This isn’t a story relating directly to dancing, but it does relate to being a human, and since you’re one of those, too, I think you’ll find there’s something in this story for you.
This is a story of a lady that I feel I failed, and my six weeks working with her left me feeling frustrated and confused. In writing this I’ve managed to find some clarity, to see the big picture. That it wasn’t my failure, it was a cumulative failure.
This lady was a cyclist referred to me from physio post rehab for bilateral rotator cuff issues that she wanted to learn some exercises for to strengthen her shoulders.
I was taught that when we see the exact same injury on both sides of the body, the root of the issue may lie somewhere in the middle. Her shoulders may not be the problem. Her shoulder issues may be a symptom of something that’s been going on for much longer.
So, I thought, probably useful to check out what’s happening (or not happening) with her spine and ribcage, those guys that her shoulders are attached to.
We checked out her spine and rib motion in three planes and observed that there was some stuff definitely NOT happening through her spine, some important motions missing (well, all motions are important… You can’t change one thing without changing everything else, too).
To me, what her body was saying was clear: Her thoracic spine was locked into a flexed position- her cycling posture. When she moved her ribcage into an anterior tilt (down), it looked like it was getting pulled into a canyon, but to extend up she became locked and couldn’t move at all.
Aha, I thought. No wonder her shoulders feel gnarly, she can’t move her spine!
It should have been quite simple, but it ended up as a fight. It was more than a “can’t”, it was a “won’t”.
This lady had a team of people trying to “fix” her. A physiatrist for her back issues. A pelvic floor specialist for her pelvis issues. And another physiotherapist for her shoulders (the one who referred her to me). And all of us were saying something different.
Her pelvis and back people told her she should avoid extending her back (even though she was stuck flexed). Keep her pelvis stable and prevent movement because it was rotated. Moving was her problem, according to them.
And I humbly observed the lack of movement in her system. Her back stuck stiff, flexed, unable to extend except for one segment of her lumbar spine, and unable to flex except for a good chunk of her thoracic spine (exaggerated while she’s on her bike).
To me, movement was her solution! Get her spine moving again in the appropriate ratios. See if her pelvis and shoulders might be able to reorganize, and we’ll get closer to the truth.
But her trusted team told her not to.
They told her not to extend her back. Extension is bad. Extension will hurt you.
But there are no good and bad movements. For this lady, both extension and flexion were causing her issues, at different places, at different times, in different ratios and for different reasons, but her team decided that the solution was to completely eliminate one range of the spectrum.
And even though it didn’t hurt to explore her range of spinal motion together, even though she told me she felt like things were moving in the right direction, she told me she couldn’t do my exercises anymore, simply because her team told her they were bad.
In a conversation we had:
Me: “Did it ever cause you any discomfort while we practiced spinal motions in our sessions?”
Lady: “No. It felt fine. But they told me not to. And last week I felt great, the only time my back started to bother me was when I got on my bike”.
Me: “So, you felt good until you got into the flexed posture we’re trying to teach you how to get out of, and then you felt all your symptoms come back?”
Lady: “Yes. My physiatrist recommended that I get a steroid injection in my spine, so I’m going to do that, and I’m not supposed to do your exercises”
I am amazed.
She won’t work on extending her back, even though it takes her out of the position that causes her pain: The position on her bike that she spends hours and hours in every week.
I just couldn’t understand it. Her mind seemed as locked up as her spine…
Granted, I’m not a medical professional. I’m “just” a trainer. I’m qualified to work with movement. I can’t diagnose and prescribe. I’ve been working with her for a much shorter period of time than her team. They have information I surely don’t have. There are always more complexities than what I’m being told and presented with and I can appreciate that.
But in a complex situation, could not a simple plan of action- make spinal movement feel safe again, be of great benefit?
Medical pro says, don’t move, movement is bad, hold your body still, get this injection. All you have to do is lie on this table…
I say, movement will set you free, explore this, there’s so much potential to unlock. But it’s going to take a lot of work, patience, and practice…
And I wonder… would I have done things any differently in her position?
She made her decision with the information she had at the time, to best of her abilities. And with so many conflicting points of view, of course it’s safer to believe the people who have the power to diagnose, prescribe, and “fix”, and whom she has been working with for much longer.
And so eventually we parted ways.
In our final conversation I told her to be an advocate for her health and to always choose what was best for her, not to get lost in the noise. To take an honest appraisal of what everyone was saying to her and do what she felt was right based on what she knew, and what her body was telling her. To continue with the exercises that make her body feel better, and scrap the ones that don’t. And I told her she might consider not seeing so many people to eliminate the noise and confusion. I wished her the best with her spinal injection and to be in touch if she wanted some input in the future.
I imagine this will be the last I hear from her.
Could I have done more with her?
I explained why we were doing what we were doing, and it made sense to her. But the opinions of her trusted team held more clout than her own experience in her body.
I think that last sentence sums it up: Being unable to trust your own body over the opinions of other people telling you what is right or wrong for you to do.
It makes sense that this would happen after years of pain and many injuries, you stop tuning in with what your body is honestly experiencing as a way of just getting through the day, and you start to look to other people to tell you what is right for you. It’s no wonder she made the choice she did. I probably would have done the same. In fact, I HAVE done the same in the past.
Take away from this story what you want. I’ve learned an important lesson, and I hope this lady has, too.
For me, it was a beautiful reminder that my job goes well beyond showing people exercises and counting reps (I absolutely hate counting reps).
My role must include showing people how to tune in to their bodies, to learn to trust their bodies again, and to provide them a safe experience to explore movement.
To show them a way to develop a nurturing relationship with their bodies, not one of mistrust and loathing.
To encourage them to be brave in this exploration of movement, to be advocates for their own health, to inquire and question what people are asking them to do with their bodies, especially me (because when I have to explain, I learn, I appreciate the free education!).
And, if along the way, they get a bit stronger, move forwards from pain, enhance their quality of movement, and start to enjoy being in their bodies again, then that’s a bonus.
As dancers, this relationship with your body, one of nurturance, compassion, and trust, is essential if you want to dance sustainably, as long as you want, and at the level you desire.
If you could describe your relationship with you body in one word, what would it be?
If you’ve ever taken a ballet class, then I can wager that you’ve heard this correction at least once:
“Tuck your pelvis under!”
You’ve probably also heard:
“Pull-up!”, and its evil play-friends, “Engage your core!”, “Suck in your gut!”, “Get your ribs in!”, and then to top it off (as I was always told), “Don’t look so weird!”.
HAHAHA really? You want me to suck it my gut, tuck my butt under, push in my ribs and NOT look like I’m constipated? Right…
These cues are generally given to help us find “neutral” alignment and dance better.
At best, this verbiage can convey the wrong feeling and cause extra tension, and at worst can cause life-long movement habits that can cause pain in and of themselves, long after you’ve stopped dancing.
I currently am working with a former dancer in her 30s. She’s had a few kids and now works as a chiropodist (yay feet).
We quickly discovered that it is VERY difficult for her to access anterior tilt in basic body-weight movements, such as a rockback. Her pelvis will begin to tuck under almost immediately- She doesn’t know how to hip hinge.
Something clicked for her instantly: All the years in dance, for as long as she could remember, teachers had been telling her to tuck her pelvis under. Not only did this become a habit in her dancing, but became her “thing” years after she stopped performing.
And if you’re unfamiliar with the terms anterior and posterior tilt, see the picture below:
Anterior tilt= Booty out Posterior tilt= Tucked-under
Let’s continue with the story.
My client began to notice all the different moments in her life that she would habitually posteriorally tilt (tuck under) her pelvis rather than hinge from her hips.
When she bent down to pick up her kids. While sitting. And as a response to stress. Tucking under had become her pattern, and she began to realize that this was probably why her back was always sore, too.
She asked me to teach her the proper way to bend down to pick up her kids, to which I replied, “So you want to learn to deadlift, eh?” (a deadlift is just a loaded hip hinge, and a kid is for sure a load to lift).
Her pain quickly decreased by improving her awareness and by working to mobilize her pelvis and improving her ability to anteriorally tilt.
And her husband reports her butt has firmed up a bit too. #science at it’s best- if you can’t load your hips, you can’t work dat booty.
So if you teach dancers, please be aware that the cues you give them may stay with them long after they’ve stopped dancing. Your words carry more power than you think.
Also it is important to recognize that every dancer is different. We all learn in different ways, so please be ready to adapt what you say to match the individual. This is a skill that takes time and experience working with many bodies.
WHAT’S THE “BEST” PELVIC ALIGNMENT?
A dance teacher recently asked this question in a group that I follow on Facebook. Her question (paraphrased): “What’s the best position for the dancer’s pelvis? Neutral, anterior tilt, or posterior tilt?”.
Of course it seems like a no-brainer. Neutral, obviously.
Or is it?
This question makes it seem like only one position can be the best, and the other two are the devil- Positions to avoid because they are bad, bad, bad.
If you think that she’s right about this, then sorry to burst your bubble but posterior and anterior tilt are good!
Your body was designed to do these movements. They are necessary and without them you wouldn’t be able to walk properly.
Why demonize positions that are completely natural and healthy for the body? Especially for an activity like dance, the movement vocabulary of which is infinitely vast! Why limit yourself to just “neutral”?
IS NEUTRAL SOMETHING TO AIM FOR?
Yes and no.
Yes you should be able to get to neutral with any joint- Spine, pelvis, hips, shoulder, feet, etc.
And yes, you should also be able to posteriorally tilt, anteriorally tilt, and do all the other fun movements each joints of your body is built to perform .
You can have it all. Good news, I hope, if you’ve been beating yourself up because you can’t stay perfectly “neutral” while you dance.
That said, if you can’t get to neutral ever, that’s a problem.
I have a pretty crazy degree of anterior pelvic tilt at rest (as I wrote about HERE), and this wouldn’t necessarily be considered problematic except for the fact that I can’t tuck my pelvis under enough to even get to neutral.
Think of neutral as a particular range of motion that just happens to be mid-point on the spectrum.
Mid-point is a range of motion you definitely don’t want to lose. Just like posterior tilt or anterior tilt. Just like kicking yourself in the head. Or sitting on your head…
I repeat: Every movement your body is capable of performing is perfectly healthy and good and you should not avoid any of them.
We sometimes subconsciously learn to avoid positions that our brains perceive to be a threat because of injury, emotional reasons, or inappropriate cueing from teachers.
So we learn to work around these points in our of range of motion to avoid feeling distressed. And good thing we do, because it’s a really clever way to avoid pain (physical or psychic) in the short-term.
Long-term however, avoiding and then losing a range of motion isn’t so healthy.
All that to say that the question should not be “which is the best position“, but rather “HOW can I help my students access the appropriate ranges of motion at the appropriate times?”
To be confined to neutral while dancing, yes, even in ballet, is like dancing constipated and scared.
That’s probably why I always looked so weird and got injured a lot…
There is a difference between trying to keep someone neutral during activity & trying to facilitate muscles to reduce the pull of a pattern. Neutrality might be achieved, but the bigger goal during training in particular is to not allow a stronger bias to create significant torque onto the system.
Neutrality is awesome, but learning to establish balanced muscle work with movement patterns is end-game….
Read that again.
For most of us, to keep an absolutely perfectly neutral alignment of pelvis and spine is not going to happen. “Neutral” is also a position that is slightly different for everyone, and on any given day.
To force uniformity on a position that is highly variable and constantly in flux is madness.
What’s more important than staying neutral, which by the way I don’t think is possible, is the ability to, as Michael states, “reduce the pull of a pattern” that could create excess torque on a joint or system of joints.
What this means is that how the movement feels for the dancer is more important that how it looks to the outside eye.
Aesthetics are an important part of dance, but no two people can move the same way, and trying to force a dancer to look a particular way, i.e. stay perfectly neutral, will only add strain to their system causing that “weirdness” I couldn’t avoid (because I was trying to be perfect and move like someone I wasn’t).
If the movement feels good for the dancer, there is an absence of extra strain, and it meets the criteria of the aesthetic they’re aiming for (the choreography for example), who cares if it’s not perfectly neutral?
As a colleague of mine pointed out (after I asked him if the corrective exercise I was doing looked “right”), he said, “How does it feel? Are you feeling ___ happen? If you’re feeling it in the right places that’s all that matters. Proprioception is everything“.
Unfortunately for those of you who want solid “yes”, or “no” answers, everything is shades of grey. But this is also a beautiful and liberating thing.
WHEN IS NEUTRAL GOOD?
When a joint is neutral, or centrated (sitting centered relative to it’s maximum extremes of possible range of motion), it is at a mechanical advantage. Sort of.
Actually, a muscle has the highest force producing capabilities when it is stretched out and ready to recoil, like a stretched slingshot. So when you get stuck in one range, there is a constant tug-of-war going on- The muscle wants to recoil, but your brain ain’t letting it.
This is why things can start to feel tight, like you hamstrings and groin.
Anyway, yes, a neutral pelvis is good to aim for as it will allow you to access optimal turnout, hip flexion and extension and minimize stress on the spine and other joints.
This is one mindset… Want another one? Sure you do.
If mindset A is “to achieve maximum range of motion, one must start from center”, then consider mindset B, “To achieve neutral, one must be able to feel both other extremes of that joint’s range of motion”.
This could turn into a huge chicken-or-the-egg discussion, or we could just all agree and say it’s never great to lose ANY range of motion, neutral included.
I guess the biggest thing I want you to consider is that neutral is not a position, it’s just a point on the movement spectrum and you shouldn’t get stuck there.
After all, is the body ever capable of being completely still? I dare you to try (hint- it’s not).
So if neutral is but a range of motion we move through, impossible to hold, and getting stuck in one range of motion at the expense of others can be unsafe and tension-creating, why are we treating it like the holy grail of dance?
WHAT’S A BETTER CUE THAN “NEUTRAL”?
I realize I may have made things even less clear for you. Good! I hope you’re thinking.
What then do you say to a dance student who clearly needs some help sorting out their pelvis/spine/joints you feel need to be more “neutrally” aligned?
While I said that all ranges of motion are good, being sloppy or stiff at the wrong times needs to be corrected before becoming habits that cause pain.
I’m not a dance teacher, so this is not my area of expertise. I’m good with the supplemental work to help dancers bring new awareness and movement possibilities to their art, but when it comes to teaching dance, there are so many people who can do it better than me.
A few things I’d like to say though, from my perspective.
1. Avoid using cues like “tuck-under” and “suck it in” that are positional and can pack emotional baggage.
Give cues that are meant to create a change in movement rather than encourages the dancer to maintain a position while trying to move.
“Tuck-under” and “suck it in” can also make dancers feel like they have a butt that’s too big, or they are fat, and it really sucks to have to dance around in a bodysuit and tights thinking that your dance teacher sees you that way, judging your body.
2. When cueing and corrections alone don’t work, screen dancers, if you can, and recommend some supplementary training to help them.
Sometimes coaching won’t work because the student isn’t ready for it, psychologically or physically- Something beyond their consciousness is holding them back. Supplementary training can help bring these limitations to their awareness and help them to make change.
Check out THIS RESOURCE that showed the benefits of helping dancers with supplemental work outside the class, and this improved their alignment.
Dancers were given separate “tutoring” sessions to supplement technique classes in hopes it would transfer into class.
“The major focus of the tutoring sessions was increasing
awareness and motor control, and developing good alignment habits to promote lasting improvements. The results
of the study indicate that following intervention each of the
dancers decreased their degree of anterior pelvic tilt by an
average of 3.5 degrees. Through a simple tutoring program
these dancers were able to improve their pelvic alignment
and gain a greater understanding of what was necessary for
maintaining this alignment.”
Addressing the pelvic needs of a dancer will eliminate the need to tell them to “tuck under” in class, as they’ll be in a more optimal alignment reflexively.
3. Consider giving them a regressed exercises.
Allow dancers to prioritize proper movement quality over leg height, or excessive range of motion beyond their control. Better to take a few steps back and master the basics.
4. Treat each dancer as an individual.
Remember that what worked for you may not work for every dancer. And please try not to project your own fears and movement biases upon your students.
For example, if you were told to tuck under, you may see this as the ultimate correction, and whenever you see a bum out of place you urge them to tuck it in.
This might not be their specific issue.
And if you had knee pain, then you might cue movement a particular way that worked for you to avoid knee pain. You might do this subconsciously.
If your students don’t have knee pain, they don’t need to avoid it! Just be aware of whether the cue is for you or for your student.
Yes, this makes your job as a teacher pretty difficult. I hope you enjoy the challenge and reward that informed, individualized cueing can bring. Your students will certainly benefit, and you’ll learn a ton.
5. Consider a subtle shift in the language used to communicate alignment.
If you check out THIS article, it seems like it made a huge difference to change from using the word “tuck” to “tilt”.
Mention of the word tilt seemed to suggest the possibility of a different action… Janice Chapman speaks of “slightly tilting” the pelvis without clenching the buttocks, which, in her words, “helps to engage the lower abdominal and pelvic floor muscles in a posturally advantageous setting.”
So I highly recommend varying the verbiage you use to cue your students. What might be a harmless and effective cue for one student could be highly distressing for another depending on their unique history.
All movements are good. Posterior and anterior tilt are no better or worse than neutral.
Trying to stay perfectly 100% in neutral spine or pelvis can cause excess strain on your system. Minimizing strain and getting dancers to feel the movement correctly is more important than them looking perfect (because as you know, dancers can make almost any movement look good…).
Take the time to learn to cue each dancer in your class as an individual and avoid projecting your past experiences upon them.
Sometimes supplemental exercise is necessary for a dancer to overcome a limitation that they can’t be coached out of.
If you are reading this you are a human and you have a pelvis.
And if your name is Dave, you have your own hands, too!
But back to pelvises(pelvi?), Dave. When was the last time you thought about your pelvis? If you’re me, right now! It’s holding your organs, your legs are attached to it, your pelvis is pretty cool.
Today’s post is dedicated to your pelvis, it’s alignment, and getting it positioned proper to help you dance better with less pain and soreness.
Having good pelvic alignment is kind of important for dance. That ain’t no secret.
A good neutral pelvis position, or a centrated pelvis, ensures that the things attaching to it will be functioning optimally. Your hips and spine being the things most directly affected by pelvic alignmnt. Some people like to lump it into one fun word- The lumbo-pelvic-hip complex.
And a well-positioned pelvis keeps your organs happy, too.
When the pelvis is centrated, the muscles and other structures attaching to it will be able to rest somewhere in their middle range of motion. This is what you want. When a muscle is at mid-length it has the highest contractile strength. Neither a lengthened muscle nor a shortened muscle will contract as strongly as one at mid length as they are at a mechanical disadvantage.
Dancers will often do exciting compensatory things with their pelvises to get a little extra turnout, for example. As explained in THIS brilliant paper by Donna Kraswnow et. al.
Dancers may attempt to gain a few degrees of additional rotation by decreasing tension on the Y ligament with slight hip flexion, which lowers the anterior brim of the pelvis into anterior tilt and pulls the lumbar spine into hyperextension. By doing this they sacrifice the stability gained from the Y ligament and alter neutral pelvic and spinal alignment.
Another place anterior tilt creeps into dance is in tendu back-type movements.This can be the cause of or caused by tight hip flexors.
…when the dancer’s leg moves to the back (such as tendu battement to the back and in arabesque) and hip extension is restricted, the pelvis is pulled into anterior tilt and the spine hyperextends. The less hip extension a dancer has, the more contribution from the lumbar spine is required for all posterior movements of the femur.
Give your lumbar spine a break. Want better turn out? Center your pelvis.
Want to get on your leg? Get that pelvis centrated.
Want to manage your back pain? Yep, center that pelvis!
But before you can attempt to find center, you need to take an objective look at your pelvic point A. What’s your start position?
Is your pelvis sitting in an anterior tilt or a posterior tilt?
This is important stuff to know about yourself. A crucial piece of body-awareness that I am going to suggest today that you learn to cultivate.
Welcometo Sorting Your Pelvis 101- Anterior tilt edition.
To keep things super simple (stupid) we will only talk about the saggital plane in this post.
The saggital plane refers to forward and back movement. The pelvis is capable of moving in all sorts of whacky directions, but if you don’t have your forward and back sorted, then nothing else beyond that matters. Yet.
Pelvis Sorting Step 1: Know your habitual alignment.
Do you know if your pelvis tends to rest tilted anteriorally, posteriorally, or fairly level?
To simplify things, let’s think of your pelvis like a bowl of soup. The pelvis being the bowl, and I guess your organs are the soup. Mmm, organ soup.
If you tilt the bowl forward (anteriorally) the organ soup will spill out the front, onto the floor. This can make it look like your belly is bulging forward a little, and many dance teachers will tell you to “suck it in” to correct this look.
Sorry, but you can’t suck in your pelvic alignment.
This position is indicative of abdominals that aren’t stabilizing effectively, but “sucking it in” will do nothing useful. Finding neutral is what you need, and then the abdominals will do their thing reflexively.
If you tip the bowl backwards (posteriorally) the soup spills out the back, and all over your pants. This alignment can make it look like you have no butt, which is sometimes the look ballet dancers are going for. Also a result of constantly being told to tuck under- Not always a good cue, much like “suck it in”.
If it looks like you have no butt, chances are you aren’t using it either, and glutes that function are pretty important for creating force as well as stabilizing your hips and pelvis.
A level bowl of soup is ideal. No spills. No embarrassing pants stains. No prolapsing organs or “long-back” (a term a friend of mine uses to describe people with no butts).
I happen to be an excellent example of someone with a rockin’ anterior tilt.
The horizontal line represents a level pelvis. As you can see, I could do better. Workin’ on it guys. And no, I’m not wearing enough colours. Nearly.
Notice the booty poppin’ way my pelvis, if it was a bowl of soup, would be spilling soup out the front, hence “anterior tilt”. You also see how I try to compensate for this with some rib flare. Pobody’s nerfect.
Getting to neutral requires me to posteriorally tilt like crazy. Unfortunately, this is something my brain has a hard time understanding, nor should it have to try that hard.
If you are like me, then it might feel like you have zero connectivity to your lower abdominals, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t round your lower back or tuck your pelvis under without clenching every muscle in your body.
You need hamstrings, adductors and a TVA that function.
Pelvis sorting step 2: Do something about it.
So your’re ready to do something about it, eh?
Here are my top 3 drills (right now, probably will be different next month…) to help a little with the anterior tilt situation.
Note that to speed the process it might be beneficial to seek some kind of manual therpy like massage, acupuncture, or whatever gets you results. Work with someone you trust and who has experience helping dancers.
1) Foam roller diaphragm release.
Why? With anterior tilted pelvis also comes a compensatory rib flare indicative of diaphragm tightness. The diaphragm is the king of your body. If you want to change your alignment, strength, flexibility, whatever, you need to optimize your diaphragm function and get your ribs in a better position, deemed the “zone of apposition” by the Postural Restoration Institute. See this post for more info on that.
Use the inhalation to push into the roller, and as you exhale let yourself relax into it. It feels kind of like getting punched in the gut really slowly, so, not very nice.
2) 90/90 hip lift.
I seem to post a lot about this exercise, but that’s because I love it so much.
Why? Uber simple, and uber effective for getting more mobility into posterior tilt and lumbar flexion, continuing to work on breathing mechanics and rib positioning, as well as hamstring and core activation and downregulating the low back erectors a little bit. #winning all around.
With the roller between your knees (squeeze the roller, not your butt), curl your tailbone off the floor by pressing your knees up to the ceiling. Inhale for 4 counts, exhale all your air out (at least twice as long as the inhalation). Let your ribs come down towards your hip bones. Take 5 or 6 deep breaths.
3) Tall kneeling wall hump
I don’t know if I can take the credit for creating this exercise- It’s just tall kneeling up against a wall, but I do hope I can take the credit for calling it a “wall hump”.
Why? I like this because it grooves good core sequencing- moving into hip extension without slipping into anterior tiltage. It’s like a squat from the knees down. If it hurts your knees, don’t do it. Same goes for your lower back.
The goal is to get your hips, sternum, and between your eyeballs to smush into the wall at the same time, moving from the pelvis, and not leading from the ribcage or belly. It’s not a body roll. It’s much less sexy than that.
Try not to clench or squeeze your butt, or sink into your lower back.
As you lower from the wall, lead with the back of your neck. To aid this sequencing, put your hands on the wall and push your head away from it, keeping a slight double chin to maintain a neutral neck. Don’t revert back to anterior tilt locomotion.
Pelvic re-alignment is a journey, not a quick fix. You might never, in this lifetime, get there. It’s progress, not perfection. But if you believe in reincarnation, perhaps your work in this life will reward you with a level pelvis in your next.
And please bear in mind that these exercises are not for everyone. What helps one person achieve a neutral pelvis will not work for the next, and so it’s very important to find someone you trust to help you.
Those who get the best results will test the efficacy of their efforts daily, work on their corrective exercises consistently, and ask for help when they need it.
Next time I’ll talk about some of my favourite ways to centrate a posteriorally tilted pelvis. Stay tuned!
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
“Never confuse movement for action” ~Ernest Hemingway.
Today I say, never confuse stillness for movement.
Stillness is powerful. In dance, and in life too, it’s rare that we ever come to a full stop. We are in constant motion. An important part of dance is the creation of motion, but the most powerful moments in dance are those of absolute stillness. These moments are often what captures an audience. Constant motion can get boring.
Much like a moment of silence in a song that seems to suspend time, stillness in dance makes us hold our breath. It keeps our attention, making us wonder what’s going to happen next.
But stillness doesn’t exist. Stillness is an illusion. Stillness is not just the absence of motion, but is a series of precise and powerful movements that creates the illusion of motionlessness. Only movement is constant. Stillness does not exist.
As a dancer it is important to be able to create this illusion of the complete absence of motion.
This concept of movement for stillness can help you excel artistically, but also with understanding a term you probably hear thrown around a lot… Neutral spine. Which leads me to what I want to explain in more detail today.
Maintaining the Elusive Neutral Spine
As it relates to neutral spine– movement is often necessary for stillness.
We know neutral spine is important for strength, aesthetics, technical execution, preventing injuries blah blah etc. and so I recommend you seek the guidance of someone qualified who can help you find what neutral feels like.
Assuming you’ve already done that, today’s post is going to give you an exercise to help drill this concept of movement for stillness as it relates to finding and maintaining neutral spine. It’s one thing to find it, and another entirely to hold on to while you’re moving around. For many people (dancers and non-dancers alike), to maintain neutral spine during the simplest of exercises, they must move to create stillness. The illusion of core stiffness.
Allow me to introduce you to…
The Bartenieff Thigh Lift
This exercise is your new best friend.
Bartenieff Fundamentals is a movement technique that expands on Laban Movement Analysis. Note that I haven’t been trained in this particular style of movement study, but I’m happy to say that my bastardized use of the thigh lift exercise has helped many of my clients to understand their alignment, improve their mind-muscle connectivity, and improve their strength.
This exercise separates the men from the boys, and as you’ll soon see, the psoas from the quads. I’m so funny!
Why do the thigh lift? The purpose of the thigh lift is to establish mind-muscle control: flex the hip in the most efficient way possible, using the psoas without superficial muscles, while maintaining neutral spine and pelvis.
In the video below you’ll get an introduction to the fundamentals of Bartenieff, including the thigh-lift.
Essentially in the thigh lift, you are lying on your back and lifting your foot off the floor, like this:
Looks easy right? It’s harder than you think!
Here’s what’s going on during the thigh lift (in the bastard way that I teach it):
Lie on your back, knees bent, and find neutral spine/pelvis (which should have a subtle amount of anterior pelvic tilt; have someone monitor your position if you need to).
Put your hands on your thighs, close to the hip, where the rectus femoris attaches to the pelvis.
Your hands are there to feel whether or not your rec. fem. is activating to lift your leg. If it is, you will feel a very distinct thigh-twitch as you lift your foot off the floor.
The goal is to lift the leg, while maintaining neutral alignment, without activating the quad. NO thigh twitch as the leg raises.
Breathing pattern up for discussion, but I like to cue an inhalation with the lift, and exhalation with the lowering. I think we can all agree though, that any breathing pattern is ok so long as there is no breath holding.
So a thigh-lift-win comprises two things:
1) You can lift your leg without leaving a neutral alignment.
2) No quad twitch.
And here’s all the good stuff you get out of a properly executed thigh lift, and why I like it so much:
Emphasis on maintaining neutral spine, pelvis and neck teaches abdominal bracing
Teaches proper pelvic-femoral rhythm
Emphasis on breathing; coordinating diaphragm and psoas together to lift leg with abdominals bracing.
Teaches neuromuscular control by training the body to coordinate the superficial and deep hip flexors
Teaches proper rib positioning (a shortened psoas can alter the position of the ribcage, flaring it up)
Thigh lift is the most important sequence for alleviating sacroiliac pain and restoring pelvic-femoral rhythm in the shortest possible time.
I like the sounds of that efficiency.
I treat a thigh-lift-win like a milestone moment- When you can do a full set of thigh lifts (8 or so on each side) that aren’t “quaddy”, you can graduate to other more fun exercises.
So maybe at this point you’re already on the floor attempting to thigh-lift. Maybe you’re feeling some quad-twitch action and need help troubleshooting. Here’s what typically will go wrong and make for a “quaddy” lift (quaddy is totally a verb…).
Loss of neutral alignment*
Straightening the knee to lift the leg
Pushing feet too hard into floor
Ribcage flare with leg lift
Loss of neutral neck position with leg lift
Notice the “*”? What I want to bring this article back to is the importance of being able to maintain neutral alignment, or a “quiet pelvis”. Most often, if you feel your quad twitch as you lift your foot, it’s because you’ve failed to maintain the necessary stillness in your body- You’ve changed your position, putting your quads in a position to easily do work. Remember the concept of movement for stillness? This will come in handy here…
Shall we get all geeky and such? Ok, you asked for it.
If you are a dancer, you are probably stuck in a predictably patterned position which I will call “dancer extension”- stuck in an extended posture accomplished through all sorts of cheats. The picture below is a dancer I assessed who is a good example of this posture.
Typical dancer cheats used to attain the illusion of a desirable alignment: leaning forward on toes, sitting passively at end range of knee extension (or hyperextension, if any), anteriorally tilted pelvis, lumbar spine hyperextension, and an upflared ribcage.
Do you think that this dancer, if asked to perform a thigh lift, would be able to do so while still stuck in her current posture? Absolutely not. Just getting into neutral to start the thigh-lift would be a challenge for her.
Why? Her start position (an anterior pelvic tilt with lumbar extension and ribcage flare) puts her quads in an advantageous position to fire automatically.
Try to follow along with me here… The rectus femoris can flex the hip above 90 degrees, but if your pelvis is already tilted, such as is the dancer’s above, then the hip is already partially flexed at rest. If the hip is already flexed, then to flex the hip more like in the thigh-lift, the rec fem. is in the ideal position to activate, bypassing the psoas, which is already stuck in a short and weak position due to the perpetually flexed position of the hip.
If your start position is anterior tilt, then you might already be at 45 degrees of hip flexion. No wonder your hips feel "tight"
If that explanation didn’t jive with you, just know this: If your alignment isn’t optimal, your muscle firing patterns won’t be optimal. Wrong muscles will work and become overused. This is why you probably have a ballet teacher who harps on you for having over-developped quads. Dance makes it kind of impossible not to overuse your quads.
So, back to the thigh-lift. If the dancer above, with her current extended resting posture, wanted to get a solid, non-quaddy thigh-lift rep, she would have to first move to get out of her extended posture. And then each time she lifts her leg, she will have to exaggerate this movement to maintain the illusion of stillness. The reason many people claim they “don’t get” the thigh lift, is often because they don’t understand just how much work (movement) it takes just to get into the correct start position. It’s. Freakin’. Hard.
It’s not simply a matter of trying to keep the rest of the body still while lifting your leg. It’s moving out of extension, and on each leg raise, intensifying this movement to create the desired stillness, and maintain neutral, not slip back into a familiar, comfortable position.
An analogy I like to use is that trying to change your resting alignment is like wearing braces- To try to correctly align your teeth in one day would be bad. So very bad. But overtime, your teeth are able to move into a new, more pleasing position. Same goes with your body’s bones: Overtime, small changes, like use of the thigh-lift, amount to dramatic results. And with daily practice, it really doesn’t take long.
I encourage you to give this one a try today, and if you can, seek out a Bartenieff pro who can teach you more. I’d love to hear from anyone out there who is already familiar with Bartenieff Fundamentals, and how it’s helped them or their clients.