Developing good stretching habits is of utmost importance to an aerialist

So without turning this into a science lesson (although we will do a bit of that later) I want to discuss the art of stretching. I’m calling it the ‘art’ as for me it feels like there is a bit of an art to it and I’ll get to that in a minute. As an aerialist stretching is of utmost importance, pretty much as important as building strength, because the more flexible you become the more moves you are going to be able to do. So developing good stretching habits go hand in hand with doing aerial class.

So back to the art of it – I’m not the most flexible person in the world, never have been and have accepted that I never will be, so flexibility training was always really frustrating to say the least (and pretty darn painful sometimes as well) is anyone with me on this? However what I have realised over the years is that you can start to enjoy stretching – and this is why I call it an art.

The art of stretching and how to enjoy it…

There is a definite knack to it – and I will try to explain what I mean by this. It wasn’t until I gave up on all the pushing and struggling, trying ever so hard to make my body bend into all those awesome pretzel shapes (when it clearly wasn’t having any of it) and let that go, that I then dropped into doing yoga as a regular daily practice just because it felt so good for my body. This was when everything changed for me. When I softened into my body, got in touch with my breathing, and started to stretch as a way to feel more relaxed and alive, then I really started to enjoy stretching. And the more I enjoyed it the more I did it and the more flexible I became.

With regular practice your body will naturally become more flexible

So as a take away piece of advice from someone who has been doing this for years… when it comes to stretching try to start to enjoy the feeling of it. Fall in love with the art of the stretch! Start with more gentle stretches to encourage your body to open. Don’t be overly enthusiastic and push your body, you’ll only end up feeling discouraged (and worst case injured). But relax into the practice of stretching, notice how good your body feels after stretching and develop a regular practice that you really love. With regular practice your body will naturally become more flexible. Consistency is key but you’ll only be consistent if you enjoy the practice.

So let’s talk more about the science of stretching so we can understand it better

Flexibility is defined as the range of motion around a joint and its surrounding muscles during a passive movement. We stretch to improve the range of movement of the antagonistic muscles (jeez that’s a fancy pants word) – let’s just say that’s the technical term for being able to bend it like barbie and leave it at that shall we… But anyway here’s WHY you need to stretch…

For an aerialist stretching is essential for these four main reasons:

1.) As a warm up to prepare the body for an aerial workout, including some static and then some dynamic stretches. More later on the different types of stretching.

2.) As a cool down after aerial to let the body recover, but should not include ballistic or dynamic exercises, as the muscles are fatigued and more prone to injury. Static exercises are best as they relax the muscles and increase their range of movement.

3.) To maintain full range of motion. If you are training a lot of aerial you should also be doing an equivalent amount of stretching, i.e. if you are taking aerial class then take a stretch class as well (yoga, aerial yoga, reformer pilates or Extreme Stretch for Skylab fans, are all good). If you are building muscle mass i.e. getting stronger the chances are your muscles may get tighter, say for example around the shoulders and upper back. You will need to stretch in order to keep your full range of motion.

3.) Deep stretch to develop gorgeous splits and awesome backbends. You need to be holding static stretches for at least 30 seconds, plus doing assisted stretches and PNF technique. The body responds best to stretching when it is warm and the muscles and joints have been exercised through their current range of movement, so make sure you do a whole body warm up before you get down deep into stretch mode.

When you perform a stretch correctly, you will feel mild discomfort in the antagonistic muscles. If you feel pain or a stabbing sensation, you must STOP. Stretching should never be painful. The focus should be on bringing the muscle to a point of slight tension and then relax into it.

Did you know there were lots of different ways to stretch?

Here’s the low down on the types of stretching you should do (ok so getting ever so slightly a bit more technical) but each has its uses and should be properly placed within your training sessions.

1.) Static stretching

Static stretching (isometric contractions) involves gradually easing into the stretch position and holding the position. The amount of time a static stretch is held depends on your objectives. If it is part of your cool down then stretches should be held for 10 seconds, if it is to improve your range of mobility then hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Often in static stretching, you are advised to move further into the stretch position as the stretch sensation subsides. The goal of static stretching is to overcome the stretch reflex (the automatic tightening of a muscle when stretched, which relaxes after approximately 20 seconds) to coax a joint into a wider ROM. This is done by holding the stretch gently and not over stretching the muscle.

2.) Ballistic stretching

Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion. Sometimes compared with dynamics but ballistic stretching uses more of a jerking, bouncing or bobbing motion to increase muscle length. Due to its nature this method can mean the individual is more susceptible to injury so apply with caution.

3.) Dynamic stretching

Dynamic stretching (isotonic or isokinetic contractions) consists of controlled leg and arm swings that take you gently to the limits of your range of motion.

Start with the movement at half speed for a couple of repetitions and then gradually work up to full speed. Leg swings are a good example of this. Dynamic stretching develops active ROM (Range Of Movement) through the process of reciprocal inhibition (say whaaaat!), where the agonist muscle is contracting while the antagonist or opposite muscle is carried through the lengthening process.

When performed correctly, dynamic stretching warms up the joints, maintains current flexibility, and reduces muscle tension.

4.) Active stretching (or static-active stretching)

An active stretch is one where you assume a position and then hold it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist muscles. An example would be a lying hamstrings stretch, using no assistance from a stretch strap. The straight leg is raised as high as possible by contracting the hip flexors and quadriceps muscles (agonist muscles), thus stretching the hamstrings (antagonist muscles).

5.) Passive stretching (or static-passive or relaxed stretching)

A passive stretch is one where you assume a position and hold it with some other part of your body, or with the assistance of a partner or some other apparatus. An example would be the same lying hamstring stretch, using assistance from a strap, which would allow the hip flexors and quadricep muscles to only minimally activate.

6.) Isometric stretching

Isometric stretching is a type of static stretching which involves the resistance of muscle groups through isometric contractions (tensing) of the stretched muscles. These are one of the most intense forms of stretching. It requires sufficient rest and recovery periods and is not really suitable for those under the age of 18 years (as the body is still developing). Nor is it a suitable stretch during a warm up or prior to a performance, it is ideally done at the end of a strength based session.

7.) Assisted stretching

Assisted stretching involves the assistance of a partner who must fully understand what their role is otherwise the risk of injury is high. A partner can be employed to assist with Partner stretches and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) techniques (see below for description).

8.) Partner stretches

Your partner assists you to maintain the stretch position or helps you ease into the stretch position as the sensation of stretch subsides. You should aim to be fully relaxed and breathe easily throughout the exercise. Partner assisted stretches are best used as developmental exercises, with each stretch being held for thirty seconds. This type of stretching requires trust and co-ordination between the partners as the partner assisting does not feel what you feel. Communicate with each other – ask for more pressure or to back off if the stretch is too intense.

9.) Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation or PNF technique

This involves the use of muscle contraction before the stretch in an attempt to achieve maximum muscle relaxation. This method can include a ‘hold and relax’ stage, ‘contract and relax’ stage and then a ‘hold and relax with opposing muscle contraction’ phase. The best example of this is that of a partner based stretch against the wall, for example pushing your leg to the ground, then relax lift the leg and so on. Here are the five sequential steps to doing assisted or PNF stretching:

  1. You move into the stretch position so that you feel the stretch sensation
  2. Your partner holds the limb in this stretched position
  3. You then push against your partner by contracting the antagonistic muscles for 6 to 10 seconds and then relax. During the contraction, your partner aims to resist any movement of the limb.
  4. Your partner then moves the limb further into the stretch until you feel the stretch sensation
  5. Go back to 2. Repeat this procedure 3 or 4 times before the stretch is released.

There’s quite a lot of options there right. So which method is best?

  • Static methods produce far fewer instances of muscle soreness, injury and damage to connective tissues than dynamic or ballistic methods.
  • PNF technique is best used to gain flexibility in the shortest possible time.
  • Dynamic slow controlled movements through the full range of motion will reduce muscle stiffness.
  • When conducting flexibility exercises it is recommended to perform them in the following order – static, assisted and then dynamic.

To bend or not to bend that is the question

Some people are generally more bendy than others. Fact. But it doesn’t mean you can’t work to develop your flexibility, it just means you may have to work on it with a bit more dedication and perseverance than say someone who can naturally and effortlessly place their hips flat on the floor in froggie or bring their foot to their head… Remember consistency and enjoyment is key…

These are some of the internal influences that go into what makes a person bendy or not bendy:

  • The type of joint
  • The internal resistance within a joint
  • Bony structures which limit movement
  • The temperature of the joint and associated tissues
  • The elasticity of muscle tissue, tendons, ligaments and skin
  • The ability of a muscle to relax and contract to achieve the greatest range of movement

And here are some of the external influences:

  • The temperature of the place where one is training (a warmer temperature is more conducive to increased flexibility)
  • The time of day (most people are more flexible in the afternoon than in the morning)
  • The stage in the recovery process of a joint (or muscle) after injury
  • Age (pre-adolescents are generally more flexible than adults)
  • Gender (females are generally more flexible than males)
  • One’s ability to perform a particular exercise
  • One’s commitment to achieving flexibility

Six tips for flexibility training

  1. Don’t overdo it – work within your limits.
  2. Breathe comfortably. Exhale as the muscle lengthens to assist in relaxation.
  3. Perform flexibility exercises for each muscle group for total-body improvements.
  4. Work with warm muscles because they lengthen more easily and with less discomfort.
  5. The best time to do flexibility training is after a cardio workout.
  6. Modify if you need to.

The glorious sensation of a really good stretch and a few words on pain

Learning to minimise the negative types of pain leaves you free to find joy in the glorious sensation of a really good stretch – as the muscle releases, tension decreases, and you start to realise more of your body’s full potential. It is such a fantastic feeling to feel your body opening and being able to move beyond normal ranges of movement. Suppleness and bendy factor improve body confidence, ease tension and yes of course do wonders for your aerial routine. However stretching can and will involve levels of pain to some degree, especially at the beginning. So let’s take a deeper look at how to deal with this…

• The body will resist an increased range of motion at first: Any time you ask your muscles to extend beyond their usual length they will get nervous and resist because they are afraid of getting hurt. This creates that tight, sometimes anxious sensation of the body fighting itself and the muscle screaming at you to STOP NOW. You don’t need to stop completely, but it is important to be sympathetic to the muscle’s fear and continue to encourage it gently, slowly, consistently, so that it learns to be brave. This will reduce the duration and intensity of your discomfort in the stretch.

• Be careful of pain that radiates, burns, or prickles: That electrical pain usually involves the compression or stretching of a nerve and is a sign that you should not go deeper. It is possible to work through this but not until those nerve pains go away. In the meantime, hang out at the edge of the pain and do some gentle movements (wiggle your fingers, flex or point your foot, anything to get the nerves unglued) to slowly loosen the sticking point.

• Pain should not last after you come out of a stretch: Even if you feel some intense sensations while you are stretching, the sensation should stop after you stop stretching and move your limbs around. If you still have pain in your joint afterwards, especially a sharp or nervy pain, that is a sign that there could be an injury or the beginning of an injury and something needs to be modified or investigated. It is fine, however, to have normal muscle soreness the next day or two after stretching, as you would with any workout.

Pain inside the joint should be avoided: We want to be focused on stretching the muscles, not the connective tissue inside the joints. If you are experiencing pain deep inside the joint (knee, shoulder, hip, sacrum, etc) then something is probably not working correctly. Consider addressing alignment or modifying the stretch.

• More pain doesn’t mean more progress: Pushing harder into a painful stretch does not mean that you will get better faster. With stretching, benefits come from consistency (training regularly) rather than intensity (pushing hard). Pushing too hard too fast into pain will cause the muscle to contract and potentially create tears in the muscle or connective tissue.

Combine active and passive stretches: Weak muscles and joints with limited active flexibility hurt more and take longer to warm up. Strength, when developed through your full range of motion, can actually work to improve your stretching experience.

So to wrap things up my friend (as that was quite an epic amount of blog we did there) I hope you are now not only educated but also motivated to go find your stretch mat, start stretching on it, start enjoying the fabulous benefits that regular stretching can bring and may you be bending for ever more…

P.S. Remember to fill me in on how all your stretching is going. Leave your comments below!