Warm-ups

Although my blog has been quiet for the past year or so, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about taekwon-do as a martial art and how it relates to exercise sciences and to my cognitive neuroscience discipline area – perhaps it’s time to start articulating these ideas a bit more formally, and blogging seems as good a way to start as any other … and warmups seems like a good topic to begin with.

We have a number of different black belts at our club who from time to time take the warmup session of our classes. It is always interesting to see the variety of approaches, and the different ideas that are expressed through these warmups. Most people work to their strengths, so the aerobically fit people tend to emphasise aerobic aspects of warming up, the flexible people emphasise stretching, the exercise scientists and physiotherapists talk at length about the biomechanics of each aspect of warmup, the powerful people emphasise different ways of building sets of muscles – it is all informative and it allows us to see the full range of what it takes to develop our bodies to their full potential while at the same time learning a bit more about the people we train with.

What also tends to happen is that each class member enjoys different aspects of a warmup, and through talking about these differences, a range of motivation and expectations with respect to taekwon-do are revealed. In considering a range of opinions and approaches, I found my own conceptual understanding of warming up and of “fitness” in general has been challenged and extended, and I have developed a renewed respect for the depth and layers within taekwon-do as a martial art.

Three things that stand out to me are the expectation from taekwon-do students 1) that taekwon-do training will build their aerobic endurance and their flexibility (true), 2) that this can happen through their twice weekly 90 min taekwondo classes (true but only to a fairly limited extent), and 3) that the purpose of the warmup is to build aerobic fitness and flexibility (not true).

Significant aerobic endurance can only be built by performing aerobic activity for a reasonable duration *every day* – for example by walking, running, swimming or cycling for at least 30 mins most days at moderate intensity with at least one day a week devoted to a longer session at lower intensity. The resulting aerobic endurance will depend on the intensity and frequency of training. This is not going to happen in two 90 min sessions per week, and certainly not via the 15 – 30 mins of aerobic warmup. It does not make any sense to expect that it is possible. In order to be aerobically fit for taekwon-do (eg to spar in tournaments), an aerobic training program (eg running including sprint work and hills) outside of classes is required.

Improved flexibility involves lengthening muscle fibres, and ensuring that muscle pairs are lengthened and strengthened in a coordinated way. For example, if you have very strong thigh muscles (quads) and they can contract powerfully to lift your leg, you will need to make sure that your hamstrings are sufficiently flexible and strong to cope with being stretched when the quads and other muscles contract during for example a front kick. If the hamstring is not strong, it can easily be torn by the more powerful antagonist muscles during a kick. When the hamstring has been appropriately conditioned, the next muscle to feel the strain is the calf muscle – hamstring injuries are probably more common than calf injuries because if both muscles are equally unconditioned, the hamstring will stretch and tear first, thereby protecting the weakness of the calf from being demonstrated.

In order to lengthen your muscles, you need to warm them and stretch them slowly beyond their current extent. There are lots of ways to do this, but the result of lengthening a muscle is to render it weaker for at least a couple of hours afterwards. So generally, you would *not* want to do a serious stretching routine for increasing flexibility before or at the beginning of your taekwon-do training session because it would be counter-productive.

The stretching that is done during a taekwon-do warmup is designed to warm your muscles and take your joints and muscles through their full current range of motion so that the work that you do during training is at your current maximum level. For example if you warm up properly so that your side kicks are being performed at the maximum height you can currently attain, you will build your strength at that level and although this will undoubtedly allow you to gradually increase your range over a period of training, it will not improve your flexibility dramatically or quickly.

So what is a warmup all about, and how does this relate to fitness? The first and most important point is that the concepts of “warmup” and “fitness” are meaningless without a context. Warmup for what? Fitness for what?

The warmup for an activity depends entirely on the activity and the context in which it is taking place. A warmup for cycling is different from a warmup for swimming which is in turn different from a warmup for sparring. A “warmup” in 35 deg heat is different from a warmup in 12 deg and serves a completely different purpose. In 35 deg heat, you want to ensure that your body temperature control systems are activated properly and your fluid regulation system is operating well rather than that your muscles have reached an appropriate warmth (which will be taken care of by the ambient temperature). In the cold, there will be more emphasis on ensuring adequate blood flow to peripheral muscles and getting the heart rate into an appropriate zone. In both situations, you want to ensure that the joints and muscles you will be using are comfortably moving through their full range of motion at their correct operating temperature.

In the taekwondo context, a warmup for patterns will be different from a warmup for sparring and different again from a warmup for jumping techniques because they use different muscles. However there will be some aspects of warming up that are consistent. We will almost always be kicking, so we will almost always want to do some front snap kicks and front rising kicks to stretch our leg muscles. We will also generally want to do side kicks and turning kicks maybe with speed, maybe with power, to get our lower backs and hips operating.

One specifically taekwon-do exercise that we do frequently involves squatting with one leg extended to the side with the toes pointing up and the foot of the other leg flat to the floor. This exercise will stretch the hamstring of the extended leg so long as flexibility of the supporting leg is sufficient to allow you to go low enough. Many people cannot squat low with their supporting foot flat on the floor and so they lift their heel to get much lower and also use their hands to support their weight. We are told to keep our heels flat to the floor and not to use our hands when swapping from side to side but most of us ignore these instructions in favour of getting much lower. In a year of doing this, I did not improve my strength or flexibility in this exercise. However since I have chosen to try to do it properly and to focus on keeping my body upright, I have actually improved my strength and power in kicking dramatically, although the height of my kicks has not increased much.

What I have actually realised is that most people do not have well-balanced muscles in their legs, thighs and groin area. Some muscles are strong and flexible, some are strong, some are flexible, but to do the exercise properly (and to kick properly) it is necessary to have balanced strength and conditioning across all the muscles involved. So by maintaining proper form and then “bouncing” (a controlled small movement not an uncontrolled bounce) at the boundaries of movement, we can strengthen the muscles in a coordinated way and move through the whole range of motion using the balanced power of the whole muscle set. This is much more valuable than extending one of the muscles (in an unbalanced way) while supporting our weight in the wrong position with our hands. It is very useful to *feel* the limiting factor in each exercise and to work on that, so that we focus on our weakness rather than working to our strengths. For me, the flexibility of my calf muscle to allow my foot flat to the ground and the strength of the muscles around my supporting knee are the first limiting factor for this exercise, not anything to do with my hamstring of the extended leg.

When I first started taekwon-do and the instructor said to “bounce”, I thought I knew better than to do this old-fashioned thing which tears musles rather than making them more flexible, but over a period of time and after listening to the instructions more carefully, I am aware that we are not bouncing to increase flexibility (an outdated and damaging approach because it causes micro-tearing which actually stiffens and shortens the muscles), but are moving in short controlled bounces to increase the strength of the muscle at its full extension, which is exactly where the full strength is needed in a martial art. When we kick, we want to contract our muscles in perfect timing at the full extent of our kick for maximal power unlike in most sports where the maximum power is in the middle of the movement.

Basically, a superficial biomechanical context-free analysis of the exercise might lead people to do it differently and in a way that does absolutely nothing to improve kicking, whereas a deeper analysis in context reveals the exercise as a perfect warmup and conditioning exercise for taekwon-do.

Furthermore, once you go context-free and start analysing exercises purely for their biomechanical outcomes, you start needing to know details of agonist and antagonist muscles and working to balance work with one muscle group against work with its opposite … to ensure a balanced approach requires quite deep level knowledge of muscle groups. However, if you remain within a context such as taekwon-do, and you do each movement slowly and quickly and in the variety of ways that occur in fundamental movements, patterns and step sparring, you will build balance across all the relevant muscle groups without ever having to know their names or think about anything other than excellent taekwon-do technique. In one fell swoop, you replace a nit-picking detailed muscle analysis and spiritless list of “do this 15 times followed by that 20 times, then drink this many mililitres of this and eat 25 gms of that” with a tapestry of techniques layered together with a depth and intricacy so that every time you look, you can see different aspects of a picture with new horizons and possibilities.

Just as the concept of warming up relates specifically to what it is that you are warming up for, the concept of fitness itself is not context free. I was unaware that definitions of fitness in exercise physiology incorporate the not only the physical aerobic, power and flexibility notions one would expect, but also incorporate skill level, such that technical and cognitive skill are important aspects of fitness and fitness can only be determined with a purpose in mind.

The technical aspect of fitness in taekwon-do deserves some consideration and is possibly worthy of an article of its own since I haven’t really thought it through completely. When I started taekwon-do, although I was about 10 kg overweight, I was pretty “fit”, riding around 150 – 250 km per week and playing indoor soccer. However I found the L-stance quite uncomfortable because it put my rear leg in a position it was not used to, with the outside of my ankle feeling sore and some little muscles on the outside of my knee and my inner thigh feeling quite stretched too. I also found it hard to move backward and forward maintaining good balance and good stances because my inner thigh muscles and various other leg muscles were not strong enough to support me strongly through the whole transition from one stance to another. So my technique was poor because the appropriate muscles to support good technique were not developed. So my fitness for taekwon-do was significantly lower than for cycling. Also once I have a deeper understanding of taekwon-do movements and their purpose, I use less extraneous energy doing things that are not relevant to taekwon-do. For example, overly extragavent movements are wasteful of energy and this bad technique will render me less “fit” than if I conserve my energy appropriately. Poor breath control will render my techniques less powerful so I will need to compensate by expending more energy and I will be less fit on two counts.

The many layers of taekwon-do come to mind when we consider that part of the discipline involved in training is that until we are told to relax, we hold the last position we were asked to take up. This is good mental discipline, but it is also an important part of strength training and of technical training – if we hold a good L-stance with guarding block (or sitting stance, or walking stance or whatever) for an extended period of time while the instructor is talking, we are training our muscles isometrically in a specifically taekwon-do stance, and we are developing “muscle memory” for that position and ensuring that it feels comfortable and natural. If we stand tall and with good posture in our stances and during our “relaxed” time in taekwon-do, we are developing our core body muscles through taekwon-do – it makes more sense to do this via taekwon-do movements than to bring pilates or context-free VicFit style training into our training since we are training for our own martial art, not for something else.

The section in the Encyclopedia on dallyon underscores the depth to which General Choi went in putting together a complete martial art which would train body and mind in a coordinated and balanced way to achieve the full human potential. This is probably as good a place as any to stop writing for the day 🙂

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