Your thigh bone’s connected to your… shoulder bone!
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.
Something kinda sorta like this…
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.
#SimpsonsChallenge 4: Don’t Do What Donny Don’t Does. Please tell me at least one of you appreciates this!
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.
Read the first two chapters free. Discover the secrets to ruining a dance career, fast! 😉 And MORE!
Here we go again… Monika rants about “core training”. Some more.
Can you blame me? It’s like the universe wants me to talk about it.
A few weeks ago was invited to lead a core training workshop with a group of dancers at York University. Here’s a little clip for ya:
And just last weekend I was invited on the Eat Well Move Well podcast with Galina and Roland Denzel (two incredible people, wow!), who caught me off guard by stating that I had an interesting way of approaching the core strength idea.
This surprised me because I definitely do not have any new or ideas on the topic. I’m just doing my best to reiterate what the most influential people I’ve had the honour of learning from have taught me in a language that makes sense to myself, my clients, and hopefully to you.
My thoughts on core training are not new, and not that interesting. But for the dance world, I guess they can seem unconventional.
The “core”, much like the Earth, has been around and doing just fine long before we naively intervened and labeled it “core”; it was probably doing better for itself (and for us!) before we tried to systematize, aestheticize, and control it’s training.
I feel uneasy about adding more “new” stuff to this information-cluttered internet-thing we’re addicted to getting answers from, but it hurts me more to see people doing silly things with their bodies *coughtraceyandersoncough* in an ignorant, tone-oriented, sympathetic-driven haze, for the sake of “core strength” and a six pack.
Let’s clear some of that haze, eh?
Here are some of the supposedly “unconventional” ideas on core training I hold that are actually anything but unconventional- They’re quite sensible.
WHAT IS “CORE TRAINING”?
And the reason I feel it is even necessary to write this is because every single dang dancer ever in their career will hear from a teacher that they need a “stronger core”. I’ve yet to meet a dancer who hasn’t.
Core training goes beyond concentrically working the muscles we are commonly taught need to be strengthened and toned.
My approach is guided by five key principles. If you understand these principles and base your training around them, it really doesn’t matter what exercises you choose (for the most part…).
1. Know your anatomy: Understand the intrinsic and extrinsic core subsystems and their roles.
2. Breathing: Learn to create intra-abdominal pressure and load core musculature through your breath.
3. Mobility: Recognize and appraise the need for mobility as a prerequisite for training stability.
4. Remove roadblocks for reactive core: Become aware of compensatory patterns that could be limiting effortless core connectivity.
5. Semantics: Place importance on the words used to describe training, which matter just as much as the physical training.
These principles matter more than the exercises you use.
Let’s go into these in a bit more detail.
1. THOUGHTS ON CORE FUNCTIONAL ANATOMY
It is kind of important to have at least a little bit of understanding of which muscles we’re talking about. Kind of. What’s more important is to FEEL them.
Today my colleague Wensy Wong, kinesiologist and massage therapist, ie has MAJOR anatomy knowledge, told me that it wasn’t until just recently she really understood the psoas, because finally she could feel it. Knowing where a muscle is in a textbook, in 2D, is one thing, feeling it in your body is completely different. You have to experience it to know it.
You can’t say that you know someone personally because you read their autobiography and stalk them on the internet.
Anyway, some anatomy.
The core is more than just the muscles of your trunk and your abs. Think of the core as a hierarchical system of units.
Intrinsic core musculature (inner unit): Deeper muscles, not responsible for creating large movements, but hold “stuff” together.
- Transverse abdominis (TVA)
- Pelvic floor
- Internal obliques
- Lower erector spinae
Extrinsic core musculature (outer unit): More superficial muscles, important in larger movements.
- Rectus abdominis
- External obliques
- Upper erector spinae
- Psoas major
- Quadratus lumborum
Understand that in the hierarchy of the core system, intrinsic subsystem function is most fundamental.
We’d like to see these two systems in balance, performing their proper roles: The instrinsic system holding stuff together and providing adequate intra-abdominal pressure and proprioception (position sensing) so that the extrinsic core can allow us to move freely.
It is possible for all or part of the intrinsic core unit to become relied upon excessively for movement rather than the extrinsic core, and visa versa. Sometimes, one part of the intrinsic unit will be working harder than another in an attempt to find a sense of grounding, counter-balance, or irradiation to increase muscle contractile strength (examples of this coming up a bit further down…).
This should, ideally, be cleaned up and re-trained before performing a more complex, high-threshold exercise. Even a plank can get messy if this system isn’t balanced.
2. BREATH CONTROL = CORE CONTROL
This really should not be considered unconventional. Many people claim to “know” that breathing is important for core connectivity. We hear it every dang day as dancers, yogis, pilates-ers (what’s the plural for a pilates enthusiast?).
So if you really “know” it, then why aren’t you working on it? Why aren’t you teaching it? Why haven’t you made progress with “core strength”? Telling students to breathe isn’t the same as coaching them on how to breathe for core connectivity.
Remember that to know is to have had experienced it. Do you really know how breathing affects core connectivity? Have you ever felt that connection?
This is tricky. It’s something that often requires coaching. Get on that. It’s totally worth it.
The breath allows you to create an “airbag for your spine”, to load core musculature, and create a safe space mentally for you to train, adapt, and recover.
Creating intra-abdominal pressure: Air pressure in the abdominal cavity prevents excessive movement in the spine- dictated by our breathing. Using “umbrella”-style inhalations (360 degree expansion) to fill out the abdominal cavity evenly creates an “air bag” to cushion the spine as it moves freely, allowing muscles to load as a response.
Coupling solid intra-abdominal pressure with an abdominal contraction (by holding the breath in and contracting the abs) is called bracing, and is useful under heavy load. However, this isn’t how you want to get stuck. Life doesn’t always need to be a heavy load, high intensity ordeal… Unless you’re on a reality TV show.
Eccentric and concentric loading: Inhalation, is required for eccentric loading (lengthening) of the abdominal muscles as the abdomen expands. A muscle first needs to be able to lengthen to be contracted effectively, and an 360 degree inhalation does just that.
A full exhalation concentrically contracts the abs and gives us Zone of Apposition (ZOA) with the ribcage depressed. This position allows for a more ideal use of both intrinsic and extrinsic core muscles, because joint position dictates muscle reaction.
||Concentric contraction (shortening)
||Eccentric contraction (lengthening)
||Concentric contraction (shortening)
Autonomic nervous system state: Exhalations bring the nervous system to a safe state of growth, recovery, and flow, where learning and change is possible, by activating the vagus nerve. This state- parasympathetic (opposite of fight/flight), is a state where you should ideally approach training from if you actually want to improve.
So you can do 500 stress-crunches while you hold your breath and grind your teeth. I. Don’t. Care.
3. CORE MOBILITY
All we talk about as an industry (both in dance and fitness) is core stability, being in control, and preventing movement but, consider this: Your spine has 33 joints- It was designed for effortless movement!
Things that are chunks, or planks, or blocks were designed to be rigid by nature of their structure. Things that are designed to have many small parts and joints are naturally intended to allow movement.
So would we train our spines for stability before considering its innate need to move? And I don’t blame you. I was that idiot-trainer making my clients do planks, preaching the value of “stability”, before appraising their spinal mobility. Don’t be idiot-me. You’re better than that.
Consider these four ways that your core craves mobility:
Spinal stability vs. spinal mobility: Preventing the spine from moving by stiffening is useful at times, but full potential for movement of the spine is prerequisite for stability. How long and fast could you ride a bike with a rusty chain and jammed links? Your spine, like a bike chain, needs to have the potential to allow movement at all segments. Appraise the spine’s need for mobility before giving it a stability solution.
Courtesy of Gary Ward, here’s one of my favourite spinal mobility experiences right now- Cogs:
First joints act, then muscles react (to movement): Movement of the skeleton dictates muscle (re)action. The goal is not to forcefully activate and and consciously engage the core, but to allow it to reflexively fire as a reaction to movement. So movement of the spine and pelvis, to which “core” musculature attaches, is necessary for the muscles to load and contract.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: Like a slingshot, muscles “load to explode”. Training only concentrically by shortening muscles to create movement (think crunches) does not replicate this natural function. Excessive “tone-seeking”, thus, can prevent lengthening, reducing mobility and reactivity, and limiting performance. Concentric work is useful, but length needs to be created before you can earn the right to shorten.
Management of base of support within center of mass: How much movement can your center of mass access within your base of support? How far can you shift without moving your feet before you fall or need to take a step? Core muscles react as the body moves away from and back towards center.
When we keep things “tight” constantly it doesn’t allow this natural movement in and out of our base of support. Finding “center” therefore, is more a result of experiencing a full spectrum of movement, not of keeping things tight.
4. REMOVING ROADBLOCKS: COMMON CORE COMPENSATIONS
Remember above I mentioned there are ways the core systems can become out of balance? This can happen be due to trauma, injury, habitual ways of holding our bodies, or repetitive patterns of moving. These roadblocks can prevent our bodies from accessing joint movements and positions.
Many of us unconsciously develop strategies to get around these roadblocks. These “compensations” are not bad. THANK your body for finding these clever strategies and allowing you to continue to move and live. Know that they aren’t serving you anymore, address them head on, and find a new way through them, not around.
Here are some common road-blocks for dancers (and most humans):
- Breath-holding: Can cause diaphragm to be used more as a muscle of stabilization (due to it’s connection to the spine) than respiration, influencing spine/ribcage position, movement potential, and ability to recover from training.
- Jaw clenching/shifting: An attempt for proprioception, counterbalance, co-contraction, or a response to stress and strain and is commonly found to be facilitated in relation to abdominal function.As Dr. Kathy Dooley explains HERE:
Because the TMJ has more proprioception per surface area than any other joint in the human body, you will go where your jaw shifts you to go…When the jaw shifts, the center of mass shifts. This will down-regulate recruitment of the opposite side core in the sagittal plane.
- Pelvic floor: Part of the intrinsic unit, tightness, overworking, weakness, sub-optimal positioning, digestive function, organ issues, urinary control, all influence core function.
- Mobility limitations in general: Can affect the ability of core muscles to load, reducing their role ability to react to movement (limited hip mobility, and spine segmental mobility in at least one of three planes is fairly safe to assume…).
You cannot change that which you are not yet aware of. Do you know which roadblocks could be in your path?
Sometimes, just cultivating awareness and openness to change is all it takes to make a shift. Other times, it is necessary to seek guidance from a movement coach or therapist to help you. NeuroKinetic Therapy (TM) practitioners and Anatomy in Motion folks are trained to discover and unwind these compensatory strategies (but so can most good therapists of any background).
5. CORE SEMANTICS
As a writer, I appreciate the power of words, and I know a lot of you do, too. But the correlation between core training and the words we traditionally use to talk about it in dance is particularly interesting. And in major need of change.
“Core semantics” shape our results, and require a consideration equal to the physical training itself, as we speak to ourselves and guide others as dancers, teachers, therapists, and parents.
In the table below, which column sounds more useful? Which sounds more like dance? Which choice of vocabulary will you apply to your “core training”?
On the left, words we use that limit potential movement by asking dancers to contract muscles, and on the right, words we can consider using to encourage dancers to move, allow muscles to lengthen, and explore new ranges of motion. A different perspective on “core training” for some folks, perhaps.
DEDICATE 30 DAYS TO EXPLORING YOUR CORE:
Ready to commit yourself to figuring out this “core” thing? I’ve got just the thing for you:
Sign up for the next free 30 day Restore Your Core Challenge. You’ll learn to master one concept and exercise each week through exploration of the “core concepts”, exercise video tutorials, and community support. Join our tribe of stronger dancers and learn how taking a few minutes each day to unlock the power of your “core” can transform the way you move and feel. Totally free. Find out what could change if you dedicated a few minutes each day to unravelling your core. We do these challenges LIVE, together, every July, October, January, and April.
I suppose if you had to take just one thing away from this article it would be that core training is really just a result of allowing your body to explore movement and breath so it can do what it needs to do when it needs to do it.
Need to lift something heavy? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Need to balance on one leg for 30 seconds? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Simple as that. Maybe too simple. But simple does not mean easy.
Funny how just by allowing you body to move into ranges of motion that have been denied or avoided, breathing appropriately for the situation, using a more helpful choice of words, and getting some help when you get stuck the “core” just kind of takes care of itself without much time and energy spent on “training the abs”.
For more information on unconventional/sensible ways of training for dance, check out Dance Stronger: A multi-media resource created to help you understand the why and how of training breath, movement, and strength to improve dance performance and reduce soreness. Available by donation, so no excuses 😉 Get training!
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:
- 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
- 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:
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…
“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).