Stretching For the Art

You’ve finished your workout and the idea comes to you: why not stretch a little? It can only help, right? But immediately your brain floods with questions: How important is it to stretch? If I have just worked out, is stretching necessary? Which is the best for me and, even more importantly, which should I avoid? And, as a martial artist, which stretches best fit my style?

Any stretching related to Chinese martial practice could be associated with more than 300 different martial branches, consequently presenting a tremendous range of stretching and pliability options, along with related foundational interpretations. Add in gyms, fencing schools, and physical therapies and you can see that guidelines could help in this explosion of choices.

In general, most schools prefer a functional approach—technically, good stretching is whatever it takes to express the main characteristics of each style’s hidden parts. Given that, we’d expect to find the majority of styles—especially competitive ones—promoting stretching regimens which fall in the middle of the bell curve, while encouraging higher level stretches for advanced practitioners to emphasize their more versatile ranges of motion.

I think it is fair to say that stretching techniques should match the home system…though not necessarily 100%. I have, unfortunately, seen schools that both limit the stretching patterns because they do not exactly match a hand or leg position or, even worse, ‘develop’ exercises to match every defining action of the system. Remember, stretching should support the style, not embroider it.

When it comes to combat moves—fighting kicks, arm locks, throws— functional stretching ties directly to core movement. For example, if the style mainly requires below-the-waist kicks, one should focus their stretching on perfecting lower kicks, at more unusual angles, and with sophisticated timing. Oh, and it’s interesting to note that it is perfectly valid to see that lower region as having its own inherent stretches, too. What does this mean? Well, for one thing, specific ankle stretches or rotational stretches at the hip might be as valid as expanding your kicking range, such as kicking above your whole head. By the same token, the whole-body principles in traditional martial arts strongly advise that specific upper body stretching will stabilize your lower body actions.

So, let’s see if we can’t address a couple of those original questions.

1. Don’t over-stretch. That is a law. But, just as important, don’t stretch to your limits then follow that up with moderately high kicks. In fact, I suggest that after stretching, moving at about 75% of your range puts you into a stronger position, where your “extra” reserve of power is a bonus that will come just at the right time.

(But wait, you protest—there are some stretches that just lend themselves to extension, and it is natural to want to open up. True, and I am not saying that you should never go beyond your range; as a matter of fact, one purpose of stretching is to carefully expand your limit. But there is a difference between challenging your range and going too far. Remember the rules: in Kung Fu, you never go to the end—in breathing, in straightness of limbs, etc, if for no other reason than this reduces your potential power. If, when stretching, you always keep ’roundness’ in mind, you will not go wrong. This is one of the main reasons I always push my students towards a more organic movement—which, by the way, allows for a 3 – 5% fudge factor. The whole point is to find the range that is your range, even if you sometimes take a few steps across the border. The most important takeway here is to use proper caution.)

2. Here’s something unexpected: don’t max out on “assisted stretches.” What is that? If you try to improve your stretch using an assistant—such as a different limb, or a wall or any otherwise helpful tool—then you are “assisting” your original stretch.

I’ll give you an example: one day, when I was studying Northern Shaolin, Sifu Lam watched me practice the stretch required to perform that beautiful palm position known as “Willow Leaf”. Now, let me take a minute to (re)acquaint you with this graceful hand. One arm is extended ahead of you, and once thrust out, the hand at the end swivels up so all the fingers point to heaven; then the hand rotates inward for extra-crispy pain. In addition to its lovely shape, this hand stretch brings an almost iron-thread power to your forearm.

The Willow Hand Palm unassisted, then assisted.

So, there I was, practicing my palm, using my ‘assistant’ (left hand) to help pull my right hand towards me. Sifu Lam watched briefly then, when he couldn’t take it any longer, walked over and told me to stop. When I politely asked why, he gave me a surprisingly pragmatic answer: in a good martial artist, these moves should be self-generated; in other words, if you are creating a specific position like the Willow Leaf, the Kung Fu method requires that the right Willow Leaf must be created by the actions of the right hand because, in a fight, you can’t have your left hand aid in the overall strike. In other words, the right arm has to do the right hand and the left arm has to do the left hand.

(Now, I can hear your protests again: what about the Tai Chi press? Isn’t that one hand helping the other? Not really. There are species of usage that APPEAR to be one hand helping the other, but the actions of the two hands are not at all additive, nor are they dependent. But this is an article on stretching, so…we’ll just leave it at that for now.)

Much stretching is simple and direct, and it’s a good idea to keep it that way. Stretching should be precise, controlled, and taken seriously; even as you and your training age, there is no reason to disassemble what you have painstakingly refined, but it’s also not a bad idea to adjust your expectations. Don’t concentrate on poses and one-step delivery of power—as always, the MIXTURE of Yin and Yang offers balanced experiences and optimal results.

It may be my imagination, but I think I can hear the warbling of many rubber bands out there right now.

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