When training in martial arts it’s incredibly important to start from the ground and work your way up. After all, you don’t start construction of a house by building and shingling a roof. I should mention this post isn’t directly about getting stronger and more flexible in order to perform higher kicks and doing the splits. It’s about the basics. The basics can be used however you want to apply them, though. Even if that happens to be kicks ‘n splits. In my opinion, more importantly, these tricks should first be used to improve stance work and general mobility.
In order to get a powerful foundation a person needs a few things:
1. Hip Flexibility – Flexibility in the hip and strength in the descending muscle groups are where a lot of power is derived for striking. It’s a sequential process starting from the ground connection with your foot and works its way up. If hips are lacking in flexibility, only a small portion of the power accessible and produced actually transfer out of the hips and through the strike.
2. Strength in Major Leg Muscles (e.g. Gluteal, Quadriceps, and Calves) – These muscle groups give us our brute strength. While brute strength is not a requirement for effective martial arts, strength training should not be ignored. The muscles groups targeted here are responsible for everyday life movements as well as focused martial arts performance. Our gluteal muscles, for instance, affect our gait, posture, and ability to stand up from a seated position. Martially, our gluteal muscles can provide an incredibly powerful strike at close range by way of a mule kick. If you think about the way we move our whole lives, we move forward. Our muscles developed to push us forward. When not trying to travel, and focusing nearly the same mechanics to a kick, something behind you will receive the force you’ve naturally been developing throughout life.
3. Strength in Minor Leg Muscles (e.g. Anterior, Posterior, and Peroneal Tibials) – Our often forgotten muscles surrounding the ankle. We rarely pay attention to these muscles until they’re injured. It’s time to show them some love. These are some of the muscles responsible for maintaining balance. Developing these come in handy when moving in-between steps. People don’t think about what happens with foot B when foot A is moving forward. It turns out a lot is happening. If we don’t exercise these muscles somewhat frequently, instability and falls increase. Not to mention structure and balance needed for kicking and quick footwork are directly related to these muscles.
4. Strength in the Core – "Core" is such a buzzword in recent years. The core is really…. Well, at the core of balance. I’m not talking about the abs and oblique muscles only. The core surrounds your waist, much like a girdle or heavyweight champion belt, including the back and sides. How is it related to balance and foundational work? Nearly every movement we send from our brains to our body transmits through the core. Most physical movements originate through the core. Don’t believe me? Ask someone who’s given birth or had major surgery that required cutting through the core muscle group. The healing process is painful, and any little movement, as is quickly discovered, hurts in the core. Another point, what does the core surround? Our center of gravity - the magical point our brain connects to for balance. Manipulate the center of gravity on your opponent -> confuse his/her body -> down his/her body goes.
With those points in mind, here are a few exercises I put together that can be done anywhere.
1. To strengthen the large and small muscle groups, as well as hip flexibility and core strength, try the lunge-to-Warrior 3 combination. Start by taking a larger and wider step forward, making sure your feet are at least hip-width apart. Let the rear knee descend with control to the floor with the rear heel rising. Try to get the front knee into a 90-degree angle, but make sure the it does not pass your toes. Congrats, you're now in a lunge position. Now for the fun part. Spring off of the floor with your rear leg and, with one movement, try to balance on the front leg after extending it. If done correctly, your body should make a "T". Then rise up as if to stand, but step forward with the rear leg, now becoming the front leg. Try to repeat the lunge to warrior sequence at least eight times on each side, total 16 lunges.
2. The second exercise is designed to work leg strength, as well as hip flexibility. Simply put, it's a squat. Placing your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, lower your buns down in a straight line towards the ground without letting your knees move beyond your toes. The twist on this version of squat is that you should try to get your buns low enough that your knee creates an angle smaller than 90 degrees. Creating a smaller degree allows the femur to rotate more completely in the hip socket, creating greater flexibility for things like chambering your kicks, lowering stances/center-of-gravity, greater rotation in hips creating more power in strikes. I'd recommend doing 15-20 if your body allows. Remember, it's the best you can do. If I say 20 and you are absolutely shot after 7, awesome! You did 7! Next time, shoot for 9. Progress is the goal.
3. Everyone's favorite exercises to increase core strength, the plank to Locust pose combo. First, essentially, it's maintaing the top-side of a pushup. Things to keep in mind, keep hands under and in-line with your shoulders, don't let your shoulders get lazy, causing your scapulae (shoulder blades) to pinch towards your spine. Instead, focus on keeping a flat back both from shoulder to shoulder, as well as head to heel. The idea is to be straight as a board. After completing the plank, just like an egg or steak, you have to cook the backside as well as the front. To complete this portion and cook your sunny side, lay flat on your stomach and lift your arms, legs, and head off of the floor. The goal is to only have your hips and lower abdomen touching the floor. Picture you're superman/superwoman. For starters, I'd recommend a goal of 30 seconds in plank, 20 seconds in locust, 10 second rest before starting again.
4. For the final exercise, similar to the first, we utilize the benefits of yoga. This is your cool-down stage. Lizard pose, as it's called, is great at loosening the abductor/groin muscles in one leg while simultaneously stretching the hip flexor (front side of the hip) of the other leg. To achieve the benefits, start at the top position of a push-up. From that position take one of your legs and place it to the outside and parallel to your hand, i.e. left foot to outside of left hand, or right foot outside of right hand. At this point, you have two options before proceeding into the stretch fully. 1) keep your rear knee off the floor, mimicking a long, low lunge. If you choose this option you can now start to lower your upper body down to the floor, starting slowly moving to support your torso with elbows under shoulders. Focus on thrusting your pelvis under and up like a crunch in order to feel the hip flexor stretch. 2) As pictured, with control, lower your rear knee to the floor and untuck your toes. Slowly inch your rear leg back to get your rear leg to make contact with the floor with the top of your quadricep. Slowly lower your upper body down as in the first option. Whichever option you choose, be sure to keep your knee from going beyond the toes. If your knee splays outward, it's okay. Make sure to do this on both sides, and spend some time in the pose. Take 8-10 breaths while in the pose on one side. Then, 8-10 breaths on the other. Taking your time allows your body/muscles to find the pose and relax into the pose to gain the maximum flexibility.
If we add these exercises together in a comprehensive routine, I'd recommend saving the Lizard stretch for the very end. A little reward after all of your hard work. Here's what I recommend:
16 lunges to Warrior 3
Rest for 15 seconds
15 squats (smaller than 90 degrees)
Rest for 15 seconds
30-second plank, 20-second Locust, 10-second rest x2
Repeat that routine 2-3 times. Then, Left-side-forward Lizard pose for 8-10 breaths, switch sides and 8-10 breaths.
Sifu Caleb Hood is a martial arts instructor at Hood's Martial Arts Academy in Salem, Oregon. He currently offers classes in Kajukenbo Tum Pai and Yang style Tai Chi. He has experience training people from all age groups and ability levels. He is always eager to share the arts he practices with anyone that has a good attitude and a willingness to work hard. In addition to teaching self-defense through martial arts, Sifu Hood also promotes a healthy lifestyle, emphasizing healthy physical habits, as well as healthy mental habits. To learn more about the classes offered by Sifu Hood, or about the art of Kajukenbo Tum Pai or Tai Chi, visit the Hood's Martial Arts Academy website here.