A few days ago I had an interesting conversation with a client of mine about body awareness. Specifically, on the importance of listening to your body when it tells you you’re in pain.

Pain exists for a reason- To guide you. To teach you. To give you some very important information. Your nerve endings can’t talk so they have to resort to being annoying to get your attention. Annoying to the point of being total jerks.

Communicating with jerks is a good skill to develop, and in much the same way, having good communication with your body is important. Body awareness- the ability to interpret what your body is telling you.

It’s your choice, and your responsibility, to listen to your body’s signals, and interpret their meaning. I highly recommend you do.

Like the one time I tried hot yoga and felt like vomiting and passing out simultaneously. The (only moderately fanatical) teacher, reassured me that this was just my body “detoxing” and that I should at all costs NOT leave the room before the 90 minutes was up. I’m all for not being full of toxins, but something tells me the teacher wouldn’t have appreciated me “detoxing” all over the mat. Nor would the sweaty gentleman next to me. And so, much to the instructor’s chagrin, I chose to listen to my body, which was telling me to get the hell out of there.

Detox my ass. That was horrible. I will never hot yoga again.

Is your body being a jerk?

Before you take pain killers, lather up with tiger palm, and ignore these signals, maybe consider changing the way you treat your body.

Imagine you have a pot of water boiling on the stove you want to cool down to drinking temperature, so you keep adding ice-cubes to it in hopes that will cool it down. But this is a silly, ineffective attempt- If we want the water to be a comfortable drinking temperature, you have to take the fire out from under the pot.

I see all too many people masking their pain so they can ignore it. They’re just putting ice-cubes in their pots. You can only put in so many until you run out of ice, or the pot overflows.

But, like, whatever. You can do whatever you want to do. Speaking for myself, however, when my body sends me signals of impending doom, I know better than to ignore them.

So anyway, onward to today’s real topic of discussion.

So you have tight hamstrings, do you?

Do you relate to any of the following? :

“My hamstrings are soo tight, I need to stretch them more”

*while sitting in splits* “I wish I had more flexible hamstrings”

“POP” (sound of hamstring tearing).

I’ve only been witness to one acute hamstring injury (my own) and yes, there was an unsettling popping sound. It was… unpleasant.

I would love it if you could use the information  prevent such unpleasant muscle strains and treat your hammies with the respect they deserve- You should probably STOP stretching your hamstrings so much and work on getting them a bit stiffer.

*IMPORTANT NOTE*

The following article is for dancers who are already at a pretty advanced level in their training. Advanced meaning in terms of years they’ve been dancing, technical skill level , or a combination of the two. This could include university, competitive and professional dancers, and aspiring younger recreational dancers who excel among their peers. Also to any other dancer who meets the following criteria:

  • Can already do the splits in all directions, especially if you can do over-splits
  • Can actively lift the leg up to, or past 90 degrees
  • Dances 3-4+ times per week for at least an hour
  • Competes/performs regularly several times per year
  • You’re hypermobile:

This could also apply to gymnasts, firgure skaters, circus peeps, etc.

This one’s for you guys, to keep you safe. You’re welcome.

You can stop the excessive hamstring stretching!

Just to avoid confusing, I’m definitely not saying that no dancer, ever, needs to stretch their hamstrings, because initially, you will. There are many dancers who benefit from stretching their hamstrings if they lack flexibility.

The hamstrings act to extend the hip, flex the knee, and also help to rotate the leg when the knee is flexed. Biceps femoris, the most lateral of the 3 hamstrings, is most often the hamstring injured, since it’s the only one what also laterally rotates the leg. Ohh turnout… The hamstrings are also important for dancers because of the deccelerative action they perform-The eccentric control necessary for landings from jumps, and for speed and agility.

The misconception is that because your hamstrings “feel stiff”, or “tight”, they should be stretched more. But just because a muscle feels stiff, in your specific case, this might actually be an indicator of the opposite- A need for more stiffness. An actual stiff muscle, by it’s true definition does not feel sore and tight, but feels kind of springy.

In reality, this  hamstring “tightness” is the feeling of a muscle locked long that you are over-recruiting. A weak, over-stretched, over-worked muscle tightening reflexively to protect itself from tearing.

Think about this: you’re obsessed with stretching your hammies, and then you make them perform strenuous, repetitive work, at a high volume while they’re locked in an eccentric (elongated) contraction. Not a super strong place to be.

So if the hamstring is locked in a stretched out position, and you’re jumping around all day kicking your legs over your head, AND THEN stretching them even more while you’re cold, does it really surprise you that they tend to get  cranky and damage easily?

The good news is, knowing this, you can easily prevent these sorts of overuse injuries. Here’s how:

1) Evaluate your need to stretch your hamstrings. They need to be flexible, but they also need to be strong. Act responsibly. If you’re already flexible and/or hypermobile, your needs are different than your friends’. I very rarely do any hamstring stretching with my ballet dancers. There are more productive things we can do. But if you do indeed need more flexibility, spend some time stretching them- Ideally after your day of dancing is complete, or as a separate session on a non-dance day.

Check out THIS RESOURCE on the Bowen Works website, titled “Managing Joint Hypermobility- A Guide for Dance Teachers”. Some solid info on training hypermobile dancers. This is their take on stretching (but check out  complete article when you have a chance. Important stuff for teachers, parents, and dancers to know):

Hypermobile dancers like to stretch. They find it easy and it feels good, but stretching for long periods into the end of range may lead to instability and even injury. Stability and strength should be developed as a priority. However, even in hypermobile dancers there will be areas of restriction and tightness and it is good to stretch these, whilst avoiding stretching areas where there is already excessive mobility.

Many hypermobile people are naturally attracted to dance because of their additional flexibility. However, strength and fine control are essential components to match increased flexibility and end of range movement. Additional  coaching, conditioning and physiotherapy exercises can be useful to gain strength and reinforce movement patterns.

2) Strengthen your glutes and hamstrings. Add some functional stiffness.  Both the hamstrings and the glutes extend the hip, but often we dancers use our glutes (especially the maximus) to turnout, and so the hamstrings (especially the lateral one) do all the work. Silly. And risky.

Here are some exercises to begin with, and eventually progress to:

Prone hip extension. Focus on pushing your hips into the floor and try to not allow the lower back to dip down towards the floor.

Hip bridge with foam roller. Press through the floor with your heels and imagine you are getting a stretch for your hip flexors. Do not thrust up with your spine. Squeeze the crap out of the foam roller.

Pull throughs. A very exciting exercise to do in a busy gym.

Single leg stiff legged deadlift. Ignore how shaky mine are.

And one my favourite exercise of all time, le barbell deadlift. Start with a kettlebell or dumbbell, and progress to a barbell if you’re ready to handle heavier loads (ie no injuries, you’re taught proper form, etc).

That was a personal best for me from a little while ago. I don’t dance much anymore so I decided to work on a strength goal (I don’t recommend lifting THIS heavy if you’re dancing seriously). I accidentally counted the plates wrong, which kind of screwed the whole workout flow up. I can’t count. I avoid math if at all possible. It makes for surprising workouts sometimes.

So to conclude, I urge you to consider a more conservative approach to hamstring stretching (an “as needed” approach), and develop strength in your glutes, and hamstrings. A simple strategy that will go a long way in helping to prevent injury, and improving things like jumps, alignment, and over-all level of pain you’re in on the daily.

Have you had a hamstring injury? I’d love to hear your experiences. Leave a comment below.