On Stretching in the Martial Arts – Conventional and Internal
In this article I shall be explaining the various types of stretching in martial arts, how they are trained and what is their purpose. I will do so in a novel fashion which is unfortunately seldom seen in written form. First, I shall briefly touch upon the conventional take on ‘stretching’. Then, I shall get to more interesting stuff, discussing the stretching methods used in the Internal Martial Arts.
Everyone knows this. That is the type of stretching you do at the end or beginning of a martial arts class, and which is also usually included in other sports activities. Common wisdom has it that conventional stretching is made of three different types:
1. Static Stretching: Holding a static position. Slowly inching towards a more stretched position. Perhaps some sadistic friend is recruited to push or pull to help you suffer and improve.
2. PNF Stretching: Very similar to static stretching, only that now you would be using a ‘trick’. You get to a tough position in the stretch. You will then tense the muscle being stretch strongly for a few seconds. Afterwards, it is sometimes easier to stretch a bit more.
Rules of thumb regarding conventional stretching, based on my knowledge and experience:
- People will tell you that around 8-10 seconds is enough for a static stretch. This is lazy men’s bullshit. About 8-10 seconds into the stretch you will begin to experience a slight reflex of muscular inhibition, which will allow for more relaxation and the extension into a better stretch. I have worked with many people on static stretching, and I know that to get maximum results, at least 2 minutes are necessary for the holding of a single stretch (that’s 4 minutes if you do front splits – 2 minutes for each side!). Over 5 minutes is even better, though not anyone can take such punishment. Do not overdo it. Stretching is a tool, not a goal.
- People say that plyometric stretching is relatively more dangerous. That is true. The explosive nature of Plyometric stretching carries the risk of a creating tiny tears in leg muscles and otherwise.
One of the most common injuries is a pulled Hamstring muscle due to a high kick. Be sure that the muscles you are about to use an explosive movement with are warm. An exception would be a movement which you have trained for many months or years and are very used to doing (what’s common among swimmers, cyclists, lions and zebras? None need warmups, because their movements are repetitive and frequently trained).
In the picture: Master Zhou Jingxuan of Tianjin, China, practicing static stretching. Hayarkon Park, Tel-Aviv, 2010.
This is the type of stretching no one is talking about these days. It is most commonly found in the Internal Martial Arts of China (though many External arts use the same methods as well), but only taught under traditionalist teachers with authentic knowledge.
With conventional stretching, you stretch by slowly changing the external position of the body, doing so in a very pronounced way, with large movements. Internal stretching is done by assuming a posture, and then stretching the body from within. Conventional stretching is an open kinetic chain (the body is not fixed, but can move around), while Internal stretching is closer to a closed kinetic chain (the posture does not change much externally).
What is being stretched with internal stretching?
The focus is put on connective tissues. Tendons and Fasciae.
What is a fascia?
A form of connective tissue. Think of it as either a thick or thin and flexible nylon wrap, that envelops everything inside the body. So we have got many of these ‘nylon wraps’, holding everything together. Imagine if every muscle was a sandwich, then we used one or a few fasciae to wrap that sandwich, and quite a few more to pack a bunch of sandwiches together, and then we put all these sandwiches in a box, put that box next to another box of sandwiches and wrapped the both of them together with more fasciae… and so forth. It is a network of springy wraps.
In the picture: Thin fascia strips, holding other connective tissues.
What is internal stretching used for, as opposed to conventional stretching?
Conventional stretching is used mainly for the following purposes:
1. To increase one’s range of motion in stillness and movement, for daily or martial use.
2. To maintain healthy connective and muscular tissues.
3. To prevent and heal injuries to and in muscles and tendons.
Internal stretching is used mainly for the following purposes:
1. To increase one’s range of motion in stillness and movement, for daily or martial use.
2. To develop a body structure that is more springy and reactive to pressures.
3. To teach oneself to manipulate parts of the body which are not normally under conscious control. This in turn has health benefits, but is mostly used to add momentum to explosive movements, and to allow the body to expand and shrink upon contact in minute ways which can aid in combat.
4. To improve striking and explosive power (fa jin). The ability to stretch one’s ‘frame’ or ‘structure’ sets a broader physical limit to one’s movement. When striking with explosive power, the practitioner can then pushes his bodily structure or collapse it into the furthest or tightest frame possible. A fraction of a second after that, the body strives to return to one’s ‘normal’, unstretched setting. The more the body can stretch from within, the further it can expand or collapse while still holding the same posture. This adds to one’s range of motion slightly, but more so to the ability to issue fa jin.
How are tendons and fasciae being stretched from within?
By pulling on them with muscles in the opposite direction, or relaxing muscles whilst letting the body lean with gravity, which in turn requires the tendons and fasciae to hold the more weight, and in so doing they stretch like a rubber band stretches when you hand a weight from it.
To manifest internal stretching, imagery must be used. It can be used in movement, but for the purpose of stretching alone it is more effective to hold a fixed posture (such as trained in Zhan Zhuang).
Many of the common instructions in traditional Chinese martial arts are meant to manifest internal stretching. One of the best examples is that of the postural demand of “Hanging the body from the Băi Huì 百会 point at the top of the head as if being a piece of clothing dangling from a clothes-hanger”, “sucking in the Huì Yīn 会阴 point slightly” (located between the gonads and anus), and “stretching the spine like one would stretch a pearl necklace”. All of these are meant to realign the spinal vertebrae column, stretch the intra-spinal musculature, and also stretch one of the biggest and most important fascia in the body – the Thoracolumbar fascia, which in turn helps transfer power from the legs, hips and dantian to the upper torso and hands. This, again, is more easily trained whilst holding a fixed posture.
In the picture: An illustration made by my teacher, shifu
Nitzan Oren. It demonstrates the correct Yi (Intention) used in the Tuo Xing (鼍形) movement in Xing Yi Quan. The feeling is as if the back and arms are hollow rubber pipes, and have water flowing inside of them, pushing in all directions. This imagery is extremely useful and important for manifesting the correct type of internal stretching, and building the right type of physical martial structure.
Why is it that we so rarely hear or get to read about ‘internal stretching’, and that most people do not practice it well, or at all?
Because it demands authentic, accurate instruction and intentful practice.
Everybody knows a person who has trained in something for 30 years, and still does it badly. Why?
Usually, it is because that person lacks intentful practice. He or she is not willing to make the extra effort with each practice session, and lacks introspection to point to their own faults and correct them. They lack the ability to focus on something when it gets difficult, so they never advance past a certain comfort zone. Or maybe, they just do not train enough.
Additionally to that, internal stretching is a very personal experience. It is difficult to gauge how well you are stretched from within. Often, only you can tell. That is why with internal stretching, it is key to feel the teacher’s body as he stretches, and be able to embed the correct sensation into your body while training alone. Such tactile teaching is the hallmark of quality teaching in all the traditional Asian martial arts.
Shifu Jonathan Bluestein is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. His list of published articles, most available for free reading with links (and on this blog), can be found at the following link:
If you liked this article, please ‘like’ the page of shifu Bluestein’s school on Facebook:
All rights of this article are and the pictures within it (with the exception of the Fascia image) are reserved to Jonathan Bluestein ©. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission, in writing, from Jonathan Bluestein. Jonathan may be contacted directly via email: firstname.lastname@example.org .