Changing This One Thing Will Drastically Improve Your Warm-up

Changing This One Thing Will Drastically Improve Your Warm-up


dance stronger book and training program

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Is there anything less sexy?

Actually yes, there is… But let’s not go there.

Today I’m going to share an excerpt from the warm-up chapter of Dance Stronger.

Dance Stronger is a 4 week training program for dancers, a 150 page Ebook, and a supportive community full of kick-ass dancers.

I want to share a key idea with you from the warm-up chapter that I think is essential for a successful warm-up.

It’s not fancy. It’s not sexy. It’s a growth mindest.

Awww yeah.

Here’s an excerpt from the warm-up chapter of the new Dance Stronger book/program:

Change Your Warm-Up Mindset, Prevent Injuries, Dance Better

If you want the truth about how I used to warm-up for dance through the majority of my dance career (which I will refer to as “back then”), it’s that I didn’t care about warming up, nor did I care to learn. I felt invincible.

“Back then”, warm-up was always stressed by teachers as important and I knew at the time that I should be doing it better. The problem was we weren’t ever shown HOW.

“Don’t just sit there, you should be warming up!” is not helpful guidance.

Much like being told “don’t forget to breathe!”, “make sure you warm-up!”, was a common plea from my dance teachers. To do our own warm-up before class was expected of us despite being given zero guidance on how and no explanation of why.

So, my “warm-up” generally went something like this:

1. Sit in the splits for at least a few minutes in each direction. Maybe over-splits if I felt like showing off. I also liked to throw in a nice long hamstring stretch for good measure.

2. Stretch out the top of my foot, or rather, crush it into a more pointed position. Sometimes I got a strong friend to stretch my feet for me. I never had a foot-stretcher, but you can bet I would have used one excessively.

3. Rub some Tiger Balm on my sore spots. Tiger Balm was my warm-up in a can.

4. Pop my hips. If I didn’t get a decent cavitation, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to get my leg as high. This took some playing around with different positions until I got the right “pop”.

5. Maybe throw in some leg swings. Maybe.

6. Sometimes I did some “abs” (which was more like lying on the floor moving around my arms and legs).

Dance Stronger

Self-portrait. Monika, age 22.

This warm-up was also the exact warm-up (minus the leg-swings and abs) I performed the day I injured my hamstring in a Jazz warm-up- Not even the meat of the class!

I just couldn’t be bothered to warm-up. I didn’t know how. I didn’t care.

Sadly, this warm-up is quite common. Why? I believe it is because we see warming up as a chore, and to make warming up for dance more effective we first need to change how we perceive it.

As I mentioned above, I injured myself during a dance warm-up. But wait, isn’t warm-up supposed to help you prevent injuries? And you definitely shouldn’t get hurt WHILE warming up, right?

What if I told you that you might need to warm-up for your dance warm-up? Would you think that was excessive?

It’s not.

Because of the unique demands of a dance-specific warm-up (i.e. the warming-up portion of a dance class), I suggest that dancers should be doing a general warm-up or, movement preparation, before even starting the dance warm-up.

A general movement prep is exactly what it sounds like- It prepares your body for movement, in general.

The dance specific warm-up (ballet barre, Jazz center warm-up, Graham warm-up, etc) is to prepare you for the dance-specific movement that will happen in class, rehearsal, or performance.

The point of a general movement preparation is to prepare your body for the fundamental movements it struggles with so that they can be better integrated into your dancing.

If you can’t write the individual letters of the alphabet, how do you expect to write complex sentences with fancy words and sophisticated punctuation?

What is the goal of warming up?

While you may read in other resources that the primary goal of warming-up is to prevent injuries, I want you to consider that this could be holding you back.

Is it possible that by simply shifting your warm-up mindset you could get much more out of it? I believe so.

Stop worrying about injury prevention, and you’ll free yourself from injuries.

That sounds a bit crazy, I know.

Here’s why injury prevention as your primary warm-up goal doesn’t work: Injury prevention isn’t tangible and immediately appreciable.

Injury prevention isn’t easily seen as a process.

Injury prevention is an idea, something that exists in the future that we’ll never know we have achieved successfully until near the end of our dance careers and we realize that, “Hey, I didn’t majorly injure my back! I don’t need hip replacements! All that injury prevention and warming up must have worked!”.

Injury prevention as the goal for warm-up isn’t motivating because dancers feel invincible and simply don’t care enough. Injury prevention doesn’t give us instant satisfaction. Injury prevention is an idea that we only appreciate after becoming injured.

For this reason, I invite you to drop the injury prevention goal, and choose a different one that instantly rewards you. Don’t worry, you’ll still prevent injuries.

A motivating goal is one that makes you want to warm-up rather than makes you see it as a chore, and must be one that is tangibly achievable, short and long-term, and focuses on the process not the final destination.

The movements you choose to do in a warm-up must make you feel good. You must be able to notice a difference in how you feel during and after your warm-up in order to want to warm-up every time before you dance, and before a training session.

You’re allowed to enjoy warming up.

Since I started thinking about warming-up as a pleasurable, somatic experience rather than as a chore, my efforts to warm-up have become more consistent and thus my progress in training more linear, and my chronic pain flare-ups more rare.

Your warm-up should make you feel perceptibly different. Not just warm, but more “present” in your body.  More reflexive. More intuitive. More genuine.

And when your movement is more genuine, and less strained, you will not become injured.

Because of the ease and enjoyment dancing brings you, dance will reduce your stress, rather than creating more of it. This idea, to me, should be considered as much a part of the global injury prevention solution as the evidence-based factors proven in studies.

So I hope you can begin to think of warming up as less of a chore and more of an exploration, a healing practice, and a pleasure, knowing how good it can make you feel both during and afterwards.

Focus on the process, not the final destination. Enjoy the journey, because the time of arrival at is at this point in your life, inconceivable.

It is after all the sides of the mountains that sustain the most life, not the peaks.




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: 

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…