When it comes to properly training for increased flexibility, we have experience vs. education and tradition vs. science. What I have found in more than twenty years of experience with stretching on what works and what doesn’t is that reality doesn’t always agree with what some call “science.”
Let me grab the bull by the horns right away with the concept of “bouncing” to stretch. Exercise science calls this “ballistic” or “dynamic” stretching. They say this is counterproductive since the muscle is forced to stretch against a reflex to contract. It is also believed that this can lead to injury because “the elastic limits of the muscle may be exceeded.”
Well, in that context, I would be in complete agreement. However, although it is frequently grouped together, I see “ballistic” as meaning “out of control” and “dynamic” as anything “moving.”
A key word in the above description is “forced.” One should never forcibly stretch as it can and does result in tearing of the muscle fibers. This in effect will result in less flexibility as the muscle fights to stay whole by contracting and becoming more tense. Torn muscle fibers also frequently heal shorter than they were before.
Dynamic stretching is what I believe to be the most productive stretching exercise especially for a dynamic activity like martial arts, gymnastics, dance, etc. The main point to keep in mind while performing dynamic stretching exercises is to maintain control and to move smoothly through the range of motion. As you become more accustomed to the exercise and more sensitive to your body, you will know how to control the movement to where you can “go a little further” as your muscles are ready.
It has been my experience that when dynamic stretching is emphasized, you will maintain more of your full range of motion even without a warm-up.
What is recommended by most exercise “experts,” however, is what is called, “static” stretching. This is where you place your body in a stretched position and then hold it there for 15 to 30 seconds. Some will hold for a minute or more.
My experience with static stretching is that it requires a greater amount of warm-up in order to reach a full range of motion. It is not useful when your flexibility is needed immediately (like in a real self defense situation, or even possibly if you slip and fall ). It is also not useful prior to training. It is useful after a workout as a cool down leading to relaxation.
I have seen martial artists who could reach just a few inches off the ground in a split after a full warm-up, taking up to 15 minutes to get there, yet could barely kick above waste level when not warmed-up.
A great example is my teacher, Master Bok-Nam Park, who at 60 years old this year can still reach his elbow to his toe (in a straight leg stretch) or kick straight up over his head even without any warm-up whatsoever.
What I have learned from my teacher is consistent with my experience prior to meeting him: moving through a range of motion teaches a muscle to become more “elastic.” It may go against many “experts”, but it works and it is safe when done properly.
Another key to real flexibility is relaxation. The harder you try to become more flexible, the harder your body will fight against you. This is consistent with the “not forcing” concept. If you are consistent with your training and allow your body to get used to what you’re asking of it, your body will change in accordance with the demands put on it.
Emotions also play a substantial part in how flexible you are. A rigid personality will also tend to be stiff whereas a more relaxed person will also more likely find their body naturally loose.
Where tradition meets science
Traditionally, it was common to perform leg swinging movements to warm-up and prepare the legs for martial arts training. This is precisely what many in the exercise science community has deemed “dangerous.” However, there actually is scientific evidence showing the advantage of doing these types of exercises properly in order to train the body for the type of activity one plans to perform.
“Static stretching increases static flexibility; dynamic stretching increases dynamic flexibility,” says Thomas Kurz in his book, “Stretching Scientifically.” Kurz does reference studies supporting his claims, showing that science actually does vindicate tradition.
Kurz says, “Use dynamic stretches in your early morning stretch and as a part of the general warm-up in a workout. Start your movements slowly, gradually increasing the range and speed of movements. Do not ‘throw’ your limbs, rather, ‘lead’ or ‘lift’ them.” He then cites the scientific principle of “specific adaptation to imposed demands” which when applied to flexibility means that towards the end of a set of dynamic stretches, one should “stretch at a velocity not less than 75% of the maximal velocity used in your actual skill, a kick, for example.” This best prepares the muscle for the activity planned.
This advice comes from a man who sits between two chairs in a full split in his advertisements! The same goes for Master Park: those who actually can demonstrate great flexibility use dynamic stretching. This is very different than the scientist sitting in a chair and analyzing charts and spreadsheets.
While in college studying exercise physiology in the mid-1980’s, I had a teacher who was a former Olympic gymnastics coach of an Eastern Bloc country (I do not recall which). Although he was going directly against what we were learning in the curriculum (static stretching), he told us that if gymnasts used static stretching to loosen up prior to training or competing, they would get injured. He believed that dynamic stretching was the best way to stretch for any movement activity.
A word about caution
In my opinion, there is an overly cautious approach to what the human body can handle in terms of movement. I remember at one time learning that a full squat puts too much stress on the knee joints. How ridiculous! Most don’t realize that about 2/3 of the world still does a full squat to have a bowel movement! (which is actually much less strain on the bowels). Interestingly, we are the ones with the knee problems (and constipation!), not them.
The same can be said for back problems. The “experts” tell us that bending forward to stretch puts too much stress on the vertebral disks. Well, it certainly is more likely to cause a problem in an unhealthy back. More than 50% of Americans have unhealthy backs. However, we don’t find a predominance of back problems where they regularly practice bending forward to stretch the hamstrings. If the exercise was bad for the back, those who do it the most would have the most problems.
Moving the body in different planes is the best way to keep it loose and healthy. Bending forward is one of those planes. Move it or lose it.
Joints change according to the movements they’re required to do. If you don’t consistently take a joint through its full rangeangles while at the same time increasing range of motion.
You really don’t need any more than consistency with the of motion, that range will shrink. Then, if for some reason you need to move more than usual, injury is the likely result.
Strength training is an essential component
Flexibility and strength must go together in order to avoid injury. A stronger muscle is also more capable of being flexible. A stronger muscle can relax more easily because it doesn’t have to work so hard to perform an action.
Stance training is an excellent way to develop strength and flexibility. The various stances, both stationary and moving, help to hit different muscle groups from a number of different exercises taught in class. With proper Ba Gua Zhang training (which includes relaxation techniques like breathing, meditation and Qi Gong) your whole body will obtain great flexibility throughout all the joints, even without a warm-up.
Originally published under the title “Stretching for Action”, Spring 2002