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Any dancer can tell you how important it is to complete a thorough warm up before dancing, but how do you know if you are using the right kind of warm up? As more research has been done in this area, our understanding of what is helpful, and what isn’t, has improved; but as with any new research, this takes time to reach the people it matters to most. Unfortunately, this means that many dancers are likely still using warm up techniques that historically were thought to be the best, but are now looking far less helpful, and in some circumstances, even a hindrance to performance.
Essentially, they are to get your body ready for activity or exercise in order to increase your level of performance, and decrease the likelihood of injuries. This works in a variety of ways, including: vasodilation, or the widening of blood vessels, which allows more blood flow to the muscles, which means more nutrients to the muscles, as well as more oxygen; increased temperature of the muscles and joints, which increases muscle strength, flexibility and power and joint range of motion, which in turn increases joint and muscle resistance to injuries such as strains and sprains; and also as a way for the neuromuscular system to rehearse skills and movement patterns before attempting them at full effort.
For dancers, the effects of a warm up are vital due to the dynamic nature of dance. A dancer with a thorough warm up will be able to execute a higher, longer and more extended jeté due to the increase in muscle power and range of motion, but they will also be able to land it more safely due to the increased elasticity and reaction ability.
While warm ups have always been an important part of any dance class or performance preparation, there is one thing most dancers are still doing during warm up that is perhaps unexpectedly less helpful than we used to think. Stretching. Or specifically, static stretching; where a limb is moved to the end of it’s range of motion and then held there in a passive way, meaning not by muscle force. An example of a static stretch would be the splits as the floor does all the work to push the limbs to their end range and then this position is held for seconds to minutes.
Studies over the years have been showing that static stretching before performing athletic activity may actually reduce explosive muscular performance and reduce maximal muscle strength (Simic et al. 2012), meaning overall athletic performance may be reduced. They have also shown that the longer the duration of the stretch, the greater the impairment to performance (Simic et al. 2012); this is especially true for any static stretch longer than 90 seconds (Behm and Chaouachi 2011). So those few minutes spent in the splits before class may actually be hindering your ability to get power and height during your jetés and cabrioles.
I know you want flexibility during class and on stage though, so what’s a dancer to do if static stretching isn’t recommended during a warm up? The answer is dynamic stretching. This form of stretching uses muscle force to bring the joint to end range and it is not held there for more than a few seconds before it is repeated. An example of this is leg swings. The same studies that have shown us that static stretching may be detrimental to our athletic performance, have also shown that dynamic stretching may have a positive effect on our performance, especially the longer you do them (Behm and Chaouachi 2011). This is likely to be because to activate our muscles, our nervous system is being activated and our muscle temperature is increased (Behm and Chaouachi 2011). Luckily, both static and dynamic stretching can increase your acute range of motion (Behm et al. 2016). Meaning that dynamic stretching during your warm up will give you the same results for your flexibility during class as static stretching would. That doesn’t mean we need to throw away static stretching altogether though.
For long term results to increase flexibility, static stretching still plays a role, so static stretching should still be part of your training routine, but should be performed either during cool down after class, or at another time when muscle force isn’t required (Behm and Chaouachi 2011). Keeping in mind that the longer you hold a stretch, the weaker your muscles are going to be, so perhaps repetitive shorter duration stretches rather than sustained ones for longer than 90 seconds are best.
Step one is a cardiovascular warm up to get your heart, blood vessels and lungs working and blood flowing; any kind of aerobic activity is fine.
Step two is dynamic stretching – the more the better! Get all your muscle groups moving starting with smaller movements and as your muscles warm you can increase the range of motion.
Step three is activity specific exercises. So this means activities and movements that resemble what will be involved in your class or performance, but done at a lower intensity.
With all three steps complete you are ready to dance with greater athletic ability, greater flexibility and a decreased chance of being injured. Of course, if you are unlucky enough to still sustain an injury, your local osteopath is always here to help.
Behm, D.G., Blazevich, A.J., Kay, A.D. and McHugh, M. (2016). Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, [online] 41(1), pp.1–11. doi:10.1139/apnm-2015-0235.
Behm, D.G. and Chaouachi, A. (2011). A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. European journal of applied physiology, 111(11), pp.2633–51. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-1879-2.
Simic, L., Sarabon, N. and Markovic, G. (2012). Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 23(2), pp.131–148. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01444.x.