Ways to shift your stretching routine from passive to dynamic
If you are like your students, you get in at least a few stretches before class. Perhaps you prop your foot on the barre and stretch out over your leg. You may even try the splits. The typical pre-class warm-up has changed little over the years, but our attempts to achieve length before the first plié may be missing the point.
The exercises mentioned above are static, or passive, stretches and, according to Deborah Vogel, should be saved for after class, when you’re finished dancing. “If you hold a stretch like that for 60 seconds or a little more, you will achieve longer length in the muscle, so it is increasing flexibility,” says Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine and lecturer in dance at Oberlin College. “But it’s also inhibiting the muscle’s ability to fire.” In other words, by focusing solely on length with no strength, you leave muscles loose and languid, with their strength temporarily decreased. Overstretching is a real concern, as well. Vogel warns that pushing too far in a passive stretch, especially for young dancers, can damage the structure of a joint and line the dancer up for serious injury down the road.
On the other hand, dynamic, or active, stretching lengthens some muscles while strongly engaging others. This helps prepare the whole body for movement, making it a great choice for before class. Vogel says the approach emphasizes control in the stretches, instead of how far you push yourself. It requires the dancer to move slowly through her range of motion rather than bouncing or physically pushing her body into place. This also reduces the risk of overstretching.
Beyond safety considerations, dynamic stretches can also effectively pinpoint and release tight muscles better than static stretches. If you just sit in a stretch, you may be missing the real hurdle to your greatest flexibility. “In dynamic stretching, you’re stretching the whole length of a muscle group, not just one muscle,” Vogel says. “Oftentimes, there’s some place besides the muscle you’re working on that might be limiting your flexibility.”
Vogel recommends these active adjustments to the classic hamstring stretch on the barre. “If you are just hanging out, you will feel that in the back of the leg,” she says. But you could be feeling more.
1. Contract the quad muscle of the leg on the barre. This action helps release the hamstring for a deeper stretch at the back of the leg.
2. Slowly tilt the pelvis forward by drawing the sitz bone of the working leg back. Gently rotate the pelvis toward the working leg. Vogel says some dancers will feel a stretch in the quad while others feel it in their calf. “Now we’re working at mobilizing a line of flexibility,” she says.
Get your body moving and muscles firing as you test your balance and elongate muscles throughout the standing leg.
1. Begin standing in either parallel or turned-out first.
2. Tendu back with your left leg.
3. Keeping your standing leg straight and your shoulders square, tip the body forward, lifting the leg behind you in a penché motion and reaching with your left arm toward the ground. (Keep your right hand by your side.) Stop when your left fingertips touch the floor. The goal is not to get the working leg vertical, but to move slowly and with control.
4. Leading with the shoulders and keeping your core engaged, return to upright with your foot returning to tendu back. Close and repeat on the other side.
Actively increase mobility in the spine.
1. Begin on all fours with hands aligned under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Lift your left hand off the floor and “thread the needle” between your right hand and knee until your entire left arm and shoulder and the side of your face are on the ground.
2. To make the stretch dynamic, press your left arm into the floor while you lift the right arm up, reaching your fingertips toward the ceiling. Your shoulders should be aligned one on top of the other.
3. Place your right hand back on the floor beside your head and straighten the arm completely as you lift your body off the floor, unwinding your spine and reaching your left fingertips toward the ceiling. Again, shoulders should align one on top of the other.
4. Return your left hand to the floor. Repeat to the other side.
This is particularly beneficial for young dancers as they improve control and coordination, but it is a helpful warm-up and stretch at all levels.
1. Battement your left leg in parallel to take a giant step forward.
2. In a continuous motion, lower your right knee to the ground keeping your chest lifted and back straight with your hips and shoulders square.
3. From the lunge, battement the right leg to repeat on the other side. This can move across the floor at a slow marching speed: lunge, battement, lunge, battement.
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer and frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
From top: Thinkstock; exercise photos by Emily Giacalone, modeled by Dia Dearstyne