Thursday, July 2, 2015

Stretching Revisited

The New Zealand Middle Eastern Dance Forum asked me to write some notes on various Safe Dance topics. I thought I wouldn't waste the effort and also put it up here!

Whole books are written in stretching – I have several on my bookshelf. Here are just a few ideas to consider.

Most dancers think they should stretch – yet, in my experience, few know why, what a stretch actually is, or how to do it effectively.

There are good reasons to stretch – to reduce muscle soreness after a concentrated session or to increase (or maintain) flexibility. It has now been shown that stretching before dancing does not reduce injury (and stretching on a cold body increases injury). Some extreme forms of dance may benefit from stretching before dancing (on a warm body) – but belly dance does not fall into that category.

However, too much flexibility is more likely to cause injury that too little. If you are a naturally flexible, possibly you would be better to spend your time on strength and control.

What is a stretch?

Your muscles are made up of fibres that slide in and out. Think of a pack of cards; split it in half and ruffle the two halves. Push them all the way in – that’s a fully contracted muscle. Pull them out that is a stretched muscle. (Pull too far and that’s a torn muscle) Now, your muscle has a preferred position – not all the way out, not all the way in – its “resting length”. This position depends on genetics, past injuries, and training.

“Stretching” is trying to reset this resting position. (Note not all flexibility issues can be solved by stretching – many are due to other factors that cannot be changed. And many so-called flexibility issues in students are actually issues of control – ie the body is capable of reaching the position but the brain is incapable of working out how).

So “stretching” is not joint mobilization – the sort of wiggling about many people do (which has its place but won’t improve flexibility). Nor, in most cases, can you stretch a tendon without tearing it – so, no, you can’t “stretch” your Achilles tendon. There are some advanced techniques that will give a little extension but don’t try it at home.

How to Stretch

Always stretch on a warm body ie one that has been doing at least 10-15 minutes of cardio.

Target your stretches. Find out what your body needs. Every body is different. Doing group stretches in a class might build comradery but is unlikely to be as effective as each person dong their own program.

Isolate single muscle groups where possible. If your “stretch” uses two (or more) muscles then the ones with the flexibility will move more and the inflexible bits will stay contracted.

Do the stretch correctly. For instance, watch alignment. If your feet are meant to be in parallel and you have one turned out then you will be using slightly different muscles.

Muscles can only stretch if they are not working (actually there is an exception to this – but again it’s an advanced technique). So you cannot stretch any leg muscle if that leg is weight bearing. So standing hamstring stretches only work if you place the leg on a chair, barre etc – you cannot stretch your hamstring by touching your toes (but you can damage your lower back).