We all probably know the basic stretches by heart, right? Touch your toes, bring your ankle to your rear and stretch your quads, etc. But there are so many more muscles that we are missing out on!
In addition to the major muscles like your quads and triceps, your smaller stabilizer muscles, like the multifidus muscle that runs along your spine, and the psoas muscle that keeps your hips in check, are at work during everything you do, even when it’s just sitting still. That’s why it’s so important to expand your stretching routine to benefit every muscle in your body.
Since you’re probably already tackling the big guys with your regular stretching routine, here are six stretches, recommended to round out the mix.
1. Puppy Dog
Unlike child’s pose, which flexes the spine, this modification is like a backbend, putting the spine into extension to stretch the middle back as well as the upper chest.
How to: Begin on all fours with hands underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips (a). Walk your hands forward as far as you can to pull your chest toward the floor (b). Keeping your hips over your knees, lift your tailbone toward the ceiling (c). Allow your chin to lower toward the floor (d). Hold for six to eight breaths.
2. Crouching Tiger
A deeper, more intense version of the side lunge, this stretch rotates the hips so that you hit the deeper hip muscle, known as the psoas.
How to: Take a wide stance and bend forward at the hips to lower your hands to the floor (a). Shift your weight to your right leg, lift your right heel and bend your right knee to lower your body toward the floor (b). Walk your hands forward to deepen the stretch (c). Hold for six to eight breaths, then shift your weight to the left leg to repeat on the opposite side.
3. Standing Pigeon
A tweak on the traditional Pigeon yoga pose, this standing modification allows you to deepen the stretch as well as strengthen your hips, knee and ankle joints for improved balance. (Thanks, gravity!)
How-to: Stand tall with legs together. Then, without moving your hips, transfer your weight into your right leg (a). Lift your left leg to place your left foot on your right thigh (b). Bring palms together in front of your chest and slowly bend right leg so that your weight sinks toward your heels (c). As you lower, allow your left knee to fall toward the floor to deepen the stretch (d). Hold for six to eight breaths. Repeat on the opposite side.
4. Forward Fold Twist
Any kind of touch-your-toes stretch feels good, but by adding in a twist, this upgrade on the original lets you loosen up more muscles, including the IT band and the hip rotators.
How to: Standing tall with your legs together, bend at your hips to lower your hands to the floor (a). Keeping knees straight, walk your right hand about six to 12 inches in front of you (b). Bend your right knee and reach your left arm up toward the ceiling, making sure to look up at your fingers (c). Hold for six to eight breaths. Repeat on the other side.
By straightening your back leg and dropping your torso, you’ll decompress your spine, opening all the smaller muscles in your back.
How to: Start in downward facing dog (a). Step your left foot forward just shy of being between your hands, keeping hips square, legs straight and feet firmly on the floor (b). Raise your torso and stretch arms overhead, then fall forward to reach forward on the floor (c). Hold for six to eight breaths. Repeat on the other side.
6. Lizard Lunge
By taking the runner’s lunge all the way to the floor, this advanced variation deepens the stretch not only in the hip flexor and quad muscles, but the smaller, inner thigh adductors as well.
How to: Start in downward facing dog (a). Step your left foot forward between your hands and lower your right leg onto the floor (b). Keeping your right arm firmly planted on the floor, raise your left hand to your left leg (c). Sink into your hips to deepen in the stretch (d). Hold for six to eight breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Welcome to ballet and the obsession with feet! Here are some of the most common errors I see with ballet students and their feet.
First I have to start off by introducing the concept of sickling. It is well known in the world of ballet and is the most common error of the feet. One of the biggest places this is seen is in students who are beginning pointe work.
So, what is a sickle and why is it bad?
Sickling is in the most basic form, when your heel drops behind your leg. This is undesirable, because it breaks the line of the leg in which we very much want in ballet. It can also be unsafe if you are en pointe or in releve because it is very unstable and will likely roll and injure your ankle. Let’s take a look at some sickled feet.
Notice how the line of the leg is broken with the sickled foot. Also, notice how the heel is low. A visual that is always important in ballet is keeping your heels forward. You will probably hear this a lot, and it is referring to this (not sickling), as well as holding your turnout.
Now let’s look at a sickled foot while up on releve.
The far right photo is the sickled foot. Again, notice how there is not a continuous line following through to the toes. The middle picture is also wrong because all of the weight is pressed forward into the big toe. This most often occurs when you are trying to increase your bevel (I will talk about bevel/winged foot in a minute) but it is also a potentially unsafe position, especially when dancing en pointe. You ideally want all of your weight to be aligned right over your second toe, like in the first picture. This creates the purest line and is the most stable.
Now, another strange term that we commonly use is the bevel or winged foot. It is created by lifting the toes upward or in the opposite direction of a sickle. It is pretty in arabesque, but when you look at it from this angle, it is not so pretty. 😦
A winged foot, will usually break the line of the leg when looked at from the front. Notice above, how the ankle is not fully stretched.
To achieve your best pointed foot in ballet, you need to make sure that the ankle is stretched all the way. Often times Students will stretch and point their toes, but then the ankle is flexed and breaks the line. When students try to get their feet to bevel, it can sometimes cause the ankle to slightly flex, which you do not want! Therefore, unless you have amazingly awesome feet and can achieve a beveled foot while still maintaining a fully stretched and pointed ankle, I would recommend just focusing on creating your best possible line and point.
As dancers, we know just how important stretching is to our craft. It helps us with beautiful extensions, as well as preventing injuries. So below are some of the basic things to remember, so you can get the most out of your stretches.
How much to Stretch
The answer depends on the dancers body. Avoid comparing your flexibility with other dancers. Instead work on what you need. If you have a “tight” bodies, then you are built for stability, with dense connective tissues. Your body is less extensible. Conversely if you are innately more flexible. your hyper-mobility puts you at an increased risk of ligament sprains. Hence “loose” dancers should spend less time stretching and spend more time on strengthening exercises. Remember to be patient with stretching. Pushing stretches too hard may cause a muscle strain (tear). Stretches should be held to a point of mild discomfort, not pain. ‘No pain no gain’ is not the motto for stretching.
How long to Stretch
There have been numerous scientific studies to determine how long a static stretch should be held. It is recommended that the stretch should be held for 30 seconds and then repeated 3 to 4 times in a single stretching bout.
When to Stretch
Interestingly, studies have shown that stretching done correctly (held 30 seconds and repeated) is enough to maintain current flexibility only. To increase flexibility, deformation of the connective tissue (not tearing) is necessary to produce muscle length change. When trying to INCREASE flexibility, it is important to do so AFTER dance class when muscles and connective tissues are warm. But avoid Prolonged Stretches (more than 30 seconds).
How often to Stretch
A single bout of stretching last about all of five minutes. But a multi-week program of stretching creates benefits that last for several weeks after stretching is discontinued. Some research has shown that increasing the frequency of stretch from once per day to three time per day did not increase range of motion. Additional benefits are gained from doing up to four repetitions within a single bout of stretching. There appears to be little benefit in doing more than four repetitions.
Flexibility and Age
A very interesting study was done with 4,500 children ages 5-18 years. 100% of the 5-year-olds could sit with legs straight and touch their toes. By age 12 only 30% could do so but by age 18 flexibility increased to 60% could touch their toes. The low point in flexibility was age 12 for boys and 13 for girls.
Why is there a loss of flexibility? This age coincides with the skeletal growth spurt, so muscle tissues are shorter relative to bone length until muscle growth catches up to bone growth. Be aware that their is also an increased chance of injury to muscles during this time.
At the other end of the spectrum, aged adults become less flexible with the passing years because the connective tissue loses elasticity.
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