Raise your hand if you’ve ever been told to make sure you’re “stretched out” before dance class. My hand is certainly in the air! Growing up I always thought the best way to prepare for an intense practice or competition was to go through a series of deep stretches and believed the further I could push myself through the pain of each stretch, the better a dancer I would become. The logic behind sitting on the ground before class and going through toe reaches and butterfly stretches seems good enough: you have to kick high in Irish Dance, so why not force your muscles to elongate?! Buuuuut that’s not how the human body works. Today I want to discuss how to prepare your body in the warm-up to set yourself up for success in every practice and workout. After we cover the physical routine of warming up, we will go through the process of mentally warming up, which is just as important as the physical part.
Before I give you a warm-up routine to follow let’s talk about the purpose of the warm-up. There are 2 main goals of a solid warm-up routine:
- Improve performance
- Reduce chance of injury
When warming up, the body internal temperature gets warmer through movement and your heart begins beating faster. Your heart beat sets the pace of blood being sent throughout the body. Your blood is like a bus for your body, carrying energy to your muscles and getting rid of waste they don’t need. As you get warmed-up and your heart rate increases, blood is pumped quickly through your body, so your muscles get the energy (remove delivered quicker) that they will need for your dance routines and drills.
Increased heat and blood flow to your muscles also make them more flexible. I like to think about muscles before a warm-up as a big piece of bubble gum. Before you chew the gum it is very difficult to stretch or mold and if stretched too far it will easily snap. Your muscles and the tendons that connect them work very similarly. When blood has not been pumped through them, your muscles are like the un-chewed hard gum, but when blood has reached them through a warm-up they are easy to stretch and much more flexible. This is one reason why sitting on the ground trying to elongate cold muscles prior to practice doesn’t work very well.
Blood will be supplied where the body asks for it. During eating, blood goes to your stomach. While resting, blood goes to your vital organs. During a warm-up your body starts pumping more blood to your muscles!
Another lesser known purpose of a warm-up is to prepare your nervous system. The nervous system is a complex network of nerves and cells that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to various parts of the body. One messenger in the nervous system that relates specifically to movement is called a motor neuron. A very simplified explanation of a motor neuron is a messenger that tells your muscles where to move and when. Your muscles don’t each have their own separate brain
s, so your body has to tell them where and when to work using motor neurons. Warming up provides more efficient transmission between these motor neurons, thus smoother and quicker muscle contractions, which leads to better dance performance.
Now what about increased joint and muscle range of motion? Yes, warming up should do that too! A great Irish Dancer needs to be able to rotate the thigh bone in the hip socket to turnout, turn the ankles for rolls and twists, extend the hip and flex the knee slightly for jumps, and flex the hip for high kicks along with many other joint movements. A solid warm-up must increase the extensibility of tendons, muscles, ligaments, and other connective tissues. This can be done through dynamic stretches, as well as foam rolling, that we will cover later on .
Lastly, the warm-up needs to prepare you mentally. Dance is not only physically but mentally taxing too. It is easy to come into dance class after a rough day at school. Instead of wanting to put forth your all, you just go through the motions. Practicing is pointless if you are not mindfully improving your movements. You can actually get WORSE from practicing if you are practicing bad habits. Your turnout won’t get better if you are thinking about how much you dislike your English teacher instead of activating your deep outward rotators and your jumps won’t improve if you are thinking about that cute boy in your class rather than using your hamstring and calf to quickly pop up your back leg off the floor. In a warm-up it’s time to clear your mind, remember what you want to accomplish in your practice and WHY you are there, as well as give yourself some positive encouragement.
Now that you have an idea of WHY we warm up, let’s talk about HOW to do it!
- Start with any large movement that will get your heart rate up and work your body through large ranges of motion that will be needed in your dancing. In my Feis Fit classes I like to start with spiderman walks and hamstring releases (high kicks over head using the whole body while focusing on relaxing the hamstring). These two dynamic warm-up exercises focus on some of the major muscle groups involved in dancing and get the heart rate up.
- Some dancers may prefer to start with a more strict cardio warm-up such as jogging or jumping jacks, but in my experience I’ve found that if dancers find a movement that incorporates large muscle movement and gets the heart rate up, it works just as well. Every person is different though, so if doing 5-10 minutes of jogging or jump rope works well for you, stick with it! Either way, start with large muscle groups and work to the smaller ones. For example in Feis Fit we start with glutes, quads, and hamstrings, then work our way to warming up the ankle, foot, and muscles of the lower leg.
- Consider technique elements you struggle with and make sure to incorporate those into the warmup. For example, light banded clams can be a great part of a warm-up routine for dancers who need turnout improvement (…which I’m guessing is roughly 99% of dancers). This brings focus and awareness to these areas as well as increase the activation pattern in those muscles.
- Make sure you have a solid core warm-up because core is everything in dance. Planks or reverse planks are both great options for a core warm-up.
- Include foam rolling in any areas you usually feel tight. Here is a link to some foam rolling ideas:http://greatist.com/fitness/how-foam-roll-pro. Dancers tend to be extra tight in their hamstrings, glutes, quads, and adductors (inside of your thighs) so make sure to hit those areas.
- Lastly: Create a mental ritual for warming up. Visualizing what you what your practice and dancing to look like or simply giving yourself a mini pep talk in your head about why you are there, what you are going to accomplish, etc. is helpful. I could write an entire article on the mental side of dance here, but that is for a later article. ????
So next time you head into your dance practice think about what exactly you are trying to accomplish in your warm-up and practice. Prepare your body thoroughly to have a great practice sessions because great effective practice sessions lead to great dancing, which can lead to great results.
Happy Feis-ing! 🙂