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We all want more flexibility! Stretching is part of our day-to-day lives as dancers. In order to hit positions safely, our muscles must be well-tuned and elastic. There are good ways to stretch, and some ways that are less than ideal, and I hope to help clarify this. Before we can talk about which stretches are good and which to use, we need to understand what stretching actually is!

Stretching is a partnership

Your muscles automatically extend and contract. Flexion, or the shortening of the muscle, causes extension (lengthening, or stretching) in the opposite side of your body. So if you flex your quadriceps, your hamstrings will automatically extend. If you flex your inner thighs and bring the leg closer to you, your muscles along the outside of the leg will extend. Muscles work in groups to get a job done.

Stretching is a reflex

A “stretch-reflex,” or “myotatic reflex” is basically where one muscle stretches, and a skeletal muscle responds to the stretch by tightening up, in an effort to protect the body from injury. Centuries ago when we were hunters and gatherers, we relied on our muscles to be strong enough and resilient enough to keep us alive. Imagine you’re being chased by a wild animal and climb into a tall tree to escape. You might have to bend your legs at some weird angles that could possibly put pressure on your kneecaps, and cause major damage. If your muscles are tight and your stretch-reflex activates, there is less damage to the knees, therefore extending your hunting days!

We don’t live in that world anymore, but we still have the same basic muscular programing as our ancestors did. So you have to teach your body that it’s okay to release those muscles, because your life doesn’t depend on tight muscles anymore.

Stretching is a learned reaction

When people say “I’m not flexible,” what they really mean is “My muscles haven’t learned how to release and lengthen yet.” Sometimes dancers are tight because when they try to stretch, the stretch-reflex is triggered, and their muscles tighten up in an effort to protect them. This is why some dancers have a very hard time gaining range of motion. Because our bodies are so amazing at learning new things, we are able to train that reflex to go away, or at least release a bit, resulting in more flexibility.

Types of stretching

Here are 4 basic kinds of stretching techniques, and some tips on when and where to use them effectively!

1. Static Stretching

Static Stretching consists of sliding into a position, pushing yourself until you “feel a stretch,” and then holding it. This is the least effective way to stretch, but is the most commonly used! I can’t tell how how often I see athletes sitting in poses and positions for extended periods of time.

There are very few times when static stretching is useful. I like to combine static stretching with dynamic stretching and massage, but others prefer to just hold a position. Static stretching should never be done early in the day, or early in class. Always wait until you are fully warm!

If you do hold a stretch, it shouldn’t be for longer than 10-15 seconds. Get into the stretch slowly by breathing deeply and relaxing. When you’re done, pull yourself out of the position using muscles you didn’t just stretch. (For example; if you sit in a split, get out by folding your legs up gently, and using your arms to push you up. This allows the muscles that you just stretched to ease back into their default position without shocking them.)

Examples of static stretching: Pike with flexed or pointed feet, butterfly pushing the knees down, frog stretch releasing the hips, half or full splits

Quick tip: Absolutely never, under any circumstance, should you “bounce” your stretch! This triggers that “stretch-reflex” I mentioned, and can cause muscle tears.

2. Dynamic Stretching

In anatomical terms, “dynamic” means “movement.” A dynamic stretch is something you move through. A plie is an excellent example of a dynamic calf stretch; you begin with straight legs, you move down until you hit your limit, and then you ease back up out of it.

Dynamic stretching is highly effective for all body types, and is the safest type of stretching. There is no equipment used, so any resistance on the body is simply the body itself.

Examples of Dynamic Stretches: plies, battements, leg swings, hip and ankle circles, going from plank into downward dog and back again.

3. Resistance Stretching

This is an amazing way to stretch for those of us trying to re-train that stretch-reflex! Usually done with a partner, but can also be done with an apparatus like a resistance band, a stretch-strap, or a barre.

Resistance stretching is a multi-step process:

  1. Begin at the extent of your flexibility.
  2. Press down against your partner's hands, or against your apparatus. This creates resistance in the muscle.
  3. Relax your muscle completely, and allow your partner to press your leg higher. Your leg may or may not move! That’s okay. Your goal is to relax completely, and then repeat the process.
  4. Continue this until your muscle releases to a higher (or deeper) extension.
Quick tip: It’s easy to overstretch yourself with resistance stretching! To use this method effectively, do it gently and regularly, to train the stretch-reflex to ease up.

4. Massage

Massage isn’t technically stretching, but I thought I’d include it because using it can lead to greater range of motion. Sometimes there are specific areas of the body that you can’t get to ease up, or maybe you’re just super tight from a very intense workout the day before.

Foam rollers and massage balls have become more and more popular in the dance world. Tennis balls, sometimes even hard golf balls can be useful to dancers with major tightness in problem areas. Personally I use tennis balls for my feet, a spiked foam roller for my IT-band, and my hands under my knees. Compression clothing can also be put in this category, since it squeezes the muscles and helps release the stretch-reflex so the muscles can work more effectively! 

Author: Haley from Beyond the Barre

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