Stretching For Fighters

One sign audiences look for in a martial artist is high kicks, especially in stage combat since we want to look like great fighters (not necessarily to be good fighters). Stretching is the obvious route to flexibility and fine high kicks.

Why Stretch?

  • Stretching prevents injuries… mostly (read below)
  • Stretching improves kicks and range of motion in other activities
  • Stretching can recruit more muscle fibres in strength training
  • Stretching conditions the fascia to allow muscle growth

How Stretching Can Be Harmful

You should never do passive stretching before a vigorous activity and absolutely never before weightlifting.

Passive stretching is the kind we are all familiar with: holding a joint in a position where the muscle is at its most extended position and trying to increase it. When you do this, you weaken the muscle for a brief period afterward. Why would you want to weaken a muscle right before you put it under a lot of stress? You’re asking for an injury. The number one cause of self-injury in sport is not warming up. The second is passive stretching before work. So warm up, but don’t do passive stretches.

Always Warm Up

“Warming up” is activity to encourage blood flow and to accustom the muscles and joints to activity. You should always warm up before any physical activity, especially weight lifting and stage combat. Even if you are only doing a stretching routine, warm up first.

I recommend the following routine before any physically demanding work, and also in the morning before breakfast. It takes less than 5 minutes and will greatly enhance your performance and well-being.

Warm up routine:

  1. March in place
  2. Jog in place
  3. Skip rope (or mime if you don’t have one)
  4. Jumping Jacks
  5. Active Stretching (see below)

Active Stretching

The key to a good warm up and the secret to dynamic flexibility (the kind where you can kick high) is active stretching. Active stretching can be divided into three types:

  • Joint rotations
  • Range of motion exercises
  • Ballistic stretching

Joint Rotations: Flex and extend each joint 5 times, then perform rotations of the joint. I always do this in the same order:

  1. Fingers: Open/close fists
  2. Wrists: Circles
  3. Elbows: Flex/extend forearms, then rotations
  4. Shoulders: Arms straight, cross hands in front of chest then open as wide as possible. Then, straight arm shoulder rotations.
  5. Neck: Half-circles.
  6. Traps: Raise shoulders to ears.
  7. Spine: Chest rotations. Feet in place, rotate shoulders as if looking behind each side
  8. Hips: Rotate pelvis. Feet in place, shoulders and head steady. Then, trunk rotations: feet in place, describe circle (bending at the waist) looking down at one leg, the floor between feet, other leg, then upright.
  9. Knees: Flex and extend. Then, place hands on thighs and rotate knees by bending them (knees stuck together).
  10. Ankles: Rotate each in turn.

Range of Motion: The active stretch that will really increase your kicking height.

  1. Front Leg Raises: Start in a gentle lunge. Swing the rear leg up in front of you. You can do this with some energy, but don’t bend the knee and don’t jump.
  2. Rear Leg Raises: Use a chair for balance directly in front of you. Kick a leg up behind you, keeping the knee straight. You can bend over forwards during the action.
  3. Side Leg Raises: Again, have a chair for balance. Energetically abduct the leg (move it sideways up and away from the body). Again, you can lean towards the chair for height.

After doing Range of Motion, I like to go back and repeat Hip Ratations and Trunk Rotations.

Ballistic Stretching: This is the kind that your gym teacher told you never to do because they’re dangerous. It is “bouncing” a stretch. It is only dangerous if you try to bounce beyond your natural range of motion. I don’t recommend them anyway, but they’re not all bad. Doing gentle hops and jogging in place are actually small ballistic stretches.

What About Passive Stretching?

Save your passive stretching for these times:

  • After a weightlifting workout.
  • After a rehearsal/performance that was physically demanding, like stage combat.
  • For a dedicated flexibility workout

Weightlifting: Whether you’re working out for size or strength, stretching afterward will multiply your results. Your muscles are each enclosed in a tight sack called fascia. A muscle can’t grow well unless the fascia has some room to allow it. Passive stretching of the muscle you worked out will slightly enlarge the fascia, permitting growth.

For those who are more concerned with strength gains, passive stretching is still important. Strength is mostly determined by:

  • the resilience of your tendons
  • the coordination of your nerves to fire as many muscle fibres at the same time

Stretching has a great effect on your tendon strength and your nerves. You may be surprised that the discomfort of stretching comes not from reaching a physical limit, but reaching a point were your pain nerves respond to prevent you from injuring yourself. Stretching will train your nerves to recognize that you can move farther without injury. This leads not only to greater flexibility, but also greater strength.

After Rehearsals: A stage combat rehearsal, even if you’re not lifting a heavy sword, can take a toll on your body. To help your joints recover, do a routine of passive stretching on the muscles you used the most.

Dedicated Flexibility Work: If you really want to increase your flexibility, then starting your day with a geed warm up that includes active stretching will do wonders. Every second day, you should also add a passive stretching session later in the day. Do another warm up, then proceed to a full-body stretching routine.

Check out my complete passive stretching routine that will send your kicks to new heights.

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