Guest post by Emily Dadmun
Flexibility; something every dancer wants and can never seem to get enough of. The more flexible the better, right? It is flexibility, after all, that allows the body to create the beautiful lines that hallmark a dancer. But what exactly is flexibility and should we (as dancers) be more focused on our mobility?
Let’s start by defining the two:
Flexibility is the degree to which a muscle or group of muscles is able to passively lengthen.
Mobility is the degree to which a joint can move through it’s range of motion without any outside influence or momentum.
Let’s use the ankle joint as an example to demonstrate the difference between these two concepts.
Every dancer has, at some point, placed their hands against the wall, put one foot behind the other, sending that heel into the floor in an effort to stretch their calf. Go ahead and try it and take note of the angle between your shin and your foot. (For the purposes of this example, we will keep the knee straight, as the gastrocnemius crosses the knee joint and bending the knee will have an impact on the biomechanics of the ankle.)
Now I want you to sit with both legs in front of you and, using only your own strength, reach your toes back towards your shin as far as you can.
You should feel a stretch in the calf from doing this as well, but is the angle between your shin and foot as small as it was when you stretched against the wall? (My guess is no because dancers are notorious for having “tight calves”.)
So, why were you able to create a smaller angle and get a deeper stretch against the wall than seated on the ground?
The first stretch against the wall was a demonstration of the flexibility of your ankle joint (and the involved muscles), whereas the second stretch was a demonstration of the mobility of your ankle joint – both specifically during the action known as dorsiflexion.
How about another example?
Lay on your stomach, pressing both hips into the floor.
Bending one leg, grab your foot and pull it as close to your buttocks as possible.
As you stretch the muscles in the front of the thigh (the quadriceps) take note of the angle you’ve created at the knee joint.
How close is your foot to the back of your leg?
Release the leg back to the floor.
Using that same leg, once again bring your foot as close to your buttocks as you can,
this time using only the muscles in the back of your leg,
really focusing on keeping both hips glued to the floor.
Take note of the distance between your foot and the back of your leg
as well as the angle created at the knee joint.
I’m assuming that the angle has, again, increased from the first test. The implication here is that when the leg is bending (known as knee flexion), while you may have above average flexibility in the knee joint, you lack mobility through that same range of motion.
I would like to quickly deviate from what I am discussing to point out that we cannot “single out” any one muscle or joint. Every muscle and joint in the body is somehow connected and they all have an influence on how the others function. So, while these examples help to illustrate my point, they are also a massive reduction of a much more complicated system of fulcrums and levers. Okay, back to those stretches!
This leads nicely into a comparison between two different types of stretching:
passive stretching and dynamic (active) stretching.
Passive stretching requires an outside influence (gravity, partner, equipment, etc.) to stretch a relaxed joint to its end range of motion.
Dynamic stretching is an active stretch in which you utilize the strength of surrounding muscles to move a joint through its range of motion.
With each of the two examples mentioned earlier, the first “stretch test” was a demonstration of passive stretching and the second test a demonstration of dynamic stretching. I notice very often that while dancers have above average flexibility as they perform passive stretches, their mobility is not always comparable as they attempt to move the same joint(s) utilizing a dynamic stretch.
Think about that for a moment.
If you can move a joint through a greater range of motion, but only under circumstances where an outside influence is acting upon it, that isn’t necessarily going to mean you can utilize that range of motion while dancing. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way.
I was never, and am still not, very flexible for a dancer.
(Compared to the average person walking down the street? Sure, I’m gumby. But we all know what “flexible” means to a dancer, lol.) Creating those jaw-dropping lines I so longed to have seemed like an impossible dream. What frustrated me most, however, was that I was decently flexible. I would spend hours and hours sitting in splits, jamming my legs up against walls, hugging my friends in a straddle, desperately hoping this would translate to my dancing, giving me the luxurious extensions of a prima ballerina.
I could do a split on the floor on both sides – no problem.
I could even achieve a full split during leaps given I was sufficiently “warm”. Then, as I would take center for an adagio and gently tip over into a penché I would look in the mirror – horrified – as I realized just how far I was from creating that long-sought-after 180 degree line with my legs. I could also – with relative ease – bring both legs up to the side into a hand-in-foot stretch. Later, I would stand at the barre, développé my leg to the side where it would shake uncontrollably as I fought just to keep it at 90 degrees.
What. The. HECK.
At the time I was unaware of the difference between flexibility and mobility.
I’m not even sure I had heard the word mobility being used. I was always being instructed to implement long held passive stretches to improve flexibility – queue flashbacks of standing against the wall on a slant board for over 20 minutes at a time – instead of taking advantage of more dynamic stretches that would improve my mobility and exercises that would strengthen my weaker, underworked muscles.
No amount of time spent in the splits gave me the gluteal strength and spinal mobility to overcome gravity
as it pulled my leg down during a penché and no amount of hand-in-foot stretches ever gave me the hip flexor strength and core stability I needed to hold up my leg during a developpé. Despite having packed on 15+ pounds of muscle since I started lifting weights, I am more mobile now than I ever was in all my years of strict dance training. That’s pretty cool if you ask me. It also took A LOT of mobility work over the years.
There are numerous ways you can improve your mobility
and not every person will require the same regimen to achieve the similar levels of mobility. So, while there is no one best prescription for mobility improvement, in my 8 years as a personal trainer and from my own training experience I have noticed a few tactics that have proven to be universally beneficial.
Three great ways to improve mobility:
- I have an arsenal of release tools. Everything from foam rollers, lacrosse balls, PVC pipes, you name it! The fascia surrounding our muscles can become thick (especially when overworked) and inhibit the function of surrounding tissues. By applying sustained pressure we can break up these adhesions, allowing for better function of our muscles!
IMPLEMENTING DYNAMIC STRETCHES
- A great place to start is by performing CAR exercises. CAR is an acronym for Controlled Articular Rotations and that pretty much explains it: you are carefully controlling an articulation (joint) as you rotate through its entire range of motion. (A quick Google search will provide many videos on CARs for the entire body.)
STRENGTHENING THE MUSCLES THAT OPPOSE YOUR “TIGHT MUSCLES”
- Show me someone with “tight hip flexors” and I guarantee they have weak glutes. This is because there is an imbalance of tension from the anterior to the posterior portion of the hip joint. Increase tension in the glute (strengthen the hip extensors) and you will decrease tension in the opposing muscles (lengthen the hip flexors).
I still believe passive stretching has its place; though I utilize it much less frequently.
It can be an excellent tool for improving proprioception and can also be very beneficial as a method of cooling down after a workout to prevent next-day soreness. Both passive and dynamic stretching have their place and each individual should experiment to find a combination that best helps them achieve their dance, fitness and health goals!
I have, hopefully, at this point demonstrated how important it is to focus on your overall mobility and not just your flexibility.
After all, mobility is where strength and flexibility converge and we want both! Mobility not only allows us to dance better, it allows us better functionality in our day-to-day lives as we’re walking, climbing stairs, picking things up off the ground, etc. Getting stronger doesn’t have to mean sacrificing flexibility, but it will absolutely improve your mobility.
Work on improving your mobility and reap the benefits of being flexible andstrong!
About Emily: Emily Dadmun is a lifelong dancer classically trained in ballet and a WNBF Professional Bodybuilder. She received her personal training certification through the American College of Sports Medicine in 2012 and has been training and coaching clients ever since. Using her background in dance and her years of weight-lifting and strength training, her goal is to educate dancers so that they can dance better and stronger for longer!