Sifu Rebecca Knapp, Waterloo Kung-Fu Academy

By Sifu Rebecca Knapp

Adult Student’s Corner

We talk a lot about increasing and maintaining flexibility in Kung Fu. Let’s consider why it’s important and how we gain it; next time I will address specific types of stretching in more detail.

Flexibility is needed to perform everyday activities with relative ease…things like getting out of bed, lifting children, or sweeping the floor. Better flexibility improves athletic performance and can decrease risk of injuries by helping your joints move through their full range of motion and enabling your muscles to work effectively. Think of it this way: if you can’t get your body into the “right” position to execute a technique, it will compensate by drawing on other “wrong” muscles; this will have a lasting negative impact on mobility, joints, muscle balance, body pain and posture.

Flexibility tends to deteriorate with age: As we grow older our muscles lose strength and become stiffer, which in turn makes simple movements more difficult and in some cases impossible.

Staying active and stretching regularly (every day!) help prevent this loss of mobility. Stretching also increases blood flow to your muscles.

Martial arts movements help maintain flexibility because many techniques are either deliberate stretches, or stretch the muscle in the course of executing the technique.

Two types of flexibility important in Kung Fu, and examples of stretches that facilitate each, are listed below:

Dynamic Flexibility: This is flexibility in motion. Dynamic stretching is used to develop dynamic flexibility – you essentially relax the extended (antagonist) muscle and simultaneously contract the moving (agonist) muscle through a plane of motion. An example of a technique we use to generate dynamic flexibility is the forward leg raise: the hamstring is the antagonist (it relaxes) while the quadriceps is the agonist (it contracts). Dynamic flexibility is fundamental in developing speed, reducing response time and increasing power and range of motion.

Static-passive Flexibility: This is the ability to take up a stretch and hold it. The two types of stretching associated with this type of flexibility are: a) relaxed/static, like splits, quad stretches, forward bends etc., and, b) isometric, aka: partner stretching (although you can do it solo), aka: PNF, (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation). PNF/isometric stretching is one of the most effective, ways to increase flexibility and range of motion. To do it, you passively extend the muscle to your “maximum” and then contract it. Introducing tension to a passively lengthened muscle sort of “tricks” the muscle into thinking it can maintain this longer length. After the isometric, the muscle will relax further into the passive stretch. In class we have mostly focused partner stretching on the muscles of the legs, although it can be used for several muscles, and it’s relatively straightforward. So, in a front leg stretch, our partner lifts the leg up, and we apply pressure or tension downward for a number of seconds, and then release, at which point we are (theoretically) able to raise the leg higher.

Next time: Examples of these different types of stretches, and how to use them to increase flexibility and range of motion.