Many dance teachers, concerned parents and health professionals are struggling with what they see going on in the dance world, especially online. Every day we are seeing images of stretches that we know must be unsafe, however the students who to do them are also often performing at a high level and winning competitions. Dance teachers who avoid over stretching and err on the side of caution, avoiding things such as oversplits in second often feel like they are being left behind, and face pressure from students and parents alike to “move with the times”.

I have kept quiet about this particular issue for some time because I have always tried to focus on the positive rather than criticise anyone else’s training, but some of the things I have seen recently online are getting ridiculous. 

I am also being asked more and more frequently for a post that teachers can direct the parents of their students to, to explain the reasons why this type of training must be done very carefully. So here goes!!

So, is over stretching bad? 

The mere fact that so many people ask me this question seems to indicate that they know that it is… But why is it bad? And what can we do to still achieve amazing mobility without unnecessary risk of damage?

The level of performance in all styles of dance has accelerated massively in the last few years, and as such the training techniques to support this have changed dramatically. Unfortunately this means that we have limited knowledge as to the long term effects of these techniques and many people are quite rightly concerned at what is going on under the surface. While other disciplines such as Rhthmic Gymnastics and Contortion have been over stretching and training in extreme ranges for years, there is still little formal research on the long term effects of this kind of training on the individuals involved.

While it is true that there are some bodies that survive training like this, there is a huge attrition rate along the way, and many people advocating extreme training have no idea of the long term trouble they may be causing.

Every day in my role as a Physiotherapist I see people suffering from old injuries sustained by over stretching, repeated extensions and excessively mobile and unstable joints from early training. Unfortunately the slow and hard rehab that so many people have to go through to just be able to live a normal, pain free life is not so dramatically entertaining so doesn’t get the coverage that dramatic photos and videos of performances involving extreme flexibility do. 

So what is “Over Stretching”?

The general view is that over stretching is taking any joint past its natural physiological range, and especially stretching the ligaments that normally help support the joint, so that it becomes more mobile. Over stretching may also be where the individual is forced into position resulting in traumatic damage to the tissues that previously restricted range.

Many young students, especially those who already have hypermobility, are being put in ranges that overload one particular area, in their desire to achieve dramatic ranges of flexibility. I feel so sad that so many people are thinking that this is a good idea, and great entertainment, when they have no idea what the true cost is.

In my role as a Physiotherapist for Dancers I am constantly being asked questions such as:

  • What are the risks of over stretching?
  • She seems to enjoy it! If it doesn’t hurt her, surely its ok?
  • Are there dangers in over stretching in young students?
  • How do you know if they are stretching too much?
  • What are the risks in different positions?
  • She wants to be a professional dancer; isn’t this just a part of it?
  • What is the long term effect on these students hips, back and knees as they move from being a passionate young dancer into either a professional dance career, a teacher, or a ‘normal’ person trying to live a healthy life?
  • Is there another way of achieving the same level of mobility safely?
  • Is PNF Stretching OK?
  • Why can some people do it easily and others can’t?

To answer these questions as clearly as possible, I have put some brief pointers below, but am also putting together a series of more comprehensive posts, each one dealing with a different position or issue, combined with some fabulous cartoons (courtesy of my amazing Dad – Mike Howell) to illustrate the potential dangers dangers and considerations of over stretching. Keep an eye out for each one as it is released:

1. What are the risks of over stretching?

If joint, such as the hip, is pushed past its normal range of motion there is a risk of damaging the surrounding tissues, including the labrum of the hip, the ligaments that surround the joint or in the case of the spine, the discs that give us the capacity for shock absorption and spinal mobility.

In young students whose bones are not fully developed there is also a serious risk of damaging the shape of the hip socket, or developing spinal stress fractures or Spondylolisthesis.

Long term, over-stretched joints carry a higher risk of developing arthritic changes due to the wear and tear on the cartilage.