If you’ve been following along with these last articles on stances, you’ve been working on your front, middle and back stances, you’ve been practicing at least 15 minutes a day – and you’re developing some good muscles tone. You’re also probably starting to feel achy and stiff, because long practice of these stances doesn’t allow for the flexibility you’re going to need when you starting moving through stances and executing kicks.
Fortunately, there are dozens – indeed, hundreds! – of stretches that you can do to stretch these muscles that can feel over-tightened after a long martial arts workout.
Before you stretch, however, make sure that your muscles have warmed up. A short jog and some exercises (try the squats and lunges in our last article!) will serve to get the blood flowing and the muscles warming up. Now it’s time to stretch those muscles.
The gastrocnemius (the muscle on the back of the calf) can really feel stressed and strained after working on front stances. One great stretch (and also helps to tone the muscle) is the “step stretch”. If you have stairs in your house, this one is easy. Step onto the lowest step, then carefully position yourself so that the balls of both feet are on the edge of the steps, leaving the arch and heel unsupported. Carefully lower your heels (hold on to the bannister if you need to for balance), trying to drop your heels below the edge of the stair. Keep your legs straight: you want to feel the stretch in the back of the leg.
Hold the stretch for few seconds, then press down with the balls of your feet to lift you up. continue to push upwards until your heels are a few inches higher than the step. Again, you want to hold this extension for a few seconds, then lower yourself until your heels are lower than the step. Doing this will both stretch the gastrocnemius when you lower yourself, then strengthen them as you lift up.
Don’t have stairs? Try standing a big book (don’t stack up smaller books – they can slip!), or doing this stretch outside, balancing on a curb or the front step of a house.
A fun stretch for the hamstrings is the yoga roll. This is best practiced on a padded surface, like a carpeted floor, on a yoga mat, or on a padded surface. Start in staff pose (seated on the ground, with your legs straight in front of you.) Carefully stretch forward, reaching for your toes. Your goal is to hinge at the hips, so try to keep your back straight and flat, rather than curing your back. Focus on placing your chest on your thighs rather than touching your nose to your knees.
Return to staff pose, then lay back on the ground. Lift up your feet and legs roll them back over your head; you are trying to touch the floor with your toes. Now bring them back to the floor in front of you, and bring yourself back up to the staff pose, then continue to roll forward until your chest is on your thighs. Smoothly roll back onto your back, lifting your legs and feet again, and continue the roll until your toes reach the ground behind your head. Repeat this at least ten times: with every stretch reach forward a little more, trying to bring your chest closer to your thighs.
On your last roll forward, reach as far forward as possible and hold the position; if you feel the muscles tense, take a deep breath, then let it out, consciously trying to relax the muscles as you exhale.
To combine the stretches for the gastrocnemius and the hamstrings, take a standing position, then put your right foot in front of your left. (You may find that you can’t put your right foot completely on the ground. This is okay; as you stretch more you’ll gain more flexibility.) Bend at the waist and place your fingertips on the ground in front of your feet. You should feel this in the back of your legs and behind your knees. hold for a count of ten. If you can easily touch the floor with your fingertips, try to place your palms on the ground. Once you can do this, reach slightly behind your feet, hinging at the waist so that your chest presses against your thighs.
Return to a standing position, uncross your feet, then cross your left foot in front of your right. Repeat the same exercise.
You’ll also want to stretch the quadriceps on the front of each leg. This muscle doesn’t lend itself to stretching as readily as the calf and hamstrings do, and many people have a difficult time in stretching this muscle.
The easiest stretch is to place one hand on a wall or other firm surface to maintain your balance. Bend your knee, then grab your foot behind you, trying to bring it toward your posterior. Hold for a count of five, release the pressure, then repeat. Hold each stretch for another count, stopping when you reach ‘ten’. Repeat on the other leg.
If this stretch isn’t enough for you, you can exaggerate the movement slightly by taking the action to the floor. Start in a right lunge: place your left foot ahead of you, with your knee directly over your ankle. Drop your right knee to the ground, then bend at the knee, bringing the foot closer to your body. Reach back and grab your foot, then gently pull it toward your lower back. You can increase the stretch by making the lunge deeper, but go slowly so that you don’t damage your front knee. Hold for a count of five, then slowly release the foot and return to your starting position. Repeat with the other foot.
These are a few – but only a few – of the many stretches you should do eery day to help strengthen and tone your leg muscles. After doing so, you’ll find you have more strength and flexibility for every leg technique we do.
Now that you know your stances and can move easily into and out of the positions, we’re going to put all this preparation to good use – so join us in the next section for number one front kicks.
About the Author: Ke Roth is a 4th Degree Black Belt in Taekwondo, and is the Chief Instructor at Initial TKD Martial Arts in Batavia, IL, a family-run, family-oriented martial arts school. At Initial TKD, we believe that studying martial arts isn’t just about blocking, kicking and striking: it’s about building self-confidence, self-control and self-discipline while getting fit and having fun.
For more information about what the martial arts can do for you and your family, please visit our website at http://www.initialtkd.com
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