Stretching to Increase Flexibility: Safe Practices for the Studio and at Home
by Julie Ferrell-Olson
Summary: Dancers are known for their extreme range of motion, with hyperextended lines being especially coveted in ballet and contemporary dance. However, stretching may predispose a dancer to injury, and dancers often don’t know the best practice to gain flexibility. Here we take a brief look at what flexibility is and safe ways to train it.
Flexibility is largely recognized as an important component of athletic performance, and athletes of all degrees undergo some form of stretching to prepare for a performance or game. There are a lot of misunderstandings about the best practices to gain flexibility in a way that actually helps with dancing instead of hindering it.
In sports, stretching is used during warm-up to decrease muscle stiffness with the goal to prevent injury, especially in reducing muscle strains. However, there is no conclusive research if stretching alone is effective at reducing muscle strains in athletes, as there are several other co-variates that may influence if an athlete gets injured including age, sport, training, and protective equipment. More likely than not, an injury occurs because of overuse, misalignment, or external trauma.
Performance-based athletes are unique as stretching is used more for increasing flexibility and performance aesthetics than to reduce muscle stiffness. Flexibility is the range of motion a person can achieve around a specific joint (we touched on the difference between flexibility and hypermobility here). Although we typically think of flexibility being specific to just muscles and muscle length, it is affected by a person’s sex, hydration level, pain tolerance, and everything that connects in the joint, including muscle, fascia, ligaments, and tendons. Flexibility differs at different points in the body—just because someone has a very flexible back does not inherently mean they will have as flexible legs. Flexibility is measured statically (passive movement around a joint, like sitting in the splits) or dynamically (how much a joint is moved by muscle contraction, like lifting your leg in a developpé). Although dynamic flexibility is much more useful for us, dancers tend to focus on improving static flexibility first.
There is such an emphasis on flexibility in dance that dancers often prepare for class solely by stretching, or think they have to sit in the splits while watching TV to improve. However, there is evidence that prolonged static stretching can be detrimental to muscles and performance, seen in reduced strength, jump height, and agility — so much so that the Australian Ballet actually asked their dancers to stop stretching. Having that large range of motion is still important for aesthetics and injury-reduction, so what’s a dancer to do?
The best thing you can do to prepare yourself for a class is warm-up. Activate the muscles of the larger muscle groups, get sweaty, and practice dynamic stretching—moving through your range of motion without pushing anything to discomfort or holding anything for more than a few seconds. Think of easy leg swings, arm circles, or jogging in place while kicking your heels up to your glutes. Compared to static stretching, dynamic stretching will not impede performance, and there is some research that says it may improve performance (but this may also be confounded with the warm-up).
Stretching causes either elastic or plastic changes to the joint. Elastic is the short-term, acute effect—while you may temporarily gain some range of motion, that range will reduce again after a few hours. Plastic changes are the long-term gains in flexibility as all the components in the joint stretch out. Gaining flexibility takes time, and will not suddenly change overnight. Flexibility has to be consistently and carefully trained, just like strength and endurance. However, the amount of flexibility a person can gain is extremely individual and dependent on the structure and genetic composition of their tissues.
Can I improve flexibility while home during COVID-19 restrictions?
Flexibility can improve with a six-week training program, and dancers that took 11 weeks of Pilates mat training found significant gains in strength and flexibility.
The best time to try to gain flexibility is after class or a workout, when all your joints are warm and pliable. Hold static stretches for 30 seconds each for maximum flexibility gains; anything longer than a minute may be detrimental to muscular performance. Be cognizant of discomfort in the muscle you are stretching. While being warm is a good time to push the muscle into a little bit of discomfort, you do not want to damage the muscle fibers by pushing too far too fast. Just like with other types of training, you need to challenge yourself a little bit more every couple of weeks to really see adaptation and improvement in flexibility.
Stretching when you are cold is pointless; any range of motion gains will be elastic (temporary) and you increase your risk of injury (No more watching TV in the splits please!).
A note on the “Instagram syndrome”
So often I see a professional or pre-professional dancer sharing their “daily routine” on social media, and typically start off their mornings with extreme and hyperextended stretching. Please bear in mind that this may not be the best practice (do you know their injury history?) and that they already have this range of motion, whether it’s genetic or they had to work towards plastic changes. Please don’t plop down into the splits without a warm-up first thing in the morning, you are only asking for a pulled hamstring.
Aren’t there other kinds of stretching?
Yup. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) and Ballistic Stretching. There are mixed results on if PNF (contract-release stretching) is actually more efficient than static stretching, but the current thinking is the flexibility gains are the same between the two. Ballistic (bouncing) stretching involves stretching an already contracted muscle and induces the stretch reflex. Ballistic stretching is not recommended as there is less control over the movement and it may increase your risk of injury.
When and how to stretch is important to implement in the studio and at home. While it may mean restructuring the way you’re used to practicing, incorporating dynamic stretches at the beginning of class and short static stretches at the end may help you prevent injury and perform better!
Also, make sure that you are using proper gear, e.g. Apolla shocks and compression socks to support you during your practice.
Daily Dancer Takeaway: Save the static stretching for the end of your workout or class, and hold for about 30 seconds each stretch.
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