All dancers are aware of the importance of flexibility in dance but it is essential to understand what are safe and effective methods of stretching to increase your flexibility minimise the risk of injury, enhance your performance and reach your true dance potential.
What is Flexibility?Flexibility is the range to which our muscles and connective tissues will allow a joint to move through. In any joint movement muscles work in pairs. They are called antagonistic muscles. For example, the antagonistic muscle to the quadriceps (prime mover) is the hamstrings and when the quadriceps contract, hamstrings relax (antagonist).
A muscle can only contract as forcefully as its antagonist can relax. For example the quadriceps (prime mover) will contract more quickly if the hamstring group (antagonist) relaxes easily. The objective of flexibility training is to improve the flexibility of the antagonistic muscles reducing tension and muscle tissue resistance. Long term improvements in flexibility depend on your ability to stretch the connective tissues and work with your stretch receptors and other proprioceptors.
Aims of flexibility exercises:
- To achieve normal Range Of Motion (ROM) in the joints
- Improve the elasticity of the antagonistic muscles (muscle fascia)
- Maintain the mobility of the other soft tissues surrounding joints
- Improve and maintain posture
- Improve your power in explosive movements
- Improve performance
- Decrease risk of injury in the joints and muscles
- Reduce the risk of muscle fatigue and Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
Methods of StretchingThere are various ways to stretch: Dynamic, Active *(static), Passive *(static), Isometric, PNF *(static) = The muscles are stretched without moving the limb itself
Dynamic StretchingThis is the ability to bring the limb through a complete range of motion. This involves moving parts of the body slowly, controlled and gradually increasing the range of motion until you reach your full range of the motion. It is a controlled movement that takes you gently to the limits of your ability. This will reduce the risk of muscle soreness. E.g. slow and controlled arm movements starting from shoulder rolls and progressing to arm circles.
CAUTION: No bouncy or jerking movements. This can be a part of your warm up especially if done as a series of repetitions. In dance it is good to perform dynamic stretching exercises towards the end of your warm up as research suggests controlled movements through the full range of motion are appropriate. Start off with the movement at half speed for 4 to 8 repetitions and then gradually work up to full speed.
Perform dynamic stretches in sets of 8 - 12 repetitions perform two sets so you are not working to the point of fatigue as this will impair your performance. The dynamic exercises you incorporate into your warm up should be appropriate to the movements you would experience in your dance technique. In all the exercises breathe naturally whilst performing them.
Active *(static) Stretching*(static) = The muscles are stretched without moving the limb itself
|An active stretch is where you assume a position and hold the limb still with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist muscles. In most dance techniques dancers should have the ability to maintain an extended position with just the strength of the muscles.|
An example would be holding the leg up in front at 90 degree angle. The hamstrings (antagonist) are being stretched while the quadriceps and hip flexors (prime movers) are holding the leg up.
This type of stretch is often a major part of a dance class. Each static active stretch should be held for 10-15 seconds and 1-2 stretches per muscle group is sufficient. Holding for any longer than this can cause unnecessary strain on the muscle tissues.
Passive *(static) Stretching*(static) = The muscles are stretched without moving the limb itself
Passive static stretching involves gradually taking the position of the stretch and holding the position. The position is assisted by gravity or an apparatus for example, placing one leg on a bar, your quadriceps and hip flexors are not required to hold the extended position as you stretch the hamstrings.
- Hold stretch for about 10 – 30 seconds
- Repeat stretch 2 – 3 times per muscle group
Isometric StretchingIsometric is a type of static stretching which involves the resistance of muscle groups through tensing (isometric contraction) the stretched muscle.
This method will increase passive flexibility and it also helps to develop strength in the tensed muscles, which eventually helps active flexibility. Isometric stretching works because it is a method of overcoming and re-educating the stretch reflex allowing your muscles to lengthen. Isometric stretching is quite intense and must be prescribed with caution.
CAUTION: Isometric stretching is not recommended for anyone under the age of 18. Always allow 48 hours rest between isometric stretching routines it is highly recommended you consult a qualified fitness or dance instructor before engaging in isometric stretches.
PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)PNF is a method of combining passive and isometric stretching to achieve maximum static flexibility. The difference to isometric stretching is that after the contraction phase, the limb's range of movement is increased passively. This means that while the protective reflexes are 'turned off' the limb can be slowly moved into a new, extended position, re-educating the stretch receptors. PNF involves the assistance of a qualified dance or massage therapist who fully understands what their responsibility is if not there is a high risk of injury.
CAUTION: PNF is not recommended for anyone under the age of 18. Always allow 48 hours rest between PNF stretching routines it is highly recommended you consult a qualified fitness or dance instructor before engaging in PNF stretches.
Ballistic ExercisesBallistic exercises use the momentum of a moving a limb or body part in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion. Technically it is not a stretch because the speed of the movement only serves to activate the stretch reflexes, which cause an involuntary tightening of the muscles, thereby cancelling any possibility of lengthening of the tissues. It can also lead to injury and should never be attempted forcefully until the body is very warm. Ballistic exercises consist of bouncing, jerky movements and are NOT recommended as a stretch as it can cause injury to force a limb beyond its natural range of movement. There are many dance techniques that utilise ballistic exercises, it is vital you warm up thoroughly before technique classes to reduce any possibility or risk of injury.
Aspects That Influence FlexibilityYour ability to stretch does depend on several factors but it is important to remember that your flexibility is predetermined at birth and can not change. However, when you perform a safe set of stretches they will be affected by various factors.
The amount of flexibility you have depends on:
- How much you can relax your muscles
- Your mental attitude will affect your ability to stretch
- The type or shape of the joint and its resistance (ball and socket, hinge etc.)
- The muscle facia
- The suppleness of muscles (is there any scar tissue?)
- How warm your joints and surrounding tissues are (the warmer the body is the more flexible)
Too Much Flexibility!
See the additional article on safe and effective muscle stretches.
Disclaimer: The information contained on this web page is intended as general guidance and information only. Laura Stanyer and its authors accept no liability for any loss, injury or damage however incurred as a consequence, whether directly or indirectly, of the use this information. All advice on this web page should only be used under the supervision of a qualified dance / fitness / healthcare professional.