Posts

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”

Hyper-flexible back!

It was brought to my attention that some of you were receiving blank emails when I was sending out the notice of another newsletter being posted. I have hopefully resolved this issue! I appreciate those who took the time to let me know all was not right!

Here’s the Q&A for today.

Deborah, I have been thrilled to find your web site, thank you, thank you! My question- I have an advanced male student who was a former gymnast. His hyper-flexible back and anterior pelvic tilt leave him loose and improperly aligned in his movement. His entire mid section, ribs, abdominals and spine are too flexible and unstable for classical ballet. Since he has been performing more and training less, I have noticed it getting worse and want to give him a workout to do outside of the classroom. I would love your input on specific exercises to teach his core muscles control and stability. I know that crunches and sit-ups are not the answer.

Great question! It is so true that simply doing crunches and sit-ups in the normal way won’t give you the functional control that dancers need. I’ve got a few suggestions for your loosey-goosey gymnast.

There are a few tweaks we can give to the traditional exercises, which will pack a lot more punch for the time spent. I’m going to suggest that your dancer purchase a big physioball to work with, although I will also give you ways to do these without a physioball.

Physioball sit-ups
Begin by sitting on the physioball and slowly walk your feet away from the ball until your lower and middle back is resting on the ball. (you are arching back over the ball as in a bridge position) Clasp your hands behind your head, keeping your elbows out to the side as you slowly do a sit-up, keeping your lower back on the ball and your feet secure on the floor or even with your feet on the floor and toes touching a wall so they don’t slide. Exhale while doing the half sit-up.

You are going from an arched position to a contracted one. This is more challenging than going from a neutral position of lying flat on the floor to the half sit-up position. A variation without the physioball would be to rest on the bed with your knees bent and just the shoulder blades, shoulders and head hanging off the bed. Then slowly exhale as you do your half sit-up. You could do that with your legs straight, but only if you don’t have tight hip flexors.

Leg Lowering
You’ll begin lying on your back with your knees bent and feet resting on the floor with your spine lengthened and at rest. Deepening in the front of the hip joint, softly flex at the hips and lift each foot off the ground without tucking your pelvis under or pushing your low back against the floor. This will be your starting position.

You are doing a variation of leg lowering that will teach you to use the abdominals to stabilize your movement. Keeping the knee bent, slowly take one leg away from your chest, keeping the lower leg parallel to the floor. You are going to monitor your low back and stop when your low back starts to arch away from the floor. Bring that leg back in towards your chest as you switch legs and begin to extend the other leg away from your body. When you first begin to do this exercise your legs won’t travel very far away from your body. As you develop the core strength of the deeper abdominal muscles you will be able to extend your legs all the way to straight.

I want to emphasize that you must set up the abdominals before you ever move a muscle Think of the bellybutton being drawn to the back of the spine, or the abdominal area having one of those girdle supports that employees wear to lift heavy objects. The focus is on maintaining your support and control – not simply engaging at the point when you start to feel your pelvis tipping.

Alternate your legs as slowly as you need to be able to maintain that support. If you want to work harder, don’t bring your knee back as far towards your chest. This will load your abdominal muscles keeping them at a higher engagement level. Remember, when you use those deep abdominals it means that you will have a sense of engagement even when you are inhaling, but you will need to keep breathing! Too many dancers forget to breath when they are using their abdominals – definitely a bad habit!

Pelvis tipping forward
Even though dancers can have a lot of flexibility in their legs and back, they can also have tight hip flexors that pull the pelvis down in front giving the back that arched look. So let’s talk about how a tight iliopsoas muscle can influence your abdominal usage. We know that the iliopsoas muscle is a major postural muscle. It attaches from the middle area of the spine (T-12) and at the lesser trochanter of the femur (at the inside top of the femur, close to the groin.) The deeper muscles are in the body, the more they influence the alignment of the bones. The iliopsoas muscle, when it is overly tight, will pull the low back into a swayback. You could do 50 sit ups a day to strengthen your abdominal muscles, and stand up and still look like you had weak abdominals. So, the first step is to make sure that your iliopsoas muscle is stretched and has enough flexibility that when you are standing there is not a pull on the low back. Then the abdominal muscles have a chance to do their job of keeping the pelvic bowl upright which allows the weight of the upper body to transfer correctly down the spine onto the back of the pelvis and through to the legs in standing or the ischial tuberosities or sitting bones when sitting. One of the simplest way to stretch the iliopsoas muscle is by doing the runners lunge stretch.

I’ll end with a quote from Ted Shawn. “Dance is the only art in which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.”

Until next time,
Warm regards,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”