There are a few common mistakes people make while trying to improve their flexibility. Number one is the trying too hard with their stretches. Far too many people push their stretches too far and risk tearing muscle fibres in the process. When you stretch a muscle too much it has a protective response called the 'stretch reflex' that actually makes the muscle contract. This means that you not only risk injuring yourself, but that you don’t get as much improvement as if you go a little more gently.
Secondly, if you are contracting lots of other muscles to pull your leg up (this is common when trying to stretch the hamstring muscles), all the tension in the rest of your body does nothing to help the muscle you are trying to stretch relax. It important to stay relaxed throughout the programme
Most people try to improve their flexibility into the splits by simply doing the splits. This will get you a certain distance but is certainly not the whole picture. The process that I find works the best is to slowly work through all the other muscles in your legs and around your pelvis that influences the nerve down the back of the leg, as especially when you are growing, this is what is usually tight.
Put some groovy music on, and spread out a mat to enjoy this little routine! I find it much nicer to work with the music than specifically count out the exercises, just make sure you don’t rush!! Make sure you are nice and warm before starting... After a class, a brisk walk or a shower is nice.
Lie on your back, with both knees bent and feet on the floor.
Slowly rotate your low back from side to side (at least 8 times).
Then gently work your hips through their full range (knees bent) by pulling them into your chest then rotating them to the sides (4 times each direction each leg).
Stretch the deep bottom muscles in several positions, by bringing one knee slightly across your body and pulling the lower part of the leg around (Piriformis Stretch)
Then roll over and bring your foot to your bottom to stretch the front of the thigh.
Come up onto one knee, in a lunge position to stretch the front of the hip, making sure that you don’t arch the back, but gently tuck your tail under to feel the stretch.
Turn the hips slowly to face one side wall, and then the other, feeling for points of restriction.
Sink lower into the lunge, breathing slowly.
Come up into standing and stretch the calves, making sure you do a bent knee calf stretch as well as the common straight leg one (2 x each).
Circle your ankles several times in both directions then slowly massage the sole of each foot with your knuckles (go gently!).
Take your legs wide in standing, then bend one knee and take the hands to the floor to stretch the inside thigh of one leg. Transfer the weight over to the other leg to stretch the second side.
Sit on the floor with your legs out towards a side split position. Lean forward very gently by tilting the pelvis forward and keeping your spine straight.
Slowly lean to one side, and lift the opposite arm to stretch out your side, and breathe deeply into your lowest ribs, then repeat to the other side (2 x).
Come back to centre and lean forward again gently (you should be able to go a little further).
Roll back onto your back, knees bent and feet together, and then lower the knees into a 'froggy stretch'.
Finally, hold behind the back of one knee and gently extend the knee to stretch the back of the thigh. It should already feel looser than normal, so just hold a gentle stretch, and make sure that your shoulders and arms are relaxed! Spine straight!
Finish off with a gentle stretch into the splits to check your range. Do NOT push this!!!
A unique program is being developed especially for dancers to improve mobility in this area. Keep updated on the progress of this fantastic resource by signing on to the FREE dancer’s newsletter atwww.theballetblog.com.
Lisa Howell (B.Phty) is a Physical Therapist (Physiotherapist) based in Sydney, Australia, who specialises in the assessment and treatment of dancers of all ages, from young students to professional level, and teachers. She is dedicated to the education of dancers to help prevent injury, and to develop optimal performance at every level.To find out more about “The Perfect Pointe Book” or to receive the newsletter, go towww.theperfectpointebook.com.