A lot has been written about flexibility from the sports perspective. In martial arts in particular, there are no other specific aspects of training that constantly haunt the young and seasoned athlete as much as flexibility. Great time is spent in warm up exercises, ballistic training and cool downs trying to increase our overall flexibility, and especially to increase the premiere hallmark of success - the full split. How many of us picture ourselves during buddy stretches as if we were Jean Claude Van Dame hanging from a bamboo framework in the Thai jungle sweating and grunting as the old crazy master yanks a few extra degrees of split out of his hip joints? How many of us are frustrated by working day and night, sitting in front of the TV with one ankle tied to the couch and our spouse pushing the other leg out, heedless of our cries for mercy, just to come bad to class the next day and have Sensei Walt or some young white belt flop down effortlessly in a full split? Flexibility is an attribute that varies widely in people. To prevent frustration, we all have to remember that our individual flexibility is determined by many factors, only some of which can be changed.
How flexible we are at any time depends upon inherent factors, the tightness of our ligaments, the length of our tendons, the length of our muscles and the tightness of our muscles. As an example, let's take the flexibility of the hips, since this area seems to be the most talked about, or worried about area, although, the principles will readily apply to any area.
First, each of us has an inherent "tightness" or "looseness" to our joints, which is genetically determined. The major factor is the composition of the ligaments that bind our joints together. The ligaments are made up of fibrous collagen fibers and elastic collagen fibers. This structure affords strength, stability and flexibility. It is our genes that determine the relative percentage of fibrous fibers and elastic fibers in our ligaments, joint capsules and tendons. The greater percentage of elastic fibers, the greater the flexibility of all your joints and the greater "stretch" we will have. As well, the greater amount of elastic fibers also means that there is less inherent strength in the joint, so there is always the trade off. More fibrous fibers mean greater strength and stability, but poor flexibility.
Any one of us is somewhere on the continuum of the stability/flexibility seesaw. In your own club, you can think of examples of people that we would commonly call "double jointed". These people can do a full split effortlessly, their elbows bend the opposite way and they can probably turn their heads more than 90 degrees in both directions (before they see the chiropractor!). These people have an inherent potential flexibility, but are more likely to have more serious damage to their joints, if ever injured. At the other end of the scale are those that, even at a young age, can barely touch their knees when bending forward, their elbows never seem to lock open completely and can't get their hips more that 60 degrees apart even if Sensei Neil was threatening them! These people will never do a full split as long as they live, no matter how long they do stretching exercises. Most of us, however, are somewhere between these two extremes.
In the hip joints, there are two other inherent factors that determine the amount of flexibility we can reasonably expect and they both have to do with the bony structure of the hip joint itself. The hip is a deep ball and socket joint that is very strong and stable. It owes its great range of motion to the fact that the ball of the joint does not go straight off the thigh bone (femur) into the socket, but is at the end of a neck which comes off the femur at an angle (see diagram 1). The angle that the neck makes with the shaft normally varies between 115 and 125 degrees. The smaller the angle, the more strong and stable the joint, but the less range of movement the hip will have before the neck jams against the edge of the socket. The greater the angle, the greater the ability to raise the lower limb sideways to do a side kick or do the splits.
As well, the neck of the femur does not go into the socket straight sideways. The neck is twisted backwards between 15 and 25 degrees off the frontal plane of the femur, so the ball slides into the socket more from the front. This gives the hip an added few degrees when lifting straight sideways and even more if the hip is brought forward, or the pelvis is tipped forward (as in arching your back).
So, if you have been 'tight' all your life, there may be very good genetic reasons for that, but that doesn't mean that you can't improve the range of movement you have to your maximum anatomical limits. Unfortunately, most karateka don't even approach their real limitations. The right stretching routine and persistence will still pay off. Following are a few guidelines that might help:
1. Before a work out, stretching should be light, without an attempt to push to your maximum. Heavy stretching before a work out actually decreases the strength of the muscle.
2. The initial stretching should be interspersed with warm up exercises to increase the temperature of your muscles.
3. The heavy stretching should be done during the cool down, at the end of class, after a weight work out, or after working on a heavy bag.
4. Stretching out to your maximum should be done only with your muscles fully warmed up.
5. When stretching out to your maximum, the muscles stretched should not be under load, (being used, such as during stretching of the adductors of the hip by going into a split from the standing position).
6. Stretching to the max must be done slowly, without bouncing or jerking. Allow the muscle to stretch easily with each expiration. As you hold a stretch, sometime between 25 and 30 seconds, there is physiological change in the muscle and it 'gives way' allowing a little more range. When you have done this several times, you will be at the maximum length of the muscle belly. To increase the range, you must now push the stretch past the point of comfort so that the elastic and fibrous fibers making the tendons begin to deform.
7. To prevent injuring the muscle or tendon as you push past your comfort zone, you must pay attention to the sensations you are feeling in the muscle and the tendons. A little soreness when stretching is O.K., but even a little bit of burning means that you are developing a first-degree strain. The difference in causing enough fibre deformation to cause the tendons and muscle to length and producing a first degree strain (microscopic tears) is the difference between getting reasonable progress and having to lay off for a couple of weeks and loosing some flexibility.
8. Stretching to the max in this way at least 3 times per week is necessary to eventually increase your range of movement to your anatomical limits. For those who are fortunate to have high percentages of elastic fibers, this may take a year or two. For us other unfortunate souls, this process is slower and may easily take four to five years and considerable patience.
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