Everybody wants the high kick. Even boxers want the high kick. Actually obtaining it however is pretty hard, especially if you’re in Muay Thai or MMA in the West, where the method of learning how to high kick is to simply kick until you get it. In Thailand, everyone is able to high kick, but everyone in Thailand is also training 6 days a week on a boxing camp, often from the age of 5. So, it’s not realistic that us mere mortals take on their exact methods.
Yet every karate and taekwondo practitioner you can think of is able to reliably throw kicks to the head at will. The reason for this is simple, part of the curriculum of learning karate is not just learning the martial art itself but learning the supplementary exercises and drills that will allow for freedom when kicking high.
Today we’ll look at some of the methods used to get high kicks, and some follow along workouts you can do yourself.
This is the most important factor, at the end of the day, a kick is swinging your leg up to hit a target. It’s a dynamic movement and dynamic flexibility is the closest you will get to martial arts style kicking. I myself, am unable to reach the full splits but am able to kick up to head height, because it is a different type of flexibility to static stretching.
Dynamic stretching should be the first thing you do in a flexibility routine to warm up. We often make the mistake of starting with static stretching, but this can make the muscles over relax and increase the risk of injury. Dynamic stretching allows the muscles to warm up, while also being closer to a kicking motion.
How should we practise dynamic stretching? In my view the most complete method for improving dynamic stretching and balance is the 5 fundamental kicks of Wushu. These dynamic stretches improve flexibility across multiple plains of motion and will allow for higher kicks of all variety, not just your standard round kick.
So, if dynamic stretching is much closer to a high kick, why should we stretch statically? Well, static stretching after a session of dynamic stretching helps your body to keep the flexibility it has gained. Not only that, but being able to do the splits, or something close to it, is still useful because it allows your muscles more comfort while being stretched, and will indeed help your flexibility while kicking, even if it is in a less direct way.
Being in a front split also mimics the sort of flexibility you need to throw a round kick to the head.
Static stretches, like the splits, also hold an overlooked benefit, they are strength building exercises. Holding the splits doesn’t just stretch the muscles, it strengthens the abductors. As karate instructor and stretching expert Thomas Kurtz says in his book ‘Stretching Scientifically’: ‘Weak abductors tense very strongly when you try to spread your legs in the straddle stance. The stronger they are the less tension, pain and resistance there is while spreading your legs all the way to the floor’.
For those doing 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu (or any other type of grappling) being statically flexible is also important for submission defence. Especially for leg submissions. The more flexible you are the better. While flexibility won’t help you vs a properly locked in knee bar, it will stop embarrassing moments like getting tapped before the submission is properly locked in, because your hamstrings were too tight.
Of course getting the splits is a slow, tiring process that takes months of consistent practise and dedication. Such is life in the zone. Thankfully though there are many routines available online for you to follow along with. This one is a personal favourite of mine:
Strength & Conditioning:
This is perhaps the most overlooked part of training high kicks and flexibility in general. The strength in the legs and the core to bring the leg up high with control. In my interview with Gabriel Varga, we talked about the benefits of ‘JCVD’ style conditioning exercises.
For Mr. Varga, his preferred method is holding the leg high, pulsing in mid air and throwing continuous kicks at varying paces, without bringing the leg to the ground. In the interview Varga mentioned that he had known people who were able to bring their leg up high to do these motions, but were unable to do the splits, and vice versa.
Thomas Kurtz has some additional methods to build strength and flexibility together. Making use of kettlebells to strengthen his abductors while deepening the stretch.
Using a light kettlebell can be beneficial when using the splits because not only will it build strength, but it will also lower you further into the splits. At the Shaolin temple, they will deepen your split by simply pushing you further into it – with the kettlebell method, at least if it’s getting too much, or you don’t feel safe, you can simply drop the kettlebell.
None of this is the be all and end all of stretching, many people have many approaches that have each worked for them, or will benefit in a different way.
However if you find you’ve hit a plateau, you should try to figure out where you can improve. If your splits are great but you find you don’t have much control over high kicks, then Varga’s routine would most likely be for you. If you have great mobility for high kicks, but still generally feel stiff and tight or otherwise uncomfortable, maybe look into Adkins routine.
The best approach in my opinion though, is to alternate between flexibility routines and strength builders to gradually build your flexibility and control together, in order to get a solid high kick. Remember that while high kicks are not essential to fighting, the better your high kick is, the better your control and power will be on your body kick.
Good luck, and happy training.