Over-Stretching in Dancers - Tips from a Dancer and Physiotherapist
Updated: Apr 14, 2022
by Lisa Mills-Hutton, Physiotherapist
“Flexibility isn’t showing off how far your leg can stretch, it’s showing how far your perseverance can stretch” Chane VDW
Let me start by saying that I love stretching…. I try to start the day with an energizing yoga flow and end my day with a relaxing yin yoga. I want our future young dancers to love and appreciate stretching too!
Stretching is very much necessary for most forms of dance. Like any training we need to ensure it is done safely and wisely to keep our dancers healthy and moving pain free. Regrettably, as a physiotherapist I have worked with several young dancers that may have developed their injuries from over stretching. It is important that stretches be completed in a careful manner respecting the tissue and joints of our young dancers.
There is a cumulative effect of the damage sustained due to over stretching. Ligaments are designed to support each joint and they can get more and more relaxed from excessive stretching. If over stretching continues it can cause internal shifting of the joint surfaces against each other. By decreasing the integrity of the ligaments, it can also cause wear and tear on cartilage. Cartilage is an important connective tissue found in many parts of the body. It can bend a bit, but resists stretching. Its main function is to connect bones together. We obviously want to protect the integrity of the cartilage. Additionally, muscle pain can occur as the body may be working hard to maintain the ‘unstable joints’. As you can see there is huge domino reaction on the body due to excessive stretching over time.
If inappropriate stretching continues for several years, there is also the potential for arthritic changes in the hip and lower back due to the constant wear and tear on the cartilage.
Here are some simple suggestions for safe stretching that have been scientifically tested:
Always stretch when muscles are warm. Be sure to do a dynamic warm-up that includes gently loosening up the joints, increasing the heart rate and increasing the body temperature a little. I am especially fond of gentle yoga flow warm-ups and Pilates based warm-ups for dancers.
Timing of stretching: Sustained stretches greater than 30 seconds should not be done before class or during class! If we hold a static stretch the muscle will be in a lengthened position and will not work at its full capacity for at least half an hour. Also, the nerve(s) that supply that muscle, may exhibit less activation of the stretch reflex on the muscle’s contractile force. The best time to stretch is at the end of class or after class.
Stretching is not painful! During any flexibility exercises, dancers should not be experiencing pain. If they are grimacing, crying, or trying to shift out of the position the body may be fighting back, and chances are it’s not safe.
Slow and steady wins the race: Aim for 1% gains per stretching session. The literature in sport medicine and neurological rehabilitation concludes that we cannot expect to achieve more than 5% increase in range of motion even after logging 6-8 hours of stretching (Harvey et al). For example, if you are able to get your leg to 90 degrees of flexion (hamstring stretch) do not expect to be at 120 degrees in a month.… at least not safely! A 5%-10% increase in range would be a more reasonable goal assuming the young dancer is following the principles above.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) also known as contract and relax stretching was developed by physical therapists in the 1950s to treat patients who were weakened by diseases such as polio. These techniques have now been adapted for use in athletes and dancers. There are many types of PNF stretching techniques; each technique has three phases with variations on contracting and relaxing opposite muscle groups. PNF techniques are effective for producing short-term increases in flexibility, however, it takes some skill and experience to perform them correctly. PNF stretching do present a potential risk of injury especially in children under the age of 16. Many major muscles, including the hamstrings and quadriceps attach onto major growth plates. Aggressive stretching during periods of growth may result in Avulsion Fractures (which is when a fragment of bone is torn away from the main bone). Avulsion fractures are not easy to rehab and often require a long time away from dance training. Most health care professionals agree that PNF stretches should only be undertaken under the guidance of a health-care professional for children under 16 years old.
Stretching should feel like a gentle general tension throughout the belly of the muscle being stretched!
Some things to avoid while stretching:
Pain in the joint or muscle- a sensation that the joint needs to ‘crack' or ‘pop'
A strong 'line' of pull- this could be a nerve (i.e. a sign of nerve compromise is a feeling of pins and needles in the toes during a hamstring stretch
Pain in another area (i.e. pulling in the back when you are trying to stretch your hamstrings)
Pain on the opposite side of the joint (i.e. in the back of the hip during second splits)
Compression pain (i.e. in the front of the hip when pulling the knees to the chest)
Pain should not be felt the next day
Avoid holding stretches longer than 30 seconds before or during class, focus on general mobility and increasing body temperature before and during class
IF ANY OF THE ABOVE OCCUR PLEASE CONSULT WITH A HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONAL WITH DANCE SPECIFIC KNOWLEDGE.
I hope this article gives dancers, teachers and parents some quick reminders regarding what is safe for our precious young dancers. Be cautious when reading and looking at the social media images of dancers in some extreme ranges of motion…. rely on scientific evidence, health care professional advice and listening to your body to guide your stretching.
If you are looking for a great stretching book for dancers Lisa Howell, a Physiotherapist from Australia, has some great resources. Check out this program: https://www.theballetblog.com/shop/front-splits-fast-program/.
References and Further Resources:
Askling C., Lung H. Saartok T., Thorstensson A. Self Reported Hamstring Injuries in Student-Dancers. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2002, August 29.
Critchfield, B. (2011). Stretching for Dancers Resource Paper. Available here
Deighan M. Flexibility in dance. J Dance Med Sci. 2005;9(1):13-17.
Harvey et al. Stretching for the Treatment and Prevention of Contractures. Cochrane Database. 2017 Issue #1
Howell L. Is Over-Stretching Bad. https://www.theballetblog.com/portfolio/is-over-stretching-bad/
Howell L. Oversplits in Second. https://www.theballetblog.com/portfolio/oversplits-in-second/
Morrin N, Redding E. Acute effects of warm-up stretch protocols on balance, vertical jump height, and range of motion in dancers. J Dance Med Sci. 2013;17(1):34-40.
Quin, E., Rafferty, S. and Tomlinson, C. Safe Dance Practice. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2015.
Wyon, M. Stretching for Dance. IADMS Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. 2010;2(1):9-12. Available here
Great little animation ‘Do you really need to stretch’ here too.
Photo by Beto Franklin from Pexels.