Flexibility: For such an important aspect of being a dancer you can count the number of articles I’ve written about stretching on one hand:
Stop Stretching Your Hamstrings So Much
Stretches You need to stop doing Volume 1
Stretches You Need to Stop Doing Volume 2
5 Productive Stretches for Dancers
Hip Flexor “Stretching” for the Hypermobile
Three of them are related to NOT stretching so much, and, if you read the other two, you’ll also see that they aren’t really pro-stretching either.
One could get the sense that I don’t like stretching. That sense would be correct.
But I also recognize that it is a necessary part of being a dancer, particularly if your style requires flexibility, and that makes me very, very confused. And intrigued!
I am leary of articles on the web that say, “Do this awesome stretch and your life will be complete!”, because:
a) I don’t know if their claims are true based on other peoples’ successful experiences, or if their claims are based on “this stretch stretches this muscle and this muscle is tight so stretching it must be good”
b) My own experience tells me that stretching stuff that feels tight can make things feel worse, and that stretching is NOT the only thing contributing to flexibility gains, and finally…
c) Limitations in flexibility must be considered on an individual basis, not based on one population (dancers, football players, desk-sitter-down-ats), because of the inherent variations between each person in that group.
That’s why I don’t post a lot of articles about the “best” stretches and exercises for improving X, Y or Z, for a particular ailment, performance enhancement, or population.
It’s also why creating Dance Stronger was really, really difficult. In fact, I hope I made it very clear that Dance Stronger is meant to be a self exploration through movement and strength training, a suggestion to experiment and question what you’ve been told about dance training, and a philosophy for success in dance, NOT a “do this stuff because I said so without using your brain” kind of training program.
I haven’t deliberately “stretched” for 4 few years, and I’m still “flexible”… WTF?
A few days ago I tried out my splits, just for fun, and guess what… I’ve still got it! On one leg anyway.
Aside from yoga (which I don’t consider “stretching”), and some silliness I was subjected to in several dance “warm-ups”, which would have been rude not to do (such is dance etiquette…), I have not deliberately set aside time to work on improving my flexibility with static stretching since 2012.
This may be N=1, but I think a lot of my smart colleagues will agree: Quantity of stretching is not the only factor related to improving flexibility.
If that statement makes your brain hurt, I am NOT saying that stretching won’t help you become more flexible, but that it is not the only part of developing and maintaining flexibility. If it were, 4 years of not stretching should have meant I lost some flexibility. Just one exception negates the “rule” (but I know I’m not the only one).
This is important information for dancers: We know that the excessive stretching used to achieve the degree of mobility and ligament laxity synonymous with success as a dancer can cause trouble for their bodies, but if we can reduce the amount of stress on their systems by reducing the amount of stretching they do while still maintaining requisite flexibility, we could help dancers perform better with less pain and greater longevity.
But could our egos handle that? (if it challenges your ego, you’re probably moving closer to the truth..)
This blog post is an expression of my quest for the “truth” about stretching. I may not have the answers for you today, but if you check in with me in 10 years, maybe I’ll have something more enlightening to share.
Before we continue, let me state my biases, my opinions, and that which I am ignorant of:
- I don’t know much about helping people become more flexible with static stretching.
- Most of what I know about stretching is what NOT to do (which goes a long way…)
- I am biased towards not stretching because I was injured while overstretching, but this doesn’t mean it won’t help certain people who could benefit from more tissue length; I am aware of this bias and do my best not to let my own stories impact the exercises I choose for my clients.
- I believe that dancers can develop amazing flexibility and learn to manage it safely and effectively, but this takes movement honesty, the ability to tune-in to one’s body, and self-respect: things you aren’t generally taught about stretching in dance class.
That last point is, to me, is the most important part. Follow any stretching program consistently and progressively from a place of honesty, awareness, and respect for you body’s limits, and you’ll probably get flexible safely. Is there a “best” stretching program? Doubt it. But there is a “best” intention and mindset for stretching.
“You can’t do what you won’t until you know what you’re doing.” Moshe Feldenkrais
That said, I have witnessed some wicked cool instant mobility improvements that were completely unrelated to stretching:
The dancer who’s “hamstring flexibility” was related to a breathing issue. Her active straight leg raise improved bilaterally after 5 minutes spent helping her feel a few full exhalations, getting her ribs into ZOA. It was cool. Her instinct might have been to stretch her hamstrings, but that may have actually made her more tight. Whether this was a core stabilization, air pressure, joint position, or nervous system adaptation, I have no clue. But it worked, and we didn’t stretch, so I’m into that.
The girl who’s toe touch was related to a knee internal rotation deficit. A friend of mine who, for 15 years was not able to touch her toes, bent down to touch the floor effortlessly after being taught a movement to improve her knee extension and internal rotation (Anatomy in Motion amazingness, and a can of worms I will not open right now…). It wasn’t her hamstrings that needed stretching, she had been stretching those for 15 years with no improvements! I still don’t quite know how to explain her drastic increase in range of motion, but it had something to do with the inability to internally rotate and extend her knees fully causing her to feel extra tension and her brain perceiving this to be an unsafe range to move into.
The dancer who improved her back-bend with developmental kinesiology. You guessed it, we didn’t stretch, but we drilled a DNS– inspired exercise integrating a reciprocal hip flexion/extension pattern with core and shoulder stability (variation of oblique sitting). In fact, when she got up to try her backbend, her increase in range caught her by surprise and she almost fell over.
So while I’m not afraid to say that I don’t know much about stretching, I know we can do less of it. I know stretching has it’s place but I don’t know how much and when are most optimal .And in what ratios? At what time? For how long? How little can we do for maximum results? Where’s the sweet spot?
I know you can increase flexibility and mobility without stretching, but I also know that stretching has to be a part of dance training- classical dance training anyway, to achieve the requisite lines and meet a certain standard (if you care about standards and expectations).
Stretching Myth: Static stretching is the gold standard for improving flexibility
Let’s get clear about one thing: Static stretching definitely can improve flexibility. I’m sure it has it’s place… I just don’t know for sure what that looks like, and I encourage the people reading this who have more experience and smartz than I to chime in.
It seems that, on our quest for flexibility, many of us will reach a point of diminishing returns after which stretching ceases to be beneficial and can actually make things suck.
As per the theme of this blog post (and my life in general), I can tell you more about when stretching is not warranted and what I don’t know than what I actually do. So many Nassim Taleb quotes apply:
“The sucker’s trap is when you focus on what you know and what others don’t know, rather than the reverse.”
“It remains the case that you know what is wrong with a lot more confidence than you know what is right.”
And this one in particular makes me feel better on days my brain is not cooperating:
“I want to live happily in a world I don’t understand.”
Stretching: A world I don’t understand…
At what point does stretching lose efficacy?
- You feel bones start to bump into each other, like when you’re doing the splits but you feel a crunchy block in your lower back.
- You no longer feel muscles stretching, but ligaments, joint capsule, and other passive structures loading.
- You actually strain a muscle from overstretching (duh)
- You have a chronic tendonitis or tendonopathy
- If you are dehydrated
- You have to hold your breath and make a squishy face to “survive” a stretch
- Your pain symptoms or feelings of tightness are exacerbated after stretching
While most of these might seem like “duh, of course”, many of us still try to stretch away our problems! I’m guilty of it, and my guess is that you’re guilty of it, too (or at least you were at some point…).
To be completely honest: I am the girl who stretched bone into bone and thought the feeling of impingement was productive (pain=part of being a dancer was the mindset I was taught). I am the girl who tried to stretch away chronic hamstring tendonitis and then strained her hamstring stretching it in warm-up. And I am the girl who sat in the splits cold for several minutes before class, never quite exhaling fully, with complete disrespect for my ligamentous integrity. Also, I didn’t like water. Screw that stuff!
No movement honesty. No awareness. No respect.
Don’t do what I did.
What Factors Could Affect Flexibility, if not Quantity of Stretching?
Let’s say you’ve taken static stretching to it’s maximum potential and you’ve hit a flexibility plateau. You’ve hit a wall and are beginning to believe you’re no longer working with a tissue extensibility issue. Let’s assume your hydration status is great. And let’s also forget for now that being super bendy isn’t always advantageous if you also value force production (strength and power) and proprioception (body’s position sensing ability).
These are likely to be the two main factors that are limiting your flexibility:
- Static joint position: A habitual posture you can’t get out of, joints compressing to provide support and proprioception to your body and you don’t want to leave that “happy place”.
- Nervous system putting on the the brakes. Your brain perceives something might be unsafe to move into and adds extra tension at rest as a protective measure. You can’t just “stretch away” this type of increased muscle tone.
Either stuff gets compressed, stuck short, and you can’t move out of or go further into that position because it feels unsafe,
Stuff is already stretched out, stuck long, and under high tension, so you can’t move out of or go further into that position because it feels unsafe.
Which leads us to a very important myth we need to stop perpetuating: “If it feels tight, stretch it.”
What if you are stuck in a position due to compression, for example, your lower back is stuck in a mad degree of extension and you can’t bend to touch your toes.
“Stretching harder” will probably place additional load on other areas, maybe the hamstrings or upper back, because your lower back is stuck and can’t flex forwards. It may be stuck for a very useful reason: Bones are very stable and reassuring for those of us who can’t sense where we are in space. That doesn’t make it a good long-term strategy.
In this same story, if your hamstrings are already stuck long from overstretching them, then any additional stretch on them will be perceived as “danger”, and Mr. Brain may tell them to tighten up to protect themselves from getting even longer.
In this example, the lower back needs to be given an experience that allows it to leave end-range compression in a way that feels safe and useful, and the hamstrings need an experience that gives them no option but to contract so they can get out of end range length.
This “experience” does not often need to be a static stretch. Think outside the box…
It can be a breathing exercise, a “core” exercise, PNF, or muscle energy. It can be meditation or inner-work to let go of limiting beliefs affecting movement and alignment. It can be any movement that gives the experience of something different, to explore something that was missing, in a safe way. In Anatomy in Motion, sometimes this means momentarily bringing a joint into the very end range it is stuck in to teach it how to get out of it, but it can also mean giving it the experience of the complete opposite motion that it is stuck in. Both can work, but it depends on the person, their history, they way their unique brains and bodies react.
As I bring this post to and end, sorry if you were expecting a stretching routine. I don’t feel that I can ethically do that.
But I DO encourage you to try something different. Try not stretching. Try something else. Try the opposite of what you’re currently doing.
If you want some ideas, structure, and an approach to dance training that doesn’t emphasize stretching, I encourage you to check out Dance Stronger. It’s not a “how to” guide, exactly, but a “think-for yourself, you-may-find-my suggestions-useful, how-to-NOT” guide to enhance your dancing through supplemental strategies outside the classroom.