How many times have you walked into a class and seen half of the girls on the floor, deep in their splits or reading on their phone in a straddle position? How many of us had dance team coaches who encouraged us to increase our flexibility by sitting in the splits while we watched TV?
I am pretty sure the answer is “too many” of us.
Flexibility is so important to being a dancer, but it is not the end all be all of it. Flexibility gives us the freedom to explore our full range of motion and have as many choreographic options as possible. It also gives us the ability to perform amazing athletic tricks, which can help or hinder our choreography in itself.
Fortunately, at least amongst the academic dance crowd, the old days of sitting in stretches before class and during warm up has started to fade away. We are now told to use dynamic stretching in our warm up, to continue moving and flowing through motion and perhaps not getting to our most flexible point before we start jumping. We are no longer pressed to get our splits (or, at least, it waits until after class) in the same way dancers once were. We are now told that static stretching makes our muscles lose their power, that to completely stretch out our hamstrings and psoaz and then expect our bodies to perform high leaps is ridiculous.
This is a hard thing for a lot of people to accept. A lot of dancers still want to walk into class and plop down into the splits – and honestly sometimes I think this is a show off move moreso than what their bodies are truly telling them to do. Passive, static stretching is deceptive in its benefits, and, again, it is an excuse for a lot of dancers to chill out and stop trying and just sit (and who can blame them/us after dancing all day and being tired af).
It’s important to understand that while flexibility and range of motion is an important part of any sport and especially dance, flexibility without strength is useless. I’ve spent some time reading over several recent studies on the subject.
One such recent study from this year’s issue of Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, took twenty-one young, trained female handball players and assessed their strength, range of motion, and performance of their arms after warming up with static stretching, static stretching and dynamic warm ups, and dynamic warm ups without any static stretching. These scientists were not just looking at whether or not static stretching is detrimental, but if its detrimental effects can be minimized by including it within a more dynamic movement warmup.
Now, I understand that these girls are not dancers, but all of them are athletic, and all of us have probably had to use our musculature in ways that parallel these girls.
The girls’ power and range of motion was measured in a few different ways, including throwing a handball with the dominant hand, the speed of which was measured with a radar gun, and throwing a 2 kg medicine ball, the distance of which was measured. Both of these tests were measured over the course of three nonconsecutive days within a week, and both tests were performed after the girls did some static stretching, a dynamic warm up, and both static stretching and a dynamic warm up. Every test had reproducible results.
Of course, the girls showed an increase in their range of motion after any stretching, and there was no significant change when they only performed dynamic movement without stretching.
However, the girls also showed a decrease in the distance they could throw the medicine ball after they had done static stretching before. Also, there was no difference when comparing the distance after a dynamic warmup versus a dynamic warmup along with static stretching.
These scientists summarized their own results by saying that static stretching, while it increases range of motion, has an acute negative affect on muscular power.
Of course, not all of us are trained handball players. All of the girls in this study were young, fourteen to eighteen years old, and this study only took the upper limbs into account. This particular study cites a great number of other studies on the general effects of stretching on muscular power, some of which seem to prove that prolonged static stretching makes no difference, and some of which seem to prove that stretching is indeed harmful to our muscles. This inconsistencies are most likely the simple consequence of how different stretching protocols are throughout athletics and fitness – intensity, duration (sixty seconds seems to be magic threshold), and how often the person stretches.
So we don’t have to say goodbye to static stretching completely – it has its place. Eric Franklin’s Dance Strength and Conditioning says that static stretching should wait for an hour after vigorous activity to give the muscles time to recover, but he acknowledges this is impractical, in terms of time, for many of us.
But dynamic stretching, frankly, is the bomb. It’s awesome. I have found my own body respond so positively to it, and since leaving behind my old, long, static routines, I have never felt more powerful. I also credit dynamic stretching for making my body feel so much more like one piece. Nothing is isolated anymore, and perhaps this is just me growing as a dancer, but when I stretch dynamically, I can more easily feel the connection of my legs to my core to my arms to my neck to my head.
In conclusion, the dynamic stretching movement has been started, but it still has a long way to go. Let’s keep spreading the word, as well as citing hard evidence like this study. (I have more studies that I am going to cite and summarize)
Information from Stretch-Induced Reductions in Throwing Performance Are Attenuated by Warm-Up Before Exercise by Naryana C. Mascarin, Rodrigo L. Vancini, Claudio A.B. Lira, and Marilla S. Andrade
Another great resource for being is strong dancer is The Dance Training Project. I also encourage you to follow them on facebook for frequent interesting articles