In MMA Fitness there are few aspects more important than flexibility. Without it, injuries are inevitable. With it, a broad range of effective skills, techniques, and exercises can be performed safely, and we as MMA fitness trainees can train and improve worry-free.
In America, we are a society obsessed with flexibility. We are taught to stretch in gym class from the age of 6. We are told that if we are not flexible, we are susceptible to injury, and can easily pull or tear muscles or damage ligaments during exercise. But then, how come as the years go by, Americans typically give up on traditional stretching and become less and less flexible? How come even those that do increase their flexibility take years upon years to see any improvement? How come chronic back and neck pain are considered the norm?
Well, there are many major misconceptions about stretching in America. First, it is commonly believed that to increase flexibility, one must actually stretch the muscle fibers. Some believe that by stretching substantially warmed up muscles slowly and in a relaxed manner, the muscle will lengthen thus increasing range of motion and mobility. Not only is this the least efficient way to stretch, but it is also flat out DANGEROUS.
See, our muscles range of motion and flexibility are not determined by the actual length of the muscles and muscles are not connected to one another as one big muscle that needs to be stretched. It is in fact, our nervous system that determines our flexibility through what are called stretch reflexes.
You can determine this for yourself. Stand alongside a chair or desk a little shorter than waste level in front of a mirror. Now, gently lift your left leg up on the chair. Take a good look at the angle of your leg. Now do the same with your right leg. Notice the angle that can be achieved by propping each leg individually on a chair. Chances are, unless you are extremely inflexible, that each leg can easily and effortlessly achieve the range of motion required to do full splits without any stretching at all! How come you can’t just drop down and split both legs at the same time?
The answer is that the brain is what determines our range of motion as a means of safety. It is a stretch reflex, not the length of the muscle that determines flexibility. This may be common sense for you, but I, for some reason had the assumption that in order to become more flexible, one has to stretch the muscle tissue. This misconception is the reason why most Americans especially are not flexible.
See the body is a very interesting device. It will automatically calibrate your flexibility to suit your lifestyle. If you sit in a desk chair all day, the most efficient way to utilize muscle tension will be to tighten up the hamstrings and lower back. It is no wonder most people can’t so much as touch their toes. The same goes for the ability to say… headkick an opponent without tearing your adductors or groin muscles. If you never practice headkicks or increase your range of motion through effective stretching principles, your brain will not allow such range of motion.
Alright, so how do we REALLY “stretch”? Remember we aren’t really “stretching” anything, what we are really aiming to do is increase range of motion for our guards, kicks, or general mobility and healthy flexibility.
The answer, I’ve learned with great success from the great Russian athlete, coach, and trainer Pavel Tsatsouline, is to stretch isometrically. If you are not familiar with Pavel, he is a strength, power, conditioning, and flexibility guru. He has been able to successfully help numerous martial artists, soldiers, and athletes, reach full splits: some in less than 3 months! Even after practicing karate and yoga, I’ve found absolutely no other way of increasingly flexibility more effectively and efficiently than what he teaches.
Pavel doing absolutely INSANE kettlebell exercises in full splits….
Isometric Stretching begins by first tensing the muscles forcefully for 5-10 seconds while performing a full stretch. This serves two extremely beneficial purposes.
1. It builds flexible strength: Isometric contraction is an extremely effective method for building strength. By getting stronger in a stretch, you will decrease the chance of injury as well as add very useful strength to movements and techniques that require flexibility: such as the guard or a head kick.
2. It releases the stretch reflex: By tensing the muscles in a stretch, it appears to signal to the neural stretch reflex that it is safe to achieve this range of motion. When you release the tension, you then instantly increase your flexibility.
The next step of an isometric stretch, is to relax COMPLETELY. When I say completely I mean go as limp as a rag doll, let out all of your breath, relax your face, shoulders and hands. After relaxing, increase the stretch slowly and carefully, until the stretch reflex sets in. This shouldn’t take more than 5 seconds, but it can be beneficial to hold a relaxed stretch for much longer periods with certain stretches (see the warning below). After comfortably increasing the relaxed stretch, repeat with an isometric tension of 5-10 seconds.
CAUTION: Do NOT relax in a stretch for longer than 10 seconds with ANY stretch involving lower back flexion (rounded back). This means toe touching and toe GRABBING exercises especially. The muscles and ligaments stretched in these exercises are essential for lumbar (lower back) spinal alignment. Increasing their natural range of motion will only increase your chance of blowing out a disc…..not a pretty thing. Many forget that the purpose of any toe-touching exercise is to increase flexibility in the hamstrings NOT the lower back. For this reason, many people that can easily touch their toes have overstretched backs and tight hamstrings: not a very safe and effective balance of flexibility. And we wonder why back pain runs rampant….
Action step of the day: Practice isometric stretching with your usual stretching routine. Don’t be surprised if you increase your flexibility more in the first session then you have in months, that’s how effective this technique is!
For a complete library of flexibility exercises from the Russian master Pavel Tsatsouline, I highly recommend checking out this DVD. It’s done wonders for my flexibility in less time than I ever imagined.
Train hard brothers and sisters.