‘I’m a Taekwondo World Champion and 4th-Degree Black Belt—Here’s How I Build Strong *and* Flexible Legs’
Rayna Vallandingham started doing taekwondo when she was 2 years old. By age 6, she'd earned her first black belt. Today, at 20, she's a 13-time world champion of the Korean form of martial arts known for its punching and powerhouse kicking techniques. (Taekwondo roughly translates to "the art of kicking and punching.")
"In the very beginning, my parents put me in the sport because I was just really shy, and I think they could tell that I needed something," says Vallandingham, who lives and trains in Los Angeles. "Immediately, I just loved it. I felt at home, and every single day, instead of watching Dora, I wanted to go to the dojo."
"Instead of watching Dora, I wanted to go to the dojo."
Vallandingham credits her success, in large part, to her consistency over the years, and that includes regularly hitting the gym. "It is a way of life," she says. "It's not only teaching your body movements and being in synchronicity with your body, but also just like the mental aspect of it."
Mastering the art of taekwondo, which involves the ability to perform head-high kicks, as well as spinning jump kicks, plus punches, in order to take down an opponent, is not easy. (Understatement.) It takes a tremendous amount of strength, flexibility, and power. "Of the three, I think strength and flexibility are the top two," Vallandingham says.
Unfortunately, she learned the hard way that there is no fast track to the type of leg muscle extensibility (or elongation) required to excel at her sport. She recalls a time, early in her training when, similar to ballet dancers, the school of thought was that you could force flexibility by pushing past your end range of motion. "We used to have people stand on my legs and force my knees to come down in butterfly stretch," she says. "I have permanent damage to my body—I have tendonitis [because of this]."
She now has a much more sustainable approach to her training that helps her stay on top of her game, while avoiding injury.
How a taekwondo world champion builds leg strength and flexibility
Before Vallandingham even thinks about picking up a weight, she takes time to stretch by doing a dynamic warm up, a type of stretching that helps raise her body temp and elevate her heart rate, increasing blood flow to her muscles, so that they're prepared to fire up once she gets moving.
When she's strength training, Vallandingham says she likes to focus on supersets, which involves performing two moves back-to-back that target the same muscle groups in order to double down on their gains. First, she'll do a mobility exercise to take all the joints she plans to load up through their full ranges of motion. (FYI, mobility is product of flexibility and strength.) Then she's ready to lift.
One of her favorite exercises for strong legs is a goblet squat. To prepare for it, Vallandingham will stand with her feet shoulder-width apart, fold forward until she can slide her palms underneath her soles (you could also hold your ankles or calves), then bends her knees, lowering her butt toward the floor while lifting her chest, coming into a deep squat. She'll bend and extend her legs several times in this position. Then, it's on to the main event, holding a weight in her hands while bending down into a deep squat.
How to perform a goblet squat:
Another way Vallandingham likes to train for flexibility, mobility, and strength simultaneously is by performing exercises on an unstable surface. "I love utilizing a Bosu ball—they're pretty much in every single gym," she says. She likes to stand on one while executing lower-body movements like squats or deadlifts (as well as kicks) since the shakiness they create causes her muscles to activate more than if she did the same things while standing on the floor.
The secret to Vallandingham's explosive kicks
Power is a product of strength and speed. So when Vallandingham is training for lower-body power, she switches up her tempo when performing exercises, so that she's moving faster on the effort and slower while resetting for the next rep. Say she's doing goblet squats, for example: This could look like lowering down in a count of three, then snapping back up in a count of one.
"If I'm building power, I'm also maintaining control of my movements," she says. "That's the thing I feel like a lot of people who are learning how to generate power forget—maintaining control during it is so important."
Why Vallandingham saves flexibility training for after her workouts
If you took a frozen spear of asparagus and tried to bend it in half, it'd break—but if you allowed it to thaw out first, you could fold it over, no problem. This same rule applies to your body and flexibility training—research shows that holding stretches (the best way to work on flexibility) is the worst thing you can do when your muscles are cold. "Any time you start to stretch [cold muscles], that causes a stretch reflex that gets your muscle tissue to activate a protective mechanism to not over-stretch," Eric Owens, musculoskeletal expert and co-founder of Delos Therapy, previously told Well+Good.
This is why Vallandingham saves static stretching for after the rest of her workout when her body is already warmed up. One of her favorite ways to work on lower-body flexibility is by lying on the floor with her legs up the wall and then allowing them to open out into a side split. "I let gravity do its work because that's my body telling me, okay, this is where we're at," she says. "My hips are opening on their own, and I'm not having to force anything."
Above all else, if you're looking to lengthen and strengthen your leg muscles, Vallandingham says there's one thing you have to practice diligently: perseverance. "Consistency is so much more important than intensity for attaining maximum gains," she says. "Enjoy the journey. Don't be overly hard on yourself; don't apply too much pressure." And not just to your joints.
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