As part of my Diploma in Teaching in the Life-long Learning Sector (DTLLS), through the British Ballet Organization (BBO), I did a research project on stretching and how to increase flexibility in my students. Below are my findings which you may find useful if you’re looking to increase flexibility or learn more about stretching.
Every body is made differently; some people will naturally be more flexible in certain places than others. In general, boys are less flexible than girls, black people’s muscles develop in a different way making them less flexible than white people, and very young children are more flexible and can increase flexibility faster, up until around puberty.
Being flexible in one particular area or joint does not necessarily imply being flexible in another. Flexibility in a joint is also specific to the action performed at the joint, being able to do front splits doesn’t mean you will be able to do side splits even though both actions occur at the hip.
When done properly, stretching can do more than just increase flexibility. It gives you:
- enhanced physical fitness,
- an enhanced ability to learn and perform skilled movements,
- increased mental and physical relaxation,
- enhanced development of body awareness,
- reduced risk of injury to joints, muscles, and tendons,
- reduced muscular soreness, (DOMS),
- reduced muscular tension,
- reduced severity of painful menstruation, in females .
There is a difference between stretching to warm-up and stretching to increase flexibility. Warm-up stretching is just ‘awakening’ the muscles, preparing them for exercise. When we’re trying to increase flexibility we want longer, deeper stretches. When you first begin a stretch your muscles tense, go into shock, they may spasm, sometimes this is easily noticeable, other times it is not. You want to hold a stretch for long enough that the muscles accustom, give in, release & relax into the stretch; this is when you start to gain flexibility. How long a stretch should be held differs in each individual person. Once you have learned to relax properly while stretching, you will not need to hold positions for as long. Generally anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds will be sufficient. It is often better to stretch a specific muscle for a shorter time initially and then return to that stretch again later.
Variety is also an important factor. As with strength exercises, you shouldn’t get too ‘routine’ about how you stretch. Vary which stretches you do and the order in which you do them. It is easy to fall into a repetitive pattern when stretching, but this reduces the effectiveness of your stretching program.
The primary key to gaining flexibility is simply to stretch often. Short, repeated exposure to stretching is more productive than a single intense or long bout of stretching. Stretching is also a long-term commitment and must be continued indefinitely to maintain and/or increase flexibility.
Whenever possible, find ways to stretch while doing other things. Sitting in a straddled pike, second position or in ‘frogs’ on the floor, while doing paperwork or watching the television is an excellent way of using your time wisely. (But you must make sure your pelvis is tilted up/forward, if your pelvis is tilted back and you’re not able to sit up straight, then try doing these stretches with your back pressed up against a wall and a pillow in between your lower back and the wall, forcing you to sit up straight and putting your pelvis in the correct position).
There are 6 different forms of stretching, (Dynamic, Ballistic, Active, Static, Passive/Relaxed and Isometric/Resistance). As well as these there are 3 different types of flexibility, (Dynamic, Static-passive and Static-active). Although all three are useful, static-active flexibility is the most useful to master. (eg. Optimum dynamic flexibility will let you kick your leg up very high, optimum static-passive flexibility will allow you to shoulder your leg and hold it up very high, but optimum static-active flexibility would allow you to developpe the leg unassisted very high as well as being able to kick it and shoulder it).
Static-active flexibility requires an element of strength within the muscles not just flexibility, so we need techniques and exercises that will strengthen the required muscles as well as stretching them. Although this sounds like double the work, quite often flexibility training and strength training go hand in hand, and they can actually enhance one another. Research recommends, stretching muscles after performing strength exercises, and performing strength exercises for every muscle you stretch. In other words: ‘Strengthen what you stretch, and stretch after you strengthen!’ This also will help prevent injury.
Each form of stretching works in different ways, produces different results and is best used for different outcomes. Most dance classes would involve all six forms at various points within the class. But passive, static and isometric stretching produce maximum flexibility in the fastest and safest way. So we want to focus on these 3 forms of stretching.
The most important areas/muscles to work on for dancing are the legs and the back, we want high kicks, good back bends, splits and big split leaps. So the muscles to focus on are, the hamstrings and hip flexors, the adductors and all around the thoracic and lumbar spine.
The best method for increasing flexibility is a special technique called, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation stretching (PNF). This combines passive and isometric stretching into one exercise. PNF stretching techniques take advantage of the sudden vulnerability of the muscle and its increased range of motion by using the period of time immediately following the isometric contraction to train the stretch receptors to get used to this new, increased, range of muscle length. This is what the final passive (or in some cases, dynamic) stretch accomplishes. This method of stretching also increases strength within the muscles being used as well.
There are three common PNF stretching technique exercises, these are: the hold-relax, the hold-relax-contract and the hold-relax-swing/bounce. (This third technique adds ballistic/dynamic stretching into the exercise as well). Although this is considered to have the greatest potential for rapid flexibility gain, this exercise has a higher risk of injury, especially to less advanced students. But the other two techniques are useful for increasing flexibility of the legs, (the hamstrings, hip flexors and abductors).
PNF stretching however is not suitable for increasing back mobility as this method is too hazardous for these ‘high risk muscles’. Instead we use a static/passive stretch called a ‘bridge’, commonly used in gymnastics. You lie on your back and using your hands and feet push yourself up into an arch, trying to keep your feet together, stretch your legs and arms and push through your shoulders so your shoulders are above/further forward from your wrists, (see diagram A). (Diagram B shows a similar but incorrect position with feet apart, arms and legs bent and pushing through the lower and/or middle back).
Correct Position – Diagram A
Incorrect Position – Diagram B
The Hold-Relax-Contract PNF stretch
Used for the legs and performed lying on your back, one leg at a time in front of you in parallel and also both legs in second position. All are performed in pairs. (So a total of 3 different stretches, right leg, left leg and second position). Once you are used to this, you can try it standing, with legs in parallel in front of you and legs turned out to the side, (so a total of 4 stretches).
- Assume the first passive (relaxed) stretch position with aid from your partner, lie on your back, keep one leg flat on the floor and lift the other leg as high as you can comfortably. Hold for a couple of seconds while the muscles adjust/relax.
- Contract (push) the stretched muscle, as if you were trying to put the leg back on the floor while your partner pushes against it stopping it from moving for 7-15 seconds,
- Then do the same for the opposite muscle, try and force your leg closer to you while your partner holds it and stops it from moving, again hold this for 7-15 seconds.
- Relax the muscles for 20 seconds.
- Then taking the leg/s higher/further, start again. Repeat four times in succession, finishing with one last passive (relaxed) stretch held for 20 seconds.
Another good way of stretching your ‘second’ or box splits is, lying on your back with your bum up against a wall, open your legs as wide as possible against the wall. Just relax and let gravity do the work.
If you find you have a very tight lower back (and this is hindering your stretching)- in between hamstring/pike stretches, roll back onto your shoulders, legs over your head, try and keep feet together, legs stretched and get your toes on the floor. This will continue stretching your hamstrings but will also stretch out your back. (If you struggle to get your legs on the floor, wear ankle weights, big/heavy shoes, or even skates).
Used for the back muscles. Performed using small steps if possible.
- Begin with your hands on a high step, push up into a bridge and hold for 5 seconds.
- Come down and relax for 20 seconds.
- Repeat this 5 times.
- We then come down to a lower step and repeat the whole exercise again
- Then repeat once again on the floor.
(So a total of 15 bridges will occur, each held for 5 seconds).
You should pair this with a back strengthening exercise, for example back raises, to strengthen the back muscles even more. It is also important to have warmed up your wrists before this exercise.
Other factors to consider when stretching:
– Breathing is a very important part of stretching, it helps relax the body and increase blood flow to the muscles. It also helps to remove lactic acid and other by-products of exercise. You should take long deep breaths inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, expanding the abdomen not the chest. (In a lot of stretches it’s helpful to think of increasing the stretch slightly with every breath out, so you’re breathing into the stretch)
– Massage can be beneficial for both stretching and strengthening; massaging the group of muscles immediately prior to stretching can increase flexibility. So before each stretching exercise massage the muscles you are about to use either reciprocally or individually.
– A proper warm up, including passive then dynamic stretching and a cool down including dynamic then passive stretching, should be performed in all classes to help prevent injury and to help increase flexibility.
– The majority of people are at their most flexible between 2.30pm-4pm. So try and stretch with in this time frame.
– The classroom/studio should be at a warm temperature, a warmer temperature is more conducive to increasing flexibility.
– Appropriate clothing should be worn while stretching. This should be made from a stretchy material so as not to hinder the stretch.
– Some sources also suggest that water is an important dietary element with regard to flexibility. Increased water intake is believed to contribute to increased mobility, as well as increased total body relaxation. So make sure water is available and drink sufficiently throughout class.
– The order in which you stretch muscles can affect your stretching. Some stretches even though focused on 1 muscle, may actually use many other muscles as well. For example, a stretch intended for the hamstrings may also make some demands upon the calves, buttocks and possibly the lower back, but mostly, it stretches the hamstrings. In this case, it would be beneficial to stretch the lower back, buttocks, and calves first (in that order, using stretches intended primarily for those muscles), before they need to be used in a stretch that is intended primarily for the hamstrings. As a general rule, you should usually do the following when putting together a stretching routine:
- stretch your back (upper and lower) first,
- stretch your sides after stretching your back,
- stretch your buttocks before stretching your groin or your hamstrings,
- stretch your calves before stretching your hamstrings,
- stretch your shins before stretching your quadriceps,
- stretch your arms before stretching your chest.
– Overflexibility. It is possible for muscles to become too flexible, and this could increase the risk of injury, as the muscles will begin to offer less support to the joints. Once you have achieved the desired level of flexibility for a muscle or set of muscles and have maintained that level for a solid week, you should discontinue any isometric or PNF stretching of that muscle until some of its flexibility is lost.
TO SUM UP:
- Warm-up before stretching!
- Hold stretches for long enough for the muscles to relax so you are increasing flexibility!
- Stretch as often as possible. Short, repeated exposure to stretching is more productive than a single intense or long bout of stretching and repeat specific stretches!
- Breathe while stretching!
- Massage a muscle before stretching it. Have regular massage treatments!
- Drink plenty of water while stretching!
- Wear appropriate clothing and make sure the room is at an appropriate temperature!
- Try and stretch between 2.30-4pm!
- Think about the order of the muscles you’re stretching!
- Use your time wisely, (stretch while watching the television)!
- Stretch muscles after performing strength exercises, and perform strength exercises for every muscle you stretch!
- PNF Stretching is the fastest way to increase flexibility, but must be used appropriately!
- The bridge exercise is the fastest way of increasing back flexibility!
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