Reclaiming the Frontal Plane for Dummies (for Dancers)
I’d first like to take the time to congratulate myself on actually following through on writing part two, because no one’s going to give me a high five for that but me. Go me! #SelfAccountability.
To recap part one(<– read it now before you continue if you haven’t already! I can wait…):
Dancers rarely work on fundamental movement quality in their training, and tend to develop a movement vocabulary that, while rich in technical skill, has major cracks in its foundation, denying them several important ranges of natural human motion.
To restate what I said in part one:
[Dancers] are trained to move in beautiful, yet unnatural ways, often dependent on pathology to succeed, but without a base of fitness, fundamental movement, and general physical preparedness to support them.
Being flexible has nothing to do with it. You can’t stretch movement quality into your system, and as we will discuss today, stretching can sometimes make things even messier.
Today, part two, we are going to explore one specific part of this “dance like a human” thing that gets a bit messy. Ready?
Warning: This post is long, but I tried to make it easier to read by including lots of fun images and subtitles in the formatting. Grab some coffee, ’cause we’re going deep.
Whether You Like it or Not, SHIFT Happens
Courtesy of Gary Ward. Whether you like it or not… Shift. Happens.
I’d like to introduce you to pelvis shift. A little appreciated movement essential for dance, gait, and, if you want to get philosophical (maybe another time), for life.
Shift refers to moving laterally through space, like a Krispy Kreme donut going smoothly down a flat conveyer belt. Imagine your pelvis is that Krispy Kreme, sliding along, not a care in the world.
Each time you take a step, at the same moment you heel strike, your pelvis must make this smooth shift from one foot to the other (as pictured in Gary Ward’s lovely sketch—>).
Gary, in his Anatomy in Motion course calls this the “leap of faith” because it’s the only time in the gait cycle that your center of mass must breach your base of support, and you have to trust that your swinging leg will be there to catch you on heel strike so that you don’t fall on your face.
This side to side shift of the pelvis is an extremely important movement in the frontal plane that gets really effed up a little lost for most dancers. Shift is an important part of many aspects of dance technique (as we’ll discuss a little further down), but ironically, dance technique and training can mess up our ability to shift.
Alas, whether you like it or not, shift happens.
If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone dance. So when you lose the ability to perform pelvis shift, your amazing body finds other ways to make it happen. Is it going to be the most ideal, most effortless, safest way? Nope.
Some people call this “compensation”. I call it being a “skilled movement strategist”. Many of us dancers are a little too skilled in this domain…
Let’s first get clear on what frontal plane movement is and where pelvis shift fits in.
Frontal Plane Movement 101
Our bodies move in 3 main planes:
Sagittal plane: Front and back movement. The plane of motion for a somersault.
Frontal plane: Side to side movement. Plane of movement for a cartwheel.
Transverse plane: Rotational movement. Plane of movement for a pirouette.
Our bodies are always moving in all three planes at once. Some muscles have different roles in all three planes in one motion. One muscle might be shortening in the frontal plane, but lengthening in the transverse plane during the same movement.
Our bodies are cool like that.
When we lose the ability to perform a movement in one plane, we can make up for it by moving more in a different plane, or by moving a different joint more in the same plane(we’ll go through a dance specific example of this a little further down).
Just for today, let’s keep this simple and stick to the hips and pelvis, although it’s good to know that nearly every joint and muscle in your body, but not all, has a role in frontal plane movement (the knee, for example, does not do much in the frontal plane, because that would suck).
Your turn to think
Stand up and try to figure this one out:
What are the possible movements for the pelvis and hips in the frontal plane?
Go ahead, take your time, stand up and play around with side to side movement. What do you feel happening? I’m looking for 4 main movements. Here’s a nice picture to look at while you think and move:
Well? What did you come up with?
Hopefully you got to these 4 main movements (one of which we already named):
If you had trouble naming or feeling these, either you need an anatomy lesson, or your body doesn’t do them well. When we have trouble accessing joint actions, we often will also struggle to describe them with words and conceptualize them. That’s because all thought is embodied. But that’s a tangent I won’t go down today.
These are motions your body must be able to do in frontal plane. In life. In dance. And if one is messy, they all get messy.
This lady is in a position of right pelvis shift, right hip hike, right hip abduction, and left hip adduction.
Why do dancers easily lose frontal plane competency?
Over stretching, and the need to be very flexible (often to the point of pathology)
Rushing technique progression, or poor instruction on proper technique
Aerobic fatigue causing sloppiness and compensation
Technical demands of the specific dance style: Turn-out, need for excessive amounts of hip abduction or hiking and spinal extension.
High resting muscle tonus (sympathetic nervous system dominance)
Poor breathing mechanics (contributing to above sympathetic dominance)
Arabesque. I won’t get into it today, but arabesque is like an open chain, patho-shift. If you want me to explain that one, shoot me an email and we’ll talk.
The above aren’t bad, they are a reality of dance training. It is important to understand that they will likely develop into”creative movement strategies” that may not be ideal long term, and it would be wise to have supplemental strategies to keep these challenges in check.
Do you even shift?
Do you shift, bro?
From a human motion perspective, we can assess shiftability a few different ways. Let’s look at some of my faves:
1) Standing closed chain pelvis range of motion exploration, AiM style.
This is your chance to experience triplanar movement at your hips and pelvis. Can you shift? What else is limited? And what are you good at? Take a few minutes to go through this with me. Makes for useful outcome measures.
Note, you can also take this idea and explore any joint or structure in your body, because shift isn’t only a pelvic event.
2) Adduction drop test, PRI style.
This is important: If you can’t adduct your hip passively, it is doubtful you can do it standing up. Get a PRI trained person to check you out. If you are lucky, you live close to Michael Mullin or Sarah Petrich, who work with dancers and are PRI level badass.
3) Manual muscle pattern testing, NKT style
While I’m sure there are some muscle testing haters reading this, I argue that NKT done well looks for patterns, not muscle strength, and is not yo mama’s MMT.
Some common patterns in non-shifters with NKT testing are:
Adductor compensating for opposite adductor and/or QL
Adductor compensating for opposite side external oblique, or same side internal oblique
Diaphragm compensating for TVA (breath holding pattern keeping them in spinal extension)
Crazy pelvis ligament stuff inhibiting hamstrings, adductors, hip flexors, quads, etc.
Jaw compensating for anything in the lateral sub-system (QL, adductors, TFL, glute med).
Neck compensating for obliques
Lots of ways to get the job done. It’s cool to see these patterns show up in muscle testing and movement screening, and then re-integrated into better quality movement through training.
4) Gait observation, ninja style.
Gait observation is highly subjective, and it’s something that I am working on getting better at least somewhat decent at. Give me 10 years and ask me how it’s going…
That said, if you take a look at this lovely dancer lady walking, what you should notice is whether or not her pelvis is going from left to right at the appropriate time: As her back heel starts to lift off the floor. Is it??
Not so much…
How Many Ways Can You Cheat Frontal Plane?
So if you can’t shift well, how are you even walking?
As a self-proclaimed expert at butchering frontal plane hip and pelvis movement, you can trust that this info is direct from the source: Chief Creative Movement Strategist Volkmar (CCMS). Esquire.
CCMS Volkmar: Just making an abomination of the frontal plane. But at least I’m respecting my ligaments. Mostly.
Remember, when a joint can’t move in one plane, something else will try to do it in another.
Here’s an example that may resonate with you. Let’s say you can’t shift your pelvis to the right very well, but you need to get on your right leg (right shift) to tendu side with your left leg. What are your options?
The most common strategy will often be to hike the hip on left side, which the lady in the image above is doing (hike and shift both being frontal plane hip movements). In pure shift, the hips stay level.
You could also get the job done in two other planes of movement: Extend your spine (sagittal) and rotate your pelvis to the right (transverse), which helps you accomplish the same weight transfer, but with more expended energy and torque.
Or maybe you choose to shift excessively from joints other than your pelvis. For example maybe shift your ribs or your skull to the right more excessively to accomplish a similar weight transfer.
Sneaky. And then you wonder why you can’t get rid of that upper body tension. Maybe if your skull wasn’t busy trying to be a pelvis…
One final note on frontal plane strategies
This blog post is primarily geared towards ballet and contemporary technique, but I also used to salsa dance, and have worked with a few salsa dancers.
What’s interesting about this dance style is that they do what I call a “reverse shift”: When they take a step, the pelvis shifts the opposite way. Not to mention it’s an anterior tilt dominant dance style. Latin dancers don’t shift well, but they hike like champions (same-plane shift strategy).
Where does shift show up in dance technique?
“But Monika, what does this have to do with helping me dance better?”.
I’m getting to that. Keep in mind that losing the ability to perform any range of motion is never ideal. Maybe you need to read part 1 again?
The ability to shift is actually a majorly huge deal in dance. It wasn’t until after I learned how to shift that magic really started happening in ballet class, I could stop clenching my neck and jaw, my turnout became easier to access, and I could balance in adage like a boss.
Dance is pure shift.
Chassé pas de bourré is shift.
Start thinking less in terms of “pelvic stability”, words which, while important, don’t frame the concept properly. While stability implies non-movement, shift implies allowing lateral movement.
Were does shift show up in dance? Everywhere. If you need to be on one leg or change directions, you need shift. What doesn’t require shift? is a better question.
Unadulterated pelvis shift is what allows dancers to change directions and transfer their weight quickly and smoothly without tensing anything in their upper bodies, holding their breath, or creating excess torque (at the lower back, hips, neck, or jaw, for example).
If you can’t shift, you can’t have single leg stability because it’s impossible to get your body’s mass over one leg without first shifting your pelvis. Try it.
Non-shifters are barre-grippers.
Even keeping a “neutral” pelvis requires shift, because if you can’t let your pelvis shift, you’ll have to cheat it in another plane or from another joint (as we already discussed). In reality, a pelvis that shifts right and left well is a pelvis that can be neutral when it needs to, and leave neutral when it needs to.
Neutral only being a phase that lasts for an instant between 0.6-0.8 seconds.
Neutrality = having movement options.
A pelvis that shifts has options.
A pelvis that shifts lets you reduce tension and torque from other parts of your body and makes dance more effortless.
What muscles help you shift?
Short answer: Don’t worry about it.
A lot of dancers screw themselves over by becoming so focused on what muscles should be working that they tense up, get in their heads too much, and forget to feel what’s happening.
Instead of asking, “Am I doin’ it right?”, ask “Am I feelin’ it right?”. Daft Punk knows what’s up.
Joints act, muscles react: Shift happens, and muscles react to it. Muscles don’t make you shift, you shift.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: In order to shift, something has to lengthen as a reaction to your pelvis’ lateral movement in order to decelerate it (slow it down), and then contract to get you back to center, like a sling shot first pulling back to shoot a stone.
So what is reacting to the pelvis shifting? What has to lengthen and load eccentrically in order to allow the pelvis to move laterally and return back to center?
Wait for it.
It’s your dance teacher’s favourite muscle to tell you to strengthen…
Ah, yes… your friends the adductors.
But also the other members of the lateral sub-system that react to lateral movement:
Glute med and the adductors have a larger role in shift, as we are discussing it today.
But let’s be clear about one thing: Inner thigh leg raises will do nothing for you if you can’t eccentrically load your adductors, or passively adduct your hip joints, which allow shift to happen in your body.
Clams are also somewhat of a waste of time.
Why are my adductors so tight?
Dancers’ adductors are often locked long (from overstretching), so they lose the ability to eccentrically load, or, because they are already on load all the time, they tighten up to protect themselves from strain. And you wonder why stretching your adductors doesn’t relieve the tightness…
Get up on your feet and shift your pelvis over to the right. you should be aware that your left adductor is lengthening, hence, decelerating (eccentric loading) the journey the pelvis makes from left leg to right leg. This happens with every step you take.
Shift is less about clenching the same side inner thigh to pull you over, or pushing with the opposite hip abductors, and more about allowing joint action through decelerative muscle reaction.
Sounds like less work, doesn’t it? You bet.
And now you can see how it can be problematic for dancers who have overstretched their adductors and pelvis ligaments to the point of pathology. You can’t shoot a stone very far with a stretched out elastic band.
Reclaiming shift: Monika’s Story
I know what you’re thinking, “Not another story, Monika. Get to the dang point!”. But this one is good, I promise. And relevant, too.
So, let me tell you about my journey reclaiming shift (still a work in progress, by the way), and I’ll try to keep it concise. You can also read THIS.
I was first introduced to shift by Dr. Brock Easter, my go-to body healing dude in Toronto.
I remember him telling me once, “When I start working with a dancer, I go straight to assessing the adductors, and it’s almost always the primary dysfunction.”
Words of wisdom from Dr. Brock: If its a dancer, go for the groin. Did I get that right? 😉
Anyway, I went to see Brock specifically to learn about Anatomy in Motion. He assessed me and put me in shift phase. In this AiM movement, the key points are that the pelvis should shift across the midline, and you should feel the adductors loading eccentrically (kind of a stretchy/worky feeling) on the leg you’re shifting away from as it abducts and externally rotates.
I didn’t feel shi(f)t.
And I continued to feel nothing for almost a year, though I practiced diligently every day. My body felt better for sure (back pain, hamstring pain, being things I was working forward from), but still no adductor function.
And then I had a pelvic floor intervention.
Not like that….
It was February 2015 at Neurokinetic Therapy level 2 in Toronto, and I was the demo body for pelvic floor testing and correction. And a good one, at that.
Dr. Kathy Dooley found that my anterior pelvic floor was facilitated bilaterally. Probably because I was a breath holder, and used to be a chronic pee-holder for many years. I was good at it. Like, really good. Too good.
Dooley did an NKT correction, showed me how to anti-kegel (kegels aren’t the answer to all life’s problems, guys), and I felt my abs work in crazy new ways. I felt pretty good afterwards.
Then, because it had become a habit whenever I was standing around doing nothing to practice shift phase, I got up and tried it out, and HOLY CRAP. Hello adductors.
Why did this happen?
This might not be the complete picture, but to the best of my limited understanding, to be able to access pelvis shift in frontal plane, the pelvis needs to be in a posterior tilt in the sagittal plane, and the pelvic floor needs to be able to stretch to allow the lateral movement. In February 2015, I couldn’t posterior tilt if I used max effort, and I couldn’t let go of my pelvic floor. Getting my pelvic floor to chill out allowed me to access abdominals and finally get into a post tilt. Boom. Shift happened (#).
Too, the obturator nerve is responsible for motor innervation of the adductor muscles, and can become entrapped in the obturator canal, for which the obturator internus facscia creates a medial wall.
Why does that matter?
As Dooley explained to me later:
You stretch pelvic floor, you allow shift with a stretch of OI fascia, taking tension off obturator nerve so it can innervate adductors.
All that to say, just because my adductors weren’t working the way I would have liked, don’t go blaming my adductors! Concentric adductor exercise wasn’t the solution I needed.
Remember, joints act, muscles react. When I finally was able to get my body in a decent position, and maintain it as I shifted, I felt adductors come alive in a meaningful way for the gait cycle.
So on that note, I want to leave you with some ideas for how to optimize your ability to let shift happen by getting joints to move into positions that allow muscles to react in more useful ways.
Let’s get shifty
To accomplish a proper pelvis shift, you need these three big things:
1) Ability to exhale fully and depress ribcage (ZOA)
2) Posterior pelvic tilt
3) Lumbar flexion
If you can achieve these movements but still struggle to accomplish shift, there’s something else going on. Or you might need some guidance/therapy/time, like I did.
This past January and February I did free movement screens with some Ryerson dancers, and not one of them could posterior tilt past neutral. Posterior pelvic tilt should not be a max effort event.
You can get all three of the above movements at the same time with these two exercises (which you have seen in many, many blog posts before because they are #DTPfaves).
1) Cogs (emphasis on flexion/exhalation phase)
2) 90/90 Hip Lift
Do these two activities, and go back to check your pelvis range of motion. Is anything different? Can you shift more easily? Tuck more easily? Hike more easily?
If you’ve achieved requisite range of motion into flexion/posterior tilt/ZOA, you may now have opened a window of opportunity to reclaim some frontal plane shift. So let’s do that now.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for.
Worth noting that every joint in the body plays a role in shift. You can’t see my feet in this video, but they are kind of a big deal. Also, should have mentioned in this video that your back knee needs to stay straight.
As mentioned in the video, for a successful shift, you should feel adductors on back leg loading. If you don’t, it’s not shift. It’s a CCMS Volkmar special.
Please note that this movement is best learned from someone who’s been trained in AiM, and you can find such a person HERE.
This next exercise allows you to apply shift to a dance-specific situation in it’s most fundamental form: Transferring from first position to coupé and into tendus front and side.
This one kills me. And I like it.
I stole this exercise from my favourite ballet teacher, Christine Wright (who you can find teaching at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Monday-Friday from 10am-12pm. Another #DTPfave).
If you are doing this one well, your hips should stay level (not hike) as you shift onto one leg. If you are able to do this, you may feel some burny/stretchy/eccentric load feels at the front of the hip you’re standing on, indicating that you’re “on your leg”, or, not compressing the hip or going into an anterior tilt/hike on that side.
Remember the wise words of Daft Punk: You’re doin’ it right if you’re feelin’ it right.
The other side of your butt should not leave the wall as you shift (that’s a transverse plane violation), and you should be able to maintain 3 points of contact with the back of your body on the wall: Back of skull, ribcage, and pelvis.
Breathe, 2, 3, 4. It ain’t easy.
Alright. That was a lot… Just imagine how I felt editing this monstrous thing.
I hope you’ll experiment with shift, reclaiming it back, and maintaining it as a regular strategy to unwind from the duress of dance training and enhance your performance abilities.
In part 3 of Dance Like a Human, we will be discussing another key human motion to reclaim for better performance… But I’m not saying what it is! Stay tuned.
This surprised me because I definitely do not have any new or ideas on the topic. I’m just doing my best to reiterate what the most influential people I’ve had the honour of learning from have taught me in a language that makes sense to myself, my clients, and hopefully to you.
My thoughts on core training are not new, and not that interesting. But for the dance world, I guess they can seem unconventional.
The “core”, much like the Earth, has been around and doing just fine long before we naively intervened and labeled it “core”; it was probably doing better for itself (and for us!) before we tried to systematize, aestheticize, and control it’s training.
I feel uneasy about adding more “new” stuff to this information-cluttered internet-thing we’re addicted to getting answers from, but it hurts me more to see people doing silly things with their bodies *coughtraceyandersoncough* in an ignorant, tone-oriented, sympathetic-driven haze, for the sake of “core strength” and a six pack.
Let’s clear some of that haze, eh?
Here are some of the supposedly “unconventional” ideas on core training I hold that are actually anything but unconventional- They’re quite sensible.
WHAT IS “CORE TRAINING”?
And the reason I feel it is even necessary to write this is because every single dang dancer ever in their career will hear from a teacher that they need a “stronger core”. I’ve yet to meet a dancer who hasn’t.
Core training goes beyond concentrically working the muscles we are commonly taught need to be strengthened and toned.
My approach is guided by five key principles. If you understand these principles and base your training around them, it really doesn’t matter what exercises you choose (for the most part…).
1. Know your anatomy: Understand the intrinsic and extrinsic core subsystems and their roles.
2. Breathing: Learn to create intra-abdominal pressure andload core musculature through your breath.
3. Mobility: Recognize and appraise the need for mobility as a prerequisite for training stability.
4. Remove roadblocks for reactive core: Become aware of compensatory patterns that could be limiting effortless core connectivity.
5. Semantics: Place importance on the words used to describe training, which matter just as much as the physical training.
These principles matter more than the exercises you use.
Let’s go into these in a bit more detail.
1. THOUGHTS ON CORE FUNCTIONAL ANATOMY
It is kind of important to have at least a little bit of understanding of which muscles we’re talking about. Kind of. What’s more important is to FEEL them.
Today my colleague Wensy Wong, kinesiologist and massage therapist, ie has MAJOR anatomy knowledge, told me that it wasn’t until just recently she really understood the psoas, because finally she could feel it. Knowing where a muscle is in a textbook, in 2D, is one thing, feeling it in your body is completely different. You have to experience it to know it.
You can’t say that you know someone personally because you read their autobiography and stalk them on the internet.
Anyway, some anatomy.
The core is more than just the muscles of your trunk and your abs. Think of the core as a hierarchical system of units.
Intrinsic core musculature (inner unit):Deeper muscles, not responsible for creating large movements, but hold “stuff” together.
Transverse abdominis (TVA)
Lower erector spinae
Extrinsic core musculature (outer unit):More superficial muscles, important in larger movements.
Upper erector spinae
Understand that in the hierarchy of the core system, intrinsic subsystem function is most fundamental.
We’d like to see these two systems in balance, performing their proper roles: The instrinsic system holding stuff together and providing adequate intra-abdominal pressure and proprioception (position sensing) so that the extrinsic core can allow us to move freely.
It is possible for all or part of the intrinsic core unit to become relied upon excessively for movement rather than the extrinsic core, and visa versa. Sometimes, one part of the intrinsic unit will be working harder than another in an attempt to find a sense of grounding, counter-balance, or irradiation to increase muscle contractile strength (examples of this coming up a bit further down…).
This should, ideally, be cleaned up and re-trained before performing a more complex, high-threshold exercise. Even a plank can get messy if this system isn’t balanced.
2. BREATH CONTROL = CORE CONTROL
This really should not be considered unconventional. Many people claim to “know” that breathing is important for core connectivity. We hear it every dang day as dancers, yogis, pilates-ers (what’s the plural for a pilates enthusiast?).
So if you really “know” it, then why aren’t you working on it? Why aren’t you teaching it? Why haven’t you made progress with “core strength”? Telling students to breathe isn’t the same as coaching them on how to breathe for core connectivity.
Remember that to know is to have had experienced it. Do you really know how breathing affects core connectivity? Have you ever felt that connection?
This is tricky. It’s something that often requires coaching. Get on that. It’s totally worth it.
The breath allows you to create an “airbag for your spine”, to load core musculature, and create a safe space mentally for you to train, adapt, and recover.
Creating intra-abdominal pressure: Air pressure in the abdominal cavity prevents excessive movement in the spine- dictated by our breathing. Using “umbrella”-style inhalations (360 degree expansion) to fill out the abdominal cavity evenly creates an “air bag” to cushion the spine as it moves freely, allowing muscles to load as a response.
Eccentric and concentric loading:Inhalation, is required for eccentric loading (lengthening) of the abdominal muscles as the abdomen expands. A muscle first needs to be able to lengthen to be contracted effectively, and an 360 degree inhalation does just that.
A full exhalation concentrically contracts the abs and gives us Zone of Apposition (ZOA) with the ribcage depressed. This position allows for a more ideal use of both intrinsic and extrinsic core muscles, because joint position dictates muscle reaction.
Concentric contraction (shortening)
Eccentric contraction (lengthening)
Concentric contraction (shortening)
Autonomic nervous system state: Exhalations bring the nervous system to a safe state of growth, recovery, and flow, where learning and change is possible, by activating the vagus nerve. This state- parasympathetic (opposite of fight/flight), is a state where you should ideally approach training from if you actually want to improve.
So you can do 500 stress-crunches while you hold your breath and grind your teeth. I. Don’t. Care.
3. CORE MOBILITY
All we talk about as an industry (both in dance and fitness) is core stability, being in control, and preventing movement but, consider this: Your spine has 33 joints- It was designed for effortless movement!
Things that are chunks, or planks, or blocks were designed to be rigid by nature of their structure. Things that are designed to have many small parts and joints are naturally intended to allow movement.
So would we train our spines for stability before considering its innate need to move? And I don’t blame you. I was that idiot-trainer making my clients do planks, preaching the value of “stability”, before appraising their spinal mobility. Don’t be idiot-me. You’re better than that.
Consider these four ways that your core craves mobility:
Spinal stability vs. spinal mobility: Preventing the spine from moving by stiffening is useful at times, but full potential for movement of the spine is prerequisite for stability. How long and fast could you ride a bike with a rusty chain and jammed links? Your spine, like a bike chain, needs to have the potential to allow movement at all segments. Appraise the spine’s need for mobility before giving it a stability solution.
Courtesy of Gary Ward, here’s one of my favourite spinal mobility experiences right now- Cogs:
First joints act, then muscles react (to movement): Movement of the skeleton dictates muscle (re)action. The goal is not to forcefully activate and and consciously engage the core, but to allow it to reflexively fire as a reaction to movement. So movement of the spine and pelvis, to which “core” musculature attaches, is necessary for the muscles to load and contract.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: Like a slingshot, muscles “load to explode”. Training only concentrically by shortening muscles to create movement (think crunches) does not replicate this natural function. Excessive “tone-seeking”, thus, can prevent lengthening, reducing mobility and reactivity, and limiting performance. Concentric work is useful, but length needs to be created before you can earn the right to shorten.
Management of base of support within center of mass:How much movement can your center of mass access within your base of support? How far can you shift without moving your feet before you fall or need to take a step? Core muscles react as the body moves away from and back towards center.
When we keep things “tight” constantly it doesn’t allow this natural movement in and out of our base of support. Finding “center” therefore, is more a result of experiencing a full spectrum of movement, not of keeping things tight.
4. REMOVING ROADBLOCKS: COMMON CORE COMPENSATIONS
Remember above I mentioned there are ways the core systems can become out of balance? This can happen be due to trauma, injury, habitual ways of holding our bodies, or repetitive patterns of moving. These roadblocks can prevent our bodies from accessing joint movements and positions.
Many of us unconsciously develop strategies to get around these roadblocks. These “compensations” are not bad. THANK your body for finding these clever strategies and allowing you to continue to move and live. Know that they aren’t serving you anymore, address them head on, and find a new way through them, not around.
Here are some common road-blocks for dancers (and most humans):
Breath-holding:Can cause diaphragm to be used more as a muscle of stabilization (due to it’s connection to the spine) than respiration, influencing spine/ribcage position, movement potential, and ability to recover from training.
Jaw clenching/shifting: An attempt for proprioception, counterbalance, co-contraction, or a response to stress and strain and is commonly found to be facilitated in relation to abdominal function.As Dr. Kathy Dooley explains HERE:
Because the TMJ has more proprioception per surface area than any other joint in the human body, you will go where your jaw shifts you to go…When the jaw shifts, the center of mass shifts. This will down-regulate recruitment of the opposite side core in the sagittal plane.
Pelvic floor: Part of the intrinsic unit, tightness, overworking, weakness, sub-optimal positioning, digestive function, organ issues, urinary control, all influence core function.
Mobility limitations in general:Can affect the ability of core muscles to load, reducing their role ability to react to movement (limited hip mobility, and spine segmental mobility in at least one of three planes is fairly safe to assume…).
You cannot change that which you are not yet aware of. Do you know which roadblocks could be in your path?
Sometimes, just cultivating awareness and openness to change is all it takes to make a shift. Other times, it is necessary to seek guidance from a movement coach or therapist to help you. NeuroKinetic Therapy (TM) practitioners and Anatomy in Motion folks are trained to discover and unwind these compensatory strategies (but so can most good therapists of any background).
5. CORE SEMANTICS
As a writer, I appreciate the power of words, and I know a lot of you do, too. But the correlation between core training and the words we traditionally use to talk about it in dance is particularly interesting. And in major need of change.
“Core semantics” shape our results, and require a consideration equal to the physical training itself, as we speak to ourselves and guide others as dancers, teachers, therapists, and parents.
In the table below, which column sounds more useful? Which sounds more like dance? Which choice of vocabulary will you apply to your “core training”?
On the left, words we use that limit potential movement by asking dancers to contract muscles, and on the right, words we can consider using to encourage dancers to move, allow muscles to lengthen, and explore new ranges of motion. A different perspective on “core training” for some folks, perhaps.
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I suppose if you had to take just one thing away from this article it would be that core training is really just a result of allowing your body to explore movement and breath so it can do what it needs to do when it needs to do it.
Need to lift something heavy? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Need to balance on one leg for 30 seconds? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Simple as that. Maybe too simple. But simple does not mean easy.
Funny how just by allowing you body to move into ranges of motion that have been denied or avoided, breathing appropriately for the situation, using a more helpful choice of words, and getting some help when you get stuck the “core” just kind of takes care of itself without much time and energy spent on “training the abs”.
For more information on unconventional/sensible ways of training for dance, check out Dance Stronger: A multi-media resource created to help you understand the why and how of training breath, movement, and strength to improve dance performance and reduce soreness. Available by donation, so no excuses 😉 Get training!
The desired aesthetic for dancers to point their feet, pull up their arches, and push their knees out as far as possible can create the avoidance of some important joint movements (listed a bit further below) which are necessary for shock absorption upon landing a jump.
I have landed from jumps feeling shooting pain through my ankle, but put on a smile and “danced it off” to keep going. Landing a jump well is pretty important.
Often in working with dancers, our initial instinct is to initiate plyometric training in an attempt to teach the dancer how to land more softly, with better mechanics.
Is this wise as a first measure?
What if reducing foot and ankle injuries was less related to training strength and power, and more to practicing the allowance of joint movements necessary to absorb shock upon landing.
Unfortunately, these movements that are commonly avoided for the sake of aesthetics. (I will refer to these movements cumulatively as “loading the spring”).
When you land a jump, you load your spring.
Consider that paradoxically, to clean up a jump, the landing might need to look a little more “ugly” (by ballet standards, anyway).
Guess what, pronation and valgus are not the evil step-children we’ve been avoiding.
Let’s let go of judging what the movement looks like for a moment, and honestly appraise what movements need to happen in the human body for optimal shock absorption to take place.
“Ugly” joint mechanics for optimal shock absorption (AKA loading the spring):
Looks kind of like this
Rear-foot (calcaneus/talus): Eversion, plantar flexion, internal rotation. Yes, pronation! Which drives… Ankle: dorsiflexion Tibia, femur: internal rotation (not turn-out!?) Knee: flexion, external rotation, valgus Hip: flexion, external rotation, adduction Pelvis: lateral hike, anterior tilt Lumbar/thoracic spine: extension, rotation towards landing leg, side flexion towards landing leg
Wait… Allow pronation, internal rotation, and valgus? Aren’t these “bad”?
In the human body, the above joint actions must occur to eccentrically load the muscles necessary for successfully absorbing shock (plantar fascia, medial quad, glutes, etc). These are not static joint positions, but brief moments (less than a second) that the human body must pass through.
What would happen if we helped dancers to experience these important moments in their bodies, rather than brace and control in conditioned avoidance of “ugly” positions?
The “suspension” movement to train more optimal shock absorption. Notice the joint actions of the front leg? Think this is ugly?
5 ways classical dance training can alter landing position and limit optimal shock absorption:
1. Feet get stiff.
In a closed chain (foot on floor), the rear-foot and fore-foot need to be mobile and move in opposition in each plane, allowing joints to open and close to take the shock of the landing.
In dance, the foot can become very strong and rigid losing mobility and ability to oppose through pronation and supination. Feet can get stuck stiff and inverted or stiff and everted. Neither is ideal.
Add to this that many exercises dancers use to strengthen their feet and ankles are done with a band, open-chain, which does not allow foot opposition and is not specific to how the foot was designed to function on the floor, in gait.
2. Attempting to maintain perfect turnout in foot and leg while landing.
Upon landing, the rear-foot (talus and calcaneus) needs to evert and internally rotate (pronate!) to load the spring of the plantar fascia and windlass mechanism. The rear foot drives the tibia and femur to internally rotate and the knee and hip to open. This is what we want!
Dance often demands that we turn everything out: Foot, ankle, thigh, knee-cap; and by limiting this necessary internal rotation we also limit the ability of the knee and hip to open and absorb shock.
Landing with everything turned-out can limit natural movement and jam up joints rather than “load the spring” to manage impact.
Landing with the foot and leg turned out… Not the type of pronation we want!
Landing with lots of turnout in the foot, tibia, and thigh, limiting shock absorption.
3. Landing in hip ABduction rather than allowing ADduction (again, that turnout!)
To absorb shock optimally, the hip must adduct in the frontal plane, following what the foot is doing below. In dance, however, we are trained to avoid inward knee movement and deny ourselves this important moment of valgus.
Dancers, wanting to always be turned out to the maximum, tend to land with the knee pushed out and hip abducted, preventing that lovely shock absorption from taking place.
4. Trying to keep the pelvis upright, not allowing an anterior tilt to occur to with landing.
Upon landing, the hemi-pelvis on the landing leg side should anterior tilt to “load the spring” (which in this case is the glutes, which load with anterior tilt). Being cued to tuck under, or keep the pelvis perfectly level all the time and avoiding anterior tilt, again, denies the dancer of this important moment.
5. Chronic extension posture preventing dancer from extending further upon landing
Lumbar and thoracic spine extension is another way to “load the spring”, allowing the dancer to eccentrically load and then use the abdominals to enter and rebound out of the landing.
If a dancer is already stuck in an extended position with static lordosis and rib flare at rest (which is quite common…), this spring-like mechanism will not take place, and vertebrae may compress rather than abs taking load.
Do you stand like this at rest? Can’t get out of extension?
Now, you may be thinking…
“But I see so many dancers who land with their knees going in and over-pronating, and that is not a good look.”
“Surely asking a dancer to land with an anterior tilt and extended spine is not safe??”
These movements: Pronation, knee valgus, anterior tilt, and spine extension, are not bad. If you could not perform these movements, I would question how you are able to walk.
These joint movements only become a challenge when a) You get stuck in them, or b) You can’t get into them at all.
Landing WITHOUT permitting a brief moment of pronation will not allow shock absorption.
Landing already IN an anterior tilt and extended spine will not allow shock absorption.
I do not mean that we should coach dancers to land excessively pronated, turned-in, with knee valgus. These are subtle, fleeting moments in a spectrum of movement. Subtle, but important.
If we give dancers activities that allow them to experience naturally moving in and out of these foreign positions safely, they might just choose to store this as a useful pattern and use it in their dancing at the appropriate time without over-coaching and conscious effort.
A good place to start would be the “suspension” movement, which was created by Gary Ward and taught through Anatomy in Motion. Suspension simulates the shock absorption phase of gait following heel-strike. It could be used as a warm-up before class, or as a supplementary exercise as part of a cross-training program.
Notice I’m doing my best to pronate (not easy for me!), internally rotate my leg, and allow my knee to come inside my big toe, while slightly anteriorally tilting my right pelvis and extending my back?
Work in progress…
What you might feel while suspending:
Front leg quad getting burny (this is eccentric loading- the muscle contracting as it lenghtens)
Front leg glute getting burny (eccentric loading)
Front leg plantar fascia stretching and opening
Front leg achilles tendon area/calf stretching and opening
Back leg hip stretching and opening
Back of the neck stretching
Abdominals stretching (rectus/obliques)
Give it a try and see what happens.
Please note, however, that I don’t feel it is wise to TRY to land like this. Don’t attempt to change anything about your landing. Simply give your body this experience outside of class, and trust that you have now shown your body some new landing strategies that it may chose to employ the next time you jump, with little conscious effort. Landing with a few extra degrees of real pronation and ankle dorsiflexion might make a huge difference.
And just for fun…
Exercises from Anatomy in Motion haven’t only been helping me land jumps feeling more safe, but I feel (subjectively, yes) that my developpe height and hip mobility are improved, both on the standing leg, and the gesture leg.
Here’s something I’ve been working on (believe it or not, this is actually easier with a weight over head- Lot’s of great feedback for not falling over):
Transition from side to back in a grand rond de jambe was something I could never do without crazy hip cramping. The other day, after working on some AiM I tried it out, and it felt pretty good! No cramping. Leg comfortably around 90 degrees. Had to take a video (don’t try this at home unless you feel solid about plain old Turkish get-ups).
Don’t think you’ll be seeing me in a ballet class anytime soon, though ;). These days, I’m loving parallel standing leg, and no one can convince me that turnout is prettier. It’s just a different aesthetic. My choice. My knees…
The way teachers sometimes talk about our quads, it’s easy to feel like we’re expected to dance without them.
“Don’t grip your quads!”
“The movement should come from underneath the leg, use your hamstrings, not your quads!”
“Don’t do squats, you don’t want to over-develop your quads.”
“Your quads are too big.” (FYI if a teacher ever tells you that, find a new teacher! Just my opinion…)
I’ve got news for you: Your quads aren’t bad.
And I’m going to explain why in today’s post.
NO MUSCLES OR MOVEMENTS ARE “BAD”
Just like pronation isn’t bad. You may be warned against using your quads or pronating your feet, but you actually need these important muscles and movements to function optimally and avoid injury in dance.
You need to use your quads to dance, and ideally they should be strong. Trying to dance without your quads is just silly so you can stop feeling bad about it right now.
I’m talking about the “Lift your leg using your hamstring” cue during developpe or grand battement front and side, and other such movements. Sorry, it just isn’t possible. Your hamstrings don’t do that.
I’m sure you’ve had teachers tell you that to lift the leg, you shouldn’t be using your quads, but rather your inner thighs (adductors), hamstrings, and butt. And if you feel your quads “gripping” that’s bad bad bad and you will get big, bad, bulky quads as a result.
I have muscular legs. It’s my genetic programming since puberty and even before. I’m athletic. I’m not a perfect ballet body-type.
As such, I was always told that this was because I was working the wrong way. My technique was all backwards. I was using my quads too much and that I need to stop because my quads would get too big and I wouldn’t be hired as a dancer. It made me feel awful about myself, my body, and my abilities as a dancer.
I’m sure many of you can relate to this fear of quad over-use.
But for the record, that’s all BS. You quads are supposed to lift your leg. Let them do their dang job.
THE QUAD-FEAR IS EVERYWHERE
Here are a few examples of this quad fear mindset from around the net:
Q: “For two years I took a ballet class for one day a week. And my teacher told me I had extreme potential to be a professional ballet dancer. So she told me to sign up for the alabama ballet school which I did. In january she let me en pointe but the pointe classes weren’t that good so I had to practice and learn by myself at home. Everything went well except for developpes and grand battements. I used my quads instead of my inner thigh muscles. now i’m trying to figure out how do I not use my quads and just my inner thigh muscles for the developpes.”
A: “…Always remember, your developpes and grand battements both initiate from the backs on the legs (glutes). So during all your ballet classes, try to feel each movement initiating from the glutes as this will help to stop using your quads…”
Ok so yes it’s true that many dancers have trouble activating their adductors, but your goal shouldn’t be to stop using your quads. And FYI, your glutes don’t flex the hip (anatomy speak for ‘lift the leg’), so it’s impossible to use your butt for this movement. Your butt actually stretches as you lift your leg up in front of you (more on that a bit further down this post).
And just check out some more comments under the main Q&A (in particular about the quads “bunching up”. How exactly does one make their muscles bunch up? Is that like an advanced spindle cell compression technique I don’t know about??)
“In ballet when lifting your leg for something like a grande battement, you are not supposed to grip with your quads, you are supposed to push from underneath the leg, more so with the hamstring. This can be quite difficult because our first instinct is to grab with the quad.”
Our first instinct is to “grab with the quad” because one of your quads, the big rectus femoris, was designed to help lift your leg. Again, let it do it’s dang job! The hamstring stretches when you lift your leg up, it does not do the work.
Nichelle from Dance Advantage does a really great job explaining the whole mis-interpreted “lift from underneath” cue HERE. She explains that this cue could just be a poor choice of language as the root of our quad confusion:
‘Note that the language in the phrase I’ve repeated above, “coming from underneath,” could easily be interpreted by students as implying that the muscles underneath the leg (the hamstrings) are responsible or must be used to lift the leg. It seems to me that this may be how the myth of lifting with the hamstrings gets passed along.’
Semantics are a bitch.
This post is to de-demonize the quads.
In fact, in the majority of dancers I work with, their quads are pretty dang weak. Sorry. It’s true.
All your quad aversion might be making you weaker.
For example, I love split squats as a supplemental strengthening exercise for dancers (more info on split squats later in this post). Many dancers I initially work with can only do 5 repetitions with their body weight before having to stop from intense quad burning. Does that sound like a dancer who needs to learn how to use their quads better?
And just a note, even though we’re focusing on the quads for this particular post, remember that it’s not productive to isolate one muscle group under a laser, but rather I encourage you to look at how it’s functioning in context of whole body movement.
That said, welcome to quad city.
WHAT DO THE QUADS DO?
Lets talk about quad function.
There are 4 quads—–>
All of them straighten your knee.
Only one of them straightens your knee all the way (vastus medialis).
Only one of them also flexes the hip (rectus femoris).
Main quadriceps group functions: Knee extension + hip flexion. Aka anything that lifts your leg up above 90 degrees with your knee straight. That’s, like, a lot of stuff you do in dance…
The rectus femoris in particular is the quad muscle that lifts your leg up in hip flexion. Because it crosses two joints- the hip AND the knee- it is more common for this muscle to be inhibited, or weak, because it is bigger and has more responsibilities.
Here are some other important muscles that help to flex the hip in a developpe:
Adductors pectineus and magnus
Tensor fasciae latae (TFL)
Rectus femoris is the only hip flexor also responsible for keeping the knee straight. Because of it’s dual function, if it gets weak, any of the other hip flexors on that list could get over-used and tight.
Got tight hips? Maybe your quads are weak…
Or maybe one of the four quads is weaker than the other 3, and this imbalance itself makes your quads feel sore and “grippy”.
So to stretch or to strengthen- It’s not always a simple answer.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not an expert at teaching dance technique and I’m not a ballet teacher. What I do quite well, however is provide dancers with supplementary exercises to help them experience their bodies in new ways that will automatically help them perform their dance techniques better.
So I’ll share some of my more quad-related nuggets with you today.
It’s not so simple as “foam roll and stretch your quads”, or “strengthen your quads with lunges”. Re-training your quads for optimal function is movement pattern dependent, meaning your quads might quite strong doing one thing, but soft as sh!t at another movement pattern.
I hope today to show you a few examples of different ways that I’ve worked with dancers on their quad needs.
SHOULD YOU STRETCH YOUR TIGHT, OVERWORKING QUADS?
Most of the time, no.
Try first asking “why are they tight?” because “they need to be stretched” is rarely the answer.
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s important to not just to stretch or strengthen the quads looking at them under a laser beam, in isolation. You have to look at whole body movement, and how and when the quads are working (or not) within that pattern.
Maybe your quads feel tight because they’re under-working and you need to stop stretching them… A viable possibility. A very similar thing happens with excessive hamstring stretching.
IMPROVE ALIGNMENT FOR OPTIMAL QUAD FUNCTION
Here’s what I see most often: A dancer who doesn’t have awareness of the position of their pelvis or spine or knees or feet during a given movement affecting how the quads (and other muscles, of course) are recruited.
Like the example of the split squat earlier, when a dancer learns where their pelvis should be in space during this exercise, it changes how it feels big time, and they go from being able to do 20 down to 5.
Another common example: Stiff feet and ankles can affect how the quads activate. Will just stretching the quads change how the foot functions? Probably not on its own, because the way your feet interact with the floor influence how things above them work.
And often hamstrings that hold too much protective tension (from overstretching, perhaps?) can prevent the quads from functioning properly. Trust me, all the hamstring stretching I did didn’t help me one bit to straighten my legs fully.
Stretching a muscle without working to improve the position of your bones- feet, pelvis, whatever- they are reacting to won’t change anything. It’ll just make that muscle feel kind of tight.
There are so many possibilities, and we all have our own unique story. I’ll share my own experience, and maybe you can relate.
MY QUAD CONUNDRUM
An n=1 example.
I’m a clear case of quads not functioning optimally because I never seem to be able to straighten my knees all the way while lifting my leg up. I got the “straighten your knees” correction a lot. Made me think, “dang, my quads are all grippy I should stretch them more”.
POP QUIZ: Which muscles straighten the knee and lift your leg? (you should know this by now…)
However, if I lie on my stomach and try to pull my heels to my butt to stretch my quads, I can’t get them all the way there. And I don’t feel a quad stretch despite the clear stiffness.
So which is it? Are my quads weak because I can’t straighten my knee? Or are they tight and need stretching because I can’t get my heels to my butt?
Should I stretch or should I strengthen?
The answer is kind of both, but mostly WORK ON ALIGNMENT. Which of course you couldn’t know without looking at me in person (this is why I can’t give you specific advice over the internet, guys!).
Remember your quads don’t work in isolation. They do what they do because of what’s happening above and below- The ankles, knees, pelvis, and spine.
In my case, mobilizing my hips and feet, and repositioning my pelvis helped me to feel better quad recruitment, and as a result of muscles doing their jobs properly and not needing to hold as much tension, I can get my heels closer to my butt, too.
I’ve seen this with several of my clients as well. Sometimes activating the quads will help them to release tension elsewhere that is preventing them from lengthening. Yes, activating the quads can release tension from the hips.
So yeah… It’s not as simple as stretch this, strengthen that.
Like many of my blog posts, you’ll probably have more questions than answers at this point. But that’s ok! I really do want you to think and ask questions. Don’t believe everything you think you know.
HOW TO OPTIMIZE QUAD FUNCTION FOR BETTER STRENGTH & EXTENSIBILITY
Strength meaning, you can activate them at the right time, generate enough force to lift your leg as high as you want, and protect your knees from exploding?
Extensibility meaning that because they activate at the right time, harmoniously with other muscles with similar and opposite functions, they can lengthen further because they don’t hold the excess tension that a poorly coordinated movement pattern tends to accumulate.
If movements like plies, squats, lunges, hip bridges and even back-bends cause discomfort in your hips, lower back, or knees, could be sign your quads need some lovin’.
I’m going to suggest that the supplemental work you do to help re-train your quads should include movements and positions you don’t into very often in dance.
In this exercise you must stand with both legs parallel (internal rotation), and as narrow as you can manage (adducted). The back leg (extended hip) is the “working” leg, that you’ll be focusing on straightening while it is in extension behind you.
All you have to do is breathe. Put one hand on your back, one on your stomach, or even put your hands on the sides of your ribs. As you inhale, expand into your hands. As you exhale, get all the air out. Aim for a 3 times as long exhale to inhale. Exhale so much that you give yourself no choice but to inhale. Try to keep your butt relaxed.
As you do this, you may notice that the position of your pelvis changes subtly. As you keep your awareness on your back leg straightening, you may notice your hip, calf, or ankle stretching, and your quad starting to burn. Good. Keep going. Keep breathing. Go until that quad burn becomes too intense. I don’t know how long this will take you.
Go for a little walk around. How does it feel to have awoken your quad and reposition your pelvis with your breath and focused awareness? Probably kind of lopsided, but loose in the hip and awesome. Do the other side now.
From here, some exercises to strengthen your quads and improve alignment include:
Try these out, and see how your new positionally stronger quads feel in dance.
One client asked me once, how do these exercises transfer into dance?
Think of it this way- You were a human first, and a dancer second. Make the human stronger, and the dancer will be too.
Also, take a look at the performance pyramid below.
Many dancers specialize so early and start dancing as young as 2, and so never got the functional movement, or general physical preparation part. Our performance pyramids are all upside-down!
By re-balancing our bodies to be good a general movement first, and then layering back on the performance, and THEN specific skill (arabesques and stuff), you’ll definitely notice a difference.
You’ll also be a lot more durable and won’t have to worry about your knees while you dance.
But you don’t have to agree with me or believe me. Just give the advice and exercises a try for yourself. Try strengthening your quads rather than stretching them. I think you’ll notice a huge difference in your alignment, your movement, mobility and strength, and how your body feels on a daily basis.
Let me know what you think in the comments below. How did these exercises work for you? And if you’re a life-long quad-stretcher, let me know how it feels, perhaps, to stop stretching them, and work on strength instead.
And if you want more exercises and ideas like the ones in this post, then you’re going to LOVE Dance Stronger. Dance Stronger is a book and 4 week training program designed to get you stronger for dance (duh).
The exercises in this post are actually directly from the program (these are the reject videos, because of the bad sound quality, sorry!), but to get a full understanding of how to integrate them into your dance cross-training, you’ll have to join the full program, which is available 100% by donation!
I think you’ll really love it.
And if you loved this post (or if you hated it) please let me know in the comments below, and share with a friend. Let’s stop the quad fear, together.
I confess that for the past few years I’ve been doing something wrong.
Not wrong in such a way that I’ve been harming anyone, but I certainly wasn’t being as effective as I could have been, and rather than pretend like I’m brilliant 100% of the time, I’d like to use this blog post to rectify my past mistakes.
Ohhhh man what was I thinking spending so much time on thoracic spine extension drills??
It was an honest mistake, what with all the talk that “everyone needs more T spine extension, you can never have enough”. That was what I was taught a few years ago, after all, before I learned any different. Can you blame me?
I used to assume that all dancers needed more thoracic spine extension, and that was wrong.
Optimizing thoracic spine function in dancers isn’t just about increasing thoracic extension.
Just because the majority of the human population probably does need more T spine extension from spending most of their waking hours seated, does that mean I should assume the same of the dance population? Nope. Dancers, in fact, spend the majority of their time extending their spines, not sitting flexed, and can get stuck in T spine extension.
To boot, the T spine is supposed to be flexed. Relatively. Too much flexion is detrimental, but a “neutral” T spine sits flexed, slightly kyphotic, like the picture below.
To quote physical therapist Eric Schoenberg,
“The sagittal alignment of the thoracic spine is kyphotic: 40 degrees in adults. (Neumann D.A. 2002). With that said, we are not really talking about the T-spine being “extended”, but instead are talking about the relative amount of flexion that an athlete is in. With that description, it’s important to appreciate that T-spine extension drills are working to put an athlete into an acceptable amount of flexion! It is this flexion (or convexity) that provides a surface for the concave, ventral surface of the scapula to “float” on and create the scapulothoracic joint. “
Hear that? Thoracic spine movility drills are actually about optimizing flexion, not necessarily increasing extension.
If you’re familiar with the joint-by-joint approach, we are taught that different segments of the body tend to need either more mobility or stability:
Joint — Primary Need
Ankle — Mobility (sagittal)
Knee — Stability
Hip — Mobility (multi-planar)
Lumbar Spine — Stability
**Thoracic Spine — Mobility**
Scapula — Stability
Gleno-humeral — Mobility
This is well and good, but is it not also possible that a joint can become so mobile in one direction that it gets stuck there? In the case of the T spine, if you spend most of life extending it, it might need help getting back to a reasonable degree of flexion.
I don’t have enough T spine flexion. Some of my dance clients also lack T spine flexion. Are you one of us??
It is common for dancers to have a hard time differentiating better lumbar and T spine extension. Before I would assume that it was because they just needed more T spine extension, and the issue would correct itself. I know now that it’s not that simple.
What if your T spine is already so extended that it can’t move any more, and the only option is to get that movement from somewhere else, like the lumbar spine?
So that said, I want to share with you some of the things I’ve changed about how I work with dancers on T-spine function. Now that I probably know what I’m doing. Kindof. Better than 2 years ago anyway.
Considerations for improving T spine function in dancers:
1. Assess whether it’s actually a T-spine extension limitation, or an anterior core stability issue.
If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing. If it rhymes it must be true.
If you’re just assuming a dancer needs more T spine mobility, worst case you might be hurting them, medium case you’re wasting both of your time, and best case you might have actually helped with something.
That’s 1/3 odds. I’d rather assess.
Most dancers spend life in extension (photo above). Being stuck in extension, with a lengthening of the anterior core can make it difficult to keep them abs engaged when they need to be. A stable core keeps the T spine anchored down, allowing it to extend to it’s max.
To assess this, looks at T spine extension on the floor vs. standing.
If while on the floor, no gravity to fight, T spine extension is fine, but while standing it suffers, then it’s likely to be more related to core stability than an actual lack of T spine extension.
Try this: Perform first a lumbar locked thoracic extension rotation exercise, like below:
Next, perform a standing multisegmental extension, or backbend, like so:
Is her T spine extending? Nope. Check out all that movement at the TL junction though…
If you can extend your t spine on the floor, but not standing up, you might have a core stability issue, not an actual lack of T spine extension.
All the T spine mobility drills in the world won’t help her backbend improve, it might just make things worse, adding mobility where it isn’t needed.
2. Differentiate between a need for thoracic flexion and extension.
These days I’m not doing as many T spine extension drills because dancers are so good at extending through their T spine that they need a little bit of flexion. Yes. Sometimes you need to work on T spine flexion to bring them back to an acceptable neutral.
Remember the core pendulum theory popularized by Charlie Weingroff: A joint functions best when it is centrated, not when it’s stuck in the extreme of one range of motion. If the T spine is stuck off center, in extension, how can you expect it to extend more?
I’m sorry if I’m making posture that much more complicated for you.
Here is one example of a hypokyphotic T spine (needing more flexion):
originally from ericcressey.com
In dance the emphasis is always on extending MORE.
Another sign that you might need to get a bit more T spine flexion is the position of the shoulder blades.
The photo below is a client of mine:
Check out that right scapula. Now, she had a few subluxations that she forgot to tell me about, and there are a few other things affecting her scapula position, but lacking T spine flexion can also create this look. The scapula might be in an ok position, but the T spine may be so extended that the scapula appears to poke out.
It’s easy to confuse this look with hyperkyphosis, but it’s really just the shoulder blade poking out.
TO help correct this, did we do T spine extension drills? Hell no. In conjunction with scapular movement mechanics we also worked on T spine flexion, breathing, and neck alignment. One of the strategies we used was actually coaching her downward dog to get a bit more T spine flexion.
It seemed to help:
Bam. Scapula sitting nicely on the ribcage and T spine.
You can also check out T spine flexion in a standing forward bend. Below you’ll see how her upper back doesn’t flex. Neither does a huge portion of her lower back… A little flexion deficient this one is:
Working on T spine extension drills probably won’t be helpful for her, either.
In many cases, lack of T spine flexion goes hand in hand with poor diaphragm function and rib flare, so working on proper breathing mechanics is hugely helpful.
3. I’m looking more at rotational asymmetries than saggital plane extension.
Most dancers have a strong bias to stand on their left leg and rotate (turn) to the right, in a pirouette or fouette turn for example, which can lead to range of motion or motor control issues with rotating in one direction.
A dance client I’m working with right now has this issue. She has tons of active T spine rotation in one direction, but in the other probably about 50% as much. Passively, she’s got more than enough in both ways, but the motor control is a bit screwy and asymmetrical.
Rotational stability for dancers is a huge deal and is something you should be looking at due to the nature of the art form. DOn’t limit yourself to looking only at saggital plane extension (forward and back bending)
My preferred way to look at T spine rotation is to look at soft rolling patterns in conjunction with NeuroKinetic Therapy rotation assessments, like this:
It’s magical when you find a quad overworking and screwing up a rotational pattern and then seeing how that can help a dancer improve their balance and turns.
Do I sometimes still do T spine extension drills? For sure, but a lot more rarely than I need to work on core stability, T spine flexion, and asymmetries in rotation and control.
So I guess to sum up what you should take away is to get assessed, don’t just guess that you need more T spine extension, because you might actually need to opposite.
Grab My Leg Baby Please. I fondly recall this mnemonic with which I first was taught the names and attachments (distal to proximal) of the much underrated adductor group.
Ah, the adductors.
The adductor group. Gracilis (grab) attaching most distal (farthest from the head), and pectineous (please) most promixal (closest to the head).
More recently at NeuroKinetic Therapy (NKT) seminar, we were taught a mnemonic that is somehow even more badass, to remember the muscle tests for the individual adductors: Please baby love my groin. (G for gracillis, with the foot pointing in towards the groin. So awesome).
Anatomy is sexy.
But sexy mnemonics aside, this article is all aboutthe important function of the adductors for dancers.
Much like you’d expect, the primary action of this group of muscles is to adduct the leg (bring it towards the center of the body). They also, depending on the context you’re moving in, rotate the leg in and help flex and extend the hip.
And not only do they create movement, but help to stabilize the leg, hips and pelvis while other prime movers are working dynamically (think your supporting leg during a balance). In this sense, the adductors could considered a “core stabilizer”. The adductor magnus has been referenced by The Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) as being the most important internal rotator muscleto hold your pelvis and hips together.
From my PRI notes: Adductor magnus is suuuper important for alignment
This context dependent variability of function is why that seated adductor machine (where you sit and squeeze your thighs together) doesn’t quite cut it if you’re trying to train the adductors for performance, injury rehab, or even for that mysterious goal of “toning”.
This is unintentionally becoming the sexiest article I’ve ever written…
For dancers, proper adductor function is a HUGE deal for lumbo-pelvic-femoral stability. Weak, over-stretched adductors can lead to loss of joint range of motion, postural and movement dysfunction, and eventually even pain and injury. And I am a living example of this (but more on that later).
Why do dancers tend to have dysfunction in the adductor group?
In dance we are encouraged to stretch more often, and more intensely for longer durations at the wrong times. One thing you can do right now to improve your adductor situation, is to no sit in the splits and stretch them before class. PLEASE STOP DOING THAT. Stretching a muscle is a method of downregulating it. Do you think it’s a good idea to weaken an important stabilizing muscle prior to using it? Noooope.
The emphasis of turnout in many styles of dance also has it’s toll, as we tend to work in extreme ranges of hip external rotation, with little emphasis on maintaining internal rotation (those adductors), which causes us to lose range of motion into adduction- The leg becomes unable to cross the center line of the body without compensation in the pelvis.
It’s never good to lose a range of motion, at any joint, much like losing the ability to posteriorally tilt the pelvis can wreak havoc on the SI joint and lower back.
Bear with me now while I talk about myself for a bit. Because I can.
Recently I had the amazing opportunity to get assessed using 3D motion capture analysis at The Performance Lab here in Toronto. It’s the same technology they use to make graphics for video games. Very cool stuff.
Just call me MoCap Monika…
Yes I know. I make motion capture technology look good ;0
3D motion capture analysis is super helpful for anyone who wants to learn more about how they move, but especially for dancers, who are the masters of sneaky movement compensations that slip past the untrained eye.
I have a fun history of multiple back injuries, hamstring strain, hip pain, knee pain and neck strains, and am currently experiencing right-sided almost-every-joint pain. I was ecstatic to be finally getting a comprehensive view that could show me WHY things were feeling so nasty. What compensatory movements could be contributing to my pain?
While I won’t go into ALL the details, the biggest take-away for me was that my right pelvis moves excessively to compensate for the fact that I have very poor motor control over, wait for it, the adductors and internal rotators.
Further muscle testing with a friend and fellow NKT practitioner revealed that my adductor magnus is poop. Good times.
Because blame is fun and useful, I will blame years of forcing turnout and sitting in the splits cold before class. Also, big round of applause for my huge ego, for telling me it was a good idea to fling my body into larger ranges of motion than I had control over. My ligaments all hate me. I’m also really glad I didn’t ever work on core strength while I was a dancer, because then I might have had a brilliantly successful dance career, and wouldn’t be writing this today.
Over the years it seems I have down-regulated the crap out of my adductor group. Magnus in particular. And if you dance (or are hypermobile, do gymnastics, yoga, or anything else requiring you to be flexible), it’s quite possible that you have too.
How do you know if you need to develop some adductor strength?
You walk and stand toed-out.
It takes effort, or feels unstable to stand with your feet touching in parallel (think mountain pose, for the yogis)
You can do the splits/over-splits like it’s nuttin’.
Your groin feels “tight”, like you need to stretch a lot (although this is probably due to protective muscle tone, because of over-stretched hip ligaments…)
When you lie on your back with your legs straight your feet flop out, and it’s serious effort to turn your toes parallel, up to the ceiling.
You’re more comfortable sitting with your legs open, or cross-legged than knees together (ladylike)
You have poop for hip internal rotation ROM and strength, or are very turned-out.
You have knee, groin or hip pain, or even lower back pain.
If most or some of the above apply to you, then maybe you should learn to activate those adductors. Your performance will improve, your stability will improve, and you’ll definitely reduce your risk of injury.
Over-time, if you continue to dance and live without adductors, there could be some unpleasant risks associated in the form of:
Over-stretched ligaments. In particular, the pubofemoral ligament which should, if intact, prevent your leg from lifting past your face. And remember, when a ligament becomes stretched, it will never contract again. If that ligament isn’t holding you together, what is? Well, it should be your muscles. Enter the adductors…
Chronic displacement of femur in acetabulum. The demands of dance to turnout the hip, lift the leg into large ranges of motion, and the minimal emphasis on training core stability in many large classes can cause the head of the femur to shift outwards and upwards in the socket. This can cause pain and pinching and awful grinding, which could contribute to hip impingement, labrum tearing and joint degeneration, as well worsening of the already poor motor control and joint positioning.
I would love to give you some strategies to help with this adductor situation, but to be quite honest, I’m still trying to figure out the most optimal plan for restoring muscle synergy. I’ve been experimenting with some simple activation drills before my usual strength training sessions (and have been training more single leg exercises if I can do them pain-free), and have noticed, anecdotally, that almost all yoga poses now feel easier in class. So I’ve been activating my adductors daily. Seems logical, right?
My favourite so far, and the simplest, is the PRI 90/90 hip lift. On each exhalation, squeeze the living crap out of the foam roller/towel/whatever implement.
I will try to keep you updated on my progress restoring adductors to good function. If you have any helpful strategies that have worked for you or your clients, please let me know so that I can try them out.
PLEASE NOTE: This article isn’t for inactive, inflexible people. That population will have different adductor issues not covered here…