Adding Range to Your Kicks
By Sensei Neil Prime, Rokudan
Your kicking arsenal greatly extends the range of your tactical abilities while sparring. Your legs can generate far more power that your hands and provide a distance advantage over your arms too. The single most advantage that your hands have is speed, but I also believe that appropriate positioning and footwork during your set up can counter that advantage.
Flexibility certainly is a key factor, but more I think it is more important that people understand how to develop the proper range of motion. It is also very important to understand that your flexibility greatly increases your speed and greatly increases your ability to bridge the gap (the distance between you and your opponent) by being able to maneuver quickly in and out of striking range.
Question: Do you have to be able to do the splits to be able to kick well?
Answer: No. It is far more important to have a higher range of flexibility through your whole middle area of your body combined with your leg flexibility to give you a better range of motion.
Although it is important to stretch the back of your leg (the hamstring or biceps femoris) and the inside of your thighs (the groin muscles or adductor magnus, longus and brevis) it is very important to work the core area as a whole. We need to include the back, stomach, waist and the balance of the leg muscles too as they are all closely related. If you are only doing the standard side split and front split stretches for your leg flexibility training then you are cutting yourself very short of achieving the results that you can potentially achieve.
Your whole mid-section is a key area that a lot of people donít consider. Strong stomach muscles (rectus abdominis or abs) are important to maintain endurance. You want to have strong but flexible side rib or mid-section (external obiques) so that when you donít want to lean, you can crunch these muscles and allow for a more cloaking effect of the upper body, especially when executing a lead leg round kick. When your legs are rotating in the air (particularly round or hook kicks) it is your mid-section muscle group that is controlling the flight path, therefore a good mix of strength and flexibility is required.
Knowing when to crunch and knowing when to lean to take advantage of extending your range is very important also. Putting the proper lean when required is a great way to extend the reach of your kick while keeping your head out of the way of a counter attack.
For those who want to add strength through weight training keep in mind that too much bulk will slow you down. Thereís no doubt youíll be able to hit real hard, but keep in mind you need be able to count on your fast twitch muscles and maintain stamina. There is a fine line between working your muscles for endurance in which your stamina will increase and strength in which you may be able to push or pull a lot at one time, but only for a short time. Look up some pictures of the young Joe Lewis (full contact karate) on the internet. If you look closely at the muscle groups you will see that they are well defined, but not overly large like a body builder or power lifter. His back and shoulders are rounded to maintain mobility and allow his guard to close. His legs are solid, but not bulky.
To assist with your kicking there are certain muscles that you need strong. Any of the muscles that lift the leg from the floor and the muscles that pushes the bottom half of your leg to the target is what you need to consider. To get your foot off the floor quickly you need to start at the bottom. Your achilles, the tendon that runs from the base of the calf (soleus) to your heel, needs to be super flexible as does the muscles that extend to the foot (gastrocnemius). This is the one that is most likely to give you problems. The groups of muscles in the bottom portion of your leg are taxed all the time you are on your feet. Keep them stretched and you shouldnít run into any major problems. You need to be able to rely on them to "quick-start" your legs.
The other area of extreme importance is the top of the thigh (quadriceps) and through the whole hip flexor group of muscles. They need to be super strong as they do a major part of lifting the leg. Even if youíre flexible, if you canít get your leg up quick it is a major disadvantage. Working in conjunction with the front, is the back. If your butt muscles (gluteus maximus) are flexible, it allows the opposing muscles an opportunity to lift the leg and contact faster which in turn generates the speed of your extension.
So, what does all this do?
It increases your overall range of motion and allows your largest body mass (your legs are 2/3 your overall body weight) to move quickly. The quicker you can move this mass, the more powerful your kicks will be. The quicker and more powerful your kicks are, the less people want to get hit by them J
And by the way, developing a flexible mid-section is also very beneficial for striking with your hands. An increased range of motion allows your punch to travel a longer path and generate more speed, which in turn generates more power.