This article was originally featured in the Mar/April 2015 issue of Dancetrain magazine.
Dancers love to stretch! It forms an important component of most dance classes, and is a nice way to wind down after a hectic class. Sometimes however, dancers feel frustrated that their stretching is not resulting in improved flexibility. And occasionally, the wrong type of stretching can lead to injury. While some of us will always have to work harder than others to achieve flexibility, take heart! There are some ‘tricks-of-the-trade’ that will make your stretching program both safe, and work better for you.
For best results:
Practise hold/relax type stretching: Ie – take the muscle to a point where you feel strain (not pain), and then contract that muscle against resistance for several seconds. After contracting, relax the muscle, and the limb should be able to be moved further into stretch. Researchers have shown that it is actually the contraction phase (in this lengthened position), that leads to lasting changes in muscle length (1).
Focus on your adage: Simply exercising a muscle during class in its lengthened position will lead to better flexibility gains than will passive stretching. So keep working at that adage! For boys in particular who are aiming to improve muscle strength in their dancing, working your muscles in lengthened positions will ensure that flexibility is maintained while strength is gained. This should be a critical part of any stretching program.
Strengthen your core: Some examples of ‘core muscles’ are the muscles of your lower abdomen and pelvic floor (that’s the muscle you use if you’re busting to go to the loo and need to hold on!). These muscles are designed to stabilise and protect the joints of your pelvis and lumbar spine. If we are not using these muscles well, we compensate by using our dynamic ‘power muscles’ (eg- hamstrings and quadriceps), compromising their ability to stretch. As soon as we start to use the correct muscles to stabilise our core, all of a sudden our power muscles are released to do what they’re designed to do. Flexibility can improve dramatically, as can high kicks and powerful jumps.
Time most of your stretches for after dance class: Stretching to increase flexibility is best at the end of your class, when your body is warm and muscles respond beautifully to all that extra circulation you have pumping through your limbs. Use this time well! Remember: warm up before class, and stretch down after class!
Perform ballistic stretches before class: While adding a muscle contraction at the end range of a stretch will result in best flexibility gains, ballistic stretching (bouncing rapidly in and out of end range positions) is not recommended. However a safe form of ballistic stretching eg grand battement en cloche may be added mid to end of class when the muscles are warm and the brain is ready for fast, co-ordinated movements.
Rely on passive stretches: By this I mean stretches where the dancer places his or her limbs in the one position while gravity or other force pulls his/her limb further into range. E.g. second splits starting with the legs up the wall. While this type of stretch may stress joints and ligaments, it is less likely to achieve true increases in muscle length.
Take stretches to the point of pain: It is dangerous to stretch muscles to a point at which it hurts. Muscles can tear if they are pushed too far, and often take a long time to recover from this type of injury. Always make sure the stretch feels strong, but comfortable.
Perform strong, passive stretches before class: There is now research to show that prolonged/excessive stretching in the hour before a dance class or performance may actually decrease your muscle strength and power, and can increase the risk of injury.
Examples of good stretches/exercises to improve flexibility
- Hamstrings: Following her dance class, Sophie is stretching her hamstrings. She takes her leg to a point where she feels strain (not pain), then contracts her hamstring muscles by pushing her leg against her hands. She holds this position for 10 seconds, after which she relaxes and gently moves the leg further into stretch and holds for 30 seconds. She repeats this 3 times before resting.
- Adductors/Groin: Following class Chloe and Charlie are stretching their adductors. They place their leg on the barre and lean over to a point where they feel strain (not pain). They then contracts their adductors by pushing the leg down against the barre and hold for 10 seconds. They then relax and are able to move their bodies slightly further over that leg and hold for 30 seconds. They repeat this 3 times. (NB/ Our groin muscles are easily aggravated by stretching if they are injured. Never stretch a groin muscle that feels painful without the guidance of your physiotherapist.)
- Heel Slides for Core: Lying on their backs, Chloe and Charlie gently draw the muscles of their lower abdomens towards their spine, while lifting the muscles of the pelvic floor. They maintain this contraction while gently sliding one leg straight along the floor, then returning it to its starting position. They repeat this on the opposite leg, then continue until they have performed 10 heel slides on each leg.
- Single Leg Circles with Theraband: Charlie and Chloe are exercising their adductor muscles in their lengthened position with the assistance of theraband. They contract their core muscles, then trace an imaginary capital ‘D’ with the right leg, taking care to maintain a level pelvis throughout (avoids lifting the left hip). They complete 5 of these, then repeat on the left tracing a backwards capital ‘D’.
Good luck with your stretching programs, and if in doubt, contact your dance physiotherapist for help.
- Aquino, C., Fonseca, S., Goncalves, G., Silva, P., Ocarino, J., & Mancini, M. (2010). Stretching vs. strength training in lengthened position in subjects with tight hamstring muscles: A randomised control trial. Manual Therapy, 15, 26-31