Are you listening to your body?
Ensuring longevity in the traditional martial arts
The BBC recently posted an article on their news pages concerning the prevalence of injuries within yoga teachers. (Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-50181155 Yoga teachers ‘risking serious hip problems’ by Caroline Parkinson 3/11/2019) The article focused on the increased risk that yoga participants place on their bodies (particularly in respect of hip health) due to “pushing their bodies into “prescribed” positions when their physiology prevents it.” Quoting a specialist hip and knee physiotherapist, Benoy Matthews, the need for increased awareness and advice on how to moderate positions, so as to not place overt stress on the joints, is emphasised. The article further suggests that as yoga practitioners we should not confuse stiffness and pain, moreover we need to recognise our individual limits in an attempt to protect our bodies from exposure to negative stress. This issue is potentially present as much within the martial arts as it is in yoga.
Whilst the disciplines are fundamentally different there are equally definitive similarities between Yoga and martial arts. Aside the common issues spirituality, mental focus and mindfulness, both disciplines often involve activity requiring large ranges of movement, particularly of the hip and shoulder joints. Whilst physiological the demands of the specific art vary dependant on the emphasis, for example, generally speaking a grappling focused art (such as judo) may not typically require the same extreme ranges of motion as a striking based art (such as Taekwon-do), it is important to recognise that the arts are performed based on the potential and limitations of each individual participant. We can often overlook the individual factors which inherently make one participant different from another, trying desperately to fit ourselves (or our students) into patterns and ranges of movement for which they are just not anatomically suited.
To better understand this it is possibly best to look first at the individual factors which affect flexibility. Flexibility can be grouped into a variety of categories dependent on the focus of the activity being performed. According to Kurz (1994), flexibility can be defined as:
Dynamic flexibility (also called kinetic flexibility) is the ability to perform dynamic (or kinetic) movements of the muscles to bring a limb through its full range of motion in the joints.
Static-active flexibility (also called active flexibility) is the ability to assume and maintain extended positions using only the tension of the agonists and synergists while the antagonists are being stretched.. For example, lifting the leg and keeping it high without any external support (other than from your own leg muscles).
Static-passive flexibility (also called passive flexibility) is the ability to assume extended positions and then maintain them using only your weight, the support of your limbs, or some other apparatus (such as a chair or a barre). Note that the ability to maintain the position does not come solely from your muscles, as it does with static-active flexibility. Being able to perform the splits is an example of static-passive flexibility.
For most martial arts flexibility is by definition dynamic and/or active. In the specific context of Taekwon-do it is possible to identify instances where both dynamic flexibility (for example, high level kicking) and static-active flexibility (for example, held side kick in pattern Juche) is required. Irrespective of the specific type of flexibility being discussed, an individual's potential is based on their own specific physiological, anatomical and environmental influences.
In his 1990 book Gummerson identifies several ‘internal’ and ‘external’ influences which present to affect an individual’s flexibility. Specifically he suggested the following factors:
the type of joint (some joints simply aren't meant to be flexible)
the internal resistance within a joint
bony structures which limit movement
the elasticity of muscle tissue (muscle tissue that is scarred due to a previous injury is not very elastic)
the elasticity of tendons and ligaments (ligaments do not stretch much and tendons should not stretch at all)
the elasticity of skin (skin actually has some degree of elasticity, but not much)
the ability of a muscle to relax and contract to achieve the greatest range of movement
the temperature of the joint and associated tissues (joints and muscles offer better flexibility at body temperatures that are 1 to 2 degrees higher than normal)
the temperature of the place where one is training (a warmer temperature is more conducive to increased flexibility)
the time of day (most people are more flexible in the afternoon than in the morning, peaking from about 2:30pm-4pm)
the stage in the recovery process of a joint (or muscle) after injury (injured joints and muscles will usually offer a lesser degree of flexibility than healthy ones)
age (pre-adolescents are generally more flexible than adults)
gender (females are generally more flexible than males)
one's ability to perform a particular exercise (practice makes perfect)
one's commitment to achieving flexibility
the restrictions of any clothing or equipment
This is far from being a complete list of affective factors although it is clear that an individual’s potential flexibility is dependent on a variety of factors. The most fundamental here being the individual anatomical issues (which Gummerson’s internal influences represent), of which many of us are unaware.
Just a cursory look at the anatomical composition of the hip joint begins to highlight the variety of potential factors which may serve to limit the range of potential movement available. The hip joint is essentially an articulation formed between the pelvic acetabulum and head of the femur. Essentially the joint forms a connection between the lower limb and pelvic girdle, being designed for stability and weight bearing as opposed large movement range.
The hip joint is provided stability through the interaction of two groups of ligaments, intracapsular and extracapsular. The solo intracapsular ligament is the ligament of the head of the femur, however there are three main extracapsular ligaments which run continuously with the outer surface of the hip capsule. These three ligaments are:
Iliofemoral ligament has a ‘Y’ shaped appearance, and prevents hyperextension of the hip joint. It is the strongest of the three ligaments.
Pubofemoral ligament a triangular shape, and prevents excessive abduction and extension.
Ischiofemoral ligament has a spiral orientation, and prevents hyperextension and holds the femoral head in the acetabulum.
As the primary function of the hip joint is to weight bear, there are several interplaying factors which contribute to improve the stability of the joint. The depth of the concave acetabulum, the protect ring of cartilage (acetabulum labrum); the strength of the three extracapsular ligaments; the thickness of the joint capsule; the spiral orientation of the extracapsular ligamentous structure (on joint extension); and the reciprocal nature in which hip muscles and ligaments function all contribute to the overall stability of the joint. What we also need to consider in regards to this issue is the relative application of the flexibility continuum, specifically stating that a more stable structure will inherently have a lesser degree of available movement.
Simply put, therefore, without considering any other external or internal influences, the basic anatomical structure of the hip joint leans towards a restricted range of movement. This is not to suggest that we cannot encourage a greater degree of flexibility at this structure. However we must be mindful of the fact that we need to progress this with the general physiological makeup of the human body in mind. Many of the advanced kicking techniques in Taekwon-do and related arts necessitate a relatively large degree of flexibility within the hip joint, for some individuals this will be available and without issue. For others however this will present a real challenge, not due to lack of personal drive, indomitable spirit or perseverance, simply due to the anatomical structures of their bodies.
A further consideration here is also the specific nature in which flexibility at a joint may develop. It is entirely possible that an individual may have developed a relatively large range of movement with a specific joint action (for example hip flexion) but have a significantly smaller available range of motion available within an alternative joint action (for example hip abduction). In more specific terms this may manifest as the individual having no problem demonstrating a high section Axe Kick, but is challenged to present the same range in respect of a side or even turning kick. It can often be the case that participants will generalise on their capability and anticipate that their performance of one given action will be consistent with another. This however is simply not true where there are significant changes in joint angle, force production and muscular recruitment. The potential result here is that the participant (and/or instructor) misguidedly attempts to contort their body into new position or range of movement for which they are neither anatomically adapted or possibly able to complete. The risk for musculoskeletal injury (including overuse injuries) is therefore increased significantly.
Are you competing with yourself or others?
One theory postulated in the BBC article for the rise in yoga based injuries was the competitive mentality that many participants adopt within the sessions. By default a group based session, irrespective of the overt level of experience it is targeted towards, will have a diversity of individual participants present. Each individual brings with them their own unique anatomical potentials and limitations and it is entirely likely that within the “complete beginners” session there will be participants for whom the postures and positions flow effortlessly, whilst others are essentially forcing their bodies to obey. In a group based environment, we are much more likely to judge and assess our own performance level comparative to that of our peers. We then look at these guys doing an advanced ‘full flying lotus’ and believe that unless we rapidly achieve the same level of performance then we are in someway failing. We just aren’t as good and therefore in the competition that is ‘the game of life’ we are by default losing. Whilst there is a degree of neuromuscular adaptation involved which is developed through repetition and repeated exposure to the physical ‘stress’ (basically the more you do something the easier it becomes due to efficiencies made in neuromuscular coordination) we can’t overlook how powerful that internal competitive drive and motivation may be. This competitive drive may well force the participant into pushing to make those adaptations happen more quickly, or indeed not listen to the warning signs (pain, pinching and impingement) which might indicate that their specific anatomical make-up is no predisposed to that specific posture, position or range of movement.
This absolutely reflects into the martial arts too. Again here we see others with tremendous abilities to kick, stretch, jump and spin and determine that as participants we should be able to achieve the same. Add into this the sensationalist nature of posts on social media, highlighting the fantastic capabilities of elite martial artists and it is of no real wonder that we as lowly mortals become misguided into thinking that this level of performance is what it takes to be successful. There’s an additional factor here to consider also, the fallacy of “traditionalism” which can be a strong argument within the traditional martial arts community. Given the cultural roots of many martial arts there is often a strong emphasis placed on conformity and unquestioning loyalty to traditional ideas. The nature of some striking martial arts, such as Kyokushin and Taekwon-do, with their emphasis on high level and advanced kicking technique, can often lead to the view that if a participant is not able to achieve these great ranges of movement and sensational technique they are simply not performing the art.
Put another way, as traditional martial artists, we often make demands of our bodies based on the fact that this is the way that it has always been done and so therefore it must be right. If we consider deviating from this path, or adapting a technique, then the result is sometimes not considered to the ‘true’ art. As participants then, in order to be considered respectful and compliant, we potentially place ourselves in a position (either by ourselves, our peers or indeed instructors) where we force the completion of uncomfortable technique and move through ranges of movement for which our joints may just not have been designed. In a desperate attempt to ‘fit’ with the expectations we potentially open ourselves to a raft of orthopaedic issues as we repeatedly force our bodies into these positions. Again, the pressure of the internal (self imposed) or externally imposed expectations again can potentially lead to us becoming ignorant to the warning signs that a given movement, posture or technique may not be best suited for the individual anatomy of our body.
The imposed ‘competitive’ expectations and need to ‘fit’ can lead us into routines which we are just simply unable to maintain in the long term. Longevity in martial arts depends on understanding how we ‘fit’ the art to ourselves. How we personally express the art, dependant on our physiology, anatomy and individual potential. One cannot simply look at other participants, past or present, and anticipate similar results. We are not them. We don’t have that body. We are us. We have our body, with its potential and limitations. The recreation of techniques and routines should therefore be based on this, where we recognise the signs and symptoms which may indicate that a specific movement, range or way of doing something doesn’t fit with our specific, individualised, position.