The following article was submitted to Fight Quality by Josh from MMA Connecting.
We All Want The Baddest Ninja Moves
Stretching for many martial arts practitioners, myself included until very recently, was that boring part of the session that the coach makes you do before we do the fun punching/takedown/grappling that we signed up for. Sure, we know that stretching is important and none of us like being sat on the sofa injured and not being able to do those bad ass ninja moves that we love. So we go with the flow, we tell our training partners and people in our lives that flexibility is crucial to martial arts, but we aren’t backing up our chat with our actions. Of course, we have seen the pros in the gym who drop straight into the splits and it almost makes your eyes water just to see them do it. Even if you are aiming to achieve this one day, for the majority of martial artists their flexibility has a long way to improve.
So we talk about its importance but do we have flexibility goals like with our strength and conditioning? Are we planning on how we are going to achieve these flexibility goals with systems on how to get there? For the majority of martial artists this is the case and I too was committing this sin. Before we discuss ways to get these goals into your weekly plan with the same importance as things like roadwork and shadow boxing, we do need to remind ourselves of why and how we should stretch.
Why Martial Artists Should Stretch
So before we start looking into what specific types of stretching that we are going to do to increase our flexibility for martial arts, we first want to remind ourselves of why flexibility is important and the principles of stretching to follow so we get the most out of our sessions.
- Prevent injury by strengthening your muscles and joints
- Increased balance
- Work on your proprioception
- Move fluidly with increased range of motion
- This range of motion will also help your agility
The beauty of improving your flexibility in a martial arts context is that it improves all the intangible things which often get neglected when not specifically focusing on them. So you will get better over time by being injured less, meaning you can spend more hours in the gym. Increased balance and agility will make you faster and sharper with your footwork. Increased range of motion will mean you can get into positions which you previously couldn’t while grappling.
How To Break Down Your Stretching
The Joe Rogan podcast has been a source of training and life information for a lot of the martial arts community for a number of years now. The quality of the guests that he has on the show is often second to none. At the top of such guests in the martial arts world is of course Firas Zahabi, head coach of Tristar gym in Montreal. Generally regarded as one of the greatest and well rounded MMA coaches ever, his discussion on how to train smarter and not harder has seen me elevate my training to new levels over the past 18 months. You can watch it here, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
When it comes to strength and conditioning, Zahabi recommends fighters should do two kinds. One is general conditioning, while the other is sport specific. The sport specific side of this is what we are most familiar with as martial artists, it is the way in which we train to make us better at our chosen martial arts style. However, focusing on any one area of conditioning will lead to weaknesses in others. A good example of this is in bodybuilding and powerlifting. The bench press is one of the big power movements, where the human body is capable of pushing more than our own body weight. This movement uses our strong chest and arm muscles, but is supported by four small shoulder muscles called the rotator cuff. The sport specific movement of bench pressing can lead to an imbalance between the strong muscles in your chest and arms with your rotator cuff, which can later lead to injury. With some general training which included working on the rotator cuff added into the persons conditioning plan, then this wouldn’t be a problem.
It is important then to take this same approach with our flexibility. We want to do general flexibility training so that we don’t create any imbalances in our bodies, ensuring that we are supple and limber. Added into this we want to mix our sport specific flexibility, the exercises that will lead us throwing head kicks fluidly and cinching rubber guard without a second thought.
A second part of Zahabi’s analysis on how to workout smarter is to not workout to your absolute maximum in every session. The idea being that if you push yourself to your limit, then you will need to rest in order to recover from that session. He phrased it as “there is no such thing as overtraining, only under rest”. Instead you should focus on consistency, working to a challenging level regularly, as opposed to going to your max intermittently. This couldn’t be more true than with flexibility.
In order to become more flexible, consistency is king. Doing 15 minutes per day will lead to far greater results than a 1 hour and 45 minute session each week ever will, plus it’s also much easier to get into your weekly plan. So with all of that being said, let’s start to put all this information into an actionable plan.
Basic Principles Of Your Own Stretching
One of the things which makes increasing your flexibility enjoyable is that it really isn’t rocket science, don’t over think what you are doing and be patient over time to see results. So to put your mind at ease and have a list of these basic principles, here we go:
- Always warm up first! You should always be warm when you stretch, otherwise you increase the risk of injury and you can go deeper into each stretch
- Hold positions for at least 30 seconds to give the muscles time to expand
- Breathe deeply to get oxygen to your muscles and don’t hold your breath
- Split your sessions from general flexibility (Yoga is perfect for this) and martial arts specific flexibility flexibility
- Consistency is king – aim to work on it 5-6 a week
One of the more enjoyable aspects of doing your own stretching routine as opposed to being a part of a group is that you can work each stretch at your own pace. You shouldn’t try and force a position, if you begin to shake or feel a deep burn then you have almost certainly gone too far. Instead, hold a position where it feels challenging but not painful or uncomfortable. Also, you’re free to focus on any particular weaknesses that you may have. For me, I know that I want to improve my flexibility in my left hip, which is much less flexible than my right. So for now, I am stretching my left hip twice as much as my right until I feel like they are in a similar position. It is completely natural to have imbalances like this and we all have them, so taking the time to work on your flexibility means you can target these specific weaknesses.
Big Returns In A Small Amount Of Time
When the Coronavirus lockdown first struck, I could see on my social media that the majority of my training partners were posting or discussing their strength and conditioning plans for quarantine. Many had endurance goals, they were going to increase their roadwork to help their cardio. Or they were going to do bodyweight & kettlebell resistance training to help their functional strength for when they get back into the gym. All I could think to myself was, isn’t this just more of the same? I’m not taking anything away from strength & conditioning training, obviously martial artists need it and it is a crucial part of any training regime. But when presented with an opportunity like lockdown to work on your weaknesses and get ahead of competitors who aren’t focusing on this, it seemed like too big of an opportunity to give up.
My plan was to follow all of the guidelines that were previously mentioned above. I was going to stretch twice a day, one general flexibility session and one other martial arts focused one. I aimed to do ten minutes of yoga immediately after waking up, then 10 minutes of martial arts specific stretching before doing a workout later in the day.
The changes that I have seen in my flexibility have been greater than I ever expected and have happened in only six weeks. When shadowboxing, my high kicks are flowing much better than they ever have before, particularly any spinning kicks. My chamber has been a limiting factor in how well I throw sidekicks in the past and it has improved to a level where I am surprised about how high my knee now is. The best part though is just how loose I feel on an all around basis. I can feel the difference in my hips and upper back the most and frankly, it feels great. Everyone else may be slightly fitter and stronger, but when I get back to the gym I will have taken my rubber guard to a whole new level. That to me is a quarantine well spent and a fitness goal well worth achieving.
Time To Get Started
So here it is, the moment that you have been waiting for. The grand reveal of the best stretching routine on the internet for martial artists, just like all the other websites that you have visited have promised. Except that this isn’t that kind of article. Which for me is one of the great things about flexibility training, the process is so personal to you and your body so I encourage you to try out many different stretches and routines, experiment with when and how often you do them. Remember though that consistency is key!
So rather than giving you the best stretch routine on the internet, I’m going to give you four routines that I have been doing; two general flexibility & two martial arts specific. We’ll go over the reasons why I like them and hopefully you can use this as a base to discover and create your own stretching routine, not just one which was written on the internet. So here we go.
First off we shall be looking at general flexibility. I have been doing this routine regularly and it has become one of my favourites. The main reason why I like it is that it has a number of hip stretches which is something that I have been focusing on, but also some great spine and shoulder stretches. My upper body always feels so much better after doing this one.
As mentioned before, focusing on my hip mobility has been a goal of mine and this has been my favourite routine to target that weakness. Tom Merrick is a movement coach rather than a Yogi, so this routine has some mobility exercises which are not common to Yoga sessions.
As far as pedigree goes, you couldn’t ask for much more than Stephen Thompson. World Karate & Kickboxing champion plus two time UFC Welterweight challenger, Thompson has been at the top of the martial arts world for over a decade. I have been doing this routine daily, it only takes about eight minutes and the progress I have made in my splits recently I think is largely due to this routine.
Last but not least is a stretching routine by Fight Tips. This is great as it is a full routine specifically focused on improving the flexibility for high kicks, so it is very martial arts centric. Shane has an extensive background as well in Taekwondo, where flexibility and fluidity in kicking is absolutely paramount.
Now You’re On Your Own
If you have stuck around for this long, you at the very least have had some desire to learn about how to become more flexible for martial arts. There have been a number of takeaways for you throughout, but rather than giving you a set routine I think you should experiment. Try as many different routines and stretches that you can, learn more about your body and current level of flexibility. In doing so you will have a much better understanding of your weaknesses, learn more about the muscles required in martial arts specific moves such as kicking and rubber guard and then specifically aim at improving those muscles. Consistency over intensity, working at your own limits will ultimately be the best way to improve your flexibility for martial arts.
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