Should You Use Static Stretching to Improve Flexibility?

Should You Use Static Stretching to Improve Flexibility?

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.

DNS

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.”

or,

“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,

OR

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to tell if You’re Stuck in the “Dancer-Box” (and get out of it, too)

The theme of “getting out of the box” has been prevalent in my life for the past month or so.

I work at a Thai massage center with both Thai practitioners and RMTs (registered massage therapists, for the non-Canadians. In the stares I think LMT is similar). The owner is not an RMT. Nor am I an RMT. We, as non-RMTs, have our limitations (not being able to issue insurance receipts is the main one). But she feels so strongly that the RMTs, despite their ability to make massage so accessible, often limit themselves by living in their “RMT box”.

By this she means nothing derogatory, just that she’s hired a few RMTs who hold onto limiting attitudes they’ve learned in massage school that prevent them from becoming the Thai practitioners they want to be. And I don’t mean to knock the RMT designation- I want to go back to school to earn it myself because it makes massage so accessible for people who otherwise wouldn’t have the option.

What she is saying is true for any profession or paradigm. If you enter with a sense of entitlement or superiority, an unwillingness to change and learn new ways of doing things, and even unlearn a few things, then you are boxing yourself into a mediocre version of what you could be.

Dancers can just as easily put themselves in the “dancer box”, and this is dangerous. It puts a limit on their abilities, their potential, and even their health.

What is the dancer box? It’s ego. Clinging on to comfortable ways of doing things. Habits. Doing what you’re told, rather than what you know to be best for you. Not being aware that the box even exists.

Some examples of being in the dancer-box:

  • Thinking resting is for the weak (had a dancer tell me that a few days ago… Oh boy)
  •  Dancing through injuries even though it hurts just to walk
  •  Speaking of walking, proudly walking with emphasized turned out
  •  Showing off your flexibility and skillz at every possible moment, sometimes causing foolish, preventable injuries (perhaps when drunk to impress your friends…)
  •  Thinking you need to look a certain way, be a certain weight
  •  Doing physio only once and thinking you got your injury “sorted out” forever

This is unfortunately the way many dancers are brought up to think. It’s how things are habitually done, and most dance teachers don’t have the time or energy to counsel each dancer individually on “best practices”. Worst case,  dance teachers sometimes tell their students completely bogus stuff that only keeps them in the box (skip meals, don’t cross-train, etc).

Get out of the damn box! Start now.

Listen to your body. If it hurts when you move, don’t dance that day.

Know that spending 90 bucks on rehab is totally worth it in the big picture if it adds a few more years to your career. It’s an investment in one of your most valuable assets- Your body.

Don’t let the way you look make you believe you can’t be a dancer because you don’t have the perfect body. Pobody’s nerfect, you know.

In yoga classes, please don’t make it about showing off how flexible you are- It’s not about that.

Make sure you’ve rested enough after an injury and then return back to dance gradually. If a piece of choreography hurts to do, troubleshoot- Find a way to get to the same aesthetic without damaging your joints. It IS possible. Communicate your needs with teachers and choreographers.

Eat. Sleep. Drink water. Take the summer off dance if you want. It’s not going to ruin you.

I recently began working with a talented group of dancers in a professional training program. I start their day off with what was initially supposed to be a “stretching and conditioning” class, but I’ve morphed into something different which I feel to be more beneficial. And seeing as I was given complete autonomy, I took advantage. No-one’s complained yet.

On the first day, I asked all of the dancers what was going on with their bodies. What’s sore? What do you want to improve about your dancing? And the big daddy question: Who has an injury right now?

To that last question, they ALL raised their hands. “Oh shit…” I thought. They want me to stretch with a group of dancers, 90% of whom have lower back injuries? All of whom report feeling constantly”tight” and sore. All of whom, while I was introducing myself, were writhing on the floor trying to crack their hips and backs, and stretch their hamstrings to relieve their soreness.

*Shudder*

Almost all of these dancers we “in the box”.

I could feel the boxiness oozing off of them.

For example, a few of them told me before class that they can’t do some of the exercises beacause their backs are too sore.That’s totally cool- Don’t do things that hurt.  And yet, they claim it’s still fine if they do dance class. And when I ask if they are seeing someone for rehab they say “yeah I did a few years ago, it’s fine”.

It is NOT fine.

In my class some of them become quickly discouraged when exercises must be done in parallel, and are difficult for that reason, refusing to believe they could actually be “weak” at something. You’re not weak- It’s just a new way of moving that you’re not used to.

They don’t see the point of breathing exercises. They just want to stretch.

I don’t blame them. I was like this too. I wanted a stretch class. I wanted a quick fix. I wanted to show off in yoga classes. I was in the box, too. I get it completely.

But life is better when you step out. You discover what is really possible. You unlearn myths, and learn the truth. It’s harder at first, but I promise it’s better.

But my boxy group of dancers have come a long way. I see some of them starting to get it. That stretching isn’t always the answer. That resting is good. That proper physio isn’t a liability, it’s an investment. And it’s beautiful to see these glorious creatures emerge from the boxy depths of dancer ego. It’s what makes my work worthwhile. It’s what makes for good dancing, too, I think.

It’s likely that we were all in the box at one point. Sometimes we have one foot in, one foot out. And it’s ok. The most important thing is to know the box exists, and know that there’s a lot more space to dance outside the box.

Were you in the box? I’d love to hear what you think. How did you get out?

Stretches You Need to Stop Doing vol. 1

Stretches You Need to Stop Doing vol. 1

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. 


sacroiliac sprain

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.

Here’s why:

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.

 

 

5 Productive Stretches for Dancers

5 Productive Stretches for Dancers

There’s stretching, and then there’s productive stretching. I now only refer to the stretching I do in sessions with my dancers as “productive stretching”.

Mere stretching is unacceptable. My clients deserve better than simply to stretch, and so do you! Why choose to do only a “thing” (to stretch) over an activity with legitimate, progressive returns (a productive stretch)?

Which would you rather choose: Productivity, the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile. Or, doing stuff for just for the sake of doing stuff.

As much as I like just doing stuff, I came to the conclusion last year that being productive and my happiness level have a direct correlation. It turns out productivity isn’t such a bummer, and I actually like getting stuff done.

Case in point:  Only do productive stretching.

By my above definition of productivity as being the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile, productive stretching therefore refers to stretching that actually accomplishes something worthwhile: An increase in tissue length and/or desired improvement in joint range of motion and/or changes a neuromuscular pattern of moving in a way that improves execution of important movements and skills, AND can reduce the risk of injury or relieve chronic pain. That’s a very important AND.

In other words, flexibility that will help you dance better and not hurt you.

POP QUIZ:

Does this look productive?

 

Will it make you more flexible? Yeah maybe… But only up until you need hip replacements at the ripe old age of 27. My iliofemoral ligaments hurt just looking at this picture.

Will getting sat on improve motor control, dynamic stability, and help you dance pain-free while preventing injuries? Heck no.

Please don’t do crazy stuff like that. Don’t let your coach sit on you. If not for yourself, do it for me! Because I CARE ABOUT YOU!

It’s funny, I hardly ever stretch with my dancers at all, and when I do, it is generally limited to some mobility or motor control drills, some dynamic stretching to warm up, and I must admit I’m a huge fan of yoga slow-flows and their ability to set your ass on fire while improving range of motion, strength, and building new motor pathways.

Like I wrote about HERE, simply doing common stretches, like lunges to release your hip flexors aren’t that productive. In the case of the pelvis, active mobilization is a better strategy to improve alignment and help with “tightness”. By this I mean using your own muscles to move your bones into a new alignment, and then chill out there and take some deep breaths, which teaches your body to remember that position, increasing the likelihood you’ll actually keep some of that alignment while you’re up walking around, dancing, and carrying your too-heavy bag in one hand, Starbucks cup in the other.

In a nutshell, if you’re already flexible, perhaps well into a degree of being pathologically lax in the ligaments (although I really hate that “p” word) then there are better things you can do with your supplemental training time than stretch more. By simply doing more and longer durations of stretching, a few undersirable things could happen:

  • Muscle becomes overstretched and weak, unable to activate at the right times
  • Joint position becomes altered (ostekinematic changes), causing things to rub together and hurt (labrums, bursae, tendons, etc)
  • Altered motor control around that joint due to ligament and muscle overstretching
  • Muscles around that joint tighten up in an attempt to guard the overstretched joint
  • Overstretching of joint capsule and ligaments (again, causing guarding and feeling of tightness around the joint).

In fact, these days I say, “If it feels tight, DON’T stretch it!”.

And if you are going to stretch something, please breathe while you do it!

So what should you do instead? Try these exercises that serve as mobility drills that can help you to improve joint range of motion as well as training good movement patterns into your system that will allow your joints to stop guarding themselves against the overstretching you might be dishing out (oh your poor ligaments…).

1) For your quads and hip flexors:

Half kneeling is one of my favourite drills and positions. Your goal is to get a stretch for your quads and hip flexors while at the same time you’ll probably feel them burn from activation (along with your butt and hamstrings, hopefully).

Things to consider:

  • Both knees should be at a 90 degree angle
  • Make stance as narrow as possible within a reasonable level of challenge
  • Lift front foot to make sure your weight is not shifted forward onto the front leg. Recheck throughout to make sure you have not drifted forward.
  • Feel maximal stretch possible on front of supporting hip by pressing your knee through the floor, slightly thrusting hip forward, and trying to feel as much space in the hip as possible (like you’re hovering off the floor)
  • Turn head side to side to check balance
  • Breathe with the intention of 360 expansion, directing the breath low, below your bellybutton

 2) More fun for hip flexors, and some calves, too. 

I know- You have tight hip flexors and calves all the dang time. You can kill two birds with one stone and do some split stance breathing. It doesn’t look like much, but this drill (inspired by Anatomy in Motion), when done with awareness of the breath (<– super duper important), can be a really awesome stretch for your calves, hip flexors, and can help with pelvic alignment.

Things to consider:

  • Split stance with feet parallel (don’t let that pesky back foot turn out), as wide or narrow as needed
  • Check in with breathing- Can you breathe low below bellybutton, 360 degree expansion, with full exhalations letting your ribs drop down to hip bones?
  • On an exhale, rotate tailbone through your legs (like a sad dog) to bring pelvis forward, leading the lunge. Front knee can bend a little, back leg stays straight.
  • Keep back heel down and knee straight as much as possible
  • You may feel stretch in calf and/or trailing leg hip, or even inner thigh.

3) For your lower back (if you have a large lordotic curve like me!)

The lower back muscles often become hypertonic, and very overdevelopped, appearing visually hypertrophied (big and sausage-y). However this is not always the case- Some of us are the opposite, so don’t assume that you need to release your lower back because it’s possible you need to get MORE ability to extend your lower back.

You must be careful, very very careful, when stretching the lumbar spine area. Too much stress too soon will hurt your vertebrae, and rather than improving the length of the muscles you might increase their stiffness due to the additional stress and weird forces on the vertebrae and disks themselves. You don’t want that.

The following 2 videos aren’t technically  “stretches”, but are re-positioning/motor control/breathing/core (whatever you wanna call it!) exercises which I have found to be productive in helping to release tension from the lumbar spine erectors.

Things to consider:

  • I stole this exercise from the Postural Restoration Institute. This one helps to release the lumbar erectors while activating the abdominals, hamstrings and adductors, and making you breathe a lot (which is a good thing).
  •  Push feet into wall and pull heels down.
  • Lift tailbone slightly off the floor by pressing knees up.
  • Breathe, trying again to expand all around like a balloon, and try to extend your exhalation to being 3 times as long as you inhale (getting all your air out), and letting the ribs drop down to your hip bones.
  • You should feel this one in your hamstrings and inner thighs and a bit of core, as well as a release for your lower bacl. If you don’t, keep practicing. Same goes if you feel your quads tense up (hint, your quads should stay unclenched)- Keep practicing!

 

Things to consider:

  • Another PRI exercise to actively release the lumbar erectors.
  • You are trying to maintain contact with your mid and lower back (from about bra level to tailbone). Really round your lower back.
  • Same cues as the 90/90 hip lift, but now up on your feet! Breathe, round into the wall, reach your arms.

4) For your abs and butt.

Yes, just because you want to tone and tighten your abs and butt doesn’t mean that they don’t need to learn how to lengthen too! Can you produce force with a sling-shot if you haven’t stretched it back as far as it can go first? Nope. By the same token, you need to be able to feel your muscles stretch to use them. Abs and glutes included.

This is one that is inspired by Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS). In this sidelying reachy exercise (that one of my clients has adorably named the “Starfishy Sideplank”), your goal is to find a stretch for your abs and the bottom glute (among other fun possibilities of muscle-feels).

Things to consider:

  • Lying on side, propped up on elbow, legs in a 90 degrees lunge-type position- bottom leg forward, top leg back
  • Ensure supporting elbow is directly beneath shoulder
  • Press palm and forearm into the floor, rolling it inwards (pronate arm), keeping as much space between ear and shoulder as possible
  • Check in with breathing
  • Reach forward as far as possible with front arm, hold for a breath
  • Lift hips off floor if possible, hold for a breath
  • May feel stretching across back hip, bottom leg glute, upper back/shoulder, ribcage/abdomen, lower back, etc

If you want to learn more exercises like these check out Dance Stronger– My latest creation. Dance Stronger is a multimedia guide for dancers who want to get the tools to help them improve their dancing, prevent injuries, and reduce pain by, you guessed it, getting stronger! Click here to get more info.

You can also sign up and see the first two chapters for free (click the image below! DO IT!).

 

In any case, I’d love for you to try the “stretches” in this post out for yourself and see how they feel. Can you feel the stretches? It might be a little trickier because these are stretches that take a bit of conscious effort to find, not splat stretches where you get sat on.

I hope this was helpful. From now on you must only stretch productively. Deal?

 

 

 

Are Your Muscles Really “Tight”?

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:

Stiff muscles:

  • 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

Short muscles:

  • 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:

  • DO NOT perform static stretches prior to class/training/what-have-you. Instead warm-up with dynamic stretches that increase the fluid in the joint, brings blood to the muscles, and loosens up the tendons and ligaments to be used.
  •  You can probably gain a significant amount of flexibility by simply working with your full range of motion in class or in training. To be honest, I never really worked that hard to get my splits when I was dancing everyday. It just kind of “came” because I always worked my hardest in class. And now, after 7 months off, and not stretching that much, I can still do the splits.
  • Only perform static stretches (longer than 30 seconds) AFTER you have finished all the work (classes, rehearsals, training sessions) for the day. You might say, “but I need to feel like I have my full ROM stretched out before I do class!” That’s what the dynamic warm-up and stretches are for.
  • If a muscle feels “tight” or “stiff” for more than a week, it, or it’s tendon/ligament friends might be inflamed, and you should probably take some rest, and do some kind of soft tissue work instead (whether it be self-myofascial release or done by a professional. And anything done by a professional always wins).
  • Maybe it’s not just a matter of the muscle itself that needs to be stretched, but the joint just lacks mobility due to certain imbalances and weaknesses, and reciprocal inhibitions preventing it from working at it’s optimal level. I’ve written about this before HERE
  • And because I know that dancers and other athletes like gymnasts and martial artists WON’T stop stretching, I would have to say that my preferred method is the PNF method of alternately tensing and releasing the muscle.Like this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6uhXn9d0CA&nbsp 

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…