The best stretching technique for dancers
Stretching is commonly used by athletes to increase their range of movement, as a warm-up or a cool-down. But do you know that there is more to stretching than just lowering into your favourite lunge or a split? There are three common stretching techniques:
The traditional and most common type of stretching, where a specific position is held with the muscle on tension to a point of a stretching sensation and repeated.
There are two types of dynamic stretching: active and ballistic. Active stretching involves moving a leg or an arm through its full range of motion to the end ranges and repeating several times (think grand battement in ballet). Ballistic stretching includes ‘bouncing’ at end-range of motion; however, because of increased risk for injury, it is no longer recommended.
Pre-contraction stretching involves a contraction of the muscle immediately before it is stretched. The most common type of pre-contraction stretching is called PNF: proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, where the athlete contracts the muscle in question at 75 to 100% of maximal contraction, holds for 10 seconds, and then relaxes. The resistance can be provided by a partner or with an elastic band or strap. Recent studies show that even weaker contractions of 20 or 60% may be just as effective.
An extensive review by Dr Phil Page of Louisiana State University compared research on these three stretching techniques. That’s what he found out:
First of all, all three types are effective for improving flexibility and muscle extensibility, although men seem to respond better to contract-relax stretching, while women benefit more from static stretching. The greatest change in range of movement with a static stretch happens between 15 and 30 seconds, and no increase in muscle elongation occurs after 2 to 4 repetitions.
Your flexibility increases already after eight weeks of static stretching; however, often static stretching training studies show an increase in range of movement due to higher stretch tolerance (ability to withstand more stretching force), and not extensibility (increased muscle length), which is the actual goal of stretching.
Quite a few studies found that the pre-contraction technique brings the highest immediate gains in the range of movement. The reason for this remains unclear. Many have assumed that muscle experiences a refractory period after contraction known as ‘autogenic inhibition’, where muscle relaxes due to neuroreflexive mechanisms, thus increasing muscle length. Some researchers have speculated that the increases in range of movement are related to higher tolerance to stretching. Finally, it is possible that the pre-contraction stretch lowers the excitability of a muscle which allows the muscle to relax.
Static, dynamic, and pre-contraction stretching can all be used as part of a warm-up routine to increase range of movement prior to exercise. But keep in mind that static and pre-contraction stretching right before exercise may decrease muscle strength and performance in running and jumping. This phenomenon has a name of “stretch induced strength loss.” The volume of stretching may also affect performance: For example, one research study found that 4 repetitions of 15-second holds of static stretching did not affect vertical jump, while 6 repetitions reduced performance. In contrast, dynamic stretching during a warm-up does not decrease muscle power or performance.
In general, stretching performed as part of a warm-up prior to exercise reduces passive stiffness and increases range of movement during exercise. Athletes requiring flexibility for their sports – such as dancers – will benefit most from static (ladies) or pre-contraction (gents) techniques. Dynamic stretching may be better suited for athletes requiring running or jumping performance during their sport.
Full text: Page, P. (2012). Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International journal of sports physical therapy, 7(1), 109.