How Stretched Is a Stretch Too Far?

A not-so-recent trend in both sports and dance, as well as in various recreational activities, such as yoga, is the desire to demonstrate hyper-flexibility moves and to work on pushing the limits in that area.

While many yoga practitioners have already shared that the point of yoga is not to twist yourself in a pretzel, if you look at the various commercial representations of yoga, whether in advertisements for studios, clothing or accessories, the overstretched person has become yoga's poster child.

In many types of dance, from classical ballet to much more modern types of dance, increased flexibility moves have also taken a prime spot on stage, while, in reality, different dances use a different vocabulary of expression, and the physical qualities of a dance that matter much more than flexibility are features such as coordination, core strength, balance, control, musicality and expressiveness.

But in rhythmic gymnastics, it is much worse than in yoga or dance. It is worse because professional gymnasts actually get scored on their moves and their rankings depend on demonstrating flexibility constantly. For kids who aspire to reach professional level, the demand to be extremely flexible begins very early on, as early as ages 3 and 4. While there are many people in the world who have natural flexibility, for most, pushing the limits of stretching can work wonders as well. Regular stretching can lead many to accomplish a position like this:

If you start young enough and in good health, with high-quality coaching and persistence, you will likely get to an over-split. In fact, many gymnasts who never reach professional competitive level have an over-split on both sides. Even as an adult, through a combination of static and dynamic stretches, one can become quite flexible, if that is a personal goal. 

But the question is: if you are not an aspiring circus artist, what would this much stretching contribute to your life, or even your career in dance/sports? The answer is: probably not much. Our bodies are miraculous and it is natural to aspire to make the best use of them. But the reality is that, at some point (and that point is very different for each person), over-stretching can pose a threat to joints and bones when they are held by very loose ligaments. Holding static stretched positions, like the one on the picture, is also not for everyone, because of the prolonged exertion of pressure on the joints.

To be fair to dancers, many classically trained and modern dancers, have various other strengths to show besides extreme flexibility. For aspiring and professional gymnasts, where the code of points also provides points for other moves, such as jumps and pivots, many gymnasts can show amazing routines without twisting themselves into seemingly impossible shapes.

Circus artists, on the other hand, also start their training very young and under very specific and professional supervision. But the skills and abilities required for acrobats, for example, are not the same as those who perform tricks focused mostly on flexibility. You would need a combination of strength, great balance and trained muscle memory, and very specific technique. Doing a over-split may make your act more beautiful, but not spectacular by itself.

In the late 1990s and in the early 21st centuries, decisions around the gymnastics Code of Points gave strong preference to extremely flexible gymnasts. In fact some of the moves that were performed then are no longer part of gymnastics routines because of the very high risk of injury they bring, even for professionals.

While success requires many sacrifices, injury should never be one of them. Like stepping on the balance beam, a great routine requires  a careful judgement about risk. And, much like in real life, every time you look for that precise alignment, it all comes to down to one thing: who you are and what you can do best.