Stretching is good. Like really good. And not just for those who are into Muay Thai stretching. In fact, I’m gonna take the whole Muay Thai thing, bundle it up in some wrapping paper left over from last Christmas and pop it out of the way for a second just to make sure you understand how kickass stretching is for everyone, no matter what walk of life you’re on. So. Ahem. If you don’t want to be a 40-year-old human walking around with a Quasimodo-style hunched back and the short, shuffled steps of an 88-year-old, you really need to pop ye olde stretching thing at the top of your priority list – or somewhere near the top at least. Why? Because spectacle-wearing scientists in long white lab coats have proof that regular stretching can boost your range of motion and mobility, prevent a whole host of injuries and, in the words of Danny Dyer, even make chronic pain “do one”. And that’s not all because stretching somehow manages to make you feel refreshed and energised at the same time.
The problem is, you already knew all this. Or maybe not all of it, but enough for you to know stretching is beneficial to your health in more than one way. You’ve just always viewed it in the same way you view flossing after brushing: whilst it’s definitely an awesome habit, you can’t really be bothered with it. At least, that’s one reason. The other reasons are a) stretching reminds you of being back in P.E. class and not being able to touch your toes in a gymnasium full of (apparently!) semi-professional ballerinas, and b) in the war of post-exercise cravings, you always pick coffee. Whatever your excuse, though, it needs to stop, especially if you’re into Muay Thai.
You see, to be successful in the ring (translation: do the ass-whooping instead of having your ass whooped), you need to master a few moves and pretty much all of them stem from epic flexibility. Take the round kick, for example. This has to be the most spectacular symbol of flexibility where, the higher you can arch your leg before raining down the pain, the more flexible you are as a fighter. And yet, believe it or not, delivering super high kicks is just a small slice of the benefits pie. You’ll also be blessed with flexible joints (win!) and learn how to perform the same movements while using less energy (double win!), not to mention the whole more immune to injury, quicker muscle recovery and better blood flow thing.
Basically, there’s a whole lot of positives and not a lot of negatives, leaving us with just one question that needs answering: how in Phuket’s pristine white beaches can you improve your flexibility through stretching?
Well, to answer your question, here’s an extensive list of tips that will have you touching your toes and kicking Muay Thai butt in no time at all. Yeehaw.
3’s The Magic Number
Instead of getting into a debate with myself about which method of stretching is the best, I’m going to quickly run through the three different options you have, and what makes them awesome:
- Static Stretches: This is that good ol’ stretching routine you picked up in infant school, the one where your P.E. teacher would yell, “hold, hold, hold, hold,” in an odd attempt to stop you from engaging in any movement. To paint you a better picture of what I mean, doing the splits would be a static stretch.
- Dynamic Stretches: This is the best way to stretch bar none, which is because they are exercises that take your joints through the full range of motion, making them perfect for your warm-up routine. Squats, lunges, hip rotations, push-ups – they’re all good examples of a dynamic stretch.
- Ballistic Stretches: Stay the hell away from ballistic stretches. I don’t care if you have a ballerina friend who swears by them or a gymnastic buddy who has a literal shrine to them, avoid these stretches at all costs. As for ‘why’ all I can say is: read on.
Stretching The Truth
To squeeze every last drop of goodness out of your Muay Thai stretching routine, the best thing you can do is know what you’re doing. Yeah-yeah, I know what you’re muttering to yourself: “we’re talking about Muay Thai stretching here, mate, how complicated can it be?” and, yeah, you’re right. Sort of. So, to clear the air a little, I’ve pulled together some top tips that should, nay, will help you improve your flexibility with Muay Thai stretching in mind:
- The Early Stretcher Catches The Worm
The moment you get woken up by the morning birdsong (read: the screeching sound of your alarm) and roll out of bed, you should shake the rust off your joints with a few dynamic stretches. It doesn’t have to be anything strenuous. Just knock out some push-ups, lunges and hip rotations, and then start working your way around your body, kicking things off with some overhead tricep stretches before working your way down to your calves. And try to make this a daily habit too. Sure, it means having to add something else to your already hectic to-do list, but it’ll be worth it.
- Bouncing Is Bad
Remember how I said ballistic stretching was the devil? Well, I meant it. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen someone holding a deep stretch and bouncing while doing the holding, you really need to avoid copying them. This isn’t just because ballistic stretching increases your chances of injury, it’s because ballistic stretching also negates the big benefits of stretching and, if you’ve heard otherwise, I can guarantee it’s a myth.
- You Gotta Hold On
Stretching is an art, which means getting better at it requires focus, dedication, and practise. It also means holding on a stretch for 30-seconds when you’re at the point where you feel yourself “maxing out”. Then, once you’ve held it, rest for somewhere between 15-30 seconds and repeat for 3-5 times. just like you would do with any other form of exercise. Of course, the trick is knowing at which point you should stop and hold, in which the aim of the game is to be a bit uncomfortable but not in any pain. That’s the green zone.
- Split It Down The Middle
When you’re talking about Muay Thai, you kinda need to mention the splits because, well, high kicks demand it. The problem is, you need to know exactly how to perfect this stretch, and it all starts with the timing. In short, the best time to attempt this move is after you’ve indulged in a spot of cardio, something like a jump rope session. And that’s just the start. The other thing to be conscious of is your hips and hamstrings when lowering yourself into the split position. You are not an Olympic gymnast. You are a Muay Thai fighter. That means it is okay if you are 9-inches off the floor. Remember that. Anyway, once you’re in the deepest split position you can semi-comfortably reach, try and hold this move for at least 30-seconds with a 20-second rest before repeating another 5 times. Oh, and as a little piece of advice, don’t bother with the splits if you’re nursing sore hips or legs. It’s not worth the risk.
- Grab Life By The Toes
To squeeze every last drop of goodness out of a toe-touch stretch, you’ll want to sit on the floor with your legs stretched out straight in front of you with your feet so close together they could be mistaken for a mermaid tail. Once in this position, slowly reach forward, holding onto your toes (or your shins – whatever you’re able to reach and grab) and then gently pull your body closer toward your toes. Not only will this help you improve faster, but you’ll also find this version of the toe-touch stretch is a lot more impactful than trying your hand at a static toe touch from a standing position. It’s also better for your lower back too. Win-win.
- And Lift those Legs
For those that don’t know what I’m chatting about when I say “leg lifts”, I’m talking about laying on your back, hands flat on the floor beside you and raising your legs up as far as they will go, before slowly lowering them back down. They’re one of the best in Muay Thai stretching an enthusiast can perform, and that’s not just because you are strengthening the muscles in your legs and abs, it’s because you’ll also help boost your range of movement… massively. Anyway, to get a little bit extra out of this dynamic stretch, try holding it (see point number 3) at different stages throughout the movement, say 3-inches, 6-inches, 12-inches… oh, you get the point. It will work some flexibility magic. Fact.
- Order Of Appearance
This is one of those rarely spoken about tips, but it couldn’t be more important, especially if you’re serious about upping this part of your Muay Thai game. When you’re stretching, whether it be first thing in the morning or as part of your cool-down, it’s crucial you start off moving outward before you head inward. To put that into less confusing terms, you should try and start with your outer muscles – such as your calves, forearms and biceps – and then move onto your inner body – your hamstrings, shoulders, chest and back. To narrow this down even more, when you’re stretching your torso, try and start with your side stretches first, before moving onto your upper and lower back. By adopting this order of play, you’ll help your body maximise the effects of each stretch.
- Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
The dream of every Muay Thai fighter is to be able to kick higher. That’s where you can rain down your most devastating blows (#roundhouse). Of course, for this dream to come true, you need to improve the range of motion in your legs and hips, and to do this you need to call in the help of a (pretty brave) buddy. When you’ve found that person (and had them sign a waiver to say you’re not liable for any pain inflicted), kick as high as you can and have them catch n’ hold your leg at its highest point for 10-12 seconds. After one rep, rest for 30 seconds and then repeat with your other leg, doing this three times on each. To make progress on this front, you’ll want to keep practising it without overdoing it, which is why I recommend you try this stretch every 3-4 days.
- Slow It Down Now
If you know what techniques and movements you are going to be focussing on during a training session, try practising them before you walk through the gym doors, but in slow-motion. For example, if you know you’ll be practising your high kicks, try lifting your leg up as high as you possibly can – slowly – and then holding it for as long as possible without toppling over and landing in a crumpled heap on the floor. Not only will this improve your flexibility (win!), it will also see you improve your balance and strength (triple-win!).
- Water Is The Real Winner
Nothing is going to leave your muscles more prone to injury than dehydration. Nothing. Okay, so maybe trying to show off in a gym by deadlifting twice your capabilities tops the dehydration thing slightly, but in terms of stretches, dehydrated muscles and joints are roughly 345,000-times more prone to injury than those that are full of fluid. Thankfully, the solution to this problem is pretty simple: drink more water. Not Coca-Cola or Fanta or Gatorade or whatever sugar-saturated soda happens to be your kryptonite, but water. Why? Because your muscles crave a clean fluid, whereas fizzy, sugary drinks are known to cause inflammation and, let’s be honest, that’s not going to help you on your journey to Mount Flexible whatsoever.
And there we have it, all the stretching tips and tricks you could possibly gorge on when hoping to improve your flexibility in the Muay Thai ring. Of course, Muay Thai stretching is just part of the flexi-puzzle. A big, fat centrepiece, but still just a piece, and that’s exactly why I recommend you couple it up with yoga training. Not just because yoga can help you become more in tune with your body, but because it also works to help you stay injury-free and thus mucho-mucho-happy.