Because there's a right (and a wrong) way to stretch (Getty Images)

A Bit (Too Much) of a Stretch: The Risks of Overstretching

If you've seen it once, you've seen it a million times: a pic or vid of an über-flexible dancer stretching her enviably limber limbs. She's got her banana feet jammed between a portable barre and the floor, or a Gumby-esque leg propped impossibly high on a dresser. You've probably felt jealous of her wow-worthy flexibility.

But Ashley deLalla, a physical therapist and Pilates instructor with the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters' Dance Medicine Program in Norfolk, VA, has a very different reaction. "It's cringeworthy. I find myself holding my breath, especially when you look at how young these dancers are," she says. Athletic trainer and acupuncturist Megan Richardson, who's on staff at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in NYC, agrees: "Overstretching—forcing yourself into an extreme position for a long time, or doing the wrong stretch for what you're trying to achieve—has always been a cultural problem in the dance world." So what is the right way to stretch? We're so glad you asked.


The How and the When

If you flop down into a straddle as soon as you walk into the studio before technique class, you're doing it wrong. "You never want to statically stretch a cold muscle," deLalla says. "You always want some kind of warm-up to get oxygen to those muscles, whether that's a ballet warm-up at the barre, walking laps, or riding your bike to the studio."

Before class, stick to foam rolling or dynamic stretches (which Richardson defines as stretches that move through the muscle's full range of motion without holding, with a pause of at most 1 count). "Go as far into the stretch as you need to feel it, then contract the muscle by returning to your starting position," she says. "Like an accordion, this gently pumps and warms the muscles, priming them to dance." Static stretches, like sitting in your splits, should really only be performed after class or at the end of your day at the studio, once your muscles are good and warm.

For a stretch like this, make sure to warm up properly first to prevent the risk of injury. (Getty Images)

The Why Not

Strange but true: The main problem with overstretching is that your muscle fibers aren't the only things getting longer. That's because forcing your muscles into an extreme stretch also forces ligaments and joint capsules to lengthen, and these connective tissues don't benefit from being stretched. "Stretched-out ligaments lose their ability to contract back to their original length," Richardson explains. "And joint capsules are like little balloons that hold our joints in place. Once that balloon or ligament is stretched out, your muscles have to work harder to create stability—which isn't their job."

If your muscles are busy stabilizing your joints, they can't produce as much force (think lower jumps, slower response times, and more muscle fatigue). Not to mention that joint instability from incorrect stretching can lead to injuries, including hip impingement, evulsion fractures, and labral tears—yikes.

Done right, stretching is an important component of improved technique and injury prevention. But you have to pay attention to where you're feeling the stretch (ideally in the very middle of the targeted muscle, or the "muscle belly"), and resist the temptation to go to extremes. "Your dance teachers, local pediatric orthopedic clinic, physical therapists, athletic trainers, or even your pediatrician can help you understand the basic anatomy behind proper stretching," deLalla says. "The more you practice, the more you'll understand what a stretch should feel like, versus something not feeling right."

Latest Posts


Photo by Joe Toreno. Hair by Marina Migliaccio and makeup by Lisa Chamberlain, both for the Rex Agency.

Sienna Lalau: The Dynamite Dancer and Choreographer Helping BTS Make Magic

At just 20 years old, Sienna Lalau is the living definition of "dynamite dancer": bold, confident, almost addicting to watch, and, at her core, overflowing with pure passion. From her work with The Lab Studios to Video Music Award–winning choreography for BTS, there's no stopping this starlet from bringing her love of dance to the global stage.

"Dance is something that can truly connect people," Sienna tells Dance Spirit. "It's a universal language. We may not speak the same language physically, but when we dance, there's a connection where we understand each other on another level."

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Tanishq Joshi brings his star quality to stage in his hometown of Indore, India (courtesy Tanishq Joshi)

Tanishq Joshi is Stomping on South Asian Stereotypes by Fusing Hip-Hop Choreo With Bollywood Music

For Tanishq Joshi (aka Taneesky), becoming a dancer was as unexpected as your music cutting off mid-performance. An unfortunate injury in his hometown of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India, led to the more fortunate discovery of a new passion and a flourishing career.

Joshi's had the opportunity to choreograph and compete at "World of Dance" events, perform at the JaQuel Knight Showdown, and grace the stage at Pharrell Williams' "Something in the Water" concert. And that's all on top of work and training with dancers and choreographers like Devin Solomon, Denzel Chisolm, Josh Killacky, Samantha Caudle, and Jake Kodish.

Joshi shared his story with Dance Spirit, and broke down how his unique approach to choreography is helping him diminish stereotypes, open doors for South Asian dancers, and inspire the dance community at large.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Houston Ballet Demi Soloist Natalie Varnum shows off her signature style (Claire McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet)

Fashion Forward: 3 Pros Share What Goes into Their Dancewear Choices

When it comes to in-studio dancewear, the pros know that the right look, piece, or material can mean the difference between a day feeling confident and comfortable, or just plain out of sorts. With so much time spent honing their craft in dance clothes, choosing those items takes equal parts strategy, creativity and a healthy dose of fun.

Here, professional dancers Ian Eastwood, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, and Natlie Varnum share what goes into their fashion choices that enables them to look good, feel great, and turn heads in the studio.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search