If you are flexible only on one leg, experience niggly pains, or just never seem to get more flexible, it might be because you are stretching incorrectly.
If you get to class and promptly sit down to stretch, you a) are not warming up properly and b) are only half a chance of increasing your flexibility.
The type of stretching that you need to do depends on the purpose for stretching. The three main reasons to stretch are:
- To warm-up in preparation for dance
- To cool down your body after dance
- To increase your flexibility for dance.
1. Stretching to warm up
In exercise science circles there has long been controversy about whether you should even stretch to warm up. The basic current evidence suggests that passive stretches (where the body part being stretched is still and held for a period of time) can actually increase your chances of injury and possibly diminish performance. This bit is a bit scientific but essentially relates to changes in your muscles and tendons in a weird structure called the Golgi tendon, making the muscle more relaxed, affecting your strength & power output immediately following warm up. What that means if your ‘warm up’ consists of holding a bunch of stretches while you chit-chat, you are sending the wrong message to your muscles and when you finally get up to do your routines, your muscles may feel heavy and lethargic and give out on you.
To avoid sending the wrong message to our muscles about what we want them to do when we dance, warm up stretching should actually be more dynamic/active rather than passive. Start with gross-motor compound movements involving the larger muscles of the body like walking, marching, jogging, leg and arm swinging, squatting and reaching. These movements not only raise the heart rate and get blood flowing to the muscles, they begin the stretching process. Progress to leg kicks, side bends, forward bends and trunk twisting. The key is smooth, flowing and controlled movements and that feeling of loosening up. Don’t forget the small, but important joints, of the ankle, wrist and neck.
Sport-specific stretching in warm up is also important, and in dance we utilise held movements where our muscles are in extreme levels of stretch. Therefore, it is okay to include some passive stretches to conclude a warm up. You should aim to stretch to the end range (the point where tension is felt, not pain) and each stretch held for approximately 10 seconds and no more. One or two stretches each for the following muscles will suffice:
- the quadriceps (front of thigh)
- the hamstrings (back of thigh)
- gluteals (backside)
- inner thighs (straddle position)
- trunk/spine (I.e. Cobra)
- calves (lunge with foot in parallel position)
Remember to stretch evenly on both sides of the body!
2. Stretching for cool down/recovery
Stretching for cool down is about bringing the body back to its normal state and ironing out any soreness that may have developed during class. If the heart rate is elevated or you are puffing, the heart rate needs to be brought down through slower movements such as walking or slow dynamic stretches. Once you are breathing more normally, your heart rate should be slowed enough for some passive stretching. Unlike stretching for warm up, you should not stretch to the end ranges. It’s the end of class, we are done with stressing the body! Hold stretches for 10 seconds to aid release and relaxation. If you wake up sore the next few days, these type of stretches can be helpful too.
3. Stretching to increase flexibility
Stretching for flexibility is a whole other ball game. You need to of course take the stretch to the end range and hold each stretch for 30 seconds (i.e. Forever). Don’t forget to BREATHE.
Stretching for ‘flex’ is not part of the warm up. It’s a different, specific part of the lesson where the objective is to increase one’s flexibility, as opposed to stretching for warm up or cool down. Sure, flexibility training might follow the warm up, if you have planned your lesson that way. But it’s different to other stretching and coaches and students need to be aware of the differences.
As opposed to warm up, where we are awakening the muscles and warning them that some activity is about to happen, in flexibility training we need to hold our stretches in their end range for at least 30 seconds. This relaxes the muscles and sends a message to the microscopic muscle fibres and sarcomeres (they hold the fibres together) that they may lengthen without breaking.
The end range is the point at which, if you went further it would a) hurt, and b) compromise your technique or body position (i.e. force you to bend your leg, or twist your hips, in the case of the splits). If you go beyond your end range, you will tear the muscles and potentially injure yourself. If you stretch with incorrect technique/body position, you are not lengthening the muscles in the places where they need to be lengthened.
As your flexibility increases, your end range will increase.
I’ll finish with some tips to increase leg flexibility for the Splits.
Work proximo-distally. This is a fancy word meaning ‘nearest to furthest’ from the centre of the body. Get your hip flexibility happening first as a priority over quadriceps and hamstrings (front and back of leg). Otherwise, you’ll be able to straighten your knee wonderfully in movements below hip height, but wonder why you can’t keep a straight leg once you kick higher!
To do this, start with bent leg stretches. This removes the hamstrings from the flexibility equation and brings your attention to your hip flexors (front of hip) and gluteals (back of hip). Stretches such as the frog, the quad stretch (foot in hand while standing) and glute stretch (foot resting on knee to make a triangle ‘window’ with your leg) work on different muscle groups, and are all equally important to doing the splits, so do them all.
Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and do it 2-3 times on each leg. Make sure you are stretching at end-range. Use blocks or other creative means to achieve this. Vary the angle from parallel to turnout to further release the joint – just don’t it during the same stretch. Your leg should remain still throughout the 30-plus seconds.
Start to prepare the hamstring for lengthening by doing hamstring stretches with a slightly bent leg i.e. greater than 90 degrees). If tension is felt, remain in this position for this stretch and hold for 30-plus seconds. Gradually you will be able to do this stretch with a straighter leg, and eventually a straight leg.
Once you are flat in the splits, you can attempt stretching the legs beyond 180 degrees (i.e. the ‘overstretch’ shown in the above photograph). Start with putting your foot on a very low block (i.e. 5cm in height). Only progress to a higher one if you can sit in the splits with the block under your foot without tension being felt in the muscle.
Remember to give equal attention to strength as well as flexibility. This enables you to perform controlled movements and keeps those muscle fibres strong when under strain.
Always stretch on both sides of the body, to maintain even joint alignment and laxity on both sides of the body.
I hope you have learned something from my blog post, some other relevant ones you might like to peruse at this important, beginning-time of the dance year are:
A dancer’s body should look like….. – bethehumanelement
Why Dance is the ultimate school subject – bethehumanelement
Why Dancers are Athletes…but their regular Dance Class is Not Enough – bethehumanelement