Nothing embodies the beauty and mystique of the martial arts quite like a high, overhead kick. You often see experienced martial artists performing straight-legged kicks, spin kicks and circular roundhouse kicks on television and during forms demonstrations. While these techniques look like they require incredible flexibility to accomplish, it may only take a short time to get your hips and hamstrings flexible enough to do them yourself, and there are a few cheats to get you there even faster.
The martial arts kick that probably requires the most flexibility is the traditional front kick. The front kick is a straight-line kick that strikes the opponent with the ball of the foot, and it's the move you would use to kick a door down if you ever needed to. To kick over your head with a front kick, you need to work on your hamstring flexibility. A traditional hamstring stretch -- leaning down and touching your toes or the floor while keeping your legs straight -- is one of the most effective ways of stretching out the long hamstring tendon. Additionally, straightening your kicking leg and swinging it in a straight arc forward and back to get a more dynamic straight-legged stretch can work wonders for when you're ready to throw some high front kicks.
Once you get used to throwing a side kick at waist level, you may want to try increasing the height to head level. To get flexible enough to throw a side kick at head level without bending your body in the opposite direction, it can take a long time and countless stretching sessions focused on stretching out the groin and hip flexors. Many experienced martial artists actually do a bit of a cheat for a high side kick. Instead of keeping the head up high, they lean off-center and dip the head and upper body back in the opposite direction of the kick. This causes the kick to go higher because of the angle of the body, but actually requires no more flexibility than a waist-level kick.
Strength and Balance
It may not seem like a cheat, but similar to the lean technique you can use to achieve a higher angle on the side kick, increasing your core and leg strength along with your balance on one foot will work wonders for your kicking height. Strength and balance does not necessarily need to involve flexibility. Once you are flexible enough to kick at waist or chest level, slight changes to the angle of your upper body will allow you to kick like the pros. Leaning back and dipping your head off your center line will increase the height of your front leg kicks, and the best way to achieve the strength and balance required is through slow kicking drills. Slow kicking drills involve leaning back on one foot and performing a kick at a comfortable height as slowly as possible to increase both your balance and the strength and stability of your support leg.
Rotation and Snap
Front kicks and side kicks are cool and effective, but you really won't draw gasps with your kicking techniques until you're confident enough to throw some spins into the equation. It may look daunting to throw a spinning hook or wheel kick above head level, but once you practice the move you will find that the same leaning cheat you can use for straight-legged kicks also comes into play here. To spin and throw a back-leg kick above head level, lean your body back to achieve the desired angle as your momentum carries you through the kick. While spin kicks take more practice before you gain confidence, they can actually require less flexibility than straight kicks because they rely on momentum and angle much more than strength and stability. Snap is a term experienced martial artists use to describe the tail end of kick that carries you through the move and creates much of its impact power.
High kicking is fun and impressive, but without a proper warmup, kicking with tight muscles and joints can be dangerous. If you experience any sharp pains or burning sensations in your muscles or tendons after performing high kicks, stop immediately and apply ice, then heat, to the affected area and do not try to stretch the pain away. Stretching is ineffective after an injury has already occurred and could make the problem worse. Consult with your doctor if pain persists for more than a few days.
Steven Kelliher is an experienced sports writer, technical writer, proofreader and editor based out of the Greater Boston Area. His main area of expertise is in combat sports, as he is a lifelong competitor and active voice in the industry. His interviews with some of the sport's biggest names have appeared on large industry sites such as ESPN.com, as well as his own personal blog.