In recent years (months, even) I’ve changed my mindset as it relates to flexibility and stretching.
Having spent 10+ years contentedly overstretching the crap out of my ligaments and testing the integrity of my hip labrums and knee meniscii (meniscuses?), I am now just as happy to not do any stretching.
Because sometimes less is more.
And because the other day, when going up the stairs, I realized that what I thought was the floor creaking was actually my knee. I’m in my 20s. These are not the sounds I wish my knees to make at this stage in my life.
I can’t do the splits anymore and that’s just peachy. And even though I can’t do the splits I can somehow actively lift my legs higher than I used to (except that damn arabesque, the bane of my existence).
And I enjoy dance more today with less flexibility than I did back in the day, when I could over-split and fold myself in half.
These days, my active and passive flexibility are almost on par, and so even though I’m not as passively flexible (less splat) I can actually control my movement through it’s full range of motion. It feels pretty good to be in control.
If you take anything away from this blog post, let it be this: Control > splat.
Your new rule of life. And things hurt much less when you follow this rule, by the way.
Control= Your stretching must involve a need to stabilize a proximal (closest to your center) structure. If you’re familiar with the joint-by-joint approach, you already know that proximal stability allows for distal mobility.
Because as a dancer, you’re probably not lacking any passive range of motion. I’d wager that to get more hip mobility, for example, you’d be better off working on lumbar spine stability. Less splat, more control.
I am not against stretching as a whole. Just the ones that are silly and you might regret 10 years from now. The ones that make your knees and hips degenerate prematurely.
Today’s stretch I wish you would stop doing:
The “hip flexor stretch” lunge. Because your hips feel tight…
Oh your hips are tight? Maybe it’s because your ligaments hate you.
I know you totally do this stretch because I used to do it too!
It’s possible that because you stretch your hips like above, you’ve overstretched some ligaments, and now, instead of having nice taught ligament support, your muscles need to take on more of a stability role becoming more like pseudo ligaments.
Your hip flexors are meant to flex your hips! Not act as ligaments preventing you from hyperextending. They should be helping you produce force, not bracing against doom.
This bracing is why your hips feel tight. Because they are tight. Reflexively tight, in an attempt to protect the joint. But it’s not an indication to stretch!
Instead of allowing the hip flexors like iliacus, TFL, pectineus, and rec. fem. to have a moment of relaxation, you inadvertently stress them to the point of protective tension because with the ligaments on stretch, increasing muscle tone is the best strategy to prevent your hips and spine from exploding.
The goal of a hip flexor stretch is to go from hip flexion into extension, or even hyperxtension, without letting the spine or pelvis compensate (splat), and without putting undue stress on passive structures like ligaments and bones.
The hip flexor stretch above ain’t stretching crap.
Issue 1: Losing pelvic and spinal neutral.
On closer inspection, you’ll notice her pelvis is rotating both into the saggital plane and transverse plane while also compressing slightly her lumbar spine.
Is she maintaining a level pelvis? Nope. She’s going into an anterior pelvic tilt, right pelvic rotation, and a bit of lumbar extension. Does this stretch, therefore, require her to stabilize anything? No.
Should you do a stretch that doesn’t have a stability component? No.
Remember, control>splat. Proximal stability for distal mobility.
Issue 2: Relying on passive structures in end range
In this stretch, because she is twisting and bending to get into a deeper range of motion, she is bypassing anything productive and putting her iliofemoral and iliolumbar ligaments on stretch instead. Maybe even some bone-on-bone action, too.
By the way, bone impinging upon bone is not pleasant.
Once a ligament becomes over-stretched, it can never go back to the way it was before.Without ligament support the joint loses proprioception, dynamic stability, and becomes at risk for degeneration
If she can’t maintain level pelvis in this range of motion, I doubt she is in control here. If she can’t breathe diaphragmatically in this position, then she for sure is not in control, as I like to use the ability to breathe as a barometer for positional stability.
And if she can’t control this range of motion statically, then I would be super impressed if she can control it it while dancing.
So what should you do instead?
Try an exercise that forces you to maintain a level pelvis, while extending the back hip. Try something that requires some core stability. Maintaining level pelvis require the abdominals to actively stabilize your spine, and your brain might actually allow your limbs to move freely because they have an anchor.
Like a ship anchored down, it can drift safely within the range of it’s chain. If you want more freedom, you increase the length of the chain. You get that core locked down. This happens in the motor control center of the brain, not at your ligaments.
Try half kneeling variations like a halo or anti-rotation press that challenges you in all planes of movement, maintaining a neutral spine and pelvis, while helping you get into more hip extension. Or just hold half kneeling and breathe, because sometimes, that’s enough of a challenge.
Here is an excellent primer for setting up correctly in half kneeling.
And then progress to something like this:
Think she’s not feeling a stretch? You better believe it. And her core is working like mad to not fall over.
Dance isn’t about flinging yourself into a range of motion that you have no control over. Well, sometimes it is. But that sure doesn’t feel great on the body after a while, and if you are a competitive dancer or gymnast, you know this first hand.
Ligament laxity is super impressive, but is it worth it when you need hip replacements at 30? It’s your call.
Just a quick (I hope) post today. It’s been a while since the last one, and let’s just say that it’s because I’ve been busy. Doing stuff. And I’m still catching up on work, so today is a cop out blog post where I answer a reader question (which I one that many of you might be wondering about anyway).
The question: When does flexibility become “unsafe”? Are we dancers, with our ligament
pathologies intricacies, doomed to be sore and in pain for as long as we remain flexible? How do we know when (or if) we’ve reached the perfect balance of strength and flexibility?
That’s the gist of the email I received from a lovely reader I’ll call FABIO, for the sake of anonymity.
Your post “Ligament Pathologies in Dancers- Things You Need to Know” was phenomenal. I’m combing through post after post of yours because of your insights. I was recently diagnosed as hypermobile. I’m a former dancer and have done yoga for years. Several of your posts have had me going “Omg! It’s me! That’s exactly what I do and that’s what happens to me!” While I’m currently working with a physical therapist to strengthen my hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes, she’s suggested I avoid all stretching.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to regain all 3 splits. Is it possible for someone with all these wonderful ligament pathologies to safely do the splits? Do you have any suggestions regarding strengthening versus stretching? I have tried asking the physical therapist but the answer I generally get out of her is, “it’s complicated.” I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts since I can relate to so much of what you’ve posted.
I always try to take the time to respond when I get awesome emails like this, because when I started writing this blog (which started as a personal brain-dump) I wasn’t anticipating that I’d have real live readers one day. So, yeah, I think it’s pretty cool that there are people out there who think I’m smart and want my opinion. It gives me a warm fuzzy (and my name does mean “advisor”, so I should try to live up to it I guess).
Anyway, here’s (the edited to have no typos version of) how I responded:
Fabio, your question is one that I’m still trying to figure out. What is the most optimal ratio of strength to flexibility for dancers to maintain technical virtuosity while preventing injuries and maintaining a long, healthy career? I wish I had a more satisfying answer but quite honestly it’s a question I consider every single day. Everyday I’m working to come a bit closer to some semblance of an understanding.
Your PT is right- It’s complicated, and every BODY is different. In general, stability, neutrality, and alignment are more important for injury prevention and pain management, but dance (and even yoga) has some extreme aesthetic and athletic demands that take you well beyond your own neutral. And trying to dance in perfect neutral all the time is just. Not. Dance.
My suggestion- experiment safely. Build awareness and get to know your limits. That said, if anyone reading this happens to make any progress in figuring this strength vs. flexibility thing out for themselves, please keep me posted. I’d love to hear about your experiences in body-detectivism.
But I’ll give you an anecdotal example: I have a contemporary/ballet, university-level dance client who dances 5-6 days per week. She can do the splits in all 3 directions, and is probably as flexible as her genetics will allow (with some underlying ligament pathologies, to boot). In the 2 years she has been training regularly with me she has maintained her flexibility, improved her technique, and is stronger than the average chick. She can deadlift close to her own bodyweight for 5ish reps, can do full depth push-ups correctly, can squat proficiently, and has an excellent understanding of how her body moves.
In this time she has had only one minor knee injury, which didn’t stop her from dancing, but required one or two physio appointments. When she originally came to me, she had all sorts of complaints about her lower back and hamstrings. I’d say that’s not too shabby.
But again, that’s HER. Not you. Not anyone else.
Another example is bodybuilders, some of whom despite their huuuuge muscles can still do the splits. Do they also need to jump around and do athletic things? Not as much as dancers do… but I’m just saying that it doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to strength vs. flexibility, and I hate (strong word!) when fear of losing flexibility is the main reason for not developing strength.
Then there are factors like genetics, injury history, foot wear, habits outside the dance class, lifestyle, diet, etc that can contribute to your optimal level of flexibility and strength.
So… Yes. It’s complicated. It depends on a lot of factors. And to keep this post short (and because I have to get back to doing “real work”) I’ll end it here.
And for those of you who want something more actionable and sciency to read right now, check out Miguel Aragoncillo’s post about developing flexibility for dance (keeping in mind that Miguel is a hypermobile bastard , and he is pretty dang strong too).
I also could have titled this blog post, “Getting My Geek On With the Postural Restoration Institute“, as that is where I spent this past weekend geeking out, and inspired what I’m writing about today.
I had the pleasure of attending a Postural Restoration Institute course- Myokinematic Restoration, a course addressing issues of the lumbo-pelvic-femoral variety (so hips and pelvis mostly). This is a course that’s been on my wishlist for over a year now, so I was pretty stoked to be there.
What is the Postural Restoration Institute, and what do they teach? Long story short (very, very short), the PRI is big on the getting the body as symmetrical as possible (which is kind of impossible), because life tends to take us farther from symmetrical than is optimal. The more asymmetrical your body gets, the more dysfunctional too, which can lead to pain and crappy movement qualities.
Along with an overdose on functional anatomy, I got some answers to questions like,
“Why is it so hard to activate my glutes?”
“Oh good, and it looks like I can’t activate my hamstrings either” (not a question, I know)
“Why have my hips been in pain since I was 15?”
“How much butter should I eat for optimal brain function when studying advanced functional anatomy for 8 hours a day?” (to answer that last question- I ate a lot of butter, and my brain was ON).
But other than learning how much butter I can eat in a weekend, I’d like to summarize a few other important things I learned from PRI, particularly as it relates to you dancers, dance educators, and other bendy people.
The biggest thing I learned from PRI, when it comes to dancers?
Dancing is horrible for your body. As if you didn’t know that already…
In all seriousness though, and more specifically, dancing will probably end up severely over-stretching many of the ligaments attaching to your pelvis, if it hasn’t already. I’ve talked about this already HERE, as it relates to your hip flexors, and why you should stop trying to stretch them out.
That dancing can overstretch ligaments and increase joint instability isn’t anything new. But only now after studying with PRI do I understand the extent of the damage done, and the importance of supplementary exercise to bravely attempt to rebuild our broken pelvises (pelvii? Anyone know the plural for pelvis?).
Remember that ligaments, after having been stretched beyond a certain point, can never return to their original length and elasticity, which means they won’t really do anything for ya anymore.
According to the PRI assessments and testing process, I’ve compromised every major pelvic ligament classifying me as “pathological”. I scored 0 on all the tests, as in, I wasn’t even able to get my body into the testing position. My ego was hurtin’. I’m somewhat concerned about my body. And if I have reason to be concerned, then you probably do too!
If you dance, or are a bendy person, then you probably have ligament pathologies, too, and you’ll want to try to correct that.
If you are a younger dancer and reading this, then I have good news- The sooner you realize the risks of overstretching ligaments and start to strengthen your body, the less of a beating it will take later on in life. Start strengthening while you’re still young and growing!
So my ligaments are poop. What now?
PRI teaches that the goal for people like you and me, (bendy dancer, in chronic pain, no more ligament support), should be to re-activate and strengthen specific muscles in a particular sequence so that they will act as ligaments for you, since yours are poop. Technical term. Let’s refer to these specific muscles as “ligament muscles” (and I’ll talk more about those later).
To be extremely redundant, because I want to make sure you understand, you have to try to rebuild ligamentous support by strengthening specific muscles. Because you’ve exploded your ligaments. Make sense?
The key ligaments I’m talking about are:
- Iliofemoral ligaments (the “Y” shaped ones, attaching your femur to the front of the pelvis)
- Pubofemoral ligament (another one attaching the femur to the front of the pelvis),
- Ischiofemoral ligament (attaching the femur to the back of the pelvis)
- Iliolumbar ligament (attaching your lumar spine to the pelvis)
- Sacrotuberous ligament (which attaches the sacrum to your “sit bones” and blends into the hamstrings)
anterior pelvic ligaments
more ligaments attaching your leg to your body
Posterior pelvic ligaments
If I wasn’t clear before, I’ll say it again: if you’ve been dancing for some time now, chances are you’re a walking ball of ligament pathology.
And even if you don’t fall into the category of “bendy dancer”, you could still have a few ligaments that have been overstretched, so this still pertains to you. Also pay attention if you are trying to improve your flexibility, because you’ll want to try to do that safely (you don’t want to end up like me!).
Pathological ligament laxity is pretty fun, don’t get me wrong. Being absurdly flexible is a great party trick, and makes dancing a lot easier in some ways. But you know what else it makes easier? Getting injured and taking a super long time to recover.
But it looks so pretty!
Super lax ligaments also make activating muscles kind of difficult due to the fact that your joints won’t be in an optimal alignment to produce and absorb force. This is called a mechanical disadvantage, and will limit your strength due to the sub-optimal position you’re working in.
Because of this poor positioning, I had a hard time with even the lowest level of the PRI repositioning exercises. I felt them in all the wrong places, and it was very, very frustrating.
Some other PRI red flags for dancers to look out for (signs you need to do some additional alignment and strengthening work):
1) Very little internal hip rotation compared to massive amounts of external rotation, and with different rotational values on each side in some cases (ideally you want to have about 40 degrees of internal rotation, and 60 degrees of external rotation, and be pretty symmetrical on both sides)
2) Ribcage flaring out (does your dance teacher ever tell you not to stick your ribcage out?) This could be due to a faulty breathing pattern. Check out this video in which Dean Somerset explains some of the ways breathing can go wrong:
3) Uncontrollable lumbar extension and inability to flex at the lumbar spine. Instead of extending your hips, you probably extend with your spine. You also probably end up standing with all your weight resting on your lumbar spine, which can eventually cause injuries like spondylysis (an over-extension injury to the spine)
4) Way too much lumbar spine rotation. This usually happens when your hips lose their ability to rotate properly (and is indicative of an overly lax iliolumbar ligament).
Like I mentioned before (for like, the 100th time now), you’ll want to reactivate some muscles, in a specific order, to build yourself some new ligament support. You need muscles to support you where your ligaments are now shot.
From the PRI manual… optimal ranges of motion at the hip, and muscles to strengthen corresponding to their ligaments
Muscles you should focus on strengthening:
1) Hamstrings. These are important postural muscles, bringing the pelvis back closer to a neutral alignment. Your hamstrings are at higher risk of injury if ligaments become compromised due to the extra need for them to stabilize the pelvis. Unfortunately, your hamstrings are probably weak and overstretched, so they tend to get strained- trying to both stabilize the pelvis and keep up with the demands of dancing. This happened to me! Not fun.
If you have trouble feeling your hamstrings during hamstring exercises (maybe you feel your quads instead), your first order of business should be to release chronic tension from your lower back muscles, because they might be holding your back from getting into a neutral spine.
Try this exercise to reduce the tonicity of your lumbar erectors and activate the abdominals:
You can do this one without the bands. You can regress it further by lying on your back on the floor too. Make sure you breathe!
2) Adductors. These guys help internally rotate your legs and bring them towards the center of your body. The opposite of doing the splits… They are necessary to have strong again to balance the fact that you’ve overstretched the ligaments at the front of your pelvis, especially the pubofemoral ligaments, which check the same movement as the adductor group.
3) Glute med. Helps to internally rotate the leg, which is important, because remember, the ligaments that help stabilize the leg in internal rotation have been overstretched, especially the iliofemoral ligament. Also is an important muscle for keeping you solid on one leg.
4) Glute max. Your power muscle! The king of the pelvic floor. Necessary for good pelvic positioning and strength. When your glute max is weak, you’ve got problems.
And then, if you can successfully get these muscle back online, will you be “fixed”? Probably not entirely, because you still don’t have any ligament support. But you’ll be dancing better, feel stronger, have better pelvic alignment, and probably not get hurt as easily. Score!
A question still on my mind is, do dancers need to have pathologically lax ligaments? It’s true that we need that excessive range of motion, and even if someone had told me at a young age of the risks that come with overstretching ligaments, I’m sure I would have willingly compromised them anyway. And proudly too (I am a Leo after all).
But,what’s the optimal balance? How flexible is too flexible? Can we still dance at an elite level without ligament pathology? Would practicing techniques, such as the ones taught by the Postural Restoration Institute, have been enough to prevent career ending injuries, such as my hamstring injury?
I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but I know without a doubt that learning to reposition your pelvis, and increase the strength of it’s supporting muscles won’t make things worse. Probably much, much better.
Anyway. I ended up making this post way too long (my usual concision fail). I hope this was helpful, and helped you understand more fully why it’s important to strengthen the muscles of your hips and pelvis. Shoot me an email if you have any questions, I’ll do my best to help