As an instructor many people question me on different topics. Obviously, it is impossible to answer all these questions and everyone, however, when the same or similar questions get asked a lot (by a wide range of people), I usually get around to answering them: via a post, here on this blogsite.
Karate stretching in the 1980s—the ‘pain is gain’ approach:
During the 80s, in retrospect, we did a lot of unhealthy stretching. Inadequate (often stretching was the ‘warm-up’), lots of ballistic stretching, pushed partner stretches and so on. Even as a youngster I suffered a significant number of, fortunately, minor injuries, during this decade. Nonetheless, in my experience at that time, these pulls, and strains were un-scientifically viewed ‘as the road towards increasing flexibility’ and even increased strength. To clarify, I have only suffered one very serious injury, which ironically was not karate related.
But on the subject of serious injuries and stretching, one cannot look past these common 1980s practices. One regular practice was to have partners stand on your legs to make full splits or force the knees flat to the floor in the ‘butterfly stretch’. Another was to sit on your partners back as they bend forward for the base 'seated hamstring stretch'. Keep in mind I was born in the mid 1970s, so in the 80s I was a junior and later, a teenager. Back then, the popping, cracking and crunching sounds, as we stretched were normal. We thought it was positive! Now, the thought of it makes me grimace. Across the many young karateka practicing at that time, I wonder how their bodies are now in 2020?
This painful type of practice, as mentioned did cause injuries—but also (admittedly) achieved ‘quick results’, which provided a ‘phantom justification’ for their practice. Unfortunately, as I already alluded to, “…I am sure that a significant number of people damaged their joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles, doing this type of archaic training”: both immediately, and probably, in the long-term. That would certainly be an interesting research project.
1990s karate stretching—things got a lot better but…
The 90s saw a lot of improvements in stretching via new and wider access to sports science within the karate world. Warming up became more aerobic in nature (to literally ‘get warm’ before stretching) followed by loosening exercises, stance based floor stretches, more attention to upper body stretches (much thanks to Asai Sensei) and prioritization of dynamic stretches at the start of classes (for example, leg swings), and PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) based stretches.
Furthermore, the conclusion of trainings included more static stretches, isometric stretches, coupled with balancing strength-work… The sort of splits work we did in the 1980s, but devoid of all the intense partner stretching and jerky ballistic stretches. In sum, the research showed that, at least for fighting arts like karate, static stretching was found to be optimal at the conclusion of practices.
I would like to add here, that in the early 1990s is when I first began training here in Japan… Of course, the general level of karate was far technically superior; however, the ‘warmups’ were worse than what I experienced in the 1980s in New Zealand!!! So, in this regard, Japan was very behind. Indeed, I doubt this problem was about ‘a lack of sports science knowledge’. Rather, it was probably more-so an issue of the strong sociocultural rules of joge kanke—‘the senpai/kohai relationship’ here in Japan: which is very influential in greater society, but extreme in the Japanese Budo World.
Accordingly, when training in Japan in the 90s, I learned to be ‘very well warmed up’ well before seiza: to avoid immediate or long-term damage as much as possible. I could go into competing in large inter-Japan karate competitions (on the topic of warm up and stretching) especially if you are a foreigner… But I will leave that, for another day, as it is a topic worthy of itself.
Stretching in the 21st Century...
To this day, here in Japan, many clubs still ‘warm up’ like the 1980s!!! Yes, still, almost immediately (after standing from seiza) the instructors often have everyone drop into the splits!!! One well known instructor, who is a friend, advised me. “Every time you finish bathing spend five minutes in the splits”. So many people take such advise seriously, as karate gospel, just because it came from a Japanese instructor.
Thankfully, those interested in avoiding injury, and getting the best results from stretching “…kept evolving, refining (and diversifying their routines)” based on contemporary sports science. Most importantly, RESPONSIBLE, PROFESSIONAL and CARING INTRUCTORS continue to “...advance their knowledge to optimally improve their student’s flexibility in the safest possible manner”. This, in my opinion is the absolute responsibility of everyone who teaches karate, or any other physical activity for that matter. As instructors, WE MUST ALWAYS KEEP UP TO DATE!
So, where do I stand now when it comes to my own flexibility training? Well, now in my mid 40s my conditioning hasn’t changed very much since I entered my 30s. That is, at that time I could see the super intense training I did—throughout my teens and 20s—would eventually take a harsh toll on my body. So I changed and by the time I was 32 I had fully restructured my stretching program: based on (1) optimum outcome (karate skill development); (2) safety (health/physical longevity); and (3) suppleness of my body, but also mind (youthful elasticity/stillness of mind).
One major aspect of stretching for me is to ‘not push myself’. I take things easy when doing flexibility work and let my body talk. Yes, it tells us how far we should or shouldn’t go. Some days I am extremely supple. Sitting in the full splits for an extended period is fine. Yet, other days, I cannot do the same stretch past 90 degrees. My motto, in this regard is: “when you make stretching ‘being competitive with others’, or ‘even being competitive with yourself’, it is a non-productive training ethic”. Understanding and applying this, you will mitigate the chances of harming yourself, you will maintain and ‘safely increase your range of motion’, and most importantly ‘YOU WILL ENJOY STRETCHING’. Why, is ‘enjoying’ most important? Simply take on a behaviorists view. When the experience is pleasant—gentle and relaxing: (a) you will avoid injuries; (b) you will increase your range of motion; (c) you will improve overall performance; (d) and will feel healthier and younger in general;—therefore, due to this positive reinforcement, you will probably keep it up!
Alternatively, if stretching is painful, and even periodically damages you (negative reinforcement), you may keep it up for a while. However, it probably won’t be too long before you start ‘avoiding’ it. This applies to even the most disciplined and driven karate exponents around the world; whom of many, I've privately coached to give them an edge.
To conclude I would like to challenge you to take it easy!! No pain, just all gentle and relaxing stretches. Stretch AS DEEP AS YOU CAN WITHOUT ANY DISCOMFORT. Enjoy it by making it enjoyable! Not just at the dojo, but how about doing a hamstring stretch when waiting for the subway? What about using that nice bookstand in your office to put you’re your foot on? How about occasionally standing up from your desk and bending forward as far as possible for your hamstrings? What about doing a relaxed half box splits stretch as you watch the evening news? You will be surprised how less is more. Just remember, “…pain in stretching is not a sign of good training”. It’s your body saying, “Hey stop it, or ease up a little, you’re overdoing it”. So that’s it for today. Hopefully, there was something of use in this article. I’d personally like to wish you the very best results and health in your training.
Greetings from Oita City.
© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2020).