It’s safe to say that most people like to stretch. When I was doing mostly personal training, all I would hear from my clients was how much they were looking forward to the stretch at the end of the session. Teaching pilates, clients constantly ask if we can incorporate some ‘stretching’ into the session. Why? Because stretching feels good!
Dancers are no exception and in fact, are usually on the far end of the spectrum. Flexibility is no doubt an important element to certain styles of dance, but how to achieve optimal flexibility is the real question.
It's not unusual then, that when discussing flexibility your mind is immediately drawn to stretching. Stretching is a controversial subject to say the least, and recent years have seen a real shift in how movement practitioners and body experts are using it. I’ve recently changed my own approach to stretching as I’ve learned more about it - and definitely differ in my approach to stretching depending on who I’m working with.
We now understand that the amount of motion at a joint is impacted by many factors, and is actually more complex than just the 'flexibility' of the muscles surrounding it.
Stretching CAN be used as an effective way of achieving greater ROM as long as it is done with awareness and mindfulness. Stretching is not the time to ‘check out’ - in fact it requires a deep tuning in to the body.
The information following is directed towards dancers or those working with dancers, NOT the general public. For dancers, flexibility is an important part of dance training. I write a lot about dance as a unique area of sports science. Whereas other athletes require flexibility for functionality, dancers’ flexibility is an inherent element of functionality. Achieving range of motion beyond the functions of daily life is part of the aesthetic of dance.
In this post I will discuss how to use stretching to your advantage by explaining the what, how, why and when. In part two, I will discuss other ways of increasing your range of motion that does not include stretching.
So first a little background info on the topic:
Flexibility Vs. Range of Motion
Often these two terms are used interchangeably but they are in fact different.
Range of motion (ROM) refers to the degree of motion that occurs at a joint. This will be impacted by many factors including the structural anatomy of the joint, the surrounding soft tissue and connective tissue, muscle mass as well as neurological tissue.
Flexibility, is the ability of the soft tissue to elongate - so more specifically the muscles, tendons and fascia. ROM will therefore be impacted by the flexibility of the muscles however also takes into account other impacting factors. Someone who is hypermobile may therefore have a large amount of ROM at a joint, however still have ‘tight’ muscles. In fact, in my experience the more hypermobile dancers I work with often feel like their muscles are the ‘tightest’.
Common wisdom would assume that to increase ROM at a joint you need to stretch stretch and then stretch some more! And while stretching PROPERLY may impact the ROM, muscular factors will actually only account for about 10% of the limiting factors of ROM. I know!! 85% of these factors are joint factors which are largely genetic!! Some of these joint factors include the articulating bone and cartilage and the ligaments surrounding the joint (which we absolutely do NOT want to stretch). Muscular factors include the muscles and tendon extensibility. The other 5% will include more general factors like age, gender, body fat and environment. So therefore it’s important to know that some people will genetically be more flexible than others.
ROM can be either Passive or Active.
Passive range of motion, involves the amount of movement you have at a joint without any muscle activation. The joint is being moved by an external force (either another person, or a resistance band or towel). Active range of motion is the amount of movement you have at a joint through active contraction of the muscles surrounding the joint.
Dancers require both passive and active flexibility in different situations. The nervous system plays a huge role in mediating these two systems and so changing one type of ROM will not necessarily transfer directly to the other. Therefor it is important to train the type of ROM you require for your sport.
This is the million dollar question!
Surprisingly, there is no ONE answer for the best ways of increasing range of motion at a joint. It will depend on so many different factors. Some research advocates for stretching as a way to increase ROM at a joint, whereas other studies have found no increased benefits from certain types of stretching. This lends itself to the idea that different techniques are going to work for different people.
It's valuable to look at dance specific research wherever we can - and doing so, it appears that stretching can be an effective tool in increasing the flexibility of the soft tissue therefore effecting the ROM but only in that 10% that is muscular. If that is where your limitation is, then it would appear stretching could be quite effective. IF however, the limitation in ROM is coming from the other 85%, then stretching alone might not make a change. Research has also found that stretching can increase the ROM at a joint by increasing 'stretch tolerance' without any change in the muscular tissue. This will likely be an effect on the nervous system more than anything else.
I will be discussing some of the other less 'measurable' benefits of stretching more in part 2.
Types of Stretching
There are 4 main types of stretching and each can be beneficial if used safely and effectively.
Static Stretching: This involves taking a muscle into a lengthened position and holding it there. Research has shown that 15-30 seconds is adequate for holding a static stretches as it is more effective than stretches of a shorter duration but no different from stretches of a longer duration (like this study or this study).
Dynamic Stretching: This type of stretching involves a controlled and dynamic movement of the joint through its full range of movement. An example of this would be leg swings, lunges or arm arcs.
Ballistic Stretching: This type of stretching involves a repetitive bouncing movement. This form of stretching has been shown to produce short term flexibility gains however as it inherently lacks control, it is definitely the most dangerous so needs to be performed with care and caution.
PNF stretching: This type of stretching uses one of the body’s reflex systems called autogenic inhibition. There are various ways to perform this type of stretch but simply put, it involves taking the target muscle into a lengthened position and then getting it to contract against resistance to create an isometric contraction (contraction with no movement at the joint). The contraction is held for approximately 5 seconds and then released as the joint is brought to its new ROM.
Stretch intensity is where I encounter the most misconceptions. Many people believe that you need to feel a stretch intensely to gain the benefits that will come from that stretch. The harder you stretch the more your flexibility will improve right? Nope. This has been challenged by recent research looking into the intensity of stretch!
A 6 week experimental study was conducted looking into the intensity of stretches. Dancers were split into two groups: Group 1 stretched at their usual intensity of 8/10. Group 2 stretched at a lower intensity of 3-6/10. Results showed the the lower intensity group increased grand battement and developpé height by 20 degrees! The high intensity group on the other hand saw a very slight but not significant increase of only 5 degrees.
The results from this study also found that the high intensity stretching group showed an increase in inflammation blood markers. This means that the muscle being stretched was actually being traumatized (take a read here!).
The Stretch Reflex
The body is much more intelligent than we give it credit for. Its main priority is to protect against damage.
That is why the body has a mechanism called the Stretch Reflex. We have sensory receptors within our muscles called muscle spindles. When a muscle is lengthened too quickly or too intensely, these muscle spindles are put under tension and send a message to the muscle to contract as a safety precaution. This means that if you stretch a muscle too much, or too quickly that very same muscle will protectively (and reflexively) contract. If you are stretching so intensely that the stretch reflex is coming into play you are completely negating the effect of the stretch and because the muscle is going through an internal battle with itself you are likely putting it at increased injury risk. That feeling when you are stretching your hamstring and your leg begins to shake is probably a good time to back off the stretch!
What should be stretched and what shouldn't be stretched
Muscles and their surrounding connective tissue SHOULD be stretched. This will include the fascia that wraps around the muscles like a sheet.
Ligaments and the joint capsule SHOULDN’T be stretched. Ligaments are intended to hold a joint in place and by stretching them you are actually decreasing the integrity of the joint. Think of the ligaments as the seat belts of your joint. You wouldn’t go around ripping out the seat belts of your car. Because ligaments are non-elastic, if you stretch these tissues you will permanently elongate them. In response, the muscles surrounding the joint will have to work harder to keep the joint stable making them less efficient and more likely to fatigue. This will likely start a viscous cycle of the muscles feeling ‘tight’ because they are working so hard, stretching more, destabilizing the joint more, and feeling even ‘tighter’. Answer? Stop stretching the ligaments.
There may be times when it is appropriate to stretch the joint capsule or connective tissue to maintain the integrity of a joint due to injury or adaptive shortening in the tissue. This however, should only be done with the guidance of a health professional and with the appropriate strengthening work.
Of course the question then becomes how do you know what tissue you are stretching and that you aren’t in fact stretching ligaments? That is a really good question, and is why it’s important to work with knowledgeable and experienced practitioners with an extensive understanding of anatomy. A tip to get you started is you should feel the stretch in the belly of the muscle, rather than near the attachment points, or deep in the joint. There should be no sharp sensations or pain when stretching.
RULES for stretching
Here are a few rules that are good to live by when using stretching to as part of your practice.
1) Prolonged static stretching should be avoided before class, rehearsal or performance. It’s now pretty well unanimously thought by experts that prolonged static stretching before class or rehearsal can be temporarily damaging to the muscle and neurological tissue leading to temporary impaired performance. Numerous research studies have found that prolonged static stretching prior to class or performance impairs performance strength, power, endurance, balance, jump height, reaction time and movement time. etc. Although the neurological deficits resulting from static stretching may dissipate in up to 15 minutes, the muscular tissue can take up to an hour to regain it’s full strength . So no splits warm up!
2) Dynamic stretching should be included before class, rehearsal or performance.
Stretching however, shouldn’t be ignored entirely before class as it’s an important element of a proper warm up. When dynamically stretching, gradually increase the range of movement throughout the warm up moving into a larger range as the tissues become warm, and the muscles become activated.
3) The tissue surrounding a joint should be warm before it is stretched. This will ensure that injury doesn’t occur and will also ensure a longer retention of the tissue length.
4) Include some BRIEF static stretches before class, rehearsal or performance. Brief static stretches no more than 8 seconds can be used in a dance warm up so long as the tissue is warm, and they are not held for more than 8 seconds. This will insure that the joint is not weakened by the stretches (that is why it’s really important they aren’t any longer than 8 seconds) but the required flexibility is still achieved prior to dancing.
Why? different factors will impact a muscles ability to transmit force effectively to the bones. Neurologically as well, a muscle will exhibit less ability to activate after a prolonged stretch. So to make a long story short, DON’T do prolonged static stretching before a class and expect that you will be able to achieve your optimal performance. Remember, we’re trying to get the joint to it’s ‘functional’ range of motion before dancing.
5) Longer duration stretches for the purpose of increasing flexibility should be done when the tissue is warm and after class or rehearsal. If you are following a program to increase your flexibility, and are holding stretches for longer than 30 seconds it should be done either after class or rehearsal or at a different time completely in the day. If being done at a different time, make sure the tissue is warmed up properly through 10 minutes of light activity.
That all being said, for many people stretching will not make any change in their ROM at a joint. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So if stretching isn't working for you, there could be another answer!
In PART 2, we will look at some of the other benefits of stretching that aren't mechanical in nature, as well as other ways to increase ROM that doesn't involve stretching.
Hi! I'm a dance science educator, Pilates instructor and Personal Trainer residing in Toronto. Here is what I have to say about all things health and movement related.