Muscle Memory… What is it?

The path of movement is well established. A message is sent from the brain through the nervous system to the muscles to create movement. The more you practice a movement, the easier (and hopefully more skilled) you become at doing the movement because you have carved a neurological pattern in the brain.

The muscles also respond to the repeated practice of a movement. You build muscle by asking it to do a little bit more than what it currently can – by doing more repetitions or increasing the difficulty or load.

It used to be thought that it was just the repetition and the hardwiring in the brain that was the source for muscle memory… the ability to bring back a skill not practice for a while. But that didn’t explain why most people condition and strengthen much more quickly after taking time off, whether because life got in the way or you had an injury. After all, when you stop training you start de-conditioning.

When you build muscle the number of myonuclei increase which are known as the muscle stem cells. It was in 2010 that research first showed that even if you stop training for a significant period of time the number of myonuclei present in the cell remains even as the muscle atrophies.

When you start training again you don’t need to go through the process of building up the number of myonuclei and so conditioning and strengthening happens much more quickly.

In 2018, there was a study on humans (the 2010 research was done on mice) that had participants training at the gym for 7 weeks, then off for 7 weeks, and then back on for 7 weeks. This research showed that the changes to the DNA that occurred during the training session stayed even when not training. Cool! This means that our skeletal muscles have epigenetic memory!

Stay with me… I’ve got one more study to tell you about and then we’ll talk about why this is important. There was a study by Ogasawara that compared the results of strengthening a muscle continuously versus periodic strength training. In a nutshell it showed that over a 24-week period the two groups ended up with the same strength gains whether they were training continuously or having 6 weeks on, 3 weeks off.

Takeaways

I’ve always been a proponent of cross training. When you take a break from class and do something else… like swimming or pilates or even playing on a playground… it broadens your movement patterns. This is a very good idea for the fascia by keeping it conditioned and moving easily in all directions by varying your movement. It is also beneficial for injury prevention as overuse injuries are so common in dancers.

Now we have the research saying gains won’t be totally lost if you take a break of a few days or even a few weeks – and there might be some physical, mental and emotional benefits! You’ve got muscle memory on your side, and coming back refreshed and feeling physically ready to start a new school year is a good thing!

So let’s not let our students feel guilty for taking time off. Of course, they have to start training by rebuilding some of those patterns that are unique to dance, but the more advanced the dancer, the more quickly it will happen. Let’s just make sure they remember that sleep, nutrition & hydration and staying mentally resilient are all a part of their training.

To your success,

Deborah

Accessing the abdominals

I have a question about abdominal strength or should I say… lack of! I tell my students to pull up the front of their abdominals, but when I place my hand on their stomach I don’t feel anything. I’m not sure if they even know how to engage them. Can you recommend any specific ideas for ballet class?
Thanks!

Excellent question! I want to say that even when dancers do abdominal exercises on a daily basis it doesn’t necessarily mean they will use them efficiently in standing during the dance class. We need to get our students to use their abdominals effectively ALL the time, not just in class!

I’d like to first remind everyone that the only thing a muscle can do is contract. It can do a shortening contraction (concentric), lengthening contraction (eccentric) or isometric contraction, which stays the same length. When you are doing a crunch or sit-up, the abdominals are doing a shortening contraction – in other words – the two ends of the muscles are coming closer together.

If you are lying on your back knees bent and lifted towards your chest, and then slowly drop your toes to touch the ground, doing a leg lowering, you are doing an eccentric contraction. This is the type of contraction dancers need to use to keep their pelvis in neutral as they move their legs. It is also the most challenging of the contractions.

Too many students engage their abdominals so fiercely it is as if they have put an invisible belt around their waists and have cinched it closed. The first time they need to take a deep breath in they lose their abdominal support.

You might try this in class. Take 5 minutes to explore the sensation of the deep core when it’s turned on and working. Start on hands and knees with a flat back and slowly peel off one hand without shifting AT ALL! As they slowly peel off one hand, and placing it back down without shifting they will sense their abdominals supporting and staying flat. It’s not a big sensation. (of course do the other hand too)

I teach my students that if they learn how to engage the abdominals properly in standing and in movement, they won’t need to do umpteen sit-ups as a part of their training. Have your dancers stand easily in first or parallel position. Have them imagine they are lacing up their abdominals as they do their shoes. Have them place one hand below the belly button so they can feel the abdominal wall drawing up and inwards – while their other hand is just below the sternum, which is the area where the ribs come together in front. The area just below the sternum should be relatively soft as they need to continue to breath easily and effortless while they are using their abdominals. This will not feel like a strong contraction! Then walk around the room for at least 2 minutes maintaining the upright, neutral pelvis and long spine. That is how we should walk all the time!

The more they practice having a neutral pelvis through the deep engagement of the abdominals they will transfer that to their dancing, because that has become their normal alignment, whether standing in class or talking with a friend, or sitting in a chair!

To your success,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

How Fascia moves (or not) with lower back pain

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoracolumbar_fascia

We’re going to continue looking at fascia’s role in the lower back and spine moving easily and freely.

We know lower back pain is no longer just an ‘older’ person’s challenge. I have met many college age students with chronic lower back pain. There is often a correlation between their activity level and the amount of time spent sitting and studying.

Healthy fascia is elastic – it should be able to stretch or lengthen and then come back to its original shape without stress.

Inelastic fascia doesn’t move well – it’s like having muscles that are stiff and unyielding. The two ultrasound clips below show the movement of the thoracolumbar fascia (shown in image above in gray). You can see how the fascia in the person with no low back pain moves easily while in the second clip the fascia has limited movement in the person with lower back pain.

Clips originally from Langevin H, Fox J, Koptiuch C, Badger G, Greenan- Naumann A, Bouffard N, Konofagou E, Lee W, Triano J, Henry S (2011). “Reduced Thoracolumbar Fascia Shear Strain in Human Chronic Low Back Pain”. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. (These clips are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Fascia needs to be well-hydrated, elastic and plastic (previous post) and kept in optimal order by good posture. Remember your postural habits influence and organizes your fascia. If you have a regular habit of slumping… then the fascia will shorten to reflect that. For dancers, it isn’t so much the posture we have in class, but our daily postural habits that can get us in trouble! And now… I’m going to go for a walk after sitting at the computer to type this!

To your success,

Deborah

Exploring Fascial Plasticity

Dancers are always concerned with maintaining or increasing the flexibility in their muscles. To really understand how muscles become more flexible we need to understand how to change the fascia that connect to the muscles.

Most dancers know that fascia, which is the dense connective tissue that surrounds the 200+ bones and the 600+ muscles of the body. It keeps structures (like muscles) separated from each other yet interconnected in a 3D like web.

Using an orange analogy, the outer rind is like the superficial fascia, and the sections of orange are similar to the fascia that surrounds our muscles, bones, nerves, etc. Fascia ties and connects everything together!

This is why if you have tightness in your neck, it may be influencing the flexibility of the hamstrings. There is a fascial line that connects the muscles along the back of the body called the superficial back line. I mention this because it bears repeating that if you are not getting the results that you want from your stretching efforts – look at other areas of the body that may be holding tension and creating a pull or tightness along the fascial line.

This young man is a perfect example of this. He was taking yoga classes and a student in the opera department. We found the tension at his neck significantly influenced his hamstrings. He was doing lots of hamstring focused stretching in yoga class but until he focused on releasing his neck tension he was unable to get release and relief along that back line. Doesn’t he look WAY more comfortable in his body in the picture on the right? That change took 3 months. As a side benefit – his vocal technique improved too!

Now back to talking about fascia and plasticity. Plasticity means the ease with which something is molded or shaped. Fascia will reshape itself when there is a slow, steady and sustained pull on it. Too fast of a stretch and fascia/muscle tears. Plasticity is different from elasticity. Elasticity is the ability of tissue to stretch and then go back to its original shape. Plasticity means the tissue over time (think potentially weeks/months) slowly reshaping itself into a new length. That is what dancers want from their stretching.

Bottom line… slow, steady, sustained stretching is the way to go. Doing some of that passive stretching that dancers love to do at the end of class can be very useful (at the end of class – not the start!) If you add on some muscular engagement from the opposite of the joint – you will get even more benefit! For example doing the typical standing quad stretch is good – but when you also lightly engage the glutes while using the abdominals to keep the pelvis in neutral – it becomes even more effective of a stretch! Hold that stretch for 30 seconds, take a quick break and then go back for another 30 seconds and see how your quads feel!

If you want to actively explore fascial properties and new ways to train your fascia to be both elastic and responsive think about joining me in the South of France this summer! I will be doing a deep dive into fascial training, alignment assessments, and exploring body/brain strategies for optimal performance. Registration is now open!

How to get the shoulder blades flat on the back?

“What suggestions do you have to help dancers get their shoulder blades to lie flat on their back?”   Felicia

Okey dokey!  Let’s first talk about the anatomy of the shoulder girdle so it will make sense. It really is important to get those shoulder blades lying flat on the back so they can support the arms in port de bras as well as stabilize the shoulder girdle in multiple movements and decrease the potential for injuries.

Anatomy of the shoulder girdle

The shoulder blades, aka your scapulas, are a fairly flat, triangular bones that hang on the backside of the ribs.  They connect the upper arm bone to the collarbone.  There are 6 movements of the scapula.  You can elevate and depress (essentially a shoulder shrugging motion).

You can protract and retract which is pulling them together and separating them.  Picture on left is retraction.  That is what I often see dancers do wrong when they are doing their port de bras.

And you can rotate the scapula upwards and downwards, which is describing how the bottom of the scapula moves towards or away from the spine.

We’ve all heard of ‘winging’ shoulder blades, and that is when the inside border of the scapula moves away from the ribs.  Some teachers call them chicken wings:) This happens when there is an imbalance in the muscles of the shoulder girdle and may require both doing some stretching and strengthening in the area.

What are common reasons for winging of the scapula?

If they have a rounded of slumped standing posture when they aren’t at the barre, it’s quite possible they have tightness in the pec minor and the latissimus muscles.  Those muscles will need to be stretched as you work to strengthen the stabilizer of the shoulder blades, the serratus anterior muscle. This is the primary muscle that will need to be strengthened.

Here are pictures of the 3 muscles I’m talking about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stretching the lat and pec minor

There are many different ways to stretch and strengthen these muscles but I’ll give you a couple of my favorites.

I like to stretch the lats by doing a doorway or what I call a C Curve stretch.  You may feel the stretch more at the armpit area or more towards the waist and lower back.  I’ll move gently looking towards and rounding my lower back to find the sweet spot of the stretch. Another stretch is called the prayer stretch and you can google that one.

A really nice way to stretch out the pec minor is lying on a foam roller and placing your arms on a high diagonal (sometimes I start by first doing slow angel wings to move through a range of motion) Breath and allow your arms to hang towards the floor.  Move your arms slightly to find your best places to stretch.

Strengthening the serratus anterior

Now onto the serratus anterior.  It is important to properly identify when this muscle is working.  Start standing, in good alignment, and draw your hands down towards the floor.  Feel the muscle engagement under your armpit?  That’s your serratus anterior.  I want you to keep that muscle engaged through the next exercise.  Start lying on your back with your elbows at a 90 degree angle and the back of your palms lying on the ground by your head.  (like the picture above on the foam roller but without the foam roller) Keeping your back lengthened, ribs dropped, slowly slide your forearms and back of the hands upwards. You are using the serratus anterior to keep your scapula drawing towards your pelvis the whole time.  This is not easy!  Keep them engaged!

If you want a challenge you can do the same thing as a wall slide – starting with your back against the wall, feet slightly away with knees bent.  Same instructions – keep the shoulder blades drawing downwards as the forearms keep contact with the wall and are sliding upwards.

Now have them stand and place their hands in a prayer position, pressing the palms together while drawing the scapula downwards. Maintain the placement of the scapula and open thearms easily to second position and notice how wide and open their chests are! Over time they will create better muscle balance and improve their port de bras line.

To your success!

Deborah

Stretching Concerns: How Much is Too Much?

I have a student who is stretching every time I see her. Always!  She has a teacher who wants her to have a penché of 180 degrees, which is difficult because she has tight hamstrings, even though we’ve been working on stretching them.  She says she is in a lot of pain and I’ve asked her to back off on the stretching but another teacher told her she needs to stretch her hips. Now the student is conflicted… does she stretch? or rest? And what stretches are best for her to do?

Wow!  Great question… let’s work through some of the issues.

How is she stretching?

What I don’t know is her age and where she is feeling her pain.  If she is still growing and feeling her discomfort in the muscles I would make sure she isn’t stretching passively – and instead encourage her to do more dynamic stretching.  An example of a dynamic hamstring stretch is placing your left heel on the seat of a chair and contracting the quadriceps of left thigh.  Then think of shifting the sits bone backwards in space without bending forward. Keep the foot flexed and the quads contracted the whole time.  It will feel different from the normal hamstring stretch.  Stretching dynamically, she is less likely to go to far and strain muscles.  Here’s an older article I wrote on Too Young For Splits Training? you might want to check out.

Where is her pain?

I’m really curious where she is feeling pain.  If she is feeling it in the hip joints I would encourage you to send her to a sports med doctor or PT that is well-versed in the demands of the dancer.  Any labral tears or joint challenges need to be ruled out to make sure she isn’t forcing her body into positions that are injuring the joint.  There have been many examples of young dancers forcing their stretching and damaging the joint capsule, for example.

Functionally strong?

Consider this student’s overall muscle balance.  Where does she fall on the spectrum between a loosey-goosey dancer and one that is tight and strong?  Is her flexibility and strength fairly even? Could she weak and tight and thus has a hard time supporting her movement from proper alignment? It may sound counter intuitive but some dancers would be better off gaining some functional strength in their movement.  For example, can this student sit on a chair and rock forward onto one leg and stand up easily without having the knee turn in or the foot pronating?  Can she easily stand in one position and do the smallest of tips forward and back to center as if she was starting into her penché?

Penché is quite a complicated movement that requires balance, flexibility, strength and a well placed pelvis and torso!  I have no doubt that there are other ways for her to work towards penché without focusing just on flexibility.  You were right in telling her to back off what is creating pain.  Hopefully, with some further analysis it will become clearer what the underlying issues are.

To your success,

Deborah

Takeaways

holding brain copyI recently returned from TCU where I had all the freshman dance majors in a course called “The Working Body”.  And work they did… meeting every day for multiple hours a day, exploring how to bring anatomical knowledge into their technique and dancing.  They were wonderful – and I will miss this very special group!

I asked them on the last day to take 5 minutes and write down a takeaway from the week.  I was curious after such a whirlwind of a week what stuck and seemed most important.  Below are their brief statements and a few responses and explanations from me. (They gave me permission to post) I hope you find it interesting reading!

[quote style=”boxed”]I dealt with a compression fracture in my upper back for a long time, and I have had pain in that area for a long time. When we talked about the spine in the course, I learned a way to feel as though I’m decompressing my spine and putting air in between each vertebra. It definitely helps with the pain I face now, and will prevent me from future spinal injuries! AA[/quote]

I remember seeing this dancer’s spine change after focusing on increasing and balancing the rotation of the spine.  It was so cool to see that some of the lateral curves improved – it just goes to show that with every lateral curve of the spine – there is also rotation.  I’ve seen good improvement with focusing on improving spinal rotation first then focusing on stretching.

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Fascia and Flexibility question

Hi Deborah!
We met at the Dance Teacher Summit briefly after your fascia and flexibility class;). I have been doing some of your exercises with my kids with awesome results!!  But I have one dancer who says that the stretches do nothing for her at all and she feels no difference:/. She is a somewhat difficult student who has even said she doesn’t believe fascia exists because she has never heard of it, which is ridiculous and I feel like part of her problem is mental and just a bad attitude towards it.  But my question for you is, would there be a physical reason why the stretches would not be helping her and is there anything I can do besides try to educate her to help her?  I have had numerous students that have never had their splits and are now getting flat in all three!  Thank you for sharing your knowledge with me;)
 
Thanks,  LL
stretchGlad to hear that you are getting good responses to changing to more dynamic stretching!  As to your student’s disbelief as to the reality of fascia… I’d let that one go.  Once upon a time people thought the world was flat too.   What you believe is true is true for you.
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What do I mean by that?  If your student has so embraced the belief that stretching is not going to help her – then there is a strong possibility she won’t get the results she wants.  You can ask her to pay attention to her own stretching efforts and tell you when she feels most successful.  Is there a certain time of day?  Temperature that she likes to stretch in?  After a shower? After using the pinkie ball?  Using breath? How often is she stretching – how long does she hold each stretch? Ask her to watch and pay attention to small changes – to where she is feeling the stretch and how strongly.

Stretching Tip!

Today we are going to talk about fascia and flexibility and what one simple action you can take to increase your flexibility.   Fascia-150x150

First… what is fascia?

Fascia is connective tissue that wraps and surrounds every muscle, bone, nerve and organ in the body.  It gives separation between these structures and creates a 3-dimensional, interconnected web of tissue through the body.  

Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-3.56.49-PM-150x150Imagine an orange or grapefruit that you’ve taken the outmost skin off of.  If you could magically make the juice disappear from inside white fibrous webbing that’s left is the fascia.  It’s almost impossible to separate the fascia and muscle, for example.  That is why a lot of practitioners talk about the myofascia.  Myo for muscle and fascia for … well fascia.  Some of you may have experience a myofascial massage that focuses on releasing fascial pulls.  

What most people don’t know is that fascia is composed primarily of water – approximately 70%. The other 30% is compoased of collagen and elastin and proteoglycans, which are proteins and carbohydrates.  

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Weak Muscles?

Thank you for providing such a wealth of information as it pertains to dance and the human body.  I have a daughter, soon to be 12, that has been dancing since around the age of 4. She is quick to learn and quite coordinated.   Ballet class is a challenge for her.  She is not nearly where she needs to be in the areas of strength and endurance.  She is very slender and although has a “dancer’s body” with well defined muscles, her muscles are weak.  Is there anything that can be done outside of dance class to assist with muscle strength and endurance – last year she danced 4 hours per week, this year she will be dancing 6 hours per week. Outside of dance, she doesn’t do anything athletic.

Screen-Shot-2013-08-26-at-7.39.08-AM-150x150
Are there exercises that can be done at home to increase her muscle strength and endurance? Any dietary recommendations that can help with building muscle? She has fallen behind her classmates (in ballet only) and her teachers are very surprised that, despite her years of training, she has not developed the strength and endurance typical of girls her age. 

Thanks for your help!
Kathleen

Great question, Kathleen!

I love it that you are thinking about all the markers of health instead of just the physical ways to go about increasing muscle strength. I have a daughter with Hashimoto disease (a very common form of thyroid problems) that was discovered when she was 12 – and only because I knew something was off in her health. Now, I’m not suggesting that your daughter has a thyroid or another metabolic syndrome, rather I’m encouraging all of us to look at the intricate balance of nutrition and physiological health to our physical strength and health.

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