This is less a post about prescribing the perfect amount of cardio, and more a plea for tuning in to one’s own needs.
Dancers are known perfectionists. Many of us have type-A personalities, making us exceptionally susceptible to fads in exercise, diet, and various “fixes” best served with a grain of salt.
Many of us also have extreme personalities. We hear we should do X stretch for at least 3o seconds to get more flexible, but hell, we’ll hold that stretch for 5 minutes. Minimum. Because more is better. Right?
Sometimes it’s not.
A client of mine, a lovely dancer from York U, is stuck in the “more is better mindset”.
When she came in to start training this winter, on break from dance for the holidays, she was quite over-trained. Starting to burn out mentally, getting injured, sore all over.
But she had a lot to show for her hard work. She had an excellent semester and had achieved a lot since I last saw her, and I was proud. But I was sad, too, that she was displaying all the common symptoms of someone verging on burning out. And she didn’t have a clue. I have been deep in that state, been oblivious to it, and it didn’t end pretty.
Despite feeling a little rough after a hard semester, she was pumped to train. She came prepared with some fantastic goals, too. She wanted to strengthen her hamstrings (to overcome a mild hamstring injury earlier in the semester), get her external rotators to fire better, and get a mad deadlift. She was also still attending dance classes, although I strongly believe that when you get a break from dance, you should take full advantage of it.
Anyway, yes, she had intelligent goals, but to accomplish these, I had to explain we were going to work on first things first: She needed to recuperate a bit if she wanted to get that deadlift goal. She needed to sleep more, hydrate, unload her mind, and let her dancer patterns settle down.
But all she wanted to know is “what more can I do?”, and more specifically, she told me one day, “I went to the gym yesterday between our sessions to do cardio, how much should I be doing?”.
I am so, so inspired by this lady’s drive to do everything she can to become better. And I have seen so many dancers with this same drive. But sometimes it is borderline blind desperation, and in that case, less is much more.
When I was in school dancing everyday, I also felt the need to do extra cardio. I understand that urge. But jogging 4 times per week didn’t improve anything. I felt sore, rundown, and hated every minute of it. Extra cardio wasn’t what I needed at that point. I needed sleep, water, and vegetables.
Imagine a nice big closet. You’ve been shoving junk into this closet for years. It’s getting quite full and you’re starting to wonder how you’ll fit all your new stuff into it. What would be most logical is to clean the closet out first, make room for the new stuff.
Closet emptying is a daunting task, yes, but it’s also a beautiful thing, not a thing to fear.
When you look through years of junk you’ve accumulated, you can learn a lot about yourself. You remember things that are important to you, and realize there are things you can let go of. And the most beautiful part is that now, with an empty closet, you get to choose what you put in.
So to my lovely lady who commendably wants to do more and more, I say, do less.
Not to say be lazy, but don’t worry about doing more cardio. You’re becoming well over-trained. You have the right spirit, but the wrong question.
Don’t cram more into the closet until it bursts. Empty it first.
How much cardio should you be doing? The amount that makes you feel good. Only you can know.
Do you genuinely enjoy doing extra cardio? Do you feel better after doing it? Or do you feel run down. Are you already sore but you feel the need to do more exercise anyway? Are you doing it because somewhere, someone you don’t remember told you you should, because someone somewhere told them the same thing?
I would love to be able to recommend a precisely calculated ratio of work to rest, and exact duration and type, for supplementary cardio, but the fact is that many dancers I train are starting with a full closet. I want to help them first to see how full it is, and help them to develop the strength to tackle the job of emptying it. Together, we’ll fill it back up with the right stuff.
Strength and recovery first. Strength makes movement easier. It will help you move more efficiently, waste less energy. Breathe better. Strength will improve your stamina without doing any “cardio”.
Are you recovering from your strength workouts? From dance classes? Work on that first.
Make sure you’re not sore all day everyday, mentally foggy, and a chronic insomniac. Then we’ll talk about perhaps doing some cardio. Deal?
(P.S. her deadlifts are going VERY well)
I was recently invited to present a workshop (of my choice!) to the dancers at York University here in Toronto. The day after I had just returned from Thailand. I was quite laggy…
I am always excited to work with the York dancers because they receive such great education on important things like injury prevention, dance kinesiology, pedagogy, and other topics that I didn’t learn about at Ryerson.
They made me a poster! So sweet.
So because I had complete freedom to choose the workshop topic, I chose something very close to my heart: Breathing. Possibly the sexiest topic. Ever.
Why? We know breathing is important. It does keep us alive. But it wasn’t until after I finished my dance BFA and started working in the strength and conditioning world that I really began to understand.
And in recent months, even, I’ve had revelations. Working to optimize how I breathe has helped me reduce many chronic pain symptoms I thought I was stuck with. Just as an example, it wasn’t until I took a few huge steps back and started to work on breath control that my knee pain stopped. CRAZY, right?
You’d think breathing would be intuitive, wouldn’t you? Well, simply being born does not make us alive, it’s that first breath that allows us to enter the land of the living. Out of necessity, this breath is a deep, efficient, belly breath. I reckon that no breath after that one first life-giving breath is the same. In fact, it might be all downhill from there.
Sorry for the ominous intro. I have this great talent for setting the mood, don’t I?
So anyway, because I know this might be new info for some of you, and a nice review for others, I want to recap some of the key points we covered in my excellently-titled workshop….
Breath, Performance and Prevention: Optimizing Breath for Dance
Fancy-sounding title, ‘innit?
I started off by asking the question, “Why should you care about breathing?”. Why is it important for you, as a dancer, to know how to do it well?
Well, as a dancer, you likely tend to do things like hold your breath, assume extreme extension postures, overuse accessory respiratory muscles, be told to suck in your belly, and then perform intense physical activity. Cleaning up breathing patterns goes a long way to balance these functional dysfunctions that dance imposes.
However, it would be foolish to think that dancers, particularly in ballet and other classical forms, are going to use deep, belly-expanding breaths while they dance, because that just doesn’t fit the esthetic. Because of this, I emphasized to the group was that it’s definitely worth it to have a few techniques up your sleeve to work on optimal breathing patterns outside of dance-life. Before class, during breaks between exercises in class, after class. Whenever.
But I must backtrack a little and talk about one of the most important structures for optimal breathing, the diaphragm.
Diaphragmatic function- What is that?
Your friend Mr. diaphragm is an important guy and he does a lot for you. More than just the primary muscle responsible for giving you life through respiration…
Your diaphragm also helps keep a bunch of other stuff working smoothly:
- Managing information between chest and abdominal cavities, and other distal areas of the body
- Health and support of nerve, musculoskeletal, circulatory, lymphatic, and fascial systems
- Lumbar, sacroiliac and cervical spine stabilization
- Ensures proper function of mouth, swallowing, and speaking
- Posture, static and dynamic proprioception
- Supports organs: Heart, lungs, stomach, liver in particular
- Ensures optimal pelvic floor function
- Prevention of gastroesophageal reflux
Want some other fun facts about the dipahragm (yeah you do!)?
- Diaphragm connects to your lumbar spine, influencing it’s function
- Diaphragm has fascial connectivity to your liver, heart lungs, esophagus, kidneys psoas major, quadratus lumborum, pelvic floor and other muscles and organs.
- Diaphragm is asymmetrical, with the right hemisphere bigger and more likely to be overworked (facilitated)
- Any change in diaphragm causes a symmetrical change in the pelvic floor, so, breathing dysfunction=pelvic floor dysfunction and visa versa.
But for the purposes of right now, let’s just say the two primary roles of the diaphragm are breathing and stability. Or in other words, DANCING BETTER WITHOUT GETTING INJURED.
How does dancing tend to mess with diaphragm function?
How does it NOT? Just kidding…
- Sucking in the belly causing paradoxical breathing: Belly sucks in on inhalation while chest expands
- Exaggerated extension postures and rib flare: Reduction of zone of apposition (ZOA), which I will talk more about later in this post…
- Excessive lordosis and over-lengthened abdominals: TVA down-regulation
- Breath holding and hyperinflation of lungs: Diaphragm facilitation, inability to exhale fully
- Forcing turnout: Feeds extension postures and anterior pelvic tilt, increasing need to flare ribs.
- Accessory respiratory muscle overuse: Neck, traps, pec minor, etc
- Stress and poor recovery from classes and rehearsals
Here’s something important to think about: What happens when your diaphragm doesn’t work like it should, AND THEN the need for increased respiration arises? Like in a physiccally exhausting dance piece?
This is where things can get messy.
Maybe you are used to using your diaphragm primarily to stabilize your spine and you hold your breath to do so, rather than also using your abdominals. But then should your need to breathe increase due to strenuous dancing, your diaphragm will be used primarily for keeping you breathing rather than stabilizing your spine. In this case, you had better hope you have functional abdominals, or there won’t be much else holding you together other than bone on bone action. Mmm, gotta love that spondy feel.
Ahh the spondys. Good ol’ extension based spine injuries.
So how can you ensure that you’re both using your abdominals AND will be able to breathe enough? That’s called maintaining your zone of apposition (or ZOA). Another fancy-sounding way of saying, “Is your ribcage in an optimal position for your diaphragm to perform it’s many, many functions?”.
Well, do you dance? Then likely, you’ve lost a bit of your zone.
What is this zone (of apposition) and how can I be in it?
It’s not so much that you can be in the zone, like it’s an exclusive club or something. But honing an optimal ZOA puts you in a pretty cool club- The Super Excellent Apical Expansion Club.
By definition of the Postural Restoration Institute, the ZOA is: “The cylindrical aspect of the diaphragm that apposes the inner aspect of the lower mediastinal (chest) wall.”
Or in other words, the front part of your ribcage kind of in line with where your zyphoid process is (where your ribcage opens up in the front). If you stand with your ribs flared, with extreme lordosis, and anterior pelvic tilt, then you’ve lost your ZOA.
On the far right, you can see the extra width in the ribcage. Cause his lungs are full of air from ineficient breathing. Or as they say in Chinese Medicine, he’s full of “wind”. Hyperinflation of the lungs and poor positioning of the ribcage.
The ZOA is maintained by your transverse abdominis and your internal obliques. Dem abs!
If you are able to maintain your ZOA, that is to say, maintain abdominal activity, while you breathe, you win. High five! Your diaphragm will be in it’s best position to perform two of it’s most important functions- Delivering life-giving oxygen, and stabilizing your spine (and other things that attach to your spine, like your limbs).
You should be able to breathe deeply, into your belly, while maintaning your ZOA. If you are not, and your chest tends to expand first because you’re trying to keep your belly sucked in, this is called paradoxical breathing, and it is not a great thing to do. You probably breathe paradoxically while you dance whether you’re aware of it or not. And because your teacher tells you to…
What you should gather from those last two paragraphs is that you need to have some abdominal musculature engaged while you’re breathing to maintain your ZOA and help you breathe diaphragmatically.
Here is what it looks like to have a reduced ZOA:
Check out the rib angle, lordosis, and pelvic alignment. Indicators of probably reduction of the ZOA causing diaphragmatic dysfunction.
How can you tell if you have diaphragm dysfunction?
Here are some signs that maybe you need to get back in the zone (of apposition) and give your diaphragm some TLC:
- Do you dance? (kidding… sort-of)
- You breathe paradoxically
- Various pain symptoms: Low back, SI, neck, hip, shoulder (endless possibilities)
- Rib flare/extended posture at rest
- Shortness of breath/asthma
- Difficulty speaking and swallowing
- Excessive yawning
- Everything becomes easier with breath holding (diaphragm facilitation)
- You have pelvic floor dysfunction
- Digestive issues or constipation
A client of mine asked me, “Does anybody not have messed up breathing?”. I don’t know about that, but for sure, many people probably need to work on maintaining or improving their ZOA, not just dancers, and not just those who are in pain or rehabilitating injuries.
Ideally, we are all aware of our breath and rib position daily. We make it a practice to be mindful of this. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect all the time, that’s why it’s called practice. But we do need to do the work we often don’t want to do.
There are many tools you can use to improve your ZOA, diaphragm function, and breathing patterns generally, and I don’t care which path you choose. Whether you choose to do yoga, Qi Gong, find a good trainer, or see a rehabilitation specialist, the principles of good breathing remain the same.
I believe you owe it to yourself to cultivate this awareness and begin to work with someone you trust to guide you. It just might be the missing piece that helps you overcome whatever obstacles are keeping you from performing your best, and being the best person you can be.
**If you can’t breathe in a position or during a movement, you don’t own it. Own the breath, own the position, own the movement, own at life**