MMA requires getting into positions that will require a decent level of flexibility such as head kicks and grappling scenarios. Lack of flexibility is often blamed when it comes to sporting injuries. So, to decrease your risk of injury and to improve your techniques in MMA, you start spending extra time over the next month’s brutally stretching at home, doing yoga, and stretching after every workout.
For the amount of time you’ve put into stretching, you’d think you would be doing the splits by now! You may be more flexible than when you started but you’re not seeing the change you thought you would.
Flexibility is a passive measure of stretch tolerance. Being flexible doesn’t predict low back pain or injury and doesn’t correlate with athletic performance. Improving range of motion and therefore flexibility should be performed through loaded strength training to develop ‘strength at length’ vs. passive flexibility.
There are potentially better ways to improve flexibility that don’t require stretching for MMA. Drilling hard to reach positions in training is one way that will naturally occur such as throwing kicks at higher and higher levels or drilling triangles from guard.
The notion that flexibility is important for physical fitness has led to the idea that stretching is prescribed to improve ROM. However, flexibility can be maintained or improved by other exercise modalities that cause more health and performance benefits.
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What Is Flexibility?
Firstly, it’s important that we define flexibility. Static flexibility refers to a joints range of motion (ROM) in relaxed muscle . Historically, flexibility has been measured in a clinical setting in humans since the early 1900s.
In 1941, trunk, ankle, and shoulder flexibility was linked to having a positive effect on greater speed and endurance in runners and swimmers.
Flexibility gained further popularity through the 1950s and 60s due to the creation of the sit-and-reach test (I’m sure you’ve done this in school PE class at some point).
In the 1980s, flexibility was labeled a major component of physical fitness with many claims of health benefits from flexibility. Since then, static stretching to improve flexibility has been adopted by almost every sport.
However, if we look at more recent research, is flexibility that important for MMA?
How Does Flexibility Relate To MMA?
When I mention flexibility, for the sake of this article it will refer specifically to the sit-and-reach test as that is what has been studied.
Often, stretching is performed to relieve lower back pain and prevent injuries from lack of mobility.
However, the sit-and-reach test does not predict the future incidence of lower back pain or injury in adults.
It also doesn’t predict hamstring injuries in soccer or Australian Rules Football players. Further, high levels of flexibility actually increase the risk of injury. There is an inherent trade-off between stiffness and flexibility. A relative level of stiffness is needed for high-level performance. Especially in MMA for actions such as takedowns and striking.
Flexibility has no association with other components of fitness (speed, strength, endurance, etc) indicating flexibility is its own distinct trait. Furthermore, in many athletic groups, flexibility does not correlate with athletic performance and does not differentiate between different playing abilities (e.g. similar sit-and-reach scores between elite and sub-elite sprinters).
No similar study has been performed in MMA but based on the data we currently have, flexibility may not be something worth your time if you already have the requisite flexibility to perform MMA actions.
As MMA has minimum flexibility requirements, some techniques just aren’t possible without the required joint ROM such as head kicks or almost any maneuver invented by 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu. This is where methods outside of static stretching help to create the desired ROM that will last.
How To Get Flexible Without Static Stretching
Yes, it is possible. And the results you will achieve will last much longer than a temporary change in ROM from static stretching. ‘Strength at length’ is the goal that will bulletproof the joint from injury at long muscle lengths.
Strength training through a full range of motion is the answer to this. When comparing a group that performs strength training to a group that does static stretching over five weeks, both groups improved hamstring and hip flexor flexibility to the same degree .
What is interesting is that the strength training group displayed greater quadriceps and hamstring strength compared to the static stretching group.
That's two birds with one stone! So let's work through each muscle group.
Starting with the hamstrings. If you’ve ever taken time off of kickboxing or Muay Thai and decided to throw hard roundhouse kicks into the heavy bag, you probably woke up the next morning feeling like your hamstrings were ripped off the bone.
Having very tight and short hamstrings will likely put you at a greater risk of injury when kicking and limit your ability in techniques such as the teep.
One of the best ways to increase the flexibility of the hamstrings is by using the Romanian Deadlift with a slow eccentric (lowering) phase. Eccentric training increases the number of sarcomeres (a segment of muscle fiber) in length, increasing muscle fiber length and shifting the angle to longer muscle lengths in which peak torque (angular force) can be generated .
This adaptation leads to being stronger and longer to be able to withstand the fast eccentric contractions many kicks produce.
One study showed that eccentric hamstring exercise was just as effective as static stretching in improving hamstring flexibility . What was not tested in the study was strength.
I would guarantee the eccentric training group had better strength at longer muscle lengths. This would provide a protective mechanism against many muscle strain injuries especially when throwing fast kicks.
Another common problem are tight and short hip flexors. These will really restrict your ability to throw sharp knees and teeps. To lengthen the hip flexors, my go to exercises are the isometric split squat and the eccentric lunge push.
A restriction in ankle mobility can hamper your ability to shoot explosively for takedowns. Using the seated or standing calf raise with a 3-sec pause at the bottom will take your ankle through a loaded full range of motion.
The shoulder region of an MMA fighter can also get restricted from all of the actions that take place with the arms in front of the body. Simple exercises such as chest flys, dumbbell pullovers, and Meadows Lat Stretcher are my favorites for getting good ROM through the shoulder.
Slow Eccentric Romanian Deadlift (4-5 sec down)
Isometric Split Squat (1-5 mins) or Eccentric Lunge Push (4-5 sec down)
Half Butterfly Plate Lift (3-5 sec resist then relax)
Standing and Seated Calf Raises (3-sec pause at the bottom)
Chest Flys, DB Pullovers, Meadows Lat Stretcher (3-sec pause at stretch)
Should You Still Stretch?
While there may be better choices for improving flexibility such as full ROM strength training, that doesn’t mean you should or have to abandon static stretching.
Static stretching can be a great way of ‘winding down’ in the evening or after training. It can be a way of meditating or practising mindfulness while down regulating your nervous system. Stretching before bed may even help you sleep by relaxing your mind and body.
So no, if you enjoy static stretching don’t stop. Just be aware static stretching and flexibility isn’t the answer to better MMA performance or to reducing your risk of injury.
3. Morton, S. K., Whitehead, J. R., Brinkert, R. H., & Caine, D. J. (2011). Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(12), 3391-3398.
4. Nelson, R. T., & Bandy, W. D. (2004). Eccentric training and static stretching improve hamstring flexibility of high school males. Journal of athletic training, 39(3), 254.