In the previous section of “How not to stretch” I covered some basic stuff. If you haven’t done so, please read that part first. For now, let’s look at something so obvious, loads of people don’t even consider it:
How flexible do you need to be?
Look at me, a certified rocket scientist! But seriously, how much flexibility is enough for your martial arts training? To answer that question, just look at the style you practice and ask yourself: What’s the required range of motion for the most common movements and techniques? If every kick you do only goes as high as the opponent’s knee, do you really need to be able to do full splits? Nope. If you happen to do those high kicks, is it sufficient to be able to pull them off and leave it at that? Again, the answer is no.
While we’re at it, don’t just look at hip flexibility but look at all your joints and muscles. Even the ones you don’t think need much flexibility: Arms, shoulders, ankles, calves, neck, etc. In many cases, your whole body performs movements that require a great range of motion but because you don’t think about it, you don’t recognize it.
Other times, flexibility is a necessity for a specific technique but you don’t use it as much elsewhere. For instance: There’s a technique called “snake creeps down” in the tai chi form I practice. It opens up your hips big time if you do it right and is a really good stretch in and of itself. The more flexible you are, the easier it is to perform. If you can do it correctly, you’ll probably have the flexibility to do a high kick. That said, we don’t do high kicks in our tai chi, so we don’t use the flexibility gained from “snake creeps down” that way.
Back on track, so how flexible do you need to be anyway? Here’s the rule of thumb I use:
Don’t stretch for what you don’t need but also don’t stretch to pull off only what you need. Instead, stretch until you have a slight flexibility surplus for every movement or technique you do. This surplus ensures you stay injury free when:
- You haven’t warmed up enough (even though you thought you did) and do a high amplitude technique. The surplus allows your muscles to “give” and not tear when this happens.
- You slip or make another mistake and you are forced into a greater range of motion. Once again, the surplus allows you to handle that more easily than if you didn’t have it.
- Your partner or opponent forces you into a greater range of motion. Whether it happens by accident or on purpose, the surplus gives you a buffer zone to absorb the increase in range of motion and also gives you some time to save yourself from injury.
So it boils down to: Don’t stretch too much, don’t stretch too little. Stretch for what you need and then make sure you’re a bit more flexible than that to build in that surplus.
Flexibility doesn’t make you better, training does.
Many people will counter this with: “Well, if you can do full splits, your low kicks automatically become easer to perform.”
Up to a point, I agree. But the law of diminishing returns applies here: If all you need for comfortably doing those low kicks is a small surplus of flexibility, does it really make sense to spend a lot of time until you can do a full split? Wouldn’t that time be better spent practicing those kicks and actually get better at them?
In my experience, it is. There comes a point where being even more flexible doesn’t make much difference to the performance of the technique. Putting it clearly, if you’re only an inch or two away from a full split and all you throw is low kicks, stretching until your butt sits on the floor won’t make much of a difference.
There’s more to life than martial arts.
All that said, there is more to life than punching and kicking people, regardless of how much fun this can be. Being flexible beyond what is necessary for the art you study can have amazing health benefits.
- You’ll be more relaxed in whatever you do: flexible muscles are less tense.
- As a result, you’ll waste less energy because your body won’t be fighting itself as much with every move you make.
- You can avoid pain and injuries that have nothing to do with training: Stretch out those trapezius muscles after a 9-5 day of sitting in front of a computer. You’ll feel better.
- The guy/girl you want to impress will sooooooooooo be turned on when he/she sees you casually relaxing into a full split… :-)
These are some good reasons to stretch beyond the flexibility required for your martial arts practice. Life is about a lot more than just training.
In a nutshell, just make up your own mind as to what degree of flexibility you need but do it for the right reasons. But whatever you do, don’t do this:
If you’re screaming like this kid here, odds are good you’re pushing things beyond what you need…
UPDATE: Part four of “How not to stretch” is now up.