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Ballet Talk for Dancers

To stretch or not to stretch?


Celestrial'sKiss

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Celestrial'sKiss

I would like to add that it takes about 15 min for the muscle to get back to its normal reaction time.

I don't understand what you mean by "normal reaction time".

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AncientDancer

I'm in a fitness class besides (adult) dancing, and there is another aproach. But it's for amateurs, not profis!

 

It's doing a light stretch before class - to get rid of stress from office, work, too much car driving and the day. It's more to get yourself somewhat flexible and remember all your muscles, not to get better extensions. That is for stretching after class, or after fitness.

 

You notice it, after office it's often at the beginning a 'can't move at all' - feeling in the body.

I call those "activation stretches." When I can't do a walk to get the blood going, I have an activation warm up that includes stretching just to wake up my body.

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I teach stretch classes so spend a lot of time thinking about this. I fully support what Redbookish (and some of the others following) have said, which agrees with modern thought. In preparation for an activity, you need to be sure that you have the range of motion needed for the activity. This is best done by light repetitive movements gradually increasing in size until you get to the range needed for the activity. Some people call this limbering - I prefer to say mobilising - because really it is getting back the range of motion that you have already, rather than increasing your absolute range.

 

However, to get more flexible over time, you need to increase your range, and this means lengthening the muscles. As far as we can tell, this only happens if the stretches cause microscopic damage to the muscle, which then responds by lengthening (this is discovered from experience, not from proper scientific studies which are difficult to do in this area). The strong stretches needed for this should only be done when as warmed up as possible. The microscopic damage will cause weakness in the period following - this may go on for a couple of days, or for a week in strong - and I would say excessively strong - stretches. So it is suggested that you only do very strong stretches a couple of times a week, to allow the muscles to recover. You will feel when it feels right to stretch again. In fact, the real stretching in this case probably happens in between your stretch sessions, when the muscles are recovering (and regrowing) after the stretch.

 

Now there are some complications. We not only stretch muscle, but stretch connective tissue (the fascia which surrounds the muscles and everything else in the body), and different rules apply to the two types. Connective tissue "flows" - specially quickly for the first several seconds of a stretch, and more slowly after that. If you dont stretch on any particular day, the connective tissue shrinks back again (at about 1% per day). So this suggests you should stretch every day. This goes against the advice given in the last paragraph. The best approach therefore depends on whether muscle or connective tissue is limiting the stretch - even experts may find it difficult to tell which is doing it in a person, but a line of tightness that does not correspond to anatomical muscles suggests that connective tissue is limiting the movement. One common place for this is the front of the hip.

 

Another complication is age. The advice I have given is for adults. Children stretch much more quickly and repair damage much more quickly, and are probably limited less by connective tissue, so different rules may apply. I have no experience with children (I get the impression that things change from the child to the adult pattern gradually from the late teenage years to the early 20s) and I guess with children the traditional approach is appropriate (but I dont know).

 

So what does someone do in this complex situation? Follow Redbookish's and the others' advice. Do mobilisations every day or whenever you are going to do an activity, to get back the range you had before, to allow you to do the activity. To increase your range, only do strong stretches when fully warmed up, at the end of an activity, and not more than a few times a week. Do what feels right. If you feel you are getting tighter over time, you are stretching too hard/too often. If the stretch feels wrong, dont feel you have to do it because you have heard "you need to stretch every day" (maybe that advice is right for children - I dont know - but is not for adults).

This is what works for me and for my stretch students.

 

Jim.

 

PS - and as an adult who may be no longer young,10 years to get back middle splits - if that is what you want* - might be realistic. In your early 20s you would expect to make much faster progress, however by your 40s or later, progress may be slow. *And I agree with what the others have said about flexibility and ballet. You need the range to do the steps, but not more.

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Celestrial'sKiss

The microscopic damage will cause weakness in the period following - this may go on for a couple of days, or for a week in strong - and I would say excessively strong - stretches. So it is suggested that you only do very strong stretches a couple of times a week, to allow the muscles to recover.

 

We not only stretch muscle, but stretch connective tissue (the fascia which surrounds the muscles and everything else in the body), and different rules apply to the two types. Connective tissue "flows" - specially quickly for the first several seconds of a stretch, and more slowly after that. If you dont stretch on any particular day, the connective tissue shrinks back again (at about 1% per day). So this suggests you should stretch every day. This goes against the advice given in the last paragraph. The best approach therefore depends on whether muscle or connective tissue is limiting the stretch - even experts may find it difficult to tell which is doing it in a person, but a line of tightness that does not correspond to anatomical muscles suggests that connective tissue is limiting the movement. One common place for this is the front of the hip.

That's it! I think I need to lengthen the muscles and connective tissue in the medial compartment of my thigh (i.e. adductor magnus, longus and brevis, pectineus, and gracilis). It seems like my muscles should already be long enough, but I always feel a very strong tightness between my pubic bones and the medial anterior aspect of my upper femur. At first I thought it was because of my extremely strong stretch reflexes, but now I'm thinking it might be connective tissue.

 

This other information might be important as well: I have a female mesomorphic body type with hips that aren't as wide as they probably should be. According to my "medical experts", I have unimaginably high levels of sensory nerve receptors (including muscle spindle and golgi tendon organ receptors) thus giving me a monsterous stretch reflex. I'm in my late twenties and I am extremely atheletic (almost 19 years of dancing), I might have a left lateral snapping hip condition and I once had a "pulled groin" during a recital when I was younger.

 

So, for example, earlier today when I finished dancing, I followed up with a second ballet warm-up routine, a hundred jumping jacks, then twenty five leg spreads while on my back and legs against the wall. I then followed with gentle stretches of my major muscle groups, slowly progressing into deeper stretches of my target muscle groups through butterflies, froggies, and middle-split attempts using a chair for support. I'm also doing several other stretches that would be too long to list, (because if I stretch all the muscles around my hip, I'll end up stretching the ones I want, right?)

 

So, theroretically, right now my muscles are lengthening as they repair microscopic fractures. But that means that I need to wait a few days for my muscles to recover before I do the deep stretches (froggies, butterflies, splits) again. But on the other hand, if I don't do those stretches tomorrow, my connective tissue surrounding the muscles will shrink back tomorrow. So do I stretch or don't I stretch?

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Putting together what you're doing Celestrial, and jimpickles' expert knowledge ( He is fairly expert on this stuff), I'd say you're doing far far too much.

 

The main thing I'd be wondering about is Why? What are you doing this for? You could be storing up damage which will become apparent in later life. You already note a couple of injuries and you're only in your twenties. For reference, I've done 3 to 4 dance classes a week (plus aerobics & running) since I was 20, and it's only now in my middle 50s, that I've had any injuries. I've managed dance as my serious hobby - for pleasure & the joy of the art form - for most of my life injury free.

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To me also it seems that you are doing too much. If you have a muscular, highly reactive body, it seems to me that you should be doing fewer long relaxation stretches, rather than lots of short hard stretches. After a full warm-up, go into your stretch slowly and see how the sensations change over time. To stretch, the first thing you need to learn, is how to relax the muscles while they are being stretched to their limit. This is difficult for most people. If your muscles are not relaxed, all you will be doing is strengthening the muscles at a shorter length, not lengthening them. Go into a stretch gently and slowly, and as you go deeper, feel with your fingers what is happening to the muscle. If it all bunches up early in the stretch, it will have going into a reflex contraction and you will not be able to stretch. What should happen is that at first into the stretch the muscle feels soft, then stringy as the tightest parts of it go to their limit (but the rest is soft), and finally the whole thing will go hard. Stay at the stage before the whole thing goes hard - you should learn to stay relaxed to the end of the stretch. Also you should feel the stretch sensations in the belly of the muscle - not the ends. If you feel it near the ends (where the tendon joins the muscle) the muscle has gone into a reflex contraction. Once you are happy doing all this, then you can increase the intensity of the stretches.

 

Middle splits are notorious for involving many muscles and fascia. Long slow stretches are recommended here. Sit in a pancake and lie forward for many minutes (read a book) - then lift the body up, push the feet wider, and repeat. Maybe do this for 15-20 minutes in all. This is a safe way of working towards middle splits because the knees are supported by the ground. All the stretches should feel strong but (just about) comfortable. Over time you will learn what feels a good productive stretch, and what does not.

 

Another thing is to keep repeating the warmup during the stretching session, to make sure the muscles are really tired when you stretch them. For an adult, it is not just a warmup that is good, but making the muscles as tired as possible before a stretch, so they dont pull back during the stretch. A good warmup/tiring routine may involve long body weight holding positions held against gravity to exhaustion - e.g. a wide squat (horse stance in martial arts). These will tire you more effectively than jumps (which mainly work the calves), though they wont train your fast contractions as well. Your choice in relation to your goals.

 

Jim.

 

PS - in relation to your question how often: I addressed that in my earlier posting. For most people, "not more than a few times a week. Do what feels right. If you feel you are getting tighter over time, you are stretching too hard/too often. If the stretch feels wrong, dont feel you have to do it because you have heard "you need to stretch every day"." As you get nearer your intended end-point on a routine basis, you can stretch more often (the muscles wont need to be lengthened as much now, but you need to keep the fascia from contracting back). Over time, all your stretches will become what I called mobilising - because they are in your range now, and you just need to maintain it, and also of course have the range available whenever you need it for dance.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I’ve been away for the last few years, and chose this thread to get back into the discussions. For those who care, about 3 years ago I decided to go back to doing my old sport, Olympic weightlifting, as a way to lose a few pounds, gain muscle, and reduce fat. I kept dancing, going to modern class on Wednesday and Thursday and weightlifting training on Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. It has all worked out perfectly. Less weight and fat, more muscle and in some respects, I’ve never danced better. I call myself a professional dancer and weightlifter who just doesn’t get paid. My life is either training or dancing, spending the rest of the time recovering so I can do it all the next day.

 

A few years ago, I spent a lot of time reading both the conventional wisdom about stretching and flexibility and the published research on the physiology of stretching and flexibility. The more I studied the more I realized I didn’t know anything about either topic. Too many unknowns. Too many questions. Too many “black swans,” examples that went against the conventional wisdom. I had my experiences, my beliefs, and my thoughts, but they just applied to me.

 

As a dancer, I am the least flexible person I know. I realized that in my beginner class and have worked on flexibility and stretching ever since. That’s over 20 plus years. I’ve improved--slightly--and continue my obsession with stretching more because it makes me feel good and healthy than because of any improvement in my dancing. I work hard on the flexibility I need for weightlifting (you would be surprised how much is needed) and again I have improved slightly, but I don’t think it has improved my lifts.

 

Despite my lack of flexibility, I have a pretty good dance resume, given when I started and my innate lack of talent. As an adult dancer, you don’t need a great deal of flexibility, especially in ballet and Flamenco it seems to me.

 

With regard to flexibility and strength, let me say that many world class weightlifters stretch (both dynamic and static) as a part of their warm-up and cool down. Interestingly, I am at my most flexible when I stretch at the very end of my training session, something that I do religiously. Ironically, I am least flexible when I finish dance class.

 

For dancers, my sense is that mobility is more important than flexibility. By mobility I mean the ease of movement in the joints. Stretching helps develop mobility, but it’s not the same thing. For example, I have limited flexibility in my spine, but my mobility of the spine is fairly good.

 

The last thing I want to say is that I think the technique of stretching is more important than trying to reach a certain position. The sense of lengthening and feeling the stretch is more important than trying to look flexible.

 

Dance has a lot of don’ts, which isn’t characteristic of weightlifting. Weightlifters are always interesting in doing some weird exercise. Below is an example of a “pancake good morning” taken from the training hall for the Junior World Championships.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phA7H80LIX4

 

Have never seen it before. Nice way to finish a training session with the guys.



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  • 2 weeks later...
Celestrial'sKiss

It's working! I'm almost there! :clapping:

 

 

The main thing I'd be wondering about is Why? What are you doing this for?

 

To answer your question, Redbookish, it is not the technique itself that I'm focused on. It's regaining the flexibility that I lost. I know the middle splits aren't necessary in ballet. That's why I lost that ability. The ablity came from my highschool years on the dance team. Now, I just want to become flexible enough to do the middle splits again.

 

I would also like to thank all of you involved in this thread for your most wonderful information and advice.

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