How Stretching For Martial Arts Techniques Have Changed Over The Years


I have spent about 40 years in martial arts and stretching has been a topic I have studied extensively.

Information on Martial Arts Stretching

The information on martial arts stretching history I will present here comes from 3 sources.

  • My personal experience (which goes back to early 80’s)
  • Books and Magazines
  • Second hand experience from martial artists older than me. This goes back to before WWII.

Martial artists knew that stretching is important. For example I met a gentleman, who was born in 1920’s. He had practiced Judo and Jiu-Jitsu in his younger years. Based on his recollection leg stretching was mostly static. (sitting hamstrings stretches for example) While torso and upper body flexibility was often dynamic. (Standing torso rotations for example)

Looking at the older books and magazines the pattern was quite similar. Many static stretches were used.

Dynamic Stretch for Martial Arts

In kicking styles the most common dynamic stretch was a front leg raise. A side note that is in most of those pictures, the supporting hip would be flexed, the knee bent. The torso hunched forward. Thus most of the time the stretch came from the back more than the hamstrings and posterior chain. Of course I did not read all book and look through all magazines, and I would be happy to see older publicans with more diverse type of stretching.

In non kicking styles I seen more diversity in dynamic stretching. Bridging from standing position is one example. Hindu Push up is another. I was told however that even back in the 60’s there were kicking styles such as Kyokushin, that used those type of total body dynamic stretching exercises.

It is interesting to note that PNF stretching has been around since 1940. I have learned PNF long before I developed ZST. In that period of time, I was surprised that PNF was not used in martial arts schools since it was around for a while, before I began training. Static, dynamic and sometimes assisted stretching techniques dominated the combat sports landscape.

As far as I know PNF slowly entered the wide martial arts domain in the mid 1980’s. With all the people I have spoken to who have trained before that, there was not a single mention of PNF. This of course does not mean that no one practiced it earlier, simply I have not met anyone who did.

My own experience with stretching in martial arts classes is similar. A lot of passive stretching was taught. Almost all instructors at one time or the other would force their students stretches or have students do it to each other. For example standing on someone’s inner thighs or knees, while the recipient was in butterfly stretch was considered “ a way to help a fellow classmate out”.

Dynamic stretches were usually forced leg swings. There was an exception in one of the schools where the instructor did not allow swing the legs uncontrollably.

Eventually I learned that a muscle can go into the stretch deeper using one of the two tactics. (This is before ZST’s)

Tactic one was to use the opposite muscle group to relax the target one.

Tactic two was to contract the target muscle group(s), and stretch them after they are fatigued from the contraction.

It’s interesting to note that cold relaxed stretching method as a warm up was still practiced, after research have shown that it slows down muscle contraction and should be used prior to skill training.

I think by now very few (from my knowledge) martial arts schools do that type of stretching in the warm up. I recall however coming to class and having to hold a sitting forward bend hamstrings stretch for several minutes without any warm up. Same was for splits. Other muscles such as hip flexors were almost never stretched.

Although I personally now use ZST’s, and supporting stretch modalities such as Extended Length Conditioning, Antagonist Short Range Conditioning, etc. I still see the value in relaxed stretches. They relax the nervous system, facilitate deeper breathing, etc.

Just like martial arts strength training and conditioning, the flexibility training came a long way.

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