Stretching and Conditioning
by Robert Wolfe
Stretching is essentially universal in sports, regardless of the level of competition or the age of the participants, but I’ve always been amazed by the number of fairly senior martial arts practitioners who still disparage the concept of stretching, especially as a warm-up. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, as I stretch prior to a practice, “That flexibility is all well and good, but you’re not going to have the chance to stretch first if you suddenly have to defend yourself.” The obvious point these critics miss — aside from the fact most of them can’t lift a foot higher than the opposite knee — is that by proper and continued stretching, I am more flexible all the time, far more capable of generating power and much less likely to be injured by a sudden, explosive movement.
Here are some basic points to remember:
Stretching prior to practice is preparatory, not developmental. In other words, be conservative in stretching before the workout. The best procedure is to warm up gently with a few of the aiki-taiso or other exercises, and then once a light sweat is broken commence your stretching routine. There seems to be a trend nowadays in mainstream athletic circles advocating just a warm-up prior to exercise and the avoidance of stretching. In my own experience, the times I’ve suffered muscle injuries during training were the times circumstances precluded my stretching routine, even though a proper warm-up was performed. Your mileage may differ…
Everyone is probably aware that bouncing movements are to be avoided; instead, stretch to the point of the onset of discomfort, and hold that degree of extension for at least a minute. Stretching should be slightly uncomfortable, but never painful. Pushing to the point of pain is more likely to result in loss of flexibility than the gains we’re looking for.
After practice, when you are thoroughly warmed, is the time for development stretching, the time to push for greater flexibility. You can use the same exercises that you used in your warm-up, but hold the stretches longer and try for greater range.
In most forms of leg stretches, one good way to increase your flexibility is to get into position and take a deep breath, feeling the stretch pull inside. Exhale slowly, and sink more deeply into the stretched position. Take a deep breath again, being careful to stay in position — do not rise up and release the tension. As you exhale, you will again sink further into the stretch.
Personally, I would not undertake any practice or exercise without stretching, preferably both before and after physical exertion. Again, if you’re in this for the long run, it behooves you to use every opportunity to increase your fundamental level of fitness, of which stretching is a prime component.
Strength is also a critical component of fitness, and of overall ability in martial arts. Although with kenjutsu and aikijutsu we have arts that are less dependent on strength than, say, karate or wrestling, to pretend that greater strength is not useful in either art is foolish. Clearly, the best way to increase strength is through proper weight training, but we can accomplish quite a lot with the resistance-based exercises we perform in the conditioning portion of our regular aikijutsu practices.
Aikijutsu students thinking back to their first practice at Itten Dojo will remember instructors emphasizing that during the conditioning workout it was far more important to imitate the proper form of the exercises than attempt to match the number of repetitions performed by the other members of the class. Once an acceptable base level of fitness is attained, we definitely want all students to push themselves during conditioning, but never at the expense of proper form. In the first place, it’s just dumb to injure yourself due to incorrect execution of an exercise. Too, we only have so much time to devote to conditioning, and it’s going to hurt in any case, so why not get the most benefit for every moment of discomfort?
Now, to be sure, there’s good pain and bad pain. Good pain is the burning created by build up of lactic acid, when skeletal alignment is correct and muscles are pushed past the point of exertion to which they are accustomed. Bad pain is the sudden, sharp indication that something inside has torn or otherwise broken. Seek the first and avoid the second — the key is to watch and imitate the senior members of the kai.
When we are doing our conditioning, just as when we are practicing fundamental patterns of movement, I’m not just trying to get some exercise. I’m very consciously attempting to model for students the best possible form I can manage. (Of course, that pays off for me in a lot of ways, too, but the point is students can be assured the form I am using is the form they ought to be integrating.) Posture tends to be a critical consideration in conditioning exercises, as it is in techniques. I would apply the concept of posture even when an exercise is performed seated or prone.
Almost as importantly as attending to form, is the admonition not to cheat. Members of Itten Dojo have heard our mantra, “The difference between black-belts and white-belts is this: Black-belts are always looking for ways to make training harder, while white-belts are always looking for ways to make it easier.” In a nutshell, that’s why most white-belts never become black-belts. Only do as many repetitions as you can execute with proper form, but complete every rep that you possibly can, every workout. In the old karate dojo we had another saying: “Train hard; fight easy.” That might be a little simplistic, but it’s certainly true that slacking off in practice isn’t going to enhance your fighting ability. You never know when the pushups you skipped might have given you the endurance to throw that last punch to end the fight with you still standing.
Breathe! Proper breathing always enhances performance of conditioning exercises. The opposite is worse. Improper breathing can actually hurt you. A good example is a student holding his or her breath during abdominal crunches. Doing so results in what doctors refer to as a valsalva maneuver, which raises blood pressure dangerously and puts undue strain on the heart.
There are also some breathing tricks that can be useful. If you make Japanese-style, “scoop” pushups a breathing exercise by focusing on the cycles of breath rather than on how difficult the exercise is physically, you will achieve more repetitions without strain and realize a higher level of conditioning. You can even use the quick, panting breaths taught to women in birthing classes to squeeze out an extra rep or two of knuckle-pushups (and in pushups, as with any other resistance exercise, it’s only the last few reps that accomplish anything).
The stretching and conditioning sets utilized at Itten Dojo merit in-depth analysis — and detailed videos addressing those topics are on the to-do list — but I hope the things I’ve mentioned in this blog will be especially useful for you and will help you draw maximum benefit from these two crucial components of training.