Your Body

Why Knowing Your Limits Can Help You Gain Flexibility

Whether you can’t touch your toes or can easily do an oversplit, you’ve most likely reached a point while stretching that you just can’t surpass. This is because muscles have stretch receptors in them called muscle spindles, which operate like brakes on a car to prevent you from hurting yourself. When you stretch too far, they send messages to your brain that stop you from going past a certain point by contracting the muscle you’re stretching. The trick to improving your flexibility is to learn how to override the messages safely.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

“Understand what your body can do, and identify the areas where your facility feels limited,” recommends Alexandra Little, an L.A.–based dancer, choreographer and teacher. “Slowly push yourself to overcome those limitations by being disciplined, thorough and consistent.”

After warming up, start your flexibility regimen by gradually increasing how far a muscle is stretched. For example, for hamstrings, try the basic sit and reach (pictured p. 81), stretching toward your toes until you can’t stretch any further, and hold there. After a certain amount of time, usually a minimum of 20 seconds—though it varies a great deal from person to person—your muscle spindles will deactivate. (You should feel a release.) Then, take the stretch a little further until your muscle spindles kick in again and the stretch is naturally stopped. Hold for a moment, then relax.

Always back off if your range of movement is diminishing, warns Michael Alter, a former gymnast and gymnastic coach and author of Science of Flexibility. In other words, if your hamstrings are so sore that your battement is a lot lower than usual, you’ve stretched too far. NOTE: If your muscle starts to quiver at any point during a stretch, ease off, says Alter. Quivering muscles means they are being overworked.

Growing Pains

If you’ve been stretching consistently and finally seeing results, but then grow two inches overnight and lose all of your progress, don’t worry—and don’t give up. It’s normal to experience a loss in flexibility during growth spurts. Because bones grow faster than muscles, it will take time to regain your full range.

According to Stella Evans, M.D., a Minneapolis-based pediatrician, growth spurts (more than five inches in a year) generally end by age 16 for girls, and by age 19 for boys. It’s recommended that you continue to stretch during a growth period, but take extra caution. Muscles are weakened by growth and excessive stretching can cause permanent damage.

The Finish Line

It may seem that you’ll never reach a perfect split or that your back attitude will never touch your head. Still, don’t force your body just to feel like you’re making progress. Flexibility takes time and diligence, and you have your whole life to dance. Forcing yourself toward unreasonable expectations can lead to injury. “I hope I never get to a point where I feel done working on my flexibility,” says Little. “Dance is always a work in progress. I’ll never be at my goal, because I’ll always set another.”

Four Basic Stretching Types

For the most benefit, incorporate each in your stretching regimen.

PNF (or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation):

Contract and release method of stretching; effective, but risky.

How it works: Have someone push your leg toward your chest while you lie with your back on the floor. Contract your muscles and push your leg against his or her hands, then relax and let your partner push your leg closer to your chest.

Caution: Your partner should be credentialed as a physical therapist or a personal trainer to handle this method, as excessive range of motion may tear connective tissue.

AIS (or Active Isolated Stretching):

A modified version of PNF without a partner; safer than PNF, since you are in control of the tension.

How it works: You do your own pushing and pulling with an exercise band or rope.

Caution: It’s very easy to injure yourself if you focus only on how far the band is pulling, so pay extra attention to how your muscles are feeling. Never yank.

Ballistic:

Gentle “bouncing” stretches.

How it works: Touch your toes and pull back. Repeat several times.

Caution: Will activate muscle spindles (the opposite of what you want!) unless you keep the movements smooth and controlled.

Isometric:

Holding a stretch in one position for a long period of time.

Photo by Jayme Thornton

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