Stretching is an important part of almost every sport or martial art. Today I’d like to share with you what exercises I found useful and how I learned a gymnastic split. I am describing my own way that I found effective. If you do anything mentioned here, it’s at your own risk. I have learned most of the things below from my karate sensei, for which I am really grateful. Osu!
Why should you even bother with stretching? There are many benefits. The most important one is that stretching rapidly decreases the chance of getting injured during the training or even during every day’s life. The muscles become more flexible and can withstand even some unnatural positions and movements without any damage. Of course stretching increases one’s flexibility which is very convenient in martial arts, especially for kicks (not only that you kick higher but the kicks are also easier to perform since the muscles don’t have to overcome so much tension) and some special techniques. The muscles also become able to expand more which can even help with increasing their power such as for jumping etc. The muscles flexibility also helps maintaining the right healthy body position and decrease the tension that tendons have to bear which can avoid tendon injuries as well. And last but not least, when sitting for hours in the office, in front of the computer or in the car, stretching is a great way to release any tension and block in your body. It’s also recommended to stretch after the training to help the muscles relax and to ease the pain of the strained muscles.
Before you start with stretching, always warm up!!! This is really important! If you start stretching just like that, when your body was still for some time, there is a high risk of getting injured. The muscles are not prepared to any activity and they have not enough time to do so. I usually start simply with jumping, running, squats and also push-ups. Don’t forget that even if you focus on your legs, during some exercises you also stretch other body parts including hands, back and neck.
During warm up stage, don’t do any rapid or fast swinging movements like kicks etc. Now we just need the muscles to prepare, do only some safe movements causing muscle contraction and expansion.
When you feel warmed up enough, go for the next stage which I call circling. Now the muscles are prepared, let’s prepare also the tendons and joints. Lift your leg and make circles with your ankle, then knee and then the whole leg (making a circular movement with the hip joint). Slowly swing your legs forwards and backwards. Do the same with your hands, circles with your wrist, elbow and whole hand (shoulder circles). Move your head like nodding. Yes and No movements. Do half circles with your hips and lower back, forwards and backwards. I also like to spread my legs, touch the floor with my hands and then swing the whole body following the hands to the left and right side.
Stretching - split
There is one single rule that I found to be the most important thing. If you want to reach a specific position, there are no shortcuts. You just have to keep trying to get there! What you want to do is to make the muscles get used to the new positions and that is like when you are learning something new. Just keeping repeating until you remember it. This is how I learned the split. I have trained it every day (excluding weekends) for about half a year. Before, my flexibility was on an average male level. What I did was that I simply positioned myself, legs stretched as much as possible and held this position as long as possible. At first I saw the improvement literally every day. Every day I got lower and lower. Then when I reached a certain height, the advance slowed down. I have eventually made it to the ground. Sorry for not describing any special secret techniques, this is it :D.
After some sessions my legs were shaking and I was waking like as if I pooped myself. Sometimes I even felt all the muscles and joints aching, even hours after the stretching. I kept stretching but avoided the extreme positions for a few days until it got better. (Sometimes it actually got better after another stretching :-)) What I can tell now is that I don’t feel the pain anymore so I think it was only the joints and muscles getting accustomed to the extreme positions. Of course if the pain is too severe it’s important to stop and rest for a few days. The muscles or tendons can get strained which is not a good thing.
Other stretching exercises
I stretch my hands by simply pressing the fingers towards the ground, pointing my palm forwards. To stretch my back I do the bridge. Now my legs stretching consists of side split and front split and some additional exercises. I always get as low as possible, hold there for a few seconds, get up, straighten my legs, ankles close to each other and press my whole body down, trying to touch the floor with my palms. It stretches the back muscles of my legs instead of the side ones as during the side split.
Sometimes I sit down when trying to get into the split position (whens till being above the ground, moving my bottom back until I sit down). Then I keep my legs stretched, not bending my knees and try to grab my foott with my hands. Left one, right one and both, trying to touch the floor with my forehead.
Then to change the position I get into something very similar to a yoga Supta Virasana exercise. This has proven to be really good to ease the strange feeling of muscle dizziness after getting back from the extreme positions. (also great to stretch the front side of legs) After that I sit cross-legged, grab my heels and stretch one leg. This also seems to stretch some other parts of the leg, hand and back and eases some knees tensions (after some splits, these two exercises helped me to get rid of occasional discomfort around knees).
A few tips
Just a few additional pieces of advice:
- When you feel a pain, stop in this position and hold. I always found the position where I started to feel the slight pain and stayed in that. That is the point where the muscles start to stretch.
- Always make slow movements and stay in the positions instead of rapid movements there and back. Such fast movements into the extreme position might cause tiny cracks in your muscle tissue that weaken the muscle and might cause a bigger injury later.
- When getting lower, do it with breathing out. Focus on your breathing while stretching. Breath slowly and get lower and lower (or into your desired position) with every exhalation.
- Be relaxed. Don’t force anything. Don’t push yourself into the extreme positions, get there slowly instead. Play a relaxing music.
- Stay warm. The temperature around you should not be too low. Also when you pause your training, even for a few minutes, warm up again (a bit, just a few squats or something). It takes only a short amount of time for the muscles to contract and cool again.
- Stretch at least a bit before every unnatural movement you do. For example I even stretch for a minute when I want to do a simple cartwheel.
- Some people, before getting lower into the position clench their muscles, for example when getting into a split, they do it by pulling both legs together, thus pushing them against the floor. When releasing them, they move into the lower position. This is sometimes quite effective.
- Don’t look for shortcuts. For example, some people bend their knees to get lower into the split but that causes an excessive pressure on the knees. Rather stay in a higher position with your knees straight. You might otherwise learn some bad positions which might hurt you.
- Jogging really helps to prepare the muscles for the stretching.
So I hope I haven’t forgotten anything and I wish you a good stretching.
Here you can check out my training video where I demonstrate the stretching techniques described above (5:24):