The Dancer’s Ultimate Guide to Stretching

September 21, 2021

Ah, stretching. It seems so simple, and is yet so complicated.

For example: You don’t want to overstretch, but you’re not going to see results if you don’t stretch enough. You want to focus on areas where you’re tight, but you also can’t neglect other areas or else you’ll be imbalanced. You were taught to hold static stretches growing up, but now everyone is telling you never to hold a stretch longer than a few seconds?

Considering how important stretching correctly is for dancers, it’s easy to get confused or overwhelmed. So we came up with 10 common stretching scenarios, and gave you the expert low-down.

If You Have A Tight Upper Back

You may not think the flexibility of your upper back is relevant to, say, the height of your extension or your ability to get into a full split. But dance physiotherapist Lisa Howell says a tight upper back could have major implications for your neural mobility. “If your upper back is very tight, then the nerves and fascia that lie along the spine can get restricted,” she says. Try these exercises to increase mobility in your upper back.

If You Want Better Feet

Dancers have long been using aggressive methods (read: foot stretchers and making our friends sit on our feet) to try to get archier, stretchier feet. But it turns out, there are safer ways to get better lines—and they don’t necessarily even involve stretching your feet.

Mandy Blackmon, a physical therapist for Atlanta Ballet
, recommends dancers stretch their calves instead, as tight calves can restrict the movement of the ankle joint.

Work on strengthening the feet instead of stretching them, she says, using the tried-and-true method of working through your foot with an exercise band. (Try writing the alphabet or your full name.) If you’re really aching for a foot stretch, use your body weight to push over your pointe shoe; a safer stretch since it requires foot strength as well, says Blackmon.

A ballet dancer sits below the barre, surrounded by other dancers in the background warming up. She has a bare foot in an exercise band, flexing her foot into it.

Matthew Murphy for Pointe

If You’re Stretching As A Warm-Up

Well, don’t.

“Static stretching is not warming up,” says Dr. Nancy Kadel, co-chair of the Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health. “It’s much better to walk, or do anything else to elevate the heart rate.” Kadel says that static stretching can temporarily weaken muscles, impair coordination and reduce balance and jump height—not what you want pre-class or rehearsal.

Instead, your warm-up should focus on getting your heart rate up. This can include dynamic stretches, like moving through lunges or a yoga flow. Save short static stretches—30 seconds maximum—for after class or rehearsal when you’re warm.

If You Feel Pain

Stretching should not be painful—in fact going too far in a stretch could actually limit your flexibility. According to former dancers and stretch therapists Ann and Chris Frederick, the brain interprets pain as a signal that something is wrong, and if a muscle won’t let go, it’s probably because it’s protecting itself.

As dancers, it can be hard for us to judge what’s actually painful. Meredith Butulis, a doctor of physical therapy who frequently works with dancers, says that if you feel a line, like a muscle is stretched taut, that’s okay. But, “if you feel a painful spot, like in your kneecap or hip socket, it may indicate you’re tugging at a joint or there’s scar tissue, so ease up.”

If You’re Cross-Training with Yoga

Yoga can be a great place to work on flexibility. But be careful that you’re not throwing away your stretching rules because you’re in a new setting—or because the warm temperature tricks you into thinking your muscles are warm.

Yoga classes sometimes involve holding stretches longer than is recommended, and dancers may push themselves too far in classes that are not designed for super-flexible bodies. Go easy, focus on alignment and don’t hesitate to leave a position before you’re cued to.

A woman in yoga attire in a "dancing warrior" position.

Emily Sea via Unsplash

If You’re Stretching With A Partner

Working with a friend can help give you a deeper stretch. But it’s easy to push it too far. Butulis says it only takes a pound of pressure from a partner to give you that added stretch. “Gentle pressure can activate sensors that allow the muscles to contract and relax,” she says. “However, if you use excessive force or move the limb too quickly, the sensors will react to protect the muscle by tightening, preventing the stretch.”

If You’re Hypermobile

Hypermobile dancers still gotta stretch. But if you have already-loose joints, be extra-intentional about avoiding overstretching.

For one, pay close attention to alignment, says Lastics Stretch Technique teacher Donna Flagg, holding positions with muscular strength rather than hyperextending or flopping into them. This may mean not going as far into a stretch as you’re used to. Focus on lengthening, rather than pushing into joints.

Stretch areas where you’re tight (hips and quads for many dancers) rather than continuing to stretch areas where you’re already flexible, says Flagg. Instead, work on creating stability in loose areas.

And even if you can split your legs further than 180 degrees, you probably shouldn’t, says Flagg. Only stretch as far as you actually need to.

If You Have Tight Hamstrings

If you can’t seem to be able to get your hamstrings to budge, it might be because you’re not taking into account the fact that there are actually three muscles working together, says Butulis. Most often, dancers aren’t stretching the outermost muscle correctly.

“After you’re warm, work a foam roller or lacrosse ball down the full length of the outer hamstring, and hold in tight spots—you’ll feel them—for about 30 seconds,” she says. “Then roll the whole muscle set for four to five minutes before you move on to dynamic stretches.”

Be warned: If your hamstrings are extremely tight, it may mean that your medial and lateral muscles have adhered to one another, which will require the help of a physical therapist or massage therapist.

A young woman foam rolling her hamstring

Nathan Sayers

If You Want More Flexibility ASAP

Developing flexibility takes time. If you’re determined to make progress fast, it’s tempting to go to extreme lengths. But overstretching in positions like frog or straddling between two chairs is just dangerous.

Instead, maximize your flexibility by being consistent with your stretching. Jennifer Green, founder of PhysioArts in New York City, suggests stretching your biggest problem areas five times a day, holding each stretch for 30 seconds.

If You Feel Like You’re Not Getting Anywhere

If you’re stretching consistently and strategically and still aren’t seeing the improvement you want, consider one of these factors:

You need to be foam-rolling, too.
If your tightness is caused by restricted fascia rather than muscle, stretching won’t help—but foam rolling will. “Foam rolling can be done prior to activity, even on cold muscles, or post-activity to release inhibited muscles,” says Leigh Heflin, program coordinator of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “Although it doesn’t necessarily increase range of motion, it can allow more freedom in a muscle that was otherwise restricted.”

You should see an expert.
They can help you find imbalances and recommend stretches. Or, a massage therapist can work out areas that have become overly tight.

You should be focusing on strength.
Flexibility can only do so much for a dancer. If you’ve worked on flexibility but aren’t seeing the results in your extension, it could be because you haven’t built enough strength. Work on strengthening your core, hip flexors and quadriceps as much as you stretch your hamstrings.

You’re neglecting some muscles.
Stretching some tight areas but not others can create imbalances in the body, says Heflin. If you’re overstretching your hamstrings but neglecting the opposing muscle group, the quadriceps, the quads can become tight and overworked.

You’re stretching in the wrong order.
“There are 34 muscles across your hips—why would you start with the toughest hamstring muscle?” says Chris Frederick. Try stretching the small muscles in your hip and back first to increase your hamstrings’ range of motion.

You need to create space in the joint.
Try gently pulling the limb away from the socket before stretching to help you go further, says Frederick.