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?
I also could have titled this blog post, “Getting My Geek On With the Postural Restoration Institute“, as that is where I spent this past weekend geeking out, and inspired what I’m writing about today.
I had the pleasure of attending a Postural Restoration Institute course- Myokinematic Restoration, a course addressing issues of the lumbo-pelvic-femoral variety (so hips and pelvis mostly). This is a course that’s been on my wishlist for over a year now, so I was pretty stoked to be there.
What is the Postural Restoration Institute, and what do they teach? Long story short (very, very short), the PRI is big on the getting the body as symmetrical as possible (which is kind of impossible), because life tends to take us farther from symmetrical than is optimal. The more asymmetrical your body gets, the more dysfunctional too, which can lead to pain and crappy movement qualities.
Along with an overdose on functional anatomy, I got some answers to questions like,
“Why is it so hard to activate my glutes?”
“Oh good, and it looks like I can’t activate my hamstrings either” (not a question, I know)
“Why have my hips been in pain since I was 15?”
“How much butter should I eat for optimal brain function when studying advanced functional anatomy for 8 hours a day?” (to answer that last question- I ate a lot of butter, and my brain was ON).
But other than learning how much butter I can eat in a weekend, I’d like to summarize a few other important things I learned from PRI, particularly as it relates to you dancers, dance educators, and other bendy people.
The biggest thing I learned from PRI, when it comes to dancers?
Dancing is horrible for your body. As if you didn’t know that already…
In all seriousness though, and more specifically, dancing will probably end up severely over-stretching many of the ligaments attaching to your pelvis, if it hasn’t already. I’ve talked about this already HERE, as it relates to your hip flexors, and why you should stop trying to stretch them out.
That dancing can overstretch ligaments and increase joint instability isn’t anything new. But only now after studying with PRI do I understand the extent of the damage done, and the importance of supplementary exercise to bravely attempt to rebuild our broken pelvises (pelvii? Anyone know the plural for pelvis?).
Remember that ligaments, after having been stretched beyond a certain point, can never return to their original length and elasticity, which means they won’t really do anything for ya anymore.
According to the PRI assessments and testing process, I’ve compromised every major pelvic ligament classifying me as “pathological”. I scored 0 on all the tests, as in, I wasn’t even able to get my body into the testing position. My ego was hurtin’. I’m somewhat concerned about my body. And if I have reason to be concerned, then you probably do too!
If you dance, or are a bendy person, then you probably have ligament pathologies, too, and you’ll want to try to correct that.
If you are a younger dancer and reading this, then I have good news- The sooner you realize the risks of overstretching ligaments and start to strengthen your body, the less of a beating it will take later on in life. Start strengthening while you’re still young and growing!
So my ligaments are poop. What now?
PRI teaches that the goal for people like you and me, (bendy dancer, in chronic pain, no more ligament support), should be to re-activate and strengthen specific muscles in a particular sequence so that they will act as ligaments for you, since yours are poop. Technical term. Let’s refer to these specific muscles as “ligament muscles” (and I’ll talk more about those later).
To be extremely redundant, because I want to make sure you understand, you have to try to rebuild ligamentous support by strengthening specific muscles. Because you’ve exploded your ligaments. Make sense?
The key ligaments I’m talking about are:
- Iliofemoral ligaments (the “Y” shaped ones, attaching your femur to the front of the pelvis)
- Pubofemoral ligament (another one attaching the femur to the front of the pelvis),
- Ischiofemoral ligament (attaching the femur to the back of the pelvis)
- Iliolumbar ligament (attaching your lumar spine to the pelvis)
- Sacrotuberous ligament (which attaches the sacrum to your “sit bones” and blends into the hamstrings)
anterior pelvic ligaments
more ligaments attaching your leg to your body
Posterior pelvic ligaments
If I wasn’t clear before, I’ll say it again: if you’ve been dancing for some time now, chances are you’re a walking ball of ligament pathology.
And even if you don’t fall into the category of “bendy dancer”, you could still have a few ligaments that have been overstretched, so this still pertains to you. Also pay attention if you are trying to improve your flexibility, because you’ll want to try to do that safely (you don’t want to end up like me!).
Pathological ligament laxity is pretty fun, don’t get me wrong. Being absurdly flexible is a great party trick, and makes dancing a lot easier in some ways. But you know what else it makes easier? Getting injured and taking a super long time to recover.
But it looks so pretty!
Super lax ligaments also make activating muscles kind of difficult due to the fact that your joints won’t be in an optimal alignment to produce and absorb force. This is called a mechanical disadvantage, and will limit your strength due to the sub-optimal position you’re working in.
Because of this poor positioning, I had a hard time with even the lowest level of the PRI repositioning exercises. I felt them in all the wrong places, and it was very, very frustrating.
Some other PRI red flags for dancers to look out for (signs you need to do some additional alignment and strengthening work):
1) Very little internal hip rotation compared to massive amounts of external rotation, and with different rotational values on each side in some cases (ideally you want to have about 40 degrees of internal rotation, and 60 degrees of external rotation, and be pretty symmetrical on both sides)
2) Ribcage flaring out (does your dance teacher ever tell you not to stick your ribcage out?) This could be due to a faulty breathing pattern. Check out this video in which Dean Somerset explains some of the ways breathing can go wrong:
3) Uncontrollable lumbar extension and inability to flex at the lumbar spine. Instead of extending your hips, you probably extend with your spine. You also probably end up standing with all your weight resting on your lumbar spine, which can eventually cause injuries like spondylysis (an over-extension injury to the spine)
4) Way too much lumbar spine rotation. This usually happens when your hips lose their ability to rotate properly (and is indicative of an overly lax iliolumbar ligament).
Like I mentioned before (for like, the 100th time now), you’ll want to reactivate some muscles, in a specific order, to build yourself some new ligament support. You need muscles to support you where your ligaments are now shot.
From the PRI manual… optimal ranges of motion at the hip, and muscles to strengthen corresponding to their ligaments
Muscles you should focus on strengthening:
1) Hamstrings. These are important postural muscles, bringing the pelvis back closer to a neutral alignment. Your hamstrings are at higher risk of injury if ligaments become compromised due to the extra need for them to stabilize the pelvis. Unfortunately, your hamstrings are probably weak and overstretched, so they tend to get strained- trying to both stabilize the pelvis and keep up with the demands of dancing. This happened to me! Not fun.
If you have trouble feeling your hamstrings during hamstring exercises (maybe you feel your quads instead), your first order of business should be to release chronic tension from your lower back muscles, because they might be holding your back from getting into a neutral spine.
Try this exercise to reduce the tonicity of your lumbar erectors and activate the abdominals:
You can do this one without the bands. You can regress it further by lying on your back on the floor too. Make sure you breathe!
2) Adductors. These guys help internally rotate your legs and bring them towards the center of your body. The opposite of doing the splits… They are necessary to have strong again to balance the fact that you’ve overstretched the ligaments at the front of your pelvis, especially the pubofemoral ligaments, which check the same movement as the adductor group.
3) Glute med. Helps to internally rotate the leg, which is important, because remember, the ligaments that help stabilize the leg in internal rotation have been overstretched, especially the iliofemoral ligament. Also is an important muscle for keeping you solid on one leg.
4) Glute max. Your power muscle! The king of the pelvic floor. Necessary for good pelvic positioning and strength. When your glute max is weak, you’ve got problems.
And then, if you can successfully get these muscle back online, will you be “fixed”? Probably not entirely, because you still don’t have any ligament support. But you’ll be dancing better, feel stronger, have better pelvic alignment, and probably not get hurt as easily. Score!
A question still on my mind is, do dancers need to have pathologically lax ligaments? It’s true that we need that excessive range of motion, and even if someone had told me at a young age of the risks that come with overstretching ligaments, I’m sure I would have willingly compromised them anyway. And proudly too (I am a Leo after all).
But,what’s the optimal balance? How flexible is too flexible? Can we still dance at an elite level without ligament pathology? Would practicing techniques, such as the ones taught by the Postural Restoration Institute, have been enough to prevent career ending injuries, such as my hamstring injury?
I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but I know without a doubt that learning to reposition your pelvis, and increase the strength of it’s supporting muscles won’t make things worse. Probably much, much better.
Anyway. I ended up making this post way too long (my usual concision fail). I hope this was helpful, and helped you understand more fully why it’s important to strengthen the muscles of your hips and pelvis. Shoot me an email if you have any questions, I’ll do my best to help
First, I have to apologize for misleading you with the title. And for the record, the words stretching and hypermobile should never be used in the same sentence. That was just to lure you into reading this article. Muwhahaha….
Anyway, I haven’t written the following to teach you crazy stretches that will magically cure your chronic hip flexor tightness. Nor will I promise that I can help take your flexibility to the Svetlana level. Safely. With all ligaments still intact…
So I’ve lied to you.
Rather, this article is geared towards the already hypermobile– dancers, gymnasts, yogis and other bendy folks- with several years of stretching under their belts.
You might find that you often feel “tight”, especially in your hips, hamstrings and inner thigh areas. Despite your flexibility and constant stretching, you probably don’t make any real progress in relieving this “tightness”.
I’ve actually written about this before, on why you should probably stop stretching your hamstrings. Today’s message is similar.
They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That said, are you ready to try a new approach to relieving your seemingly tight hip flexors?
Why are your hips tight-feeling and why won’t stretching fix it??
I doubt that you, the bendy person in question, need to stretch as much as you think you do.
In this article, I’m going to share with you what might be a new concept towards relieving hip flexor tightness, and that will help to prevent the injuries that could potentially manifest by trying to stretch your pain and tightness away.
Are you ready for a paradigm shift?
Simply stretching you hip flexors more (often and intensely) won’t make them any less tight
From one bendy person to another (or to a teacher of bendy people), allow me to explain why stretching your hip flexors hasn’t been helping your “tight” hips. It might even be making things worse.
If you are naturally hypermobile, or have been stretching into extreme ranges of motion, like the splits, for years, then it’s safe to say you have a significant amount of joint laxity.
Ligaments, which attach your bones to other bones, are part of what determines a joint’s range of motion, and, due to the need for extreme ranges of motion at the hip in dance, gymnastics and yoga, the ligaments at the front of your pelvis in particular get quite stretched out. Turnout especially has a way of doing really unpleasant things to the joint.
Take care of these guys! The ligaments at the front or your pelvis.
The thing about ligaments is that they can only stretch to about 104% of their original laxity, after which point they will never return to their same length again. Ever.
Ligaments are not like muscles, in that they do not have that same elastic stretchiness to them. Ligaments have a higher proportion of collagen, and less blood flow, meaning that they don’t stretch as well, and don’t heal as well after they’ve been overstretched (past 104%, remember).
Dance, gymnastics, and yoga most definitely make you want to push your ligaments farther than 104% their original laxity. It just feels so good!
As stated on the IADMS website (on the topic of why long duration static stretching to the hip area is not a great idea for dancers):
Prolonged stretch is very similar to static stretch, in that the stretch is held without moving. However, it is held for a significantly longer period of time, several minutes instead of seconds. These stretches are used by medical professionals for very specific and serious medical pathologies and are not appropriate for dancers. They elongate anatomical structures that are supposed to stabilize the joints, i.e. ligaments and joint capsules. Dancers should avoid these stretches as they can lead to loss of stability and serious injury
Dancers frequently use these stretches (either intentionally or unintentionally) when they sit on the floor between classes or while doing homework, maintaining their legs in various stretch positions for long periods of time. For example, lying forward while in second position for extended periods places undue compression of the hip labrum, potentially contributing to future injury.
Truth. My labrum(s) hate me.
Why should you care?
Cause I said so. Just kidding. I know if you’ve made it to this point in the article, you’ve been reading for a while and you’re about ready to quit and look at funny cat pictures. But for your own safety, I urge you to read on.
Think now about the front of your hips- If the ligament support there has been compromised, what’s left holding the joint together? Other than blind faith, your anterior hip now must rely on muscles for it’s ligament support- your psoas and other hip flexors.
What can also happen is, because the iliofemoral ligament becomes more relaxed in anterior tilt, dancers tend to compensate by tilting the pelvis to feel less restriction in the ligament and get their leg up higher in arabesque. But the line doesn’t look quite right, you won’t be as strong, and you might hurt your back.
In both cases your psoas starts acting more like a ligament. This is not ideal. Your psoas is a muscle, not a ligament. I hope I’m getting redundant.
While the psoas does provide some stability to the hip and spine posturally, it also has the very important role as prime mover in lifting your leg up high over your head, and other cool things like that.
Trouble getting your leg to 90 degrees? Your psoas isn’t working properly.
With the ligaments not optimally supporting your spine and pelvis, your psoas is now under excess tension in it’s new role of providing stability to the hip and spine, so obviously it won’t be able to lift your leg as high as you want to.
And no wonder it feels kind of tight, eh? (important note: as a Canadian I say “eh” a lot. Deal with it)
And now a new question arises- should you even try to stretch the hip flexors if they are all that’s holding your hip together?
Just because it’s tight, does that automatically mean you should stretch it?
In this case, maybe not.
By stretching one of the only muscles providing support to your hip joint, you might be compromising the stability, and increasing your likelihood for injury.
But it’s a catch 22, because when the psoas become excessively tight, it will pull the pelvis out of place and can cause pain. You’re at risk for things like painful snapping hip, labral tears, and other unpleasant things of that nature.
Are you confused enough now?
Your psoas is too short, and needs to be released, but don’t stretch it because it will make things worse…. So what should you do?
NOTE: for those who are not hypermobile, and are working on improving their hip flexibility, and actually NEED to, then this applies less to you, but might be good to know as you continue on your journey to flexibility.
Here’s my approach: Train your A-A-A-B-S. This is my version of training ‘dem aaabs, baby.
The trouble is we often go about this all wrong- We start by doing strengthening exercises, and we hold our breath while doing them. We have little awareness of what our alignment should be, because we haven’t taken the time to get a proper assessment.
So let’s apply this approach to reducing the tension on the psoas.
Assessment, alignment and awareness. How can you self-assess if your hip flexors might be short and tight? Does your lower back arch excessively? Does your ribcage tend to flare out and up? Do you breathe shallow breaths? Do you have trouble keeping your booty aligned underneath your ribcage? Do you look like this?:
An anteriorally tilted pelvic alignment is common in dancers, which is indicative of chronic tightness in the psoas (among other things), poor breathing, abdominal weakness, and a general lack of awareness of the body’s optimal alignment.
Not only is this position probably going to make your hips feel tight, but being anteriorally tilted at the pelvis makes it difficult to perform many dance exercises compared to when at neutral.
Because in anterior tilt the psoas is shortened and the hip extensors (glutes and hammies) are lengthened, it puts both muscles in a mechanical disadvantage in term of their maximal strength compared to when in neutral alignment, when muscles at both sides of the joint are resting at mid-range (where they are strongest).
An important first step in relieving tight hip flexors is to therefore locate neutral pelvic alignment, and try to use it as often as possible. In dance, and in life. More on neutral spine another time though.
Breathing. Dancers, for the most part, are chronic breath-holders. It’s no use trying to learn a new alignment if you can’t make it stick, and breath is the key. Breathing allows you to live, and likewise, breathing allows you to be fully present and retain the benefits of each exercise
It would be worth your while to take 5 minutes as part of your warm-up to work on breathing while maintaining neutral pelvis.
An exercise that was given to me was to spend 5 minutes a day breathing- 30 second inhalations and 30 second exhalations. If you do the math, that’s only 5 full breaths in 5 minutes. I think the best I got was 20 seconds, and that was still pretty intense.
When I lose touch with my breath, I notice my nagging low back/SI joint/hamstring injuries like to flare up.
Try that exercise out. It takes focus, but is worth the effort. I promise.
Strengthening. In the case of a chronic, short psoas, your best bet is to strengthen your abdominals, glutes and other important postural muscles like the hamstrings, adductors, and upper back.
And just because the psoas is short and tight, doesn’t mean it’s strong, so spend some time strengthening your hip flexors too.
As stated by Donna Krasnow (and friends) from the article, Effective Use of Turnou:tBiomechanical, Neuromuscular, and Behavioral Considerations
Proper pelvic alignment in dancers requires that the abdominal muscles and the hip flexor muscles cooperate. Strong abdominal muscles cannot level the anterior pelvic brim when the hip flexors are tight nor can stretched hip flexors prevent anterior pelvic tilt if the abdominal muscles are too weak.
As you are working in a better alignment, and have a strong core able to support your pelvis, the psoas will eventually be able to take a load off, and will be receptive to soft tissue work and stretching.
So to sum up, lengthening the hip flexors in necessary for dancers, who are often stuck with an ateriorally tilted pelvis, but only in concert with proper awareness of neutral alignment, and strengthening of the supporting structures of the pelvis. Got it?
I hope that made sense.
And note that this isn’t a one-time quick fix. You must continue to maintain this balance for as long as you want to keep your body pain-free.
I find that as soon as I stop paying attention to my pelvic alignment (ghetto booty-ing a little too much), and breathing, and neglect my maintenance core and glute exercises, my lower back starts to ache.
It’s also important to confirm which muscles of the hip flexor group are actually tight, as there are few of them:
- rectus femoris
- adductor magnus (anterior postion)
- tensor fascia latae (TFL)
A good assessment is therefore key to the overcoming hip flexor “tightness” as quickly as possible.
Anyway, that’s enough words for one blog post, I think. And sitting at my computer is making my back sore. Let me know what experiences you’ve had with tight hips.
We’ve all had that teacher. The one with “superior genetics”, who made it to pro-dancer status, and as such, doesn’t quite understand why you, the genetically less endowed, can’t do the things she’s (or he, though for the rest of this post I’ll use only “she”, not to be feminist or anything, just because it’s easier, and I’m lazy) asking you to do.
The truth is that the majority of professional dancers are naturally gifted with the body type (including bone structure, ligament laxity, joint mobility, muscle fiber type, muscle development paterns, cognitive ability, etc) that allows them to just “get it”. Most likely these plasticine dancers were accepted at a very young age to a professional training school, and were molded into “perfect” ballerinas. Gumby would make a great ballet dancer.
I myself auditioned for many of these professional schools, but wasn’t accepted because of my inferior facility, and because I started relatively late and as such, was too old. I’ve been told that I have a perfect body for any sport other than ballet. It’s a cruel, cruel world.
Anyway, if you have one of these pro-dancers turned teachers, then you probably know what I mean when I say they tend to give cues that are at the best of times confusing, and at the worst of times, soul-crushing.
This is not to say they’re bad teachers, it’s just a communication problem. They know what things should feel like, but don’t know how to convey that feeling to you. The same cues that worked for them, might not work for you. You’ll never be able to feel things in the exact same way your dance teacher wants you to. It must be frustrating for them, not being able to feel what you feel. And likewise for you too!
That many technical skills came naturally to them is easy for a dance teacher to take for granted. I’m guilty of this too. When performing hip flexor stretching with less flexible folks, I forget that, from years of dancing, I have pretty much zero ligamentous support at the front of my pelvis (specifically, the iliofemoral ligament, which turnout kind of destroys) and hip flexor stretches are, as a result, much easier for me to perform (and ironically, less easy to do effectively). For those who still have full anterior ligament support, hip flexor stretches can be intense.
Turning out and performing the splits repetitively tends to slacken up the iliofemoral ligament permanently
That being said, many dance clients come to me, frustrated, with questions regarding something their hardcore ballet teachers have told them- corrections, imagery, etc- about which they are very confused, not fully understanding what the teacher is trying to get them to do.
Which leads me to the topic of today’s post:
Common dance cues that might be doing more harm than good
Dancers: I hope you can relate, and I hope this helps.
Dance teachers: Be careful with these cues as they do not work for all dancers, especially those who have less of a “ballet body”
Here are my top three dance cues and corrections that get lost in translation, resulting in poor execution of technique, inability to progress technically, poor alignment, and getting really, really, frustrated. Really.
1) “Use your hamstring to lift your leg from underneath, not your quads!”
Oh man. First of all, yes, many dancers tend to overuse their quads. Dance teachers love to harp on those of us who have a more mesomorphic body-type (being able to build muscle easily), that our quads are too big, and it’s because we over use them, causing them to get bulky.
In reality, almost all dancers, bulky quads or no, overuse their quads. It’s the nature of the sport. The difference between those with “bulky thighs” and those with slimmer legs generally comes down to genetics, and other sports you may have participated in growing up, especially before puberty.
Genetically, pro-ballerinas just tend not to build muscle as easily as me or maybe you, so their quads don’t develop that “bulk”. Geez.
They also tend to have superior ability to rotate their leg out in the socket, which causes their muscle development to look different due to the different angle at which they’re capable of working.
Second, I should point out that you kind of HAVE to use your quads to help lift your leg to the front and side (arabesque is a different story). The quadriceps, all 4 of em’, straighten the knee, and rectus femoris also helps to flex the hip, aka lift your leg. To not use your quads is impossible. The hamstrings aid in hip flexion by providing stability but they do not actually flex the hip.
Some of the hip flexors- rectus femoris (green), iliacus (red) and psoas major (blue). Not shown in this diagram, but which also assist in hip flexion include sartorius, TFL, and adductor magnus
So if you’re very confused when teachers tell you to lift your leg from underneath, using the hamstring and not your quads, well that’s just impossible, so don’t worry about it. Just nod your head and smile obediently.
The reason I believe teachers give this cue is to try to convey to you an imagery that helps you maintain a tall neutral alignment, and to not hike up the hip of the leg that is lifting.
Knowing that, a better cue for me, for example, was to think about lengthening my spine and pushing down into the floor through my supporting leg while doing something like a developpe or grand battement front, rather than trying to contract a muscle that is physically impossible to contract for that specific action.
Not to mention this cue can also be highly negative to hear as it leads the dancer to believe she has chunky legs, and needs to diet. Just one of the many ways language used in dance class can screw us up in the head. But more on that later.
2) “Push into the floor with your feet to keep your supporting leg solid”
This makes perfect sense. In theory.
Again, because dancers have very facilitated quads (meaning they tend to do way too much work, leaving other muscles to chill out in an inhibited, lazy state), this cue can be hit or miss. Sometimes it will help the dancer. For some, and if you’re like me, it can screw you up more often than not. Here’s why.
You can accomplish the feeling of pushing into the floor in a few ways. One, by way of the glutes (medius especially) and other stabilizers of the hips. Or, two, by locking the quads, hyperextending the knee and gripping with your toes into the floor. The first way is far more efficient and effective, but remember how most dancers have over facilitated quads and grossly under-achieving glutes? Due to this imbalance, the knee-locking situation tends to happen more often than not, which is not super effective.
The glute med in particular plays an important role in stability of your supporting leg, and so it’s super important to have functional to keep your dancing on pointe. Ha. Get it? Sometimes I’m funny. I swear!
In the picture above from Mike Reinhold’s site you can see how the dude on the right has poor ability to control his hips due to perhaps a dysfunctional (LAZYYY) glute med. You can also see how this would affect how high the gesture leg will be able to lift, and what other compensations might occur. Not pretty.
3) “Suck in your gut/ Pull-up!”
Who HASN’T been told to “suck it in”, or “pull-up”, or the elusive “engage your abs”? There are a few issues with these cues.
Issue 1: While dancers may seem to have very strong abdominals, they often can’t fire them properly, or lack the neuromuscular control to actually do it while dancing. This can be trained, but it takes time, persistence and patience.
Issue 2: Being told to suck in your gut is a very negative, damaging thing to hear, and the cue itself is not even the most effective in correcting what is really an alignment issue.
Dancers, and gymnasts too, who appear to have a distended belly and lots of lower back arching often have a hard time “pulling-up” because they lack the neuromuscular control to engage their abs. Many dancers, after hearing this comment will turn to dieting or disordered eating habits to control what they understand to be an aesthetic problem.
Rather, it is an alignment issue. The extreme lordosis is actually pushing the contents of the abdominal cavity forward, and though the dancer is thin, she may appear to have a slightly protruding belly.
You can be stick thin and still appear to have a protruding belly! That might be due to the position of your lumbar spine, pushing the contents of your abdomen forward.
Instead of saying “suck it in” or something to that effect, a better method is to educate the dancer that she has an alignment issue that can be addressed with supplemental exercises and improving body awareness, which will increase her neuromuscular control to the abdomimals and other core muscles.
From personal experience, hearing that I needed to suck in my gut had very damaging long term effects, making me feel fat and self conscious and adding extra tension to my dancing. It is only recently that I realized that sucking in my gut (or trying to “hollow my abdomen”) without attempting to resolve the root of the issue (the underlying spine and pelvic alignment issues) was only making the matter worse.
If you are familiar with “lower crossed” syndrome, then you know that this is a postural dysfunction that can be corrected through strengthening, soft tissue work, mobility drills, and postural re-education. Which takes longer than saying “suck it in!”. If you are not prepared to help your students appropriately, refer them to someone with the skills to help.
Janda’s lower crossed syndrome muscle imbalances
Oh well. Live and learn! Please stop telling your dance students to suck in their guts. It is more damaging than helpful.
I guess if I had to choose a moral for this post it would be, “Don’t get too hung up on genetic factors- Your ex-professional ballet teacher is a different kind of human being.” We all have different genetic potential, and your dance teacher’s job is to help you live up to yours, not regurgitate the same corrections they received and hope they stick.
Or as the dude from P90X says, “Do your best and forget the rest!”. If it rhymes, it must be legit.
Got any other good dance cues that make no sense? What cues do you hear from dance teachers that are more confusing than helpful? I’d love to hear so please leave a comment below or post them on the DTP facebook page.
I get at least a few emails a month asking how to improve turnout. It’s kind of a big deal. Especially if you do ballet.
I know that not all readers of this blog are ballet/contemporary dancers, but every dance form relies on turnout to a certain extent.
I’ve already written a rather lengthy article about turnout HERE, so I recommend you read that too when you’re done with this one. But unlike my first turnout article, what I have to say today has a different tone.
Disclaimer- This will not be a “how to” guide for increasing turnout. I’m not going to give you exercises and stretches that will help your turnout, nor will I claim that it’s even possible to increase your turnout beyond a certain extent.
So, umm, what does that leave to talk about? Attitude.
Not that kind of attitude… Bad joke. I know.
Rather, after having read this, I want you to have a full understanding of why turnout is so hard to change, and why you should focus instead on having a more realistic attitude about your turnout capabilities. And maybe I’ll throw in a few fun anatomy words. Like gastrocnemius. By far the best muscle name of all time.
Ok let’s get started.
What is turnout?
First, I want you to remember that turnout is not the same things as hip external rotation. Turnout is the sum of rotation that occurs at the hip, knee and ankle. Obviously it’s safer to get the majority of your turnout range of motion from the hip, because it’s the most mobile of the three joints, and was designed to rotate in it’s socket.
The tibia can rotate internally and externally, with the range of motion varying from 16 to 60 degrees between individuals.
The foot, too, has a certain degree of external rotation, and it also glides, or tilts side to side into pronation and supination (though it’s a lot more complex that that, in real life), To get more turnout we often see dancers who roll in the foot (pronate). This is most commonly seen in 5th position with the feet. Is not good. Encourage dancers to use a more neutral foot alignment.
Relax. You are not Svetlana.
Many dancers, dance teachers and parents, don’t understand that not everyone is able to get to 90 degrees of “perfect” turnout. Or even 80, or 50 degrees.
Everyone’s body is different. We all have unique variations. I definitely don’t have perfect turnout, and it was actually a relief when I learned that there wasn’t much I could do about it.
In anatomy class, my first year at Ryerson, is when I learned for the first time from our prof that were anatomical factors affecting turnout that we have no control over. It really took the pressure off, after having teachers tell me my whole life that I needed better turnout. This new understanding of my body was a relief, and so I encourage dance teachers to let their students know too, so they don’t stress themselves out.
We can’t all have turnout like Svetlana, nor should we. What a boring world that would be.
The main problems with this whole “I need more turnout” thing:
- If bone is hitting bone, you can’t turnout farther than that. Get over it. Trying to grind bone against bone also feels really awful. Don’t make your labrum hate you (how’s that for a fun anatomy word?)
- For you young, aspiring professional ballerinas (and men too)- if you are anteverted (click the link to read more about that), then it probably wasn’t meant to be. 90 degree turnout won’t be possible for you. Get over it. You can still dance, just maybe not professional ballet (which isn’t as glamorous as you might think).
- Forcing your turnout past it’s natural point in dance class won’t help to improve it. You’ll probably just screw up your knees and have to stop dancing. It also doesn’t look very nice. But that’s subjective…
- You know that “clam” exercise that you do to strengthen your “turnout muscles”? They’re probably not doing anything. Your hip external rotators are likely to be chronically tight and even causing pelvic dysfunction that should be addressed before you try to develop more strength in them.
- Don’t forget about the internal rotators- The loss of hip internal rotation is indicative of potential pelvic dysfunction which could lead to injury and stability issues, and should be addressed in a training program (more on that later on in this post though…)
I’ve also noticed some interesting things in dancer hips that are good to know about before you start trying to get more turnout (bear in mind I work mostly with university level dancers who train primarily in ballet, modern and jazz).
1) Overall loss of internal rotation range of motion in both hips. In regular populations, loss of internal rotation is associated with low back pain, and SI joint dysfunction… Hmm. Internal rotation is actually important. Read more about that HERE on Mike Reinhold’s site. Seriously. It’s a good read with some interesting case studies correlating loss of hip rotation (on one and/or both sides) with low back pain and SI joint dysfunction.
2) More hip external rotation on the RIGHT, and subsequently, more hip internal rotation on the LEFT. I’ve even seen the opposite, which seems to be related to what age the dancer started their studies. Any imbalance side to side can be a risk factor for injury, so maybe you should try to sort that out before trying to add more external rotation.
3) Inability to actively achieve their passive range of motion in hip rotation. Meaning that if I took your leg and manually moved you to your end range of motion in external rotation, and then asked you to try to get to the same place using your own strength, it probably wouldn’t add up to the same amount. In theory, you should be able to get the same active and passive ROM, so maybe you should work on that before trying to get more turnout.
4) Inhibition of the abdominals and glutes. This means they don’t work as hard as they need to, causing other muscles (like the hip external rotators) to compensate to stabilize and align your body. This makes getting more turnout hard, and even risky.
The good news is that those 4 things are mostly trainable, meaning you can improve them with training. Yay!
But your hips don’t lie. And more importantly, your bones don’t lie.
You can’t change your bones
I won’t go into excruciating detail, because I’ve already done that in another article, but things like angle of femoral anteversion, orientation of the hip socket, width and length of femoral shaft, and anterior pelvic ligament laxity will affect how much turnout you can get. And there’s no way to train these things.
For example, I just assessed a dancer who looks a little anteverted. I can’t claim that for sure without an expert second opinion, but you can sort of see it through palpation. Anteversion means the head of her femur faces a little more to the front, and that kind of sucks if you want 90 degree turnout. In her case, forcing it to go farther will only cause her hip pain (which she is already experiencing).
To quote Bill Hartman from an article of his on femoral anteversion
Because this [anteversion] is a structural adaptation, the rotation is not something that will change with typical hip rotation mobility exercises and attempting to do so will only result in injury. If you should have an athlete with excessive hip internal rotation, developing a stronger core and glutes is essential.
So please understand that there are a lot of things about turnout that you don’t have power over, and in some cases it can be dangerous to try to get more turnout without a full understanding of what’s happening in your body.
I guess the underlying theme of this post is it might be time let it go. Change your mindset. Stop stressing out about turnout.
Dancers- Explain your anatomical limitations to your teachers if and when you feel too much pressure from them.
Dance teachers- Understand these limitations, educate your dancers, and encourage them to do the best with what they’ve got.
Here’s my personal opinion on training turnout- There are other things more important and more productive to train. Additional training time is better spent on things like strength development, that are proven to be effective and safe.
Rather than focusing on turnout, focus first on alignment.
We know that we can improve alignment through soft tissue release, exercise, and postural awareness. We know we can train the the core to become stronger and develop better control. But we don’t know if it’s possible to change your turnout beyond your genetic bony structure. It’s probably not. Not safely anyway.
Training turnout can be potentially risky, and I think many experts agree that a safer thing to do would be to work only with functional turnout (from hips, without twisting the knees and ankles).
Focus on what you can control (functional turnout, core strength, alignment), and don’t stress about what you can’t. It’s not the turnout that makes one dancer better than another. Although it is a nice bonus.
An important note on core strength
Remember that if you do decide to focus on training your turnout, you should first develop core strength, and in particular, a good understanding of what neutral spine is for you. Again, alignment is one of the most important thing that you can actually improve.
Many dancers (and most people, in general) have weakness and inhibition of their abdominals, glutes and other stabillizers of the spine and pelvis, with tons of compensation strategies to make up for this weakness. They might also have no idea where neutral is. Couple those trends with our obsession with forcing turnout, and you’ve got a recipe for pain.
Who and when should you train for more turnout?
In my opinion, the only time you should focus directly on improving turnout is if your active range of motion is less than you can get passively. Note you should also work on developing more hip internal rotation for injury prevention, as I mentioned earlier. But that’s a post for another time.
As a strength and conditioning specialist, I do not claim to be an expert on improving turnout. However, my dancers, after becoming stronger, and better aligned, reap the benefits of improved body awareness, and are able to work better with their functional turnout, which I think is more important than focusing on something they might never be able to attain (90 degree turnout).
For more info on turnout, check out these two great resources on the IADMS website:
Hip Anatomy and Factors Influencing Turnout
Turnout for Dancers: Supplemental Training
I’d love to hear about your turnout training philosophies. Have you had success improving yours? What do you do to improve your turnout? Leave a comment and let me know.
Yes. I’m totally serious- As dancers we are predisposed to being clumsy. And I can explain it scientifically. And I know you’re wondering, and the answer is yes, after reading this you can officially explain to your friends, with science, the reasons why you stumble over your feet and/or drop things more often than your non-dancer friends.
Being a dancer can make you clumsy out in the real world, away from the dance studio. And this is important to realize, because even though we are dancers, we are first people.
The anatomy of dance blows my mind on almost a daily basis, and I sometimes have these moments of enlightenment (usually when I’m in the shower, don’t ask why…) that make me go OHHHHHHHHH!!! Science is cool.
Are you a dancer? Do you drop stuff a lot? Do you spill things on yourself more than your non-dancer friends? Do you trip over your own feet daily? Is precision vegetable chopping a dangerous activity? You are not alone.
I think there’s a high expectation for dancers to be poised and graceful constantly, but in reality, we’re anything but. That said, when we DO trip and fall, it is likely to be the most graceful fall. Ever. Falling is (unfortunately) a part of dance. It happens. On stage. So you learn to fall with as much dignity as possible. It’s a really good life-skill.
Anyway, back to the point at hand. I have 2 main reasons why being a dancer could predispose you to being clumsy:
1) Dancers are often limitated in dorsiflexion.
I’ve mentioned it before, so I’m not going to beat this to death, with a lead pipe, in the library… But I’ll say it again in case you missed it: Dancers will tend to lack ankle dorsiflexion (the ability to flex your foot) compared to plantar flexion (pointing your foot).
Your body becomes what you do with it the most. If you eat tubs of ice cream on the daily, you tend to look like Honey Boo Boo’s mom. And much by the same token, if you point your feet for hours every day, they tend to naturally stay more pointed.
This is a concept called “plasticity”. If you think of a plastic bag, and how you can deform it’s shape- stretch it slowly and you can get it to stretch out and change shape. Think of your body like this plastic bag- it will deform gradually, over time, based on the things you do with it.
Many dancers I assess (and myself included) have much greater range of motion in their ankles through plantar flexion than they do in dorsiflexion. Not only can improving this imbalance put more spring in your step (literally, you’ll be able to get into a deeper demi-plie and thus, better jumps and leaps) but it can help prevent injuries like shin splits and Achilles tendinitis. And not just ballet dancers, but you Irish dancers too, who I’m pretty sure never really put their heels down on the floor.
The good news is that you can train in such a way that will allow you to get back some of the ability to flex your feet, and this won’t make your feet any less pointy. Ideally, you want your dorsiflexion to be stronger than a kitten.
Now think about what your foot needs to do when you walk- You need to flex your foot as you swing it through to take a step. What if your foot can’t flex enough? One of two things happens- Your toe hits the ground and you trip, OR you turn your foot out and roll it in (evert/pronate it) to avoid your toes hitting the ground.
This also explains why it’s so comfortable for us dancer to walk turned out- It’s a trip-prevention mechanism.This is a poor mechanism however, because by turning out your leg, you’re not addressing the actual structural issue, you’re placing more strain on the knee, AND you’re just reinforcing another imbalance at the hip joint, aka, turnout.
Just blew your mind didn’t I?
Since I stopped taking regular ballet classes, I actually trip less. Weird, isn’t it?
2) Dancers tend to develop some kind of thoracic outlet syndrome
What’s TOS (thoracic outlet syndrome)? Long story short, there is a bundle of nerves up in your armpit area (the brachial plexus) that innervates your arm, and when muscles and other such things surrounding it get tight, they can squeeze this bundle, reducing the blood flow and nerve conduction to your hands. It can also cause numbness and tingling usually in the pinky and ring finger. Especially with you arms over-head.
The brachial plexus (in yellow) can get squished between a lot of stuff. Not a fun time.
Why do dancers tend to develop thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS)? Anyone can develop TOS in one form or another. 9-5 office workers, computer guys, and folks with crap posture in general are also common candidates, but dancers tend to develop a lot of tension in the neck muscles and in pec minor from having to do crazy movements like head whipping, arm contortion, and such-like. For dancers it pays off to check out your scapular mechanics to make sure you’re lifting your arms over-head safely, bring awareness to your posture, and make sure to stretch the tight stuff out
The Harkness Center for dance injuries in New York says this:
Various factors may contribute to compression of the nerves and blood vessels within the thoracic outlet, including:
- Repetitive activities involving a forward-head posture or drooped shoulders.
- Partnering dance movements involving awkward neck and shoulder movements.
- Carrying heavy loads, cases, and dance bags.
- Trauma to the neck or shoulder.
Now think about what it means if you have poor sensation in your hands due to a cut off nerve supply. This could actually cause one to become kind of clumsy, couldn’t it…?
Less blood flow+poor innervation= You drop stuff.
Just another reason to correct your posture- I’ll bet it would save you at least a couple of fancy plates dropped on the floor. And make chopping onions way less risky.
I currently have a nasty case of nerve compression in my right arm, and it’s not fun. My clumsiness has reached a new level, and my arm is in constant, throbbing pain. Fun times.
Now I’m not saying that all dancers are clumsy, or that dancing will absolutely make you clumsy. I’m just saying that these are some pretty interesting correlations, ones that I’ve noticed in myself, and other dancers.
That, and science don’t lie.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Are you a clumsy dancer, too?