hands to the floor. We stand slightly apart (or with our feet together) and slowly make a bend with the tips of our fingers or whole hands to the floor. (1) This exercise stretches the gastrocnemius muscles, popliteal fossa, back muscles. More advanced people can reach their head to their knees. (2) This exercise can also be done in a seated position. An interesting modification of this exercise is crossing your feet. (3) We will then feel that the gluteal muscles are stretching.
The muscles of the front side of the thigh (quadriceps) are heavily involved in the training of all kicks. Lie on your side, your left upper limb straightened at the elbow, put it under your head. Thanks to this setting, the spine will maintain its natural curvature. Bend the knee on top of the leg, grab the back of the foot and pull it towards the buttock. (4) To make this exercise more effective, move your knee further back. This exercise can also be performed in a standing position.
To stretch the gluteal muscles, lie on your back, bend your leg at the knee. (5) Grab your hands under your knee and pull your knee to your chest. This is an easy exercise. It can also be performed in a standing position.
An effective exercise for stretching the gastrocnemius muscle is the exercise presented in the photo. (6) Stand with your feet slightly apart, move your right foot forward, rest it on the heel. The back leg should be bent at the knee, the foot pointing outwards. Place your hands above the knee of your right leg, point your toes upwards, press down with your palms. A more advanced version of this exercise is to grab your toes with your hands and pull them towards your knee.
Because of intensive kick training, it is worth remembering to stretch the lumbar and hip muscles. (7) Stand with your feet slightly apart, take a step forward with your right leg (bend your knee and hip), move your other leg far back and rest it on your back. Place your hands on the thigh of your right leg or on your hips. Gradually lower your hips down. To increase the effectiveness of the exercise, move your hips slightly forward. The spine should retain all its natural curves. The exercise will stretch the lumbar-hip muscles of the right leg and the muscles of the back of the foot. This is useful when training the mawashi-geri kick.
Slender split or Turkish split (with toes pointing up) are exercises intended for advanced people. Such exercises for beginners are not suitable. If you have not done stretching for a long time, it is also better to give up (at least for some time) such exercises. A healthier and safer alternative is to exercise while lying against a wall. Lie on your back, buttocks against the wall. Put your feet on the floor and let them spread freely to the sides. (10) Legs will drop freely down. Stretching is facilitated by the earth’s attraction, we do not press the hips with the weight of our own body, so in this exercise we have a lower risk of injury.
It is worth remembering to stretch the side muscle band. (11) This muscle group is often neglected and muscles are contracted as a result of our lifestyle. You stand with your feet slightly apart, grab your right forearm with your left hand and bend to the side to the left. The exercise should be repeated on both sides.
The muscles of the front and side of the neck and nape should not be neglected. (12, 13, 14) Sedentary work, using a smartphone makes the neck muscles contract. Keep your head straight looking straight ahead. The pictures show simple stretching exercises for this muscle part.
It is worth finishing the training of punches (especially straight punches) with exercises stretching the muscles of the arms. (15) Stand with your feet slightly apart, bend your elbow, put your hand between your shoulder blades. Put your other hand on your elbow and press it down. This exercise will stretch the triceps brachii. It's also worth spending some time stretching your forearm muscles. Grab your fingers, pull them down, feel the muscles of the underside of the forearm stretch. (16) This exercise is useful after strength training, throwing, or punching training.
At the end of this article, I would like to draw attention to the static stretching exercises in preparation for learning kicks. As mentioned earlier, dynamic stretching exercises should be used at the beginning of the training. The purpose of performing the exercises suggested below is to prepare for the next training, which is aimed at training kicks. Exercises should be done with a partner. (17, 18, 19) We put our foot on the partner’s shoulder and assume the kicking position (mae-geri, yoko-geri, mawashi-geri, ushiro-geri). Depending on the degree of stretching, the partner can either kneel or stand. In the stretching position, we should hold for several seconds, then we change sides. The big advantage of such exercises is that the muscles are stretched in exactly the position of the body in which we will perform kicks.
In the article, I did not mention the very effective isometric stretching at all. I also did not describe the more demanding, complex exercises. I think that the most important thing is to understand the meaning and essence of stretching exercises, and that was the purpose of this article. Good luck to all of you who are practicing.