Dragon Twisting for Springy Leg Power
by Steve Cotter
Building powerful legs is the first step in developing power throughout the body. In martial arts and athletics, strength alone is not sufficient for success in performance. Muscular strength must be coupled with flexibility, mobility and balance in order to utilize the acquired strength on the field, in the ring, or in any other real world application.
Springy strength is a term used in martial arts to describe the ability to move quickly and lightly, yet forcefully from position to position. We want to develop not only great strength, but the tissue elasticity to change quickly from high to low and from side to side. How do we develop springy legs for kicking, striking and throwing power? Introducing dragon twisting, a tremendous drill for developing strong, springy legs.
As in any practice, the appropriate attitude is necessary to get the full benefit of the exercise. By attitude, I mean intent, or direction of focus. What is the proper attitude for dragon twisting practice? The name of the exercise gives us a hint. The dragon is a mythological animal in many cultures. While in Western culture we view the dragon as a symbol of Evil, many Eastern cultures view it as a symbol of luck, virtue, and long life. Many of the fighting styles are based on emulating the movements of animals. The dragon is especially powerful because of its serpentine body, connected throughout as one continuous muscle. Attack the head, the tail coils around to hit you. Go for the tail, the head reaches in to sting you. Strike the center and both ends engulf you. So, when practicing, take the attitude of wrapping around the opponent, coiling and uncoiling continuously.
This drill will be taught from three positions: basic, intermediate, and advanced. However, even advanced trainees should begin with the basic drill before moving on to the more challenging varieties. Persons with knee injuries should consult with a physician before taking on this exercise.
Position 1: Basic Dragon Twisting
Stand with feet parallel, shoulder width apart, hands kept relaxed at your sides. Begin by un-weighting your Right foot, which means shift your weight to your Left foot. Immediately turn the R foot out (evert), so that toes end up at, or near 180 degrees from the start point. This is accomplished by rotating the thigh bone in the R hip by pivoting on the heel. Place the R foot flat and shift about 80% of your weight to it. As your weight shift completes, raise the L foot and pivot it on the ball. Continue pivoting until the L knee is tucked behind the R knee. Finally, sit back and down so that your hips sit directly over, but not on, the Achilles tendon/heel of your L foot. Now, reverse the position by pushing up from the ball of the L foot until you are standing upright. Rotate the L foot on its ball until the toes are pointing forward. Place the L foot flat, unweighting the R foot and lifting up the toes. Keeping your weight over your L foot, pivot the R on its heel until its toes are also pointing forward. You are now back in the starting position. Shift your weight to the R foot and repeat the Dragon Twist to the other side. Practice this bodyweight drill until you can smoothly twist from R to L in an uninterrupted low-high-low pattern. Precise footwork is tantamount to proper execution in Dragon Twisting. The twisting will make the tendons and ligaments very strong, but you must take care to learn the exact positioning of the feet, knees and hips. Gradually work into lower positions so that the joints and tendons can adapt over time.
Position 2: Dragon Twisting in KB Rack Position:
Stand in the same shoulder-width, feet parallel position. Clean 2 kettlebells of the same weight and hold them in the rack position. Repeat the drill as described in the basic position.
Notice that the strength and balance demands are greater due to the additional weight held against your body. Again foot placement must be precise to avoid injury to the knees, ankles or hips.
If you only have one KB, you can still practice this drill. Just be sure to pay extra attention to the alignment of your knee. The uneven weight can be stressful to your knee on the weighted side, as you are twisting into it. Be sure to go slowly and keep the front of the knee aligned vertically over your foot. Perform an equal number of reps with the KB held in each hand, so that you maintain equal stress on both sides of the body
Position 3: Dragon Twisting in KB Overhead Lockout Position:
From the shoulder width, parallel stance, jerk 2 kettlebells overhead and lock out the arms. Use a lighter weight than was used for position 2. Repeat the drill as described in the basic position.
Not only is the strength and balance demands the highest in this advanced version, but the muscles of the abdominal core are more involved. Shoulder stability is a key in maintaining safety as is the precise foot placement. Again, this position can be practiced with only one kettlebell, but should be performed for an equal number of repetitions with each arm locked-out.
A final progression is to do any of the above 3 positions with the eyes closed. This will developed more acute body awareness and impose a greater proprioceptive challenge.
Add these in slowly with your program by doing just a few reps early in the training session while you are fresh and attentive. Do some joint mobility preceding your Dragon Twisting practice, focusing on loosening the ankles, knees, hips and low back. We want perfect practice, so do 5 reps (L + R is 1 rep), stand up and shake the legs out and then do 5 more. It is best to stick with 2 sets of 5 reps for the first 1-2 weeks, practicing every other day. In sophisticated movement patterns such as Dragon Twisting, we may not notice any tweaks while practicing, because the mind is focused on skill acquisition. That's why it is necessary to go very slowly initially. Practice, observe, practice observe. Once you're sure that your joints can handle the new movement, you can start increasing volume.
Position 1 — the best approach is to do reps in a period of time. Take 1 minute and keep twisting for the minute. As your footwork becomes smoother, you will be able to move faster and faster between twists, increasing the number of reps performed in 1 minute. Start with 10 twists in 1 minute. If you recover well perform increase by 2 reps each practice. An advanced trainee should shoot for a minimum of 50 twists in 1 minute (25 per side).
Position 2 — Focus on maintaining the kettlebells vertically aligned over the central axis, which is the point on the ground that is directly at the midpoint between the feet. You will not train speed in this variation until your form is exact. Go very slowly and for sets of 5 reps. You will find the added pressure upon the diaphragm will make the breathing very challenging.
Position 3 — Shoulder and core stability is challenged to the extreme in this advanced variation of Dragon Twisting. If you have been utilizing an intelligent progression, you will have the foot placement and correct form down by the time you tackle position 3. The objective here is to create a coiling and uncoiling affect from the fingers overhead all the way down into the ground and back up again. Because you are in a stretched-out position of "extreme compromise", the challenge of Dragon Twisting is magnified. The muscles and tendons of your abdominal core are forced to keep a very rigid platform in order to protect the spine. The shoulders must sit firmly rooted into the girdles to prevent hyperextension, and the footwork must be exact to maintain balance. This is an ultimate drill for high level strength and coordination.
Solidify your foundation for full body power by developing springy strength in your legs. By adding Dragon Twisting to the arsenal martial artists and athletes will develop the flexibility and balance needed to apply their strength to its fullest potential.