Updated: Nov 15, 2020
Lukas Hinds-Johnson, Berlin State Ballet’s resident physiotherapist and owner of PhysioX Berlin
What do you define as stretching?
There are several different approaches (plus many more):
Active and passive stretches
Isometric and PNF stretches
Ballistic and weighted stretches
Not to mention Yoga with its several different approaches and philosophies. So to make it easier I separated the groups into dynamic and static:
Dynamic stretches are controlled and modestly performed for about 3-5 seconds
While static stretches are held for 15-30 seconds and potentially longer (I've seen dancers sitting in the splits while texting or reading Physio Talk!)
Do you stretch as a dancer?
While it may sound silly, it's actually a question worth asking! If we look beyond ballet to other dance and sports genres, we see that people stretch in different ways and for different reasons especially as the dogma around stretching has changed in the last couple of decades. For example, in explosive running sports such as football or basketball, research indicates that static stretching when done before the sport, will, in fact, increase the risk of injury because of its neurophysiological effect, meaning that the muscle will react slower leading to a potential injury in uncontrolled situations. Dynamic stretches, on the other hand, prepare the muscle for extension and play a vital role.
But why do you stretch? What is the goal you are hoping to accomplish?
When stretching for mobility ask yourself, how functional is it to stretch statically? How often have you seen passive flexibility used during a performance? You need good coordination, motor control and strength from a variety of complex and extended body positions. When measuring dancers on their active and passive mobility at the beginning of the season, it turns out that some couldn’t reach their passive range of motion (ROM) closely actively. Simply put, the dancers received no benefits from their range in motion when performing.
The other point of concern is that even if you managed to change the tolerance of your tissues through static stretching, your body still doesn't know how to actively get there. To help combat this, I recommend a weighted end of range strength training (eccentric) which is a much more effective tool in helping your muscles' hypertrophy. The takeaway here is that with the right training your muscles don't get bigger, they get more elongated. Endurance and strength training also yield other benefits such as injury prevention (one of the best methods actually) as well as making your body and mind more resilient.
Most of the dancer skeletal-muscular issues that I treat are almost always linked to overuse and mental exhaustion. Break the dogma! Tackle the root of the issue and integrate strength training into your routine. If you train properly towards your goal, you will get better muscles and not bigger ones.
What are we actually stretching when we stretch? Muscles? What about facias, nerves, organs, vascular system, skin, and so on?
Current research demonstrates that individual muscle fibers can be stretched to approximately 150 percent of their resting length before tearing. However, this is not the case with fascias.
Featured snippet from the web:
A fascia (/ˈfæʃ(i)ə/; plural fasciae /ˈfæʃii/; adjective fascial; from Latin: "band") is a band or sheet of connective tissue, primarily collagen, beneath the skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles and other internal organs
Fascias can only be stretched 1-2 percent with a big force. When I say big force, I mean big. For example, the food fascia extends by 1 percent with a force of about 8000 newtons, as a reference, the bite of a lion has the force of about 4400 newtons.
As for nerves, we can't stretch them, we can only extend them within our body.
A tight muscle or irritation can also affect mobility and in some cases make your muscles tighten protectively or resist an extension in order to spare the nerve. The same is said for tissues, capsules, ligaments, etc.
But what if my muscle is tight?
There are basically two main reasons for this.
1/ Reflective, to protect a structure by changing, avoiding, stopping a movement or movement pattern, to reduce the necessary load on the tissue, and to give it time to heal by not doing any further harm to it.
You will know what I’m talking about if you have ever twisted your ankle and you start to limp imminently or, not being able to straighten or move your back after an injury. Here, static stretching might even lead to the direct opposite result because your body wants to protect the tissue by any means and your muscle might even tighten up more afterward.
There is a difference when it comes to fear-avoidance in more persistent pain cases, your body basically has learned not to do this movement because it fears something could happen. It's often that the actual injured structure has in healed and needs to be loaded again. In this case, mindful static stretching can become handy. Check out our first Physio Talk on Pain Perception for more insight.
2/ The other reason for a tight muscle is overuse--homeostasis is out of balance in the muscle. In order to tackle the root of the issue, strength training is vital. Too-tight a muscle could be due to a weak and not resilient enough muscle and surrounding tissues. Here, endurance and strength training comes into play, especially for those beloved claves!
As already mentioned, the risk of injury increases if we static stretch a muscle too long before explosive exercise.
But what is important for a tight muscle is a good oxygen and blood supply. Gentle and non-painful dynamic stretches come in handy, as is cardio or doing the planned movements gradually in order to give your body time to adjust.
And what if the muscle is sore?
Sore muscles (DOMS)
Defined as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) this can mean muscle stiffness, swelling, loss of the ability to generate force, and reduced range of motions for the joints and proprioception. The pain is not usually felt for the first 8 hours after the activity and only peaks 1-2 days later.
It's also thought to be caused by the micro traumata of the muscle and results in a delayed inflammation. According to a new hypothesis, muscle soreness (DOMS) can also appear from acute compression axonopathy of group 2 nerve endings in the muscle which results in mechanical hyperalgesia (getting more sensitive towards pain). It's caused by the superimposition of compression when repeated eccentric contractions are performed under cognitive demand (going the limit).
What does a sore body need?
Two things: recovery time and nutrition.
Active recoveries such as easy cardio or swimming can help improve blood circulation as does compression apparel.
Should you stretch an already damaged muscle?
I would advise against “stretching”, however, a gentle, mindful and pain-free "extension" of the muscle can be a nice way to feel the state of the muscle and can help improve the blood circulation. That means you move the muscle within a pain-free range. In fact, nerves love to be extended and moved gently enough as to not get pulled or stretched for too long.
What about stretching in recovery?
If you feel like it, go for it. The best time to do static stretching is probably after class (if you've overdone it refer to DOMS) or as I prefer through a morning yoga session to kick start the day. In both cases, it's more about registering and feeling your body. Let your mind and body communicate, let go of the stress (also mental), enjoy the sensation. Be mindful and feel where you are tight and how other parts of your body reacts.
Do you pull your shoulders up when you stretch the hips, relax them? What facial expression do you have when the muscle is tight? Keep smiling and try to relax your jaw.
How do you breathe when you go into the stretch position, during and after? Try to breathe as deep and harmonically as you can and try to slow it down?
What thoughts are coming up during your session, don't engage with them, just let them pass by and focus on your body, be in the moment.
How did you feel before, during, and afterward?
See it as a daily adventure. A journey for your mind and body to find each other.
Until next time!