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Stretching for Dancers: Discussing the Research

Flexibility... something to think about for any style!

This isn’t a ‘how-to’ article, but a discussion of ‘why’.

As you may know, I have some not-so-great things to say about stretching.

For a review, read one of my previous articles: Stretching. Basically, research is telling us that stretching isn’t as good as we once thought.

Dancers have a hard time swallowing this. After all, stretching is one of the most fundamental practices of any style of dance, in anything from b-boying to classical. It is difficult to imagine stretching not being important!

The thing is, stretching is important for most dancers. No one said it wasn’t!

However, it’s important we understand the limitations of stretching. Why? Because we must acknowledge other factors of injury prevention that are often over-looked.

In this article, I’ll address some common questions and concerns dancers have when presented with this research. First a quick research review, then the questions, plus some dance-specific research. Finally we will conclude with some recommendations based on what we’ve learned (as well as some common sense)!

CONTENTS:

  • Review
    - Optional reading for more details.
  • The not-so-great things about stretching.
    - Review of the research.
  • What about dancers? Common concerns / questions:
    - “But dancers need a lot of flexibility!”
    - “But I don’t feel ready to dance unless I stretch first!”
    - “Wait, most of that research wasn’t done on dancers!”
    - “Don’t injuries happen when you over-stretch or over-extend?”
    - “Is there any research done specifically on dancers?”
    - “How much weaker does stretching actually make you?”
  • Conclusion
    - It’s all about the right balance.
  • Recommendations
    - Finally, what dancers should do.

Review:

First, it may be helpful to read the following articles (at least the first one):

1. Stretching 101. – Pros, Cons, and Myths about stretching in general.
2. How Injuries Usually Happen. – Important to understand for this discussion.
3. The Problem with Types of Stretching Part I – a review of different ‘types’.
4. The Problem with Types of Stretching Part II – are they any better?

If you don’t have time to read the above, check the summary right below.


Here is a quick review of current stretching research:

The not-so-great things about stretching:

Please note: This is not just my opinion; it’s based on science. The following information comes from numerous research studies which are referenced in the articles above.

PROS: ‘Static’ stretching is great for flexibility. In fact, ‘static’ (hold still for some time) stretching is ‘the‘ way to improve your range of motion. This is especially important for activities that require a lot of flexibility (like dancing, gymnastics, etc.).

During a warm-up, be sure to include ‘dynamic’ stretching, which improves athletic performance (strength, power, and speed). Dynamic simply means not staying still (not holding the end points of the stretch).

However, that’s where the benefits seem to stop.

MYTHS – WHAT IT DOESN’T DO: Besides some limited evidence that stretching might prevent muscle strains slightly (probably due to increased flexibility, delaying an over-stretch), stretching (of any type) does NOT prevent overall injuries. Especially non-muscle injuries, or over-use injuries.

Plus, it might feel good at the moment, but it doesn’t decrease next day muscle soreness by any significant amount.

CONS: Generally, static stretching doesn’t improve athletic performance (besides flexibility). In fact, static stretches >45 seconds temporarily decreases strength, power, and explosiveness (see more below). So a lot of stretching before exercise probably isn’t a good idea! Save your flexibility training for after exercise.

Remember to read: ‘Stretching‘ to review the above research, especially if you want to check my references! :)


What about dancers?

What about dancers?!

Is this research applicable to dancers?

Whenever I talk about stretching to dancers I always get a lot of questions. It’s probably because the information goes against a lot of their training and perceived experience. However, they are good questions, and should certainly be addressed.

Let’s go over some of the most common questions and concerns raised by dancers when presented with the research above.

  • “But dancers need a lot of flexibility!”
  • “But I don’t feel ready to dance unless I stretch first!”
  • “Wait, most of that research wasn’t done on dancers!”
  • “Don’t injuries happen when you over-stretch or over-extend?”
  • “Is there any research done specifically on dancers?”
  • “How much weaker does stretching actually make you?”

  • “But dancers need a lot of flexibility!”

Absolutely! That is why I have never said don’t stretch.

But, we certainly should be aware of the limitations of stretching to avoid problems. Plus, we have to stop expecting stretching to prevent injuries, when there are other things we can be doing (like balance and coordination training for example).

There are a lot of dancers who have plenty of flexibility, yet still stretch excessively before and after practice to “prevent injuries”… this is what needs to stop. Especially when slow stretch training has been shown to cause strains in dancers… keep reading!

  • “But I don’t feel ready to dance unless I stretch first!”

This is probably because dancing does require a lot of flexibility. Stretching first makes this easier, which makes your dancing feel better. Makes total sense. However, dynamic stretching during your warm up can accomplish this. If you are flexible already, there may be no need for long static stretches.

Ever since you first started, you’ve probably been stretching before you dance. This is part of the ritual, and now you (and your body) are used to it. Stopping now would probably make you feel very stiff. But just because you don’t feel ready to dance, doesn’t mean you’re at a higher risk of injury. Besides, feeling ready may have more to do with your overall warm-up than the stretching. Again, try dynamic (not holding) stretches.

I always try to clarify: I’m not saying don’t stretch. What I am saying is just stretch enough for the flexibility you need. But any more than that is unnecessary, since stretching doesn’t have the other benefits we once thought it did. More isn’t better.

  • “Wait, most of that research wasn’t done on dancers!”

True. Runners, varsity athletes (soccer, football, rugby, etc.), and sometimes weight lifters make up the vast majority of research subjects in these studies. Why? Research happens at universities, and those are easy subjects to recruit. However, a couple of the earliest studies demonstrating how stretching doesn’t lower injury rates observed army recruits in training. Again, they probably didn’t perform activities that required excessive flexibility.

It is argued that since dancers require a lot of flexibility, the above research isn’t specific enough to apply. I disagree.

Dancer’s are still athletes… therefore, this research is pretty relevant! Dancers spend a lot of time in the normal range of motion performing explosive movements, requiring strength, power, and endurance. Therefore, we can at least conclude that stretching doesn’t prevent injuries in dancers during those activities.

Which brings us right to the next question.

  • “Don’t injuries happen when you over-stretch or over-extend?”

Yes, some do.

But most muscle injuries (strains) happen during ‘eccentric’ contraction (muscle is working, but stretching too, like lowering a weight) and within the normal range of motion 1,2. This can happen when breaking a fall, performing a powerful kick or jump, or during a very quick change in direction.

Sure, you can put extreme forces on your muscles when you ‘over-stretch’ during powerful movements. So it makes sense that stretching may be slightly helpful in avoiding strains by improving flexibility 3. But that is only one way injuries can happen. See: How Injuries Happen.

Strains from powerful over-stretching don’t happen very often, not even in dancers (see below)!

Again, this leads us into our next question:

  • “Is there any research done specifically on dancers?”

Yes, but there isn’t much. And most of it is a little out of date. Still, let’s discuss.

The limited research on dancing usually studies classically trained dancers – ballet. Turns out they get a lot of hip, knee, and ankle injuries 4, 5, 6, 7. These dancers do stretch a lot, mostly their groin and hamstrings (for high leg lifts), but they typically have very tight muscles on the opposite side, like hip flexors and abductors (which may lead to other problems).

Still, it looks like these dancers stretch quite a bit, and still get a lot of injuries (well over a third of them), even in the muscles they stretch!

So should they be stretching more? I doubt it. It may even be the problem…

In fact, research performed specifically on students as well as professional ballet dancers has shown that most (up to 88 percent) muscle strains occur during slow stretch training (like the splits) but not during powerful movements (only 12 percent)! 8, 9, 10

Woah! What does this mean?

I think this illustrates the importance of not stretching too hard or too long. It’s likely dancers stretch very hard, because it’s considered so important (which is why I am writing this article). However, one study demonstrated that lower intensity stretching is even better at improving flexibility in dancers 11. So take your time, and take it easy!

The researchers who did these studies suggested dancers need to be ‘cautious’ with stretching. They also recommend they spend more time strengthening, avoiding muscle imbalance, learning about health and nutrition, and resting their injuries longer.

About the strengthening: surprisingly, it’s been shown that ballerinas are only about 77% as strong as ‘normal’ people (when you compare them by weight) 12. Therefore, dancers definitely should be strength training. See: Why Strength Training is Important for more reasons to strengthen.

Speaking of strength…

  • “How much weaker does stretching actually make you?”

In a recent (2012) article published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, researchers reviewed 104 studies on the topic 13. Using complicated statistical calculations of all the data, they concluded that stretching more than 45 seconds can decrease muscular strength (by about 5%), power (~2%), and explosive performance (~2%) for up to two hours. This don’t sound like much, but the longer the stretch, the greater the weakness.

It isn’t much, but don’t forget: strength, power, and explosiveness are all important in dancing as well… think kicking, spinning, and jumping! Plus imagine decreasing your strength 5% every time you train… perhaps this decreases long term strength gains!

The lesson here is that if you need to stretch before you dance to get some extra flexibility, keep it no longer than 30 seconds per muscle, and only stretch for the essential movements requiring more flexibility.

If you need to get more flexible you should save the longer stretches for after practice. Still, it shouldn’t be too hard, and certainly not painful.


Finally!

Still with me here?! WOW!

I can’t believe you actually read all of this. If you did (plus read my other articles on stretching), then congratulations… you now know more about stretching for dancers than the vast majority of dancers AND health care professionals.

Now for our exciting conclusion!


CONCLUSION:

We now have a lot of research (between all the stretching articles here, dozens of research studies have been cited, which themselves can cite hundreds) that show stretching isn’t as great as we one thought, even for dancers!

However…

Dancing almost always requires a lot of flexibility… so we can’t ignore stretching!

So what do we do?

The trick is to stretch in a way that optimizes flexibility for dancing, while avoiding any negative effects. As usual with health and fitness, it’s all about hitting the right balance.

See the recommendations below.

But when it comes to preventing injuries, we simply cannot depend on stretching. We must look at other factors: warm-ups, strength training, neuromuscular (coordination, balance, agility) training, adequate rest, nutrition, stress management, health education etc. Stretching is only one small piece of the overall picture.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s my last try: another study has shown that athletes in a hamstring rehabilitation program using strength/stretching exercises had a 70% chance of re-injury. But athletes using agility/stabilization exercises only had an 8% chance. 14


STRETCHING RECOMMENDATIONS:

Here’s what you should try to take advantage of the ‘pros’ while avoiding the ‘cons’:

1. Warm-up (raise your temperature and sweat a little) and include simple, ‘sport-specific’, ‘dynamic’ stretches. ‘Static’ stretches should be limited to 15-30 second holds, once per position. Warm-up for 10-15 minutes, or until you feel ready to rock.

2. Exercise / Compete / Perform / Practice… do your thing!

3. Lots of ‘Static’ stretching afterwards to improve flexibility, if you need to. Hold ‘sport-specific’ positions at the end range (avoid pain) for about a minute, repeating 2-3 times.


Wow, that was one of the longest articles yet. But considering what this site is about (exercise and injury science, mainly for dancers) I think this article was definitely necessary. I will try to make a shorter version soon.

Hope this cleared up some confusion. If it has caused more confusion, PLEASE comment below, so we can discuss in front of everyone, and we can all learn.

Thank you so much for reading.

Good luck!

Share the love!

    20 Responses to Stretching for Dancers: Discussing the Research

    1. Laura-Beth Power says:

      Excellent article.
      I give kudos to your detail to investigation.

      I must say, I enjoy stretching… a lot. Both dynamic and static. I like setting flexibility goals that will take me to a new level in say an arm balance or another strength pose.

      I think both passive and active, dynamic and static and various combinations all have merit…. but for injury prevention, like you said, stretching is only one small factor.

      The body is an interesting instrument, if one listens it will give you signals to tell you what you need more of and what you need less. Talking to a professional, or reading articles like this one helps too. ;)

      Thanks for your commit to this blog and the human body!

      LB

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Thank you Laura-Beth for your kind words. I was worried this article wasn’t written well enough or was too long, and that the overall message would be lost. Your comment is reassuring!
        Absolutely all types have merits. Especially if you enjoy it! I just want people to have realistic expectations.
        Yoga also has much more than stretching when done properly, as you mentioned. Balance, strength, and developing your awareness of self are all factors that likely prevent injuries too.
        Hopefully this article simply adds to what’s important: the big picture.
        Again thanks so much for the comment!

    2. Candice says:

      Agreed! Great article on current research into stretching!
      Something that I’ve been working with dancers on to increase flexibility is reducing facial tension. These activities seem to really benefit flexibility and make dancers feel “ready” without doing long static stretching before class or performance.
      Thoughts?!

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Hi Candice! I think many types of manual therapy are helpful for mobility (and pain) prior to activity. I wouldn’t use it to replace a full range dynamic warm up though, but it’s certainly a great addition. Personally, I like massage. I’m hesitant to recommend any particular type, like myofascial release, as I feel research isn’t entirely clear. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. Some people like light work, but some people like it intense like ART. When it comes to hands on therapy, different strokes for different folks (pun intended)!

    3. Roel_J says:

      Thank you so much for this great article!!

      Don’t worry about it being too long. Although it may take awhile to read it through, it will save me allot of time in the future!! For i have been addicted to stretching…

      I do have a question though. I read once that when we wake up we stretch so that oxygen runs through our muscles and we can get going.
      Could this be one of the main reasons why you should stretch before practice?

      keep up the good work!!

      much love..

      RJ

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Hey RJ!

        Thanks for the kind words! I think athletes who require a lot of flexibility still benefit from some stretching during the warm up, but not too much that it weakens the muscles. But if you’re ‘addicted’, maybe you’re doing more than you need! Glad you found it useful!

        I’ve never heard about the oxygen thing before – doesn’t sound very plausible. It’s more likely that after sleeping all night you may have been in only a few positions for many hours, so your body just feels like stretching, similar to after a long drive or flight. Again, I feel it makes more sense to think of it as a nervous system response. Either way, never heard of it before in any research I’ve read.

        Good question though! It’s obvious there is still a lot to learn about this topic. Unfortunately, little things like that are super interesting, but low on the list for research funding.

        Keep in touch!

        Tony

    4. Emma says:

      Thanks for the great article! I’m a ballet dancer and was wondering about stretching, and you cleared some things up. It would be cool to see an article about specific agility and stabilization exercises for dancers, since you mention these in this article.

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Thanks Emma! I’m glad you liked it. I do plan on making more articles about coordination training, as it seems to be effective for preventing injuries. I hope to make some videos soon too. Keep in touch!

    5. Dave Lee says:

      Hey Buddy

      Great Blog. It gave me a new perspective for why static stretching (SS) maybe necessary. As well, you know I agree with you on the conventional wisdom behind SS. I sometimes wonder if the regular use of SS can keep or lead to a neuro dynamically sensitivity nervous system? I haven’t looked for any science to back me up. But clinically I see it all the time, “I keep on stretching and I get tighter and tighter or the pain is worse.” I have a theory, if you habitually SS near nerve roots you are more than likely to get in trouble. Great read my follow PT.

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Hey Dave!

        That’s an interesting thing you’ve noticed. I saw a similar comment by Christopher Johnson, PT on Facebook the other day: “I find it peculiar that the most flexible people I work with always complain of feeling tight and desire to be stretched to the point where turn your back on these folks for 1 sec and there they go stretching.”

        I think you may be on to something. But it’s one of those chicken-egg problems, the feeling of tightness and the stretching. It’s hard to say what came first… but I doubt more stretching will help these people! They should probably try something different, like manual therapy, or resistance training. That said, the more I think about it, the easier I am on static stretching. For particular athletes (like me as a dancer) the added range of motion can be important. But that’s pretty much it. As long as we recognize its limitations, I think it’s fine to do!

        Peace buddy, hope to see you again soon!

        Tony

    6. b-boy outcast says:

      hey i love you’re articles but i’ve been strugling for 5 years to get my stradle splits because i think i need them for airflare and i seem to be at my limit because i can’t get any further o btw i am 27 is there an age limit for flexibility and do i really need a lot of flexibility for airflare btw thank u very mutch for this blog it is great

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Hey Outcast!

        I’m working on airflares now too actually, very close to having them (finally)! Will make a video when I get them. I cannot do straddle or front splits, but I am decently flexible. I’m not sure you need splits to get airflares. It depends how you want to do them, but typically, people only open their legs as wide as they would any other powermove. So if you can do flares and windmills, I’d say you are flexible enough. I’d keep stretching anyway though (I do).

        I don’t believe there is a limit to gaining flexibility. I am 28 and I am still able to gain some flexibility, but it’s a lot of hard work. Younger people definitely gain it faster, in my experience.

        Keep practicing and stretching! I plan to make a stretching e-book soon, so I’ll e-mail you when I get it finished!

        Peace

        Tony

    7. Carolyn says:

      Tony,

      I’m so glad I found your website. I am a Registered Yoga Teacher (RTY-200) and also an RN. I teach yoga at my daughter’s dance studio and since she went to a summer intensive she has been telling me all about “dynamic stretching” before a class. I am thinking about how to re-configure my yoga classes to incorporate more dynamic stretching and perhaps less/no static stretching ( I will recommend dancers do this after class).

      Glad to see your post that yoga can offer many other benefits besides flexibility that will assist dancers and prevent injury!

      Question: I’d like to read the research you cited in this article, but could not find the footnotes. Did I miss them somewhere?

      Thanks and keep up the good work!
      Carolyn

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Thanks Carolyn, I’m glad that you’re glad! Very cool that your daughter was told about dynamic stretching – glad to see it becoming well known.

        This post (like many of my earlier ones) didn’t include footnotes, but rather the superscripted numbers are links to the actual reference. I will probably update this post with the references listed just in case some of those links ever change for some reason! Thanks for pointing that out and reminding me!

        Cheers!

        Tony

        • Carolyn says:

          Hey Tony,

          I’m teaching the new flexibility guidelines to the dancers at my daughter’s studio, and the kids are having a VERY hard time with no static stretching until after class and then only holding the stretch for 30 seconds max with up to 4 reps. (Dance teacher has always told them to hold at least two minutes)
          QUESTION: After holding a static stretch for 30 secs., completely relax the muscle and then wait HOW LONG until the next rep of the same muscle(s)? I have not read about a wait time and so maybe there isn’t one as long as the muscle(s) completely relax.

          Thanks!
          Carolyn

    8. Chi Ry says:

      Just discovered this site. It’s great to see some academic, research-based work on bboying- definitely something the community needs as we grow larger!

      Thanks

    9. Juan José Farina says:

      Hi Tony ! I’ve been recently taking my time to read everything carefully and leaving you some comments as you might have already seen. Reading some comments I see something strange. I’ve read for a long time, and heard from students of Physical Education that flexibility has it’s peak capacity at around 8 to 12 years old, and it decreases over the years if you don’t train it, so one person might have the possibility to reach 180º split at 12 years old but might only reach to 160º at 25 years old. Do you know something about this ?

    10. Mary says:

      I am performer of a few different things. Dance, and I do a vast variety of Circus Acts professionally. I also figure skate. I have only been injured twice in my life and they both accrued on days where I barley stretched before I performed (I almost never shorten my stretching and warm up). I spend on average an hour warming up and stretching before I work, I find the hotter my muscles are before I stretch the more comfortable my stretch is and the better my body feels and the less I hurt when practicing. On some days I run short on time and only warm up and stretch for 10-15 minutes and on these days are when I seem to hurt more after and our get injured. I also found that on days where I work a lot I find I hurt less the next day if itake the time to do lots of stretching before and after. I also know that the hotter my muscles are when stretching the better the stretch is and the better my performance is.

    11. Mohenoa Tatola says:

      nice article,can you tell me how to be more creative and how to be more Clean for beginner bboys

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