Hello Everyone! I received a question from a fellow Tang Soo Do stylist in Texas via Twitter. J.R. asked if I have any tips on improving kick height and balance. Well J.R., it just so happens that I am working on my martial arts kicking right now! Over the past 3 years I have had two open rotator cuff surgeries on my left arm and a meniscus surgery on my left knee. Due to the rehab and pain levels I was rendered pretty much inactive as far as martial arts goes. While my knee and shoulder never healed fully and will never be the same, I also found that my mobility, flexibility and balance while kicking severely deteriorated. I have resumed “normal” training about two months ago and I am working on getting my kicks in order as well. So let me outline what I am doing and hopefully this will answer your question and give you some ideas and tips that you and others may use as well.
First and most important, I realized really quick that what I did to get in shape and improve my technique prior to my surgeries no longer worked for me. As we age things begin to change. After 30 our metabolism slows down and it gets harder to burn off fat, we tend to lose muscle mass and flexibility, and we have to find new ways to get the job done. Surgery is a major shock to the body’s systems. Being cut open and having things moved around, ground down and cut out, throws the body into shock and often times, once it heals it is never the same. This is the case with me and my knee and shoulder. Not only can’t I do what I did when I was 18 to get the job done, I can’t do what I did prior to the surgeries. This means I have to realize my new limitations and work with them to avoid further injury while still striving toward my goals.
Notice I said I have to work WITH my limitations, not AROUND them. This is huge and what keeps most people from progressing in life or anything else. They allow a doctor, friend, family or whoever set their limitations. While my doctor gave me his opinion as to what my limitations are, only I determine my limitations, and if I do not strive to push myself to the absolute limits of what I can do, then I will never reach my true potential. So whatever you find your limitations or issues to be while trying to improve your kicking height, balance or any other aspect of your training, work with the issue, always trying to improve it safely. Remember, only YOU set your limits.
Now onto the good stuff!
Improving the height of your kick involves more than just flexibility, which is what everyone tends to think. It also involves correct form and strength. For the sake of this article I will only focus on tips for flexibility and strength. To address correct form, listen to your instructor and when training try to practice in front of a mirror or video tape yourself and watch it. I video myself often and most times what I watch is not what I think I did!! It may feel perfect while you are doing it, but then you watch the video and……..Ugh!
Flexibility plays a large part in kicking height, how easily you are able to kick, balance and the speed of the kick. My goal and what I feel the goal of any martial artist should be, is to kick at maximum speed and height at the spur of the moment, with no warm up. This is required of us if we are attacked on the street! If we are attacked we can’t tell the attacker “Hold that thought! Let me warm up and then we can continue/” We have to be able to do whatever needs to be done IMMEDIATELY!
How many hours do you spend stretching, holding the static stretches in uncomfortable ranges, hoping to lengthen the muscles, only to go to class the next day and have to warm up and stretch all over again before you can kick with any height or speed? This is what I find using traditional static stretching. I no longer do static stretches, opting for active stretches and PNF stretching instead, and so far it is starting to work.
Dynamic stretching should be done prior to your training. It warms up the muscle and prepares it for more strenuous exercise. Dynamic stretching is gently moving your body through the range of motions you will be doing, gradually building up speed and range of movement. For example, holding onto a chair for balance and swinging your leg up and back, keeping the knee straight, gently at first and slowly increasing the height in which you swing your leg. This can also be done to the side and back.
The same can be done swinging your arms forward and back or in circles to warm the shoulder joint up and prepare it for upper body movements. Dynamic stretching helps in building the flexibility needed to be able to execute kicks on the street without warming up first. These should be done before training and before your PNF stretching.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a more advanced form of flexibility training that involves both the stretching and contraction of the muscle group being targeted. The stretching and contraction movements are alternated during each stretch. For example, in the image to the right, using the quadriceps stretch, you would grab your ankle, pulling your foot behind you toward your buttocks. You pull until you feel the stretch in the quadriceps. At this point you gently push your foot against your hand, resisting the stretch and causing the quadriceps muscle to flex in the stretched position. You DO NOT press hard or do a maximum contraction! Only press enough to activate the muscles.
You hold this contracted state for 3 seconds then release your foot and relax for a few seconds. You then repeat this sequence two more times, each time stretching the muscle further and further. On the last stretch (#4) you will hold the max stretched position for 30 seconds to one minute, then release. That’s it! You are done stretching that muscle. PNF stretching can be used to stretch any muscle of the body where you can perform the resistance to the stretch. As in Figure 2, it can be done in the open leg position against a wall. Spreading your feet apart until the stretch is felt and then using your legs to resist, “pinching” the wall. You would go through three cycles of stretching while resisting and resting, then hold the final max stretch for 30 seconds to one minute.
PNF stretching teaches the muscle to relax while in the stretched position, which is really what hinders range of motion during a movement. It was thought that static stretching to elongate the muscle fibers was the answer to better flexibility, but as for me and many others, static stretching makes little difference. I still need to warm up prior to being able to perform maximum range kicks, which is something I cannot do if attacked on the street!
The best recipe for flexibility is to perform dynamic stretches first, prior to training, followed by PNF stretches after training and static stretches in between times. In this way you are covering all bases and taking advantage of all three methods and their benefits.
The other side of improving your kicks has to do with strengthening the exact muscles used while kicking. Many think that if they go to the gym and perform squats, leg extensions, leg curls and lunges, that they will make their kicks stronger. While it may help, it isn’t going to help much. The best way to strengthen the muscles involved in kicking is to……well……kick! Only not like you normally do. Kicking for strength and balance means kicking slowly……as in as slow as you can go! Think of it as kicking Tai Chi, going through the full range of motion slowly and with control.
There is a saying “If you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast!” and there is truth to that statement. You may think your kicks are pretty good, but try getting into your stance, slowly chambering your knee, then slowly extending your kick out and back five times without placing your foot down. Are you hopping around to keep your balance? Are the muscles in your legs on fire? Exactly!
The major muscle involved in kicking that need to be strengthened are seen in the diagram below. This is just the lower body. Other muscles that need to be strengthened are your core muscles; abdominals, serratus, intercostals and obliques as well as your lower back. These muscles keep your upper body upright while kicking. Aside from strength training exercises for these muscle groups, which you can google and find videos for on YouTube, the best exercise is slow kicking.
Hold a chair for balance and slowly chamber your leg, then slowly execute the kick you are working on. You can do this for all kicks, but remember to do it slowly and with control. Perform 10 reps without putting your foot down, then switch legs and do another 10. As that becomes easier, if you have ankle weights you can put them on and again perform the kicks slowly and with control. NEVER perform kicks at speed with ankle weights on!! The inertia from the weights moving forward places too much stress on the knee at the point you stop the kick and recoil it. It will ruin your knees! If you do not have ankle weights, progress to using a broom stick for balance or lightly place your hand on a wall while you slowly perform your kicks, just to maintain balance and keep from hopping around.
Kicking in this manner will strengthen the exact muscles needed to enable you to kick higher, and as you begin to let go of the chair, your balance will improve as well. Once you are able to perform your kicks slowly and with balance, performing them at speed will be a cinch! And they will be higher and with better balance! Problem solved!
Performing these tips will help develop your kicks, but remember to be patient! It takes time and everyone progresses at a different pace. If any exercise causes you pain or discomfort (as in injury, not effort) stop performing that exercise immediately and move on to the next. Remember, that on the street most kicks are kept at waist level and below. Most attacks occur at close range, not at kicking range. Train to be able to kick at head height, but focus a majority of your training in developing strong lower level kicks that can incapacitate and hinder your attackers movement.
Especially in the Korean arts where we are notorious head hunters, when asked to kick to the legs the kicks are awkward and often miss the target. Make lower level kicks your priority and train your high kicks afterwards. Train like a warrior and train for the street! I hope this answers your question J.R. and hope that this helps others as well! If you have any further questions or would like something else covered, comment below or shoot me a message! I can be contacted through my web page at www.thelonewarrior.com, on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. For all of our video content, subscribe to my YouTube channel, The Lone Warrior.
Train Hard and God Bless!
Hello, I have been a student of the martial arts since 1985 and have studied various styles, always focusing on the self defense aspects of the arts. I have taught in the military, privately and publicly and have been a certified personal trainer. I believe that everyone should know how to defend themselves and that this can be learned from home through videos and written material. I am dedicated to you, the reader, in helping you learn self defense so that you are able to handle an attack on the street.