Stretching Towards the Splits

How do you perform high kicks to prove you’re a “real martial artist”? Even educated and experienced stunt coordinators look for leg flexibility when choosing who will perform well in fight scenes. Why? Mostly because the public demands it. So, you have to increase your flexibility to give the people what they want.

The Best Stretching Protocol

Start with warm up and active stretching as outlined in my previous article: Stretching for Fighters

In brief:

  1. Get warm with jogging, jumping jacks, etc.
  2. Do joint rotations (all body parts in turn)
  3. Active stretching: leg raises front, back and side
  4. If not feeling warm, loose and ready, repeat all previous steps.

Essentials

Stretching should make you feel better, not worse. If you do things wrong, you risk injury. So here are the main ways to stretch correctly:

  • Breathe. Breathe deeply and continuously while stretching. Do not hold your breath.
  • Relax. Tense muscles are by definition shorter. You want to lengthen muscles, so they must be relaxed.
  • Don’t bounce to increase stretch. Ballistic stretching is fine within your range of motion. Never use ballistics to increase your range during passive stretching.
  • Hold stretches for 20-40 seconds. 10 seconds will get you to your normal max. Another 10 will give you minimal increases. At 30 seconds, you’ll feel an actual change. Beyond 40 seconds, you’re losing your good blood-flow and not getting any more benefit, so you’re better to stop.
  • Be consistent. Doing this once in a while will do nothing for you. If you want to maintain health, stretch once a week for a dedicated workout, and after each weightlifting session. If you want to increase your flexibility, do it every second day.

Correct Order

Because some muscles affect others like a chain, there IS a best order to stretching. The most important rules for your kicks are these:

  • Always stretch calves before hamstrings
  • Always stretch glutes before psoas, then quads

What’s a Psoas?

Essentially, it’s an interior muscle – one on each side of your hip that keeps your leg-hip joint from moving too far. Hate it: it’s preventing your from doing the splits!



So here is the what I think is the best routine for passive stretching:

Section 1

  1. Glutes (butt): the “crow”
  2. Glutes and Psoas: Deep lunge, chest down. Followed by lunge with chest up, head looking at ceiling. If you don’t feel your psoas, try to sink your hips downward and keep arching backward
  3. Quadriceps (front thigh): Gently put knee on floor, bend knee fully, pull ankle with hands.
  4. Repeat with other leg

Section 2 (Option A)

  1. Gastrocnemius (calf): Sit down with one leg forward, one leg bent – foot to inner thigh. Grab toes and pull back to stretch calf.
  2. Biceps Femori (hamstring): Bend forward at waist, put chest to thigh to stretch.

This method leads to front splits, but you don’t have to test it every session.

Section 2 (Option B)

If you find it difficult to reach your toes, the standing version is a good way to work towards the same goals:

  1. Gastrocnemius (calf): Stand with one foot directly in a line in front of the other, one big step forward. Toes of both feet should face forward, knees locked, feet securely on ground. Remember to keep hips forward as you gently bend the forward knee into a lunge while keeping the rear leg straight, and focus on keeping your rear heel on the ground.
  2. Biceps Femori (hamstring): Straighten your lead leg again until both knees are straight. Bend forward at waist, keeping back straight by looking forward, aim stomach to thigh to stretch.

When you get good at the standing version, try Option A because you can focus on the stretch rather than keeping your balance. Don’t forget about Option B, since sometimes you’ll be outdoors for a fight scene with no clean place to sit before your big kicking scene.

What About Side Splits?

There’s a misconception that side splits are important for kicking, maybe thanks to van Damme. The truth is that front splits will enable better kicking from almost every angle without loss of power.

A proper frog stretch, done at the end of your routine, will do more for side splits than any other exercise.

Karateka

Knee discomfort on floor? Try the Karate version of splits training: deeper and deeper horse-stance


Top Stretching Books and DVDs

  1. Stretching by Bob Anderson. The constant in Stretching is ease of use. Anderson doesn’t need a lot of complex explanations because the drawings are so easy to follow.
  2. Stretching for Flexibility – Yoga Zone (DVD) includes two complete yoga routines, both of which are designed to help viewers stretch and elongate their muscles with pliancy of the body the focus.
  3. Stretching Anatomy by Arnold G. Nelson. Stretching programs provide three levels of difficulty, including light stretching that can be used as a warm-up or to aid in recovery from soreness or injury. And summary movement tables show how to customize stretching programs to focus on key problem areas.
  4. Stretching For Dummies by LaReine Chabut. This easy-to-use reference also includes a list of ten surprising around-the house stretching accessories, along with ten common aches and pain that stretching can help.
  5. The Stark Reality of Stretching: An Informed Approach for All Activities and Every Sport by Dr. Steven D. Stark. This book addresses the need for warm-up exercises, analyzes the stretching process, and illustrates anatomy and basic biomechanics. Myths associated with stretching are dispelled.
  6. Ultimate Flexibility: A Complete Guide to Stretching for Martial Arts by Sang H. Kim. Awesome for beginners.
  7. Power Yoga Flexibility (DVD) Beginning with deep-stretching yoga designed to stretch muscles and make them more flexible, Yee instills viewers with a newfound sense of fluidity, mobility, and power.

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