Stronger flexibility: Ki-Hara resistance stretching for fencers

 Fencer practices Ki-Hara resistance stretching for improved flexibility

Advance, retreat and lunge. These are foundational movements in fencing. Fencers go the gym to perform squats, lunges, deadlifts, leg curls, leg extensions, glute bridges, kettlebell swings and countless other exercises to facilitate the execution of these foundations. But, what about your brakes? Huh? What?

Yes, brakes. You know, they’re the last thing you think about when you’re looking wide-eyed at a sleek Ferrari at the International Auto Show. However, all that speed and power is wasted if the brakes aren’t in tip-top shape. If not, that mean machine won’t be on the road for very long. Likewise, if you don’t train your muscles and connective tissue for deceleration/braking, you’ll be putting yourself at risk of injury. Improving your brakes requires more than skill drills.

 

Let’s view the importance of “brakes” from a fencer’s perspective, by way of this image of a lunge.

 Diagram of the muscles used to successfully decelerate after a fencer's lunge

The fencer accelerates forward with great force into the lunge movement. At this stage of his lunge, the quadriceps, as an example, have lengthened and must now decelerate, under the load of her body in forward momentum, for him to stop moving forward. In other words, an effective lunge not only requires great range motion, but strength throughout the range – especially at the end range. The essence of quickness is the ability to decelerate one movement and quickly transition to the next. All the muscles noted in this image (and more) participate as decelerators of this movement.

Reexamining Flexibility

When the word “flexibility” is mentioned, our minds immediately think of joint range of motion (ROM). Many people believe that, ideally, the more range of motion we have, the better off we are. There is some truth to that, but there is an accompanying qualifier – strength. When we see someone who can do a full out split, we might assume they are flexible. Not necessarily. They may simply have achieved enough joint range of motion to perform a split, but not enough accompanying strength to effectively perform a fencer’s lunge in competition.

“Flex-ability”    

So, perhaps we should look at flexibility in a whole new light. It’s not about merely making muscles longer. It’s about the muscle’s ability to create force (flex) – enough force to “put the brakes on” a movement like a lunge and store elastic energy in the tendons to spring into the en garde position.

So, how do we achieve strength throughout the range? You stretch – but, not the conventional static stretch. You do it with resistance stretching, an alternative method that has gained popularity among elite athletes in recent years. Let’s examine exactly how the two techniques differ.

Traditional Static Stretching

Static stretching is probably the most researched stretching method. What’s come out of that research is that it isn’t likely to improve performance or reduce the risk of injury. If performed properly and regularly, it can help you to increase your ROM. Here’s how.

To begin a static stretch, the target muscle is relaxed and lengthened to the end range and held for a set time, anywhere from five seconds to two minutes.  A relaxed muscle is a non-working muscle. A non-working muscle will not adapt. It won’t lengthen or strengthen. So, it’s primarily the nervous system that is affected by static stretching.  It simply increases the nervous system’s tolerance to the stretch. Any resulting increased range is usually temporary, unless consistent static stretching continues regularly. However, without accompanying muscle and connective tissue adaptation, the new ROM can’t be controlled. Here is an example of a static stretch for the hip flexor muscle group.

Resistance Stretching

Resistance stretching employs scientifically proven eccentric contractions. This simply means lengthening a shortened and contracted muscle under load. Imagine doing a dumbbell biceps curl in reverse. As you lower the dumbbell (load), your shortened and contracted (not relaxed) muscle is decelerating the speed of the dumbbell’s descent. If the dumbbell were extraordinarily heavy, you would stop its descent before your elbow was completely extended.

Eccentric contractions form the basis for resistance stretching. The resistance stretch begins with the target muscle shortened and contracted and one’s own body is used as the load to begin lengthening the contracted muscle. Lengthening continues until the contracted muscle can no longer produce enough force to resist any further lengthening, signaling the end of the stretch. Since the muscle is active and loaded throughout the entire lengthening process, it will adapt to become stronger through the range. The results are immediate and cumulative.

Some Resistance Stretches You Can Try

There are a variety of resistance stretches that suit the needs of fencers. Here are a couple of self-stretches that you can easily include in your workout regimen. The examples we have included address the muscles in the groin and upper back. You’ll note that there are two versions of each stretch. The first includes a strength movement in which your muscles will go from a long position to a short position while contracted and under resistance. The second includes a stretch movement, in which the opposite occurs. Your muscles will go from a short position to a long position while contracted and under resistance. Because it’s best to warm the muscles up before stretching, you will want to complete all the repetitions of the strength movement first before moving on to the stretch movement.

Resistance Stretching for the groin muscles:

Strength (6-8 reps):

Sit with soles of your feet together and your heels pulled in close to you

Allow your knees fall out on both sides all the way down to the bottom of your range of motion

Grab hold of your feet and place your forearms along the insides of your legs

Contract the groin muscles and begin squeezing the legs together

As the legs come together resist the movement by pressing down on the legs with your forearms with slightly less force than the upward force of your legs coming together

Release when your legs cannot come up any further

Complete 6-8 repetitions in total

Stretch ( 6-8 reps):

 

Sit with soles of your feet together and your heels pulled in close to you

Open up your knees slightly, keeping them at the top of your range of motion

Grab hold of your feet and place your forearms along the insides of your legs

Keeping a tall spine, press down on the legs with your forearms

Contract the groin muscles to resist the downward motion

Allow the legs to begin opening up by pressing down with your forearms slightly harder than your groin muscles are resisting

Stop and release when you reach the point when you can no longer keep the groin muscles contracted

Reset and complete 6-8 repetitions in total

 

Resistance Stretching for muscles in the upper back:

Strength (6-8 reps):

Place the palms of the hands together with the fingers interlocked

Raise the hands to approximately the height of your forehead

Close your elbows together to get into the starting position

Imagine that someone is trying to squeeze your elbows together

Keeping your hands together, begin opening the elbows out to either side

As you open, feel the resistance of the imagined force trying to close your elbows together

Stop when you cannot open your elbows any more

Reset and complete 6-8 repetitions in total

Stretch ( 6-8 reps):

Place the palms of the hands together with the fingers interlocked

Raise the hands to approximately the height of your forehead

Open your elbows out to get into the starting position (approximately 90-100 degree angle between your arms)

Imagine that you have a ball in between your elbows

Keeping the hands together and upper back muscles contracted with the shoulder blades down, begin squeezing the elbows together

As they move closer to each other, squeeze the heels of the hands together while trying to pry the fingers apart to help you create resistance in the stretch

Stop when the elbows come together or your can no longer keep the upper back muscles contracted

Reset and complete 6-8 repetitions in total

Summary

We can all benefit from some form of stretching.  As with strength training, our stretching should be specific to the requirements of the individual. There are several circumstances where static stretching is appropriate and enjoyable for many people. However, fencers and other athletes that are seeking to optimize their flexibility to meet the demands of their sport may do so by incorporating resistance stretching into their training regimen. Beyond reducing injury risk, increasing range of motion and improving tissue density, it will contribute to lasting mobility, improved joint stability, enhanced explosiveness and faster recovery. Stretch Stronger!
 

About the author

Chuck Rowland has been a certified fitness professional for over 15 years and has been practicing resistance stretching since 2007. He is a Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching Certification Instructor and has been recently named the Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching Consultant for the Columbia University Fencing Program.

Footnotes

Body Image Credit: Serge Timacheff | FIE

 

Chuck RowlandComment