It should be safe to say that a fighter’s primary weapons are the fists and feet/shins. Both of these extremities are capable of generating devastating amounts of force, but that force would be worthless without it first originating from the torque created through the joint capsule. The joint capsules I am referring to are the hip and shoulder girdles, both of which are ball and socket joints. This means that the head of our humerus (upper arm bone) and femur (upper leg bone) form a nice spherical shape that rests in a perfectly rounded crevice within our shoulders and hips. Both were designed to move through large ranges of motion, although due to a fighter’s lifestyle and the amount of training and stress being put on the body, often times these joints become very stiff and limited in their freedom of movement.
This limited range of motion leaves our bodies in a compromised and unstable position causing the kinetic chain to find the extra movement somewhere else. Our bodies view instability as a liability and would rather eliminate the threat of damaging that stiff joint by defaulting down the line and picking up the slack somewhere else. Unfortunately this usually happens to be an area that wasn’t meant to mobilize in that particular movement pattern. Over time the result of this compensation is almost always injury.
Take for example a fighter who relies heavily on power punching and is constantly spending time in a forward rounded position, and almost assuredly makes the bench press his go-to lift when trying to increase power. Don’t get me wrong, bench pressing is a good way to help increase punching power. However, the problem is that eventually the pecs and anterior delts become very tight if proper measures aren’t taken to ensure joint mobility is maintained. Once this forward rounding occurs it puts the shoulder in an unstable position that limits your capacity to externally rotate (turning the palms upward and pinching the shoulder blades back to puff out the chest) which in turn creates dysfunctional movement patterns, leading to a loss of force production and a reduction in the reach of your strikes.
When attempting to restore integrity back within the joint capsule, it is important to remember that the test/retest method is a great way to track your progress. Meaning, try moving within the range of motion before you attack the soft tissue with a foam roller or tennis ball and, once the mobility work is done, retest the range of motion once more. Additionally, remember too that it is important to trigger point and foam roll first before going into any dynamic stretching movements.
One way to alleviate some of the tension in the shoulders is to lay flat on your back and take a tennis ball to the insertion of your lat, which is right above your armpit. This is where the external rotators attach behind your shoulder. The goal is to put some pressure on the ball and with your elbow at 90 degrees begin to rotate your hand toward the ground with the palm facing down. Make haste slowly please, as the majority of folks won’t get anywhere close to the ground and, if you force it, real damage can be done. After spending a minute or two working the soft tissues, try going to the pull up bar and just doing a dead hang, letting the weight of your body elongate the musculature and begin trying to pinch back your shoulder blades, exposing your chest.
In regards to the hips, which dictate just how hard, fast, and high you can kick, mobility should be a top priority. Both internal and external rotation play a critical role in kicking as well as setting up submissions like the triangle choke. Internal rotation is responsible for creating stability when your leg is behind you (setting up a switch kick), as well as creating torque when your legs are in flexion (setting up a triangle choke). In other words, without internal rotation, we can’t get into mechanically stable positions or generate power through our primary engine.
One way to assist in ensuring you maintain an adequate amount of internal rotation is to try lying on your back with your feet pressed against the wall and your knees at 90 degrees. Begin by crossing one leg over the other and, while trying to keep your foot flat against the wall, let the leg on top guide the opposite leg in toward the mid line of your body. The stretch should be felt on the side of the hip along the belt line.
Listed above are just some minor practices to assist in maintaining joint mobility and integrity. I encourage all combat sport practitioners, both professional and amateur, to dive even deeper into their research and enlist new techniques to compound and progress the ones I’ve mentioned earlier. Just remember to make haste slowly and always test then retest.
NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS SPORTS SCIENCE COLUMN: The Adrenaline Dump – Is it Real? Can it be Counteracted? What’s Greg Jackson’s advice?
(Adam Tindal of Orlando, Fla. is new MMATorch Specialist columnist focused on the sports science of exercise. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Performance Enhancing Specialist, and has USA Weightlifting certification . He studied exercise science at UCF and current works for a sports performance company in Orlando. He has practiced Muay Thai for nearly ten years and is a passionate follower of MMA.)