Every athlete has their own routine prior to engaging in their sport. Preparing the body is a very personal task as only you can feel what you may need for class, or your day! Advancing from a student, to professional level, my colleagues seem to have a more strict daily regimen that they practice everyday before beginning the day rather than my friends in school. Although both my colleagues and friends arrived to class early to prepare, what is the proper way to approach ballet class?
Stretching is Hindering your Range/Performance
We have all waltzed into class and immediately sat on the floor in either butterfly, straddle, or a lunge at our barre spot in the morning as laying on the ground in the splits feels so nice especially when class is at 8am, or after a late night. I, fall victim, as I thought I needed to stretch my full flexibility in order to prepare for turnout, extensions, big poses, etc. Little did I know I was only hurting my body, as well as performance.
Stretching should not be the entirety of your warm-up as it actually causes more harm than good. Stretching to your full-range before class actually reduces strength and stability, increasing the risk of injury.
As we discuss “stretching” we must identify the two types of stretching:
- Static Stretching– holding a stretch for an elongated period of time, duration varying 20-50 seconds
- Dynamic Stretching– movement based form of stretching, positions not held
It is of utmost importance to increase the body’s energy level and heart rate before engaging in any stretch either static or dynamic. Stretching is of little-effect if performed without breaking a sweat. (if it seems your flexibility has not improved or has been hindered you’re not alone!) Stretching does not need to be completely avoided prior to class, it needs to be rethought and approached smarter.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science a smart warm-up consists of four parts:
- Gentle Cardio
- Joint Mobilization
- Muscle Lengthening
While warming-up the body’s required energy levels are increased in response to the amount of work your muscles are enduring. This in turn means your body requires more oxygen and glucose (fuel) to produce enough energy to power your muscles. A result of this production is the increase of body temperature (hence the name “warm-up”). Cardiovascular activity incorporated into one’s routine is of vital importance in ensuring your body is properly prepared and ready for class, performance, teaching, etc.
Gentle Cardio: Gently raising your pulse increases body temperature which in turn increases pliability and elasticity. Start with small continual movements such as prancing before introducing larger movements such as jogging and jumping-jacks. Cardio should be performed for 1-5 minutes or until heart rate increases for a steady period.
Joint Mobilization: With mobilizing exercises such as hip circles, arm circles and ankle circles, the joints become lubricated, increasing the production of synovial fluid which allow the bones to slide more freely. This allows the achievement of optimal turnout rather than holding static stretches such as straddles, frogs, or butterflies.
Muscle Lengthening: Once the body temperature is raised, synovial fluid increased, and joint movement is more free, dynamic stretching may be introduced. Stretches held for less than 15 seconds will not negatively affect performance if muscles are lengthened and the opposing muscles are activated, creating a continuous stretch. Such stretches may include hamstring exercises lying on the floor or standing, and lunges.
Strengthening/Conditioning: Now that the body is warm, loose, and pliable it is important to activate the muscles of the body to hold the limbs into place when concluding warm-up. Ex: bicycle, clamshells, plank, calf rises, turned-out leg lifts, etc.
*Keep in mind that the benefits of warm-up will be reduced if the body returns to its resting state between the period of warm-up and class. Aim to minimize the extra time before class once you have concluded your warm-up. Layered clothing and continued movement can help maintain body warmth and mobility.
After Class: This is the time when I incorporate static stretching. By doing so directly a following class, the muscles and joints are warm and pliable which lends itself to a more safe approach to stretching. Stretching after class is when flexibility can be pushed farther and increased, as well as reduce muscle soreness. This time is when I do exercises such as: pigeon, knee-to-knee pretzel, splits, frog, backbend, heel-stretch, penches, as well as foot articulations.
*The body stays in this warmed state approximately 30 minutes after exercise. It is best advised to stretch directly following a class rather than waiting an extended period of time.