Flexibility, ahh yes flexibility, a martial artist’s best friend and worst enemy. Within martial arts there is a common misconception about the actual importance of flexibility, how to gain it, and how much you should have.
Some people believe that just by being a martial artist you should be able to wrap your legs around your head like a pretzel. On the other hand, many martial artists don’t believe that gaining flexibility is beneficial for what they feel is important, usually fighting. So the question is, can we find balance between these two extremes?
There is a fair amount of flexibility needed to perform certain stances properly, especially in Mantis. For a good bow stance, you should be fairly low to the ground with a good angle\ to the front knee and a straight rear leg with a locked knee. To do this well, flexibility is needed. However, that doesn’t mean you should be dropping your torso lower than your front knee or making the stance too long, thus “hanging in your tendons”. You may have the flexibility to do this, but going overboard simply because you can isn’t good training.
In some cases, scaling back from a lower stance can make the stance a little more difficult since it means you must rely on the muscles in your legs as well as your flexibility. This is good stance training because you’ve developed your flexibility to the point of being able to have the correct form; on the other hand, you are using your muscles to stabilize the stance instead of relying on your tendons, thus straining and possibly injuring them.
Although we don’t prefer to use high kicks in Mantis, having the flexibility to perform high kicks is invaluable training. Remember, to be able to perform a powerful low kick, some serious high kick training is necessary. We can also use our kicks to strike, but more importantly we can use them to gain position on our opponent. We shouldn’t ignore such a potentially important technique.
On the other hand, if flexibility is the main concern for you in training kicks, you may have trouble putting power behind your kicks as well as risking injury. Although grace is a nice thing to see when someone is fighting, it is safer to have a strong core and stance that isn’t easily exploited. In other words, it’s great if your legs and hips are flexible enough to bring your kicks up over your head, and you can swing your legs around however you please. But if you haven’t developed the muscle to fortify your graceful kicks - it can be very easy to dislocate hips, knees, and ankles because everything is too “loose”.
These pros and cons are very important to consider while training. So the next question is how to stretch for adequate flexibility AND strength. The simple answer, but not an easy one, is to stretch often, at least three times a week. It isn’t necessary to do a deep stretch every single time you do a big work out. You may prefer to do things this way or that may be all the time you have to do anything. This will obviously increase your flexibility to stretch often but you may say “I stretch all the time, but I feel like I make no progress!” Your progress will depend upon the way in which you stretch.
To gain flexibility, you must relax in the positions you choose to stretch in but also put enough effort into it to begin to make progress. You must also make sure that your posture is correct and that you aren’t just trying to bring your head to the ground without thinking of the rest of your body. Another important point that many people skip while trying to gain flexibility is to STAY IN THE STRETCH. Everybody wants the flexibility to do kung fu but this is the only way to gain it. You must be willing to suffer for what you want!
A different approach is to work with moving stretch routines. An example of these for kicks is to spend a day doing stretch kicks, no power, just swinging the legs upward gradually; do this until you feel more comfortable kicking higher and higher. For deep stretches like side splits, try to find some way to hold the correct posture but at the same time find ways to move your torso closer to each leg. Try movements that will open up the hips more and give you more articulation, as well as focusing on the spine or other areas of concern.
Lastly, if you’re wondering about flexibility for stances, doing a simple warm up for your legs is generally all you need to get ready to do them. If you want to get deeper (which you should!), then all you have to do is go through all your stances and HOLD them. Hold them for a long time and keep adjusting yourself, or ask someone to correct you and help you adjust, and hold the correct position. I wish there was an easier way to improve stances, but if it was supposed to be easy, it would not be kung fu!
Stretching is often an overlooked part of a work out, but when done properly, it can help build muscle on top of adding to your overall ability in the martial arts. If you approach it with the same zeal that you bring towards the rest of your work out, you should have a fair amount of progress in a short period of time. Most importantly, don’t say things to yourself like “I’m not flexible”, “I should have been training since I was three”, and all the other excuses we create for ourselves when we face something that isn’t easy for us from the getgo. Don’t be afraid to ask your Sifu for advice on this, or even (gasp!) take a yoga class and learn some basic postures and stretching principles; the more knowledge you have on the subject the better. Happy training!