How to Stretch Safer

For dancers, improving flexibility and getting your splits are important. But, many don’t realize that safe stretching combined with injury prevention is even more important. This article will educate you on effective stretching techniques, which are scientifically proven to prevent injury. So, let’s learn how to get flexible the safe way.

Why am I so tight?

The first thing to remember is that you cannot influence a large part of your flexibility. There is a certain range of motion that is built into your body’s joints. This range of motion is determined by ligaments and bony structures as well as your muscles. In total it is determined by physiological and anatomical factors including the bones, connective tissues, muscle mass and neurological tissue.1 Stretching certain connective tissues, like ligaments, can permanently elongate them, making a joint hyper-mobile and less stable.2

There are many more situations in which decreased flexibility can be out of your control. For example, during a child or teenager’s growth spurt, flexibility can be decreased. This will be around the ages of 10-12, and according to a study, leads to an increased chance of injury to muscles caused by stretching during this time.3

In contrast, the part of flexibility that we can control is the suppleness of the muscle itself. Note that even here, it can be dangerous to stretch mindlessly, as situations of pulled muscles and sprains can arise. The most basic tip for stretching safely is to only stretch to the point of mild discomfort. If something starts to hurt, you are pushing too hard.4 People who should be even more careful are those with already hyper-mobile joints. According to a study, dancers with a larger range of motion are more vulnerable to serious ligament sprains.5

So, stretching can be very dangerous if it is not performed correctly. In order to explore this further, we must first take a look at the different types of stretches and what type and quantity of injuries they result in.

Types of stretching

The most basic type of stretching, that you all probably think of when you hear the word “stretching,” is static stretching. This is when a stretch is held for a prolonged period of time, usually about 20-30 seconds. The muscle is not engaging to complete a movement, it is an outside force, such as the wall, gravity, a barre, your hand, or a friend that is holding the bone in the given position. Collected data determined that static stretching is gentler than other methods, and therefore it is less likely to cause muscle, tendon or muscle connective tissue tears and strains.6

Second is dynamic stretching. This is when momentum or a dancer’s own muscles is used to loosen up a joint through movement. The leg, arm, spine or other body part should stay within its given range of motion in a dynamic stretch. According to research, while static stretching can be detrimental to dance performance, which we will discuss more in the following section, dynamic stretches, such as dance movements, are less detrimental.7 Therefore, dynamic stretching is best to be performed before class, as it serves as both a warm up and a release for the muscles without causing injury or lacking in effectiveness for performance.

Ballistic stretching can often be mistaken for dynamic stretching. This is the third type of stretching we talk about today, and, in my opinion, the most dangerous type. Ballistic stretching is not well-controlled. Therefore, it is easy to exceed the extensibility limit of the soft tissues . If they are performed with “cold” muscles, they are likely to cause injury.8 An example of ballistic stretches in dance class would be a grand battement. Many dancers like to do large swings of the leg to attitude derrière before class to “warm them up,” but this ballistic stretch causes harm than good. In fact, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons warns against “bouncing” stretches, noting that they can cause injury.9

The last type of stretching is prolonged stretching. This is when a stretch is held for an extended period of time, often up to 7 minutes. They should only be assigned by doctors, as they lead to a loss of stability and serious injury.1

Stretching before class

As I mentioned earlier, static stretching can have detrimental effects on dance performance. If it is done before class, it can be even worse: in trials, after a 30-minute stretch, ankle plantar-flexion strength (foot strength) was reduced by 25%.10 Even if you are not worried about strength deficits, especially in the ankles, this can lead to lots of injuries. Ankle sprains and other injuries often come from this problem.

Not only does dancing after stretching increase injury, stretching itself can be dangerous when your muscles aren’t warm. According to multiple studies, stretching with higher tissue temperatures resulted in fewer injuries.4, 11

So, if you don’t do the traditional static stretch before class, what should you do? The answer to this is dynamic stretches, strengthening exercises, cross-training, rolling out and cardiovascular exercise. All of these can help warm up your muscles for the movements that class entails, and will make it easier to release your fascia. It’s best to move the time of your stretching from before class to after class, when your muscles are warmer and are more prepared to be lengthened.

To help you remember some of this information, the graphic table below summarizes what you learned in today’s post in a nice visual format!

SafeStretchingGraphic.png

Bibliography:

  1. Brenda Critchfield. “Stretching for Dancers.”
  2. Ritter S, Moore MA. “The relationship between lateral ankle sprain and ankle tendinitis in ballet dancers.”
  3. Allander E et al. “Normal range of joint movements in shoulder, hip, wrist, and thumb with special reference to side: A comparison between two populations.”
  4. Better Health Channel. “10 tips for safe stretching.”
  5. Nicholas JA. “Injuries to knee ligaments.”
  6. Baechle T, Earle R. “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd edition.”
  7. Viale F, Nana-Ibrahim S, Martin RJ. “The effect of active recovery on acute strength deficits induced by passive stretching.”
  8. DeVires HA. “Physiology of exercise for physical education and athletics, 3rd edition.”
  9. Fowles JR, Sale DG, MacDougall JD. “Reduced strength after passive stretch of the human plantar-flexors.”
  10. Warren CG, Lehmann JF, Koblanski JN. “Elongation of rat tail tendon: effect of load and temperature.”

 

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