So I got a call last week from a concerned parent. Her concern? She was worried her 17 year old was not flexible enough to do the high kicks like they show in movies and hence she was putting off her training. Leaving aside the bunkum that popular media portrays about martial arts and kickboxing, it got me thinking about writing a few things about flexibility.
How training flexibility in the right way can help?
- It frees you up physically and mentally where you don’t feel bogged down by aches and stiffness.
- Improvement in posture
- Better circulation and health of internal organs
- Improvement of endocrine and nervous system function
Your fears are a part of the nervous system
Every muscle contracts on an impulse from the brain through the central nervous system(CNS). Chronically contracted and short muscles develop a stretch reflex that makes it reflexive for the muscle to resist any kind of lengthening. In our classes, we train flexibility by first developing the interaction between the CNS and peripheral nervous system(PNS). So you learn to relax and override the stretch reflex with breathing and sensitivity.
DO NOT force a stretch. DO NOT try to touch ‘head to knees’ or ‘head to toes’. BE PATIENT.
Factoring in the fascia
Fascia is a dense matter comprised of mainly collagen that wraps muscles, tendons, ligaments and internal organs throughout the body. Think of it as one muscle running from head to the toes that effectively transmits force through the body’s structure. Repetitive movements and short muscles cause the fascia to adapt accordingly and become dense and excessively tense. Pull a taut bedsheet in any position you see the effect on the whole sheet.
Without removing the dense buildup around shoulders, abdominals, hips etc trying to force a stretch is futile. Try deep tissue massage, rollers, rolling around on the floor.
Correct alignment, partner assisted loaded stretching
We start with a focus on the absolutely correct alignment. Firstly this trains the CNS to release its tight control over the muscles. Secondly the density of the fascia adapts to the changing muscles. PATIENCE. You can get a partner to assist with an increased load once you’ve settled down into a stretch and can’t progress further.
If you want to split like Van Damme just remember the extreme stretches and high kicks forced him to have a hip replacement surgery!
Functional core strength
Martial arts strikes focus on producing power through arms and legs in the most efficient way. The core is not just the ‘six pack’ when it comes to martial arts. It includes the trunk, belly and the legs. Anatomically the following major muscle groups are involved
- rectus abdominis, the six pack
- transversus abdominis, crisscrossing set of muscles that connect with the diaphragm
- psoas, the longest muscle from the ribcage to the thigh bone
- vastus medialis, the inner thigh muscles (a part of quadriceps)
Practicing kicks target all these areas which translate into further benefits.
Improved posture and relaxed spine
Take the example of a roundhouse kick. There is a twisting power generated that involves the obliques, psoas and inner thighs. When practiced correctly, it opens up tight hips, releases tension from the lower back and builds obliques that holds the spine in place. Once the muscles are developed functionally, extra load is removed from the spine which returns it to its natural relaxed S-curves shape.
Reduces tightness in the thighs and calves
Kicks work on engaging the major leg muscles: quadriceps, hamstrings, calves etc. In a front kick, both the hamstrings and quadriceps are engaged and relaxed alternately. As awareness of these muscles increase with repeating the kicks, the muscles become supple and toned.
The gluteus maximus, the ‘butt muscle’ is the largest muscles in the body that powers lower body movements. A sedentary life at a desk weakens this muscle along with tightening the psoas (see above) that can cause lower back pain.
With the right kind of training in kicks, these muscles can be re-activated that allows for relaxed walking, running and general comfort. Consistent movement that re-educates these muscles are the safest way to correct imbalances that arise from weak glutes. So show up in training and keep at those kicks.
There are mostly two ways in which striking is taught in martial arts styles across (now this is a generalization, so relax)
- Putting the whole bodyweight behind a strike, or
- Keeping the body parts relaxed building up to a whip like quality in the strike
The first approach can be seen in modern boxing, kickboxing, Thai Boxing, some Japanese schools of Karate etc. Basically the body builds up a spiraling motion starting from a pivot point eg. the foot. Then progressively muscle groups are contracted sequentially to finally release the power through hands, feet, elbows, knees or any other striking surface. See a few examples here
Advantage: Delivers massive impact due to the build up of momentum
- This is a hit or miss way of striking. If the surface of striking moves away or changes orientation, the vectors of the momentum being aligned in only one direction can easily cause the person to lose balance, trip over and injure themselves
- After delivering a strike, the body takes considerable time to recover and bring the spine back to a neutral position. An unbalanced spinal structure is always the first set up for a throw or takedown.
Applying kinesiology and specifically the concept of kinetic chains does give us a structural idea of the body and the simple mechanics behind a strike. On paper it might calculate out to be a good strike but adding a human body to the mix changes everything. A human body is both hard and soft. This is where the second approach picks up.
- Relaxing the hips and shoulders, allowing the spine to rest at a neutral position and length. This is quite close to the state of Sung in taijiquan.
- Moving muscular tension like a wave along different muscle groups
Such a strike when released allows a better transfer of impact into a body. An alive body reacts very differently to a strike than a heavy bag or board. Depending on the static tension, the available neural pathways, visual cues etc every other body reacts uniquely. To adapt to such uniqueness, the strikes are delivered with natural efficiency and they add up when the body is not constantly recovering from putting too much effort into a single strike.
How do I build this quality of movement in my muscles? It’s simple really. You don’t have to look beyond some basic exercises. Just add some variation in the way you do normal workouts like push ups, sit ups, leg raises or squats. Are you fixed to only one plane of motion? If the ground below you suddenly became slippery, would you feel relaxed enough to adapt in the moment? Want to learn more? Give me a call on 8308252872 to train in Pune.
You can Vladimir Vasiliev showing a similar concept of strikes that adapt fast