In Part 1 I discussed stretching as one way of increasing ROM at a joint although the research has shown it’s not always effective. In fact, it may be that stretching has more of an effect on increasing stretch tolerance than anything else. Either way, stretching should only really target the muscles and potentially the fascia (again - research pending!).
The problem however, is when the restriction is not in the length of the muscle or fascia. When a muscle feels tight, people often assume the muscle needs to be stretched. It’s the natural conclusion; something feels tight stretch it! In reality, just because a muscle feels tight (i.e. it feels restricted) it doesn’t mean the muscle is necessarily short.
Let’s clarify. A short muscle is different from a tight muscle. A short muscle indicates that the muscle has difficulty lengthening during movement, or at its resting state it is actually shorter. This is referring to more of a structural property of the muscle. A tight muscle on the other hand refers more to the inability of the muscle to relax due to tension within the muscle - usually due to overuse. Muscle tightness and muscle shortness can both impact range of motion but will need to be treated differently.
If a muscle is short but relaxed, then stretching could be useful to increase the length of the muscle. If the muscle is tight and as a result has lots of adhesions (knots) however, stretching could actually exacerbate the problem.
Other ways of increasing ROM:
Strengthening a joint: This may sound counterintuitive, but if a joint is dysfunctional in some way, it may not be that the muscle needs to be stretched but that the opposing muscle group needs to be strengthened. During every movement at a joint one muscle group must shorten while the opposing muscle must lengthen. If you find you aren’t able to lengthen one side of a joint properly, it could be that there isn’t enough tension coming from the opposing side of the joint to create enough stability to allow this side of the joint to release. For example, if you feel like your calf muscle is really tight, try doing some strengthening work for the ankle dorsiflexors. The increased stability at the joint as well as the opposing tension may help the calf muscles relax.
I once had a really nice analogy made for me by a Pilates instructor of mine. If a joint isn’t functioning properly and the muscles around the joint are super ‘tight’ you should stop and think about WHY the muscles are tight before you go ahead and stretch the hell out of them. Those tight muscles might be the only things holding that joint in place. It’s important to add stability to a joint before you take away muscular tension.
‘Deep Tissue work’: You may have heard this term before. Deep tissue work is really just an umbrella term for any type of work that targets the deep muscles or connective tissue. There are many ways to do this including myofascial therapy, trigger point therapy, Muscle Activation Technique (MAT) or massage. Many of these require seeing a qualified bodywork therapist, but if this isn’t in your budget there are ways to do this type of work on your own.
Foam rollers, tennis balls or yoga Tune Up balls (slightly softer than tennis balls) can be your new best friend. Areas of particular focus for dancers should be the lateral quads, deep external rotators (piriformis), TFL, and gastrocnemius/soleus complex. Although Psoas and Iliacus are often in need of some work too, I would recommend having them treated by a trained and qualified bodyworker as they are quite deep to get into (and there are some kind of important organs you want to avoid in there). By working deep into the tissue you can start to break apart some of the adhesions and restore their proper function without actually stretching the muscles.
Food for mobility: Sometimes, lack of mobility at a joint can be caused by inflammation and increased fluid buildup. If this is the case, certain foods can help reduce inflammation at a joint and impact fluid easeful movement. Some studies have shown that ginger extract can be as effective as ibuprofen in reducing joint pain (1), fish containing Omega-3 fatty acids can slow the progression of osteoarthritis (2), and antioxidants like the ones found in dark-coloured fruits and vegetables can increase cell-wall elasticity and joint mobility. I would urge dancers who want to look more into this area of training to contact a holistic nutritionist to get more detailed information on the topic - Contact me if you need a referral!
Traction: In most cases, you will likely go to a health professional to get traction work done. As a massage therapist, I incorporate joint play including traction into most of my treatments. The reason for this is that joints are constantly being compressed by tight muscles, tendons and fascia, not to mention gravity! The two bones in a joint are brought closer together and the arthrokinematic movement at that joint can be compromised. Traction is a way of restoring the integrity of a joint by bringing apart the two connecting bones, restoring the circulation and bringing in new nutrients in to the joint.
Again, traction can be done on your own with the use of a thick band and any immovable post. Attach one end of the band to a pole (banister, bedpost, squat rack etc) and wrap the other end around your ankle. Begin to move back away from the pole putting the band on stretch. Lie back and feel the band tugging at your leg. Take deep breaths.
Neuromuscular processes: The last way to increase ROM doesn’t involve changing the tissue at all, but involves restoring the nervous system. When joints are held in positions for prolonged period of time the tissue surrounding the joint can adapt and become adaptively shortened/ lengthened. This is where the term ‘locked long/ locked short’ comes from. A similar process can happen with the nervous system. Because the nervous system has decided this new position is now normal, bringing the joint back into a neutral position will be interpreted by the nervous system as a stretch. Now if you try and increase the range even more to achieve the desired range of dance movement you will most definitely activate the stretch reflex (you can go back to part 1 to remind yourself what the stretch reflex is). Therefore, incorporating somatic work (imagery, breath, visualizing, etc) into your practice will be essential to allow the nervous system to let you achieve these new ranges of motion.
Other benefits of stretching
Up until this point I've discussed stretching from a purely mechanical point of view. There are however, benefits to stretching that go beyond the physical tissue which can be just as, if not more important.
The primary way is that stretching can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s ‘rest and digest’ system. In simpler terms, it can help you RELAX! It will likely come as no surprise that in this day and age, people are spending more and more time in their sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system). For determined and hard working dancers, this is even more true. The importance of rest and relaxation cannot be stated enough as an essential element of dance training.
Static stretching can actually slow down the body’s sympathetic nervous system resulting in lower blood pressure and heart rate, it can control stress, increase focus, increase blood flow from the extremities post class, and just generally make you feel really good! From a motor learning perspective, stretching included at the end of class can provide a time for reflection, integration and help solidify learning. Taking that 15 minutes to stretch after a class can ensure dancers aren’t running to their next appointment and psychologically digest what has just been learned.
When discussing the effects of a purely relaxation based massage, I once had a teacher make a comment that stuck with me. You don’t hear of people dying from ankle sprains, but people die every day due to stress. Don’t underestimate the powerful effects of relaxation.
At the end of the day, we need to remember that ultimately, our nervous system runs the show. If it doesn’t want us to go into a range of motion, it will be pretty darn hard to get there without injuring ourself in the process. No amount of mechanical work on the body will give the nervous system the urge to release a muscle that feels tight. Incorporating somatic practices including breath, imagery and mindfulness are the ultimate pathways to increased range of movement.
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.