My goal today is just to highlight some muscles that martial artists use a lot (and sometimes neglect to stretch/strengthen). There’s plenty of information on the web about how to stretch or strengthen any muscle you want, so I’m just going to highlight what we use them for.
Bottoms of the feet: The plantar fascia take a beating, not only from stepping, jumping, and kicking, but also from gripping the floor in your stances. Stretch or massage the muscles at the end of the day and you’ll be surprised at how much tension is released.
Achilles tendon: This tendon is used in walking, running, and jumping, and also to flex the foot into correct position for many kicks. It is also a common one for injury, so be sure to stretch it whenever you exercise.
IT band: The IT band runs down the outside of your leg. Knots in the IT band naturally result from any kind of running or knee bending routines (think stances, squats, or lunges). For me, IT band knots press on my sciatic nerve, so I do preventative stretching almost every day.
Hip flexor: Overuse of this little guy results from lots of leg lifting and chambering for kicks. Sensei’s tip is to focus on lifting with the abs and not the legs in order to keep stress off the hip flexor.
Hips: Hip flexibility and strength is important for kicks, especially high ones, but is also needed to perform leg sweeps and strong low kicks (which are more practical in a self-defense context). Crescent and back-heel kicks are designed to improve your hip flexibility, so just keep at ’em.
Back (lower back): More of a problem for adults than kiddos, back strength is a key aspect of core strength, which affects everything from balance to the ability to move power from the floor to your hand techniques. Adults should be aware of aggravating activities, but should also develop a strengthening routine for their lower backs. One big tip is to make sure you get up and move around at least once an hour, if not twice, during your workday (staying hydrated will help you need to get up :P). I also regularly use a foam roller to assist with decompressing my back.
Neck: Neck strength is important for boxing and grappling arts, both when the fight goes to the floor and in a standing “clinch” situation (where the opponents are stuck to each other). Keeping your neck loose will help decrease back and shoulder tension, and keeping it strong may help prevent whiplash from head snapping during forms.
Wrists/hands: Even though we use these for every strike and block, as well as for takedowns and handling weapons, martial artists rarely give enough attention to wrist, hand, and forearm stretches. Strengthening the wrists in particular is important because your strikes generate reaction force and may damage your own joints if they are weak or improperly positioned. Same thing goes for finger strikes, usually taught as an upper-level technique.
Martial arts is a “whole body” type of exercise, because you engage several major muscle groups simultaneously (and burn lots of calories in the process). It’s easy to forget about a lot of these muscles because they’re less obvious, but stretching/strengthening them will add a lot to your fitness, overall well-being, and the speed/strength/efficiency of your techniques.