Flexibility Improvement – Key Practical Knowledge

Me doing a frontal  split.
Me doing a frontal split.

Flexibility is one of those things that may seem almost impossible to improve.

Many martial artists will generally complain that they are unable to achieve results even knowing they do flexibility drills everyday.

While genetics and age are indeed limiting factors to the ability to achieve results and how fast those results can be achieved, I’ve been observing for sometime now that many people fail to properly train flexibility and generally tend blame the lack of results on age alone.

In this article I’ll discuss, from a practical perspective, multiple variables that influence the results from flexibility training and how to correctly control them to your advantage.

Genetics is indeed a limiting factor and there’s little we can do about it. But just because your friend seems to achieve results faster and more easily, that’s no reason to give up.

Generally speaking, the older you are, the harder it’ll be to develop flexibility. Best flexibility gains can be accomplished at ages between 7 and 10. However, keep in mind you can always improve your flexibility. A common misconception is that there’s an age limit, after which you simple stop being able to improve.

The following three health habits are truly essential for the development of flexibility:
a) Drink plenty of water (2 L per day, for example).
b) Don’t smoke.
c) Don’t drink alcohol.

When doing flexibility drills, variety is important. Do different drills, each used to stretch different ligaments or in different angles. Remember that if you fail to balance your full body’s flexibility, injuries may happen more easily.

The drills you use should be similar to the specific motions of the martial art skill you wish to develop.

The following are the essential types of flexibility drills one can perform alone:

a) Static flexibility drills – In this type of drill, the stretch is done without the need of speeding up part of the body. You position your body in a certain position and generally use gravity to assist you in forcing the stretch.
This type of drill is the safest!

b) Dynamic flexibility drills – These require movement of the body part that you aim to stretch. You’ll speed up that part in a motion that’ll take it to the limit of its flexibility.
When you perform high kick techniques in a training session, you are in essence also doing dynamic flexibility exercises. Because in Taekwondo, a higher percentage of time is dedicated to kicking techniques, it’s normal that Taekwondoka have greater flexibility than other athletes.

Note: There’s also ballistic drills, but those have much higher risk of injury and I don’t recommend them.

a) Static drills are the best. You can do them in small areas (such as your bedroom) and don’t necessarily need to warm-up first. These are great for injury prevention, before warming-up and to use during cool-down.
It’s also easier to control your improvements because you can easily measure the angles of opening you are accomplishing and keep record of them.

b) Dynamic drills are great during warm-up and the specific part of the training (when you practice Taekwondo techniques). These drills are similar to the actual needs of the specific techniques, so before training them, you should perform some dynamic flexibility drills as it also helps detect any problems only noticeable during motion, and thus prevent further injury.
During specific training, it’s also good to plan exercises that are not only technically and tactically challenging, but that also promote the development of flexibility (one exercise, multiple benefits = you’re making the most out of your time and dedication).

Major mistake I generally see is repetitions that don’t last longer than 10 seconds! You won’t get improvements from those exercises in the same way you shouldn’t expect cardiovascular improvements from a light 1 minute jog!

Another common mistake is for people to bounce when they’re close to stretch limit, in order to surpass their limit with each impulse… This increases the probability of injury significantly and is therefore not recommended! Instead, do a single continuous push until you reach your limit and hold there.

For each type of exercise, just do 2-3 repetitions, each lasting at least 30 seconds, in only one continuous stretch motion that will reach the limits of what you can do.
Discomfort is expected, but don’t take the exercise to where you feel unbearable pain, as that would lead to almost certain injury!
Between each repetition, relax for a few seconds in a comfortable position.

If a part of your body sustained injury, it is simply not smart to exercise it, unless you have medical supervision to do so!

As always careful not to injure yourself by overtraining. If your body lacks proper rest, static or dynamic drills can cause injury quite easily.

If possible, practice flexibility drills in warm places. This makes exercising easier and safer.

In martial arts -> Every single training session should have flexibility drills included.

Thanks for reading and good luck with your training.

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