Updated: Aug 19, 2020
I get a lot of questions from dancers and teachers about proper stretching methods for dancers. Every dancer is different. For some, flexibility comes easily with what seems like minimal effort. For others it is a struggle every class. In each case, it is equally important for dancers to incorporate stretching into their regular training routine, however the stretching programs and techniques may look a little different. Today I want to touch on the idea of Ballistic Stretching. There are many varying views on whether or not this is more beneficial or harmful, so I wanted to throw in my two cents.
A little background first....
There are 3 main types of stretching:
Static stretching is taking a muscle to its end range of motion and holding it. The purpose of this type of stretching is to elongate the muscle over time (for example: achieving your splits). It takes a muscle roughly 15 seconds to elongate, so this type of stretch is typically held for about 30 seconds at a time.
The best time to static stretch is at the end of your activity, when the muscles are fully warmed. This will not only reduce chance of injury, but will also help you achieve your greatest range of motion. There is evidence to prove that static stretching prior to exercise actually decreases muscle strength, power and control, so timing is everything here.
Dynamic stretching is stretching while incorporating movement. Dynamic stretching does not always take the muscle to its end range of motion and should be performed in a controlled manor. It is often performed as part of a warm up activity to prepare your muscles for bigger movements and stretches.
Here's one of my favorite dynamic hip stretch combos:
Isn't this the one we always hear about NOT doing? Probably, but guess what? You already do this every time you step into the dance studio. Dance technique involves many different forms of ballistic stretching throughout a class, so it is important that you know how to do it safely and without getting injured. Part of staying healthy is preparing your body for the tasks required by your sport or activity so that you can better avoid injury.
So here is a little more information on what Ballistic stretching is (and is not):
Ballistic stretching incorporates a repetitive, or "bouncing", movement to achieve greater range of motion. You are attempting to take the muscle outside of its normal limits by exerting a force through movement.
Out of the 3 types of stretches, ballistic is by far responsible for the greatest amount of injuries because it is done quickly and with less control. BUT injuries are often the result of poor knowledge or training on how it should be performed correctly. I should note that The American College of Sports Medicine does caution against ballistic stretching for the average person, because static and dynamic are much safer. However, I again must stress that dancers have to perform ballistic movements no matter what, so it is imperative that you make this part of your regular training so you body is prepared for it.
Here's what correct technique looks like:
1. It should be done under the instruction of a trained professional.
Because there is such a high risk of injury, it is best that you learn from someone who knows what they are doing. No, reading this blog does not count. It is a start to give you some information, but practicing with someone present is by far your best bet. Now that we are all in agreement on that...
2. Warm up First.
Ballistic stretching is meant to take your muscles to their limits of range of motion. This cannot be done safely on a cold muscle. For all you candy lovers out there, think of it this way: If you put a Tootsie Roll in the refrigerator and then tried to bend it you would probably not succeed, but if you warmed it up a little in your hands first it would become much more malleable. Your muscles act the same way. If you try to stretch to the extreme ranges on a cold muscle, you are increasing your risk of straining the muscle (tearing the fibers) because it isn't able to react against the force of your stretch.
3. Do not hold at the end range of motion.
This type of stretching is meant to use momentum and repetitive movement. Holding the motion at end range would make the stretch static instead.
4. Gradually increase your range of motion.
You don't want to start with the biggest stretch first, start smaller and gradually work into bigger ranges as your body adapts. This will help prevent going too far too fast and getting injured.
5. Utilize your core.
The most important group of muscles in the body for stabilizing and controlling movement is the core. By activating these muscles during ballistic stretching, you will help eliminate any unwanted compensatory movements in the spine and also reduce your risk of injury.
Muscles need oxygen, especially when stretching. Often times dancers have a habit of holding their breathe when concentrating but this will only further limit your stretch.
7. If you feel pain, modify or STOP.
You definitely do NOT want to go the point of pain with ballistic stretching. Pain is your body's way of alerting you that something is wrong to prevent an injury from happening. A little discomfort from the stretch is normal, but as soon as you cross the threshold into pain, you are likely going too far.
A quick note on the difference between Dynamic and Ballistic stretching:
The two are often confused but are entirely different. Dynamic stretches take place at a much slower rate of movement and are not meant to be pushed into extreme ranges of motion. They can be used as part of a warm up routine safely because they involve much smaller ranges of motion that are more controlled. Ballistic stretching should NEVER be done as part of your warm up.
Here's why it's useful for dancers:
Dancers use ballistic movements often throughout a class. One example is a Grande Battement. This is an essential technique to a dancer and one that must be trained well. So you may see the problem in that if we tell dancers not to partake in ballistic stretching, but then require they perform it during class, we have not properly trained the dancers' muscles to accommodate to this movement and the risk of injury increases. Using ballistic stretching as method of training will also help the dancer improve their technique. Everyone strives for a higher grande battement- we need to train it efficiently so that it is possible to improve. Ballistic stretching has the potential to help you to achieve greater flexibility, control and power.
Again, I cannot stress enough that although Ballistic stretching is important and necessary, it should never be performed without some type of guidance first. Would I recommend it for the average person? Not necessarily. But for a dancer, YES, absolutely. It just needs to be done with a little more caution than the other types of stretching. Happy stretching :-)