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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

Splits training

There was a comment on the Splits entry that I’d like to use as this week’s post. Heidi writes

Do you recommend a particular approach for beginning training for splits. Are there other stretches that should be done first. Should a student demonstrate flexibility in other ways (e.g. be able to touch her toes) before trying to do the splits? I’ve seen many students who are far from being “all the way down” in the splits bend one or both knees. Should this be discouraged?

My reply:
Heidi, The reason they bend one of the knees is to try and get down a little farther – a totally natural response. I would separate the elements of the splits in my training. Meaning… work to increase the flexibility of the hamstrings – which allow the front leg to go lower – and also work the flexibility of the hip flexors, which allow the back leg to slide farther back without tipping the pelvis forward.

For the hip flexors doing daily lunge stretches is key. You can do them on the ground, standing or sitting in a chair (my favorite) I have a youtube video demonstrating 3 ways, including a passive hanging stretch. The chair lunge is not on their but simply imagine sitting on a chair in a lunge position and lifting up the front of your pelvis to increase the stretch along the front of the back leg that is extended.

As far as hamstring flexibility a quick and dirty way to check for tight hamstrings is to have the dancer sitting on the floor with both legs straight and together in front of them. Are they easily able to sit all the way up on their pelvis? If they are rolled onto the back of their pelvis you can suspect their hamstrings are tight.

My favorite way of stretching the hamstrings is in standing and putting one leg on a low enough surface to keep the pelvis in neutral and upright. If they have tight hamstrings to begin with and put their leg on the barre – they are going to be tucked under (rolled back like they did on the floor) and won’t get a good stretch out of it.

Once they have their leg on a surface, let’s say a kitchen chair, they would flex easily forward keeping their pelvis and spine in alignment. Don’t round forward with your back, just tilt at the hips. This should give a good stretch to the hamstring area. Don’t forget to keep the pelvis facing forward as you are tilting, as many dancers cheat slightly by letting the pelvis rotate towards their standing leg as they are stretching – which is exactly the problem they are trying to overcome in their splits.

Consistency in their stretching is key – especially in the growing years. If your students aren’t getting the results they want from their stretching you might need to investigate whether they have tight fascia somewhere else in the body that is influencing their efforts. Reread the post on flexibility where I talk about this.

Finally – I want to let you know that I now have Anatomy Coloring Pages for the young dancer available in the store. They are in a pdf format that you do multiple copies of for your younger students.

The muscles that are included in the coloring pages are:
1. rotators (turnout muscles)
2. Quadriceps
3. Hamstrings
4. Iliopsoas
5. Adductor (inner thigh)
6. Abductor (lateral hip)
7. Abdominals
8. Soleus (deeper calf muscle that determines depth of demi plié)
9. Gastrocnemius
10. Deltoid (that lifts the arm)

Each page demonstrates the action of the muscle, has an insert of what the actual muscle looks like, and at the bottom of each page is a sentence describing the action in simple terms. Perfect for the youngest (6 – 8 yrs) to begin learning about their body!

The price is right – only $9.95 – so check them out!

Warm regards,
Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”