17B. Flexibility Training

The American Academy of Family Physicians reported that 80% of all Americans would seek the care of their physicians for back pain at least once during their lives. Orthopedists report that 60% of all back pain is probably avoidable by proper back care, including stretching of the hamstrings (biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus), stretching of the lumbar paraspinal muscles and strengthening of the anterior trunk muscles (rectus abdominus, obliques).

The number of Americans who will suffer a lower back strain or pain severe enough to go to a physician at least once in their lives is staggering. Forty-eight percent of all Americans fall into that category. (60% of 80% equals 48%) Because the population of America is approximately 280 million the people needing back care (as mentioned above) is 134 million people.

Every karate school I have ever visited has someone in it who has had severe back pain. Many of these people report that the severe back pain subsided after joining karate. The reason for this is two-fold: First, karate practice stretches the hamstrings beginning with the first near-correct front stance. Second, the abdominal muscles are exercised during movement and during sit-ups, leg lifts (and Lee Carmean’s tortures). Third, the paraspinal muscles are alternately flexed and stretched during kata. This regime of activity improves the condition of the back, especially in those people who sit at a desk all day with their lumbar spines bent the “wrong” way or distorted to odd positions.

Some people, however, require more stretching and strengthening than what occurs in regular karate training. These people want to stretch the hamstrings a little farther than the front stance stretches them (usually by keeping straight knees and bending forward) on a regular basis. They also want to strengthen the abdominal muscles (usually by sit-ups or leg lifts). About 50% of those people who do these exercises have improvement in their back pain.

Even if a martial artist does not have back pain stretching is important. Adult beginning karate students usually have a limited range of motion in many joints. The key to developing a larger range of motion in the joints of the body resides in putting them thru their range of motion correctly and regularly.

In karate many people cannot kick higher than the knee. Although the ancient masters rarely kicked higher than that it is beneficial to be able to kick high even if one never uses such kicks in a fight. The reason is that if you can kick high without injury then you can kick low with even less chance of injury. In addition proper stretching of the main joints of the body (hips, shoulders, back) will improve stances, kicks, and movement.

I will not go into the various types of stretches. This information can be obtained in standard exercise texts or by asking a karate instructor. What I propose to do in this e-mail is just give some general information on the process of stretching.

First, I wish to discuss static and ballistic stretches. The ballistic stretch is where a person quickly bounces in order to try to increase the range of motion which cannot be achieved by slowly stretching. Ballistic stretching is to be condemned. It leads to strains and pulled muscles. The benefits of ballistic stretches do not outweigh the risks. I abhor even so much as watching a person who I don’t know trying their best to do ballistic stretches. I see them as a bag of bones trying to find a way to destroy their physical bodies. Please, avoid all ballistic stretches!!!

The static stretch is far safer than the ballistic stretch and, in my opinion, leads to a greater range of motion quicker than the ballistic anyway. The static stretch is done by selecting a stretching exercise then going to the point of feeling a stretch (but not pain) and holding that stretch for 15 seconds to 2 minutes.

There are different variations of static stretching which are a little more effective than straight static stretching. These are referred to as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation or PNF for short. PNF is a combination of slow passive movements (the force is supplied by a partner) with a voluntary isometric contraction. There are two types; the contract-relax (CR) which involves the voluntary isometric contraction of the agonist muscle groups (the ones pulling in the same direction as the limb is moving) and slow-reversal-hold-relax (SRHR) which involves the voluntary isometric contraction of the antagonist muscle groups (the ones pulling against the direction of movement). These specialized stretching techniques are more effective than the straight static stretch but they require two people, are more likely to lead to injury, and work poorly with certain muscle groups.

The truth is that when a person does a static stretch correctly on a regular basis the range of motion of the joints stretched improves or at least does not get worse. Specialized techniques as mentioned above are generally not needed.

Second, is when to stretch. Some people prefer to stretch before training or before running. I do not agree and the Academy of Sports Physicians does not agree either. While it is recommended to have a period of warm-ups prior to rigorous physical activity like karate training or running, it is not a good idea to stretch muscles at this time.

Stretching muscles causes them to lengthen. The joint involved, say the knee, then has long stretched muscles around it. The muscles originally helped support the knee. After stretching the muscles no longer support the knee joint. When running or karate commences the knee is subject to pounding much the same as if one took the shock-absorbers out of a vehicle. The joint then is subject to damage with every stride. I have talked with many runners who believe that stretching before a run is beneficial. The sports oriented orthopedists who I have talked with agree only with warm-ups before running or karate training, and discourage stretches.

After running or karate training is the best time to stretch. The muscles are already warmed up and if the muscle is stretched no pounding activity will follow the stretching. There is then much less chance of injury to the knee joint.

A person may have tight joints in one part of the body and flexible ones in another part. Lifestyle, activities, previous injuries, bony limitations all play a part. I recommend that you assess what areas of your body have tight joints and work with static stretches to increase the range of motion.

Third, here are some general rules for stretching:

• Warm up before stretching so that a light sweat appears on your forehead
• Do not use ballistic stretches
• Stretch only to the point of discomfort not to the point of pain
• Hold the stretch for 15 seconds minimum, 2 minutes maximum
• Move slowly from position to position
• Do each stretch twice
• Stretch both sides of the body
• Do not stretch before running or karate training
• Stretch 5-7 times per week for best results
• If you don’t seem to be improving seek expert help

Fourth, Yoga. Yoga is much more than just stretching, but stretching is a good part of Hatha Yoga. Those who wish to discover a relaxing and enjoyable way to stretch may enjoy taking a yoga class. At UCSD Sensei Neville Billimoria teaches yoga so the students at UCSD have a double reason to add yoga to their program.