Our Sensei often says that running kata is a workout and all you need to maintain your fitness level is to come to class and practice at home. One of my fellow senseis has a tee shirt that says “kata is my workout.” Being physically fit encompasses five essential components: Cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition.
Of these five, flexibility, which is the ability to move a joint through its complete range of motion, is often neglected outside of our pre-class warm up. Some of you know that I make attending yoga classes a part of my routine. We are emphasizing flexibility in our movements in yoga as well as in all of our classes at the dojo. You can reap the benefits of flexibility training at any age. I am sometimes surprised that my regular flexibility training shows up in performing moves with ease that if I was still or inflexible I would be unable to perform. Flexible joints are a key in maintaining pain-free and independent movements. This is a vital component for karate. How high we can kick, if we can perform that strike or kata often depend on our flexibility.
Think back to your last class at the dojo. We follow the same pattern in the classes. We begin with getting the muscles warm by performing a series of exercises designed to get blood flow into the legs, arms and all of the muscles we will use in class. When stretching at home please follow the same guidelines and never stretch cold muscles. The muscles must be warmed up for them to stretch.
There are three components that affect flexibility: muscle elasticity and length, joint structure and nervous system. Of course we were born with our joint structure. Where flexibility training is impactful is on muscle elasticity and length and the nervous system. These two areas can be positively impacted by regular flexibility training. This is why we stretch prior to each class and some of us stretch after the class. After class stretching, especially after a fun kick class on Saturday, is where the real benefits of stretching come into play.
Flexibility is important for completing everyday activities with ease. Have you ever had trouble getting up out of bed or performing a simple task of bending down to pick an item up off the floor? Of course each of these requires a certain level of flexibility to be comfortable. Flexibility for students under the age of 20 is more natural. As we age we need to pay more attention to stretching and flexibility as our flexibility deteriorates with age. Engaging in regular flexibility training can assist with increased joint mobility, better posture, decreased back pain and a lower risk of injury.
Increased flexibility can improve muscular strength and endurance. Stretching can be a form of relaxation, which can positively impact physical fitness and mental fitness. For karate students this can positively affect your performance through increased mental toughness. When we enter the dojo we are to leave our worldly cares behind so we can focus in the moment on the lessons for the day. Meditating while stretching can assist with this concept and make it real for us.
To achieve peak performance, we must utilize the full length of the muscle to exhibit power and strength. As Sensei say, power comes from the maximum extension of a technique. If our muscles are too tight, they may not be able to provide the explosiveness necessary for a particular movement.
Here are several key benefits of flexibility: Improved performance of daily activities, Improved performance in karate class and training at home, Enhanced joint health, Prevention of low-back pain and injuries, Relief of aches and pains (particularly in the muscles exercised), Relief of muscle cramps, Relaxation and stress relief (mental and physical), Decreased risk of injury due to more pliable muscles, and, Improved posture and balance (minimizes stress on spine).
Static and dynamic flexibility training is important and necessary to become “flexibly fit.” Dynamic flexibility is important for daily activities and for karate as karate movements require a full range of motion. Static flexibility, on the other hand, is preferred for increasing overall flexibility through muscle elasticity and joint mobility.
Flexibility training should be performed after the muscles of the body have been properly warmed up to allow effective stretching to take place. Ideally, flexibility fitness should be included five to seven days a week for all major joints. Here are some guidelines for general flexibility fitness:
- Intensity: Stretch to the point of mild discomfort, not pain
- Time: Hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds. Perform them two to three times for the same area
- Type: Static stretching exercises that focus on the major joints (stretch slowly and do not bounce). For karate performance, incorporate dynamic flexibility as well.
Next time you are with me on the floor let me know about your flexibility. Is increased flexibility a goal for you in the coming year? Please let us know your favorite stretch and warm up drill in the comments below.
See you in class soon.