15 min read.
Are you stuck in the stone age when it comes to your stretching and flexibility? Not getting the results you want? Or keep getting injured while trying to improve? Well hopefully this will get you to reconsider stretching altogether, as its not only inefficient, but counterproductive and potentially dangerous.
Why do you stretch?
If the answer is to make your muscles longer, well I am sorry that won’t work, and you are most likely hurting yourself while trying to do so. If your answer is to be more flexible, then I have to ask you why would you stretch to become more flexible? Especially as it leaves you weak at your end range of motion.
Before getting into it further, I would like to cover quickly some stretching and flexibility methods people use, then I will discuss why stretching is a waste of time, dangerous and what you should be doing instead.
There are generally two main types of methods that people in martial arts today follow, Forced Stretching Techniques (FST) and Passive Stretching techniques (PST). There are many variants of each, but basically, they are the same. One is trying to passively wait out the tension, the other is trying to force you through it. The problem they both share is, they make you weak at your end range of motion, but more on that later. PST are much more common today than FST, but FST are making a come back.
My problem with Forced Stretching Techniques FST, is they are dangerous, while you may find you get results fast, it comes with a high price, of constant pain, muscle soreness and injury through tearing and sometimes ligament and joint capsule damage which could put you out of practice for a long time, or even permanently. And if you happen to stay injury free, you still end up weak in your new-found range, which means you cannot use it in a functional movement. If you practice or your teacher instructs you in the manner of the following … I would recommend finding a new teacher or method immediately. The “why” should be obvious right? Health first!!!
This is insane! If you are doing any type of stretching like this stop!
The opposite of FST are Passive Stretching Techniques PST.
PST are not efficient and have no carry over to athletic improvement whatsoever. These are your typical “Static stretches” that you may already do in class, such as holding stretches or poses from 30 secs to a couple of minutes, in the hope of somehow “elongating” your muscles or trying to wait out the tension… why??. Both methods don’t work efficiently, or safely and go against common principles of both physiology and exercise Science. Namely you cannot make a muscle longer by stretching it, without resulting in injury and loss of elasticity and both methods leave you weak in your new range of motion. Some alternative methods attempt to bypass your stretch reflex by using shutdown techniques (ex.ballistic stretching) or bypassing it altogether by prying in and out of a harder leverage point. Still, these leave you weak at the end range of movement.
Why is weakness a problem?
Because if you are weak, you cannot move. I know you all have at some stage experienced taking a deep Kamae like Ichimoni, only to find yourself wedged into the ground, overwhelmed by your training partner and unable to move effectively from it. You got stuck, because although you were flexible enough to get into the position, you were not strong enough to control it and move out of it, you lacked mobility. Strength controls mobility, you cannot move well without it and any method you follow or instruction you receive from a teacher that recommends stretching to increase your flexibility over End Range Strength to develop mobility is ignorant and you should really consider finding a new method or teacher. Sounds harsh but its true, they don’t know what they are doing, and its getting you nowhere fast!
With the exception of specific joint health ailments, for example FAI, there is no reason a healthy individual cannot develop full range of motion. Age is not an excuse either, if you think it is, because you have have tried to stretch before, try getting strong in your end range instead! 30's, 40's 50's 60's it doesn't matter, you can't move because you lacking end range strength.
After following a typical “Stretching” program, you will most likely be instructed to then go and develop your strength separately from the main stretching program, as a separate skill with nonspecific exercises (Strength is specific, therefore mobility is, but more on that later). Who has the time to stretch for an hour, then go do a strength workout to enhance your stretching program, then go and do your own martial arts practice on top of that?
So, you become stuck in a loop of either doing the same ineffective stretches getting little to no results, using methods that leave you too sore or injured to do anything else or you feel aimless and struggle with motivation because your results come slowly and there is no real way to measure your progress without maxing out. Rinse and repeat…
Now we are talking about training adults, not children. The methods used to develop flexibility in children should not be used for adults, they are not effective. Everyone understands that children physiologically are different to adults, and both groups have different needs to each other, and need to practice differently, so this shouldn’t be a problem. Further reading on why see Children and Flexibility training by Thomas Kurz, in Stretching Scientifically.
If you practice yoga, this is not a dig at your personal practice, we are talking about developing functional movement by training your End Range Strength to gain mobility for martial arts practice. If you wish to practice yoga for other reasons or health benefits (Breathing, meditation, community or you just like it etc) go for it. But for functional movement or use in martial arts, End Range Strength is more effective.
In case you didn’t know, your muscles are already long enough to display any levels of flexibility required of them, your nervous system just prevents you from displaying it due to fear, so your stretch reflex kicks in as a natural defense mechanism to prevent harm, injury or just plain getting stuck. Stretching or attempting to stretch against this tension is inefficient, performance decreasing and potentially harmful given the type and timing of the “stretch” you perform. You cannot elongate or lengthen your muscles, not without damaging your tissue and losing elasticity anyway. That “stretch” you feel is your body contracting your muscle, to stop you from hurting yourself. Why would you fight that by stretching it? It makes no sense….
Your body does not allow you to move in a manner which it cannot control, so developing “flexibility” without strength is useless, because you will not be able to apply it when you need it as a martial artist. By stretching and attempting to improve your “flexibility”, you are actually making yourself weaker and less mobile. Yes, you may gain a new range, but if you can’t move from it, what is the point? And if you must do separate strength sessions to compensate for this, why would you? If you didn’t have to? It’s time to get more effective and efficient.
We need to get a handle on some terminology before we continue that is often misunderstood.
Flexibility: The ability of a muscle or muscle groups and associated connective tissue to lengthen passively through a range of motion. More simply, in a relaxed, gentle or passive manner, how far can you lengthen a muscle in a Range of Motion (ROM). For example, how far you can go into a stretch or pose.
Mobility: The ability of a joint to Actively move through its intended range of motion. More simply, using strength to move into and out of your intended ROM, under control and choosing the speed at which you perform it. For example, taking low kamae, but still being able to kick and move without making inefficient and superfluous movements (Errors) that are prevalent in our community (more to come about these errors in the future) is of prime importance for us. Mobility is what you want to train for, flexibility then becomes a natural by-product of high quality mobility practice.
Why is this important?
Your ability to display a passive position/pose/stretch (Flexibility) does not reflect your ability to be able to move into and out of it in a dynamic fashion (Mobility), being dynamic and moving with control is a key attribute of being a good martial artist. When you do not develop the strength required to move at your end range of motion, you become weak and inefficient and cannon fodder for those who can move unrestricted, with power and speed. For us as martial artists, weakness at your end range of motion is bad. Sure, you may be flexible and can display a static position, but if you can’t move from it, you are about as useful as a frozen soup sandwich.
So where does this leave us now?
In general, that stretching is a waste of time, inefficient, can be counterproductive or potentially harmful (Depending on type and timing). Training to also only increase your flexibility is a waste of time if it does not increase your movement potential or mobility.
Training for mobility on the other hand, increases your athleticism, protects your joints, allows dynamic control, provides joint stability and increases your flexibility without having to train for it. Quality mobility training will allow you to simultaneously develop your strength, control, stability, power, speed and flexibility all via training your Strength at the End Ranges of motion. We call this type of practice End Range Strength or ERS.
Ok time for a little bit of nerdy stuff, stick with me here.
From the Law of Specificity we know that, what we practice is what we can do. Strength is specific and following the SAID principle (Specific Adaption to Imposed Demands) we know that if we practice passively and in a static way, that is what we will be good at (flexibility), and if we practice moving in and out of end range of movement, using strength and under full control (mobility) that is what we will be good at. Therefore, mobility practice is superior to flexibility practice for Martial Artists, it’s as simple as that. Good flexibility does not guarantee mobility, but good mobility guarantees flexibility and unrestricted movements, in a dynamic action as required for martial arts and all sports.
For us flexibility is a by-product of quality mobility training, that being strength training at the end ranges ERS. Whereas the same cannot be said for “stretching” or “Flexibility” training regarding strength.
Remember strength gains are joint-angle specific: if you train in mid-ranges, you make gains in your mid-ranges. If you train at your end-ranges, you make gains at your end-ranges, the mid-range becomes redundant. If you make gains at your end-ranges, you make gains on your mobility. Remember that there is little to no transfer from passive flexibility to mobility, but passive flexibility is a by-product of your high quality mobility practice. Which is why proper strength training at the end range is so important. No strength, no movement. No movement, no mobility.
Ok, so where are we up to now?
We need to stop stretching and trying to get flexible and start focussing on Mobility by getting strong in your end range.
Exercise and Sport Scientists have known for more than 40 years the benefits of developing your strength at the end ranges of motion to enhance your mobility. So why then isn’t everybody flexible and mobile then? Well there has been a disconnect between theory and practice. To fix this is simple, we just need to get strong, in a specific fashion, that has carry over across all ranges. Training for strength at the end range of motion benefits all ranges, but the same is not true for training the mid-range. Train the end range, gain in all ranges. Train in the middle, stay in middle. Simple really. Note, we are not talking about lifting Barbells (Squats, Bench, Deads), but specific, unique and targeted exercises that develop strength at your end range.
What is End Range Strength
ERS is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to generate maximal force or torque at available end ranges of motion at a specified or determined velocity. ERS creates usable ranges of motion by increasing muscular capacity at available end ranges of motion instead of overcoming the stretch reflex passively or by using harmful or forced shutdown techniques. By getting strong, you don’t need to bypass or shutdown anything, you don’t need to trick your stretch reflex, because your body knows it’s able to move safely and efficiently and under load. Due to the improvements in strength & power across the joint you not only enhance your mobility & joint health, you very likely will reduce your risk of injury too.
Increased end range strength = increased active ranges of motion.
End range strength will still help you better than any other method drop into forward fold with your palms flat, perform butterfly with your knees on the ground, do the splits etc and display your flexibility as a natural by-product of the ERS practice, but its primary purpose will dramatically help you run, jump, punch, kick, balance and perform kamae and taijutsu better. End range strength training truly is the king of all mobility practices you can undertake.
Remember flexibility is not mobility, we need strength to have control. Strength is good, we cannot move without using our muscles, and we cannot be good martial artists without strength. Strength allows us to have stability and control, move at speed and with power, but also to relax. All of which are key attributes for a martial artist.
More nerdy stuff
Quick rundown on Muscle fibres and motor units (Stick with me on this)
Motor unit recruitment refers to the activation of additional motor units to accomplish an increase in contractile strength... no motor unit activation, no strength at mid & end ranges of motion... it's the very foundation of movement.
A motor unit is made up of a motor neuron and the skeletal muscle fibres innervated by that motor neuron's axonal terminals... all muscle fibres in a motor unit are of the same fibre type... muscle fibres are the individual contractile units within a muscle... basically there are three types of fibres: Type one (I), Type two A (IIa) and Type two B (IIb)... each fibre type has different qualities in the way they perform and how quickly they fatigue.
Motor unit recruitment depends on the load (force/resistance)... with light intensity the Type I (slow twitch, low-force) motor units are recruited first... when the load is increased, the Type IIa (fast twitch, high-force) will be recruited with the help of the Type I fibres... when the load becomes even greater, the Type IIb (fast twitch, max-force) will be recruited with the help of the Type IIa and Type I motor units (Hennemann's size principle).
The Type I fibre is important for endurance in general and designed for sustained low levels of activity... it serves an anti-gravity function and performs most of the weight-bearing movements of the body. The Type II fibres are built for explosive, very short duration activity, therefore they serve an injury prevention function... they are designed for short to moderate time periods, consisting of moderate to high intensity. The Type IIb fibres are the most important to the athlete’s force transmission capabilities because they generate the largest and fastest muscle fibre found in the body.
Now think about your practice, do you recruit Type I or Type II fibres? Which do you think you will need more as a martial artist who moves in a dynamic way? Do you think only working on your type I fibres will help you move, especially in the way a martial artist requires it? ERS has a focus on developing your Type II fibres activation at end ranges of motion. Which is why it works more effectively than other methods. By practicing ERS you not only get the mobility, but you get the flexibility too, the same cannot be said for just practicing flexibility. Being strong at the end range teaches your body it is safe and in control of your movements and your stretch reflex won’t kick in any more, allowing you to move freely, with power & speed and with full control of where and how you choose to move.
“For human adults stretching (static, passive, PNF, kinetic, loaded) is the most ineffective way to create a long-lasting change in ranges of motion across a joint. Strength training at end ranges of motion, makes stretching obsolete. He who makes a differentiation between mobility and strength training lives in the shadow of scientific dogmatism... a leopard is supple not because of its ability to stretch but rather of its capability to produce explosive strength & speed.” -Andre Irbach
Strength is king, with strength comes stability, with stability comes mobility.
At no stage in a fight or during practice will your ability to hold a stretch or pose for 2 mins help you. Your ability to produce power, speed and use your strength will because strength gives you access to your full ROM and full movement potential.
Remember your muscles are long enough, attempting to stretch and elongate them is dangerous and ineffective. Your stretch reflex kicks in to protect you from harm, it’s your bodies solution to the problem it is facing, which is its inability to generate power across your joints, which automatically leads to stiffness out of protective reasons. Being stiff and tight isn’t a problem for your body, it’s the solution to the problem it has. By removing the weakness by getting strong in your end ranges of motion, you eliminate the problem of tightness and can move unrestricted and free, fast and powerful all while protecting your joint health.
Remember that our bodies require reciprocal tension in order to function and stay balanced (bio-tensegrity), so when a muscle group is not doing its job well, due to dysfunction, it can be come tight. So, your muscles are not tight due to shortness, they are tight because they don’t work correctly. You need to learn how to activate them again, in the right way. One of the main causes of tightness is a lack of end range strength, which leads to a lack of stability across your joint, which your body interprets as potentially harmful, so to counter this it activates your muscles to provide tension to create stability, it just so happens to be done in a way that leads to uncomfortable tightness/stiffness or pain, to prevent a worse motor pattern taking over or injury from happening. Excessive muscular tightness is the body’s attempt to stabilise the joints (protection). If you try to stretch to get "relief" things just go from bad to worse. Instead work on building stability with end range strength training. In other words, by utilising ERS, we are treating the source not the symptom. Mobility is an expression of ERS. Practice that and ditch the latest fad “stretching and mobilisation” exercises you read about online, all you are doing is patching a symptom and not eliminating it at the source like you should be doing.
“Stretching a dysfunctional muscle is like pulling on a frozen rubber band... which is not really a good idea... most athlete’s muscles are dysfunctional at end ranges b/c they mainly train at mid ranges... according to the law of specificity you get what you do: mid-range training = mid-range stretchability, end range training = end range stretchability... it’s really that simple. It’s time to raise your standards” -Andre Irbach
There are a number of ways we utilise ERS, but the general idea is you need to learn how to activate your muscles first in the correct functional pattern, then learn how to control it with a lift, then learn how to move in and out of range under load. Then we look for speed via a ballistic movement (not to be confused with Ballistic stretching).
Remember the ability to control your movement, at your end range of motion, is more important than displaying a stretch or passive pose. End range strength is your force multiplier when it comes to Mobility training. You increase your strength, active range of motion, protect your joints, increase your flexibility all while being able to track your progress more effectively by being able to measure not only your flexibility increases, but the load, sets, reps and time under tension too. The more you measure, the more you have to track, which means you can see your gains in mobility coming each training session.
So how do I know if I am weak?
Pretty easy, just test your movement potential. Try some of these exercises out below, remember these are just small example of some movements and not a comprehensive assessment or the method, but they can show you where you are lacking in mobility.
If you need an in-depth analysis of your mobility, then you need a full body assessment and review by a competent coach or instructor. Followed by a closely monitored and tailored mobility program just for you, that is constantly adjusted & enhanced to keep up with your progress.
There will be videos on Facebook and Instagram.
Can you perform butterfly all the way to the floor? No… you lack ERS. If you can, can move under load from that position? No, you don’t own it yet, and need to learn how to get strong in it.
Can you walk or squat on your feet in pointe mobility position? No, you lack End Range Strength.
Can you do hero? How about actively?
How is your internal rotation?
Hatsumi Soke, Ishizuka Dai- Shihan and Dr Kacem Zoughari all understand mobility and all move in such a graceful and efficient manner, while being able to display flexibility when they need to. If they made the time to develop it, shouldnt you? BTW these might be some nice retro photo's, but they can still do it all today. I truly believe mobility its the No1 thing you can do, that will greatly enhance not only your taijutsu, but your health too. Its not only benefitting myself, but all of training partners and friends in Australia, and all around the world.
These are just some small basic examples, any questions feel free to comment or message me.
If you don’t know how to begin, ask your instructor for help!
If they don’t know how to help you increase your mobility and improve your body control & taijutsu then contact me, I offer online coaching in 3 and 6 month training blocks.
For some common mobility mistakes and some more info on how to get started with mobility coaching read the link below, or sign up today via paypal to get started.