Muscles You’re Using Wrong: Calf Edition

Muscles You’re Using Wrong: Calf Edition

I’ve decided to start a new article series: Muscles You’re Using Wrong. And this one’s dedicated to your PLANTAR FLEXORS. Your posterior calf.

 Plantar flexing= Pointing your foot. Muscles that can plantar flex include:

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus
  • Tibialis posterior
  • Flexor hallucis longus/brevis
  • Flexor digitorum longus/brevis
  • Peroneus longus/brevis

Yep, there’s that many… In the picture below, you can see these muscles in cross-section, view from above.

cross section of the lower leg.

Before I continue, I already know the perfectionist in you is screaming “OOOOOMG not ANOTHER thing I’m doing wrong!!!”, so heed this disclaimer: You are not consciously doing something wrong, and you’re NOT a bad person because your plantar flexor group is hypertonic. Please do not feel bad about using a muscle group “the wrong way”. It’s not your fault.

So now that that’s out of the way, I’m sorry to break it to you but your calves are probably inhibiting your ability to use your glutes properly. And It’s not necessarily even a strength vs. weakness thing, it’s a pattern stored in your brain from years of foot pointing.

These are NOT innocent calves, though they belong to an excellent dancer: Luis Ortigoza, principal dancer Ballet de Santiago.

Before we go any further, I want to over-simplify something HUGE:

Many dance styles require foot pointing.

Dancers are reprimanded for not pointing their feet.

Dancers often feel inferior for not having naturally pointy feet.

Being reprimanded and feeling inferior is stressful.

Dancers learn to point their feet as a reaction to stress and to receive praise.

Dancers will unconsciously point their feet in non-dance situations to cope with stress, mentally (like exam writing) or physically (strenuous exercise)

Foot pointing uses your calves (plantar flexor group to be precise).

Therefore, dancers tend to overuse their calves.

In dancing, yes, foot pointing is necessary. But this plantar-flexion-reaction, can also carry over into other non-dance activities. Your calves are just always on. As you’re sitting here reading this, maybe your feet are pointed, even if not actively.

For example, a few days ago I caught myself sitting on the bus like THIS:

I know it looks like I’m actively pointing my foot, but that’s a relaxed ankle position. As you can probably tell, I don’t need to work very hard to get my calves to hypertrophy: Every exercise is a calf exercise for me.

Signs that your plantar flexors are facilitated and interfering with other muscle functions: 

  • When your massage therapist touches your calves it makes you want to vomit and/or cry.
  • In dance class you don’t feel “grounded”, or get corrected to be more grounded
  • You often have to hop to find your balance on one leg.
  • You get foot or calf cramps frequently.
  • If you’ve ever sprained your ankle(s)…
  • Your ankles feel “jammed”.
  • You’ve had shin splints, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinitis, or numerous other lower leg woes.
  • Your calves just feel generally, unreasonably “tight”.
  • Do a set of 20 hip bridges: Do you feel your calves burning? Can you even feel your butt work?

The above points are particularly true for dancers who rely on their calves to do the work of glute max. They are synergists, after all.

Problem: Hyperactive calves could be preventing your glutes from firing when you need them to (more on why that can be problematic later on in this post).

Solution: Is two-fold. First, you must down-regulate the plantar flexors via soft tissue release and/or stretching, and second, up-regulate the glute max via activation and strengthening exercises.

In the video below, a colleague of mine, Dr. Blessyl Buan (also my co-collaborator for the DTP summer training intensive) helped me demonstrate a few techniques I’ve found useful to release the calves and re-activate the glutes in a better sequence. Turns out (haha get it? TURN OUT?) that, like me and many other dancers, she has a little bit of a plantar flexor dominance thing going on, too. Shit happens when you point your feet!

SO to recap for those of you who didn’t want to watch the video:

1) Use lacrosse ball to release the calves.

2) Do a very low grade glute activation exercise by simply pushing the foot into the floor, and holding the lacrosse ball behind your knee to give you some feedback as to whether or not you’re using your calf and/or hammies to do it, rather than the glute max.

Anecdotally, this sequence has been helping with my own hip, knee, and lower back troubles. It’s also been helping myself and my clients to feel their glutes more, be more stable standing on one leg, and help with that awful calf tightness

My favourite time to perform my calf/glute homework is as it’s own session, before bed. Takes me about 15-30 minutes (depending how deep I feel like getting into it). But this work can and should be done before working out or dancing as part of your warm-up, for a shorter period of time, if you know it’s an issue you’re struggling with. It should help put your glute max back where it belongs (not in your calf).

Why is glute max function such a big deal for dancers?

I’m sure I’ve written about this before, BUT(t)… ha ha ha

Glute max is an important player in pelvic alignment.

The Postural Restoration Institute refers to glute max as the number one anti-gravitational, and most powerfully positioned external rotator of the pelvis and femur, meaning that if you lose glute max function and strength, you lose your position. And likewise, if you lose your pelvic and hip position, you lose your glute max power.

Photo from PRI's Myokinematic Restoration manual.

Glute max not only stabilizes the hip and pelvis, but the knee too.

This is due to it’s fascial connection with the IT band, which crosses the knee, giving the glute max a bit of influence on knee function. Ever been diagnosed with “IT band syndrome”, “knee tracking syndrome”, or “patellofemoral pain syndrome”? In many cases these are all just fancy ways of saying “something’s inhibiting the glute”.

 

Dancers tend to overuse their glute max to facilitate turnout. 

This could be a topic for another edition of “Muscles You’re Using Wrong”. When your leg is off the floor, the deep lateral rotators should be turning the leg out, not glute max, but since the calves are being glutes, the glute is free to find something else to do, so turnout it is!

The length and strength of the deep lateral rotators  are best manipulated by using the glute max.

Another reason it’s important for the glute max to be doing it’s OWN function properly: Piriformis, obturators, and friends can get short and tight (but weak) from all the joys of dancing turned-out, but due to their deepness, they are quite difficult to actually stretch and activate in isolation.

The DEEP lateral rotators. Notice the similar fiber dirrection of glute max and piriformis? Makes it easy for your brain to confuse their functions sometimes. And that hamstring, too...

But your superficial glute max is much easier to get to (to release, stretch and strengthen). By changing strength and position of glute max, you can indirectly improve the strength, length and tonicity of those deep lateral rotators, which have a way of bunging things up (jammed SI joints, hip compression and pain, back pain, sciatic pain, etc).

And there are probably more things that could be said about glute max function. Like how you need to it do athletic things. Aesthetics, too, are important ;).

So now you know what to do, and I hope you’ll try it out and let me know how your calf vs. glute struggle goes.

*FYI I have also seen cases of plantar flexors inhibiting the function of the psoas, quads, and abdominals. So please get those calves under control. It’s kind of a big deal.

 

 

Pain is Empty

Before you read this post, please note:

1) Sometimes I have the urge to write things that are more metaphysical than “scientific”, and if you do not enjoy this type of writing, then you probably won’t want to read this post. If this is the case, stop reading now and find a more valuable use of your time. 

2) The following post is highly influenced by the teachings of nondual emptiness, about which I’ve been reading a lot lately. If you want to learn more about nondual emptiness, start here.

3) This post is an exploration of how emptiness relates to our interpretation and reaction to pain. Pain being something we, as dancers, are quite familiar with. Or are we…? 

4) No pictures in this post, sorry. But here’s something fun to look at in case you were expecting visual entertainment: http://www.sanger.dk/ <—- (click the link I promise you’ll like it!)

Ok, here’s ONE picture that is kind of relevant. Especially if you like hotdogs…

Annnd now you’ve been sufficiently warned of the nature of the content to follow. You ready?

Pain is empty.

Empty meaning that pain has no inherent, independent existence.

Pain, like every other thing that exists (and even like all the things that don’t exist), cannot exist on it’s own- It’s existence is dependent on the existence of other things. There must be something to experience the pain (you, your brain/body), as well as something that lead to the experience of pain (a swift kick to the shin, and said shin-kicker, for example). So, pain’s existence arises codependently with acute trauma, or overuse, plus you must exist to experience it.

What about our perception of pain? Pain, and all it’s subdivisions (tolerance to, reaction to, description of, etc), is an incredibly complex and fascinating thing.

If you think about pain as an empty thing (having no inherent, independent existence), it seems so insignificant. So then why do I, and others in the business of holistic body-care, care so much about it? If pain is empty, why should I worry (sometimes at night, in my dreams, fo’ realz) so much about keeping people pain-free? Why is this what I have chosen to do everyday? Why do I keep the pain of others constantly on my mind?

I no longer think it’s necessary to be so obsessed with one empty thing (remembering that ALL things are empty, dependent, inherently non-existent).

Both the pain and the being IN pain are empty. If I do decide to obsess, it should be in equal amount for both the person and the pain. As per the words Dr. Perry Nickelston coined, and should serve as a mantra for us all, “Stop chasing pain“. I can appreciate this more now realizing the empty existence of pain.

Why chase an empty thing? Why chase ANY thing?

I have made the mistake of thinking  first and foremost about the pain, and not the person, but they cannot be separated. One’s existence is dependent on the other, flowing together, so as the person changes, so too does their pain.

I can no longer fool myself into thinking that I can prevent or take away someone’s pain. Their cause of pain is beyond my control, but I can help shape them, the empty person, who has allowed their existence to depend on mine. And together, codependently, we will create change. And with this change the pain will change. Not disappear, but change.

But without pain, would that person be the same? Is my empty existence more influenced by my perception of my pain than I realize? Do I bring further physical suffering  upon myself simply because I acknowledge it? By recognizing it’s existence, albeit empty (dependent on MY existence), does that exacerbate my experience of it?

I know first-hand how pain symptoms can become part of a person’s identity. How many times have I, and my clients, used the words “broken”, “fixable”, “dysfunctional”, “sore” to describe the state of their existence…

The truth is these states could not exist without them, the individual. Pain and the person arise codependently.  We bring all our suffering upon ourselves, and the state of our existence depends, too, on our suffering.

You could interpret that as saying that we should ignore our pain, but that’s not what I mean. I’m just realizing now that sometimes I obsess too much. I allow my perception of pain to interfere when it need not to. I perceive it to be more important that it is. Pain is fleeting, empty of inherent existence, if you let it be. If you can let it flow.

There’s this thing  we call a “pain tolerance” which people assume is either high or low. A pain tolerance exists as an empty thing (surprise). It’s existence is dependent on the person in pain, and the situation that brings the pain. Without these variables, there is no tolerance to pain, and no pain either. There both is and there isn’t pain at all times. 

Have you ever forgotten you were in pain even though you were, at the moment, acutely injured?

Pain both exists, and doesn’t. It depends on you, and on the cause of the pain. In this case of forgetting your experience of pain, the injury is still there, but you’ve been distracted and forgotten it. Because the existence of pain is empty (not inherent, dependent), it can both exist and not exist at the same time. But you will remember the feeling of pain soon enough, for comfort is empty, too. Exists always and never.

That things can both exist and not exist at the same time is still a strange concept to me. The term “emptiness” sounds negative. Sounds unpleasant. But it’s not. Just empty. Emptiness implies that two dependent things cannot be separated. Mind/body, pleasure/pain- They both exist as empty things, dependent on each other to exist.

Dependence was once a negative term to me, too, because I take pride in thinking of myself as independent. But if dependence and independence really exist as nondual, empty things, then I must be resigned to both. Both dependent and independent.  Flowing constantly from varying degrees of one state to the other.

Everything flows. Panta rei…

Back to pain. If pain both exists and doesn’t exist simultaneously, be comforted. You’re not broken.

Even while you are feeling pain, you are also not in pain in many other ways. Your pain will pass. It’s not a part of your inherent existence, for you have none- Everything is dependent on another thing to exist. Do not mistake your pain for your identity.

To remove the temporary state of physical pain, trust is important. Trust that what you are doing is working. Remember that pain is both dependent on the one experiencing it, and the external factors causing it. Both factors are empty. Perhaps the external factors are gone, but you haven’t yet decided to release the pain. You haven’t forgotten it yet. In this case you’re needlessly bringing suffering upon yourself. We’ve all done it.

But remember, too, that you don’t need to fear pain, because pleasure and all of pain’s opposite sensations are just as real, or empty.

You don’t need to fear falling, for there was never anywhere to stand.

Dancers have mastered the art of forgetting pain. We work through it, through it’s empty existence. But this is not healthy for extended periods of time, which I and my dancer peers are liable to do. Everything must flow- Ignore pain for too long, and you will have to face it for equally long.

Don’t ignore pain, but don’t become obsessed with it either. Recognize it’s empty existence- it’s dependent existence. That it is not inherehently a part of you. And don’t be discouraged.

But also take care of your body. Take measures to prevent injuries. Become strong. Realize that pain cannot exist separately from the absence of pain. One is dependent on the other. And by realizing this you won’t have to suffer- You CAN feel it all simultaneously.

We easily get stuck in patterns that lead us to believe that our existence is dependent on pain. These are the people that think they are broken, and need to be fixed. This is me, right now. Trying to talk myself out of it.

Repeat after me:

I recognize that I will always experience both pain and non-pain. That pain is dependent on my existence, and that my existence, to a certain extent depends on pain, but also on pleasure, comfort, and happiness in equal amounts. And if I can convince myself that my existence was once dependent on my being in pain, to the point that it became part of my identity (“how are you today Monika? Oh you know, less sore today than usual”), then I can convince myself that my existence is dependent on happiness too.

So, knowing that both pain and non-pain are empty, dependent things, make the choice to not validate your existence by your suffering.

If you are experiencing physical pain, remind yourself that pain and non-pain exist simultaneously. You can choose to let the pain overcome you, or you can remember that non-pain is always there. The great difficulty we face is that things we perceive as negative are always more overpowering, more distracting.

No one ever says, “Sorry, I was distracted by my HAPPINESS and COMFORT”. But maybe I should start…

You are not your pain. But you are also not your happiness. You are empty. You are dependent. Like the existence of everything else. I still think you’re special. I think I’M special. But we can both special and non-special simultaneously, remember? Accept it and be free.

Starting Dance Students on a Strength Training Routine

Starting Dance Students on a Strength Training Routine

If I had a goal when I started writing this blog, it would have been to raise the awareness of the need for dancers to be stronger and move better fundamentally in order for them to prevent injuries and excel artistically. But I wasn’t thinking that far ahead…

Despite poor long-term planning, it seems this message has spread to some very important individuals who have the power to facilitate change: Dance teachers and studio owners. They have the most influence on a dancer’s development from a young (or older) age and so their understanding of how to train a well-rounded dancer, artist and athlete, is so, so very important.

 

A month or so ago I got an email from the owner of a dance school in Calgary. In her email, which I will share with you below, she says that she has recently taken it upon herself to learn about strength training for her dancers, and is taking action by implementing a training program.

Check this out for yourself, and feel the warm fuzzies:

I have come across your articles due to research I have been doing on strength training for dancers. I have a dance school in Calgary and started a pilot program this year with 15 of my senior dancers. Once a week these dancers work with a trainer on weight lifting, track and plyos. We are seeing marked improvements in these dancers however I would like tweak the program to be more specific for dancers.  The trainer we are working with has become passionate about ballet and he has even started taking privates to better understand our art form and training needs.  Can you advise us on the best way to introduce dancers to the gym and weight lifting in particular? How young can students begin this training? Is there anything we should avoid?

First of all, I’m so excited for these 15 dancers! I hope they know how lucky they are to have a teacher that cares about their well-roundedness and career longevity, not just thinking about the next show (or making money).

Second, I am so happy to connect with dance teachers and studio owners who are keeping up to date with trends and research. Science has shown that dance alone is not enough to keep dancers performing optimally, and that strength training reduces injury rates, so it’s not even debatable anymore. It’s science.

Third, and with the last point in mind, I think that something every dance teacher or studio owner should ask themselves is: What can I do to help my dancers begin strength training?

And it’s a loaded question that can be answered in a number of ways that depend on your time, budget, knowledge, facility, equipment, support, and more…

  • Do you want add a separate strength training class to your studios repertoire?
  • Do you want to simply incorporate more strengthening exercises into existing class time?
  • Do you have a budget to purchase equipment?
  • What kind of equipment are you prepared to buy?
  • Do you want to refer your students to a trainer you trust at a separate gym?
  • Will they be training privately or in small groups?
  • Maybe you want to upgrade your studio to have a training facility (which would be AMAZING, and a friend/studio owner of mine in Toronto is doing just that).
  •  Are you as the dance teacher qualified to train the dancers, or will you need to  find a trainer to bring in for them?

But remember that by just saying the initial “yes” to resistance training you are making an incredibly positive choice, even if your students and their parents resist, believing foolishly in the dogma that dancers don’t need to do anything but dance.

And lastly, because there are so many variables that affect how, where, and when to get your dancers stronger, here are some guidelines that I think dance teachers, studio owners, trainers of dancers, and dancers themselves should pay attention to as they transition into the fun world of strength training.

 

Top 5 guidelines for dancers beginning a strength training program:

Assuming you’ve begun with a good assessment, no injuries or symptoms of over-training are present: Cleared to begin strengthersize.

1) Master neutral spine, pelvis, neck, and every joint, really.

Teach you students to neutralize. This is so fundamental. Neutral isn’t sexy, but neither is hip replacement surgery when you’re 30 because you never cared enough about where you put your femoral head (snug in the acetabulum, where it belongs, I hope).

Many dancers want more flexibility, but what they really need is stability first. They need more muscle activation so that they can actually get to a neutral position, because their ligaments sure aren’t holding things in place anymore. THEN they can start to consider if they really need that extra flexibility.

Start with the saggital plane. Once that has been mastered you can move into the frontal and transverse planes of movement. Using the lumbo-pelvic area as an example, first work on getting out of lumbar extension and anterior pelvic tilt (saggital plane), make sure their the adductors and abductors are balanced and functional (frontal), and then work on hip internal and external rotation (transverse).

But maybe you’re thinking, “But dance isn’t neutral- Why should I train that way? Won’t that screw up my ability to dance?” Nope. That’s the exact reason you need more neutrality. You won’t ever get it in a dance class.

Finding neutral for a hypermobile person is like getting the splits for a stiff person. It takes daily work to get that range of motion.

2) Emphasize postural education, not just exercises and stretches.

Educate dancers on awareness of their current posture, and teach them what “good posture” feels like. From foot to head. Many dancers don’t even consider that they have bad posture. And even scarier is that many dancers take pride in their poor postural tendencies, like walking with their feet pointing out, even if it’s causing them pain. That posture is part of what makes them feel like a dancer.

The worse their posture is, the more they’ll compensate to make them appear to have taller posture. But compensation is hard work. Don’t spend your energy on compensating for bad posture. Take the time and energy required to assess your alignment, fix it, and enjoy the ease that follows.

Postural education is even more important that the training sessions you’ll do. Even though you do good, important work for a few hours (if you’re lucky) per week, there are so many other hours in the week to undo it. Moment to moment postural education is so important for injury prevention, and to continue to progressively develop strength and improve alignment in dance class, too.

And give ’em a smack upside the head if you seem them slouched over their precious iPads. And do they really need all the stuff they have in that backpack?

Just kidding.  Please, no violence.

3) Common muscle imbalances to keep in mind:

Here’s a short list of muscles that I often see are weak and need to spend some time “waking up” initially:

  • Quadratus lumborum
  • Psoas
  • Rectus abominis/ TVA
  • Lats
  • Mid and lower trapezius
  • Glute max
  • Adductors
  • Hip internal rotators (TFL, glute med/min)

Keep in mind that depending on the individual, this will vary. But I am shocked when I meet a dancer for the first time who can activate their glutes and core on command (which includes QL and psoas, in my books).

And on the flip side, many dancers will have compensations in which muscles are up-regulated and need to be released first (via some form of soft tissue work, stretching, etc). Here are some common ones:

  • Diaphragm
  • Iliacus
  • Calves (gastrocnemius, soleus, and some others too, depending on the person)
  • Spinal erectors
  • Neck extensors
  • Sternocleidomastoid
  • Piriformis
  • Pec minor.

And again, those are the common ones. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule and other things to consider. But it wouldn’t hurt for your piriformis to spend some time quality with a lacrosse ball, I bet.

4) Train like any other athlete.

If the dancer is structurally ready and has no weird pain or injuries that need addressing, train hard!

Dancers are no different from other athletes in the respect that they still should train with full body compound exercises in a well rounded program that is complimentary to the competitive/performance season they are in. Use full body movements like squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, push-ups, etc- the usual staples. Use perfect technique, with the ever-awareness of the compensation-masters that dancers are.

In fact, science (again) has demonstrated that push-ups and vertical jump height are correlated to improved dancing in several studies. The staggeringly high injury rate in dancers should not deter you from resistance training, because it’s the absence of said training is that is correlated to the injury rate.

5) Monitor their recovery carefully.

Many dancers become over-trained due to the stress that dance, and the industry as a whole, places on the mind and body. Though strength training will help dancers improve their capacity for work, and make dancing itself less of a strain on the body, it too can be overdone at times. Pay attention to the warning signs of overtraining. You can read more on that specifically here: Managing Overtraining in Dancers.

To avoid burnout, you should also pay attention to which training season you’re in. Your training goals should be different in the on vs. off-season: You need to treat your body differently in the competition season compared to the summer when you’re likely not to be taking regular technique classes. I firmly believe that dancing should be optional in the summer off-season. It should be a time for increased focus on strength and cross-training. This helps the dancer recover from the physical and mental duress of competitions, rehearsals, and intense technique classes, so they can come back fresh in the fall, ready to push past training plateaus.

So those are my top 5 to keep in mind, but like I said earlier, simply making the decision to educate your dancers that they need to do more than just dance is a beautiful thing, and will keep them dancing stronger, for longer.

Where is Your (Graham) Contraction Coming From?

Where is Your (Graham) Contraction Coming From?

This is a post for the lovers (or love/haters) of Martha Graham’s famous contraction, and Graham technique in general.

It would be a great understatement to say Martha Graham was a smart lady. Among other things, she recognized the importance of treating the spine with kindness (in an art form that tends to abuse the back’s “happy” range of motion), and using breath to initiate movement- A fundamental basis for her entire dance technique. As a dancer, choreographer and teacher she was brilliant, and said brilliant career lasted about 70 years. Talk about career longevity. Graham has just about everyone beat.

Makes you think she must have been doing something right…

There are many ways that Martha Graham and I differ. Her dance career was successful and long career, versus my painfully short one, is just one example. But what I think is really important is that she must have innately “got” what it was to be a dancer, and not simply what it felt like to dance. It’s the difference between being and doing. And trust me, I was doing most of it wrong. I think Graham must have had some kind of instinctual sense of how dancers should use their bodies both to keep them healthy while also creating beautiful, expressive movements.

Case in point: The infamous contraction.

Consider these three common characteristics you’ll see in many dancers, particularly wannabe ballet dancers (not hatin’ or anything, just not everyBODY was made to excel at ballet):

  • Exaggerated lumbar hyperextension
  • Upflared rib cage
  • Breath holder-ism

And what do you know- These three things are the exact opposite of  the Graham contraction: lumbar flexion+ ribcage depression+ exhalation.

Those three pieces of the Graham contraction are typically what a dancer with back pain  needs: Getting out of lumbar hyper-extension, lowering the ribcage a bit, and to stop holding their breath.

And somehow Graham knew. Though perhaps she couldn’t dissect it in functional terms like I am here (me being more of a technician than an artist), she felt it, and had a highly successful career because of it. And I have mad respect. 

Unfortunately, the Graham contraction (which I shall henceforth refer to simply as the “contraction”), is super easy to do wrong. I wasn’t doing Graham contractions, I was doing a Volkmar contraction, which not only looked screwy, but also screwed a lot of stuff up and made dancing way harder than it needed to be.

The contraction is a movement pattern that involves simultaneously flexing the lumbar spine, posteriorally tilting the pelvis, and exhaling (which causes the diaphragm to relax,  fyi). Like any movement pattern, the contraction can be cheated. It will still resemble very much the contraction, but without any the above individual movements actually being done.

And yet the body finds a way. Dancers happen to be genius cheaters. Give us a movement pattern, and if we can’t do it, you can be sure we’ll find a way to cheat it. And we’ll hold our breath while we do it. And somehow make it look pretty graceful, too. That’s just the beginning of the extent of our mad skillz.

When we continuously cheat fundamental movements like the contraction daily, and for years on end, our bodies will recognize this as the “normal” pattern to work in. In this comfy, familiar pattern you can probably imagine that some muscles might become unnecessarily hyperactive (or facilitated), and some others that we should be be using, become underactive (or inhibited).

A Graham contraction, as I stated above, should involve this pattern: rounding the lower back, tucking the pelvis, dropping the ribcage, and exhaling simultaneously. The movement, initiated from the lumbo-pelvic area, causes the upper body to react naturally, and curve. As a reaction. Not as the initiation.

And here’s how you do a “Volkmar contraction”: Make the curve originate from the upper body. Round from the chest rather than lower back. Protract the shoulder blades. Do a fake, shallow exhalation (or no exhalation at all).

How to do a contraction wrong:

  • Round the upper back  instead of rounding the lower back.
  • Non-diaphragmatic exhalation.
  • Tension in the shoulders, chest, and neck rather than in the abdominals.

Based on the above compensated movement patterns, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest the following muscle compensation patterns, which can become so engrained in your motor control center(your brain) that you need a team of experts to get you out of it (seriously…):

Pec minor working instead of your abdominals

Neck muscles (scalenes and friends) working, to breathe, instead of your diaphragm.

Diaphragm working instead of your psoas.

In the picture below look at how the pecs and rectus abdominis are connected fascially:

And how the diaphragm and psoas are connected:

And how the diaphragm (on the inside of the rib cage there) connects to both the psoas and the neck muscles in a kinetic chain:

If you have been doing your contractions with those common movement compensations for some time, then you might have actually lost the ability to get into the contraction position. Yet… You have some work to do, grasshopper.

Your work will involve down-regulating some muscles (via massage, stretching, foam rolling, etc), combined with the up-regulation of others (think strengthening and activation exercises). And then you must repeat that and make a promise to yourself not to go back to your old habits of movement. Don’t ever do the Volkmar contraction again. It did not look pretty. And it felt bad. So very bad.

Change is difficult process. And it’s not always enjoyable. And sometimes it even hurts (ever had pec minor or diaphragm released? owwww). But it’s worth it.

So where’s your contraction really coming from, eh?