Stretching is something that most dancers and teachers know they should be consistent with, but a lot of the time don’t really prioritise.
I get it.
You finish class, you’re tired, all you want to do is get home, eat, and get to bed.
Then other points throughout the day when you could be doing a little flexibility or mobility work, it just feels as though it’s not that important that you do so…
It’s definitely one of those ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ things!
Now in all honesty, stretching is something I didn’t do enough of as a competitive dancer (and still probably don’t). As they say however, hindsight is a wonderful thing!
If I could go back in time and incorporate it diligently into my training?
I 100% would.
So in light of that, here are some pointers to help ensure that when you do make the effort to stretch, you’re getting the absolute most out of it.
#1 Always Be Aware Of Your Alignment
Form is everything when it comes to effective stretching.
If it’s off, you’ll find you’re probably not hitting the muscles that need your attention at all! Hamstrings, Hip Flexors, Quads, Calves; are all very easily bypassed or not properly targeted if your position is slightly askew; your joints and direction of movement MUST be aligned properly to place the focus on the area you’re aiming to stretch, and as a result, actually see the benefit you’re looking for.
Don’t make the mistake of sacrificing your technique in order to feel like you have more of a range of motion than you actually do…
Keep your spine neutral, your positions stable, and your breath steady!
# 2 Never Force The Stretch
Something I see ALL the time, that is absolutely counter productive when it comes to getting the most out of your stretching, is trying to force more range of motion.
I see so many dancers physically pulling and pushing themselves to get further into a position, rather than relaxing and easing into it…
If you want to achieve increased long term, functional, flexibility; you must work with your body and nervous system.
Otherwise the reflex mechanisms in your muscles will simply not allow any lengthening to happen, and all you’ll do is cause even more resistance to change!
# 3 Be Careful Not To Create Instability
Always remember that being flexible doesn’t always mean you’re capable of actually using that range of motion when you’re dancing… It needs to be strong enough to respond to your demands as well.
Not only that, but if you force stretches too far and neglect to do the necessary strengthening alongside it?
You’ll lose the stability of your joint and put yourself at risk of injury.
There are structures in your body other than muscle that respond to stretching, some of which once made slack, are very difficult (if not impossible) to fully regain tautness in.
You must, if you want to achieve increased flexibility in a useable capacity, be sure not to push your body past its limits without making sure it’s still capable of producing force.
# 4 Remember To Breathe
Something you can fix INSTANTLY that will have a huge impact on how worthwhile your time stretching is, is simply remembering to breathe…
Slowly and steadily, and really trying to connect your breathing with your body position.
Not only will this help from a muscle pliability perspective, but it will also put your nervous system in a place to accept and facilitate the lengthening of the muscle. Holding your breath sends the wrong signals to your brain if you want it to feel happy about what you’re asking it to allow!
Equally, considering you’re most likely going to be stretching after exercise, breathing will help to make sure your body has the oxygen it needs to promote recovery and replenish your energy stores.
Trust me when I say you will feel the difference immediately if you’re conscious of this habit.
#5 Use Appropriately
The term ‘stretching’ in reality, can be interpreted in many different ways. It is essentially an umbrella term for many different types of flexibility work.
Being aware of when you should be implementing which variation; is key to getting the full benefit, and avoiding unideal side effects.
Before exercise, stick to active stretches and mobilisers so as not to detract from your athletic performance; and leave the passive lengthening for afterwards, when your muscles and joints will be warm and receptive.
Take advantage of a decline in intensity to wind your body and mind down, bring your nervous system back to base, and encourage rapid repair; as well as gradually increasing your strength and flexibility!
If you can really take on board these 5 things, you’ll find that not only will you notice a difference in the effectiveness of your stretching, but you’ll need to spend less time doing it.
Remember that yes, it is ‘what’ you do…
But more importantly?
It’s how you’re doing it that will lead to results.