Understanding the different stretching techniques
All dancers know that flexibility is extremely important, particularly for ballet, and that the best way to improve your flexibility is to engage in a regular stretching programme; but there are many different stretching techniques! Which type of stretching should you do and when should you do it? This post will point you in the right direction in making these choices, based on the evidence from Dance Science Research.
Static Stretching: This technique involves adopting a stretching position and holding it still for a period of time. It is probably the most frequently used technique. If your placement is correct it is considered the safest way to stretch and one of the best techniques to achieve long-term flexibility improvement. However, research has found that static stretching of longer than 10 seconds has the potential to reduce your strength and power capabilities, affecting things such as your jump height (Morrin & Redding, 2013; Quin et al., 2015). Static stretching is best used when the muscles are warm and not as part of your warm-up. Wyon (2010) suggests that if you experience shakes and spasms of the muscle it is likely the stretch is too intense – take care and ease the stretch – build up safely over time, and please do refer to the intensity and duration information supplied by Wyon and detailed under a separate section below.
Dynamic Stretching: This technique involves stretching performed whilst moving – ideal for your warm-up. It’s best to gradually elevate your heart rate first, to ensure increased blood flow to the working muscles and increase the lubrication of the joints. Your Range of Motion (ROM) should start small and get progressively bigger and bigger until you reach your full ROM. With this technique the limb is never held for a prolonged period, but moves through a full ROM from full contraction to full extension at a controlled, slow to moderate pace, such as performing a plié or a fondu. Whilst Dynamic Stretching doesn’t bring long-term gains in flexibility it is good for supporting the pliability of the muscles through maintaining body temperature.
Active Stretching: This technique involves contracting one muscle (the agonist) as a means of stretching an opposing muscle (the antagonist). Sometimes referred to as Static Active Stretching because you hold the end position of the stretch for a period of time, however the stretch is not held manually, for example through the use of a prop such as a strap, but is simply held using your muscular strength, hence Static Active Stretching. This technique closely replicates dance movement yet is probably the most under-utilized method within the dance community (Wyon, 2010). The intensity and duration of the stretch will depend upon the strength of the agonist muscle. This stretching technique is beneficial in that it builds strength and flexibility at the same time.
PNF Stretching: PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation and was developed from physiotherapy techniques as a form of rehabilitation. The simplest way to explain PNF methods is to say they involve a contract-relax (CR) stretch; the muscle to be stretched is first contracted isometrically, meaning the muscle length remains the same. Other PNF methods progress from here, often by contracting the opposite muscle during the stretch phase in order to move the limb into a greater ROM, allowing the muscle being stretched to relax. PNF stretching should only be done when the muscles are warm and prepared for this type of activity; it is not suitable therefore for warm-up activity. Quin and associates (2015) suggest this type of stretching “must only be performed with experienced individuals” (p. 84). Some Dance Science literature even suggests this type of stretching should only be performed with the supervision of a medical professional (Critchfield & IADMS, 2011). So, whilst research finds PNF stretching to be the “most effective type of stretch for increasing muscular length” (Quin, 2015, p. 84), and effective in increasing muscle strength (Deighan, 2005), it is clear that care must be taken to ensure that the technique is fully understood and carried out proficiently and safely. It would not be recommended for vulnerable bodies, such as adolescents undergoing growth spurts.
Ballistic Stretching: Whist this type of stretching is the most controversial and least popular/recommended within the dance community, it is a technique that does most closely replicate dance movement. Wyon (2010) offers an interesting perspective by stating: “It’s important to remember that it isn’t the technique that is contra-indicated, but how the stretch is executed” (p. 10). He suggests that in order to carry out this type of stretching safely, the muscle needs to be conditioned/trained beforehand, and must already have a good ROM; the dancer must be willing to introduce PNF stretching gradually. To begin with, mid-range movements should be executed at a controlled/moderate speed. Over time, both the speed and the ROM can be gradually and safely increased. This technique has the potential to prepare muscles for rapid movements and could therefore be used by dancers in preparing for allegro and jump sequences.
Microstretching®: This technique was developed by, and is the trademark of, Apostolopoulos (2004). It uses low intensity stretching, suggesting a self-perceived rating of 3/10. Low intensity stretching does not damage muscle fibres; the effect of which, Apostolopoulos suggests, can lead to the formation of fibrous tissue that could limit your ROM. He suggests this type of stretching be carried out a couple of hours post-exercise, once muscles have returned to their normal temperature. You’d be forgiven for thinking that more intense stretching techniques yield greater results, but actually research suggests you’d be mistaken. Wyon (2015) carried out a six-week intervention, comparing the results of Microstretching® with the result of more intense stretching (a self-perceived rating of 8/10), and found that the Microstretching® group improved significantly more in both active and passive ROM than the other group.
Intensity and Duration of Stretching: In personal correspondence with BBS in relation to this post we are extremely grateful to Matt Wyon for highlighting the importance of attending to both the intensity and the duration of your stretching. To be clear, high intensity stretching has the potential to cause muscle damage. He suggests that the ideal intensity is 5-8/10 for a duration of 60 seconds.
General Guidance on Stretching: Remember that correct technique and alignment is essential in order for stretching to be effective and safe! You should always avoid overstretching as this could damage muscle tissue, and one of the best ways to do this is to include periods of rest and recovery in your stretching programme. Wyon (2010) warns against stretching stabilizing muscles such as the peroneus longus and brevis in the ankle, particularly during your warm-up phase, as this could increase the instability of joints and lead to injury. He suggests priming and targeting the appropriate muscles for the movement you are about to do, rather than trying to prepare all muscles, relevant to the activity or not. Muscles need to be moved through the anticipated ROM at the required speed. He suggests achieving this through dynamic stretching first, possibly moving on to ballistic stretching (if appropriate) once the muscles are warm. Wyon also reminds dancers that stretching is but one component of the warm-up, and obviously should never be the sole aspect.
Don’t forget, that in order to maximise any gains in flexibility, you need to incorporate strength training into your practice; not much good having an excellent passive ROM if you have a poor active ROM – in other words having great flexibility but lacking the strength to use it. Quin and associates (2015) advise that stretching just once a week will result in flexibility gains only lasting for the short-term. In order for long-term maintenance of flexibility gains to occur the dancer should consider incorporating stretching into their programme a minimum of three times a week.
Apostolopoulos, N. (2004). Microstretching®: A new recovery regeneration technique. New Studies in Athletics, 19(4), 47-56. https://www.worldathletics.org
Deighan, M. (2005). Flexibility in dance. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 9(1), 13-17. http://www.jmichaelryan.com
Critchfield, B., & the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS). (2011). Stretching for dancers. http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.iadms.org/resource/resmgr/resource_papers/stretching.pdf
Morrin, N., & Redding, E. (2013). Acute effects of warm-up stretch protocols on balance, vertical jump height, and range of motion in dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 17(1), 34-40. https://doi.org/10.12678/1089-313x.17.1.34
Quin, E., Rafferty, S., & Tomlinson, C. (2015). Safe dance practice. Human Kinetics.
Wyon, M. (2010). Stretching for dance. IADMS. 2(1), 9-12. https://iadms.org
Denise Horsley MSc - Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor