The Last Inch

by William Durbin, Soke of Kiyojute Ryu

         Many people have flocked to see the great Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace give the clinics, where he teaches students who want to learn how to develop full flexibility. There are many students who want to learn how to do the splits, knowing that it will greatly improve all their martial arts skills. Many think of learning the splits as only necessary to improved kicking, but the truth is, there are many other benefits derived from flexibility training than just enhanced kicks.

Flexibility

         First of all, improved flexibility means that a person will be much healthier in an overall sense. One of the old sayings of fitness is that "the legs are the second heart". This means that the healthier the legs the healthier the person. Firstly, legs that have been stretched and toned, tend to keep the veins and arteries in a much more elastic state. This means that they are healthier and stronger, less likely to have interior build up or other hardening conditions, which can hinder proper health, or create the fragments that so often lead to heart attacks or strokes.

         When the legs are developed through exercise and agility training, then as the legs are flexed, they literally help pump the blood throughout the body, taking a great deal of stress off the heart. This is one of the benefits of stretching, which should be pointed out, but of which many people are not aware. This is also why flexibility training should be added to other forms of physical exercise. Whether a person runs, walks, lifts weights, or practices other forms of exercises that greatly stress the muscles, a proper stretching program can help keep the body much more pliant and supple. This type of flexibility also protects a person from injury during the activity of sporting events.

Kicking, Stances and Other Uses

         From a martial arts point of view, there are many more benefits than just improved kicking. In example, when a person is extremely flexible they can take better stances and keep the heel of the base foot solidly flat, so that greater power can be generated in punches and strikes.

         Practitioners of any of the grappling arts will find a greater ability to use their legs for locks and holds through a greater range of motion. Also it is much harder to put certain leg locks on a person who is highly flexible. In example, several leg attacks, work at pulling the legs apart causing pain and damage to the groin muscles, but for a person who can perform full splits, it is almost impossible to reach a point of causing discomfort, before a loss of balance is reached by an attacker, thus giving the defender a chance to counter such an assault. Having a full range of motion in the hip joint can allow the legs to be used with the dexterity of the arms, thus making them available for breaking many types of holds, which immobilize the arms, but leave the legs free.

Adductor Longus

         While we many times think of how we can improve stretching, it is important to fully understand what muscles are actually involved in stretching before we can truly understand how to improve ourselves. In example, most people are very aware that the groin muscle, actually the adductor longus, is an intricate muscle in developing full splits because it is the one on the inside of the leg, but the truth is, this is only one of three muscles groups that needs to be exercised and properly developed for a person to acquire full agility in the leg.

Biceps Femoris

         The second set of muscles, which is well known, are the biceps femoris, which are the ones at the back of the legs, extending from the hip to the back of the knees. This set of muscles allows the leg to move forward, in such kicks as front kicks and crescent kicks. This set is much easier to develop for the most part that the adductor muscles, which is why people have an easier time developing high front and crescent kicks than side and roundhouse kicks.

Gluteus

         The third set of muscles, will probably be a surprise to many people, they are the gluteus muscles, which hold the hip together. These are the muscles that tighten the most as people age, mainly because modern life uses them so little. Elderly people use their muscles in their hip so slightly that they tighten greatly as the years pass. But for those who want a great deal of youthful movement in their daily life and in their martial arts, the gluteus muscles are extremely important for the development of total health and elasticity.

         There are three muscles here for us to consider; the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. Whenever a person does any kind of forward stretch, meaning they are bending forward in the sense of folding the body in half, they should keep their heads up and make it a point to bend from the hip joints. Many people, attempting to put their head to their knees, do so by bending the back. This is not a healthy stretch and can actually cause harm to the person stretching, by placing undue strain on the lower back.

         The lower back muscles are designed for only one purpose, to hold the body erect. When a person seeks to stretch this area of the body, they take a real chance on pulling the muscles and causing lower back strain. Rather than bending the back, the practitioner should bend at the hip itself. This will work both the gluteus muscles and the biceps femoris.

Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace

         Most people know the majority of common stretches to be used for developing flexibility. For those who don’t, it would be best to buy one of the excellent books written by such expert stretchers as Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace, Bob Anderson, Jean Frenette, James Lew, as well as, a host of others. There are many good books on the subject, each written form a different point of view. Probably the absolute best for martial artists is the one written by Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace, though all of the books are good.

         However, one particular point to keep in mind is that everyone is different. When a class full of students stretch, there will be many different levels of flexibility demonstrated. In a typical Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace clinic you will see students who have barely ninety degree stretch, to a typical spread of one hundred sixty five degrees, and the rare one hundred eighty. Bill himself shows superior stretching ability in being able to achieve not only one hundred eighty, but then show the ability to lay his body forward completely flat on the ground, and perform a complete pull through, which takes a total stretch of about one hundred ninety five degrees to achieve.

The Last Inch

         Many people stretch up until they almost reach the one hundred eighty degree mark, but find getting past that last inch an impossibility. In some cases, the people just give up when they get that far and begin to have difficulty once more. It can be discouraging to work hard up to that point, only to be unable to get off the last plateau, and achieve full splits.

         Some exercises, which might help, are as follows. First of all, with the feet spread approximately double shoulder width apart, work to get the head to the floor. By keeping the leg closer together, this takes the stretch off the adductor muscles and isolates both the gluteus muscles and the biceps femoris. If you really focus on bending directly from the hips, this particularly works the gluteus muscles, which seems to be the ones, which allow that final inch.

         With your back against the wall, have a partner lift the leg up until it touches your shoulder. Once again this works the gluteus and biceps femoris. Then put your foot on the partner’s chest and have them walk forward, pushing your knee up and towards the wall. With the knee bent, the biceps femoris is taken out of the stretch and the gluteus muscles are isolated for a full stretch of this area. The gluteus muscles allow for total rotation of the hip joint, which may be responsible for the last inch necessary to achieve one hundred eighty degrees.

         One final exercise, which can help stretch the gluteus muscles, is to have a partner push your leg up to the wall, which stretches the adductor longus. Then place your foot on the person’s stomach and once again have them push your leg to the wall. This again places the focus of the stretch on the gluteus muscles.

         Some practitioners have found that by placing the emphasis of stretching on the three gluteus muscles, once they have reached the area of the last inch, they can finally break the last plateau of stretching and achieve full splits. But even for beginners, these exercises, adjusted to their own level, can be of great benefit. However, for those of you who have reached that last inch, you may find that working on the gluteus muscles might be the key to full flexibility.



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