View Full Version : stiffness, suggestions to cure it?

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12-11-2003, 08:19 PM
Hi all,

What methods have you all used to help someone overcome stiffness. This is overwhelming stiffness that the party is well aware of and has been working diligently at eliminating.

Bring it on! :)

12-11-2003, 09:28 PM
Is this joint stiffness or is this muscle stiffness?

12-11-2003, 10:08 PM
Hi John, I think it is muscle stiffness. My student also grits his teeth when he's executing (or being uke) a technique. Fear or nerves makes it worse. He's also in his late 40's, so that contributes to the problem as well. So far we have tried:

1) concentrating on relaxing shoulders and pushing from center

2) pushing from the abdomen (like a BM even!)

3) no grabbing, just a connection through the palm and little fingers

4) extension; pushing against the wall to get the feeling of extension

5) constant reminders to "soften"

6) constant reminders to stop gritting teeth

7) keeping your butt underneath you as uke

He is trying really hard to do this! I think it is a combination of being a bit older, as well as having a stiff body naturally.

12-12-2003, 03:00 AM
Something I've seen work is to get him to focus on keeping his face relaxed. Let the body do what it will, forget the body, we don't care what it does, his focus is only on his face. I've seen this work a few times. Apparently it's difficult for some people to have a stiff body with a relaxed face.

Have him smile or chuckle throughout the technique.

Have him hum a favorite song or catchy tune. Focusing on keeping the timing of the tune while he's doing whatever technique or exercise.

All things I've seen work.

Good luck,


12-12-2003, 04:45 AM
If all other sugestions fails - perhaps a short break would do the trick. I often feel that I'm much more relaxed during practice if I've missed a week or two. Probably because I enjoy being back so much that I forget to worry about what dosen't work.

Not a fix-all solution though :D

Ted Marr
12-12-2003, 07:59 AM
Meditation. And lots of stretching. Possibly some yoga.

12-12-2003, 08:08 AM
Hi all, thanks for your answers so far. Interesting one Bronson; I've asked him to stop gritting his teeth and pointed out when he was getting tense in the face, but haven't tried your suggestion. We'll try it soon.

Yoga is good, however I can't ask my students to take another expense. We do a lot of spinal stretches in class (twists from side to side) because I have back problems and find this seems to help tremendously. Being stiff through the back isn't helpful. Actually I think he's most stiff through the shoulders and arms, but his back as well.

Any specific stretches you are thinking of? Hamstrings?

Ted Marr
12-12-2003, 08:48 AM
Hrm... hadn't given a lot of thought as to what stretches to use... I usually just get to class a bit early and stretch whatever feels tight. One thing that I don't think most aikido people do is a bit of aerobic activity before stretching. I heard somewhere that if you stretch cold, you're more likely to injure yourself, and the stretch doesn't lead to long term flexibilty. You're apparently supposed to do about 5 minutes of aerobic exercise (enough to get your heart rate up), and then stretch afterwards. I don't know about the long term effects, but I do know that a bit of time on the stairmaster makes me loose that hard unyielding feeling in the muscles when I stretch.

Eric Joyce
12-12-2003, 09:37 AM

I would advise some basic streching exercises in addition to the ones that are done prior to class. There is a website call www.humankinetics.com that has several books on stretching. I do a lot of personal training and I have found that the stretching exercises in aikido don't do the body enough justice (for some people...not all). Also I would recommend that this individual go to a massage therapist once every 2 weeks and get a nice, deep, sports massage to help him relax. If cost is an issue, then I would just recommend buying the book and doing the stretches on ones own time. All you need is about 10-15 minutes a day really. Just food for thought.

Cliff Geysels
12-12-2003, 11:14 AM
Just rest baby, it's the only thing that really works for sore muscles.

12-12-2003, 11:16 AM
I'm 45, so I know a little about muscles that age. I find that heat/activity/use all help with stiffness; often I'm at my least-stiff (flexible) at the end of a class; all that movement and being pinned is good stretching for me. The "warm-ups" of a class realy don't help me much.

If I really need to be flexible for a class, I would start about 8 hours before, with some meditation/chant/prayer, then good breathing throughout the day, then a light meal about 3 hours before class, a nice walk for digestion and relaxation, perhaps a good soak in a hot tub, some yoga, then walk to the dojo (assuming you are in a nice warm location). I would avoid some of my tension-inducers like driving a car or watching a television (or even surfing the Web!).

But for serious stiffness right in the middle of a class, well, I think that is probably a little late. Best hope for me would be to avoid injuries or cramping--just go easy. In the middle of a class is not really, in my opinion, a good time to work on stiffness issues, just work with them.


12-12-2003, 11:37 AM
Hi Rachel,

Quick question. How much of your student's inflexibility do you think can be attributed to purely physical stiffness, and how much due to "self-inflicted" tension? Whenever I see someone gritting their teeth while training, I get the feeling it's more tension than stiffness...

One thing I often work on during ukemi class is to have people work at a slower-than-usual rate. This may include just really slow rolling practice (ie doing a forward roll or a backward roll as slow as possible) but also includes "regular" paired techniques, too. To me, this type of practice (without speed nor emphasis on the "need" to throw/fall) really allows my body to work in a state where I can remain relaxed. It also gives my body/mind a reference point from which I can work -- in other words, I get to feel, consciously and subconsciously, what it feels like to move without tension.

I, too, like Bronson's thoughts. A related idea I've had passed onto me is that having a relaxed jaw tends to also relax the neck, shoulders, and upper body.

Lastly, does your student have any background in other activities such as playing a wind instrument or acting? Often, when I relate the bodyset and mindset of when one is playing a wind instrument or projecting across a theater sometimes helps people, too.

Just my thoughts,

-- Jun

12-12-2003, 11:40 AM
Thanks Jun, and thanks Frank (and everyone else). I have forwarded this link to my student and asked him to check it out. He might be able to chime in (or not) with what he is feeling directly in terms of stiffness and/or tension.

Please keep the ideas coming!

12-12-2003, 11:48 AM
Dear Rachel,

Your wrote: "5) constant reminders to 'soften'; 6) constant reminders to stop gritting teeth"

We're all different, but for me, this would probably make me very stiff, tense and I'd grit my teeth! Sometimes too much attention to tension causes tension! Perhaps if you ignore the student's tension and stiffness, the student will relax and do better, even if the student asks for you attention to his tension. There may be all sorts of factors here beside the merely physical which would cause attention to the tension/stiffness to actually be counterproductive.


12-12-2003, 12:09 PM
Interesting assessment Frank; you might be onto something with that thought....

Janet Rosen
12-12-2003, 01:03 PM
I agree with Jun that the issues are not "muscle tightness" that stretching will fix, but anxiety and emotional/mental tension.

Rather than pointing out "don't"s like "stop gritting teeth", I think positives and distractions are good.

Distractions, as somebody suggested, like cracking a joke, or suggesting that he hums or something (it seems silly, but its a somatic activity that can simply replace the gritting and frowning).

One of my instructors will sometimes say "that looked good, now how about trying it again and this time look like you are enjoying it?"....

12-12-2003, 01:23 PM
Hi Rachael. If it is muscle stiffness you might have him take a hot shower right before class. If it is mental, self hypnosis progressive relaxation might help. You might also have him practice feeling (can't feel and tighten simultaneously) the technique. Sounds like this is somewhat on the ukemi side. If so, he might be afraid of taking falls and need to work on getting more competent.

12-12-2003, 01:57 PM
I have also been told a number of times that one should stretch after class rather than before, because the body is warmed up. That said, some people are just stiff, and it can take some time before they become more limber.

Also, proper breathing during practice can serve to relax some people. I find that if I'm tense, I'm also not breathing in a natural and relaxed manner. If you teach him to breath in through his nose, and out through his mouth, he might stop grinding his teeth also.

Patrick O'Reilly
12-12-2003, 05:00 PM
I'm chiming in. I'm the one in Rachel's class that is so stiff. She has tried just about every thing to get me to not be so stiff. So far the best thing I think that has worked is last weekend when I was getting ready to do a kye test pretest she told me to be soft in my technique. Some how that's the only thing that's clicked so far. I could imagine "soft", I haven't been able to imagine "not stiff" yet.

I have read some interesting things on this thread and I thank Rachel and every one for all their help. I don't play a wind instument but I got an electric keyboard a couple of weeks ago and am learning that. It might help. And yes I do have a bit of stage expience in community theater so I will have to use that(I already am actually, it's how I'm preparing for my 5th kye test tomorrow, no tension there, so I can block out every thing except my uke and my techniques).

So I guess a bit of my history is in store for every one looking at this thread. I am 45 years old. I don't think it's as much tesion as it is physical problems. I was a welder for about 20 years and it took it's toll on my back and neck. I had to wear a welding sheild, hard hat and other equipment all day long for all those years. The last nine years welding I spent in a shipyard and had to be a contortionist a lot of the time just to get to the work area. I sat in "seiza" hour after hour welding (I have worn out the toes of many pairs of work boots doing this). With all the extra weight on my upper body for all those years it has caused me chronic neck and back pain. Rarely is there a day I don't hurt from it. My upper body, from the upper chest up, is so tight and sore it can't relax.

Not only do I grit my teath but my lower jaw is constantly tight, partly I think to try to offset the pain in my neck, you know, "bite the bullet to help releave the pain". It's the muscles in my neck/shoulders that hurt. They hurt so bad it gives me headaches. For instance I am going to hurt tomorrow just from typing this reply, that's how sensitive my neck muscles are.

I didn't realize until I started Aikido how stiff I have become. I can't really feel it myself, I I've been sore stiff and sore for so long it seems normal. I don't think it's going to go away in a day or a week. I have done some of the things mentioned on this thread. I use a heat pad, hot showers before class and some of my own stretches for my neck muscles before class. The one that I find helps the best is to tilt my head to the side and down on an angle. This really stretches my neck muscles and the muscles behind my shoulder blades all the way down my back. Some times I find that the area between my thumb and forefinger is sore and messaging that helps, I've heard it helps get rid of a headache.

My question is has any one out there used acupuncture for any thing like this? I have seriously considered it and been meaning to ask Rachel if she knows of any one. I have done some physical thearapy and had a message once every two weeks for seven years when I worked in the shipyard. One stretch I got from physical thearopy that I still use when I remember is to stand in an open door way, my feet about 12-18" back, my hands on the door frame at shoulder height then lean into the door way. This stretches the muscles in my chest. My shoulders are some what rounded, probably from being so tight.

So if there are any physical thearopy types out there that have any suggestions for good upper body stretches I would be interested in hearing them.

Dan Rubin
12-12-2003, 05:08 PM
I agree with Robert. Our senior student has been telling me for years that I'm stiff because I hold my breath during ukemi. A month ago I finally started concentrating on breathing in and out as I attack, and breathing out as I hit the mat. (I've also discovered that I have been holding my breath while nage.) The improvement in my ukemi was almost immediate, and my ukemi has steadily improved since then.

Dan Rubin

12-12-2003, 05:08 PM
Hey Patrick,

Thanks for chiming in here! I hadn't realized you were having neck pain; should have thought of that! Glad that the positive "softening" comments have helped somewhat, and I did notice (and commented to you about it) that earlier this week you were feeling a bit softer. Cool! Lets keep working on that one. In the meantime, anyone who has PT experience, please speak up and make suggestions that could help.

Patrick O'Reilly
12-12-2003, 05:39 PM
Thanks Rachel.

Speaking of "softening" again, last night when we did our first technique, Shomen-uche Irimi-nage, I focused on being soft and flued and was so surprised at how strong and smooth my technique felt that I wondered if it was actually me doing it. There was no stain or fuss. It felt like how I've seen others do it. I think we're at a turning point with my stiffness problem. Cooooooooooooool.

Janet Rosen
12-12-2003, 06:12 PM
Hi, Patrick. Several of us over on aikido-l have found that for really chronic tension and pain there are trigger points that have been activated over time that stretching and massage certainly do ease short term but do nothing to improve/resolve on any long term basis. A couple of folks there are practitioners of myofascial release or myofascial trigger point therapy have had excellent results working with us at seminars. You may want to check local yellow pages, alternative papers, or websites for a referall.

best of luck.

12-12-2003, 08:18 PM
Shomen-uchi Irimi-nage, I focused on being soft and fluid and was so surprised at how strong and smooth my technique felt that I wondered if it was actually me doing it. There was no strain or fuss.

yup, why do you think I left you alone ;)

It is amazing how powerful and effortless aikido is when you don't fight it.

Thanks for writing in Janet, I think you might have hit on something as well myofascial release thing. It is amazing how much tension we can store in our faces, jaws and necks. Are any of the Aikido-L folks in the Southeast Michigan area?

12-13-2003, 04:43 AM
some things that may help

1. gradually increasing continuous movement of stiff muscles, exercise this once a day for an hour ( first test the limits of your stiffness, and then expand your movement area slowly )

2. find an expert massage

3. find an expert reflexologist

4. spa ( solus per aqua )

if all else fails.. eat more jelly

John Boswell
12-13-2003, 05:34 AM
Patrick, I've had many friends in your situation that were constantly stiff due to various reasons. I've read up on accupuncture/accupressure techniques and if you think that is something you wish to try, I would highly encourage it.

Nothing will ever take the place of 1) Stretching before AND after class (as well as throughout the day) 2) Massage Therapy, though that must remain regular and is long term and not cheap. 3) Hot showers or better yet a hot bath/hot tub. 4) Meditation time. Sensei Riggs picked up early on, on my use of meditation around test time and set aside a few minutes for us (me) to just sit and relax and clear the mind of anything and everything.

But lastly, I have given much consideration to your point of accupuncture. (no pun intended) Finding someone that knows it and will work on you is often hard. I've considered taking classes in the future just to fill the niche. I have no doubt of its ability to help.

Okay... one last recommendation to help and then I'll shuddup: When all else fails, encourage the opposite and laugh about it. Rachel... when you see Patrick being tense, put on your "stern" face and tell him how he's TOO relaxed and he needs to tense up!! I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts he'll immediately pick up on what your saying... LAUGH... and lighten up and relax. It's like walking up to a serious person and saying over and over "don't smile." Sooner or later, they're gonna smile. :D Humor is a good thing.

Good luck in the adventure!

And Patrick... keep going! Aikido will have a lot more benefit for you in the long run. Aikido, like stretching, doesn't truely manifest is days or weeks... it's a 'journey thing.' ;)

Patrick O'Reilly
12-13-2003, 09:15 AM
As far as finding out where my stiffness begins and ends, I can hardly tell the difference, I was thinking of a test to find out what is stiffness and what is proper "resistance". I mean resistance say in blocking a strike. I have been pondering this question since I started Aikido a few months ago. I know Aikido is supposed to be soft and flowing instead of hard like say Karate (I did Karate first), that's one of the reasons I train in Aikido. But say for instance in Shomen-uche Ikkyo, omote and ura, you have to "block" (I might not have the right term here but I think you know what I mean) the downward strike even if it's only for a second or two. So my question/theory is, not just because of stiffness but for efficiency of energy, how do you find where the right amount of block ends and stiffness/muscling begins? As I mentioned before the word "softness" has worked the best for me.

I was thinking of a test/drill to do that would help any one really to learn how not to muscle a block like this and others. My idea was to pair up, both people put their arms up like the Shomen-uche strike, put forearm to forearm, take turns pushing and resisting to find where muscling begins and ends, to get a soft touch.

I am not that strong physiclly (except for my vise-like grip, ask Rachel about that) so I find myself automatically stiffening up to have enough strength to counter others' strength. It hasn't been until the last couple of weeks that I have started to get to not muscling and do things softly.

So I guess we could go back Rachel's original guestion about not being stiff. How do you in the AikiWeb world relate the "softness" aspect of training to your students? It's not some thing I've found in any of the Aikido books I've read and think it would make an interesting subject.

12-13-2003, 11:09 AM
When we're studying for ki tests, we often do the Three Bears. First the test or technique is done deliberately tense and stiff. Then it's done floppy as a wet noodle. Then in-between, hopefully with good ki projection. The person assisting with the test is supposed to be able to tell which is which--you can even vary the order and ask them if they can tell the difference.

I think going all the way to "floppy" helps make the difference more clear. It's also helpful to practice being tester as well as testee; sometimes things are easier to see when done by another person.

It can also help to practice a single move for a relatively long period of time with a single partner. In my dojo we often do several different throws in the course of one class, changing partners every time, which is great for intellectual engagement. But I think I have learned the most about flowing form from the occasional times when two of us have been left alone for 40 minutes to work on just one throw. You can stop thinking about the mechanics of how it's done, which leaves more attention for softness and timing. (Pick a throw where the ukemi doesn't hurt when you do it, because 40 minutes of something even slightly painful will add up to a lot of pain, definitely not what you need.)

Mary Kaye

Goetz Taubert
12-13-2003, 01:35 PM
How to deal with stiffness?

What is stiffness? Let‘s define it as tension of muscles and/or inflexibility of tendons/sinew

How can unnatural stiffness emerge?

a) bad coordination of the body or lack of physical ability can cause stiffnes (i.e. stiffness as compensation for a hypotonic muscle tonus in certain parts of the body)

b) high muscle tonus as a persons basic muscle tonus (i.e. as inability to become smooth; as a personal pattern for feeling save, strong or effective)

In this respect my experience is, that people differ very much in their basic stiffness and - sometimes - there is even an extrem difference between different parts of the body in one Person.

What can you do?

Physical level:

a) Stretching and improving coordination step by step

b) Correcting the posture in training (again and again and again), showing that technique can only be done effectively when done without muscular force

c) Showing the person how to attack and hold on to the attacking force without stiffening the muscles and without intention to block the partner

d) Starting and evolving the aikido-gestures from the hipps

Emotional level (here it‘s the person itself):

a) accepting the aches and demanding experience of beeing stretched in the technique while receiving the technique (while upholding the attacking spirit).

b) accepting the aches and demanding experience of getting in the correct posture and movement direction to do the technique effortless.

c) get step by step comfortable with the principles of „not beeing open“, „not watching“ (the attacker) and „not awaiting“ (the attack) and their emotional (spiritual) demands (Training principles in tradition of Hikitsuchi Sensei).


If there is a logic of „using force oder muscular strength“ in technique or even „causing pain“ there is a natural reason for unresolved or unnecessary stiffness.

Michael Hackett
12-13-2003, 05:04 PM

I'm in a similar boat - too stiff. What is working for me is breathing during techniques and ukemi and working on relaxing my face and neck. I have a cultural history of maintaining a very erect and stiff posture, along with a host of rodeo injuries and just doing those two things helped me immeasureably as a new aikido student with another ten years on you. I'm still not going to be recruited for the ballet, but everything has gotten much smoother and easier for me. I hope something this simple will help you as well. Good luck.

Jeanne Shepard
12-13-2003, 10:36 PM
I've said this before, and I'll probably say it again... Pilates helps your back, lumbar, thoracic and cervical. Can't say enough good stuff about it, you get strong, AND get stretched.


12-13-2003, 11:34 PM

I have a good understanding of your stiffness. One of my stiffest patients is a welder (oil rig equipment). Your doorway stretch is a good one (keep the arms at 45 degrees to get the pec minor which if tight will cause thoracic outlet syndrome).

You have a tough challenge since many of your postural problems are due to using muscles abnormally and your body has adapted over time. you probably have a lot of muscles which are shortened and others very weak. A good physical rehab program would probably help you correct some of your postural weaknesses.

The "softening" suggestion is a good one. When I first started training in aikido I was with a Ki society dojo. We used to do an exercise to make us relax by having someone squeeze the arm while trying to make your arm less and less (smaller and smaller). This forced one to relax. The squeezer would eventually get tired since therewas nothing to squeeze.

12-14-2003, 11:10 AM
For stiffness: Take ukemi until exhausted. Take more ukemi. Repeat.

12-15-2003, 09:41 PM
Patrick don't give up. When I first started I could barely tilt my head to the side because it would send shooting pains down my back. It went away as the relaxing started to make more sense to my body.

I know a lot of people say the unbendable arm exercise is nothing but a cheap parlor trick but to me it is a great example of relaxed strength. It can illustrate how you can be strong by relaxing the muscles you don't need and thereby concentrating your focus in the needed muscles. If Rachel hasn't shown it to you yet I'm sure she can.

I find doing jo kata to bring out a very flowing feeling. I don't know if you guys do any weapons work but if you do it could be worth a try.

You said that when Rachel said to be soft it clicked better than when she said to not be tense. This makes sense. Back in my tai chi days my instructor was very specific about how he wanted his assistants to teach it. He wanted us to avoid negatives if at all possible. He said that people don't don't :)

If you tell someone "don't think of an elephant" first they must think of an elephant then they "don't it". Instead if you don't want them to think of an elephant you give them a concrete alternative (think of a zebra). So when you were told "don't be tense" first, somewhere in your brain you had to think of tensing then you had to negate that thought. When she instead said "be soft" the idea of tensing was never introduced.

One thing I've used with some people that when it works it works pretty good is this analogy (it's a little off the wall ;)):

Have you ever had to pee so bad it hurt? It hurts deep down inside and then when you finally get to pee your whole body sinks and settles and relaxes? Get that feeling and keep it (the relaxed feeling not the painful-have-to-pee feeling).

You could also try taking it to the other extreme. Tense yourself up as tight as you can. Squeeze yourself into a quivering ball of welder muscle. Then take a deep breath and let it all go. Let it all drain out your feet. Do it a couple times, each time trying to relax just a little bit more. After you are relatively relaxed start moving in some slow exercises or techniques that you know how to do and just try to maintain the level of relaxation you've achieved.

Alternately you could just tell me to shut my pie hole and mind my own business :p

Wow, I've really blathered on here.

I'm shutting my pie hole now.



12-16-2003, 12:01 AM
I am with Stephen on this one. Ukemi until exhaustion works wonders especially if you proceed to serious practice afterwards.


barring serious medical condition that Patrick might experience, try this -

put your class in the forward leaning rest position and do 20-30 fast push-ups, rest a bit and do 2-3 very very slow ones, counting to 20 on the way down, and again to 20 on the way up. Until the body realizes that it is the legs that should do most of the work during the throw, stretching/yoga/breathing will have minimal effect. Strive for exhausting muscular strength of the upper torso and proceed to strenuous practice with lihter than usual contact. As soon as they recover and start stiffing up, it's the way down and again, slow slow push-ups. They'll love it but I recommend leading it :D

12-16-2003, 06:35 AM
put your class in the forward leaning rest position and do 20-30 fast push-ups, rest a bit and do 2-3 very very slow ones, counting to 20 on the way down, and again to 20 on the way up.

Good idea! ;) Okay, I know a bunch of my students are out there reading this, guess whats coming soon :eek:

...Along with Miranda-sans excellent advice.

it is going to be a fun week :D

12-16-2003, 11:10 AM
Hah! I love Pavel's idea. While you're at it, Rachel, why don't you have your students do the BUD/S preparatory workout, category I and II, in their spare time (when you hit that page, scroll down a ways):



Hmmm...I think I'll cut back on the aikido, and do that workout myself...

12-16-2003, 02:03 PM
Hi Rachel,

keep it simple..

drink plenty of water & stretch lightly as often as possible. Use static stretching instead of bouncing. Rest when needed.

12-17-2003, 03:07 AM
Thai massage monthly... that'll teach him to be stiff!

Deb Fisher
01-13-2004, 07:38 PM
You mentioned acupuncture for your neck pain--it's very effective on all kinds of pain. Great idea. I have done acupuncture for sinus headaches and found quite a lot of relief.

Go acupuncture!