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What Dancers Want... how to improve your flexibility

Posted: May 04 2020

Hi there

We speak to a lot of male dancers and we know that flexibility is really important you. Dancers are expected to be increasingly flexible and for many male dancers this is a real challenge, so Blog Post 4 is dedicated to STRETCHING.

We’ve touched upon the subject in our previous blog posts but we’re going to go into more detail here. So we’ll kick off with some reminders;

  • Contrary to popular opinion, before or during class is NOT the right time for lengthy stretching sessions as not only do you need to be warm to stretch for flexibility, but static stretching actually weakens your muscles for the next 30 minutes, leaving you open to injury during class.
  • The best time to stretch is after class, when you are nice and warm, as it also forms part of your cool-down routine. You can also stretch before bed.
  • Stretching routines may be enhanced by massage and the use of massage balls or rollers.
  • Flexibility is a product of your natural body as well as the steps you take to increase your flexibility. Remember that we’re all different and may not be able to achieve the same things.
  • Even if you’re really flexible, you need strength and control to dance safely… So there’s no point stretching and stretching if you’re not strong enough to show it off – keep working on your technique and practice practice practice.

So, what kinds of stretching are there and how can we use them?

Dynamic

Dynamic stretching was touched-upon in Blog Post 2, as it forms a great part of a warm-up. Dynamic stretches move your limbs through their extremes but don’t linger there. They’re great for increasing joint mobility at the start of class, and in some cases have been shown to be equally as effective at increasing flexibility as using a foam roller. Examples of dynamic stretching include:

  • Leg swings (like grands battement en cloche, can be done with a bent leg)
  • Lunges
  • Hip circles (this could be circling the leg in the hip socket standing up, or lying on the floor and swinging your legs across your body)
  • Arm circles (both ways!)
  • Spiderman crawls

We were lucky enough to have a chat with Brad Walker from StretchCoach.com. When asked about dynamic stretching he said:
“Dynamic stretching is crucial to the warm-up. Remember that it’s important to do some aerobic or cardio work before moving into stretching… it’s a great way to finish the warm-up.”

“A lot of people think that you stretch during warm-up for flexibility, but it’s the wrong time! The purpose of any stretching that you do during the warm-up is simply to get you to your normal range of movement. This is the main mistake that people make with stretching during warm-up, so my best advice is don’t try to push it. Just use the stretching to get you to your ‘natural’ range of flexibility.”

If you want to read more from Brad, you can check out his online article about dynamic stretching here: https://stretchcoach.com/articles/dynamic-stretching/

Remember by clicking on a link you will navigate away from our website.

Static – Passive

This is the stretching that you see most people doing in class – static passive stretches are held in one position for a length of time, using your own body weight and breathing to help sink lower into the stretch. Static passive stretching forms a great part of your cool-down and can be used to increase your flexibility in the long-term.

Common faults with static stretching include:

  • Doing it at the start of class (or just before centre practice) – this is a BAD idea as it weakens your muscles, plus you’re not warmed up enough to really benefit from it.
  • Only holding for a few seconds – a passive stretch will only increase your flexibility if you maintain it for around a minute (get the timer out!). The idea is to ‘trick’ your body into feeling safe so that your stretch reflex doesn’t come into action. The stretch reflex is an in-built design in your muscles that makes them contract when you stretch. The reflex exists to protect you from injury, but it will stop you from achieving your stretching goals. So, we recommend you hold the position for 1 minute and breath deeply. Try to sink lower with each breath. (If you like a bit more science then try reading this informative web page from Brad: https://stretchcoach.com/articles/myotatic-stretch-reflex/)
  • Holding it for more than 2 minutes – after 2 minutes you’ve reached the furthest you can possibly go. We promise. The scientists say so! In fact, if you hold for longer you may actually start to do damage to your ligaments, so it’s best not to. But don’t worry, once you’ve gone through some other stretches you can always come back to your favourite one and do it again.

Static – Active

Active static stretching is where you actively engage muscles to help stretch other muscles. This concept works on antagonistic pairs e.g. the hamstrings engaging to help stretch the quadriceps. It’s very similar to the passive stretching but you’re actively engaged so it will also help to strengthen your muscles, which is a bonus.

Ballistic Stretching

Ballistic stretching is where you bounce in a stretch. This may feel amazing but it’s unhelpful and can also increase the risk of injury.

Brad says that: “Ballistic stretching is like dynamic stretching taken to an extreme …. If you don’t have enough muscular strength and joint stability, then these violent movements can increase the risk of injury. I see no reason why you would need to do this sort of stretching when you can achieve your flexibility other ways. Matching your dynamic stretching to your explosive dance movements is fine but taking it beyond that the risk is not worth the reward.”

PNF

The full name for PNF is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.

Ooh, fancy.

This is the one where you get a friend to help you and you push against them before releasing into the stretch. Each time your legs sinks a little deeper. Magic?? No, science. PNF works because a muscle is at its most relaxed immediately after being contracted. This means that if you can contract the muscle (e.g. by pushing against someone or something) then when you relax the muscle your leg can stretch further. Hurrah! Remember if you’re practicing this method then you need to make sure that you’re working the muscle that you want to stretch. Push against them for about 3 deep breaths (only around 50% effort), then relax and gently increase the stretch for about 30 seconds. Repeat around 3 or 4 times.

However, the effects only last for around 6 minutes, so, it’s awesome if you’re about to go on stage and do a high-kick, but if you want the effects to last then you’ll need to couple it with a static stretch for a minute.

Remember, as with passive stretching it’s only safe to do this once you’re nice and warm, and if you’re working with a partner be sure to communicate clearly with them.

Here’s a link to the ‘stretch coach’ again, this time with a video: https://stretchcoach.com/articles/pnf-stretching/

So, the best advice overall for improving flexibility

Here’s Brad’s advice if you’re really keen to improve your overall flexibility:

“The cool-down is a good time to work on your static stretching and extend your flexibility, however the main purpose of the cool down is not for this. The best times to stretch for flexibility are:

  • 2-3 hours after your exercise session, as this allows any swelling in your muscles to settle down, but your joints will still be supple.
  • Late at night before bed. This works at a neuro-muscular level because the increased flexibility in your muscles is the last thing that your body remembers when you fall asleep. Also, your muscles do all their healing while you sleep, so they’re healing in that elongated state. This is best for long-term gains.”

“If you’re looking to improve your flexibility long term, I recommend combining static stretching and PNF. PNF is especially effective because it also helps strengthen the muscle group at the same time – that’s really important when we’re talking about extreme levels of flexibility, such as with dancers, because you need stability to balance out flexibility. You can use a strap or towel or partner. This is by-far the best type of stretching for improving flexibility long term.”

 “I’d like to emphasise the strength factor – strength and flexibility are complementary, especially with dancers. Don’t overemphasise the flexibility because it can lead to joint instability… If you’re finding it hard to increase your flexibility it may actually be a strength issue.

“And finally, flexibility is like any other component of your health and fitness – it’s long term – if you eat a salad today you won’t lose weight tomorrow! Just as it might take a year to perfect a dance move, it might take you a year to build flexibility, so don’t get discouraged, flexibility is a long-term project.”

Want to read more?

For more in-depth details and a bit of science try perusing Brad’s website StretchCoach.com. There are also a variety of online stretching-aids available, and you can follow this link for 20% off! Thanks, Brad :)

Also, if you have any questions please post them in the comments below and Brad will answer.

In our next blog post we will briefly explore hypermobility and overstretching… we thought you’d probably read more than enough for today!

 

We’d also love to hear from you about ideas and themes that you’d like us to explore in these blog posts, so please drop us an email if you have any requests: hello@boysdancetooUK.com

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