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From ATA World Volume 20, Number 1 Spring 2013

Flexibility – in life and in Taekwondo – is generally considered a good thing for overall fitness and injury prevention. But stretching the wrong way can actually decrease performance and injure the muscles you’re trying to protect. Check out these four common flexibility myths and learn how you can get it right for optimal flexibility on and off the mat.

Myth: More is better.
Fact: Finding your optimal level of flexibility will beef up performance and protection.

“A person can become too lax or too flexible, and that can increase the injury risk even further than not having enough flexibility,” says Michael R. Esco, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama.

Think about an over-stretched muscle like a rubber band that’s lost its elasticity. If it’s too lax, it will be more susceptible to injury and won’t have that snapback you need for a powerful punch.

“You’ve got to keep the primary movements involved in mind when you seek to improve or maintain flexibility,” says Esco. “With a kick or a punch, that has to do with the range of motion of my muscle. If I increase that range of motion too much, then that power output goes away.”

Myth: Flexibility is more important than muscle strength.
Fact: Focusing on both strength and flexibility will improve your overall fitness and performance.

“It doesn’t matter if you kick high if you can’t hold it there. You have to have a balance of flexibility and power,” says Cheryl Vance, 4th Degree Black Belt and instructor at Salt Lake City ATA Martial Arts in Utah. Vance, a former gymnast who competed in the 1984 Olympics, is known around her dojahng for her warm-ups that often include up to 45 minutes of stretching. But strength training – especially in the core – is an equally important part of her workout routine.

“If you don’t have a strong core and you do a side kick, you’re going to fall over, no matter how flexible you are,” she says. “The beauty of having flexibility is that beautiful line, the extension of that line. If you have power at the end of that, your kicks are going to be unstoppable.”

Myth: Static stretching at the beginning of a workout is best.
Fact: It’s safer to begin your workout with dynamic movements and cool down with sustained stretches.

“The typical form of stretching where you hold a stretch for up to a minute and rest and do it over about a minute, that’s static stretching,” says Esco. “What research is showing is that if we do too much static stretching, especially before we perform, practice, or train, then we increase the risk of being injured during that training period.”

Static stretching on cold muscles also can decrease the ‘oomph’ behind your punches and kicks.

It’s called a “neuromuscular inhibitory response” and in other words it means a static-stretched muscle is less responsive and actually weaker for up to 30 minutes after stretching.

Instead, experts recommend starting your workout with a warmup that includes dynamic movements, like kicks and punches—but don’t go hard and for the full range of motion right away. Start slow and gradually work up to your full extension.

Myth: No pain, no gain.
Fact: Stretching through pain can lead to micro tearing or worse.

For adults interested in gaining greater flexibility, Vance cautions that it’s a slow process that involves movement, strength training, and stretching (she’s a huge fan of the ATA’s Warrior X-Fit program).

“Know that flexibility doesn’t come overnight,” she says. “You’re going to have small gains, not huge gains. Just be realistic about the flexibility, [it] will come.”

Especially because rushing the process can cause tightening and micro tearing in the muscles. That fact alone is compelling evidence that we should never overdo a stretch. Slight discomfort is okay—but if there is any pain, make sure to pull back. You want to be flexible, but know your limits, too. ATA