It is very common that many students have difficulty with sidekicks and indeed all types of kicks, especially in relation to height, speed and power. This is not down to the mechanics of the kick being flawed but an under appreciation of the various factors critical to performing a great kick. These factors include dynamic flexibility, bal-ance, muscular strength and endurance, speed, power and technique. Each one of these can be discussed at great length, including a wide range of exercises and drills used for improvement. The interplay between these components can be complex but we need to keep things simple and in the real world.
Most of us would like to be able to kick higher and with more power, but in practical terms, how do you do this? The first thing you must understand is that the height of your knee primarily determines the height of your kick. With your leg straight your foot is in line with your knee, so if you want your foot to go higher you have to get your knee higher. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just lifting your knee to your chest, as then you have to straighten your leg out! There are two main areas that you need to concentrate on; your flexibility and the physical muscle strength to lift your knee up high.
Let’s look at flexibility first. When you perform any kick it is a fluid motion, your whole body is involved to a lesser or greater degree. It makes sense then, to use exercises that are similar to the action you intend to perform. Have you ever watched a golfer take a few practice swings of the club? Not only is this preparing mentally but also these dynamic swings help enormously in relaxing the muscles, thereby increasing the range of the swing. What we are talking about is dynamic flexibility and done properly, dynamic stretching is one of the keys to vastly improving the height of your kicks. The main exercises for kicking are leg raises. As we are discussing the side kick we will talk about side leg raises. An important thing to note is that dynamic stretches are controlled, as opposed to wild flings of your limbs.
The side leg raise is easily performed by beginners by standing upright, one hand holding a chair or a hand against a wall for support. Swing your opposite leg to the side whilst keeping both your legs straight (see picture). You may have to bend forward slightly at the waist to allow for more movement. Swing your leg up and down in a regular rhythm, 10 repetitions on one leg, 10 on the other. Keep alternating so that you have done 30 on each leg in total. Aim to swing your legs as high as possible, breathe as naturally as you can but don’t hold your breath. Dynamic stretching can be done at any time and is excellent for warming up but do not do dynamic stretches more than 3 times a week, as your muscles will be very sore and recovery will be slow. After your balance improves you can do the stretching without holding onto something in a free standing position.
Now we will turn to building the strength necessary for lifting the knee but first we need to know what muscles are involved in this. Most students are familiar with their quads and hamstrings but these play no part in lifting the knee, only in extending and retracting the lower leg. With kicking, especially the sidekick, you must develop the lesser talked about muscles that play a greater role in the kick. These are mainly your hip flexors, Gluteals and the Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL). To prove to you these are working during the raising of the knee, first stand up and lift your knee up. Feel, with your hand up by your hip, the small area of muscle that is tense-this is your TFL.
Your hip flexor muscles run internally through your pelvis, so you cannot feel these but they also help pull your knee up. Now raise your straight leg out to the side, feel your gluteals (buttocks), the upper region should be hard and contracted. All these muscles are so overlooked in general martial art training. Many exercises exist for strengthening all of them but an excellent one to begin with is the use of a chair.
Stand next to a chair (the high side), and bring your knee up into the chamber position of a side kick (see picture) then slowly kick out over the chair but not necessarily to full extension and then return your foot back to the chamber position and return to the floor. Repeat this for 10 repetitions on each leg, the chair forcing you to keep your knee high, both kicking out and on return. Gradually increase the number of alternate number of 10 kicks you can do on each leg but again, no more than 3 sessions a week, with at least one day break between sessions.
You will notice a tremendous increase in your kicking ability after only 2 weeks. Remember this is a strength based exercise, so your muscles will be sore but allow good recovery times and results will come far quicker than being impatient. Technique is obviously very important, as your whole body alignment, position of your hips, supporting leg characteristic and kicking foot position are all extremely vital.