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Young Bones and Splits

I am trying to find out the most up to date information on the safety of splits and moves like tilts in young children and growing bodies. I don’t mean over stretching and I don’t mean how stretches happen but specifically should we be putting children with soft bones into a splits position before a certain age of development or milestone? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Thank you!

Great question!  I searched to see if I could find any research on children and flexibility training and could not find anything that specifically addressed your concern. 

So here are my thoughts on the subject of young children and flexibility training.  There is a range of flexibility in children just as there is in teenagers and adults.  I’ve always believed that the first focus for training the young dancer should be to develop movement coordination and proper skeletal alignment which in turn creates strong and flexible muscles. 

When children begin stretching, they need to learn how to do it safely. They need to learn what is an okay physical sensation for them.  Children have multiple growth spurts where bones grow faster than muscles and they need to learn how to stretch without undue strain. 

It is during these growth spurts where the malleable bones of the young child are most vulnerable. Bone responds to pulls on it by growing outward. That is how bone spurs are created as well as Osgood Schlatter disease. The challenge is to train muscular flexibility and strength in our young children without creating undue strain on the bones. That requires teacher guidance to learn what are appropriate muscular sensations for stretching and strengthening. No pain no gain has no place in the training of young bodies. 

For the majority of dancers, having tight hip flexors and hamstring muscles is what keeps them from easily going into the splits (Alignment is important as well as indicated in the photo below.

Breaking down the splits and conditioning the hamstring muscles and hip flexor muscles separately is a good idea.  This will decrease potential muscle strains and joint injuries.  The majority of children working towards splits don’t need to be concerned with negatively influencing their bone growth if they learn how to stretch properly.

If you have a young child that is naturally flexible and can easily do the splits – it’s possible they could put undue pressure into the joint capsule so those children need to work more on their muscle strength and movement stability over flexibility. 

There are my best thoughts for training splits for the young dancer. First focus on movement coordination and patterning. And then let’s teach all our dancers (both young and old) what safe stretching and strengthening might feel and look like.

To your success!

Deborah

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?

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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.

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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”

 

 

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”

Training for splits

Training For Splits

#1: I have my splits, but they aren’t straight (my hips aren’t straight). I’m wondering; is it necessary for your hips to be straight in the splits to be able to do good kicks and stuff? Or is it okay to not have straight hips in ballet?
Thanks!!! Talya

#2: I am a professional ballroom dancer and teacher who primarily competes in West Coast Swing. I have been working for over a year now to be able to do a split. The type of split I’m referring to is either left leg in front with right leg going back or vice versa. I find that I can get down quite far but there is still about two inches between the floor and me. Can you suggest exercises or stretches that will enable me to do a full split? I maintain a daily Pilates and yoga practice so I’m quite flexible.
I’ve been reading your newsletter for quite some time now and really enjoy it. Thank you, Ellany

#3: What are some good stretches for a good or high extension and leaps? My splits are fine but my extensions and leaps (jete) need some work.
Please help! La Precious

Deb’s Answer:
These three questions are speaking to the same issue of flexibility versus strength, and so I put them together. For Ellany, she is missing the last few inches of her splits, and for La Precious she has her splits, but needs work on her leaps and extensions. Talya’s question fits right in because of the misconception that you can keep your hips square doing the splits – which you can’t.

Let’s start first talk about square hips. Keeping your pelvis facing forward while going into the splits is a focus. The picture of a flexible gymnast in the splits has the back leg more parallel than what a dancer has in arabesque or a split leap. The dancer is working towards a turned out (and high) back leg which requires good front of the hip flexibility to allow the leg to go behind. The more you can keep the pelvis square – or facing forward – the easier it is to determine the path for the two legs when they open into the splits – certainly important if you are working on a balance beam, but slightly less so in the dance class. So Talya, the short answer to your question is it okay not to have square hips in ballet is yes – and – when you are doing battements or splits leaps focus your efforts on keep the pelvis facing forward – don’t get discouraged if you can’t maintain a perfectly square pelvis – and continue your stretching.

Now let’s talk some about flexibility. Since Ellany does yoga and Pilates on a regular basis I know that she is stretching regularly. The most basic analysis of the splits are that the front let have a strong stretch happening in the hamstrings and buttock muscles, while the back leg is stretching the front of the hip. The front leg should have the knee facing the ceiling and the back leg will either have the knee facing down to the ground, which stretches the hip flexors more or the knee facing to the side, which stretches the inner thigh muscles more.

I would have you first see what the natural inclination of your back leg is as you go down into the splits. Do you want to turn your leg out? Then focus on increasing and deepening your hip flexor stretches. Does your leg stay nicely behind and facing the floor? In which case, focus for a while on increasing the flexibility of your adductor, or inner thigh muscles.

The more pitched forward your pelvis is when you are going down in the splits, the more likely the hip flexors are keeping you off the ground. That may also give you a clue whether it is the hip flexors (usually the iliopsoas) or inner thigh muscles.

The last question I would ask of you is where do you feel the resistance to deepening the splits? If you don’t feel much muscular resistance to the lowering in the splits, then you might look at having some myofascial massage work done to release tightness in other areas along the front or back line that may be getting in your way.

With LaPrecious feeling that she has her flexibility and splits down, but unable to make her leaps more spectacular, that may be a deficiency in strength. More often I see weakness in the hip extensors (hamstrings) over the hip flexors (quads). Try lifting your back leg up more quickly sometimes makes a difference. Dancers are often overly focused on the front leg and lifting it u p high. The back leg is doing a very fast battement as soon as it pushes off (as in a grand jeté).

If your back leg doesn’t get as high as you’d like in your leaps, then focus on strengthening the extensors of the hip, the hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
You can do that by placing a small weight on one leg and doing back tendus or dégagés. You could also use a theraband and do the same thing by looping it around your foot and a support such as a heavy chair or sturdy pole or column.

Increasing your strength or your flexibility doesn’t happen overnight and consistency is key.

Hamstrings & Sore Sits-bones

Greetings!
I haven’t gotten to answer any questions over the past few weeks as I’ve had some special events such as spending time with Lisa Howell, the wonderful Australian dance physiotherapist who authored the Perfect Pointe Book and the Perfect Pointe System! Lisa and I then went off to the IADMS Conference (International Association for Dance Medicine and Science) where I got to meet – some of you!

I so appreciate learning and being inspired by all the good work that is happening in dance medicine from around the world. Thanks to all who stopped to introduce themselves to me!

Onto the questions of the week….

My question concerns soreness around the sits bones during lunges and straddle split stretches (both the kind where you face a wall and push yourself closer and where you lie on your back perpendicular to the wall with your legs dropped open). I’m used to feeling sore there when working on hamstring flexibility, but never before with other stretches. It’s especially odd with the lunges, because the soreness is in the buttock of the BACK leg. Rotating the leg inward seems to help a little. Do you have any ideas what may be going on here?

Your turnout muscles also attach in the area of the sits bone. You gave a good clue that rotating the leg inward helps relieve the soreness some. Why don’t you try putting a pinkie ball or a tennis ball underneath your pelvis and rolling lightly around. Pay special attention to the sitting bone area. After gently massaging that area do your stretching and see if there is any difference in your response. Let me know if that helps!

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Another dancer writes….

If the hamstrings are tight where might a dancer feel discomfort?

We talked about this in class this morning. It seems logical that if the hamstrings are tight you would feel that tightness at one of the ends of the muscle. Either around the sits bone like the above question – or at the knee. But interestingly, often hamstring tightness and problems show up as lower back aches, and lower back problems will be felt in the hamstrings.

seated_hamstring_nThink about a dancer who has tight hamstrings and is sitting on the floor with one or both of the legs in front of them. As you can see from this picture, the hamstrings aren’t being targeted very effectively – rather the back is taking the brunt of the stretch.

Try using the pinkie ball on your back and pelvis. I really should buy stock in a pinkie ball company! – just teasing!

Sometimes releasing muscular tension above or below the hamstrings will help. I have students spend about a minute rolling a pinkie ball underneath one foot. They are massaging the plantar fascia of the foot. Then they go to touch their hands towards the floor and generally at least 50% of them will feel the hamstring loosened up on the side they used the pinkie ball. They didn’t stretch the hamstring directly – and it still benefited!

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I promise I’ll get back on track with the newsletter. I’m working on updating the website and along with that bringing some new information to you! Stay tune for more info in future newsletters!

Warm regards,
Deborah