Extreme Stretching

Hi Deb!I have been following your work for some time. I have a 13 year old daughter who has always been very flexible. She has been dancing since she was 3. Last October, a teacher pulled on her leg while she was in an extreme position. She was lying on her belly and the teacher brought her leg over her head and pulled it to the floor in front of her head. She suffered an acute injury to her hip flexor. The MRI was negative for a labral tear and he also noted that she has a nice, deep hip socket. It took many months of physical therapy to recover from the injury and she was out of dance for 5 months. She is now back to dance, but still experiences some tightness in her hamstrings and snapping hip syndrome. Her doctor said it is the iliopsoas tendon snapping over the bone and she should continue to work on strengthening. With her being back in dance, I am worried about overstretching and some of the extreme positions that are prevalent in dance today such as, oversplits, scorpions and needles. I have told my daughter that she should not participate in oversplits with her legs up on blocks or other extreme positions. I believe the risks outweigh the benefits and I want her to be able to have longevity in dance. Yet, these things are being taught and encouraged at her dance school. My questions are, should I be concerned about the extreme poses? Are they even necessary for a career in dance? Am I wrong to tell her to not participate in overstretching and extreme hyper-extended positions?

Long post alert! And yay! for being a concerned parent! Onto your questions…

Should I be concerned about the extreme poses? Yes! You should. There is more more scientific and medical research these days that we can base our dance training on. The last few posts I’ve talked about fascia and a few tips to training and conditioning your fascia. Our children’s fascia is much more resilient than an adult’s. This is good because it also means it is more adaptable to change when done in an anatomically responsible way.

Having an outside force (such as a teacher) pull or put strain on a muscle that is not prepared for that force can easily injure a dancer. You daughter was lucky that she didn’t also end up with a lower back injury along with the hip flexor injury. A story that will always stick with me is working with a gorgeous dancer who while dancing professionally in Europe went to a yoga class where the yoga teacher firmly pressed her folded knees into her chest trying to deepen hip flexion and ‘release’ tension. What he did was to injure the bursa and gave her hip flexor bursitis, which took over a year to heal – which meant no dancing.

Oversplits – pros and cons. Warning… way more cons than pros. First, research, and more research, have shown that oversplits can change the angle of the thigh bone in the joint potentially tearing cartilage. We hear about torn labrums, which is cartilage that deepens the ‘bowl’ of the joint. So good that your daughter’s labrum was not damaged – and the hip flexor muscles took the force of the movement and tore first. If you had a very very flexible young dancer, the force may have gone straight into the joint area.

Teachers need to remember that the growth plates of their younger students may still be open. It has been stated that soccer players and gymnasts suffer the most amount of ischial apophysis which is a very bad hamstring tear where it attaches to the sits bone and fractures the growth plate. Hmm… I wonder if dance was considered a sport if it would have been on that list too?

We also know that if you maintain the muscles on such an extreme passive stretch for longer than 30 seconds you are decreasing its strength. (in other words, don’t passively stretch before class – do it after class when you can then rest and recover) You may also be putting strain on the ligaments which may loosen them and decrease their effectiveness at keeping stability at the joint. Ligaments tie bones together and are considered inelastic. This means if you sprain the ligaments around your ankle, for example, they will never be able to stabilize the joint in the same way and the muscles will have to take over stabilizing as well as moving.

Hormonal challenges. I reached out to my colleague, Anneliese Burns Wilson to ask about the influence of hormones on adolescent stretching. She wrote “The general consensus is that the injury rates are the highest when the hormones are in the transitional periods.” (Deb’s note… Going into adolescence would certainly be a hormonal transitional period)

Anneliese: “Exposure to estrogen structurally changes the structure of collagen based connective tissue (make up, fiber diameter and production / absorption ratios).  This would include tendons, ligaments, fascia. Estrogen receptors are found in skeletal muscles, tendons and ligaments. Pelvic floor muscles are affected by estrogen levels.  Since these muscles help to stabilize the pelvis and SI joints from the inside, it is generally accepted that there is some loss of stabilization throughout the menstrual cycle in this area.  It is also important to note that pelvic floor muscles have an attachment to the the fascia of some of the external rotators of the hip.” (FYI, Anneliese is working on a series of books on strategies to optimize training for dancers from childhood through adolescence. (abcfordance.com)

I did not know until I had a conversation with Anneliese that the stabilization influence of the pelvic floor muscles may vary during the menstrual cycle. That doesn’t mean that we can’t stretch, train, dance, etc. etc. throughout the month, but when it comes to those extreme stretch positions why not err on the side of caution and not ask our preteen students to work in extreme stretch positions. There are ways to increase flexibility without the potential of joint/muscle injury.

It appears that I’m on a fascial kick lately… but frankly… when you want to increase flexibility and can effectively figure out where restrictions may be coming from that are keeping you from the desired goal… That just seems like the smarter way to train! And also… faster… since you won’t keep stretching the same muscle over and over again in the same way even when you are aren’t seeing improvement. That is the very definition of insanity.

As teachers we need to stay open to the fact that the science of dance training, of medicine, physical therapy, etc. is constantly changing. I know that my stretching protocols have changed significantly over the years. That’s real – doesn’t mean that if I’m a RAD or Cecchetti or Limon teacher that I’m going to throw away my teachers manual – of course not! I’m simply going to continue to deepen and integrate knowledge about anatomy and movement into the multitude of ways to train technique. There is no right way for everyone. Different bodies… different methods and processes… let’s expand our tool kits for supporting our students.

Are extreme positions even necessary for a career in dance? I’ll let Baryshikov answer that:)

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12 replies
  1. Lauren Bauer
    Lauren Bauer says:

    Thank you for this post, Deb Vogel! So much great information here. I am sharing on social media to help spread the word. I do not understand why so many schools are still engaging in this practice of overstretching. I have seen so many talented dancers end their careers prematurely having sustained injuries from overstretching and passive stretching before class or performance.

    Reply
  2. Faye
    Faye says:

    Thank you so much for this!!!! It is so hard as a parent who does not have a dance background to know what’s best for our children. I hope this reaches many in the dance world and the awareness continues to spread!

    Reply
  3. Christine
    Christine says:

    Thank you so much for this information. You help make my job as a dance teacher a little easier. I’ve always felt that over stretching was not the best move for my students. Will make sure I convey this to them!

    Reply
  4. Amy Hayes
    Amy Hayes says:

    Is she tall for age? Google Marfan syndrome – hypermobility and deep set hip joints are a feature. Probably no connection but just in case….. all dance teachers should know how to spot this too, but may not due to it being under-diagnosed.

    Reply
  5. Sarah Arnold
    Sarah Arnold says:

    Love to hear this repeated again and again because I see studios who want their dancers to reach the top of their competition team and insist on overstretching! Spreading the word 🙂 XX, Sarah

    Reply

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