Whether you’re doing Hip-Hop, Contemporary, Ballet, or even synchronised swimming and gymnastics, you will need to call on your flexibility and core strength to deliver the full range of motions effectively and safely.
Better yet, your “normal life” will also thank you because flexibility training can help you avoid injury in your day-to-day activities.
Here’s a few tips and truths about flexibility training to stretch your dancer’s knowledge.
What flexibility training isn’t
People, we need to ditch the mantra about “No Pain, No Gain” fast, because it will do more damage to your body than good. Just because it hurts like the dickens doesn’t mean it’s working – it could very well mean the opposite!
In flexibility training, safety is paramount and stretching your body too quickly or overstretching your body is dangerous because it can result in torn muscles and damaged ligaments. It will also bring you the Very Bad kind of pain that will likely bring long-term consequences to your body and health.
Also bad ideas: pushing into a stretch, partner stretching, and bouncing. Remember — Never Force or Bounce.
Flexibility training is NOT warm-ups
Stretching is not the same as warming up. The purpose of a warm-up is to increase the temperature of the core and muscle tissue. An indication that the body temperature has increased is a slight sweat appearing on the skin.
Warming up the muscles is meant to produce a short-term change to prepare an individual for an upcoming session of physical activity; stretching the muscles is meant to induce a more long-term change in an individual’s range of motion.
The time prior to class should not be used to increase flexibility. Warm muscles are more extensible and responsive, so it is far better to stretch immediately AFTER class or rehearsal when muscles have been exercised for 1-2 hours. (See related IADMS article.)
How often should I stretch?
Flexibility training is really a game of patience and consistency. It’s all about using the right technique, the right sequence of stretches, accuracy, and frequency.
If you stretch lightly 4 to 5 times a week and make that a habit,
you will have far greater benefits and results than
short bursts of strenuous flexibility training that could
ultimately hurt you and your dancing.
How often should I rest?
As much as training is about consistency and persistence, it’s also important to give your body a couple of days to rest, process, heal and repair. Dancers and athletes often perform best when their bodies are rested and relaxed, so remember also to manage your fatigue and stress as those can cause your muscles to tighten, and for you to lose focus.
The best way to recharge and restore yourself is sleep. (Duh, right? But how often we can forget!) Other things like having a massage or going for a walk also help, especially in getting rid of lactic acid.
Which muscles should I focus on?
Most commonly, ballet dancers experience injuries in the lower limbs, hip and back. Therefore, it pays to work on your hip flexors, hamstrings and calves, and work on developing a good hip turnout. (See Stretchcoach.)
Since everything is connected, it’s good to take the time to stretch the entire body and do it in the correct order. Perhaps start with your upper body to get the energy going. Then work your way down, with each stretch gradually becoming more intense. Don’t forget to stretch the calve, as it will make it easier to stretch the hamstrings and lower back. You want to get that whole line stretched.
Make sure you open up your outer hips (IT band) and stretch the waist to help the lower back to release. Don’t forget the inner thighs, too.
Remember to breathe deeply,
and relax and exhale as you sink into each stretch.
Rather than holding the stretch while in pain,
repeat the more difficult stretches
until it starts to get easier each time.
Flexibility training while you’re still growing
You may have already experienced this, or you might be going through this right now. You’re suddenly bumping into tables, walking into things overhead, or literally tripping over your own feet. You’re feeling less like a graceful swan lately, and more like a gawky giraffe. It can be a frustrating time, especially if you’re starting to think about taking dance seriously.
During rapid growth spurts, younger dancers lose a great deal of flexibility, strength, coordination and balance — and that opens them up to more risks of injury. If you’re going through that right now, your poor brain is trying to keep up with the rest of your changing body. Your bones may be lengthening, but since muscles often do not lengthen as fast as bones, your strength and flexibility can decrease.
You might even find yourself growing asymmetrically, as one limb grows more rapidly than the other. It sounds freaky, but it happens more often than you think! So you can imagine how all that is going to impact your technical control.
But don’t worry — this is a temporary glitch. Please don’t lose heart, you’re not alone! We’ve all been through it.
At their fastest, boys grow by 10cm a year and girls by 6.5cm a year. As height increases, the center of gravity lifts. This happens so quickly that the brain does not get a chance to calculate the new rules for balance. On average, boys grow fastest between 14 and 15 and girls grow fastest between 12 and 13. Girls finish their growth spurt at 18 while boys need another two years before they finish growing at about 20.
— Jeanne Goodes, athletic coach
Strength training and stretching is therefore even more important at this stage to avoid injury.
You’re never too old
So you started dancing further down your Life Trek and you’re looking at someone doing the splits, thinking “Oh to be young and elastic again…”
Stacey Nemour, flexibility guru, has some comforting words to say about that:
The truth is, anyone of any age can become more flexible, if they learn to do it properly and commit to it.
Yes it’s true – the greatest increase in flexibility occurs between the ages of 7 and 12 before plateauing at adolescence and then decreasing with age. But the biggest contributor to decreased flexibility isn’t aging, but the lack of physical activity. If you have an active lifestyle, if you engage in physical activities consistently, you already increase your chances of greater flexibility.
Refine your technique
We cannot over-emphasise how important it is to learn and apply proper technique when doing your stretches. Good technique ensures you get the very best out of your personal stretches, and protects you from unnecessary pain — or worse, long-term damage.
So here’s some great opportunities for you to get your technique right.
- Limbering Adult Class — Saturdays at 9am
Our very own Suzy Piani conducts an intensive flexibility training session every SAturday morning for adults.
- School Holiday Stretches with Gen Bell — Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 September at 9am
Gen Bell will take you through an hour of stretches so you stay supple for the rest of the day’s workhops.