Stretching for Dancers

dance flexibility injury prevention stretching Oct 22, 2020

Written by Krissy Gullen, PT, DPT

Dancers are often admired for their artistry, athleticism, and flexibility. For many dancers, though, that extreme flexibility does not come naturally.

So, what is the best way to stretch to gain (and keep!) flexibility?

First, we need to understand some of the factors that play a role in how much range of motion you have (hint: It is not only about muscle flexibility!)

Let’s think about turn out, for example:

When you stand in first position, 

-60% of the rotation comes from the hip joint (femoral external rotation)

-20-30% from the foot/ankle (hindfoot eversion + pronation; midfoot & forefoot abduction)

-The rest comes from the knee joint (tibial external rotation)

Other factors like individual genetics and anatomy play a part in flexibility.

  • Shape of bones of the hip and pelvis
  • The depth of your hip socket (acetabulum)
  • The angle that your acetabulum sits in relation to your femur
  • Y ligament: The Y ligament is the largest and strongest ligament in the human body. It helps to stabilize the hip in the socket and limits the joint’s range of motion 

(These are all things that you are born with and cannot change!)

 

Now, when you start to lift or kick your leg forward, there are a few other things that come into play like:

Muscle flexibility

Muscles behave like taffy. Because they have some elastic properties, they can stretch and recoil afterwards. When you kick your leg in front of you, you need hamstring flexibility. The hamstrings actually cross over 2 joints (the hip and the knee). It is stretched most when you flex your hip up towards your chest and when you extend your knee straight. 

 

Joint mobility 

Where two bones meet, they form a joint. As the bones slide and rotate around each other, they allow the joint to move. 

When you kick your leg in front of you, the head of the femur (ball in the ball and socket joint) glides and spins on the acetabulum (part of the pelvis that forms the socket). 

If you have stiffness within your joint that is not allowing proper glide and spin, it will limit your hip range of motion and may even cause some discomfort like pinching at the  height of your kick or leg extension.

 

Muscle tone

Muscle tone is the tension of a muscle. Muscles naturally have a certain amount of stiffness. But, when muscles become hypertonic, they are overly tense and contracted at rest and this limits how much they can be stretched. Areas that are hypertonic may feel like they are in a spasm. Muscle tone is controlled by the nervous system, so in order to change muscle tone effectively, you must use techniques that impact the nervous system. Methods of soft tissue massage, myofascial and trigger point releases, and use of foam rollers or other mobility tools can be helpful.

 

Neural tension

Nerves, just like muscles and other soft tissues, should be able to glide and stretch to a certain extent. Sometimes compression or restrictions along a nerve’s pathway can get in the way of a it’s movement and cause unpleasant sensations like tingling, numbness, or aching when the nerve is stretched.

In the back of the thigh, the sciatic nerve exits the lumbar spine (low back) and travels down your leg, branching off into smaller nerves in the calf and foot. Have you ever noticed that it is more challenging to stretch in your pike stretch or forward fold, or to stretch your hamstrings with your foot flexed rather than pointed? As soon as you flex your toes up, the stretch is instantly more intense. Did you change the position of your hamstrings or hips? No. You only moved your ankle. So that intensified stretch can’t be due to hamstring tightness. Instead, what you’re feeling is neural tension. It is your nervous system resisting the stretch.

There are specific exercises that are helpful to decrease neural tension and improve the dynamic mobility of nerves…

Here is one example of a basic nerve flossing exercise:

From this position, simply bend your knee into a tucked position while you flex your ankle back. Then stretch your leg back up straight with the pointed toes upwards (as seen in photo). 

Rather than holding a static position, the idea is to go through a rhythmic, continuous “flossing” motion. As one end of the nerve is stretched, you are giving another part “slack” in order to move (but not overstretch) the nerve through the soft tissues surrounding it.

 

With these basic concepts in mind, let’s talk about…

 

Stretching Guidelines for Dancers

 

Warm up first. 

Prior to a class or performance, warm up your body with dynamic movements that mimic the kinds of movements you will be doing in class. Start with smaller ranges of motion and gradually increase the range as your body warms up. Move in and out stretches gently, holding positions for under 20 seconds.  You can use a foam roller or other massage tool to increase blood flow and decrease muscle tension. 

 

Avoid Over-stretching

While over-stretching and using tools like foot stretchers can improve your flexibility to some degree, they also put you at risk of injury. Muscles are elastic, but ligaments are not. Stretching out ligaments that were designed to protect your joints can put you at risk for injury and impair your proprioception (body awareness). 

Also, if you have been stretching the same area consistently and are not seeing progress, pause and ask yourself why. It’s possible the area actually needs more stability rather than flexibility. Maybe it feels constantly tight because your body is trying to create some stability in a weak area to prevent injury. It’s not that the muscle is too short, it’s just that your brain is creating a sensation that you interpret as tightness. As soon as the area gets the stability it is in need of, it will feel safe enough to open up and move more freely.

 

Save static stretching for after class.

Static stretching is a method of stretching where you hold a stationary stretch for a period of time. The problem with static stretching is it can impair muscle strength and power output for up to 24 hours¹, so it is not ideal to do this type of stretching before class.

If there is a particular area that you would like to spend extra time stretching, do it after class when your body is very warm.

Still, avoid sitting in a stretch for minutes on end. Hold for 30-45 seconds. Avoid bouncing/ jerking movements, and breathe into the stretch. By using diaphragmatic breathing you help your nervous system to switch out of the guarded, tense, “fight or flight” mode (sympathetic state) and into the “rest and digest” mode (parasympathetic state). Look out for an upcoming blog about breathing and the nervous system to learn more.

 

Don’t only stretch in one direction.

The parts of the body don’t work in isolation. They function together along kinetic chains of connective tissue called myofascial lines⁴. These lines allow you to move more efficiently. Let anatomy inform your stretching strategies. 

It can be tempting as a dancer to overstretch your hips to achieve higher kicks and bigger leaps. However, if you overstretch these areas they may tense up to protect against damage, and you will end up fighting against yourself. It is best to develop a well-rounded stretching (and strengthening!) regimen that respects the necessary length/ tension relationships that your body uses to move efficiently. 

As a dancer myself, I know all too well that dance requires huge ranges of motion and it is a challenge to maintain your flexibility over time. I hope that this blog has given you some helpful insight and ideas for how to take good care of your body and stretch in a safe and effective way. If you have any questions or want to learn more, please don’t hesitate to let me know! 


 

Krissy Gullen is a Doctor of Physical therapy with a background in competitive gymnastics and dance. She is also trained in Clinical Pilates which she incorporates in her treatments to help Evergreen patients recover from and prevent future injuries. 

 

 

 To schedule an appointment with Krissy call us at (626) 683-8536 or request an appointment here. Don't forget to subscribe to our blog! 


 

 

Sources:

  1. Behm DG et al. Effect of acute static stretching on force, balance, reaction time and movement time. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36:1397-402.
  2. Bandy WD, Irion JM, Briggler M. The effect of static stretch and dynamic range of motion training on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1998;27(4):295.
  3. Fowles JR, Sale DG, MacDougall JD. Reduced strength after passive stretch of the human plantar-flexors. J Appl Physiol. 2000;89:1179-88.
  4. Wilke, J., Krause, F., Vogt, L., & Banzer, W. (2016). What Is Evidence-Based About Myofascial Chains: A Systematic Review. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 97(3), 454–461. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2015.07.023

 

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