There’s stretching, and then there’s productive stretching. I now only refer to the stretching I do in sessions with my dancers as “productive stretching”.
Mere stretching is unacceptable. My clients deserve better than simply to stretch, and so do you! Why choose to do only a “thing” (to stretch) over an activity with legitimate, progressive returns (a productive stretch)?
Which would you rather choose: Productivity, the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile. Or, doing stuff for just for the sake of doing stuff.
As much as I like just doing stuff, I came to the conclusion last year that being productive and my happiness level have a direct correlation. It turns out productivity isn’t such a bummer, and I actually like getting stuff done.
Case in point: Only do productive stretching.
By my above definition of productivity as being the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile, productive stretching therefore refers to stretching that actually accomplishes something worthwhile: An increase in tissue length and/or desired improvement in joint range of motion and/or changes a neuromuscular pattern of moving in a way that improves execution of important movements and skills, AND can reduce the risk of injury or relieve chronic pain. That’s a very important AND.
In other words, flexibility that will help you dance better and not hurt you.
Does this look productive?
Will it make you more flexible? Yeah maybe… But only up until you need hip replacements at the ripe old age of 27. My iliofemoral ligaments hurt just looking at this picture.
Will getting sat on improve motor control, dynamic stability, and help you dance pain-free while preventing injuries? Heck no.
Please don’t do crazy stuff like that. Don’t let your coach sit on you. If not for yourself, do it for me! Because I CARE ABOUT YOU!
It’s funny, I hardly ever stretch with my dancers at all, and when I do, it is generally limited to some mobility or motor control drills, some dynamic stretching to warm up, and I must admit I’m a huge fan of yoga slow-flows and their ability to set your ass on fire while improving range of motion, strength, and building new motor pathways.
Like I wrote about HERE, simply doing common stretches, like lunges to release your hip flexors aren’t that productive. In the case of the pelvis, active mobilization is a better strategy to improve alignment and help with “tightness”. By this I mean using your own muscles to move your bones into a new alignment, and then chill out there and take some deep breaths, which teaches your body to remember that position, increasing the likelihood you’ll actually keep some of that alignment while you’re up walking around, dancing, and carrying your too-heavy bag in one hand, Starbucks cup in the other.
In a nutshell, if you’re already flexible, perhaps well into a degree of being pathologically lax in the ligaments (although I really hate that “p” word) then there are better things you can do with your supplemental training time than stretch more. By simply doing more and longer durations of stretching, a few undersirable things could happen:
- Muscle becomes overstretched and weak, unable to activate at the right times
- Joint position becomes altered (ostekinematic changes), causing things to rub together and hurt (labrums, bursae, tendons, etc)
- Altered motor control around that joint due to ligament and muscle overstretching
- Muscles around that joint tighten up in an attempt to guard the overstretched joint
- Overstretching of joint capsule and ligaments (again, causing guarding and feeling of tightness around the joint).
In fact, these days I say, “If it feels tight, DON’T stretch it!”.
And if you are going to stretch something, please breathe while you do it!
So what should you do instead? Try these exercises that serve as mobility drills that can help you to improve joint range of motion as well as training good movement patterns into your system that will allow your joints to stop guarding themselves against the overstretching you might be dishing out (oh your poor ligaments…).
1) For your quads and hip flexors:
Half kneeling is one of my favourite drills and positions. Your goal is to get a stretch for your quads and hip flexors while at the same time you’ll probably feel them burn from activation (along with your butt and hamstrings, hopefully).
Things to consider:
- Both knees should be at a 90 degree angle
- Make stance as narrow as possible within a reasonable level of challenge
- Lift front foot to make sure your weight is not shifted forward onto the front leg. Recheck throughout to make sure you have not drifted forward.
- Feel maximal stretch possible on front of supporting hip by pressing your knee through the floor, slightly thrusting hip forward, and trying to feel as much space in the hip as possible (like you’re hovering off the floor)
- Turn head side to side to check balance
- Breathe with the intention of 360 expansion, directing the breath low, below your bellybutton
2) More fun for hip flexors, and some calves, too.
I know- You have tight hip flexors and calves all the dang time. You can kill two birds with one stone and do some split stance breathing. It doesn’t look like much, but this drill (inspired by Anatomy in Motion), when done with awareness of the breath (<– super duper important), can be a really awesome stretch for your calves, hip flexors, and can help with pelvic alignment.
Things to consider:
- Split stance with feet parallel (don’t let that pesky back foot turn out), as wide or narrow as needed
- Check in with breathing- Can you breathe low below bellybutton, 360 degree expansion, with full exhalations letting your ribs drop down to hip bones?
- On an exhale, rotate tailbone through your legs (like a sad dog) to bring pelvis forward, leading the lunge. Front knee can bend a little, back leg stays straight.
- Keep back heel down and knee straight as much as possible
- You may feel stretch in calf and/or trailing leg hip, or even inner thigh.
3) For your lower back (if you have a large lordotic curve like me!)
The lower back muscles often become hypertonic, and very overdevelopped, appearing visually hypertrophied (big and sausage-y). However this is not always the case- Some of us are the opposite, so don’t assume that you need to release your lower back because it’s possible you need to get MORE ability to extend your lower back.
You must be careful, very very careful, when stretching the lumbar spine area. Too much stress too soon will hurt your vertebrae, and rather than improving the length of the muscles you might increase their stiffness due to the additional stress and weird forces on the vertebrae and disks themselves. You don’t want that.
The following 2 videos aren’t technically “stretches”, but are re-positioning/motor control/breathing/core (whatever you wanna call it!) exercises which I have found to be productive in helping to release tension from the lumbar spine erectors.
Things to consider:
- I stole this exercise from the Postural Restoration Institute. This one helps to release the lumbar erectors while activating the abdominals, hamstrings and adductors, and making you breathe a lot (which is a good thing).
- Push feet into wall and pull heels down.
- Lift tailbone slightly off the floor by pressing knees up.
- Breathe, trying again to expand all around like a balloon, and try to extend your exhalation to being 3 times as long as you inhale (getting all your air out), and letting the ribs drop down to your hip bones.
- You should feel this one in your hamstrings and inner thighs and a bit of core, as well as a release for your lower bacl. If you don’t, keep practicing. Same goes if you feel your quads tense up (hint, your quads should stay unclenched)- Keep practicing!
Things to consider:
- Another PRI exercise to actively release the lumbar erectors.
- You are trying to maintain contact with your mid and lower back (from about bra level to tailbone). Really round your lower back.
- Same cues as the 90/90 hip lift, but now up on your feet! Breathe, round into the wall, reach your arms.
4) For your abs and butt.
Yes, just because you want to tone and tighten your abs and butt doesn’t mean that they don’t need to learn how to lengthen too! Can you produce force with a sling-shot if you haven’t stretched it back as far as it can go first? Nope. By the same token, you need to be able to feel your muscles stretch to use them. Abs and glutes included.
This is one that is inspired by Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS). In this sidelying reachy exercise (that one of my clients has adorably named the “Starfishy Sideplank”), your goal is to find a stretch for your abs and the bottom glute (among other fun possibilities of muscle-feels).
Things to consider:
- Lying on side, propped up on elbow, legs in a 90 degrees lunge-type position- bottom leg forward, top leg back
- Ensure supporting elbow is directly beneath shoulder
- Press palm and forearm into the floor, rolling it inwards (pronate arm), keeping as much space between ear and shoulder as possible
- Check in with breathing
- Reach forward as far as possible with front arm, hold for a breath
- Lift hips off floor if possible, hold for a breath
- May feel stretching across back hip, bottom leg glute, upper back/shoulder, ribcage/abdomen, lower back, etc
If you want to learn more exercises like these check out Dance Stronger– My latest creation. Dance Stronger is a multimedia guide for dancers who want to get the tools to help them improve their dancing, prevent injuries, and reduce pain by, you guessed it, getting stronger! Click here to get more info.
You can also sign up and see the first two chapters for free (click the image below! DO IT!).
In any case, I’d love for you to try the “stretches” in this post out for yourself and see how they feel. Can you feel the stretches? It might be a little trickier because these are stretches that take a bit of conscious effort to find, not splat stretches where you get sat on.
I hope this was helpful. From now on you must only stretch productively. Deal?