By Elisabeth Murphy, PT, DPT
Contorting and configuring the body into interesting shapes is a core requirement for a dancer. Having enough range of motion and flexibility in the muscles and joints is important to prevent injury, to ensure the body is well balanced one side to the other, and to achieve the aesthetics required for dance. We all have our favorite stretches, warm ups, and habits. But, is your pre-class routine setting you up for the best class or performance possible?
To know more about stretching and flexibility, we need to know a bit more about the make-up of muscles and how muscles work. Muscles are made up of tiny microscopic fibers that are grouped together and held together by connective tissue. Electrical impulses from the brain and spinal cord arrive at each tiny fiber, which in turn causes release of chemicals (calcium). These chemicals cause our muscles to relax and contract as we move about during the day. Understanding how people gain “flexibility” or get “stronger” is complex. However, multiple theories and extensive research supports the use of strength training, stretching and physical activity to improve strength and flexibility.
There are 4 main types of stretches:
Ballistic—Involves stretching a muscle to its end range with a “bounce” at the end point of stretch. Example: doing a toe touch with a bounce to place your hands closer to the floor;
Static—Sustained holding of a position to stretch muscles, joint capsule and connective tissues. Example: Holding the splits for 3 minutes;
Dynamic—Movements that stretch the muscle within its range while actively contracting/using the muscle: Example: A plié in 2nd position or a lunge; and
PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)—Use of muscle contractions with specific motions to stretch and strengthen muscle.
Current research suggests that excessive static stretching can lead to reduced muscle strength and power. It can also result in less stability during a motion like a squat. How does this work? Researchers hypothesize that static stretching can lead to more calcium flowing into muscle tissue as well as prolonged lengthening of muscle fibers. After static stretching, the amount of force the muscle contracts with may be reduced, and the muscle may fatigue faster.
Therefore, excessive static stretching may not be the best way to warm up for class or performance. A better warm up plan would include dynamic stretching, or using movements that stretch the muscle while allowing it to be active. Examples for dancers would be: plié, small sautés or jumps in place, lunges, arm swings/reaches, side bends, forward bends, back bends, and jogging in place. Dancers may also do “smaller versions” of higher intensity components of their routines (i.e. battements to 45 degrees or small leaps only clearing the ground by 4-6 inches).
However, static stretching has a place in a dancer’s routine. Research supports static stretching for improved muscle balance, range of motion, and recovery from strenuous exercise. It may also assist with building muscle. Examples for dancers would be: standing calf stretch, holding the splits, or any other position of stretch held for more than 30 seconds. A good time to utilize static stretching would be at the end of a long day of class when you are done generating large amounts of force with your muscles and no longer need to perform at a high level.
In addition to utilizing the right type of warm up, dancers commonly question stretching a sore or injured muscle. Understanding different types of soreness or pain can help a dancer decide when it is appropriate to stretch. Soreness that comes on a day or two after a hard rehearsal or class is commonly referred to as “delayed onset muscle soreness,” or DOMS. The exact reason why DOMS happens isn’t well known, but most experts think it has something to do with build-up of waste products in the muscles or microtrauma to the muscle fibers. DOMS responds well to gentle exercise and stretching, as well as staying hydrated and using heat or ice on sore muscles. Taking a walk, gentle stretching, or working through a short ballet barré on your own may help relieve the discomfort of DOMS.
DOMS differs from the soreness that results from “pulling” or straining a muscle. A strained muscle will produce a sudden sharp, burning pain after performing a leap, kick or jump, corresponding to a much larger tear in the muscle fibers. This pain often persists for weeks, and, depending on severity, may result in bruising, swelling and difficulty moving. In general, if you feel you have strained a muscle, you should not perform aggressive stretching until you can do simple activities (squatting, reaching, climbing steps, walking etc.) without pain. As you return to dance class, any motion that causes pain should be avoided. This gives the muscle time to repair itself; any overwork or stretching may delay this process
Remember, there are many reasons why flexibility varies from one person to another. Growth spurts, recent injuries, and our genetics all play a role. We are all unique in how our joints move and how our body is put together. Avoid comparing your flexibility to the flexibility of others. Ask your teacher for help on placement and for specific stretches to best benefit your body.
*Disclaimer: The information contained within this blog post is not intended as a substitute or replacement for evaluation from a doctor or healthcare provider. If you have concerns, please seek medical care from a certified practitioner.
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