Total Theatre Check List - Prevention is Better than Cure I

Feature in Issue 7-3 | Autumn 1995

In the first of a series of Total Theatre Check Lists this two-part guide to maintaining a healthier and fitter body, by qualified fitness instructor and mime practitioner Ris Widdicombe, gives some pointers to the Dos and Don'ts for Injury Prevention. Part two, looking at coping with rehearsals, first aid and remedial exercises, will appear in Total Theatre 7.4 in December. These articles were brought together with the assistance of Caroline Marsh GDPhys., MCSP, SRP Bodywork Physiotherapist, a specialist in the areas of Dance and Performance. She has worked with Rambert Dance Company, LCDT and on the Middlesex University Performing Arts Course.

Injury Prevention Dos and Don’ts

Any of the following sound familiar?

‘When you're 20 you're indestructible. You can throw yourself around without getting injured and if you do, it doesn't matter you heal pretty quickly!’

‘If you don't extend yourself physically, you become limited, or you don't get the job. If the director wants you to do something you can't say “No”, however crazy the idea!’

‘When you're performing you stop and start all the time – your body just has to get used to it.’

‘I don't need to warm-up it's hot outside. What is a warm-up anyway? It's just one more thing to do: perform, teach, direct, design, administrate, fund-raise – don't we do enough already?’

‘Lack of time, money, space, no continual classes and different techniques mean you don't have definite things to practise.’

Working in physical theatre is a full-time occupation. If you're serious about having a long-term career then treat yourself like a professional and take a moment to think about your lifestyle. Will it enable you to continue into the next decade, and the next? Practitioners in the States are more advanced in looking after their bodies. Many of their training courses include posture, anatomy and physiology and remedial exercises. They recognise that a professional training must fulfil a long-term need to enable you to continue working into your 90s. The UK is painfully far behind, with resistance coming from many areas – for example the 'older' generation, those who came up the 'hard' way, or those who have not suffered any injuries and therefore assume everyone to be same. Then there are the directors, choreographers and companies who do not have time to 'nursemaid’ their members and throw the onus on to the performers; or the directors who have a 'non-physical’ training. And finally, the institutions who ignore developments in performer assistance, often don't know what constitutes a 'warm-up' and pass on that ignorance to the students, teaching them bad habits.

Once out of an educational Institution you need self-discipline to keep pushing yourself physically. On tour, life is hard enough, some things are impractical, there's often not enough time and looking after your body is just one more thing that you're not getting paid for. However, you must learn how to look after yourself, and how to prevent the injuries which could curtail your career. Mime and Physical Theatre is a young artform – in our journey to the moon we've only travelled an inch! There are lots of gaps in our profession, but physical safety is something we can't ignore.

Fundamentals to Injury Prevention


Why? Good posture:
- Makes it easier and more efficient to move
- Gives joints wider range of movement
- Reduces risk of injury by stabilising the joints
- Increases awareness of body in space (external)
- Increases awareness of muscles and bones and how different parts interrelate (internal)
- Releases stress, tension and aids relaxation
- Is more aesthetically pleasing!

Bad posture:
- Cramps organs and means they are unable to function efficiently and correctly (e.g. lungs – shallow breathing from a concave chest or back problems; e.g. stomach – obstructs digestion)
- Creates stresses and strains within the body

Reasons for bad posture:
- Habit
- Poor furniture design
- Stress
- Injury
- Weakness (other muscles accommodate and adapt)
- Muscle imbalance
- Restrictive clothes (especially high heels)
- Occupation (RSI)
- Hereditary
- Disease
- Asthma

How to improve your posture:
- Improve muscular strength to help hold the body upright
- Ensure the oppositional muscles are worked in order to avoid an imbalance because the stronger muscles will always take over. For example the abdominal or stomach muscles must be strengthened in order to keep the spine straight and supported from both sides when sitting and standing to avoid compressing the vertebrae
- Strengthen postural muscles (e.g. spinal). Postural exercises can also help open up the lower back, reduce spine scrunching when sitting and standing and therefore lessen the risk of a ‘bad’ back
- Make physical corrections gradually, in a relaxed way. Don't force them


- Raising the level of fitness will automatically reduce the risk of injury
- Your body is able to cope with exercise safely and it gives you more energy for everyday life

F: Frequency - 3 times per week
I: Intensity (Energy) = Type of Movement + Quality of Movement + Number of Repetitions
T: Type – 'aerobic', muscular strength, and endurance. Think of the three Ss: Stamina, Strength and Suppleness
T: Time - 20-30 mins
- So – swim, jog, cycle, walk (fast!), do yoga, sport, aerobics, dance classes... the choice is yours! Be realistic and don't take on more than you can cope with, try to fit it into your routine and be regular. Two hours of killing work every month doesn't get you fit. Set yourself a sustainable programme that won't drop after one week


- If your body is lacking fuel (food) it cannot respond to your demands upon it
- Replacement of cells
- Healing injuries
- Providing energy

- Easily digestible foods before performance, fruits, bread, cereals, vegetables
- Don't eat a heavy meal too close to performance/rehearsal. It takes two hours for the average person to digest a meal, therefore you should leave about three hours
- Daily food should consist of high fibre, lots of complex carbohydrates, low fat, and lots of fresh fruit and veg. Often tricky to find when touring!


- Lots of injuries are caused by dehydration. You should drink 11/2-2 litres of water per day and more if you're exercising. Sip water throughout the day and in rehearsal


- Prepare cardiovascular system (heart & lungs) for more strenuous work
- Increase heart rate and breathing, the internal body and muscle temperature
- Increase blood flow to muscles
- Increase flexibility of muscles, tendons, ligaments and prepare mobilisation of joints for work, especially knees which act as shock absorbers
- Increase lubrication (synovial fluid) in joints to allow a wider range of movement
- Prepare neuromuscular (brain to body) response patterns. It gets you ‘in the mood' psychologically and physiologically
- Focus on correct posture and alignment
- Release tension

What's involved in a warm-up?
- 15-30mins exercise that requires effort but doesn't tire you out
- Exercises for large muscle group-big movements of arms and legs
- Gradual increase in intensity, speed and effort
- Pelvic tilts, then stomach exercises
- at least 25 abdominal curls EVERY DAY!
- Push ups
- Light sweating indicates body is ready for next phase

- To increase responsiveness for harder work to come
- Large muscle groups – calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, psoas (hip flexor connects spine to hip), back and any other area you are going to work on
- Static stretches held for 10-15 seconds
- Knee rolls, side to side lying on back. Breathing helps you focus on your emotional and physical state
- After stretching you need to raise pulse again, work specifically towards technique, and/or work on personal weaknesses, i.e. an area which is stiff needs extra warm-up and stretch but weak bits need strengthening

- Jerky, bouncy, ballistic movements
- Static contractions
- Fast exercises
- Strenuous muscle work
- Extended stretches


- To cool-down follow the same guidelines as the warm-up but in reverse – It should last about 15 mins
- Should be done immediately after you exercise, but stretching can be anytime, for example at the end of the day before bed to help you relax
- After performance/rehearsal avoid hanging around especially in sweaty clothes, cool down, breath and relax, have a warm shower, warm clothes, drink water and have some carbohydrate (bananas are excellent!)


- Increase flexibility and biochemical efficiency
- Prevent injury due to increased muscle movement
- Releases built up toxins
- Return muscles to original shape
- Prevent muscle soreness and stiffness
- Decrease muscle tension
- Aids relaxation
- Makes you feel better!

How to stretch:
- Forward semi-circle neck rolls and stretches
- Stretch major muscle groups, and muscles specifically worked
- Hold stretches for longer than in warm-up
- Progressively develop stretches – increase on the out breath (30 sec to 1 min)
- Stretch should be felt in the middle of the muscle
- There should be no pain or trembling (if there is ease off the stretch)
- Try to relax when stretching, don't be aggressive and competitive, that's not going to help, tension actually inhibits the muscle from elongating


- Has a definite impact on your physical state, as muscles become more tense, you cannot stretch so far or push your body so hard, or injury looms
- Upper back, neck and shoulders are susceptible to muscular tension caused by stress Eastern physical artforms tend to be more aware of the alliance of mind and body
- Make time for your spiritual growth

- Body size doesn't necessarily indicate fitness level
- Flexible people (usually women) generally have soft muscle tone and a slow metabolic rate. They are the most often injured because overly flexible ligaments and weak muscles don't hold the joints in alignment. They therefore need to work on strength and cardiovascular work.
- On the other hand, strongly muscled people (usually men) should work on flexibility and stamina
- Young children tend to be mobile but stiffen up when they reach adolescence as the bone grows faster than muscle, so it's very important not to push them too hard
- In your 20s you need to build your body up to establish your basic structure. If you do regular exercise it is far easier to maintain this throughout your life. Performers who look after their instrument in their 20s are the ones who have longer careers
- You have to start being careful after the age of 30, the ability to maintain muscle tone diminishes and flexibility reduces and the older you are the more careful you have to be

Whatever action you take to look after yourself remember it is worth it and it's never too late to start.

This article in the magazine

Issue 7-3
p. 19 - 20