Decided to share thoughts about mobility versus flexibility and show you how to change a more traditional hip flexor stretch into a mobility exercise. Try it and see what your response is! Might be helpful for some students who struggle with regular stretching.
Below is a quick video that I took showing how I’ve been working with releasing tension in my lateral quad muscle. I have a tendency to be tighter with the lateral quad, lateral hamstring and gluteus medius muscles because of having a woman’s body (aka slightly wide hips) but this pin and stretch technique with the foam roller has really helped.
If you have questions – about the video – or questions you want me to address in an upcoming newsletter please contact me!
To your success,
Dancers LOVE to stretch… it feels good… we need flexible and strong bodies… and everybody thinks of stretching in terms of muscles. Most know that each muscle is wrapped in fascia, which is also called connective tissue. Did you know that each muscle bundle and each muscle fiber is also enveloped by fascia?
Yup! That’s a lot of fascia!
Dancers are returning to classes after summer break and there are many of them that are going to be sore after the first class or two back.
That soreness is often called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS for short. You feel great in class, but the next day or even two days later your muscles ACHE! It used to be said that it was caused by an increase of lactic acid but lactic acid is reduced fairly quickly in the body while muscle aches can last for days.
This soreness is coming from doing an activity that your body isn’t ready for – like being out of shape or away from class and then jumping back in full tilt boogie:) It can involve eccentric contractions which is contracting a muscle while it is being lengthened. It can also come after trying a new movement pattern that that the body isn’t trained for (yet). DOMS goes away typically within a few days, and the next time you go to do the activity it feels better. You are conditioning your muscles AND fascia:)
Research suggests that it’s the fascia that has been strained rather than the muscle fibers. In fact – the number of pain sensors is far greater in fascia than in muscle. Fascia can be inflamed, stiffen up, dry up and wreck havoc with our movement. Remember the post about the lumbar fascia, which is a key player in lower back pain, stiffens up and looses mobility? You can rewatch the 2 clips of healthy lumbar fascia vs lumbar fascia from someone with lower back pain.
Fascia likes being stretched across multiple joints, as fascia connects and weaves long lines of muscles through the body. This is why when you roll a ball under your foot, your hamstrings might feel looser on that side. The hamstrings and the bottom of your feet are connected through the fascia. Often a solution to a flexibility problem may be far away from the targeted challenge area.
Fascia also responds to dynamic stretching. An example of a dynamic hamstring stretch I love is placing my foot on a chair in front of me. I then contract my quads on the leg that is being stretched and shift my sits bone backwards as if I was sticking my pelvis out. Keeping the quads contracted you can slowly and gently flex at the hip until you have a strong yet not painful stretching sensation. If you let go of the quad contraction you will lose the effectiveness of this stretch.
A nice way to get ready for class is to do a few jumping jacks, or brisk walk around the studio and then take a few minutes to roll on the pinkie ball or foam roller followed by lying on the floor and stretching your body as if you were just getting out of bed and yawning and stretching. Twist and bend your body in as many ways as possible and wake up those long lines of fascial connections.
If you live in Canada you might consider coming one of the workshops I’ll be offering on Anatomy of Technique: A Fascial Perspective where we will dive deep into looking at technique through the lens of fascia. Space is limited and they are happening in October!
To your success!
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.
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,
Let’s continue the theme of physical wellness and aging…
I am a teacher who teaches 6hrs straight a day, some tap, mostly jazz. I stretch with one of my classes throughout the day. I am finding when I have my next class my hamstrings are even tighter. Any suggestions on why I feel I am losing my flexibility which was great 2 yrs ago. I am a male and 36 yrs of age. Thanks in advance for your help! Rocco
Great question – and – I will admit that your question hit a small nerve for me, as I don’t like some of the changes I see in my own flexibility. I had been chalking up the changes to not spending the same amount of time stretching now that I am teaching over performing, so I decided to look at the research.
This is what I found.
“Even elderly men and women over seventy years old can increase their flexibility (Brown et al. 2000; Lazowski et al. 1999). With strength training the elderly, even in their 90s, can increase their strength and muscle mass-not as fast and as much as young people, but they can (Fiatarone et al. 1990; Lexell et al. 1995)” Thomas Kurz, author of “Stretching Scientifically”.
YES! I found other research that supported the statement that aging and decreasing flexibility or strength do not necessarily go hand in hand. But let’s get real, okay? That is not the experience that most people have as they age. Why not?
The study of physiology and aging also states that as we age, our muscles and joints tend to get tighter, and that is because as we age connective muscle tissue shortens. This shortening of connective tissue can influence the range of motion we have at a joint, especially if muscle balance isn’t maintained.
Rocco’s question about his hamstrings could be a perfect example of this. Rocco, I would have you look at your lower back muscles, the iliopsoas, and the erector spinae muscles and work to loosen them up by doing the psoas lunge (runner’s lunge) and the more normal rounding forward stretches we do for our spine. Often when the lower back muscles are tight, we will feel the strain in our hamstrings, and when the hamstrings are tight, that stress will be felt in our lower back. When one muscle group gets tight, the other muscle groups will try and compensate. The same pattern happens with strength. If one muscle is weaker, another muscle will try and take over some of the work – often setting up a possibility for strain or tendonitis, etc. in the compensatory muscle.
We are very aware of muscle balance and alignment as dancers, and when we are still taking class for ourselves we continue to work on maintaining good muscular balance. Teaching, however, as our main form of exercise, does not do the same good things for our bodies, simply because we are so focused on our students as we are moving. It’s been my experience that even if I am stretching with a class I am still observing students, talking and counting as I am stretching, yes – I’m aware of what is happening in my own body – but not truly in dialogue with it.
There are lifestyle changes that happen after the age of 30 that influence our flexibility and strength. We begin to have more responsibilities, less time to focus on our own health and well-being. Certainly, this has been a juggling act that many people – not just dancers – are faced with.
So – the good news is our bodies are adaptable and can improve its flexibility and strength even after a long period away from dancing (or having children, or whatever our reasons are). The bad news is that it will take making it a priority and stretching and strengthening, not twice a week, or three times a week – but small amounts daily, or as close to that as possible.
It’s not useful to beat up on ourselves for not having the body we used to have when we were in our 20’s. And, we can take comfort in the knowledge that when we begin taking time out to stretch daily, we WILL see the results of our efforts. Jane Fonda was right on when she said if you don’t use it you’ll lose it!
I’ll close with a quote from Dr. Michael Kaplan, director of the Rehabilitation Team, a sports medicine and physical therapy clinic in Maryland who says, “There’s no reason why people in their thirties and forties and even older can’t have just as much flexibility as when they were younger–or even more flexibility. A 60-year-old can have more flexibility than a 20-year-old, if she works at it and stretches.”
As dance teachers you all have many stretches that you have learned over the years to better your flexibility. If you haven’t already, you might be interested in checking out my Effective Stretching dvd. These stretches were designed to stretch muscles and fascia, sitting in your chair, easily and effortlessly. They are simple to do – and – as the title suggests – very effective at creating change. The dvd came out after I worked with my musicians and dancers over a couple semesters creating stretches they could do while they were studying or as a preparation for practicing. Many students had more significant responses in their flexibility and function with these stretches over doing the typical passive, hang out and stretch ones they had been doing for a while. Plus – if you order any product before the end of the month you’ll get a free Tune Up Your Turnout book!
“Education is the key to injury prevention”
Hope everyone is keeping warm! One quick announcement before we get into the newsletter.
I have created two hip flexibility assessment forms. One is a form that you can duplicate (in case you want to test your students) and mark your results down, and the second document explains how to test for your turnout, hamstring flexibility as well as iliopsoas, quadriceps and ITB flexibility.
I will send you these 2 forms in exchange for a product testimonial. I would like to post on my website more specific testimonials about how you have used any of my products – or a specific aha or insight that was gained through a piece of information. (Which could include information you have received from the Dancing Smart Newsletter) For example, writing your story of how your arabesque improved with doing an exercise you learned from me – or how you put the anatomical pieces together on an issue that you were struggling with.
Send your testimonial to Deborah@thebodyseries.com, and I will send you the 2 forms as a thank you. I will be posting the testimonials on my website and will identify you by your first name only – or initials, whatever you feel most comfortable with. If you would like to identify your city and state or studio (if you are a teacher) that’s fine too, just let me know.
Thank you! And now to the newsletter…
In this newsletter I want to talk about flexibility in general and then specifically stretching your hamstrings.
Most dancers think of flexibility as the length of muscles and the range of motion they can create at a joint. This is what gives the dancer that beautiful line of an arabesque or the height of a développé.
Flexibility needs to be balanced with strength in order to be able to execute all those beautiful dance moves – so ultimately dancers are working towards the best muscle tone they can have – which is a muscle that is both flexible and strong.
I have dancers tell me they are stretching consistently and still not feeling like they are gaining flexibility. What else can influence your flexibility?
One answer is fascia. I’ve talked about in many previous newsletters how fascia is connective tissue. There are different layers of fascia but the anyone who has bought chicken breasts at the grocery store and then trimmed it has seen the whitish sheet of tissue covering the meat (which is the chicken’s muscle) This fascia helps to keep the muscles divided and protected. Sometimes this fascia can get knotted or adhere to other tissue which influences the whole fascial band and can create pain or challenges to your flexibility. This is where myofascial massage is useful. Myofascial means fascia related to the muscles and it is a different type of massage than just deep tissue. The focus is on releasing pulls and tensions specifically in the fascia.
There are sheets of fascia throughout your body. Tom Meyers has written a fantastic book called Anatomy Trains that goes into great detail about all the different lines of fascia. The fascial line I’d like you to look at today is the posterior back line. You can look at a picture of the muscles that are connected by this one fascial line by going to (cut and paste into a new tab or page of your browser – so you can keep reading!)
When you look at the second image, which is the superficial back line you can see that the muscles at the bottom of the feet are connected to the calf muscles, then hamstrings, then up the back all the way onto the head!
Now it may make more sense that if you have a dancer who perhaps is a teenager, awkward about their posture, slumping slightly with a forward head – that the tightness in the fascia of her neck might influence her hamstring flexibility! Conversely, I’ve had dancers who work SO hard at standing up straight that they give themselves a stiffened spine – tightening the fascia in that area – which can influence their hamstring or calf flexibility! We aren’t trained to think of these other areas away from our intended stretching as impediments to our flexibility – but they might be.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we all go out and find a qualified myofascial massage therapist (although that wouldn’t be a bad idea☺), what I am suggesting is that if you aren’t getting the results that you want from your stretching you need to look at other areas of the body that are tight that may be influencing your muscles.
For example, let’s talk about hamstrings. For years now I have been introducing pinkie ball work to my students. Before I let them put the pinkie ball under their hamstrings to loosen them up I ask them to stand up, roll all the way over easily and compare how the two hamstrings feel. If one feels tighter, then they put the pinkie ball underneath their foot as they are standing and roll their foot on the pinkie ball. They are releasing the plantar fascia and massage the muscles of the feet. We do this only for a minute or two and then I have them roll back over to see how their hamstrings feel.
Typically, 75% of the students say that they felt the hamstring loosen up on the side they used the pinkie ball on! That’s pretty exciting! Then I go into talking about how they have a fascial band that goes from the bottom of their foot up to their head. (Remember the diagram?)
You could also try releasing the fascia closer to the top of the line. Round forward again so you can sense the difference in tension between your 2 legs. Let’s say your right hamstrings or calf felt tighter. Stand back up and take your left hand and place your fingers on the right side of your neck and massage gently where the muscles meet the base of the head as well as along the right side of the neck down to your right shoulder. Spend 30 seconds to a minute gently massaging this area. It should feel good – if it doesn’t you’re probably massage too hard! Now round back over again and see if you feel a difference in your legs.
If you do – then it is worth making time for either pinkie ball work or some other form of self-massage and then evaluating how your flexibility is improving with this additional focus. I’m not saying to stop doing more traditional hamstring or calf stretching – but if your stretching isn’t giving you the results you want, it’s useful to try a few other ways to see if your results change.
After all – you are smart dancers….
Signing off from another Dancing Smart Newsletter!
“Education is the key to injury prevention”
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Onto the questions….
I returned to ballet about 5 years ago. I have been getting some pain in my knees which was diagnosed by my physiotherapist as anterior knee pain caused by weak thigh muscles.
A new teacher at my ballet school said that my hyperextended knees would also be causing the problem. I am working with her to try and stand straight without locking the knees but I am having problems trying stand properly on one leg while working the other.
Any help that you give would be much appreciated as all my teachers have differing opinions on hyperextended knees.
I am now 28 and also suffer from pronation.
The three issues you mentioned, weak thigh muscles, hyperextended knees and pronated feet all go together. The good thing is as you start to address all 3 of them at the same time your knees should start to quickly feel better!
I’m assuming your physiotherapist is giving you quad strengthening exercises – so I won’t talk about them except to say that a single leg demi plie is a wonderful strengthener! (As long as your knees and feet are in alignment)
My opinion on hyperextension is that it creates a beautiful line in the air – and – needs to be controlled on the ground. When the knees go back into hyperextension the thighbone rotates inward, and the feet tend to pronate. This definitely opposes your goal of maintaining good turnout!
It’s not easy to change a chronic habit of hyperextending the knees – but it is well worth it! You can monitor your knees from your feet, making sure the weight is equal on the 3 points of the feet. You can also catch yourself dropping into your legs (as most dancers with hyperextended knees are rather loosey-goosey) and put your hand on top of your head and press into your hand, lengthening your spine. Practice balancing on one leg (not in hyperextension) to help your nervous system learn where the center of the joints are. It will take some time to change the habit – but I have seen many dancers do it!
I am just into my pregnancy and work as a contemporary dancer and physical theatre performer. I hope not to stop my work and performances until my 7th or 8th month. However I know that I will have to modify my work and I’m game for that. I can’t seem to find a good resource — a book, a detailed article, anything! — that explains what activity should be modified and how to modify the activity as time goes on. Most of what I’ve found is very
general or specific to elite athletes like runners. Do you have any recommendations?
I don’t know of any specific resources to send you to, Lucy, so I will give you my personal opinion after having 3 of my own – and counseling a few friends through their pregnancy and births.
The first is – your iliopsoas is going to take a beating with being pregnant. As the baby gets bigger, the pull on your lower back is significant. The one stretch you cannot stop doing is some form of iliopsoas stretching. (I actually have a youtube video on 3 different ways to stretch your psoas) The one stretch that I don’t have on this video is a sitting stretch – but here it is on the right.
Ballwork all around the pelvis will be very useful for keeping the muscles looser. As your belly pulls the pelvis into a forward tilt, the abdominals contract to counter that and the gluteals also tend to contract more than normal to keep your pelvis upright.
Continuing dancing will help keep the abdominals in good shape – and stretching and ballwork will definitely help the gluts!
Those are my primary tips for a healthy pregnancy. It goes without saying that listening to your body is key – and – it is an amazing process that you are engaged with. Typically, the pregnant dancers I’ve known have, for the most part, had easier pregnancies than non-dancers. They danced as long as they were comfortable – and easily modified their movement. (for example, rolling down the spine becomes almost impossible – so do hamstring stretches standing with your leg on a chair instead) I truly enjoyed all 3 of my pregnancies. Best wishes and…
“Education is the key to injury prevention”
I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving holidays were wonderful…. I am grateful to have all of you in my dance community!
The new website is nearly done…. hoping by the next newsletter it will be up and running!
Here’s the question of the week…
My daughter is 14 and has been dancing for 10 years. She started a very intense dance schedule in June. She was dancing nearly 30 hrs, a week for the summer along with a 4 day intensive. She cut back to 21 hrs a week when school started and has been doing very well growing in her dance ability until now. She takes 3 ballet classes, 3 adv. pointe classes (all 1 1/2 hrs each), 4 jazz classes, 3 lyrical classes, salsa and conditioning. She recently started having pain in her right hip where the sciatic nerve runs. A teacher of her is a certified physical therapist. She felt around and noticed the nerves on both sides were moving and the muscles underneath were knotted up. The pain stayed right there and didn’t travel so we ruled out sciatica. We have iced and heated the area for a week and rubbed out as many knots as possible. It seemed to help and then she went to a jazz class and over did it and now we can’t get the pain to stop for very long. I can feel the knots and deep rubbing seems to help but only for a while. Once she wakes in the morning it starts all over again. What if anything else can we do for it? I know rest is needed but do you have any other advice for knotted muscles? Thank you for your time, Evie
I’m glad you have a physical therapist on board to help you out. I’m wondering whether your daughter could have something called piriformis syndrome. It’s a condition where the piriformis muscles which is the largest of the 6 deep muscles that are the ‘turnout’ muscles irritates the sciatic nerve. Some people only feel pain in the buttock area (this could be your daughter) and sometimes it goes down into the leg,
which is referred pain from the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve typically passes underneath the piriformis muscle, but in about 15% of the population the nerve goes through the piriformis muscle increasing it’s potential for trouble.
When dancers overwork the piriformis and the other deep rotators as they are trying to achieve more turnout then can create excessive tension in this muscle which presses or compresses on the nerve creating pain depending on where the nerve lies in relationship to the piriformis muscle.
For right now, let’s treat your daughter as if she has really irritated both the sciatic nerve and that the turnout muscles are knotted up and very unhappy!
The massage you are doing is good for releasing tension in the gluteal area, as well as using a pinkie ball or a tennis ball to put between the buttock and the wall to do self-massage. With piriformis syndrome I personally would not use any heat – only ice on the area, and would have her ice as much as possible. This might be a time where a few days of an anti inflammatory such as ibuprofen could be helpful. The next thing I would do is to stretch, stretch, stretch, the turnout muscles to help them release from their painful spasm.
Another way would be the traditional sitting on the floor with the legs folded and rounding down over the legs, gently moving from side to side to feel the stretch at the back of the buttocks where her pain is. Make sure to switch which leg is in front as that will change the focus of the stretch to the other side.
Rest is the final part of the treatment program. It doesn’t mean that she would have to take off from all of her dance classes – but it does mean she needs to significantly reduce the amount of classes that she is taking. Her first goal is to be pain free when she wakes up in the morning. If her pain is reduced by pulling back – or totally off classes, then she can slowly bring more classes back in. Working through the pain at this point will most likely increase the length of time for healing – and make for some poor muscle habits as she is trying to engage and work the turnout muscles while they are tender and tight.
Best wishes for a speedy recovery!