There is not one best way to stretch. In my experience, the point of stretching is to train the muscles to smoothly release to the edge of their ability, and to send a signal to the brain that a tight muscle is griping too hard and needs to be relaxed.
What we do agree on is that stretching is important. And while there is no best way to stretch, there are a lot of ways to injure ourselves when stretching incorrectly.
The stretches suggested here are ones that I have used with success and have taught to my students and clients with visible benefit.
However, they will not be right for everyone. Please be wise and if you are hurt or unsure whether your muscles can handle these stretches, consult your doctor before attempting any of these stretches.
There are as many different types of stretches as there are people. The type of stretch we want to use should correlate with how we use our bodies. People who use their bodies just to move their brain around are going to need to stretch differently than dedicated dancers.
So, at opposite ends of the stretching spectrum are, stretching while “relaxed” (called static stretching) and stretching while a muscle is in movement (dynamic stretching).
Dance’s muscles are always moving at a higher level and so should be trained to lengthen while in movement.
As you become more serious in your work as a dancer, it is going to be more and more important to understand different methods of stretching, how they feel on your body, and when to use them.
The muscles of the leg are all connected by a “casing” called facia. That means that if one part of the leg is tight, it is going to pull on the casing of the whole rest of the leg.
Studies in sports medicine has found that lots of leg problems can be helped with loosening the muscles around the hips. I have experienced the difference myself. That’s why I suggest starting your leg stretches with hip stretches.
When stretching the hips you want to carefully get all sides: front (hip flexors/psoas), inside (inner theighs), back (glutes/hamstrings), and outside (rotators/IT band). This can take some time as you want to give each stretch 20 seconds to really make a difference.
When in a time crunch, focus on your rotators. I have found that most dancers gain more benifit from releasing the rotators than any other muscle group. These are the muscles that we often use to stabilize balances and turnout as well as jump.
Start taking a minute at the end of class to stretch you outer hip area. I could have spared myself years of debilitating pain if I had learned to do this earlier. I’d love to save you the trouble I’ve been through.
We all know that lengthened hamstrings are important to leg extension and dramatic leaps. If we stretch anything, it is our hamstrings.
For the most part, this is great. However, we have to be careful because our hammies are the most over stretched muscle a dancer has. Just like too little stretching, too much stretching leads to weakness in the muscle.
When stretching, you want to train your muscle fibers to lengthen without tearing. This means staying patient, listening to your body and activating the muscle as it lengthens.
This doesn’t mean forcing the muscle into a stretch, or waiting until you want to cry to come out of a stretch. Pain means micro tears in the muscle, which means your muscle is weaker than when it is whole.
“No pain, no gain” is wrong. Evaluate your hamstring stretching and make sure you are respecting your body. Treat your hams well and they will be there for you when you need them.
Our quadrecepts are such an essential power muscle in dance. They give us our extension and our jumps. But just like a spring, if they are too tight, they become ridgid and loose effectiveness. We want our quads to be strong and long.
Not only do healthy quads equal better jumps, but tight quads can lead to big problems with hips and alignment. Our muscles hold our bones in place and when big muscles, like our quads, pull too tight, they can pull our bones in ways that are harmful and can cause perminate damage.
Getting in the habbit of stretching your quads for 20 seconds each can make the difference. It’s so easy to do. The hard part is remembering. Find a trick. Train yourself to think to stretch your quads everytime your teacher says to get a drink. Or wear a hair elastic around your wrist and remember to stretch when you look at it. Once you remember a few times, it will just be a habit.
The fascia of the calf muscles are directly connected to the fascia and tendons in your foot. Healthy calves equal healthy feet. When neglected, tight calves can cause problems for the Achilles tendons (tendinitis) and the fascia on the bottem of the foot (plantar fascitis).
Make sure that you are stretching your calves in class especially in classes that you are doing a lot of jumping or pointe work. Taking a 15 second stretch inbetween combinations in class can save you minutes of stretching sore calves when you get home. Or worse, minutes of tapeing and iceing injured feet and ankles.
Start the habit of taking quick stretches during and right after class.
I have found Pilates stretches extremely helpful for dance. There are some easy exercises that involve dynamic stretching. This trains the muscles to work lengthened and stretched instead of tight and clenched.
Memorize some easy Pilates stretches that work and lengthen the muscles quickly. Next time you have a rehearsal, use the Pilates stretches to warm up five minutes before you start. Your body will be ready to move and you will avoid painful injuries.
There are several stretches we do in almost every ballet class. Often teachers won’t have time to talk about how to get the most out of every stretch and what each stretch is aiming to accomplish.
Make sure that you are getting the most out of every stretch you do in class. Be efficient and you will save time.
As we exercise our muscles, they contract and get tight. Healthy muscles need to be able to contract and lengthen.
Break up your ballet exercises by taking 20 seconds to lengthen the muscles you were just using. Just finished grande battements?
Stretch your quads while your teacher is giving the next combination. Piroette combination? Stretch your calves.
Balancing the contraction of your muscles with lengthening them will keep them healthy and keep you dancing at top shape.