Stretching Dos and Don’ts
- October 29, 2014
- by Leigh Schanfein of Dance Informa
You’re a dancer. You probably know how to stretch. But read on to find out how to do it better! There are several different types of stretching. First, let’s break them down:
Static stretching consists of holding a position that puts your muscles into tension. Feeling that tension is when you “feel the stretch” and when you hold it for long enough you will eventually feel the tension lighten, and you can stretch further. This works to stretch your muscles because holding the position gives your body time to get over the Stretch Reflex, an automatic response for a muscle to tighten when it is stretched. The Stretch Reflex is really important because if you over-stretch a muscle you can tear it! But, of course, we want to be limber. So we train our bodies to safely delay when the Reflex occurs so we can stretch further.
Dynamic stretching consists of controlled movements that move through a range of motion that puts the muscles into tension. It doesn’t force the joints into their maximal range of motion and you won’t go as far as you would in a static stretch. Instead, by using movement to elicit a stretch and get your heart rate up a little bit too, dynamic stretch resembles the movement you’ll actually be doing when you dance.
Ballistic stretching consists of fast and large movements that push into a maximal range of motion of the joint. Ballistic movement usually bounces, like a ball or spring, against the resistance of muscle tension. This forces the muscle to stretch further by using momentum and weight and it will activate your Stretch Reflex. Because of this, ballistic stretch is the most dangerous kind and you need to already be very warm, be careful and pay extremely close attention to your limits!
Example: Forward Bend
For a static stretch, bend forward with your legs straight and hold your ankles with your hands to help pull your upper body towards your legs until you feel tension. Hold that position for at least 15 seconds, allowing the muscles in your back and backs of the legs to relax. Use your hands to pull your body closer and hold again. Breathe. Repeat one more time. Slowly roll up with bent knees until standing.
For a dynamic stretch, bend forward by articulating through your spine until your hands touch the floor. Bend your knees and straighten twice, keeping your heels on the floor and weight in your hands. Bend your knees a third time and roll up through your spine to standing. Repeat three times.
For a ballistic stretch, bend forward with your legs slightly bent, put your hands behind your head, and “bounce” your upper body toward your legs as if with each bounce you are trying to kiss your knees. If you are ready, step your feet apart, keep your back as straight as possible, and bounce your head between your legs. Bounce five times, bend your knees and roll up. Repeat three times. Remember to be warm first and very careful, as ballistic stretching can cause injury if you don’t listen to your body.
A version of all of these can be done while sitting with legs straight on the floor rather than standing.
DO be warm before you stretch. Warming up means getting your heart rate up so your body literally raises its internal temperature. Muscles are like play-dough; it is hard to squeeze when cold but soft and malleable when warm.
DO stretch before you dance as you are warming up, particularly with dynamic stretches, to prepare yourself for movement. Don’t stretch to your maximum though, as it has been found that stretching to your end-range before dance class actually reduces strength, stability and jump height.
DO stretch after dancing, particularly with static stretch, to slowly cool down and increase your flexibility by holding the stretches for longer (one minute) while your body is already nice and warm.
DO hold a stretch for 30 seconds. This amount of time is most effective for the majority of muscle groups to get stretched and improve flexibility.
DON’T hold a stretch for more than a minute. You’re going to be over-stretched, and you don’t want to totally kill your Stretch Reflex because you’ll lose your rebound for any dancing you want to do after that. Also, it’s not improving your flexibility much beyond the one-minute mark!
DON’T copy someone else. Always stretch how you need to and only go to your personal stretching limits.
DO pay attention and use communication when stretching with a partner. It’s really fun to stretch together, but pay attention and speak up if it’s too much!
DON’T use heavy objects or have your friends put their weight on you. Can that piano let go of your foot when you feel too much pressure? Can your friend tell when you feel like your thigh is going to rip? They can’t! So use your own body weight or easily removable flexible resistance bands to get a bigger stretch that you control.
DO keep breathing as you stretch! Muscles love oxygen, and no one wants an unconscious dancer.
DO get creative, move through your stretches and discover muscles you didn’t know you have. You’ll want to stretch your big muscle groups but also find those little ones that are hard to reach.
DO use light massage to help tense muscles and stiff joints. Apply Bunheads Muscle and Joint Gel, massaging gently into your sore muscles to relieve joint and muscle aches and stimulate cell turnover. Go in line (parallel) to muscles, and go across (perpendicular) on tight or scarred connective tissues.
DO use tools like tennis balls, footise rollers and foam rollers to help you massage and stretch. If you think about it, pressing into a tight muscle is also a stretch because, when you push on it, you make it move and bend. This is how using a slightly squishy ball on a tight muscle that you might not be able to stretch normally can really help. Put your weight on the ball to a point you can tolerate and hold it there for at least 10 seconds. Actively try to relax the muscle! Slightly adjust so the ball is a little further down the same muscle and hold again. Continue as tolerated and you’ll feel the muscle release.
Photo (top): Tate McRae. Photo by Chris Reilly.