Safe Stretching for Dancers

Safe Stretching for Dancers

As dancers, we are always trying to improve our flexibility. Online videos and social media have added to the desire for greater ranges of motion, compromising safety and alignment to achieve extreme positions and contortions of the body.

Many factors influence a dancers flexibility including age, body structure, genetics, gender, bones, muscles, ligaments, nerves, and connective tissue, meaning increasing flexibility is not as easy as pushing into an individuals range limit. It is crucial as dancers and dance educators to ensure we are informed of safe stretching practices, ways to look after the body, and understand that flexibility is multifaceted and complex.

No two bodies are the same. Every dancer will have a different range of motion in each area of their body. Some dancers who consider themselves to be tightmay have denser connective tissue and be naturally built for stability. Other dancers may be hypermobile and have joints that move to their end of range without feeling a stretch, which has greater implications for injury risk. For this reason, we need to tailor programmes to each individual.

As research has evolved, we have gained insight into different ways to stretch our bodies in a safe manner that will help us get the most out of our muscles during class or a performance.

It is useful to know the different types of stretching and when it is most appropriate to use them, and how to practice safe stretching.

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6 Types of Stretching for Dancers:

1. Static Stretching for Dancers

Static stretching is the most common type of stretch used in dance. It involves holding a position, usually at the end of range, where the muscle stretch is sustained for at least 30 seconds.

Pros of Static Stretching for Dancers

  • Helps maintain flexibility. Regular stretching may assist in maintaining flexibility.

Cons of Static Stretching for Dancers

  • Needs to be performed regularly for a long-term increase in flexibility.
  • Slows muscle reaction time. Muscles do not perform as well once they are fully stretched. Sustained stretching dampens a muscle’s ability to quickly contract to perform explosive movements or protect you from injury. Muscles have a slower ability to react for approximately 1 hour from stretching, potentially increasing injury risk and reducing performance during that time.

When to Use Static Stretching for Dance

Static stretches are most beneficial when used at the end of class or rehearsals, to re-lengthen and relax your muscles.

Static Stretching for Dancers

2. Dynamic Stretching for Dancers

Dynamic stretching involves controlled movement through range, starting with slow small-range movements and gradually building to larger range and/or faster movements.

Pros of Dynamic Stretching for Dancers

  • Warms up the muscles safely by bringing blood flow to the muscles

  • Enhances coordination

  • Minimises injury risk by gradually warming up through range, while avoiding the dampening effect of static stretching

Cons of Dynamic Stretching for Dancers

  • Less effective at producing long-term increase in flexibility compared to static stretching

When to Use Dynamic Stretching for Dance

Dynamic stretches are best used at the beginning of dance class or rehearsals, to safely warm up your muscles and prepare them for the quick, explosive movements and large ranges of motion.

Dynamic Stretching for Dancers

3. Ballistic Stretching for Dancers

Ballistic stretching includes quick bouncing, swinging stretches.

Pros of Ballistic Stretching for Dancers

  • Aids coordination

  • Prepares for explosive movements

Cons of Ballistic Stretching for Dancers

  • Higher risk of injury, particularly when performed cold or with poor technique

When to Use Ballistic Stretching for Dance

Ballistic stretching should only be used once the muscles are already warm. Best used after a dynamic stretching warm up.

Ballistic Stretching for Dancers

4. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation for Dancers

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation or PNF involves contraction and relaxation of muscles in antagonistic pairs i.e., muscles on either side of a joint. After performing a static or isometric (non-moving) contraction of a muscle against resistance, towards the end of its range, the muscle will better relax to allow movement further into range.

Pros of PNF Stretching for Dancers

  • Increases range of motion and creates long-term flexibility gradually over time

Cons of PNF Stretching for Dancers

  • Needs professional guidance to avoid injury risk and ensure each particular stretch is safe for the individual

When to Use PNF Stretching for Dance

  • With the guidance of a physiotherapist
  • Implemented at the end of activity
  • Can be used as a daily home exercise program to gradually improve range safely
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation for Dancers

5. Eccentric Muscle Lengthening for Dancers

Eccentric muscle lengthening involves slow, controlled active loading of the muscle in a lengthening action.

Pros of Eccentric Muscle Lengthening for Dancers

  • More effective in gaining range. Such techniques are usually much more effective than static or passive stretching in gaining and maintaining range in the longer term
  • Builds strength and control. Eccentric exercise also builds strength and control around the core, pelvis or shoulder girdle, when performed well.

Cons of Eccentric Muscle Lengthening for Dancers

  • Possible muscle soreness. Too much eccentric exercise too quickly can result in delayed onset muscle soreness, as eccentric exercise is generally more challenging for the muscle.

When to Use Eccentric Muscle Lengthening for Dance

Incorporate eccentric muscle lengthening as part of your dynamic warm up - move slowly through the lengthening phase of active movement e.g., the descent phase of a plié or lunge, to gain some range safely before increasing speed of movement.

Incorporate eccentric muscle lengthening into warm downs, focus on slow controlled dynamic lengthening and then hold a static stretch at the end of range e.g., perform a calf stretch on the edge of a step - 1-2 seconds up, 4-6 seconds down and then hold at the bottom.

Eccentric Muscle Lengthening for Dancers

6. Passive Overstretching for Dancers

Passive overstretching is forcing a joint beyond its natural range, with muscles relaxed.

Pros of Passive Overstretching for Dancers

  • None!

Cons of Passive Overstretching for Dancers

  • May reduce joint stability. Stretches the ligaments and capsule that support the joint which may reduce joint stability over time.

    May increase risk of injury

When to Use Passive Overstretching for Dance

NEVER! Use other safe stretching techniques instead.

Passive Over-stretching for Dancers

Do's and Don’ts of Stretching for Dancers:

DO'S

DONT'S

DO stretch dynamically before and statically after exercise

DO NOT stretch cold muscles, stretching should only be done after a cardiovascular warm up

DO stretch all muscle groups in aligned positions

DO NOT make stretches competitive

DO stretch gently and slowly

DO NOT stretch rapidly and bounce

DO stretch gently to the point of first stretch. This point will move further into range as the muscle relaxes

DO NOT stretch to pain. This may increase injury risk, and the stretch is usually less effective as the muscle will not be able to fully relax if it is trying to guard against that pain.

DO breathe normally as you stretch

DO NOT hold your breath

DO stretch muscles and their connective tissue

DO NOT lengthen ligaments and joint capsules

DO strengthen as much as you stretch

DO NOT stretch with a partner as they will not be able to sense if they push you into a painful stretch

Recommended Warm Up and Cool Down for Dancers

Start with cardio such as light jogging, jogging with high knees, bottom kicks and star-jumps to increase your heart rate for 2-3 minutes.

Once muscles are warm you can take them actively through range using dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching allows the heart rate to remain elevated while moving actively through range rather than holding stretch positions. Start with small slow movements and gradually progress to larger and/or faster movements.

Our bodies need an equal amount of strengthening with stretching. The warm-up can incorporate planks, pushups, squats, bridges, and core exercises into the warm-up to increase coordination and the ability to control your joints through range.

Allow 5-10 minutes at the end of the activity to cool down. Here you can use slow static stretching, with the aim to bring the heart rate down, and relax the body and muscles. Cool downs are often overlooked or missed with time restraints in class. If a cool down does not occur at the end of your dance class or activity, it is important to take it on as your own responsibility for your body. You can do the stretches after a warm shower once you get home.

This blog was written by one of our Physiotec Dance Physiotherapists, Rhianna Tunks

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Thinking of Going En-Pointe?

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Rhianna Tunks - Physio at Physiotec, Tarragindi, Brisbane

Author

This blog was written by Rhianna Tunks, one of our Dance physiotherapists and our Group Exercise & Pilates instructor. Rhianna's love of movement and exercise, is also of broad benefit for anyone with musculoskeletal pain or injury. You can read more about Rhianna here.

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If you are wanting to improve your flexibility, need advice on safe stretching practices suitable for you, or are noticing pain while stretching, our dance physiotherapists Rhianna, or Dave are able to help you on your dance and flexibility journey.

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