Thursday, September 22, 2011


My last blog touched on the use of “stretching” when there was no actual muscle elongation happening. This is just one of a number of misused terms that grate for Madame Pedant.

There is also the misuse of “warm up” to just mean the start of a class. No. A warm up is meant to prepare your body (and mind) for dancing. Stretching is not a warm up. In fact, for real stretching you need about 15 minutes of warm up first.

A physiological warm up is understood to be something that includes continuous action of large muscle groups of sufficient intensity to elevate the internal muscle temperature by a couple of degrees; to allow more efficient energy production in muscles; increase flexibility of tissue; increase joint lubrication; allow for faster muscle contraction and increase speed of messages along the nerves. It prepares the body to work and decreases the chance of some types of injury.

How you do it is another issue. A drill with lots of big muscle movements and lifting arm movements can work fine (I think this is why barre work may work - assuming you are not having to stretch to do it - ie you are working well below you own limits). Basically, just avoid small muscle work early on or anything that uses extreme ROM or force.

Then there is the term “belly dance”. A misunderstanding of this phrase’s history has led to pulsating bellies and coin rolling. It is not the belly that dances but the torso – especially the hips. And yes, in modern belly dance there is also footwork.

People have a range of ideas on alternatives. I’ve explored them in the past and I have also looked at what the various terms can mean - No point in rehashing that all here.

One that grates but does little harm is the misuse of “stomach” as in “use you stomach muscles to do this move”. Pretty hard. The stomach is an organ of digestion and its only real action is squeezing the food along. In most cases the word wanted is abdominal. Although often it is not all (or any) abdominal muscles and may be a group like the lateral flexors – obliques (one set of abs) and the quadratus lumborum (a back muscle).

Now we wander into “style X generates movements using muscles (good), style Y uses the skeleton (bad)”. Wrong. You cannot move using just the skeleton. Movement is generated by muscles contracting. These are connected to bones via tendons and with the help of joints and ligaments and a nervous system generate movement.

What can vary between styles is whether the pelvis is moved by the abdominal muscles or pushed around by the legs. Beginners often initially have to use their legs to generate hip rocks, circles and eights. This is not desirable long term for reasons of safety (watch what happens with your knees if you do a horizontal eight this way), texture (leg driven is pretty much on or off – there isn’t much subtlety), or balance (leg driven often hangs off the ITBs at the extremes). Experienced dancers tend to migrate to abdominal generation in most styles – look at some of the old Egyptian footage. Decades before Tribal was invented and all core driven.

Another difficult term is “hips”. It can mean a number of different things. For most English speaking general public it is the part of the body from the waist to the legs. And in class I will use this – knowing it isn’t quite right. Basically we are moving our pelvis around – which is a complex bony bit – covered in muscle and fat. The top of this is the ilium.

The “hip joint” is where the leg bone meets the pelvis – and it is in your groin! The socket is the acetabulum and its exact configuration long with the length and angle of the neck of the femur will determine whether someone can ever achieve 90 degree turn out or the lotus position.

Lastly there is “efficient”. I frequently hear people say they are thin because their bodies are so efficient. Actually it is exactly the opposite. Their bodies are inefficient and are wasting food. In today’s obese society, thin is good and because “efficient” is good the two must be equivalent.
But efficiency is the ratio of useful work to energy input. Thin people use all their input energy. Rounder people store some of the input as fat – so they need less energy input to survive – which means they are more efficient.

Words are our tools to communicate. If we use them in a sloppy manner our communication is less efficient; there is more misunderstandings; people go off on tangents. So let’s try and use clear and unambiguous communication.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Thinking about stretching

The term “stretch” gets bandied around in a very sloppy way. It seems to have at least four quite different meanings – depending on who is using it.

Some people (wrongly) use it to mean a warm-up. A warm-up prepares your body for dance (or exercise) and involves raising your internal body temperature. The muscles get more blood; the joints get more lubrication. The most effective way to warm-up is to move the big muscles of the legs and lift your arms above your heart.

Some people use it to mean a cool-down after exercise. Yes, you should cool-down and stretching is a useful way to do this – but not all cool-downs are stretches.
Some people use it to describe what I’d call “mobilization”. That is, moving your joints through their range of motion by moving gently.

Scientifically, a stretch is a way to elongate your muscle fibres. You do this to increase your range of motion – it is not needed to prepare for dance – but is a way of improving what you are capable of doing while dancing.

You can think of a muscle as a stack of interleaved cards. Normally they are partially overlapping. When you contract the muscle they overlap more. Your resting length depends on how much they overlap when they are not working (contracting). This length can be increased by moving the cards (fibres) apart and holding them for a while. All going well, next time they are relaxed they are a little less interleaved. (click the muscle fibre sketch to see what I mean)

A stretch is done with a warm body and holds a specific (and non-working) muscle (or muscles) at their extreme limit. You release and repeat as required.

So what can go wrong?

If you try and stretch a body that is not warm (think of trying to bend frozen toffee) or push too far by using force or bounce the stretch you may tear something. Of you are lucky a muscle. If you are unlucky - a ligament or tendon. (Bouncing is a problem due to the body’s reflex to resist the stretch – if you push and release too quickly the body responds by contracting the muscle)

Next, although people may tend to be “tight” or “loose”, it is not uncommon for a person to have some tight bits and some loose bits. To make the most of your stretches you need to target the muscles which are actually tight rather than do general stretches. If your stretch involves several muscles what will tend to happen is the loose ones will get looser and the tight ones don’t change.

Finally bad technique. For instance, not aligning yourself correctly or trying to stretch a contracting muscle (this can some times be done but takes training). The most common ineffective (and potentially damaging) stretch is a standing hamstring stretch. When standing the hamstrings have to contract – so they won’t relax and stretch. Instead you are likely to stress your lower back; possibly tearing ligaments and in an extreme case damaging the disc.

Best Practice:

Assess what parts of your body need increased range of motion and identify which can be helped by stretching and what needs to be tackled first.

  • Find suitable exercises for each individual muscle group.

  • Then, over a period of weeks or months, stretch at least every second day.

  • Make sure you warm up first (increase internal temperature by a couple of degrees by walking, cycling or other big muscle group exercise)

  • For each muscle group:

    • Ensure your technique and alignment is correct.

    • Hold each position just where you start feeling it in the muscle.

    • Breathe – increase the stretch as you feel the muscle soften.

    • Repeat a few times.

  • Cool down

After some weeks, retest your range of motion and adjust your stretch program to reflect new priorities. If you have not made significant progress after 6 weeks get a sports physio or similar to check you are doing the stretches correctly and there are no other issues. For instance, some hip configurations mean some people will never be able to achieve significant hip turn out – let alone a lotus position - because the bones get in the way. Stretching will not help this at all.