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I've been training martial arts for several years but still aren't impressed by the height of my side kicks. I think its a combination of strength and stretching since I can use my hands to lift my leg higher than I can kick.

What are good exercises for both strength and stretching that can improve my side kicks? Also, what muscles should I try to strengthen and what muscles should I try to stretch?

I'm guessing that the outside of the hips and the outside of the thigh are the muscles to focus on but I'm not really sure how to strengthen the hip muscles. I regularly work on both the straight and the side split (sorry don't know what they are called in english). What other good stretching exercises can improve my kick height?

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See also my answer to this question: martialarts.stackexchange.com/questions/102/… –  Sean Patrick Floyd Feb 1 '12 at 20:35

3 Answers 3

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Kicking has four parts to it: flexibility, technique, focus and ab's.

For the flexibility, I have found PNF stretching to be quite beneficial. This is a form of stretching that uses periodic resistance/contraction followed by relaxation to achieve a deeper stretch and excellent long term results (here is a reasonable Youtube example). Of course flexibility is only part of the story and by itself doesn't get your foot up there, being flexible simply ensures that you have the minimum resistance to getting your foot up high.

For technique: concentrate on breaking down the kick into its component parts. Practice it slowly. First raise your knee, hold it, extend the leg, hold it, lower the leg but keep your knee up, hold it, then lower your leg back to where you started. These positions should all be held for several seconds each (holding them longer can help build tendon strength). Breaking the kick down into its component parts helps you master the mechanics of it, and helps to prevent sloppy technique that is little more than a quick sideways leg raise rather than a good high sidekick. The groin adductor muscles which are the main muscles involved in getting the height (angle) on this kick are not very large, especially when compared to the total size of your thigh, you can work those muscles at the gym* but strengthening them is only going to get you part way there; what is more important is the speed and technique used. Once you have the kick at the desired angle your quads and glutes take over and extend the leg - those are easy to strengthen, but concentrate on them last (accuracy and technique is more important than brute strength at this stage).

Focus is very important. Your mind (focus) needs to be just beyond the edge of your foot (which should be through the other side of the target). Your focus needs to be impeccable, but it is hard to achieve when battling poor technique and/or tight/weak muscles. If you cannot kick at a height that satisfies you, then back off a little and perfect your kick at a lower level, then gradually work your way up in height. Don't be a glutton for instant gratification, this sort of thing can take a lot of time.

Finally, I cannot understate the amount of importance that ab's play in your kicking, even side kicks. Without strong abdominals your kicks will always be weak. They are a crucial support muscle used during the kick, without them you may as well just swing your leg around in a haphazard way.

*use the machine where you sit in it and spread your legs apart sideways (it will usually be situated near its counterpart where you squeeze your legs in together, which is the opposite group of muscles).

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+1 for the abs recommendation –  Andy Dent Dec 12 '12 at 18:59
    
Impressive answer. My sensei, a 7th dan Hanshi-ho, teaches us about the same way for side kicks. –  pboy Dec 27 '12 at 3:36

If it's Taekwondo, I've found there's too much static stretching before drills. If I'm training on my own, I feel better warming up through fairly relaxed but rhythmic turning (roundhouse?) kicks, first a shin height, and working up as you feel comfortable, and keep going in a steady rhythm till you're about as high up as you normally kick.

Then for side kicks, it's best to set up a drill where some obstacle forces you into good technique, rather than you having to consciously think about how you're supposed to move all the time. You can put a chair right next to you and then practice side kicks over it - not jumping over it, but making sure you're tucking your foot in, out and over the back of the chair so you clear it, then snap it back in and clear the chair and back down to the ground.

Also have a feeling in mind when you're doing this. Have a think about what a good kick ought to feel like... balanced, effectively transferring force. With a side kick, you want the movement to feel a bit like a piston... you're tucking in, raising angle, then firing out like a piston. Aim for that sort of feeling when you're practicing.

The idea is that you want to only have to think about the movement for as little a time as you need to to understand it. After that, you want it to be all about muscle memory and how things 'feel'. Also, doing that sort of drill... it's technique and muscle strength training all in one... you'll be surprised how it's all those little muscles that never get a workout at the gym that can make such a big difference.

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Slugster's great post forgot to mention relaxation.

Conditioning to build strength and improve flexibility is very important.

However, fast, fluid motion also requires you to be relaxed and it's harder to achieve relaxation of the large leg muscles than it is of the arms.

One drill I give people is to get a pile of cushions at a height they can comfortably hold their leg out on and stand there in a kicking position with the leg supported by the cushions. They are not to try stretching but concentrate on relaxing every muscle in the leg.

This helps them stop moving like a powerful but rusty hinge.

On the topic of abs conditioning - I'm a big believer in using a Swiss ball (fitball) as a seat. It's easy to acquire the habit of moving continually through the day when sitting on one and it develops an awesome range of abdominal muscles especially the lateral ones. I have been doing this for years. I was kicked in the abdomen by a racehorse, earlier this year, hard enough to break the floating rib backwards near the spine. Doctors were very surprised I suffered no organ damage from the blow (expecting kidney or liver tears) - I credit my abs development.

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This is true. It's the difference between passive flexibility (being able to sit down and do splits) and active flexibility (being able achieve splits when doing say, an axe kick). –  JohnP Jul 25 '12 at 14:38

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