Exploring Fascial Plasticity

Dancers are always concerned with maintaining or increasing the flexibility in their muscles. To really understand how muscles become more flexible we need to understand how to change the fascia that connect to the muscles.

Most dancers know that fascia, which is the dense connective tissue that surrounds the 200+ bones and the 600+ muscles of the body. It keeps structures (like muscles) separated from each other yet interconnected in a 3D like web.

Using an orange analogy, the outer rind is like the superficial fascia, and the sections of orange are similar to the fascia that surrounds our muscles, bones, nerves, etc. Fascia ties and connects everything together!

This is why if you have tightness in your neck, it may be influencing the flexibility of the hamstrings. There is a fascial line that connects the muscles along the back of the body called the superficial back line. I mention this because it bears repeating that if you are not getting the results that you want from your stretching efforts – look at other areas of the body that may be holding tension and creating a pull or tightness along the fascial line.

This young man is a perfect example of this. He was taking yoga classes and a student in the opera department. We found the tension at his neck significantly influenced his hamstrings. He was doing lots of hamstring focused stretching in yoga class but until he focused on releasing his neck tension he was unable to get release and relief along that back line. Doesn’t he look WAY more comfortable in his body in the picture on the right? That change took 3 months. As a side benefit – his vocal technique improved too!

Now back to talking about fascia and plasticity. Plasticity means the ease with which something is molded or shaped. Fascia will reshape itself when there is a slow, steady and sustained pull on it. Too fast of a stretch and fascia/muscle tears. Plasticity is different from elasticity. Elasticity is the ability of tissue to stretch and then go back to its original shape. Plasticity means the tissue over time (think potentially weeks/months) slowly reshaping itself into a new length. That is what dancers want from their stretching.

Bottom line… slow, steady, sustained stretching is the way to go. Doing some of that passive stretching that dancers love to do at the end of class can be very useful (at the end of class – not the start!) If you add on some muscular engagement from the opposite of the joint – you will get even more benefit! For example doing the typical standing quad stretch is good – but when you also lightly engage the glutes while using the abdominals to keep the pelvis in neutral – it becomes even more effective of a stretch! Hold that stretch for 30 seconds, take a quick break and then go back for another 30 seconds and see how your quads feel!

If you want to actively explore fascial properties and new ways to train your fascia to be both elastic and responsive think about joining me in the South of France this summer! I will be doing a deep dive into fascial training, alignment assessments, and exploring body/brain strategies for optimal performance. Registration is now open!

How to get the shoulder blades flat on the back?

“What suggestions do you have to help dancers get their shoulder blades to lie flat on their back?”   Felicia

Okey dokey!  Let’s first talk about the anatomy of the shoulder girdle so it will make sense. It really is important to get those shoulder blades lying flat on the back so they can support the arms in port de bras as well as stabilize the shoulder girdle in multiple movements and decrease the potential for injuries.

Anatomy of the shoulder girdle

The shoulder blades, aka your scapulas, are a fairly flat, triangular bones that hang on the backside of the ribs.  They connect the upper arm bone to the collarbone.  There are 6 movements of the scapula.  You can elevate and depress (essentially a shoulder shrugging motion).

You can protract and retract which is pulling them together and separating them.  Picture on left is retraction.  That is what I often see dancers do wrong when they are doing their port de bras.

And you can rotate the scapula upwards and downwards, which is describing how the bottom of the scapula moves towards or away from the spine.

We’ve all heard of ‘winging’ shoulder blades, and that is when the inside border of the scapula moves away from the ribs.  Some teachers call them chicken wings:) This happens when there is an imbalance in the muscles of the shoulder girdle and may require both doing some stretching and strengthening in the area.

What are common reasons for winging of the scapula?

If they have a rounded of slumped standing posture when they aren’t at the barre, it’s quite possible they have tightness in the pec minor and the latissimus muscles.  Those muscles will need to be stretched as you work to strengthen the stabilizer of the shoulder blades, the serratus anterior muscle. This is the primary muscle that will need to be strengthened.

Here are pictures of the 3 muscles I’m talking about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stretching the lat and pec minor

There are many different ways to stretch and strengthen these muscles but I’ll give you a couple of my favorites.

I like to stretch the lats by doing a doorway or what I call a C Curve stretch.  You may feel the stretch more at the armpit area or more towards the waist and lower back.  I’ll move gently looking towards and rounding my lower back to find the sweet spot of the stretch. Another stretch is called the prayer stretch and you can google that one.

A really nice way to stretch out the pec minor is lying on a foam roller and placing your arms on a high diagonal (sometimes I start by first doing slow angel wings to move through a range of motion) Breath and allow your arms to hang towards the floor.  Move your arms slightly to find your best places to stretch.

Strengthening the serratus anterior

Now onto the serratus anterior.  It is important to properly identify when this muscle is working.  Start standing, in good alignment, and draw your hands down towards the floor.  Feel the muscle engagement under your armpit?  That’s your serratus anterior.  I want you to keep that muscle engaged through the next exercise.  Start lying on your back with your elbows at a 90 degree angle and the back of your palms lying on the ground by your head.  (like the picture above on the foam roller but without the foam roller) Keeping your back lengthened, ribs dropped, slowly slide your forearms and back of the hands upwards. You are using the serratus anterior to keep your scapula drawing towards your pelvis the whole time.  This is not easy!  Keep them engaged!

If you want a challenge you can do the same thing as a wall slide – starting with your back against the wall, feet slightly away with knees bent.  Same instructions – keep the shoulder blades drawing downwards as the forearms keep contact with the wall and are sliding upwards.

Now have them stand and place their hands in a prayer position, pressing the palms together while drawing the scapula downwards. Maintain the placement of the scapula and open thearms easily to second position and notice how wide and open their chests are! Over time they will create better muscle balance and improve their port de bras line.

To your success!

Deborah

Stretching Concerns: How Much is Too Much?

I have a student who is stretching every time I see her. Always!  She has a teacher who wants her to have a penché of 180 degrees, which is difficult because she has tight hamstrings, even though we’ve been working on stretching them.  She says she is in a lot of pain and I’ve asked her to back off on the stretching but another teacher told her she needs to stretch her hips. Now the student is conflicted… does she stretch? or rest? And what stretches are best for her to do?

Wow!  Great question… let’s work through some of the issues.

How is she stretching?

What I don’t know is her age and where she is feeling her pain.  If she is still growing and feeling her discomfort in the muscles I would make sure she isn’t stretching passively – and instead encourage her to do more dynamic stretching.  An example of a dynamic hamstring stretch is placing your left heel on the seat of a chair and contracting the quadriceps of left thigh.  Then think of shifting the sits bone backwards in space without bending forward. Keep the foot flexed and the quads contracted the whole time.  It will feel different from the normal hamstring stretch.  Stretching dynamically, she is less likely to go to far and strain muscles.  Here’s an older article I wrote on Too Young For Splits Training? you might want to check out.

Where is her pain?

I’m really curious where she is feeling pain.  If she is feeling it in the hip joints I would encourage you to send her to a sports med doctor or PT that is well-versed in the demands of the dancer.  Any labral tears or joint challenges need to be ruled out to make sure she isn’t forcing her body into positions that are injuring the joint.  There have been many examples of young dancers forcing their stretching and damaging the joint capsule, for example.

Functionally strong?

Consider this student’s overall muscle balance.  Where does she fall on the spectrum between a loosey-goosey dancer and one that is tight and strong?  Is her flexibility and strength fairly even? Could she weak and tight and thus has a hard time supporting her movement from proper alignment? It may sound counter intuitive but some dancers would be better off gaining some functional strength in their movement.  For example, can this student sit on a chair and rock forward onto one leg and stand up easily without having the knee turn in or the foot pronating?  Can she easily stand in one position and do the smallest of tips forward and back to center as if she was starting into her penché?

Penché is quite a complicated movement that requires balance, flexibility, strength and a well placed pelvis and torso!  I have no doubt that there are other ways for her to work towards penché without focusing just on flexibility.  You were right in telling her to back off what is creating pain.  Hopefully, with some further analysis it will become clearer what the underlying issues are.

To your success,

Deborah

Takeaways

holding brain copyI recently returned from TCU where I had all the freshman dance majors in a course called “The Working Body”.  And work they did… meeting every day for multiple hours a day, exploring how to bring anatomical knowledge into their technique and dancing.  They were wonderful – and I will miss this very special group!

I asked them on the last day to take 5 minutes and write down a takeaway from the week.  I was curious after such a whirlwind of a week what stuck and seemed most important.  Below are their brief statements and a few responses and explanations from me. (They gave me permission to post) I hope you find it interesting reading!

[quote style=”boxed”]I dealt with a compression fracture in my upper back for a long time, and I have had pain in that area for a long time. When we talked about the spine in the course, I learned a way to feel as though I’m decompressing my spine and putting air in between each vertebra. It definitely helps with the pain I face now, and will prevent me from future spinal injuries! AA[/quote]

I remember seeing this dancer’s spine change after focusing on increasing and balancing the rotation of the spine.  It was so cool to see that some of the lateral curves improved – it just goes to show that with every lateral curve of the spine – there is also rotation.  I’ve seen good improvement with focusing on improving spinal rotation first then focusing on stretching.

Read more

Fascia and Flexibility question

Hi Deborah!
We met at the Dance Teacher Summit briefly after your fascia and flexibility class;). I have been doing some of your exercises with my kids with awesome results!!  But I have one dancer who says that the stretches do nothing for her at all and she feels no difference:/. She is a somewhat difficult student who has even said she doesn’t believe fascia exists because she has never heard of it, which is ridiculous and I feel like part of her problem is mental and just a bad attitude towards it.  But my question for you is, would there be a physical reason why the stretches would not be helping her and is there anything I can do besides try to educate her to help her?  I have had numerous students that have never had their splits and are now getting flat in all three!  Thank you for sharing your knowledge with me;)
 
Thanks,  LL
stretchGlad to hear that you are getting good responses to changing to more dynamic stretching!  As to your student’s disbelief as to the reality of fascia… I’d let that one go.  Once upon a time people thought the world was flat too.   What you believe is true is true for you.
.
What do I mean by that?  If your student has so embraced the belief that stretching is not going to help her – then there is a strong possibility she won’t get the results she wants.  You can ask her to pay attention to her own stretching efforts and tell you when she feels most successful.  Is there a certain time of day?  Temperature that she likes to stretch in?  After a shower? After using the pinkie ball?  Using breath? How often is she stretching – how long does she hold each stretch? Ask her to watch and pay attention to small changes – to where she is feeling the stretch and how strongly.

Stretching Tip!

Today we are going to talk about fascia and flexibility and what one simple action you can take to increase your flexibility.   Fascia-150x150

First… what is fascia?

Fascia is connective tissue that wraps and surrounds every muscle, bone, nerve and organ in the body.  It gives separation between these structures and creates a 3-dimensional, interconnected web of tissue through the body.  

Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-3.56.49-PM-150x150Imagine an orange or grapefruit that you’ve taken the outmost skin off of.  If you could magically make the juice disappear from inside white fibrous webbing that’s left is the fascia.  It’s almost impossible to separate the fascia and muscle, for example.  That is why a lot of practitioners talk about the myofascia.  Myo for muscle and fascia for … well fascia.  Some of you may have experience a myofascial massage that focuses on releasing fascial pulls.  

What most people don’t know is that fascia is composed primarily of water – approximately 70%. The other 30% is compoased of collagen and elastin and proteoglycans, which are proteins and carbohydrates.  

Read more

Weak Muscles?

Thank you for providing such a wealth of information as it pertains to dance and the human body.  I have a daughter, soon to be 12, that has been dancing since around the age of 4. She is quick to learn and quite coordinated.   Ballet class is a challenge for her.  She is not nearly where she needs to be in the areas of strength and endurance.  She is very slender and although has a “dancer’s body” with well defined muscles, her muscles are weak.  Is there anything that can be done outside of dance class to assist with muscle strength and endurance – last year she danced 4 hours per week, this year she will be dancing 6 hours per week. Outside of dance, she doesn’t do anything athletic.

Screen-Shot-2013-08-26-at-7.39.08-AM-150x150
Are there exercises that can be done at home to increase her muscle strength and endurance? Any dietary recommendations that can help with building muscle? She has fallen behind her classmates (in ballet only) and her teachers are very surprised that, despite her years of training, she has not developed the strength and endurance typical of girls her age. 

Thanks for your help!
Kathleen

Great question, Kathleen!

I love it that you are thinking about all the markers of health instead of just the physical ways to go about increasing muscle strength. I have a daughter with Hashimoto disease (a very common form of thyroid problems) that was discovered when she was 12 – and only because I knew something was off in her health. Now, I’m not suggesting that your daughter has a thyroid or another metabolic syndrome, rather I’m encouraging all of us to look at the intricate balance of nutrition and physiological health to our physical strength and health.

Read more

Stretching, Assessment, Pinkie Balls & Hamstrings

I received some great questions from Lynn and have imbedded my responses below.

Hi Deborah,

I have a few questions and was wondering the best way to go.  I have the Essential anatomy course for dancers and just started to dig into it a little bit because I bought it in the summer and just had my first baby in December so its been crazy.  Congratulations!!! I really want to learn more and more about anatomy and dancers. I never took anatomy at all and it has just been all my dance education along the way from anything I do know.  So thank you for doing this.  Its just hard because there is so so much information and I want to be able to answer a question if a kid asks me.  So I do things in small stages.  But was wondering I came from the erra of bouncing in stretching and then we moved in the static stretching.  Now I do understand dynamic because I do warm most of my classes with a jumping and getting things moving but then we usually go into stretches and based on what you were saying I was wondering if you have something like a sample of a class run down to get the kids warmed up properly for the 20min or so and then we go into technique, center work and across floor or center combos depends on the class.

Try warming them up in a cardiovascular fashion, jumping jacks, running, galloping, etc.  for about 5 minutes (which you are already doing) …. no stretching…. then go into class whether that is barre or modern warmup.  

Read more

Turf Toes and Hip Strain

I’m going to answer 2 questions – one at the top of the leg with a hip injury and another at the foot.  Especially with foot injuries there is such potential for compensation and shifting your weight subtly in order to continue walking and dancing and so I encourage everyone to pay attention to the small tweaks and strains that can occur!

First question….

I have a 12-year old daughter who is very serious about her dance development and who has been concerned about pain in her big toe.  While rehearsing for a show she hit her toe on her leg and has been complaining ever since.  We have been to the doctor and have been given advice (such as Advil) but her pain continues.  I’ve noticed that her toe is moving slightly towards the other toes while her bone remains fixed in its position.  There must be some exercises she can do to strength that area.  

Thank you,  a concerned Mom

It sounds like your daughter has had a ‘turf toe’ injury.  It is common in football players (and dancers) and usually is caused by either stubbing or jamming the toe as your daughter did.  The challenge is in the recovery.  The original injury creates soft tissue inflammation and that is why your doctor suggested doing an anti-inflammatory such as Advil.  The challenge is your daughter has continued to be on her feet, both just walking and dancing, and often the joint doesn’t heal fully enough and is the cause of her continued pain.

You didn’t say how long ago the injury was but if her toe continues to have pain the doctor may choose to put her in a walking boot temporarily in order to give the joint a rest and allow it to heal.  Icing 2 or 3 times a day along with other anti-inflammatory efforts would continue while she is in the boot.

As far as the big toe starting to move towards the other toes – you are right about thinking something needs to be strengthened.  We want to prevent what sounds like the start of a bunion pattern – and you do that by strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the feet.

If you click HERE this will take you to a blog post where I have a short video on how to strengthen the intrinsic foot muscles.  Tell her that if she cramps when she is doing it – it simply means she has found the weak intrinsics and with continued practice they will improve!

The primary concern is that she gets on top of this injury – instead of allowing it to become chronic.  Bottom line – her big toe needs not to hurt!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Three months ago I was doing a heel stretch in one of the classes I assist in and my hip made a big cracking noise.  It started to hurt but not that bad.  But it still hurts today and I don’t know why.  I sit in a straddle stretch and it hurts my hip when I stretch.  Also, when I do a barre stretch or sit in my splits it hurts.  Do you recommend any stretches to help it get back to normal? 

Thanks, Meghan

Meghan, sometimes muscle strains can take a really long time to heal – and I’m not exactly sure what happened when you hear the hip crack or pop three months ago.  It’s possible that you strained either an inner thigh muscle and/or the deep hip flexor (iliopsoas).

I would encourage you to stretch gently and consistently for these two muscle groups.  Instead of sitting in the straddle position which creates discomfort try standing up and placing one leg on a chair and stretch the inner thigh muscles one side at a time.

For the iliopsoas muscle I would have you do one of the stretches outlined in the video clip below.  Remember to breathe and move gentle and easily – listening to your body – stretching should never be painful!

Do your stretching when your muscles are warm – after class is a good time.  Teachers and assistant teachers have to be careful about their demonstrating in class when you aren’t really warmed up!

Hope this helps…. and remember to comment below, especially if you have had similar injuries please share what you did that helped!

Warmest regards,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

 

Too Young for Splits Training?

I have a question just came up regarding splits and young dance students. When is it safe to start doing splits with young children, and why? Most of us start at about 7 years of age, for a variety of reasons. None of this is based on any research we can find. Also mentioned was the fact that in gymnastics, splits are started earlier.

Do you have any opinion on this, or would you be able to head me in the right direction to find the science we need to back up our practice?  I very much appreciate your time and consideration. Thank you so much!

When to start stretching?

Picture-4-150x150

This is a great question, Nancy!  And you are right there isn’t much research on this.  What we know is that children’s bodies generally begin to lose flexibility as they come into their adolescent years. Being introduced to effective stretching at an early age will certainly help set in the practice of working their joints through a full range of motion and understanding that a strong and flexible body is what you want – especially as you age!

When I was teaching very young children (5-7 years of age) my focus was on building better coordination and control over their body.  Are they developing the ability to balance on one leg?  Do they understand what efficient alignment is?  Can they follow your verbal directions? (Beyond just doing what you are demonstrating and not paying any attention to what is happening in their own body)

These are all important pieces of the stretching puzzle by teaching young dancers learn how to stretch safely and effectively.  These attributes are more important than a strict age designation for a formalized stretching program.

There are 5 and 6 year old students who are very coordinated and can follow directions easily and who know where their knees are facing, or if their knees are bent.  Those students are the best candidates for more focused split training.

So let’s talk about one could approach the splits with very young children.  I’m going to stick with talking about the front splits for this post.  In the front splits there are 2 primary muscle areas that are involved. The front leg needs hamstring flexibility and the back leg needs hip flexor flexibility.

Stretch hamstrings and hip flexors individually

These 2 areas are key for good alignment and separating the 2 areas and working on flexibility training can start as early as the child shows the appropriate coordination as talked about above.  What I mean by this is I would do hamstring stretches separate from practicing the splits.  Sitting on the floor where they can see whether or not their legs are straight and then rolling back on their pelvis (slumping) then sitting up straight and tall is a good quick test to see where they are with their hamstring flexibility.  They should be able to sit on their sits bones ideally without a lot of strain at the hamstrings or bending their knees.

Even with the younger students I like teaching them how to put their leg up on a low chair or stool and doing single leg hamstring stretching.Picture-2  By doing one leg at a time even a young student will become aware if one leg is tighter – and can be guided to do more stretches on the tighter side.  For the student who can go for extra stretch you can have them sit on a yoga block or cushion and extend one leg forward while having the other one bent.

Lunge stretching for the hip flexors can be done in the runners lunge position as well as in a standing lunge, or one with your foot up on a low surface and leaning forward.  If they are able to go for more range in the hip flexors have them sit on the yoga block or cushion (or

P1018459-150x150anything that gets them slightly off the floor) and extend the back leg while keeping the front leg bent.

What I would NEVER do is to push a young students legs straight or physically adjust them too much (meaning with pressure or pushing) them into a specific position.  You run a risk that by doing so you are placing them in a position that their body isn’t ready for. While the stretching practices that some gymnastic coaches give to their young students can be successful (like taking the leg and passively stretching the leg) it can also be painful and potentially stretches ligaments and joint structures in ways that can be injurious.  (Image on right is a no no!)

A young dancer will automatically keep themselves out of painful stretching – and should be encouraged to not do anything that is painful.  We need to teach them to listen to their bodies from a very early age.

I like using props to help them move into practicing splits – starting them sitting up on an appropriate surface and stretching long and straight the front and back legs.  This way they can release their weight into the stretch without putting themselves in a funky or weird position.  (Think of someone reaching to the floor awkwardly with one or both of the legs bent because they don’t have enough flexibility to easily put their hands on the ground – not an effective way to stretch!)  I’m sitting on low stool in the picture below to stretch both the front and back legs equally while keeping my body upright.  I am not in favor of over-stretching for the very young dancer.  Generally, they have not developed enough strength to be put in such an extreme position.

P1018469-150x150

Bottom line is they need an adequate amount of flexibility in both the hip flexors and hamstrings before they ever try a true split.  Working on the different muscle groups individually, though, can start as soon as they are able to work with guidance in effective stretching practices.

play-200x300I’m not sure if my following statement is a true one – but it appears to me that children are less flexible than they used to be. I wonder if there is a correlation between less time spent in playing on the playground and in the yard as many of us teachers grew up doing.  In a nutshell, less physical activity and physical play going hand in hand with tighter and less flexible young people.

Good stretching practices are important to set into early in life.  While I don’t think it is imperative that a young dancer has to have their splits by age 8 or 9, I do know that as they become pre-teens and teenagers they decrease their injury potential by keeping their muscles flexible and strong as they grow into their adult bodies.  And of course… the same is true as we mature into and beyond our 20’s.

And with that thought…. I’m off to stretch!

Hoping everyone has a wonderful holiday break!

Warmest regards,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”