Hip Flexor “Stretching” for the Hypermobile

Hip Flexor “Stretching” for the Hypermobile

First, I have to apologize for misleading you with the title. And for the record, the words stretching and hypermobile should never be used in the same sentence. That was just to lure you into reading this article. Muwhahaha….

Anyway, I haven’t written the following to teach you crazy stretches that will magically cure your chronic hip flexor tightness. Nor will I promise that I can help take your flexibility to the Svetlana level. Safely. With all ligaments still intact…

So I’ve lied to you.

Rather, this article is geared towards the already hypermobile– dancers, gymnasts, yogis and other bendy folks- with several years of stretching under their belts.

You might find that you often feel “tight”, especially in your hips, hamstrings and inner thigh areas. Despite your flexibility and constant stretching, you probably don’t make any real progress in relieving this “tightness”.

I’ve actually written about this before, on why you should probably stop stretching your hamstrings. Today’s message is similar.

They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That said, are you ready to try a new approach to relieving your seemingly tight hip flexors?

Why are your hips tight-feeling and why won’t stretching fix it??

I doubt that you, the bendy person in question, need to stretch as much as you think you do.

In this article, I’m going to share with you what might be a new concept towards relieving hip flexor tightness, and that will help to prevent the injuries that could potentially manifest by trying to stretch your pain and tightness away.

Are you ready for a paradigm shift?

Simply stretching you hip flexors more (often and intensely) won’t make them any less tight

From one bendy person to another (or to a teacher of bendy people), allow me to explain why stretching your hip flexors hasn’t been helping your “tight” hips. It might even be making things worse.

If you are naturally hypermobile, or have been stretching into extreme ranges of motion, like the splits, for years, then it’s safe to say you have a significant amount of joint laxity.

Ligaments, which attach your bones to other bones, are part of what determines a joint’s range of motion, and, due to the need for extreme ranges of motion at the hip in dance, gymnastics and yoga, the ligaments at the front of your pelvis in particular get quite stretched out. Turnout especially has a way of doing really unpleasant things to the joint.

Take care of these guys! The ligaments at the front or your pelvis.

The thing about ligaments is that they can only stretch to about 104% of their original laxity, after which point they will never return to their same length again. Ever.

Ligaments are not like muscles, in that they do not have that same elastic stretchiness to them. Ligaments have a higher proportion of collagen, and less blood flow, meaning that they don’t stretch as well, and don’t heal as well after they’ve been overstretched (past 104%, remember).

Dance, gymnastics, and yoga most definitely make you want to push your ligaments farther than 104% their original laxity. It just feels so good!

As stated on the IADMS website (on the topic of why long duration static stretching to the hip area is not a great idea for dancers):

Prolonged stretch is very similar to static stretch, in that the stretch is held without moving. However, it is held for a significantly longer period of time, several minutes instead of seconds. These stretches are used by medical professionals for very specific and serious medical pathologies and are not appropriate for dancers. They elongate anatomical structures that are supposed to stabilize the joints, i.e. ligaments and joint capsules. Dancers should avoid these stretches as they can lead to loss of stability and serious injury

Dancers frequently use these stretches (either intentionally or unintentionally) when they sit on the floor between classes or while doing homework, maintaining their legs in various stretch positions for long periods of time. For example, lying forward while in second position for extended periods places undue compression of the hip labrum, potentially contributing to future injury.

Truth. My labrum(s) hate me.

Why should you care? 

Cause I said so. Just kidding. I know if you’ve made it to this point in the article, you’ve been reading for a while and you’re about ready to quit and look at funny cat pictures. But for your own safety, I urge you to read on.

Think now about the front of your hips- If the ligament support there has been compromised, what’s left holding the joint together? Other than blind faith, your anterior hip now must rely on muscles for it’s ligament support- your psoas and other hip flexors.

What can also happen is, because the iliofemoral ligament becomes more relaxed in anterior tilt, dancers tend to compensate by tilting the pelvis to feel less restriction in the ligament and get their leg up higher in arabesque. But the line doesn’t look quite right, you won’t be as  strong, and you might hurt your back.

In both cases your psoas starts acting more like a ligament. This is not ideal. Your psoas is a muscle, not a ligament. I hope I’m getting redundant.

While the psoas does provide some stability to the hip and spine posturally, it also has the very important role as prime mover in lifting your leg up high over your head, and other cool things like that.

Trouble getting your leg to 90 degrees? Your psoas isn’t working properly.

With the ligaments not optimally supporting your spine and pelvis, your psoas is now under excess tension in it’s new role of providing stability to the hip and spine, so obviously it won’t be able to lift your leg as high as you want to.

And no wonder it feels kind of tight, eh? (important note: as a Canadian I say “eh” a lot. Deal with it)

And now a new question arises- should you even try to stretch the hip flexors if they are all that’s holding your hip together?

Just because it’s tight, does that automatically mean you should stretch it?

In this case, maybe not.

By stretching one of the only muscles providing support to your hip joint, you might be compromising the stability, and increasing your likelihood for injury.

But it’s a catch 22, because when the psoas become excessively tight, it will pull the pelvis out of place and can cause pain. You’re at risk for things like painful snapping hip, labral tears, and other unpleasant things of that nature.

Are you confused enough now?

Your psoas is too short, and needs to be released, but don’t stretch it because it will make things worse…. So what should you do?

 NOTE: for those who are not hypermobile, and are working on improving their hip flexibility, and actually NEED to, then this applies less to you, but might be good to know as you continue on your journey to flexibility.

Here’s my approach: Train your A-A-A-B-S. This is my version of training ‘dem aaabs, baby.

Assess

Alignment

Awareness

Breathe

Strengthen

The trouble is we often go about this all wrong- We start by doing strengthening exercises, and we hold our breath while doing them. We have little awareness of what our alignment should be, because we haven’t taken the time to get a proper assessment.

Well, shit.

So let’s apply this approach to reducing the tension on the psoas.

Assessment, alignment and awareness. How can you self-assess if your hip flexors might be short and tight? Does your lower back arch excessively? Does your ribcage tend to flare out and up? Do you breathe shallow breaths? Do you have trouble keeping your booty aligned underneath your ribcage? Do you look like this?:

An anteriorally tilted pelvic alignment is common in dancers, which is indicative of chronic tightness in the psoas (among other things), poor breathing, abdominal weakness, and a general lack of awareness of the body’s optimal alignment.

Not only is this position probably going to make your hips feel tight, but being anteriorally tilted at the pelvis makes it difficult to perform many dance exercises compared to when at neutral.

Because in anterior tilt the psoas is shortened and the hip extensors (glutes and hammies) are lengthened, it puts both muscles in a mechanical disadvantage in term of their maximal strength compared to when in neutral alignment, when muscles at both sides of the joint are resting at mid-range (where they are strongest).

An important first step in relieving tight hip flexors is to therefore locate neutral pelvic alignment, and try to use it as often as possible. In dance, and in life. More on neutral spine another time though.

Breathing. Dancers, for the most part, are chronic breath-holders. It’s no use trying to learn a new alignment if you can’t make it stick, and breath is the key. Breathing allows you to live, and likewise, breathing allows you to be fully present and retain the benefits of  each exercise

It would be worth your while to take 5 minutes as part of your warm-up to work on breathing while maintaining neutral pelvis.

An exercise that was given to me was to spend 5 minutes a day breathing- 30 second inhalations and 30 second exhalations. If you do the math, that’s only 5 full breaths in 5 minutes. I think the best I got was 20 seconds, and that was still pretty intense.

When I lose touch with my breath, I notice my nagging low back/SI joint/hamstring injuries like to flare up.

Try that exercise out. It takes focus, but is worth the effort. I promise.

Strengthening. In the case of a chronic, short psoas, your best bet is to strengthen your abdominals, glutes and other important postural muscles like the hamstrings, adductors, and upper back.

And just because the psoas is short and tight, doesn’t mean it’s strong, so spend some time strengthening your hip flexors too.

As stated by Donna Krasnow (and friends) from the article, Effective Use of Turnou:tBiomechanical, Neuromuscular, and Behavioral Considerations

 Proper pelvic alignment in dancers requires that the abdominal muscles and the hip flexor muscles cooperate. Strong abdominal muscles cannot level the anterior pelvic brim when the hip flexors are tight nor can stretched hip flexors prevent anterior pelvic tilt if the abdominal muscles are too weak.

As you are working in a better alignment, and have a strong core able to support your pelvis, the psoas will eventually be able to take a load off, and will be receptive to soft tissue work and stretching.

So to sum up, lengthening the hip flexors in necessary for dancers, who are often stuck with an ateriorally tilted pelvis, but only in concert with proper awareness of neutral alignment, and strengthening of the supporting structures of the pelvis. Got it?

I hope that made sense.

And note that this isn’t a one-time quick fix. You must continue to maintain this balance for as long as you want to keep your body pain-free.

I find that as soon as I stop paying attention to my pelvic alignment (ghetto booty-ing a little too much), and breathing, and neglect my maintenance core and glute exercises, my lower back starts to ache.

It’s also important to confirm which muscles of the hip flexor group are actually tight, as there are few of them:

  • psoas
  • iliacus
  • rectus femoris
  • adductor magnus (anterior postion)
  • sartorius
  • tensor fascia latae (TFL)

A good assessment is therefore key to the overcoming hip flexor “tightness” as quickly as possible.

Anyway, that’s enough words for one blog post, I think. And sitting at my computer is making my back sore. Let me know what experiences you’ve had with tight hips.

Dance Cross-Training Myths De-Bunked- Part 2

Welcome back for round 2.

Yesterday, I talked about a number of dance training myths that I think it’s time we put to rest. If you haven’t read PART 1 <— Click there.

Contrary to popular belief, strength-training is actually GOOD. You won’t grow big unsightly(??) muscles all of a sudden. You’ll retain your flexibility, and your technique is bound to actually improve, not deteriorate.

But before I continue with the myth de-bunkery, what does cross-training even mean?

The Merriam Webster dictionary states that to cross-train is “to engage in various sports or exercises especially for well-rounded health and muscular development”.

Or, as our good friend Wikipedia defines an athlete cross-training:

…An athlete training in sports other than the one that athlete competes in with a goal of improving overall performance. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method, while at the same time attempting to negate the shortcomings of that method by combining it with other methods that address its weaknesses.”

Dancing does a poor job of building a well-balanced body. In fact it does just the opposite, propagating some pretty extreme muscle imbalances. The nature of dance requires us to maintain much of this asymmetry (turnout, for example), but causes us to become over-trained and injured far too often.

Another manner in which the “dance system” fails us, is when dance teachers use what are comparable to scare tactics on their students in the summer. During the summer, or any“off season” when regular classes stop running, dancers are encouraged to keep dancing as much as possible for fear that we might get “out of shape”.  As it turns out (get it? turnout? Ha Ha…), getting a little out of dancer shape isn’t a bad idea.

It could be that the instructors do genuinely believe that dancing constantly, without ever taking a break, is the best way to train. Perhaps… But I think dancers and their parents should also be aware that dance schools don’t make as much money in the summer, and as such, they need market with a sense of urgency to attract students to their school . By claiming that, “If you don’t dance in the summer you will lose all your technique and get out of shape!”, dancers often feel obligated to dance in the summer.

When summer rolled around, I always stressed about finding a good summer program, and felt guilty if I didn’t do “enough” dancing.

In reality, the best thing you can do during the summer is to participate in fewer dance classes, and cross-train with other complimentary activities instead. Activities that don’t train your body the same way dance does.

I remember the summer that I didn’t take one single dance class. Instead I did yoga classes twice per week, and trained for a triathlon. While this is far from what I’d call “ideal” cross-training for a dancer, this regime did give my dancer muscles a nice break, and I actually came back to dance classes with noticeably improved technique.

Funny how that works, eh?

Let’s now take a closer look at these dance-training myths, and hang them out to dry:

1)      Strength training (lifting weights), will make your dance technique worse.

WRONG.

Strength training (properly…) will help to improve muscle imbalances, which will prevent  injuries and actually help to improve your technique! Using the same muscles OVER AND OVER causes some muscles to shorten, and others to become weak. Your body gets really “smart” by compensating, and creates shifty movement patterns to work around the tight and weak muscles.

For example, a few posts ago, I talked about how when I was young I walked with my right foot pointing 45 degrees to the side to alleviate the intense pain I felt in my hip. Things like this lead to the alarmingly high rate of dance injuries.

By addressing your muscles imbalances, your body will move more efficiently, and with less pain. By being injured less you’ll get to spend more time actually dancing and excelling at your art form, and less time recovering from injuries.

As Matthew Wyon puts it, “The goal of supplemental training is for the dancer to have a greater physical and mental “reserve” than the dance performance requires, thereby allowing the dancer’s “energies” to be directed toward the aesthetic components of performance and not just the fundamentals of the movement.” (2010)

2)      Strength training will reduce flexibility, and create big unsightly muscles.

FALSE.

Though I realize this is an n=1 example, I weight train 3-4 times per week, and can still do the splits. Granted, since I stopped dancing and stretching regularly, my flexibility has decreased, but in no way do I feel that training with weights caused me lose any flexibility.

Dancers have a huge imbalance between strength and flexibility. Most of us are hypermobile, which can be pretty dangerous. It may sound counter intuitive, but strength training intelligently will help improve both the mobility and stability around joints, which can help you lift your leg higher without actually increasing the flexibility of the muscle itself.

Will your muscles become big and unsightly if trained? Not unless you’re training like a body-builder and taking steroids. Seriously. The fact is, it takes a lot of work to get “big and bulky” muscles, especially for a woman. And the type of training required to get that “look” probably won’t help your dancing in any way.

3)      Doing anything BUT dancing will cause your dance technique to become worse.

FALSE.

I think I’ve already tackled this one, but I’ll say it again- Giving your dancer muscles a break will allow your body to perform better when you return back to dance mode. If you leave a light bulb on for too long, what happens? It burns out. Your body works the same way.

By only dancing, all the time, and never trying to address the toll it takes,  massive muscle imbalances can form.  Attempting to repair your body by strength training is especially helpful to if you have reached a technical plateau, or if you suffer from the same injury over and over (which for me, and for many dancers, was my lower back).

4)      During the summer, dancers should try to dance as much as possible to retain technique.

WRONG. AGAIN…

If you want to come back fresher than ever to dance classes, cross-train during the summer months to avoid burnout and over-training. This is a good time to focus on other activities you enjoy, not only to rest your body, but your mind too.

So what do I recommend for cross-training purposes? If you can afford it, work with a trainer who knows the dancer’s body, and who can properly assess your strengths, weaknesses and imbalances, and put together a program specifically for you and your needs. Lift some freakin’ weights. Squat, lunge, deadlift, push-up, and row.

To get a better idea of what I mean by strength training, check out my free 4 week program. Go ahead, >> CLICK ME<< . Just enter your email address, and a robot monkey will send you the secret password to access the program instantly.You will see video examples of the kinds of exercises I have my dancers do.

There’s a long way to go before the role of strength training becomes clear in the dance world. When it does, I believe we will see a reduction in the amount of injuries, and an increase in new, innovative, and strength based choreography. I can’t wait! Let’s start dancing stronger

 

 

References:

Wyon, M. (2010). Preparing to perform periodization and dance. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science

 

Do Dancers Need Upper Body Strength?

Ok. First watch this:

Count the number of times you think the dancers (of the Australian Dance Theatre)  needed to use their arms or upper bodies in some way, whether for a lift, for support, or to catch a landing on the floor. Ok got a number?

I counted 31 times. But I was also counting moments when a lot of scapular stability was required, because  I think this classifies as upper body strength too. 31 feats requiring arm strength in 2 minutes…. Now tell me, do you think it’s important for dancers to have upper body strength? Do you??? Tell me!

PS- When you have time, check out more of ADT’s choreography by Gary Stewart. He’s notorious for getting his dancers to do some pretty ridiculous stuff. One of my favorites, for sure.

I was working with one of my winter program dancers (we’ll call her Svetlana) a few days ago, and we had an interesting conversation after having her perform a set of push-ups. Conversation went something like this:

SVETLANA: OMG push-ups are so hard!

ME: I know, right*! They freakin’ suck! But you have to do them.

SVETLANA: 🙁

ME: So Svettie, do you think it’s important for dancers to be able to do push-ups?

SVETLANA: Umm YES! Totally.

ME: Why?

SVETLANA: Just…. Because…. ??

ME: Good answer! *high five*

* For the record, I make it a point to try never to say “I know, right?”.  And “bro”.

Sometimes, you don’t really need a more profound reason than “because”. Especially if you’re right.  And yes. I. Hate. Push-ups. So. Much. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I don’t enjoy my face coming right at the floor, and gravity really sucks.

But anyway, is upper body strength (not JUST push-ups) important for dancers to have? The short answer: Yes. Yes, it is. Do dancers of different styles need varying degrees of arm strength? For sure.

In ballet for example, the women don’t do a whole lot of lifting, nor do they put their hands down on the floor very often. On purpose that is… Sometimes penches go horribly wrong

 HOWEVER, these days ballet companies, such as the National Ballet here in Toronto, often commission independent contemporary choreographers to create pieces that aren’t necessarily “balletic”. The classically trained dancers are expected to be able to pull off some technically challenging feats that they might not be physically prepared for, no matter how perfectly they can perform Swan Lake.

Speaking of Svetlana…

It’s also very rare to make a killing in the industry with only one dance style under your belt. Mind you, “making a killing” is a subjective figure in the dance biz. Sure you’ll always be better at one style than others, and that’s fine. But if, for example, you are a ballerina with the American Dance Theatre, it definitely pays to  have the crazy strength to perform Gary Stewart’s choreography, should he ever happen to stop by to choreograph something. He’ll probably ask you to throw your body at the floor. And then get up, and do it again. And then stand on your head. Seriously. Gary loves the headstands.

In my opinion, (and in the opinion of my good friend “science”) there are a few major reasons why it pays to have strong arms, and a solid upper back as a dancer, regardless of your style:

1. For  lifting. For men, this is pretty obvious, but for women this is becoming more and more important.

2. For performing challenging choreographic feats. If you have ever had to hold yourself in a plank, do an arm balance, propel yourself with your arms, or do anything that required an ounce of arm strength, then you nomesayin’. (There are a couple f-bombs in the video clip, so if you’re sensitive mind your ears, if you know what I am saying).

3. Scapular stability and proper shoulder mechanics. Dancers are prone to shoulder issues due to the fact that a) we have our arms above our heads all day, which causes a lot of tension in pec minor, and makes us prone to thoracic outlet syndrome, winging scapulae, and a myriad of other unpleasant shoulder issues.  b) we’re just like regular people who slouch and sit at the computer too much and have bad posture sometimes too. And you can never have enough scapular stability.

4. Dancing is easier when you have a strong upper back. Lines look better. Holding the arms in the proper position is way easier. Your arms don’t get as tired as quickly. You can feel what it’s like to dance with you back rather than just with your arms. It’s just plain great.

5. Injury prevention. Things like rotator cuff strains, thoracic outlet syndrom, shoulder impingement, bursitis, and other common upper body ailments are, for the most part, totally preventable, if you have adequate strength and stability. Want to lift someone above your head without busting up your infraspinatus? Go do some rows (an over-simplification… But still).

Will your arms get big and manly if you try to make your upper body stronger? No. Not unless you try really, really hard. I promise.

To check out how to incorporate upper-body strengthening exercises into your life (and into your dance training) check out my free program, Dance Stronger. It is still in it’s beta phase, but won’t be free for long, so get in on it while you still can!

Anyway, that’s all for today. I only got 2 hours of sleep last night (ahhrhghghghh) and I am le tired. I’m coming off of a month-long melatonin binge. It was the best month of sleep I’ve ever had in my life, but now my body can’t get my REMs on without that sweet, sweet melatonin. Until it learns to produce it’s own again. Which I’m hoping will happen any day now… Damn hormones.

And on that note, I’m off to catch the bus to London to visit my familly for the holidays. Christmas Eve Smӧrgasbord, and multiple sugar comas on Xcessmas day await.