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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Is it possible to stretch too much?


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I am just wondering this out of interest: IS it possible to stretch too much (as in, could it have negative medical consequences for whatever reason)? How many times a day SHOULD one stretch, as a dancer?


Also...when one takes a break from dancing or exercise (for say, a week), just for rest's sake (not injury) is it best to continue doing some stretching or will it be okay to have a complete rest, including refraining from stretching? Will this affect one's flexibility much?


I'm sorry, this seems rather a strange post, and I wasn't sure where to put it. I did an extensive search on the board regarding stretching before posting this, but I couldn't find anything about "too much" stretching, or any concrete advice about whether or not "rest weeks" include stretching or not.

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Lau, I moved this to Adult Ballet Students for two reasons: I think that the teachers and other adult students have enough experience to deal with this question; and one of our medical moderators is away right now and the other one very busy, so it could take a while to get an answer.


In my opinion, it is VERY possible to stretch too much. How much one stretches depends a lot on what the body needs. Dancers, by the time they have been trained to an advanced level, know very well by then what and how much their bodies need. But that varies enormously. There are some dancers who are naturally very flexible, and they can go with little to no extra stretching outside of class. Others need to stretch a few minutes before classes with passive stretches, and then more extension and flexibility stretches after barre or after class.


It's more important to know what stretches your body needs, and then try to learn how often you need to do them. You also need to know which stretches to do when, and when not to do some of them. Generally once a day is quite sufficient, and the body needs a rest one day a week. How much you stretch depends on what you find works for you. Stretching on holidays also depends on how your body handles time off. If you feel very stiff and get sore, and can't work well when going back to classes after time off, then certainly do stretch during that time. If you don't have a problem, and want to really relax for a while, that is fine too. It's just a very individual thing.

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Huummm, my sense is that you aren’t really asking what you want to know. I mean all good things like stretching can turn out not so good under extreme conditions. Hanging from a high bar is a great stretch for the back, but I wouldn’t recommend hanging from a bar for hours at a time. At the same time, every time you contract a muscle, the antagonistic muscle is stretched so muscles are being stretched constantly.


The conventional wisdom about how long one can retain a specific degree of flexibility when not stretching is that it’s about three weeks. But that is a very rough rule of thumb. There are huge individual differences and variables like physical conditioning and experience are factors. In general people in better physical condition and who have a history of stretching retain their flexibility longer and regain it faster than other people.


If you are going to take time off over the holidays and you simply don’t want to stretch during that time, I wouldn’t worry about it. Personally, though I won’t be dancing for those two weeks, I do plan to exercise both because I like doing it and to fend off the pounds likely gained by inactivity.


How often should one stretch? Personally I hate the word “should” because one can criticize any answer. Again, there are individual differences. Very naturally flexible people don’t need to stretch very much at all. Those of us who are naturally stiff need to stretch a lot. How much is a lot? That you have to decide yourself.

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From a personal trainer/physical therapist perspective:


Yes, you can stretch too much. If you are sore the next day, you have probably overdone it. My ballet teachers are of differing opinions on the matter. One says that soreness is normal, the other agrees with me. Mild stretching throughout the day should be fine, but be cautious about multiple sessions in which you are trying to improve flexibility. You need to take into account your age and any past injuries, since these may necessitate longer warm-ups and how much more range you can reasonably expect to achieve.


If you take a break from exercise, there shouldn't be any harm in continued stretching. If you are dealing with a lot of soreness, then giving those tissues a break is a good idea. From my own experience, my flexibility hasn't suffered much when I've taken a few days off. I may feel a little stiff at first, but once I'm warmed up, my range is still there.


Just a personal account here on the subject: my goal for the past year has been to work on my splits. Early on, I noticed that my left hamstring felt injured, so I didn't practice on that side for a long time. Meanwhile, my right side progressed beautifully, but in my zeal, I tended to push it a little too hard and it ended up sore much of the time. I incorporated rest days and tried to be more mindful of how my leg felt. I am now at a point where I can get all the way down after a good warm-up and some preliminary stretches.


In the meantime, my left leg healed and I started practicing splits with it again. I didn't hold stretches as long as with my right side, nor did I always perform the same number of stretches. As a result, it never felt sore. Today, it has almost caught up with my right side. The lesson for me here, and what I would say to my clients, is that stretching to the point of soreness is not necessary to get results.


I hope this helps. I'm also interested in hearing opinions from dancers and teachers, since most of the people I work with don't need extreme flexibility for their sport.

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Thank you for your answers, and thank you for moving this thread, Ms. Leigh. I will respond properly to all of the advice given here another time, but for now, I just wanted to explain where this question is coming from. There are multiple reasons why I asked this: 1.) I'd like to improve flexibility a LOT (I'm one of those unfortunate stiff people who has to work for flexibility) 2.) I am considering a one week break from ALL exercise between Christmas and New Year and wanted thoughts on whether I should stretch during that time or not 3.) I was genuinely curious as to whether it was possibe to stretch too much 4.) My physiotherapist has given me stretches in the past where she has asked me to do them 3 times each, 3 times a day and I was wondering if that should be standard practice or not (she usually instructs me to do this when we want to target stiffness in a particular area but has never told me I should stop doing that stretch after a few weeks - although I tend to stop on my own after a few weeks) 5.) Earlier this year, when I tore my hamstring (grade 1 tear, not bad), my physio instructed me to do a particular stretch even though it caused a little (very minor) pain because she said it was important to stretch it gently as it healed, so I was interested to hear whether there could be a time when stretching was a bad thing/too much. I WOULD be asking my physiotherapist this question, because she would be able to give of a specific answer for ME, but she is away on maternity leave and her associate, who I saw yesterday, went on holiday today (plus she doesn't know my body/injury history like my usual physio does). So those were my motives in asking :P

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This is only personal experience - I too am quite stiff for many reasons (mostly past injuries).


I have found recently that taking a one or two day break has actually HELPED my flexibility. I can only surmise that this is because my tissues needed some healing time, and they healed with more flexibility due to my working so hard on them.


I am extremely cautious with warming up before stretching after a break of even a day, because of past experience. With a full workout at the gym, I feel better about stretching before and during class. I do find that if I do a full stretch at the gym beforehand, I'm actually MORE stiff when I go to stretch DURING class. Weird, but true.

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With respect to Lau’s specifics:


1. For sure all of we stiffer dancers want to be a lot more flexible than we are. My experience suggests that though we can improve our flexibility, we do that very slowly and quite frankly never really reach a high degree of flexibility, at least from our own perspective.


2. You will most likely not lose an iota of flexibility for taking one week off.


3. Yes, you can stretch too much, but that is most likely to occur only in extremes of some sort.


4. 3 times a day stretches may be your physical therapist’s standard treatment, but I don’t know if that is standard practice for all physical therapists. I do know that when I am good and say watching TV and I get up during commercials and do a stretch (downward dog usually) it makes me feel good and I am sure it doesn’t hurt in any way. I also know some yoga people who will do a pose they want to work on several times a day and they swear it is helpful.


5. When recovering from an injury sometimes physical therapists will forcefully move a joint through a full range of motion to break up adhesions that occur during the healing process. That can hurt not just a little, but a lot. I have a dancer friend who got a high ankle sprain from stepping off a curb. As part of her physical therapy, her therapist would forcefully move her ankle through a wide range of motion. Hurt like the devil, but gradually it brought her range of motion back to normal. All of that is part of the physical therapist’s art. Basically, you have to trust the therapist’s judgment. My sense is that most therapists can answer your question.


I’d also like to follow up on Serendipity’s comment. As in her case, when it comes to something like flexibility there are huge individual differences in terms of what works for you. That’s why you have to experiment with yourself and see what seems to work and what doesn’t. Try different approaches. If you experience success with what you do, then don’t worry if someone else does something else or thinks what you do isn’t the best.

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"4. 3 times a day stretches may be your physical therapist’s standard treatment, but I don’t know if that is standard practice for all physical therapists."


Just based on talking with colleagues, three times a day is a common recommendation when we need to get the patient moving and/or stretching more, particularly early on in treatment.



"I’d also like to follow up on Serendipity’s comment. As in her case, when it comes to something like flexibility there are huge individual differences in terms of what works for you. That’s why you have to experiment with yourself and see what seems to work and what doesn’t. Try different approaches. If you experience success with what you do, then don’t worry if someone else does something else or thinks what you do isn’t the best."


Great comment! You read and hear so many different recommendations for how long to hold a stretch, how many times to repeat it, and what sorts of stretches to do for different body parts, but what it ultimately comes down to is what works for you.

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Thank you for the replies.


As regards stretching, my current practice is to do passive stretches prior to class and then flexibility stretching after class. I always stretch after doing other physical activity (e.g. cross training on the elliptical) too. I don't stretch 7 days a week though. As for my flexibility range, I am quite a "stiff" person (not joints-wise though) but I can and have improved flexibility in the past. Three years ago touching my toes for longer than a few seconds was pretty uncomfortable. Now I can put my hands almost flat on the floor without really warming up (and know that I am not at all likely to injure myself). I have decided, since reading this thread, that for my week (actually it's 10 days) off I am just going to stretch a muscle that feels like it needs to be stretched (you know that feeling when you just want to stretch something...like wanting to stretch one's legs after a long car ride?) and maybe do one or two "roll downs" a day.


Regarding my physiotherapist's (and my past physiotherapists') advice to stretch 3 times, 3 times a day, I agree with Gayle that this is usually in the early phases of treatment and that's why I've usually stopped doing it that often after a while (plus it's not always feasible to do certain stretches 3 times a day). I don't think this would be general advice (the 3 times a day thing) though.


Garyecht makes a good point regarding pain in physiotherapy...I know that deep tissue massage (for example) can hurt a LOT (especially on the adductors...always fun :P ) and I trust my physiotherapist not to do further damage but to help me heal, even if it's painful.


Serendipity and Gayle, thank you for sharing your experiences with me - that has been especially helpful. Gayle, like you I would like to work on my splits. I have been much much closer to flat than I am now (although never flat :P ) but especially after tearing my hamstring, I have been so cautious in that (I tore my hamstring because an inexperienced trainee teacher asked us to do the splits after 3 barre exercises on a day I'd been unable to warm up before class because of an unexpected traffic jam) :o I should have just stood up to her, because I knew it was a terrible idea...but I didn't, and down I went...snap (I heard it :huh: ) and pain). I can't remember the last time I actually tried to do the splits, although I DO stretch the muscles involved. I think that like you I have over-worked my upper hamstrings a bit too much and they hurt every time I stretch that particular area (the physiotherapist I saw on Monday (not my usual one) assures me they have not been torn though). She massaged both legs on Monday and said that I should make sure in future to stretch my hamstrings thoroughly as the upper bits are very tight. Personally, I think they need a little time to heal first, but because my physiotherapist encouraged me to keep gently stretching my torn hamstring earlier this year, I wonder if I shouldn't just do that stretch for a while. I'm so confused :huh: There are all these myths that go round my studio too, about how you have to keep stretching torn hamstrings because otherwise you'll lose flexibility for ever :o

So...to stretch or not to stretch, that is the question? My thoughts are to rest the legs completely and then start gently stretching again.


So, like you Gayle, I have incorporated rest days and tried to be more mindful of how my legs feel. And like Serendipity, I have learnt the value of a truly thorough warm up!


To be honest, it is really hard for me to take a 10 day break, although I'm sure that somewhere this year I have taken at least a week long break without even realising it (actually now that I think of it, this has happened on more than one occasion for various reasons). I love exercise and dancing, but I know that my body needs some down time too.


Thank you for your feedback, thoughts and advice.


(Oh and in case anyone is wondering, I am 23 years old and I haven't had a lot of injuries in the past...only a torn hamstring and a strained piriformis in the last year - both experiences in which I have done something silly/wrong and so I've learnt from that)

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"There are all these myths that go round my studio too, about how you have to keep stretching torn hamstrings because otherwise you'll lose flexibility for ever"


My understanding is that after an injury, scar tissue forms. Scar tissue is stiffer than muscle, so if you stretch again, the risk is that same region can tear again, and so on. A job of a physiotherapist is to give a deep tissue massage at just the right time in the healing process, to break up the scar tissue as it is forming. Also, scar tissue can take several months or a year to disappear after it has formed. In other words, a stretch after injury should done with great caution. Physiotherapists on this board, please correct me if I'm wrong.


Also my understanding is that when you are stretching, the real stretch, in the sense of a growth process that leads to a permanent increase in muscle length, does not happen while you are actually stretching, but in the days afterwards. It does this in response to microscopic damage to the muscle which has been produced while you are actually in the stretch. To stretch again during this period (which can go on for 2 days to a week or so) will be counterproductive - it will just lead to damage and maybe injury. The harder you have done the stretch in the first place, the longer the recovery. You have to decide what intervals are best for you, and this depends on how strongly you are doing the stretching. If you find you are getting tighter over time, then you are stretching too hard and/or too often. In adults, studies have suggested that a powerful stretch (which may be repeated 3 or so times in that session) once or twice a week produces the fastest results, if the goal is a long-term increase in flexibility. If you are tighter when you come to try again, and particularly if you need to wait more than a week between stretches to get ready for the next stretch, you are doing it too powerfully.


It is unfortunate that the word stretching covers two different things. One is what we do before and during a class. This is getting back the flexibility you had at the end of the last class. It allows you to do the movements that you routinely do in the class. Obviously, if you take class every day, you need to do this gently enough so that next day you can repeat the process and so on, without getting tighter over time. While in children, this clearly leads to great increases in flexibilty over time, in mature adults it may not lead to enough progress.


So adults need to use more powerful stretching sessions, which will lead to a period afterwards (see above) when they will lose both flexibility and strength. Clearly, an adult needs to sort out the timing of this so that it does not interfere with classes or other activities, allowing sufficient recovery time after the stretching session.



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After injury, it is important to influence how new tissue is laid down in order to promote flexibility. New tissue fibers form haphazardly at the injury site, oriented in many different directions. Massage and very gentle stretching will break up the fibers that impede movement, leaving behind tissue that is aligned in the proper direction. For your torn hamstring, do the stretches that your physio recommends, and certainly ask her about progressing your program and before trying anything new.


Regarding the question of which type of stretching is most effective, there is no clear winner based on scientific studies. Some studies show that PNF (in which you use resisted muscle contractions) is best, and this method certainly gets a lot of support, but there is a real danger of injury if it is done improperly. Other studies find that static stretching is the better choice. One study from 1992 showed no difference between the two, while a 2009 study by Fasen et al. showed that active stretching, including PNF, produced greater results initially, but was surpassed over time by passive stretching. It can all get very confusing! In general, though, the best recommendation is to perform both active and passive types of stretches for maximum flexibility benefits, and to find what duration, intensity, and rest interval work best for you.

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Gayle - I tore my hamstring in February, and went through the whole course of stretches and physiotherapy, so I think my hamstring healed pretty well. It wasn't a serious tear. The pain I'm experiencing now, according to the PT I saw on Monday, is just from pushing myself a bit too hard but I haven't torn or re-torn anything. The good news is I tried the splits for the first time in a long while and I'm much closer to the floor with no pain. I've figured out now what I've been doing wrong and will hopefully have less/no pain the future. Nevertheless, I need to rest those muscles. When it comes to types of stretching, I tend to stick to passive stretches held for a period of time, because they're safer. But I am interested in what you say and will be sure to discuss this in depth with my PT when she gets back (and she can demonstrate PNR stretches in person).

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Jim - thanks for the interesting post. I think I have experienced what you mean about resting/allowing healing time, in that my splits were better today than before because I hadn't done them in a while.

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