“So, you’re a dancer! You must be really flexible- Do you stretch a lot?”
The amount of times I’ve heard that… Yes- I’ll admit, I am pretty darn flexible (used to be, anyway, before I injured my hamstring).
Do I stretch a lot? Well, not really.
Was I always flexible? No. Before I danced, I couldn’t do the splits. I could barely touch my toes (though now I know better than to do the standing toe-touch stretch, which you shouldn’t do either if you have a history of lower back pain).
The concept of stretching is controversial, and has many supposed, and some legitimate benefits. The kind of stretching dancers do could be considered highly dangerous for the average person. By this I mean, holding intense static stretches immediately prior to a class or performance. The following is part of the Twitter status of a prominent dance company, who will remain nameless, announcing their auditions “…Come early to stretch!” I cringed. No, people, don’t come early to stretch, lest you want to injure yourself.
By contrast, the kind of active stretching that is done intrinsically during the bulk of a dance class is highly beneficial for increasing one’s mobility and range of motion (henceforth denoted as ROM) at a particular joint. Dancers don’t stretch as much as you think they might to maintain their level of flexibility. Getting there takes years of hard work, maintaining is easy. How did we get there? Consistent, hard work in class, and always pushing to work with the maximum ROM for any given movement. A little bit of specific stretching, to the particularly tight parts, helps, especially for men.
There is a lot of information out there saying not to stretch statically before doing physical work, but to do dynamic stretching instead; and there are all kinds of programs with different philosophies for increasing one’s flexibility. My favourite is Pavel Tsatsouline’s “Forced Relaxation”- This guy is really flexible, but you can tell he’s really strong too, and his approach to increasing flexibility actually has some merit. Mostly, I just love his video series because it is one third terrifying, one third hilarious, and one third motivates me to go get super flexible.
Check out one of his videos here: Pavel Tsatsouline- Forced Relaxation
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to talk less about “stretching”, and more about increasing “mobility”. What’s the difference? Stretching primarily refers to increasing the length of a muscle, while mobility can be considered an all encompassing term, referring to the joint as a whole- Its ligaments and musculotendinous unit.
What is mobility?
Mobility refers to the total range of motion through which a particular joint is able to move, which can be expressed as a measurement in degrees. Mobility affects your ability to perform certain isolation (single joint) movements and compound movements (multi-joint). Not to be confused with hyper-mobility, which refers to an excessive range of motion of a joint, measurable at an angle which is larger than is optimal (unless you use this ability to monetary advantage somehow, like a circus contortionist). Hyper-mobility requires supplementary strengthening in order to control and prevent injuries as it is generally caused by extremely lax ligaments.
Stretching- How to do it right, without compromising your safety
Flexibility is a misunderstood term. According to McGill, there is no relationship between static joint flexibility and dynamic performance. We often think of increasing ROM in simplistic terms: Make muscle longer by stretching it out. There is however much more to take into consideration. Some variables you should consider:
- The muscles surrounding the joint in question- Do they need to be stretched? If your joint is lacking mobility, it is likely that one or both muscle groups are dysfunctional. One side may be overactive, and the other, underactive. Do you really need to stretch, and thus weaken, an already underactive and weak muscle? Probably not.
- Passive tissue restrictions- Fascial adhesions cannot simply be stretched out, but must be manually released by someone qualified, or by yourself, with a tool such as a lacrosse ball, or other SMR tool (anything can be an SMR tool, if you’re creative). There are also training styles which can”train” the fascia to become more flexible through specific exercises.
Ligaments often should not be stretched, as once they become lax, they will never regain their former elasticity, which could become problematic in terms of stability.
- Pain threshold- Many of those who necessarily do need to stretch certain muscles may not have the pain threshold high enough to withstand what is necessary, and their mobility will hinder because of lack of intensity while stretching or releasing muscles. Others, with high pain thresholds, may stretch too intensely, which could result in weakness or lack of stability.
- Neuromuscular modulation of length and tension-We must never leave the brain out of the equation. There are reflexive structures in our muscles (spindle, golgi tendon organ) that send nerve impulses to the brain, telling it when to contract or relax a muscle in order to prevent the muscle from tearing. This is also a factor that is altered when stretching, as these receptor sites can be become more or less responsive with training. In fact, according to McGill, modifying neuromuscular processes has the largest affect on functional range of motion.
Is there a “best way to stretch”?
Stretching should be performed simultaneously with tension challenge. What does this mean? Not holding a static position, but rather actively moving through the ROM. Think “grande-battements”, using your maximum effort and leg height.
Evidence suggests that passive tissue stretches rarely contribute to increasing ROM, and rather, one should train their tolerance to stretch, allowing them to take the joint to further positions. Passive tissue stiffness and loads do not change at a specific joint angle. In other words: Muscles cannot be stretched to increase ROM, they must be “trained” to grow stronger in a larger ROM. Stretching the passive tissues also reduces stability- A joint lacking passive stiffness requires more muscular contraction to maintain stability.
A recent study suggests that static stretching caused a deficit in strength, power output, and muscle activation at both slow and fast velocities, and thus practitioners are urged to consider a risk-to-benefit ratio when advising any stretching protocols.
Another study, done by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that dynamic stretching could actually increase muscular power:
“Dynamic stretching produced percentage increases in peak knee extension power at both testing velocities that were greater than changes in power after static stretching. The findings suggest that dynamic stretching may increase acute muscular power to a greater degree than static stretching. These findings may have important implications for athletes who participate in events that rely on a high level of muscular power.”
Active flexibility is more important for performance, dance performance in particular, where muscular force is produced through an often extreme range of motion. Training the joints under tension throughout the full ROM, that mimic the specific ROM of the activity in question, are most beneficial for improving joint mobility. This is part of the reason why anyone who is smart will squat as deep as they safely can- Not only will it activate a larger muscle area leading to an increase in strength, but it can assist with increasing joint mobility, leading to better, deeper squats.
Why is mobility important?
Mobility is extremely important for dancers, but also for athletes and people in general. I could write you a list of the many benefits, but I think a visual is more fun and effective, so check out this diagram I made- I call It the mobility cycle, and it outlines the cyclical nature of the positive repercussions which are made possible by having optimal joint mobility:
1) Optimal mobility allows for optimal stability, strength and neural control of a muscle-tendon unit. When a joint has the most mobility it can safely achieve, it’s motor unit will be able to access the maximum amount of muscle fibres. This optimal neural control allows for optimal strength, and stability. This is called…
2) Symmetry! When mobility, stability, motor control and strength are all at peak function. This naturally creates…
3) Muscle balance! Muscle balance is achieved when all the many muscles of a joint are equally strong and flexible. One group is not tight and overactive, and the other side is not weak and over-stretched. Muscle balance is synonymous with optimal force production at that joint, as well as…
4) Decreased risk of injury! Obviously when muscles are balanced, bones, ligaments, and bursae, among other things that can potentially get squished together or pulled on inside the joint, will be able to move freely and safely, in a pain-free way. When one can exercise and move in a way that won’t lead to pain, one can safely achieve…
5) Optimal range of motion! This happens not necessarily by stretching statically, but by being able to move through the maximum range of motion in a safe, active, way. How does this help the athlete?
6) Optimal athletic performance! All the aforementioned combined factors create the optimal athlete and performer. This can then restart the cycle, because when an athlete is always performing optimally, his/her joint mobility will be able to increase even more, or at the very least, the attained optimal mobility can be maintained. The good times just keep on rolling, so to speak.
Mobility is the gift that just keeps on giving.
Where people tend to lack mobility
In general, people tend to have the same requirements in terms of where they need mobility and stability the most, but just in varying degrees. Rather, I should say people require symmetry, but to get there, some places need a little more mobility, as they tend to get a bit “stuck”. The joint by joint approach, popularized my Mike Boyle, shows where most people would benefit working on either mobility or stability :
Lumbar spine- Stability
Symmetry refers to optimal balance between stability, mobility, strength and motor control. By adding mobility to the places that need it, symmetry can be attained, as long as the other 3 criteria are also taken into consideration as needed.
Dancers require a tremendous amount of symmetry, as the nature of the activity requires consistent balance, awareness, and strength of the whole body.
Where does balance come from? Harmonious mobility and stability.
How is strength created? From optimal force production- The result of balanced muscles by means of optimal mobility and stability.
So you see, mobility is necessary if you want to get strong. This means that yes, you will at times need to pay close attention to stretching, in a specific, intelligent manner, of course.
How to Gain Instant Mobility at any joint
These guidelines can apply to any given joint, and require a competent assessment of the current condition of the joint through motion analysis:
1) Strengthen the weak/elongated muscles of the joint.
2) Release (SMR, ART, FST, ect.) the tight muscles of the joint.
3) Dynamically stretch the tight muscles.
4) Full body integrated movement involving the joint in question.
5) Statically stretch the tight muscles.
Sample Ankle Mobility Routine
Caroline has an extreme limitation in her ankle mobility. To help her with this I’ve put together a simple routine that will take about 20 minutes to do, give or take. It should be noted that Caroline has a potential limitation in her ankle mobility, due to a bone spur in one ankle, which may not be able to be improved through exercise. But it won’t hurt trying! Here’s a new saying I’m trying out- When life gives you vermin, you make vermincelli… I know, it’s not ideal. Pretty lame actually. But I’m tired of hating on lemons! Anywho…
Here is a current picture of Caroline’s ankle mobility:
This is as far into a “demi-plie” Caroline can go before her heels come off the ground, and she loses her neutral pelvic alignment. Ideally her knees should surpass her toes, and the triangle created should have smaller angles.
A photo to compare to Renee-Claude, who has pretty decent ankle mobility:
I have other clients (including Renee-Claude) perform the same routine outlined below, but Caroline would benefit from it the most if done regularly. Because she is so restricted, I’ve recommended that she do the release exercises every day, 3 times a day at first. For optimal results she should start by doing this routine about 3 times per week. As her mobility improves she can go down to 1 or 2 times per week. Once she has achieved her maximum potential mobility, she can do this routine as needed, when she feels a little tight.
1) Self-release plantar fascia and release jaw fascia.
Caroline also suffers from plantar fasciitis which affects the tension in her calves. I’m not sure if this is a “chicken or the egg” situation, and which issue contributes to which more. In any case, tight plantar fascia doesn’t help with the ankle mobility. While your hands are free, this is a good time to do some self release on the jaw fascia. All the fascia in your body is connected. The fascia in your jaw is connected to the fascia in your legs and feet. Caroline (and most people) holds tension in her jaw- She actually has trigger points in her jaw. Doing this will help relieve the tension in her feet, calves and hamstrings.
2) Self-release posterior compartment (calf muscles)
Using a hard acupressure, lacrosse ball, or foam roller. Or, if you have money, go see a skilled professional. Go slow. Stop on any particularly painful spots (trigger points) for about 10 seconds or so. Caroline says that when she does this, some trigger points send referral pain all the way up to her head. This does not surprise me as her calves are extremely tight. She has previously told me she sometimes gets tension headaches, and she holds much of her tension in her upper trapezius. I told her to spend about 5 minutes on each calf, but I’m sure she could spend about 20 minutes going through all the trigger points. She’s just that tight.
3) Theraband resisted dorsiflexion
This will help to strengthen the tibialis anterior (muscle of the shin). Strengthening it will also cause it to become shorter, and will allow her to actively reach a smaller dorsiflexion angle (increased ankle ROM).
4) Dynamic soleus/achilles tendon stretch
Dynamically stretching through her full range of motion will help to actively lengthen the now released muscles. Muscles respond better to stretch after they have been released, as they are more relaxed, and less reflexive. Move into the deepest possible lunge before your heel comes off the ground, hold for 5 seconds, release, and repeat several times on each leg.
5) Static stretch for posterior compartment
If Caroline is not planning on doing anything active, now is a good time to stretch statically. If however, she’s about to squat, or do a dance class, I would say save the static stretching until she’s done. We want to avoid weakening the muscle right before she needs to use it.
After these 5 steps, your ankles will feel nice and loose and you’ll have a larger ROM. You will find, for example, that perhaps your “demi-plie” feels deeper. The affects of muscles release are only temporary, however, and for optimal results, this must be repeated at a high frequency, several times per week, for mobility to be increased and maintained.
Ankle Mobility and Stability in Dancers
Dancers can sometimes lack dorsiflexion ability due to the high frequency of time spent on their toes, in plantar-flexed position. This is similar to the concept of dancers lacking internal hip rotation ability, as I explain in this post. It is therefore beneficial for them to work on increasing the mobility in their ankles in the opposite direction they work with in class, to maintain balance at the joint.
As found in a recent study on dancer ankle mobility and stability:
“Professional dancers showed a significantly increased plantarflexion of both feet in comparison to all other groups “
By the way, plantarflexion is when you point your feet. There was however no mention of dorsiflexion ROM…
“The specific work-related demands of ankle joints did not improve all components of functional ankle stability in professional dancers. Therefore, the inclusion of proprioceptive exercises in the daily training program is highly recommended, aiming to improve functional ankle stability and thus to minimize the risk of ankle injuries.”
As I have already explained, the work dancers do in class is one-directional: Working only in one direction of a range of motion can hinder overall mobility and stability of a joint, thus affecting it’s balance and strength, and overall, whole-body performance. Inclusion of exercises that work the function of the entire joint, not just the extremes of ROM required in a dance setting, is optimal for a dancer’s technical performance and injury prevention.
That’s about all I’m going to say about mobility for now. I am trying a new thing where I keep these articles less than 3000 words (this one’s getting close…). There’s something to say about brevity- In writing AND in the gym. Efficient, abbreviated training styles rouse results; efficient, abbreviated writing rouses readers.
Crowe, A, and P Matthews. “The effects of stimulation of static and dynamic fusimotor fibres on the response to stretching of the primary endings of muscle spindles.”Journal of Physiology. (1964): 109-131
Manoel, M, et al. “Acute Effects of Static, Dynamic, and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching on Muscle Power in Women.” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. (2008)
Marek, S, et al. “Acute Effects of Static and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power Output.” Journal of Athletic Training. (2005): 94–103.
McGill, Stuart. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. 4th. Orthopedic Physical Therapy Products, 2006.
Rein, S, et al. “Postural control and functional ankle stability in professional and amateur dancers..” Clinical Neurophisiology. (2011): 1602-10.
Roberston, M. “Addressing & Identifying Muscular Imbalances in the Hip & Pelvis.” Muscle Imbalances Revealed. (2010)
Somerset, D. “Training the Myofascial Lines for Back Injuries”. Muscles Imbalances Revealed. (2010).