I have some sad news. As some of you know, I have, for the past several months, been working towards a 225lb deadlift, with the goal being to pull it by Halloween. In a ninja costume. Just kidding…

Just last week it looked like I might even be able to accomplish this feat BEFORE my goal time-frame. But that was last week, and as we know, all things are flux… Life happens. Shit happens.

Yep. Shit happens. I had a rather embarrassing bike incident (I fell off, going about 0 kmph. I’m really graceful). As a result, my ribs have taken a beating. How I managed this going at a near 0 speed? I have no clue. It was rainy. And my bike only has one pedal. Also,  my instincts told me to protect the bike, and thus, I used my body to cushion it, rather than save myself. And I did a good job of it too!

As a result, it’s hard to breathe deeply, and getting up and down is especially painful. I’m also starting to get weird spasms in my back and abdominals. Needless to say, heavy deadlifts are probably NOT a good idea, as even walking sends shooting pains through my rib-cage..

Sigh… 225 you will be mine soon. For now, I’ll just have to enjoy the break.

But anyway. What I really want to talk about, is something that is becoming more and more confusing to me: The concept of stretching.

For dancers, flexibility is kind of important. Unfortunately, we have no idea how to do it properly: The what, when, how, and why of stretching. There’s more to it than sitting in your splits for 2 minutes. Even though that’s really fun and impressive.

I used to think sitting in a over-split was cool. If you ever catch me doing this again, shoot me.

Are your muscles really “tight”?

You know that feeling the next day after you’ve worked really hard, and your muscles are sore or “tight” feeling? That was a dumb question. Of course you do! So what do you usually do about it? You  stretch the sore muscles, right? This may sound counter-intuitive, but I’m learning more and more that this is probably NOT the greatest idea.

I know I always talk about when I strained my hammy, but let’s think back to that for a moment so I can better illustrate what I’m trying to say.

My hamstring was feeling really tight for 4 months so I decided to stretch it intensely and tiger balm it up before each dance class. In reality, it wasn’t that it needed to be stretched out, but it was actually inflamed from being over used. But what did I do? I stretched it excessively because it felt tight. What happens when you stretch something that is inflamed? It becomes weak. Using the metaphor of a rubber band, what happens to a weak, damaged rubber band when you stretch it too far? It snaps.

Just an FYI, dancers: Have you ever noticed how often we stretch our hamstrings, and how common of an injury it is in our population? Just sayin’…

You see, the muscle becomes inflamed and “tight” feeling, because it is trying to add some stability to the joint in question (in my case, my hip). It creates a sort of “self-cast” to lock everything in place. This adds a bit more solidity to the joint, but also makes it very weak and lacking in mobility. This tight-feeling muscle is actually weak and inhibited in this inflamed state, and stretching will only make it weaker, and make it more prone to injury. BAM. Hamstring strain.

So, if you have “tight” feeling muscles, you really don’t want to stretch them too intensely. How much should you stretch? I really don’t know the answer to that, but learn to listen to your body. It usually knows best, if you actually listen.

Check out this article in the New York times which talks about how stretching can potentially weaken the muscles, and why static stretching shouldn’t be a part of your warm-up

Short Muscles vs Tight Muscles

Yes a muscle can actually be stiff and feel tight, but this is a different thing from being chronically short. I recently partook in an assessment and exercise webinar, and here are some take-away points on the topic, from Nick Rosencutter, a really smart fitness guy:

Stiff muscles:

  • Muscle tissue and connective tissue are resistant to stretch
  • Muscle has a rubber band/spring type feel
  • A potential solution is to strengthen antagonist/synergists, and do possible tissue work and stretching

Short muscles:

  • The muscle is in a shortened position, with possible shortening at the joint
  • Muscle will have a more distinct end feel, and lacks significant ROM
  • Potential solution includes long duration stretches, more aggressive tissue therapy, and antagonist strengthening can still help.

It is important to understand the difference between these two feels so as to go about the right method in restoring it’s flexibility.  As a general rule, muscles that become “stiff” are ones that are overused (like your hammies), and ones that become “short” are from chronic poor positioning, like slouching and sitting all day (like your hips and pecs).

But I need to be flexible so how do I do that if stretching is bad??

Well stretching isn’t necessarily “bad”.

For dancers, and other athletes who require extreme flexibility, I guess there really isn’t any way of getting around the fact that you’ll need to do some extra stretching. It’s the nature of the beast. But, it’s also nice to be flexible without making yourself weaker and more pre-disposed to injury.

Here is what I speculate is the best way to improve or maintain the desired amount of flexibility you need without TOO many risks:

  • DO NOT perform static stretches prior to class/training/what-have-you. Instead warm-up with dynamic stretches that increase the fluid in the joint, brings blood to the muscles, and loosens up the tendons and ligaments to be used.
  •  You can probably gain a significant amount of flexibility by simply working with your full range of motion in class or in training. To be honest, I never really worked that hard to get my splits when I was dancing everyday. It just kind of “came” because I always worked my hardest in class. And now, after 7 months off, and not stretching that much, I can still do the splits.
  • Only perform static stretches (longer than 30 seconds) AFTER you have finished all the work (classes, rehearsals, training sessions) for the day. You might say, “but I need to feel like I have my full ROM stretched out before I do class!” That’s what the dynamic warm-up and stretches are for.
  • If a muscle feels “tight” or “stiff” for more than a week, it, or it’s tendon/ligament friends might be inflamed, and you should probably take some rest, and do some kind of soft tissue work instead (whether it be self-myofascial release or done by a professional. And anything done by a professional always wins).
  • Maybe it’s not just a matter of the muscle itself that needs to be stretched, but the joint just lacks mobility due to certain imbalances and weaknesses, and reciprocal inhibitions preventing it from working at it’s optimal level. I’ve written about this before HERE
  • And because I know that dancers and other athletes like gymnasts and martial artists WON’T stop stretching, I would have to say that my preferred method is the PNF method of alternately tensing and releasing the muscle.Like this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6uhXn9d0CA&nbsp 

I guess what you should really take away from this, is not that stretching is necessarily BAD, because it does serve it’s purpose. But please stop stretching mindlessly. Use caution. Learn to listen to your body. As you are stretching, ask yourself WHY you are doing that particular stretch. If you don’t have a good reason, then don’t do it. And please for the LOVE OF GOD, remember to warm up. I dare say that I might still be able to dance today if I had only paid attention to that one thing. Or maybe not…