Improve Flexibility with Karate

One of the key benefits of using karate as a cross training sport is flexibility. Flexibility is considered one of the core components of physical fitness.

Our first two articles in this cross training series examined techniques for increasing speed in karate. This third article examines flexibility for karate. It will give an overview of the types of flexibility, the benefits and tips on improving flexibility, including splits.

Types of Flexibility

There are 2 types of flexibility. These differences have a direct correlation to the varied activities in training for different sports. For example, dynamic flexibility involves motion whereas an activity which does not involve motion is referred to as static flexibility. Kurz goes on to break down static flexibility into static active flexibility and static passive flexibility.

1) Dynamic Flexibility – involves activity which brings the joint through a full range of motion. Eg. karate kicks.
2) Static Active Flexibility – is the holding and maintaining of extended positions using only the muscles. Eg. The karate kid’s standing knee hold.
3) Static Passive Flexibility – is similar to Static Active Flexibility in that it involves holding and maintaining extended positions. The difference is that Static Active Flexibility relies only on an individual’s muscles whereas Static Passive Flexibility does not. Eg. Splits.

What are the benefits of flexibility?

According to ACE (American Council on Exercise), amongst the benefits of flexibility are:

  • Increased performance
  • Decreased risk of injury
  • Increased circulation
  • May aid healthier synovial fluid
  • Increased coordination
  • Improved balance
  • Reduced stress

What can you do to improve your flexibility?

Dynamic flexibility is more difficult to work on than static stretches. A combination of static stretches, resistance training and sport specific activities will aid dynamic flexibility. For karate, an emphasis on practicing one’s kicks and punches is important. Having the muscle strength to perform those activities through resistance training should prove helpful.

Warm-up – Before stretching make sure to include a good warm-up which includes joint rotations. This should involve slow circular movements until the joints move easily. It is important to include sports specific movements in the warm-up.

Stretch – Stretching is one of the most popular methods to increase your flexibility.

Resistance Training – In general, it is recommended to weight train at a moderate-to-high intensity at least two days per week for a minimum of one set of 8-12 repetitions. In general, resistance training should include the major muscle groups and be well-balanced many injuries occur because of an imbalance between opposing muscle groups. The following are commonly used:

  1. Free Weights
  2. Resistance Bands
  3. Medicine Ball Drills

Massage – Massage is a good way to loosen tight muscles, to increase circulation, and to relieve soreness.

So, you want to do a split, huh?

Many martial artists think of splits and flexibility as synonymous. This is not necessarily the case. While splits (both traditional and Chinese) are examples of static stretches, they are not directly related to dynamic flexibility which involves things like kicking speed (definitely indirectly related, though).

Given that, to improve your split – it is important to have a reasonable range of motion in and through the hip joint. Groin and hip flexor stretches are key to improving the flexibility in this area. When starting your program, remember to go slowly and not force it. It’s very important to listen to your body because splits can place additional stress on the hip and knee joints. Also, avoid ballistic movements (bouncing). The following stretches should be included before attempting splits: lower back, groin and inner thigh, hamstring and buttocks, quadriceps, and calf.

There are 2 types of splits which are commonly performed:

1) Chinese (aka side split) – where your legs are extended to either side of you. Prior to starting, you may want to try the following variation:

– assume a standing position with feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart, toes facing frontwards.
– slide the right leg out to the side while maintaining a bend to the left knee (knee does not go past the toes) and hold (hands on thighs).
– if possible slide the right leg a little further, adjusting slightly to sit the buttocks into the stretch and flex the toes.
– repeat on other side.

2) Traditional (aka front split) – where one leg is extended in front of you and the other behind you. Prior to starting, you may want to try the following variation:

– assume a standing position with feet together, toes facing frontwards.
– slide the right leg behind you with right heel in air and right toes flexed, the left knee is bent (knee does not go past the toes) and hold between 10-30 seconds.
– repeat on other side.

Things to keep in mind:

While stretching and flexibility have many positive benefits, it is possible to stretch too much. If you are too loose, you may find that it affects the stability of the joint. It’s a fine line, but being too flexible can predispose one to injuries.

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