April 21, 2020 - Jenna Calo
Dance ED Tip #97: Top 3 Stretching Myths
Myth #1: Stretching must hurt to be effective.
- Flexibility is one component of fitness that is needed to support the aesthetic demands of dance. When dancers come in for Physical Therapy or for their annual dancer screen, they often times express that they’d like to gain greater flexibility. The question comes up about whether or not stretching should feel painful. Stretching should not hurt. It may be uncomfortable at times, but it should not feel painful. If it does, that likely means you are stretching too far and perhaps too fast, or putting too much load to one portion of the muscle and not allowing your muscle to adapt over time.
- I have also seen dancers go to great lengths in attempts to accomplish their goal of greater flexibility—foot stretchers, over-splits—the list goes on. These methods put a high amount of localized load on ligaments that support our joints which are not designed to take on those stresses. This can cause more harm than good over time.
Tip: If you have students who are feeling pain in a localized spot when they stretch vs more broadly in the muscle, coach them on backing off slightly on the intensity of the stretch or perhaps even using a tennis ball or a foam roller to roll that area prior to stretching. Pain or stretching that is too intense may cause the muscle to go in to a protective tightening.
Myth #2: If I feel “tight” stretch, stretch, stretch.
- Tightness can be a result of a variety of things—compensation, over-activation, or sometimes it can just be the way a person was uniquely built. It is not uncommon for a muscle to be tight due to compensation to support another muscle that has the same job. For instance, a dancer may have tightness in their hamstring muscles (muscles on the back of the leg) because it is taking on too much to support lazy neighboring glut muscles that are weak. In this scenario, it is important to strengthen the glut muscles too.
- Additionally, tightness that a dancer feels may not mean the muscle needs to be stretched to gain greater length but it may feel tight because it is in a constant state of contraction and it doesn’t know how to relax. One example of this is the “tight” hip flexor muscles (muscles in the front of the hip that lift the leg to the front). For a dancer, these muscles may be overactive from the nature of dance movements and don’t how to relax. A healthy muscle knows when to contract and when to relax. Stretching alone will not solve this problem because that is just a piece of the puzzle. These muscles may not only need some help from its neighbors—the core muscles but also deliberate exercises to relearn how to relax. We may also assume that a muscle that is tight must be strong but more often than not a muscle that is tight is typically functionally weak too.
Tip: If stretching doesn’t seem to help in isolation, educate the dancer that there may be a weakness that is contributing.
Myth #3: All types of stretching are created equal.
There are several different types of stretching techniques that may yield different results and can be more appropriate before or after dance. Two types of stretching that I often recommend are dynamic stretching and static stretching.
- A dynamic stretch is where active repetitive movement is used through a range of motion to warm the muscles.
- With static stretching, a person maintains one position for a prolonged time to feel a stretch.
- Typically we recommend dynamic stretching BEFORE dance as a way to warm up the muscles and the joints into ranges that are about to be used in dance. Some examples of dynamic stretches for dancers include: leg swings at the barre or floor and treading the feet in a downward dog position. When you statically stretch in a prolonged position, (for at least 90 seconds) there are microscopic changes that occur in the muscle belly that will temporarily alter how much power you can access for things like jumping. This is why we typically recommend dynamic stretching before dance to prepare the body for movement by warming the tissues and static stretching for after to create change in the muscle length.
Tip: try to use dynamic movements in the beginning of class as a warm-up and avoid putting static stretching to start class or immediately before sequences that demand power like jumping, turning, and leaping.
Jenna Calo is the Director of Program Management and Performing Arts Medicine at Body Dynamics Inc. (BDI) in Falls Church, Virginia. She completed her Doctor of Physical Therapy at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in San Diego, CA and her Bachelors of Fine Arts from Mason Gross School of the Arts (MGSA) at Rutgers University. While attending PT School, she had a strong desire to combine her new knowledge of the body with her dance background by learning to work with dancers to recover and manage injuries. Jenna teaches specialty graduate level coursework in performing arts medicine at Shenandoah University. She enjoys working with dancers of all levels from recreational to professional and of all styles and genres. She has especially valued the opportunities she’s had working backstage with performers at Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre, and Ford’s Theatre as well as with dancers of Suzanne Farrell Dance Company and The Washington Ballet/The Washington School of Ballet in the DC metro area.
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