10 Commandments to Maintain Your Sanity (and Your Dance Career)

10 Commandments to Maintain Your Sanity (and Your Dance Career)

The reason I can write a blog post like this is because if you imagine every possible thing one could do to screw up their dance career, I probably did them all. Call me an expert.

Allow me to recap a few years worth of mistakes (or choices, if you’d rather) that lead to me taking a long hiatus from dance:

I took everything too seriously- Things my teachers said, expectations I put upon myself, the need to win, the need to look a certain way, to fit a certain mold.

I didn’t eat well, both in terms of food quality and grossly inappropriate quantity. I welcomed physical discomfort and ignored pain.

I did the wrong type, volume and intensity of cross-training.

I stopped enjoying dancing. I let myself become unhappy and chose to do nothing about it.

And because this list is getting pretty depressing let me just stop to say that I love life, this is not a pity-party disguised as a blog post. You just have to know where I’m coming from to understand where I’m going with this.

3 years ago I experienced an unfortunate string of injuries and since then, I’ve attended dance classes only sporadically (although I did learn to salsa and even performed, and that was a fun time).

I often catch myself talking about myself as a dancer in the past tense. Most days, if people ask, I tell them I used to be a dancer. Injuries that force you to stop dancing will change how you see yourself. You lose a piece of your identity.

If I can’t dance anymore, am I a dancer? If I’m not a dancer, who am I?

I have been too afraid to go back to dance. If I’m not a dancer anymore, and haven’t been for more than a week, a month, a year, do I belong in a dance class? Do I have permission to be there? If I can’t dance like I used to back when I was “a dancer”, is there even a point in trying again?

This and more. These questions pervaded me, prevented me from enjoying the one thing, when I was young, that was my escape from real life.

But I’m back. My old injuries, though still nag if I’m not vigilant, are no longer a source of daily pain. The last 2 dance classes I attended, though I took risks I probably shouldn’t have, didn’t wreck me. The past two weeks, in fact, I have been completely pain free.

This time around, though I may be getting “old” for a dancer, I have the tools and the know-how to not screw things up. I’d like to see how far I can take this. I have new questions to ask. Ones whose answers require action, discovery, and bravery, not fear and self-doubt.

Instead I ask myself, how much joy can I derive from expressive movement?

How good will it feel to dance fueled by real, healthy food?

What new doors will open when I focus on how dancing feels, and not how I look doing it?

What new movements can I embody now that I have some strength to support my mobility?

How big of risks can I take now that I know my limits?

Who can I inspire?

Why am I dancing today?

And I must remember to throw in a big thank you to my body before and after each time I put it through the dance grind. Because that shit’s hard.

And all that said, I made up 10  commandments for myself to keep calm and not let dancing wreck my joints. To squeeze every ounce of pleasure from it while keeping healthy both physically and mentally.

So, here, on the internetz for everyone to see, I am pledging to adhere to these commandments so that this time, when I step back into my dancer-pants, I do it right. And enjoy every moment.

10 Commandments to Keep Calm and Dance On (and on, and on, and etc…)

1. I will keep a daily practice of breathing diaphragmatically in different ways, and I will respect my zone of apposition.

On the far right, the dude’s ribcage has flared up- Exit the ZOA and everything starts to fall apart…

2. I will cross-train in various ways to support my art. I will train for strength, power and endurance. I will ask for help with that if I need to.

3. I will eat real, nutritious food. Hydrate, too.

4. I will not throw my body into ranges of motion that I know I don’t have the stability to control, even if I’m asked too, because I respect my limits. And if I choose not to respect them, I will not be surprised by the consequences.

5. In the event that I should require physical therapy, I will choose to see someone who understands human movement, motor control, and the specific demands on my activity. And preferably someone who practices NKT.

6. I will not fear internal hip rotation or dorsiflexion, and I will train these ranges of motion because I know they will help me dance better (and not hurt myself).

7. I will not seek perfection. I will give myself permission to make mistakes, to fail, and look ridiculous, because my best IS good enough.

8. I will resist the urge to stretch my hamstrings and adductors to oblivion lest I explode my ligaments to further pathologically unsafe lengths.

9. I will stay on top of my mobility restrictions and stability issues.

10. I will get out of the mirror and FEEL every movement.

Above all else, I believe it to be important for someone coming from a place like mine (with a vast injury history), or for an adult beginning dance for the first time, or any dancer as they grow and mature, to accept that I will not be able to dance the same way that I used to years ago, because now I am a different person.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man ~Heraclitus

No, I will not be able to move like I did when I was young and irresponsible with my body, and this will perhaps make for even better, more fulfilling dancing.

**Bonus rule: I will not base my self-worth on how well ballet class went. Because that’s what made Natalie Portman go crazy…

 

 

Listening to Pain for a Longer Dance Career

I’m working with a dancer this summer who reminds me a lot of me. When we first started to work together she didn’t know what pain was. Silly, right?

This lovely young lady is dealing with some pretty chronic hip, knee, shoulder and neck pain upon many passive and active movements. How has she been dancing? How does one successfully perform the infinite ranges of motion and challenges of stability that dancing requires when it hurts to do a basic, passive movement?

A lot of things are possible when you ignore pain. But for how long can you maintain that?

A huge part of what I do with some clients is pain education, something many dancers won’t ever get.

No dance teacher ever taught me how to listen to my pain, but told me to push through it. We’re told that pain is an inherent part of our existence. But I’m telling you it doesn’t have to be.

I don’t care how annoying it gets, I will ask you how you feel after every exercise.

If I know you have knee pain, I will always ask you how your knees feel, because as lovely and sweet and awesome as my aforementioned client is, she never mentions pain until I ask her. And then it finally comes out after some probing. “That hurt my knee”. WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME DURING THE EXERCISE WHEN YOU FIRST NOTICED IT???

Dancers…

The presence of pain changes motor control and facilitates the development of compensation. That’s why you don’t ever want to repeatedly perform movements that hurt.

Yes, to dance you will have to do some things with your body that feel uncomfortable, but that isn’t the same as pain. Do you know the difference between pain and discomfort?

I have never had a formal education in the science of pain, just like I never received a formal education in anatomy, biomechanics, neurophysiology, or many other things that I would have liked that relate to my interests in the field of training and rehabilitation. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I learned straight from the source.

While my dance teachers may never have warned me that “if X joint starts to hurt upon Y movement, go seek help because that’s bad”, I learned eventually, anyway. Was it worth it? I often wonder…

So in case a dance teacher fails to deliver this important message (that might save your dance career, by the way):

If your arm goes numb when you put it over your head, go see someone about it.

If it hurts your neck when you turn your head to one side, go see someone about it.

If your knee sometimes gives out painfully while you’re walking down the street, go see someone about it.

If any part of your body is experiencing pain at any time while you dance or otherwise, take a freaking break and go see someone about it!

It doesn’t make you weak to acknowledge pain, and taking time off from dancing when movement is painful won’t cause irreparable regression. You often need to regress to progress. That’s what pain is telling you. That’s your education from pain. Let it teach you it’s lesson, and move on to better things.

Pain is your body’s way of telling you something isn’t right. Will you listen? It’s an opportunity to make huge improvements. Will you take it?


 

Muscles You’re Using Wrong: Neck Edition

Welcome to another exciting edition of “muscles you’re using wrong”. I got some really great feedback on my first entry in this series, Calf Edition, so I’m back for round two: THE NECK.

The photo of the deep front line below, from Anatomy Trains, serves as a nice visual intro as to how the neck can become a common lieu of muscle compensation. You can see how the neck muscles are fascially connected in a chain to the diaphragm, torso, legs and feet.

A brief primer on muscle compensation as it relates to dancers: Before many of us learned to move fundamentally- squat, lunge, pull and push- we learned complex dance movement. This is especially true if you started dance when you were but a wee toddler. As a result, dancers can easily develop dysfunctional stabilization strategies, and learn to create movement from random places that have no business getting involved.

As babies, one of the first fundamental movements we learn is to lift our heads, making neck function kind of a big deal.

In calf edition, I outlined how foot-pointing all day every day can cause the plantar flexors (muscles of foot-pointery) to become majorly involved in movements they needn’t be. I personally have seen (and experienced n=1) how various muscles of the lower leg can compensate for the glutes, hamstrings, quads, psoas and more. This not only can disrupt movement pattern quality, but can eventually lead to painful movement.

Today it’s all about the neck. For me, this is huge- If I’m not careful, my body instinctively tends to stabilize with my neck muscles instead of my abdominals. This is common in many dancers and non-dancers alike.

My brief neck injury history: While half-asleep, on the morning of opening night of a show, the mere act of turning my head to the side caused an intense sternocliedomastoid spasm that incapacitated my neck for 3 days. My neck was so overworked, most likely from it’s unnecessary usage as a whole-body stabilizer, that I injured it not while dancing, but while luxuriating in the dreamy bliss that is the first 10 seconds of waking. Not a great start to a day, AND I couldn’t perform in the show.

Why did this happen?

As I mentioned above, your neck CAN get more jacked than your deep abdominals. This can become a complicated topic, so for the simple purposes of today’s post, we will look at how the neck flexors and extensors can inhibit the transverse abdominis from properly stabilizing your body.

It starts with that deep front line Thomas Myers presents in Anatomy trains. Check out the awesome video below in which you can see the deep front line dissected from the body. Very cool stuff, fascia is.

And T. Myers is a fox.

In the deep front line, the deepest of the body’s stabilizers are intimately connected fascially, sharing a neural and mechanical network, making it easy enough for one part of the line to compensate for another in the presence of acute trauma or from just moving like crap over long periods of time.

Another imbalance can occur within the neck itself between the flexors (in the front) and extensors (back): If the neck extensors become too overworked and tight, the neck flexors can become weak. This happens easily in our society of texting, computering, and other things that make us slouch and adopt a head forward posture. An oversimplification of neck imbalances, but still significant to understand.

While repositioning the head is very important, in today’s post we’ll be talking mainly about how this poor neck posture can cause the neck flexors and extensors to become recruited for core stability instead of the transverse abdominis (TVA). A poor strategy.

As a funny, but non dance-related aside: The other day at the gym I was witness to a trainer and his client as they took their monthly body part progress measurements.  They remarked at how all his various muscles had not changed in girth (the goal was to get more jacked), EXCEPT FOR HIS NECK, which had increased in size. They brushed it off as “haha that so weird”, but I noted his forward head posture and his poor core stabilization patterns and guessed that his neck had grown because it was probably doing more work than any other muscle.

Food for thought… But back to business.

I see two  common situations in which the abdominals can become downregulated to the dominant neck musculature (though anything is possible, not just these two scenarios):

1. Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) compensating for transverse abdominis (TVA)

This one is MY pattern- Neck flexors stronger than TVA. In a perfectly functioning body, if that even exists, before we even move the TVA fires to stabilize us. However, some of us activate our SCMs first for that job.

These people have forward head posture, and will often also have jaw tension and SCMs that you can see pop out (because they’re so jacked). Like in the dancer below.

2. Neck extensors and suboccpitals compensating for TVA

The neck extensors stronger than TVA pattern represents the chin-pokers and shruggers. I personally see this less commonly in my dance clients than the above neck to core compensation. The SCM’s seem to be bigger culprits in compensation and I am not 100% sure why.

Here’s simple way you can assess which scenario is you, using the deadbug exercise as a reference.

Here’s the basic arm and leg deadbug:

Try it 3 ways.

1. With your chin poked up to the ceiling, neck extended (to engage neck extensors).

2. With your head lifted off the floor, chin tucked, looking at your knees (to engage the neck flexors).

3. With your neck in neutral, looking right up at the ceiling, neither poking nor tucking the chin.

The neck position in which the deadbug feels more solid and less shaky is your compensation pattern.  For me, I crush deadbugs all day if I lift my head up and look down at my knees. But with my neck in neutral I’m shaky and unable to keep my spine neutral.

If you are already strongest with your neck in neutral, then you have nothing to worry about. You rock. And I hate you.

How to reverse your pattern:

DISCLAIMER: I can only provide a general strategy for this issue, nothing more. I don’t know you, and can’t assess you magically through this blog post, but I can easily assume that if you dance you have some kind of neck to TVA compensation, and this will almost certainly help you to reduce some neck tension and improve core stabilization, so that you can dance better and not hurt your neck in random silly ways like I did.

That said…

Step 1: Neck stretch. To downregulate the muscles of the neck which may be overworking. Breathing deeply and feeling the neck relax is the key to actually getting some benefit from this stretch.

Step 2: Head lift. To reposition the head back in line with the rest of the spine. You can also put your hands at the base of your skull to feel if you are tensing your suboccipitals  and poking your chin up. You should be aiming the back of your neck up to the ceiling, NOT poking up your chin.

 Step 3: Deadbug. Again, this time as an exercise, not an assessment. To activate and strengthen the TVA while the neck has been freshly downregulated. Do your best to feel your neck is relaxed, and only do only as many reps as you can before you feel like your neck is starting to tense up and do the work.

Start with that. Repeat. Do it daily if necessary.

If you want to take it a step farther, get assessed by someone who understands dancers, get manual therapy on your neck if you need it (always fun), and then get a movement specialist to coach you through your core training and provide you with a full-body strength training program which will integrate correct neck and core patterns.

For more on neck compensation, check out this great article from Dr. Perry Nickelston on his blog, Stop Chasing Pain, in which he describes how the neck can compensate not only for the TVA, but for the obliques in their role of creating rotation.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found this info helpful. Give me your feedback in the comments below to keep the discussion going.

 

Looking Objectively at Movement Quality in Dance

Looking Objectively at Movement Quality in Dance

Those of us who are well-versed in dance culture, and even many who have never danced, would probably agree that for dancers, movement quality trumps movement quantity. Unless you’re a competition dancer and then it’s all about how many turns and flips you can do. Kidding….

Although tricks are fun and can definitely improve your chances of getting hired and impressing people at parties, the number of turns you can do is relatively insignificant compared to the overall quality and expression behind your movement.

A good friend of mine, who is a singer/musician, once told me that singing was 80% expression (the other 20% being related to technique, tone, pitch etc.). I think this holds true for the art of dance as well.

What makes a dancer really stand out isn’t quantifiable: the number of turns, leg height, jump height. These technical proficiencies can be easily measured, but are not necessarily what makes a dancer great. They get you bonus points, but are in themselves empty qualities.

To become a better dancer, technically and artistically, wouldn’t it be nice to have an objective measure of movement quality to guide you?

Objective measure is paramount to improving just about anything. If you can measure it, you bet you can improve it more quickly. This poses a difficulty in dance because “objective art” is a contradiction. There does exist, however, a small objective aspect of dance that we can measurably improve.

This objective, measurable quality of dance is fundamental movement: Crawling, rolling, walking, squatting, lunging, twisting. Basic function clean of compensation.

This isn’t anything new, and is not something specific for dancers either.  Performing basic movement well is important for everyone, especially athletes, but it might be a new concept for dancers.

Very rarely in my dance training was I treated as a person first and a dancer second. My basic human movement was never held at the same standard as my ability to perform dance movement. Was that a mistake?

I will argue that the best dancers can’t always be quantified by technical skill but are superior for their quality of movement. This is easy to agree on, I think. Where we could potentially disagree is on which  level are we qualifying the movement? How do we measure movement quality in dancers? How should we do it? What will it accomplish?

When we judge movement quality in dancers, are we looking at the quality of dance specific movement-Their ability to express through movement and technique? I don’t see this as the best way to objectively measure because I don’t think  we can quantify artistry, and the movement we’re trying to measure is at a deeper level, not just their technique. It’s something even more fundamental and unique.

Fundamental movement is what the best in the rehab, athletic, and fitness world are already measuring in their clients and patients.

Gray Cook has already spoken so much about this in his book, Movement. His popular and effective inventions, the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), and the Specfic Functional Movement Assessments (SFMA) are systems that we in the dance world can learn from. Their goals are important ones: Evaluate fundamental movements, motor control within movement patterns, and competence of basic movements uncomplicated by specific skill.

When a dancer hits a plateau, the answer isn’t always to add more hours of training, but perhaps to see if there is a fundamental movement dysfunction preventing them from excelling in dance. Movement quality before quantity.

If a dancer moves well fundamentally, will they move better as a dancer? My guess is that yes, probably they will, not considering subjective qualities such as performance experience or artistic maturity of the dancer.

At the very least, maintaining a good quality of fundamental movement will ensure that the dancer, who maybe isn’t quite there yet artistically or technically, will survive the often physically, mentally and emotionally grueling  training, to eventually find their place in the industry. Because not all of us are so genetically blessed.

I believe that even if indirectly, learning to move well fundamentally without compensation can help the dancer excel. It is a mistake to only look at specific skill quality without ever looking at a dancer’s fundamental movement quality.

Movement patterns can atrophy if they aren’t used. Even the ones most basic to our human existence.

The point of all this is that I think we’re missing something huge if we don’t objectively screen dancers for fundamental movement quality. I’m not certified in the FMS or SFMA, but I agree with the philosophy on which they were created, and that it is unsafe and to train dancers in complex, extreme, technical skill without teaching them first what it feels like to move well fundamentally.

Do you do the FMS of SFMA with dancers? I’d love to hear about that. Tell me everything you know…

Grab My Leg Baby, Please

Grab My Leg Baby, Please

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 about the 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 muscle to 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…


 

 

 

Muscles You’re Using Wrong: Calf Edition

Muscles You’re Using Wrong: Calf Edition

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

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

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

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

cross section of the lower leg.

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

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

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

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

Many dance styles require foot pointing.

Dancers are reprimanded for not pointing their feet.

Dancers often feel inferior for not having naturally pointy feet.

Being reprimanded and feeling inferior is stressful.

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

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

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

Therefore, dancers tend to overuse their calves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Use lacrosse ball to release the calves.

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

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

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

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

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

Glute max is an important player in pelvic alignment.

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

Photo from PRI's Myokinematic Restoration manual.

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

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

 

Dancers tend to overuse their glute max to facilitate turnout. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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