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What are we stretching and why?

Everything that I write here is based on a few basic principles. One is that if you have found your way to circus—or circus found its way to you—and practicing one or more circus arts has become a joyful part of your life, whatever your current skill level, you’d like to get better. Whether it be working towards your first pull-up or a straight-legged inversion on your apparatus of choice or whether you’re working towards one, two or three versions of a split, there’s a very natural desire to get better.

There’s something magical about circus arts. They provide opportunities galore for you to challenge yourself, for you to take a risk and succeed or take a risk and fail. The beauty of it is that you’ve got spotters in place to be there when you fall. It’s not always easy, in fact there’s a lot of room for it to be hard work and, at times, frustrating work. This is where basic principle number two (in this non-numbered list) comes in: yes, it’s hard work, but you’re up for it.

You’re up for it because you’re an athlete. Since we’re talking circus, I’m going to describe you as an artist/athlete because we’re talking about physically demanding performance arts. (Given my focus, I should really put athlete first, but I think artist/athlete has a certain ring to it). This is perhaps the central and most foundational principle upon which everything here is based: you, dear aerialist/acrobat/circus artist, are an athlete. The requisite physicality of circus demands athleticism. No matter what level you’re practicing and performing at, whether it be just for fun or whether you’re traveling with a circus, you are an athlete (and if you haven’t started doing so already, think of yourself as one).

Great! I’m glad you’re here.

Tangent alert:

I love the way that ideas from different spheres of life can sometimes come together and influence each other in unexpected, yet delightfully pleasing ways. The example that’s presently got me tickled began with a phone conversation with a friend almost three years ago. The topic of conversation, interestingly enough, was management, workplace culture and business innovation. My friend’s head was abuzz with fresh excitement and creative energy because he had just seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk. In short order, this lead to me reading Sinek’s, Start with Why. His central thesis is this: people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

More importantly, he challenges us to answer the question: why do you do what you do?

Why do we do what we do?

This week, I very excitedly purchased my copy of Mike Boyle’s Functional Strength Coach 6 and was once again treated to his talk on the importance of starting with why in strength and conditioning. In this context, Coach Boyle was describing how he went through every aspect of the strength and conditioning programming that they do at MBSC and questioned why it was included.

Going deep

Why are we warming up the way we do? Why do we foam roll? When we stretch, why are we doing it? Why are we doing these exercises for strengthening? Are the exercises we’re doing helping our athletes to achieve their goals? What are our athletes’ goals, by the way?

And the tangent circles back:

This idea of questioning why we train for circus the way we do provides us with an excellent opportunity to get better.

To train smarter.

(For the record, training smarter doesn’t preclude hard work. It just means the hard work you put in is more likely to get the desired results.)

For every element of our workouts—from warm-ups to stretches to strength exercises—we should have a clear understanding of why we do what we do.

Thoughts on stretching, continued…

The specific thought that’s been on my mind lately is stretching. For just about every circus discipline that I can think of, it’s probably taken as given that we need to stretch. If you’re reading this (seriously, thanks so much for reading!), there’s probably a good chance that you have some element of your flexibility that you want to improve (popular ones include your splits and the belly-to-floor straddle, though just as often, it’s the palms-to-floor toe-touch) or you stretch to maintain your flexibility. Many people stretch because it feels good (often in a hurts so good kind of way).

So why are we stretching?

Becoming more flexible is a popular way of answering that question. It’s worthwhile digging deeper though, so let’s look at why being more flexible is important. Commonly, the underlying motivation is that artist/athletes see a need for greater range of motion at a particular joint in order to perform certain skills or tricks.

A person’s ability to attain certain range of motion has no usefulness unless he/or she is able to control that range.  In other words, the pursuit of flexibility in the absence of strengthening the newly acquired range does nothing more than produce “useless flexibility.”  Only those who are able to maintain control of their bodies, even when in extreme ranges, are able to benefit from their new found ‘elasticity.’

Andreo Spina

A clarification: what, exactly, does stretching do?

Dropping some science, yo.

The most popular, though not entirely scientific, assumption is that increases in flexibility resulting from long-term stretching practices occur as a result of changes in muscles length. Stretch regularly and your muscles get longer. Seems reasonable. It’s not true, but it does seem reasonable.

Stretching certainly creates a deformation of the muscle in question—but it’s a transient viscoelastic deformation and not a plastic deformation.

(Just in case that’s too much jargon: stretching makes muscles less resistant to stretch, so they can lengthen…but static stretching does not create permanent changes in muscle length).

So what does happen?

Well, this is where it gets interesting. It appears that stretching leads to improved stretch tolerance. Essentially, the point at which you begin to feel a stretch sensation changes.

This suggests a fairly significant neuromuscular component to improving flexibility. Stretching could be thought of as the process of training your CNS to allow your joints to move through a greater range of motion.

Fun bonus reading: 5 reasons why your hamstrings are tight

Making this real: implications for practice

Now we have several things to consider when deciding when and how to stretch:

  • Stretching for longer than 60 seconds produces decreases in muscle performance. Shorter duration stretches may still reduce performance, but those effects can be minimized or eliminated when followed by 5-10 minutes of dynamic, movement-based warm-up.
  • Stretching as part of the warm-up may have beneficial effects like reducing excess tone (tension caused by, say, a stressful day at the office before your silks class).
  • Stretching has the potential to train your nervous system to be comfortable with you moving through greater ranges of motion.
  • The original motivation for stretching is most often to improve functional range of motion for performing in your circus discipline of choice.

I would like to point out that there isn’t necessarily a hard/fast rule for stretching to improve flexibility. I’m sure it would be very easy to Google a number of “proven systems” for developing flexibility…but a part of my brain insists that if they really were as good as they claim, news would have spread. We’d already have the answer. Just follow these simple instructions and voila! Instant splits!

Based on what we know from the research, there is room to think of stretching in two different contexts:

First, we have pre-circus class stretching.

In this context, our why for stretching is to use it as part of preparing your body for the skills training to come. While this stretching may produce some temporary improvements in range of motion, the main benefit of pre-class stretching is more likely to come from the reduction in (unnecessary extra) tension in the muscles.

And then we have the stretching that you’ll do specifically aimed at improving your flexibility.

Since you’re an athlete, you, of course, have a regular workout practice.  

I know, I know: at first, circus was that exciting and cool way to workout. But then you discovered the truth: if you want to get better at circus, it has to become the reason why you work out.

You work out to get stronger. You stretch to become more flexible develop functional range of motion—meaning: to become stronger throughout your available range of motion.

And this is where I would like to offer a couple of guidelines to help with your stretching practice:

For those who are working to improve their flexibility

Before you stretch, make sure your glutes and core are on.

By on, I mean make sure they are working. Muscles never really switch off or stop working…they just stop working effectively.

Why? Check out Dave Tilley’s explanation of the importance of squeezing your glutes when stretching your hip flexors or split:


More than just keeping your femur centered in the socket, when working properly your glutes help your hamstrings to be less stiff.

A similar thing can be said for your core musculature. Check this out:

Pay attention to your posture.

This is mostly about your lumbar spine and ties in nicely with the importance of your core being on.

In the example of stretching out your hip flexors, whether or not your lower back is arched makes a significant difference in terms of what you end up stretching. Maintaining core engagement and a neutral lumbar spine will help you to keep your hip healthy and happy in the long run.

For any sort of upper body/shoulder stretch, your posture is similarly important. Keep your core engaged and your lumbar spine in neutral.

For those who already have a split (or three)

Are you hypermobile? If you are particularly bendy, it may serve you well to figure out whether you’re hypermobile.

Chances are, you would probably benefit from less stretching and more stability work. The best place to start when it comes to improving stability is going to be your core. More than just making your core stronger (which is definitely helpful), your core needs to be actively engaged when you’re moving.

And if you’re going to stretch, it definitely needs to be engaged then.

(And you probably don’t need to stretch your hamstrings as much as you think).

For everybody, regardless of how naturally lax or stiff your joints are

How functional is your flexibility? It’s one thing to have a full front split, for example, but it’s quite another to be able to hold that split in the air while on fabric. Training and strengthening your muscles in end-range positions is actually quite important for circus and a good starting point is to remember that stretching can’t be a passive activity. As much as it can be relaxing to stretch, when it comes to developing active, functional range of motion, a good starting point is to make sure that you’re active when stretching.